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Over the past few months I’ve visited many diverse countries and explored more European cities than I can count on both hands. My fondest memories are not of the beautiful places, but the experiences I’ve shared with so many different people.

Days after my arrival, I gathered with fellow IAU students in the Main Hall for orientation. Unsure of what to expect, we listened to advice from IAU President Carl I. Jubran. He told us to anticipate cultural differences regarding French interactions. He said don’t expect passersby to return your warm smiles or friendly hellos. He added this doesn’t make the French mean. They just have different cultural norms than Americans.

President Jubran presented an analogy to explain what he meant. He said Americans are like peaches – very soft on the outside, but they have extremely hard cores.  French are like coconuts – hard as a rock on the outside, but very open once you pass their tough exterior.

I soon found his example held true when interacting with my French family and fellow American students.

INTERACTIONS WITH MY FRENCH FAMILY

It took a while for my host mom to open up to Sarah and me. At first we confined conversation to the dinner table. And even then we, only causally discussed current events and how our day had been. As weeks passed Joelle slowly began to open up about her family history. And during visits her sister also shared joyous and painful stories from their past.

I learned their grandfather was sent to work in Germany during World War II. They told me Germans burned his throat with radiation when he refused to translate for them. I also learned that they grew up in a very poor section of Paris with no running water and a community bathroom. They also shared some stories that made me a little too uncomfortable. Nonetheless, they let me in, past their tough exteriors. And there was no getting out.

Joelle has really grown to be a mother to me. She got Sarah and me through the homesickness, doctor visits and strengthened our French fluency. Speaking the little words I knew gradually turned into full-out conversations at dinner. She told me, “Quand tu es arrivee, tu as parle presque rien. Maitenant, tu es forte! Bravo!” (When you arrived you spoke almost no French, now you are strong.) She made me feel comfortable. She allowed me to open up about my family, my history, my goals and aspirations. She also made me realize I know more French than I thought I did.

INTERACTIONS WITH AMERICAN STUDENTS

My most memorable moments with American students are from my trip to Porto, Portugal, with 5 IAU girls. During late night talks we discussed racial differences, offensive comments and pain caused by family and friends. I learned and shared some very personal experiences. Learning about each other’s histories made us understand our distinctive perspectives and why each person acts and reacts differently.

We all have not had conversations as intimate as those late night talks since we were together in Portugal. I don’t believe any of us have gotten through to another person's core, but getting past our exteriors have helped us understand each other and even the different cultures within our culture a little better. So, I guess we are peaches. But, I’ve learned that not every peach is the same, nor is every coconut.

INTERACTIONS WITH ITALIANS

During the ten days I spent in Italy I noticed that Italians interact similarly to Americans. They too open up to new acquaintances more easily than French people.

I visited one of the oldest souvenir shops in Florence and met a sweet old man. Within minutes he told my friends and I all about his marriage and sex life. He told us his wife died about ten years ago and he misses her very much. He also said he’s currently writing a book about her. He joked, “Italian men are either good lovers or good husbands. I was both.” He said they made love twice a day during the week and three times on Sundays. It was beautiful. He says her parting words were “’Thank you for giving me a good life.’

On the train from Pisa, Italy to Florence I met a middle-aged Sicilian couple. They taught me how to count to ten in Italian. On our hour-long train ride they explained they had been trying to have a baby for years, but Mrs. Mazzagatti’s health problems made it impossible. She said they had travelled back to Pisa for a doctor’s visit, and to their surprise the doctor told them she was healthy enough to conceive. I congratulated them and told them I would keep them in my prayers. They also taught me “Dio e il mio sole,” which means God is my sun.

PERSONAL GROWTH

Dio e il mio sole sums up my journey abroad. I had a dream in my heart and the sun directed my path. This holds true for everyone who traveled from the U.S. to experience different cultures. Regardless of religion, we all have taken a chance that many people in the world will never be able to, and we had faith that it was possible. So many people from so many different racial, cultural, and social backgrounds came together because we all had one dream. We never would have guessed we would learn as much about the world or ourselves as we have. 

I’ve learned to use my experience to strengthen others confronting their own struggles. As humans we relate through our joys and pains. It’s how we communicate, how we understand each other, and how we grow as a people.

You never know what the next person has been through or is going through. All the great unique people I’ve met this semester have inspired me to be more empathetic and consider the next person's experience and culture before I judge their actions. I’m grateful I've had the opportunity to meet some really amazing people. I wish the best to everyone.

Who would think a girl raised in poverty would be able to travel throughout the world? Talk about “Started from the Bottom.” This has truly been a humbling and inspiring experience. That being said, I can’t wait to get back to my family friends & loved ones!

 
 
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Manarola | Photo by Rachel Ison
We finally escaped the tourists and met some remarkable people along the Italian west coast. Wednesday we arrived in Cinque Terre, a collection of 5 small villages in Italy's Liguria region.  

We wasted no time going to the first city on our list: Riomaggiore. We walked through town admiring the vibrant colored homes on hills, browsed boutiques and visited the community church.

We met an elder gentleman playing with his grandson in front of the church. He told us a little bit about the history of his town. He said the population shrank from 4,000 people when he was a child to only about 1,000 today. He told us the weakening economy relies on fishing, local restaurants and vineyard production. He also said the town is made up of mainly elderly people and children. As soon as youth are old enough to work they move to another town to find jobs less laborious than vineyard work.

He cared deeply about his community. He wanted to improve the economy, but just didn’t know how. It was humbling to find someone who actually wanted to share his history with us outsiders. I left with a more profound understanding of the town than I ever would have had just wandering.

We slept in La Spezia, a small city comparatively close to each of the five towns. This was the least touristy place of our journey. We were so accustomed to blending in with the other tourists that strange looks from locals caught us completely off guard. When we went to restaurants people stopped to stare like they’d never seen nor heard Americans before. We joked about finally feeling like foreigners.

Thursday we visited Manarola, Monterosso al Mare and Vernazza. First, we hiked up the steep hills of Manarola.  Then we rewarded ourselves with pure relaxation. For hours we stretched out along the beach of Monterosso al Mare. After about 3 hours, we moved to the last city we had time for in Cinque Terre. Vernazza.

Vernazza was similar to Manarola and Riomaggiore – typical hilled village near a marina with small shops and restaurants for locals. However, it had a small, seemingly unremarkable waterfall. I walked right passed it, but Jennifer convinced me to see it up close and personal. We left the other IAU girls sitting at the marina. Minutes later we were venturing from rock to rock in the middle of the bay. We took pictures of our dangerous adventure to the waterfall until Jennifer’s camera died.

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Emily, Rachel I, Jennifer, Ellie, and me | Photo by Daniele Betazzi
As we reached the waterfall we noticed an Italian man setting up a tripod and professional camera. It looked like he’d planned to photograph the beautiful landscape. Jennifer and I attempted to explain that we didn’t want to interrupt his photo shoot. But somehow his limited English and our nonexistent Italian landed us a mini photo shoot. After he took a few pictures two more photographers joined him. There we were, amateur models posing like the pros. We almost broke our necks posing on the slippery slope before the waterfall!

About half an hour later, our friends found us. The photographers took a few group photos for our spread in the imaginary Ciao Bella Magazine. We had a great time. It was so dangerous and spontaneous. The photographers were so kind and patient with us. I loved it!

After the shoot, photographers Cristian and Daniele told us about disastrous flooding and landslides that swept through Vernazza in October 2011. They said many homes and stores were destroyed. Although Vernazza looks a lot better than it did a year and a half ago, it still has a long way to go.

It felt good to learn about the reality of inhabitants, instead of just enjoying the superficial tourist sites for once. It made us feel closer to Italy and its people. It reminded me of experiencing the culture in Porto. Cinque Terre treated us well. Although we had seen and done so much in Italy, we still had one more city to see. Venice.


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Venice at Sunrise | Photo by Ellie Weeks
We arrived in Venice Friday evening just in time for dinner. We caught a cheap meal and free WIFI at Brek Buffet.

It rained for the entire day Saturday. The weather put a damper on our moods and outlook of Venice. We nearly forced ourselves out of bed. Once we were out and about, we found cheap souvenirs, great pizza and a supermarket with super low prices! I bought fresh strawberries, Oreos and dried fruit all for just €3.

The small errands gave us enough energy to journey to St. Mark's Basilica. It was beautiful! A mural of colorful paintings covered the outside of the church as well as the inside. After our event-filled week we all were too exhausted to see what else Venice had to offer. We ended our vacation like true Americans – sipping lattes and surfing Facebook at Brek Buffet.

I’ve gotten my fill of pasta, pizza and gelato. I saw all the must-sees, and even squeezed in a little relaxation. My lasting impression of Italy won't be of the food or the sites, but of the people from the small towns who care so much about the survival of their communities. Sure I'll miss the great food, but service charges at restaurants reminded me of how much I missed France. If I get the opportunity to visit Italy again, I’ll do it in a heartbeat! Until then I'll muse on the memories of the beautiful Italian sites and cuisine. Free of charge.

For more info on the damage and rehabilitation of Vernazza visit: http://savevernazza.com/

 
 
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View of Florence from the Overlook | Photo by Rachel Ison
Sunday we said Farewell to Rome and Hello to Florence! We found way more tourists in Florence than Rome. Americans practically outnumbered the Italians! And even more solicitors attempted to sell us bracelets, handbags and a number of gadgets. We learned to ignore them as we made our way through the beautiful streets of Firenze (proper title of Florence to natives).

We lived minutes away from the Duomo, one of Italy’s largest cathedrals, and the largest brick dome ever constructed. Each time we passed we admired its intricate architecture and beautiful shades of green. The inside did not reflect the elaborate exterior. This was the first cathedral I had seen with white walls. The sculptures and murals of Christ and other Catholic figures were carefully crafted and amazing nonetheless.

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The Duomo Cathedral | Photo by Ellie Weeks

During our second full day in Florence, we naturally checked pizza and gelato off of our agendas first. After brunch we split up. Some enjoyed a wine tasting in the Tuscany countryside, others toured the city and I relaxed at Piazza de Pitti with two IAU students.

One student, Janine called her friend studying in Florence to meet us. We exchanged study abroad experiences as we sunbathed on the Piazza de Pitti. Yes, I went sunbathing. I tried to explain to my blonde-haired friend why I usually don’t. I told her I used to run away from the sun in the summer because I wanted to preserve what I thought was prettier skin tone because it was lighter. For the first time in my life, I purposely soaked up the sun. We all left a few shades darker. I have to admit; I love my richer complexion. It finally felt like a vacation. And I came to understand why people tan. It’s relaxing and the results are beautiful.

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Rachel at the Ponte Vecchio | Photo by Ellie Weeks
While leaving the piazza, Janine’s friend told us how hard it was to improve speaking Italian because so many people speak English in Florence. She complained that her program houses students in apartments with only American students, so it’s hard to meet Italian-speaking people. We told her we often find ourselves speaking English amongst each other as well. Luckily, the home stay at IAU allows us to speak French everyday with our host families.

Janine’s friend also explained the significance of the bridge near the piazza. Ponte Vecchio, which literally means “Old Bridge”, is the only bridge in Florence that was not destroyed in WWII. Therefore, it is the oldest lasting bridge in Florence. Our new Florence friend led us to a small restaurant for dinner – away from the tourist areas. This time we managed to avoid pizza and indulged in pasta and salad instead.

The next day we resumed tiresome hiking throughout the city – a habit we picked up in Rome. After losing ourselves searching for Florence gardens, we finally caught a glimpse of the entire city from its highest point. The hill at the Piazza Michelangelo is called the Overlook. It gave us this magnificent view and became my favorite site in Florence.

Florence also gave us a taste of home. We went to this restaurant called “The Diner.” We ate pancakes, French toast, scrambled eggs and bacon. I couldn’t have asked for a better way to end our stay in Florence.

 
 
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Colosseum w/ Emily, Rachel, Catie, Ellie, Jennifer


I had an unforgettable Spring Break with IAU friends in Italy. From the historical Coliseum in Rome to the breathtaking basilicas in Venice and Florence to the beautiful waters flowing through Cinque Terre, Italy kept me on my toes every step of the way.

Last Thursday evening I landed in Rome, Italy, with 7 IAU ladies. Once we found our hostel, we unpacked, freshened up and set out for our first Italian feast. For authentic Italian cuisine our hostel receptionist recommended La Base.

La Base welcomed us with open arms, inexpensive food and reminders of American popular culture. Posters hung of Elvis, Little Richard, Ray Charles and many other legendary American musicians. Beyonce’s “Single Ladies” played in the background. The restaurant was packed, so we shared the lower level all to ourselves. We ordered classic rigatoni and bolognese pastas and marinara pizzas. Most pizzas had a tomato-based sauce with mozzarella and some sort of meat. Aside from the €2 cover charge each person paid to sit at the restaurant, the girls and I were satisfied with our first meal in Italy.

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Dining with our daily Italian cuisine
We woke up bright and early Friday morning and left for Vatican City. First we explored Vatican Museum. We scanned through the typical Catholic sculptures and paintings. After a while they started to look the same.

Next we explored St Peter’s Square. Although we didn’t run into our honorable Pope Francis, we were blessed to attend the mass service at St. Peter’s Basilica. Unlike most basilicas that host a flood of tourists, this one secluded the service to those interested in worship only. Without cameras flashing and traveling voices, I was able to appreciate the service as a worshiper rather than a tourist.

Saturday we explored the Coliseum, Roman Forum and made wishes as we tossed coins into the Trevi Fountain.  

We stopped sightseeing for another round of pasta and pizza. After lunch we resumed with our journey to the Spanish Steps. The masses surrounding the area reminded me of the chaotic crowds at the Taste of Chicago. The other memory I have about the Spanish steps is: Don’t take the rose! Street solicitors attempted to sell roses to every woman they saw. They went as far to force one into my friend’s hand then demand money for it. She refused and through the rose right back at him. There had to be at least two solicitors for every group of tourists.



Rome was our most tiring city. So many monuments, so little time. Our feet were crying by the end of our stay. We found that three daily servings of gelato eased our pain just fine. Look out for the next post on our unusual encounters with Italians in Florence, Venice and Cinque Terre.
 
 
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Arrábida Bridge overlooking the Duoro River
There’s no place like Porto, but I can name a million like Madrid! Two weeks ago I spent my winter vacation with five IAU students exploring Porto, Portugal, and Madrid, Spain.

I remember Porto as a very small, inexpensive, cultured town. Its culture popped up everywhere – from the hostel, to homes, to small businesses.

We arrived Saturday night. As soon as we walked into Dixo’s Oporto Hostel, we saw the staircase painted “welcome” in a different language on each step, demonstrating how important culture is there. The best part about the hostel was going to the veranda at night to see the lit-up town. Oh, and the free breakfast: A broke college student’s dream!

The first night we went to a restaurant on the rooftop of Hard Club. I tasted Francesinha, a Porto original, which means “little Frenchie” in Portuguese. It’s a sandwich made with thin bread, wet-cured ham, linguica (smoked cured sausage), and steak, covered with melted cheese, tomato, all smothered with a beer sauce. It was delicious, but I couldn't finish it in one sitting. Half of it sent me straight into a food coma!


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View of Hard Club from Dixo Hostel
At Hard Club we also learned our first (and only) Portuguese words. “Obrigado,” which means thank you (women say Obrigada), and Ciao, the common European farewell. We were already familiar with the salute “Ola.”

The next day we journeyed around the town. Along the way we saw many worn buildings, cathedrals and towers. We also observed laundry hanging in windows of apartment buildings; another sign of Porto's outspoken culture. Eventually, we found ourselves at a flea market, buying, hand-made jewelry, scarves, and other accessories. We bargained for pretty good deals on souvenirs.  

Afterwards we bought lunch at a family-owned restaurant. Most of us tried a cheesy codfish soup, another Porto favorite. Then we sat along the Duoro Riverbank for hours, basking in Porto’s beautiful ambience. When hunger called again, we found our way to a local market. The girls and I bought pasta, vegetables, fruit and a bottle of wine for about 12 euros. That’s just 2 euros-a-piece!

The next few days we explored, tasted port wine and rode a gondola across the Arrábida Bridge! The gondola extends about 170 feet tall. The ride is pretty smooth, so it’s not as scary as it sounds!


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Left to Right: Rachel, Emily, Molly Arianna and Jessica                                                    On the Gondola!

We spent our last nights having girl talk on the veranda, soaking in Porto’s picturesque beauty.

We loved Porto. It’s not your typical tourist town. The line-dried clothes, the small markets, the familial businesses, all say Porto. Other countries or big corporations haven’t commercialized it. It's its own city, and doesn’t belong to anyone else.
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Typical European style apartments, above department stores
Tuesday we left Porto, with lovely memories, and arrived in Madrid wishing we stayed in Portugal. Madrid, Spain, is more of a party city and very expensive. It sleeted the first day, and rained the other days we were there. Most students in our hostel partied all night and slept most of the day away. When we explored, we didn't see most people come out until sunset.

The large-scale commercialization in Madrid disappointed me the most. If I wanted to see a McDonald’s and KFC on every corner, I would’ve stayed in Chicago! It blended in as just another big city, with no memorable culture to set it apart. I would've loved to see Madrid before big corporations and restaurant chains moved in.


Madrid reminds me of major cities throughout the world, with one exception: The Prado Museum.

The Prado Museum is located exactly at the center of Spain, and is home to an extraordinary collection of Spanish art. The museum also hosts a large variety of European classical pieces. There were especially a lot of beautiful paintings of Christ, including the Crucifixion, last supper, His Resurrection and reigning/watching over us in Heaven.

The museum all my mind to my own spiritual beliefs. Photos were prohibited, but I found the painting of Jesus liberating Adam and Eve from Limbo the most intriguing. The piece was very moving. It was a reminder that Jesus came to save us all, no matter how great the sin was or when it was committed. It was a history lesson, art show and Bible lesson all in one.

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Tapas and Sangria!

Although I preferred Porto to Madrid, I still encourage people to travel to the latter. The rain and my drained mind from constant travel could’ve skewed my perspective, just a little. Madrid has great, inexpensive Tapas (platter of Spanish appetizers, served with Sangria), and specializes in piaya Spanish rice. Both are absolutely delicious! If you happen to stop by, make sure you check out the nightlife!

Exploring other countries in Europe on my own was exhilarating! It's amazing how much you can accomplish if you just do it! Returning to France was bittersweet. I still miss Porto, but returning to Aix made me realize I picked the right place to study abroad. I was excited to speak French again with my host. I think I was more anxious to sleep peacefully in my own bed; my home-away-from-home bed.

I’m all travelled-out – until April, at least. Next stop, Paris, France, followed by Italia!!

 
 
This weekend I returned to Nice, France, to celebrate Le Carnaval (Mardi Gras, Riviera style). Although I enjoyed eating, watching the parade and running from 9-year-old "silly-stringers"; the parade's undesirable stereotypes made me question Le Caraval's purpose. Check out the slideshow below. I'm sure you'll enjoy some pictures, and hate others, as I did.
  The full name for Le Carnaval is "Carnaval de Roi des 5 Continents," which translates to "Carnival King of 5 Continents." Here are a few pictures I found particularly disturbing. (Descriptions will pop up as you hoover over the photo).
Children flooded the streets of Le Carnaval; sadly, these cynical images may be their first perceptions of different cultures. The burning question in my head remains: Is the purpose of this carnival to equally represent countries amusingly, or to imbed distasteful stereotypes in children's minds?
Silly string and confetti made the event worthwhile, but I hope parents will educate their children about the history behind the caricatures, and teach them to judge individuals of all nationalities by their actions; not by the images they witnessed at Le Carnaval.
 
 
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Mediterranean Sea from the Palace of Monaco.
My first two weeks in Aix en Provence, France, have been absolutely amazing and absolutely terrible!

Living in southern France gives me fast, affordable access to extravagant cities along the Mediterranean Sea. I spent last weekend with IAU students exploring the French Riviera (Cote d’Azur, in French). We traveled from Nice to Monaco to Eze.

First stop: Nice. It’s not yacht season quite yet, but many Nice residents found other ways to enjoy mild temps this Saturday. Some jogged along the Sea. Some visited the Musee d’Art Modern et d’Art Contemporain (Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art). Others spent the day shopping at high-end retailers, Luis Vuitton, Longchamp, Galeries Lafayette, just to name a few.

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Waterfall at the height of Le Chateau, Nice

My friends and I sipped wine as we caught the breeze along the shore. Then we climbed the steps of Le Colline du Chateau (the hill of the castle), which ascends 302 feet to overlook the Cote d’Azur. The Chateau was the first settled land of Nice. We took pictures throughout our climb and admired the serene waterfall at the top of the hill.

My favorite place in the Riviera is Monaco! Monaco is a haven for wealthy spenders. Saturday night we tried our luck at Monte Carlo Casino. Unfortunately, losses outnumbered wins for IAU that night. One classmate won 30 euros (approx. $40), while another walked away with 75 euros (approx. $100) less than he started with. 

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Monte Carlo Casino, Monaco
Prince Albert II currently rules the sovereign state. He resides in Monaco’s breathtaking palace. The palace was built 822 years ago. It covers over 400 acres and serves as a museum for tourists to learn about its rich history. As a sovereign state, Monaco has no property taxes, and profits from Monte Carlo and tourism. 

Finally, we stopped at Eze, France, home of most noses. “Noses,” in regard to the professionals who dedicate their lives to testing and smelling scents to create the world’s greatest fragrances. We visited Fragonard Parfumeur (perfume factory), where a tour guide explained the importance of the “noses,” and the process of fragrance making from start to finish. We were able to buy some of the world’s finest perfumes after the tour. Of course, I was satisfied with the free sample of Violette

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Statue of Christ in St. Nicholas Cathedral, Monaco
I’ve walked on the land of billionaires, what can be so terrible about that? Unfortunately, I’m not writing this entry from the Prince’s Palace, or Monte Carlo, or the Mediterranean’s Seashore. I’m writing it from my sickbed.

At least ten IAU students are sick right now. (That’s 10% of the school!) After tossing and turning Thursday night, Friday morning I woke up with a fever, cough, chills, back pain and breathing trouble. After Friday’s class I slept until dinner and went to the doctor Saturday morning. The doctor spoke a small amount of English, but we were able to understand each other. He explained my symptoms weren’t serious. He gave me Albuterol inhalers, nasal spray and medicine for the fever.

I felt a lot better after resting all day Saturday, so I decided to go to mass at the Saint Savieur Cathedral Sunday morning. I bundled up and made my way down the hill, but le mistrel (heavy wind, common in Aix), made it hard for me to breath. The poor heat ventilation and fumes from burning incents in the cathedral challenged my breathing once again. I was cold, and couldn’t stop sneezing. Sadly, my trip to church worsened my cold. I returned home with a terrible migraine and relentless sneezing.

Each time I walk home after school, I’ve noticed I have trouble breathing. I’m assuming the pollution from excessive tobacco smoke and the exhaustion of the diesel fuel causes my shortness of breath. I’ll have to get used to it, because I’m not going anywhere, anytime soon!

Along with cultural adaptation, my immunity must also adjust to living in a new environment. Adapting to weather changes, different pollution, travelling, and classes, all while living thousands of miles away from home, is pretty stressful. This cold won’t make me forget the amazing opportunities France has to offer. The absolutely amazing adventures outweigh this absolutely terrible cold. I’m sure I’ll be back to the exploring in no time!


 
 
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The steep hills and slopes en route to IAU.


A beaming smile stretched across my face as the plane landed in Paris. Finally, I could see, feel and explore the reality of my dream.

And when I got off the plane yesterday, it hit me: I actually have to speak French now…

I thought, “Sure, I’ve been studying my French notes throughout winter break, but I haven’t taken a French course since 2010. Is my elementary level understanding good enough to communicate in France?” All the doubts I assured myself I didn’t have suddenly clouded my mind.

When I failed to find signs pointing toward the train going to Aix, I mustered the courage to ask, “Ou est le TGV?” (Where is the train?) My notably American accent and timidity made it hard for Parisians to understand me. Then I resorted to what became my sole survival phrase: “Parlez-vous anglais?” (Do you speak English?) Fortunately, each person I met spoke a small amount of English, which helped me find the train.

There, I met a Frenchman bilingual in English and French. In English, he explained he just returned from a business trip in China, so he understood my situation. In French, he explained my train was running 45 minutes late. I practiced speaking French with him, and he practiced speaking English with me. He made me feel more comfortable speaking, and reassured me that I could do this. And I did.

A three-hour train ride later I met my host, Madame Charron, and my housemate, Sarah. Then I discovered Madame Charron doesn’t speak English. Thankfully, Sarah speaks French pretty well, and I had warmed up to speaking French with my acquaintance from the train. During the car ride to my new home, we listened to pop music, made small talk, and laughed about my terrible vocal skills!

When I arrived at my host’s apartment, I noticed a familiarity. The refreshing scent of flowers reminded me of my grandmother’s house. It welcomed me. It made me feel safe, at home. My host cooked vegetable soup, stewed chicken and green peas for dinner. Pretty American, huh? We ate at the dinner table together and got better acquainted. I learned Madame has hosted study abroad students for 10 years, which made me feel even better. I worried most about living with an inexperienced host. Madame is very kind and has a great sense of humor. I think I’m going to enjoy living with her.

My first night went pretty well. I slept a full 8 hours, and surprisingly, no jet lag.

This morning challenged my weeks of mental preparation for French showering customs. In the bathroom I saw a shower head connected to a hose lying on the floor of the bathtub. I quietly said, “I’m going to hate this.” Nevertheless, I undressed and got in. And…I hated it!

The one luxury I had at home became a chore. I underestimated how different it would be. Sure, I knew I would have to shower faster, but I thought I could at least enjoy the comforting steam of a hot shower. Madame Charron told us to turn the water on only to rinse our bodies. So, I rinsed, lathered, and rinsed again. I was freezing! I set a new record for myself: I took a three-minute shower!

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A chef at the patisserie (pastry shop) makes crepes outside.
Sarah and I ate a light breakfast, and decided to explore the town! On Sunday, most shops are closed. So, we “window-shopped,” bought toiletries at the market and ate crepes! I absolutely could not resist! I got a crepe with strawberries. It was delicious!

We enjoyed our adventure, but we agreed we must adjust to the drastically different landscape. It felt like I jumped on a stair master when we into town today. Right after gravity pushed me downhill, I had to pull my weight up on a 30-degree angle slant.  The steep inclines of Aixois streets will whip me into shape in no time!

Later in the evening,  we met fellow students at the IAU Open House. I was relieved to discover many of them knew only a small amount of French as well.

I’ve officially lived in France for 24 hours, and so far, so good! I’m excited to start classes and embark on many adventures this semester! As for now, I’m about to hit the sack! As the French say, Je suis sur le point d’aller dormir! Orientation starts at 8:45 am. Bon nuit! (Good night!)


 
 


Studying abroad should be pretty cool. Pretty cool? Who am I kidding? It’ll be amazing! Inside, I’m jumping up and down, like I just won the Lotto! I get to explore a great landscape, speak another language fluently, immerse myself in French culture, and let’s not forget, indulge in some awesome food! Life doesn’t get much better than that. I cannot wait to experience this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Everyone keeps asking me if I’m nervous or scared. Honestly, I’m more excited than nervous. I’m most excited about the excursions to Cannes and Nice. My 7th grade French teacher was from Nice. I’m also looking forward to the nightlife in France. I know, I know, it’s a study abroad program, but we’re all thinking it! I can’t wait to travel, eat delicious food, and do a little partying. I might even go backpacking! If you know me, that sounds insane coming from my mouth. I’m not the most athletic person, but I will be living in France for four months, why not? Y.O.L.O.! (You Only Live Once :))

I’m leaving in two weeks, but I’ve already packed my favorite jeans, jacket, and a few shirts. The lighter I pack, the better. I can buy toiletries when I arrive. But I’m cheap, so I might take a few toiletries with me, like my face soap. It costs $8 here, so I will only imagine how much it costs there! Toothpaste, soap, and shampoo shouldn’t hurt my pockets too badly, right?

Yes, it’s an exciting opportunity, but let’s be realistic. There are a few things I’m not so enthusiastic about.

1. Leaving my family and friends, of course

I can’t see them or talk to them everyday. On the bright side, I will have so many stories to tell them when I return! If I don’t go, who’s going to tell them the real deal about the Eiffel Tower (excuse me, La Tour Eiffel)? Or about how French guys really are? Or how the authentic food compares to the stuff served in French-American restaurants (which is pretty darn good!)?

2. No more hot, 30-minute showers

Sad to say, I will miss these the most! Long, hot showers are how I get my day started, or unwind from a stressful one. In France, water is very expensive, so French families usually limit their use. My family and roommates always complain about my long showers, and now, I actually have to change it up! My host family is opening their home to me, the very least I can do is minimize my shower time. So, for the next two weeks, I’m timing myself for each shower. That’s right, I’ll put my phone on a 7-minute timer. Once it goes off, I’m out!

3.  Exiting my comfort zone

I'm voluntarily giving up family, friends, hot showers, and the privacy of my own home for four months. Sure, I’m leaving what’s comfortable, but it’s a part of growing. I was comfortable crawling as a baby, which made learning to walk extremely uncomfortable. Now I can walk, run, jump, and even fly, literally for 18 hours!

Leaving my comfort zone in America is the next step in my personal growth. I look forward to crossing cultural barriers. I have the chance to embark on a journey that millions never will. Can’t wait! See you in two weeks, Aix!