It has been two weeks said I said "au revoir" to France and three weeks since I was in Aix. As I sit on the couch in Maryland I am trying to make sense of what happened in the past four months. I lived in a foreign country. I climbed the alps. I traveled all over Europe without any huge problems and met so many amazing people. But now I am back.
It is amazing how easily I was able to slip back into feeling like my old self. When I grabbed my old car keys and cell phone the night I landed in Philly, they felt like old familiar friends. Yet the things that at one point were so familiar felt a little odd, like trying to fit back into clothes long ago outgrown. It is true what they say in orientation; the people and places back home will not change, but you will.
There is a mental and emotional distinction that I have begun to make between life before and after studying abroad. The truth is, however, that as much as I loved life in France, I never truly felt that I made a second life there. France was the place where I become more cultured, aware of all the different people that exist in the world. It was the place I learned more about my own American identity through the stereotypes of others. It was the place where I dined on amazing food and made friends with some of the locals. Despite all of this however, I make a distinction between a place that created me and a place that altered me. France changed me, but it did not redefine me. I became a stronger and smarter traveler, I have a lot more confidence with French and I respect and understand different cultures more. But, in the end, I was happy to come back home.
At the gate when I saw the familiar faces of my parents emerge out of a sea of strangers, for the first time in my life I felt an overwhelming sense of belonging. I was not the stranger or the alien anymore. I did not have to hide my emotions in the name of cultural correctness. I could feel safe and surrounded by love again.
A part of me wonders what I did wrong, why I did not feel a deep sorrow when I left France like all the other IAU students around me. I did everything they said we should do in orientation; I got to know and love my host mother; I went out and made friends with locals; I spoke French as much as possible; I actively sought adventure whenever possible; I put myself out there as much as my introverted nature would allow me to. But towards the end of my semester I just felt numb. I did not cry when I had to say goodbye, only when I thought of how much I wanted to go home.
Don't get me wrong, I loved the program, the professors and the excursions. I have no complaints about IAU whatsoever. I just think on a personal level I was more attached to the people at home than the people in France. So in the end, there is one lesson France helped me learn. France was beautiful, full of succulent tastes and smells. It was a paradise from the lavender fields of Provence to the grand boulevards of Paris. There was so much history everywhere that filled my mind with the breadth of the human experience. But after all the traveling, wine tasting and French speaking, there was a part of me that just wanted something familiar. France taught me that although there are amazing aspects all over the world, nothing can compare to home. Although I enjoyed my time and had amazing experiences for three months, by the end I was overcome by homesickness and exhaustion. My host Mom was the most kind and caring woman I could ever have been paired with, but she just is not my Mom.
I think in my case it was emotions that my time in France. I never realized how much of an emotional, introspective person I am until I suddenly did not have any of my coping mechanisms or loved ones to vent to. I learned my weaknesses as much as I learned my strength.
I wanted to offer this perspective because it is one that many other people at IAU started to feel towards the end of the semester. In the weeks leading up to finals everyone either wanted to go home or stay in France. I do not think there is anything wrong with being part of the former. Though I now have a small French identity I know that where I am now in my life is truly where I belong. Therefore, I am thankful for France. It one of the most beautiful countries in the world with some of the kindest people in the world. I feel like I have had fifteen years worth of life experience in the past four months. So although now I am happy to be back with friends who truly accept me in all my dorkyness, the moments I had with the few friends I made at IAU will be some of my favorite memoires.
So despite what my Facebook pictures would suggest, studying abroad was not just a drawn out European vacation. It was a time in my life when I was my most vulnerable and emotional. I wanted to step out and seize the day as much as I wanted to recoil and snuggle in bed. Studying abroad made me see and feel incredible things. It was an exercise in patience, tolerance and adaption. Donc, studying abroad is the study of living, not just in the outside world of culture, but the inside world of identity as well.
I have one more week in Aix to begrudgingly do finals and finish papers. I will spend one day in Geneva, Switzerland before heading to Chamonix to hike for a week in the French Alps. Then I get on one last plane and come home, to America. I have to admit I have been fantasizing about the extreme happiness and sense of belonging I will feel when I see my parents on the other side of customs.
As I write this I am sitting in the square outside the cathedral by 2 Bis Rue du Bon Pasteur. Now and then people come around the corner and see the cathedral. They exclaim "wow!" and point, and smile. It is funny to see people marvel at the things that have now become commonplace to me, the things I have passed by a hundred times over the past few months.
I think back to the very first night I arrived in Aix with my friend Allie almost four months ago. We were sorely jet-lagged and starving. I was constantly on the verge of tears from exhaustion and newly found homesickness. In our hotel lobby we met another IAU student. The three of us decided to go explore our new city despite the cold. The streets were dark and silent. There were no leaves on the trees. Everything felt foreign; the street signs, the license plates, the smell in the air. I felt lost in spirit and location, but excited to start a journey.
Now that I have reached the end of my journey, I realize that I never really had a destination. So although I know exactly where I am today, I still feel lost. I am not who I was when I left, but I am not sure who the person is that will be coming back.
There are definite characteristics that are different about me. I am more confident when I talk to strangers. I need a haircut. I can navigate any subway system no matter the language. My speech has become speckled with French phrases like "dac-o-dac" (okie dokie), "c'est pas grave" (it's no big deal) and "zut!" (drat). Although I still have to perfect my grammar a little bit more to truly be fluent in French, I have certainty mastered "franglais."
The emotional and mental changes will take a little bit more time to make sense out of. It is a bit hard to synthesize how I feel when I go through so many emotions in the span of a few hours; fear, happiness, anxiety, strength, despair, excitement.
Although this has been one of the most amazing experiences in my life, it has also been the hardest. I have had to fend for myself for four months in a foreign land, in a foreign language. I have had creepy strangers hit on me, missed trains, picked up a stomach virus, lost money I will never get back and found false friends. All of this was while my support systems, aka my mom and boyfriend, and everything that has ever comforted me was across the ocean. From column to column my attitude towards my life here has been high and low. I have loved my life here, but I am ready to return home.
I keep thinking of a quote by T.S. Eliot, "We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time."
It is true that as much as I have learned about other cultures and people, I have learned about myself. When I see my parents and Bryan again and I slip back into the patterns of my former life, I will be just a little bit stronger. I will be more assertive. I will be better with being alone. I will have a better sense of direction, both on the road and with struggle in life. I will truly appreciate my home not for the things in it, but the identity I associate with it.
So next weekend I will cry when I say goodbye to Joelle and leave Aix. The next day I will have my breath knocked out by the beauty of the Alps. Then I will feel anxious waiting for my plane. May 25th when the car delicately turns up the driveway, I will say a part of a nursery rhyme I always say when I get home from Towson, "Home again home again, jiggity jog." With that I will end this portion of my journey.
To anyone who read any of my columns these past few months, thank you. I hope you all find your own adventures that make you smile, sob, explore, doubt yourself, dance until dawn and marvel at life.
Around 65 million people live in La France, or L'Hexagone. Although France is just a tiny but smaller than Texas, it has all the demographic and cultural complexities of the United States. Although I have only been here a few months, through classes, conversations with my host and her friends and traveling to different regions, I have witnessed the various ways the French see each other.
Just as in the United States there is a clear distinction between the north and the south, both culturally and linguistically. The people of Provence in the south have a slight accent I pick up on now and then. The Parisienne accent is thought to be more haughty and aristocratic. This difference was demonstrated to me went I went on a trip to the Luberon region in Provence. The way you say Luberon marks you as a Provinçal or a Parisienne. It is a very subtle difference between the stress put on the "u" "e" and "o," which I still have not figured out. When talking about Paris, locals in Provence will say "Pariisiiennne," almost with a tinge of disgust while crinkling their nose. The parallels to demographic rifts in the United States are actually quite interesting.
There is even a difference between "The north" where Paris is and the far north closer to Brussels. This area is called Les Ch'Tis, commonly thought of as the sticks or the boonies. It is a stereotype that people from this region have a very discernible lisp and sometimes roll their R's. My host had friend who visited from Lille who grew up in this region. Although my French comprehension is usually spot on at this point, it was very hard to listen to a few sentences without interjecting "Repetez, s'il vous plaît, j'ai mal entendu." The movie "Bienvenue Chez Les Ch'Tis," does a really good job of showing the French attitude towards this region and until recently was the top grossing film in France.
Where I am, the more urban, economically varied Marseilles has a bit of a grudge to the very bourgeois Aix. The differences are even localized to mere blocks. Even right with in Paris, the arrondissements are as varied as the New York boroughs, with the more artistic Left bank and rich Right bank.
There are also religious differences. France has in past years developed a reputation as being a very secular country. Yet there is still a very strong Catholic following that I think makes its way into a lot of aspects of French culture. Although France just passed gay marriage, there is still a lot of grumbling about it on a mass scale. Many arguments against gay marriage are the ones clinging to the image of the nuclear family with one man and one woman. My host's sister Nikki, who is very Catholic, argued with me one night about how she just does not like the word "marriage" when applied to gay marriage.
As with any complex society with many demographics, there are still deeply ingrained prejudices. My host told me that people here are very racist towards the large Arab population in Marseilles that came up from Northern Africa. My housemate and friend, Rachel, who is an African American constantly is met with the phrase "Vous êtes clair," or roughly, "You are clear." They are remarking that Rachel has a little bit of white in her and so does not look totally black. People just nonchalantly say this to her all the time.
The few unifying aspects of French culture are definitely a baguette on the dinner table, Football (soccer) and shared stereotypes of the people in the outside word. I think I might lose my sanity on the next person who looks at me in surprise and says, "You're American? But you're not fat!" Do not even get me started on the rivalry between France and England, that could be two other columns.
I have witnessed many aspects of this culture I never would have thought of, and practically none of the aspects that are so commonly French stereotypes. I still have not seen a mime or someone sporting a striped shirt and beret. I never heard anyone say "sacre bleu," or laugh in that guttural "huh, huh, huh," way.
That is because France, like every country, is not a caricature. She has her internal problems and misunderstandings. Though there are some constants with cuisine and landscape, every decade brings a new set of demographics and cultural icons. I think in this way culture is not just a composite of similarities, but also the way in which a community perceives and integrates its differences. Culture grows and expands. It can be stagnant or traditional but also accepting and forward thinking. This is why stereotypes have to be challenged as a way of defining culture. Stereotypes are merely a way to categorize an idea or way of life that will always be complex.
The changing of the seasons has been particularly dramatic in Aix-en-Provence. As soon as I got back from Paris it seemed all of Aix was in bloom. Poppies wink cheerfully on grassy slopes and bushy purple flowers bow down from the trees. The dynamics of life in Aix have changed as well. There is the usual buzz of frenetic energy that follows the departure of winter cold, but there is another joyful part of Aix that has emerged in the past couple weeks. People are out, packed onto cafe terraces or sitting on the steps of fountains.
Some of those people are groups of tourists, who even this early in the season have descended on Aix with their loose fitting button downs and floppy straw hats. I chuckle to myself a little bit when I draw near and hear an American accent, at seeing a stereotype confirm itself. The cathedral by my school is particularly famous and every day there is a tour guide waving a scarf tied to an umbrella and whispering into a microphone. I pass by with my backpack and fold into the shuffling crowd of Aixois, feeling more like an individual than ever.
My French has been improving in leaps and bounds. I went to run errands one day and had every conversation in French, including working out problems with train tickets and trying on shoes. Nobody gave me a strange look or switched to English, a major victory if you have ever been an American in a foreign city. Store clerks who recognize me sometimes throw in terms of endearment like "cherie" or go out of their way to help me. I have become a regular at shops in France and even have inside jokes with the guy at the pizza place on the corner. Although that could also just be a sign I have been eating too much pizza in between classes.
One French stereotype I have found to be 100% true is that French women can eat however many pastries and bread they want and not gain weight. There is seriously at least one boulangerie on every corner and everyday they sell dozens of carb and sugar filled delicacies to these people. Everyone eats a baguette every day. Yet I can count the number of women I have seen with muffin tops on one hand. I rarely see anyone running and I have never seen a gym here.
Some people say the French just have smaller portions. Some surmise that the French just smoke like chimneys to satisfy a meal. My unscientific opinion is that they have a magical property in their DNA that churns all that butter and flour into chicness and "je ne sais quoi." All I know is that I have been on the French diet for three months and the only thing that is evident is that I have certainty been eating pastries.
My gastronomic experiences in France have also been of the experimental sort. I pulled little pesto covered snails out of their cozy shelly homes and digested them. I can attest that frogs legs do taste like very garlicky chicken with the aesthetic bonus of discernible frog feet, calves and thighs. I can do the frogs legs again, but I will leave the recipes for escargot in France.
I have developed a love for Lebanese and Tunisian cuisine. North African and Vietnamese food is sort of the French version of Mexican or Chinese food in America. It is the sort of "I have no idea what is in this but it is delicious so I do not care," food that leaves an aftertaste of culture. Falafel and Tabbouleh are the first things I will be looking for when I get back to the States.
French cuisine has instilled in me a level of culinary snobbery. The French here are obsessed with home grown fruits and vegetables. Everything is labeled "Bio," the French equivalent of organic. A couple weeks ago I tried to buy Spanish strawberries that looked much brighter and juicier than their French neighbors. Though the vendor was offering both and had to sell the Spanish ones some time, he refused to sell them to me and replaced my batch with sadder looking French strawberries. I was peer pressured into supporting what is local.
I will also most likely turn up my nose at anything resembling a croissant or baguette for the first couple months back in America. I will probably spew disparaging phrases of the jaded such as "You call this Camembert?" or "This pain au chocolat is nothing in comparison to the ones in France." Sorry in advance for that.
On the flip side I have been going through withdrawal symptoms when it comes to cheddar cheese, peanut butter or corn products. I did not eat an extraordinary amount of these things back home, but I suppose my cravings go along with the adage you do not know what you have til it is gone. It is still perplexing to me that peanut butter is considered an exotic delicacy and American cheese is a laughable interpretation of "real cheese." My host mother literally laughed in disbelief when I said there is such a thing as grape jelly and that we put it together with peanut butter on pieces of flat white bread. Ce n'est vraiment pas français.
Though American cuisine might not always be considered a high culture thing or pair well with an expensive wine, it connects to a different part of the human experience; home. It always bothers me that the French do not have a word that clearly translates for "home." They have "patrie" which is homeland or "maison" for house. Yet there is nothing that defines the space where you reside not only with people and things but with a sense of your identity and comfort. In my opinion American food perfectly represents that wonderful little nest of home simply because I am American. It might be simple and hearty, but when the goal is to nourish the soul, it does not need to be fancy. I have no shame that my first meal back at home might be a bowl of Mac and Cheese or chicken noodle soup. Having a set of flavors that I can identity as my personal history fill up the heart on their way to the stomach.
If ever there was a "pinch myself" moment in this entire study abroad experience it was the past week that I spent in Paris. In a way all of my time in France and the time I put into Learning French has been a long pilgrimage to see this city. So when I saw the bluish-gray rooftops fold into limestone buildings along the Champs-Elysées on my first day it was a truly surreal sensation.
My first impressions of the city were that everything looked and felt exactly as I had always dreamed it would right down to the accordion music in the background. All of those images and songs devoted to Paris are completely accurate. I kept replaying "An American in Paris," or scenes from "Funny Face," "Gigi," and "Midnight in Paris" in my head as I came upon a familiar landmarks or streets. Paris has been the background to so many movies and books that I have loved. It felt like a second part of me has always been residing there.
I had four days to explore the city and I used every minute of it. I saw all the major museums, the Eiffel tower from the top and bottom, the Arc de Triumph, The Moulin Rouge, Norte Dame, Sacre Couer and Saint Chapelle. I strolled along the Seine and perused the shelves of Shakespeare and Co. I discovered that I prefer the humble atmosphere of student life in the left bank to the gilded world of the bourgeoisie on the Right bank. My feet are throbbing and I probably walked about 20 miles but it was worth it.
I can say without a doubt that Paris is the most grand and beautiful city I have seen in Europe so far. This week alone I have seen some of the world's most famous paintings from the Mona Lisa to Monet's Water Lilies. If high culture is your thing Paris should be at the top of your checklist. I spent the majority of my week staring at things in mouth-wide open awe. There were countless times when I would round a corner and be knocked breathless by the amazing sights laid out in front of me.
Another great aspect of Paris is that for students or young adults between 18 and 26 many of the attractions are free or at a reduced rate. You can end up skipping a lot of lines without having to buy an expensive Paris pass just if you have a student visa.
Despite the usual things that are grand sights in Paris like the Eiffel Tower or the Louvre, the highlights of my week were seeing the catacombs and the Paris Opera house. The catacombs are probably the strangest project I have heard of. Back in the 1800's the Parisians realized that se of their old quarries deep below the city were caving in causing structural instability. At the same time many of their cemeteries were overfilled and diseases were starting to spread as a result. To kill two birds with one stone, or multiple bones, they used the bones from corpses dating back to the 1400's to rebuild the quarries and clear out the cemeteries. The catacombs are literally tunnels miles under Paris lined with hundreds of skulls and arms. To add to the creepiness of that, when the tunnels were created they also put up plaques which quoted the bible and philosophers but generally had to do with how short our time one earth is and how quickly we will be piles of bones. All of the quotes were in french so my friends and I had great fun going from quote to quote and translating for a group of English tourists.
I also enjoyed seeing the Paris Opera house since I have loved The Phantom of the Opera since middle school. We got to see the ballet performers rehearsing and heard the opera singers warming up. The week was filled with all sorts of moments where I completely nerded out.
The only down side during the week was when I picked up a stomach virus via the russian roulette of disease that is the Paris subway. After three hours of getting better acquainted with my hotel's bathroom I decided to test out the socialist french health care system. The French have a great system where they can send a doctor to house calls if you have a condition that is not an emergency. Twenty minutes after calling I was treated by a doctor and given medication. The stomach virus cost me 110 euros and another 13 euros for the medicine but I saved hours waiting miserably in the emergency room and trouble with an insurance company. I was still able to go to Versailles the next day like we had planned to.
Despite getting sick, Paris met all of my expectations and then some. It is a rewarding feeling to know that the place I dreamt about my whole life was not a let down. It is also strange now that this goal has been achieved. There is a little but of a "what now?" feeling, especially as the end of my studying abroad experience is drawing near. I think about the next time I might be able to come to Paris and under what circumstances that might be, who I will be with, how old I will be. Although I am young and I do not yet identify with those piles of bones in the catacombs, I feel the gravity of time and my unwilling submission to it. But I will do everything to preserve my memories since they are all that is left to me.
I found myself this weekend Lyon, France which was bustling with people in the 70 degree spring weather. On monday I will finally be heading to Paris in what feels like somewhat of a pilgrimage eight years in the making.
With the frenzy of activity and commerce in Lyon came the street spectacles of the season, jugglers and troubadours of every nature.
Every few blocks there were tiny brass bands playing classically french songs, the Marseillaise, Milord. Each band tried hard to stand out in the crowd and wore bright festive colors or even funny costumes like bunnies and carrots. I stopped and gave each one five minutes of attention, laughing and clapping with other onlookers. I was not sure if it was a competition or if it was a Lyon thing but around every corner a new band was launching into another rendition of France's greatest hits.
My favorite group was a group of elderly performers all dressed up in 18th century peasant cloths. There were accordions and violins and a flurry of stamping and clapping. The performers danced traditional french folk dances, walking around in a circle or hopping out a jig with a partner. The whole spectacle made me smile.
Yet always present between these traditional forms of culture are signs and symbols I know very well. It seems I cannot go a few blocks in a major European city without seeing a Starbucks, a Subway or of course, a McDonalds.
Starbucks and McDonalds are always without fail complete zoos with lines going out the door and down the street.
The proliferation of American culture is everywhere. There are posters for upcoming movies, American actresses in dubbed ad campaigns and American music in the background of most stores. If not was not for the French/ German/ Dutch/ Spanish being spoken around me sometimes it would feel like I really was back in America.
It is not news to me that American culture has saturated through on a global scale, I was just not aware of the depth and scale it has promulgated. Though it is nice to see people love the things I do, it also feels a bit strange to be an American among all this. Here they have their own beautiful culture and cuisine and our culture is sort of tossed in among it, diluting the original value of each culture.
Although I love American culture, I am a product of it after all, I am not sure our best side is being shown here. Yes we have become a nation of corporations and consumerism and yes we are very patriotic and love a good hamburger. Yet, I get the sense that those are the only things that are rubbing off with the proliferation of our culture. The subtleties of what I find special in my own community or State are boiled over with these large generalizations of what I must do because I am American. There is a sense that people already know what it is like to be an American only because so much of our mass marketed culture surrounds them.
For instance, my French friend Alexandre, who's dream it is to go to American, asked me if my life was as epic and perfect as the American movies depict. I laughed and said no, I live a normal mixture of sad, boring, happy and sometimes exciting and that I do not see life through some special lomography lens. I added that my life in France is far more interesting and epic than my day to day life in America. I found it coincidental since I, the girl who always wanted to go to romantic, exciting Paris was being asked about America by a French person using the same idealistic terms.
And in a really strange, almost sick way, seeing this terrible representation of American culture actually makes me feel patriotic. Not in a "We have conquered the world one Big Mac at a time mwahah," kind of way, but in a, "Yeah it's a small piece of home and this McFlurry tastes like childhood," kind of way. To a slightly homesick person, the familiar logos are comforting at first, but then disturbing en masse. I love us and I hate us at the same time.
But I am thankful to have this new perspective on my own American identity and what others think of me because of this immediate categorization. It makes me reconsider the way I am perceiving the cultures in the cities I am visiting. What preconceived notions did I bring with me before I tried to get to know the country? How did I perceive this country before I actually came here?
I knew that I would find out the subtleties of a foreign culture, but did not expect to appreciate the subtleties of American culture in my own life. Although this proliferation of American culture looks, sounds and even smells like things I see back home, my individual experiences of life in America are far more humble, familial and organic than what it appears to be on a mass scale.
It was Five a.m. Saturday morning and I had a bus to catch at six. It was raining and it would be a 35 minute walk to the Rotund. But by noon I would be in Barcelona, so after hitting the snooze button twice, I decided to carpe diem!
Seven hours and four naps at an upright angle later, I opened my eyes to see palm trees and fields of green. The rain in Spain evidently does stay mainly in the plain.
"Allo, allo," the tour guide George whispered into the bus microphone, "Désolé de vous réveiller, mais nous sommes arrivés."
The day was a perfect combination of sun and breeze and the chilly dawn walk through Aix was a million years ago. George took us on a tour of the city, pointing out architecture and fountains. I marveled that I am an American being spoken to in French in the middle of Spain. I bumped into people on the crowded streets and said "Désolé, erm, sorry, uhh, pardon!" I should know more words in Spanish by now.
George dropped us off at the markets for lunch. The options were overwhelming. There was fruit and candy and juice and pastries everywhere. Legs of pigs hung from stand awnings and rows empanadas were lined up in wooden boxes. I just pointed and said "por favore."
The rest of the day was spent shopping with girl friends and getting gelato whenever the craving arose. When the stores started to close around 9 p.m. and the restaurants opened, it was time to try Paella and tapas. This whole experience should be relabeled "eating abroad."
The next morning after a breakfast of churros and hot chocolate, my friends and I embarked on our second day in Barcelona. We saw Gaudi's Casa Batlló. This was one of the most whimsical homes I have ever been in with its circular windows and ceiling painted like tortoise shells.
We saw Gaudi's style again in La Sagrada Familia, only this time on a much larger scale. La Sagrada Familia is one of the largest Cathedrals, and construction projects in Europe. Construction started in 1882 and is not projected to be done until 2026, think about that next time you have to take a detour at Towson. Though certainty impressive, to my aesthetics I cannot say as though the Cathedral is beautiful. There seemed to be too much happening on one facade. There is a mixture of Gaudi's playful hints of nature to the structured lines of classic goth architecture and modern almost cubist statues tossed in among classic spanish parapets and columns. The eye does not know what to focus on. Inside however, perhaps because they have not finished, was simple and beautiful with geometrical patterns in stained glass reflecting onto pristine white columns.
The architecture of Barcelona has been some of my favorite of all of Europe. Each building has some little quirk or elegant feature that distinguishes it from the rest.
My favorite place in all of Barcelona was the La Monumental, the bullfighting arena. There was an old man sitting in a closet at the entrance whom we were not sure actually worked there or if he was homeless but we paid him five euros to go in.
The arena was deserted. It was just the four of us and 20,000 empty seats. We found the entrance for the bull ring. With just an audience of seagulls we ran around, skipped, yelled and laughed in the sand. We pretended to be bulls and matadors. It was the general silliness and euphoria that happens when you stumble upon something great.
As we were leaving the ring we noticed a matador museum tucked into one of the arena's corridors. As we approached it a Spanish man in his 70's hopped up from his chair and started beckoning "Niñas, niñas!" We came over and said "hola." He looked very excited and for some reason he looked at us and started telling us about his wife, pointing to his ring finger and saying "Chino." "Apparently he has been married to a Chinese woman for the past eight years," my friend translated.
He gestured us into the museum and proceeded to push us past all the displays, still telling us his life's story in Spanish. We came out into a court yard over looking empty pens where they kept the bulls. My friend who could speak Spanish translated as the man rambled nonsense. "50 bulls!" He said pointing to the pens. Then he pointed to us and said "Pretty girls." He repeated this gesture over and over. "50 bulls here once, four pretty girls!"
With a flick of his hand he waved us over to where there was a display of matador costumes. "Four pretty girls, look, and after, I take your picture." He rounded us up around the bust of a famous matador without explaining anything and took our picture. Whether it was because of the language barrier or if he was an eccentric, he is one of the most strange and endearing people I have met in Europe so far.
Though I am not a partier or embrace many aspects of my millennial culture, Spain really made me embrace being young. Exploring Barcelona on foot all day, drinking a goblet sized glass of sangria, writing a poem to our funny spanish waiter about paella and sleeping in a tiny hostel room with 7 other girls are things I can say I did in my 20's. For the first time I feel like I really am being the spontaneous care free 20-something that all those movies and songs say I am supposed to be. It was very fitting that I went to Barcelona in the springtime.
It is hard to escape the classroom as a history major living in Europe. Everyday I pass a monument, a cathedral from the 14th century. I live in a perpetual state of curiosity followed by awe.
Yet there also comes a somberness from understanding the story of Europe. This is the land of two world wars. Its the birthplace of nationalism, imperialism and revolution. A hundred drops of blood and tears wrought from turmoil are mixed in with the dirt, washed away after decades of rain.
I am taking a course on France during the occupation which has opened my eyes to the dark history of France. France is country that has seen three wars with Germany and has a tumultuous history among its own people and government.
On Friday I went to a place called Les Milles which was an internment camp during World War II. Built as a brick factory in the 1870's, it was converted into a camp in 1938 by the French government. During the phony war period the government rounded up refugees who had fled the chaos of Germany, Austria and Hungary as well as Communists, artists and intellectuals and stuffed them into the old factory about the size of Smith Hall.
They did little to convert it, providing straw for mattresses and holes in the ground for toilets. There was only one faucet for the 11,000 people who at one time were kept prisoner there. It became a place of death as diseases like Typhoid and Tuberculosis spread and people committed suicide.
When the war heated up in 1940, the Marshal of the Vichy government Phillipe Petain, who is now seen as a collaborator, decided to turn the internment camp into a holding camp. Jewish families were rounded up and kept there among the still interned refugees.
The families spent weeks and months trying to make connections, to get paperwork sent in from the outside to buy their ticket to freedom. If they found no way to negotiate their situation they were eventually packed 100 at a time like cattle into wooden railcars with no windows. They left Les Milles behind them knowing its conditions of brick dust choking their lungs and widespread dysentary were better than those of their destination; Auschwitz.
It is emotional for me to just read this history. Yet to walk among it, especially with my vivid imagination, brings a whole new level of emotion. For me it is the shared sensation of the space that touches my humanity. For example, despite it being 60 degrees outside, when I entered the basement of Les Milles a thoroughly numbing, evil cold enveloped me. The space was pitch black and had a must composed of decay, dust and something else I cannot quite put my finger on.
Being down there for just ten minutes made me anxious and uncomfortable. But then under a spotlight we saw wall carvings in German, names and dates, 1940, 1943. People slept down here, in this. They cozied up to these brick walls as they went to sleep, trying to take their mind off their hunger or disease or the fact that they would not be able to get a new passport in time. Their straw mats might be gone now but in that cold I could faintly feel the heat of those humans, hear them breathing and coughing... and sighing.
Though the content of this column may not be something a reader wants to complement their morning Starbucks, it is important to spread the knowledge of this history. In France many people were not aware that this was happening until the end of the war, and by then people had been in the internment camp for seven years or sent to their fate in extermination camps. The question "what if they had known" is a painful one to pose.
That is why we need to know this history. We need to recognize the dangerous process of stereotyping, categorizing and dehumanizing when it presents itself in even the most subtle of ways. History makes me understand the fragility of our own humanity. It is an emotional and painful process to leave my bubble of apathy to be accosted with the truth of the past. Yet from that grave disillusionment comes a responsibility that each generation must discover. This responsibility is driven by the hope that we can make the history of this era a little less hard to swallow for our own children.
It takes me 25 minutes to walk to class everyday from my host's apartment but it is a commute that is no bother at all, especially now that spring has arrived in Aix-en-Provence. The morning and afternoon walk, accompanied by the warm Mistral winds, has become a daily time for me to meditate on where I am and how my life has diverged down another path.
My daily routine is not terribly different from Towson, just filled with a different set of sensations. I do some last minute reading over tea and the previous nights' unfinished baguette. Then get I ready, hunt for my keys and take to the streets of Aix. The air is always warmer than I am expecting. I walk by a pharmacy and an impromptu open air market that sometimes appears. I pass a school yard full of kids perpetually in recess it seems. Kids are even more adorable when they all speak French.
Cars and buses pass with European license plates. I keep walking, hands in my pockets, wondering if the people I pass can tell I am American.
Then it is the top of the hill and there in front of me is the town center of Aix. The spires and bell towers of cathedrals are interspersed between blueish gray rooftops and knobby barren Plane trees. The city sprawls into the horizon where the blue rooftops dissolve into a haze at the bottom of a far off mountain range.
I turn down a residential street I discovered to be a good short cut. It is filled with villas and mansions done in a classic french Chateau style. They have decorative wrought iron fences, large windows with flower boxes, terra-cotta roofs and wooden shutters painted light blue or burnt orange.
I turn a couple more corners. When the concrete turns into cobblestones it means I have reached the heart of Aix. Bronze tiles with the name Cezzane molded in them are dispersed among the stones reminding me this is the land of famous painters and their inspiration.
I pass my favorite Boulanger, favorite cafe, favorite market. I pass the old cathedral with its ancient figures carves out of stone. One last right and I reach the green doors of the Institute for American Universities.
The building the university is in dates back to the time of the Crusades. When prisoners would survive questions they would go to the Rue de Bon Pasteur, where the university is, to be nursed back to health by the nuns.
History is everywhere. During my walk I day dream what it would be like to take away the cars and street signs, the people in modern clothing and visualize what Aix was 100, 300, 400 years ago all the way back to the romans. I experience just a piece of this old life still vibrant alongside the new life I am living.
This daily routine is has caused me to feel as though I am living two separate lives, my American life and my French life. I have built a life in Aix through habitual actions, by going to my favorite places with close group of friends. But what about my life in America?
That is where my life really is. I have a supportive family, a loving boyfriend of two and a half years and true friends. I feel pangs of sadness when I think of them, that that are not a part of what I have here and in turn they will never fully understand this chapter of my life.
Yet there also exists responsibility for life at home in the roles I have. I am a citizen, a girlfriend, a daughter, a sister and an employee there. I have to finish a degree, save up for my future, get an internship and eventually find a job.
Therefore Aix is an ephemeral state of living, offering a reality no less fantastical than a dream state. Here I am just an American student. America is always a part of my identity. Aix is missing that sense of responsibility for my existence that is so pressing at home. So though it feels like I am building a life here, it is more like I am building a structure of normalcy.
Thus my heartstrings feel like an accordion being squeezed and stretched as I think about one and then the other. This experience is so large, so different from everything I have known and so eye opening that Aix can not merely blend in with the course of my life, which is why it feels like I live two different lives.
My hope is that by the end of this trip I will have found a way to neatly place Aix alongside the rest of my existence. Til then, though I cannot wait to see my parents at the terminal or go on a date with my boyfriend, I also cannot think of packing my suitcase and saying goodbye to my friends and Joelle, my host Mom. Ahh well, c'est la bittersweet existence of studying abroad.
"C'est pas français!" After hearing this phrase numerous times a week it becomes less frank criticism and more nagging antagonism.
There have been times in the past three weeks when wanting to learn gets intimidating and turns into wanting to return to what I already know. This is, I fear, when one settles for ignorance.
Since language is the heart of a culture it is critical that I speak French as much as possible. As such I have entered into a love hate relationship with the french language and my maternal language has been reduced to a guilty pleasure.
Let me begin by saying that I will never, ever again make fun of anyone for having a strong accent or not speaking English in America. Speaking another language fluently is unbelievably challenging, not to mention intimidating.
Learning another language is also exhausting. It requires a focused motivation and a will to be emerged at all times. I constantly rearrange my sentences to compensate for all the words I do not know. Sometimes by the end of the day full immersion feels like drowning.
And forget having any sense of pride. I know I am, at the very least, a competent person in english. On a good day I can even be funny or insightful. But speak in a language not my own and I sound like I just discovered fire. Pointing and grunting have indeed become regular expressions in my speech pattern.
English has become a daily indulgence. Pronouncing hard r's or not ending a word with a vowel sound feels as relieving as taking off a pair of high heels. I love our nonsensical double and triple diphthongs. I love that at least one person is going to chuckle at the word diphthong because english sets people up like that. I love that I can make up a new word in the name of slang and its totally okay. Perfundkle. That just happened, deal with it Microsoft Word!
But at the risk of sounding like I do not appreciate this opportunity, I still want to continue my passionate love affair with the French language. I find the pure vowel sounds beautiful. Some of the simplest words in French are so poetic, like "pomme de terre" which means potato but translates to "apple of the earth."
Meeting one of the Aixois and successfully having a conversation in French puts me on cloud nine. I have made friends with a woman who makes crepes and a kind man at the fruit market. Then there is my host. She is an incredibly kind woman who can not speak English and is extremely patient as I mangle her beautiful language.
But so far my favorite moment was when I was in a book store cafe with my friends and a French guy approached us and asked if he could talk to us. We spent four hours going back and forth exchanging idiomatic expressions in both English and French, playing a sort of game to discover each other's cultures. One I left with was, "C'est la goutte d'eau qui fait déborder la vase." It translates to the drop of water that made the vase overflow or the french equivalent of the straw that broke the camel's back. "À force d'explications ça finira par entrer" or, explain it for long enough and it will sink in.
So learning a new language is also fun. It is moments like these that break up the frustrating daily encounter when I speak French and the other person responds in English. It gives me hope that at the end of all this I will not just be a voyeur or pretender.
I know now my frustration comes from feeling like an outsider. Although I do not know if I will ever feel like an insider, I know the more I speak and struggle the easier the language will become. Donc, bien que j'ai les dents longues, à coeur vaillant rien d'impossible, or, even though I am ambitious, nothing is impossible for a willing heart.