A beautiful dream

It's been some time since I arrived back in the states, and I've had a chance to reflect on my experience abroad in Aix.  Truthfully, I wish I had spent a full semester in Aix.  I cannot describe to those of you who have not had the opportunity to stay in Aix all of the beauty I witnessed and collected during my stay here.  For those of you who were there -- you know what I am talking about.

Studying art in Aix through the Marchutz program was one of the most amazing things I have done.  I came into the program having slim to none in terms of knowledge about painting and drawing.  The professors were very kind and understanding and made me feel that I had a lot of potential.  I met a diverse collection of amazing individuals who I really came to know and consider as great friends. I learned so much about the culture of Aix and France at large as well as the cultures of my peers and their ways of living and doing things.

I came home with photos and paintings, a few gifts, a greater understanding of the world, and new friends.  However, those six weeks feel like a beautiful dream - one that I wish I could lucidly return to at night.  I came home with a passion for trying new things.  I went out of my comfort zone and I have no desire to return. But life goes on and we all have responsibilities and returning to our real worlds and daily lives is a necessary evil when we throw ourselves into the exciting undiscovered for a time.  We always come away with a new aspect to ourselves.  I must remind myself to remember that I'll never lose what I learned, and I'll always have my memories and photos.

It sounds shallow, but I miss the food the most.

Well, maybe not just the food but also the things that came with that fantastic French food. Like the slower pace of life, the greater appreciation for quality, and the beautiful surroundings, more imbued with history and meaning than in America.

Now that I’m back in the U.S., specifically New York City, my life overall has once again become a whirlwind of deadlines, lease-signing, rushing and worrying. But, I brought back with me a more deeply-felt appreciation of the importance of quality relaxation. I stress “quality” because often for Americans, we relax by turning on the TV and mindlessly eating chips until we lull ourselves to sleep. For me, replace TV with a computer screen and chips with ice cream and you’ve got 75% of my down-time. My goal this year is to reduce that to 50%, because I know that entirely eliminating it won’t happen in a year. My hope is that it’ll be the same as making small goals towards eating better or exercising more: incorporate a bit into your routine, a little at a time and it begins to grow on itself. Enjoying my downtime by going for a walk or reading or spending quality time with friends and family gives me energy rather than zapping it, just like a trip to the gym (that’s still unlikely to be a place you’ll ever find me, but you never know). That dedication to push myself to a higher quality of life is the greatest gift living in France for short amount of time I did gave me.

Now, of course there are things I don’t miss about France. I don’t miss mothers and dog-owners giving me skeptical looks for praising the adorable-ness of their infant/puppy. I don’t miss the lack of ice in most water glasses. I don’t miss being somewhat nervous when speaking to a stranger, even after weeks of practicing the language. And of course, just when I was getting used to walking more slowly when going to the store or class, I returned to New York where I am now officially the slowest walker in the five boroughs. So far, it hasn’t bothered me, because I see it as a sign that the sweet atmosphere of French Provençal life still lingers in my heart, and always will.

Over the past week, I have been thinking about the difference between French and American friendships and families, due to a series of three incidents involving a terrace, a conversation at a fountain and the loss of a family member.

First, the terrace. My host family has a lovely one overlooking one of the open squares here in Aix, and I sometimes sit there before and after dinner to read, though for me “reading” sometimes translates to sitting with an open book in my hands, watching the world around me. What I’ve observed from (not) reading on the terrace is that Aix is a world of constantly opening and closing shutters and windows. I think it’s partly because people here are more likely to turn to natural solutions before buying a gadget like most Americans do right away, i.e. opening a window before turning on a fan or air conditioner in hot weather. Because of this, I’ve glimpsed the inner lives of some of Aix’s residents: how they look out the window while talking on the phone, how much they enjoy watching their city and even what kind of curtains they favor; it’s been an interesting look into a culture in which people are quite private even in public. I’ve come to find that most French people have the shutters closed in public, in accordance with what a professor said early in the program: French people won’t be as friendly to you as quickly as Americans will, but once they let you in, they’re a true friend.

On Friday night, I was out with my friends when I stumbled into a conversation with a French man near the fountain in front of the L’Hôtel de Ville. To sum up a very long and interesting conversation, he told me and my friends his point of view on the difference between French and American people: French people aren’t too overly concerned with work and productivity. They strive to enjoy life and savor the good things in it. That’s why they take two hour lunches and, according to this gentleman, that’s why he feels French friendships are more familial and eternal. Americans, in opposition, have a Protestant sense of work ethic and are overly concerned with efficiency, so we rush through our meals and our friendships aren’t always very genuine. He actually used the word “façade” to describe the way Americans act. And I can’t say I disagree with him.

On Saturday afternoon, sadly I found that a dear cousin of mine had passed away the night before. I’ve been lucky enough to be able to speak with my family since finding this out. In addition, many of my new friends here in Aix, both American and French, have been extremely sweet and comforting. I don’t claim to have any grand thesis statement summing up all of these observations this week. Frankly, I think it’ll take me a while to figure out how to feel about all of these things. But I do know that despite cultural differences and differences of expression, friendship is the same throughout the world.

It’s been hard to find time lately to write because of my busy schedule, long days, and underestimated workload, but I had a fabulous adventurous weekend that I had to get down in photos and on paper in hopes that my memory serves me better later on.

On Thursday night, la Fête de la Musique took place downtown.  There, music of all sorts was played live in all parts of the town.  I, along with the rest of the IAU and Marchutz students wandered around enjoying the experience.  Music types ranged from “screamo” to more traditional Scottish bagpipe players. Oh and there was some dancing on the side as well. So much fun!

On Friday, Marchutz took a trip to Arles to explore some Van Gogh sites.  We brought along some of his prints to compare his vision to reality. We examined standing up, sitting down, turned around putting our heads through our legs… you know- all the possible combinations of a multitude of perspectives.  I was told many times in my first week here that Marchutz becomes a family.  Everyone is so kind and open and I could feel the close-knit family feeling that I had been told about so much on this trip. It’s strange to think that bonds are formed even in such a short period of time.  It makes me wonder what it would be like to have done a full semester here.  I’ve learned so much already, and would be curious to see what I could accomplish.  Another clue into the power of this school in helping the artist further his or her own practice is how many people return for more.  Many of the students have been here before and decided to return.  Some have never left.
Also, since I’ve been spending so much time here with a paintbrush in hand, I think it’s only fitting to include that in my blog. Here’s where I’ve been the past few days trying to get my reproduction just right-
And here’s what I’ve come up with-
Poppy field outside Lourmarin
Me and my friends Mary and Vanessa at the Louvre
Me on the beach in St. Tropez

It’s been a while since my last post, but I have been very busy here.  Surprisingly, much of my daily activity has been school-related.  It is art school nonetheless, so it is enjoyable – most of the time.  I’ve had a tad bit of difficulty in discovering the amount of focus necessary for a four-hour landscape painting session (for example) within myself.  I suppose the six credits will be worth all of this though.

Oh yeah, and the experience of attending art school in the south of France.

Today, we did landscape painting.  We took a bus out to a beautiful area where each student found his or her preferred motif.  It’s been so hot and muggy out these past few days, and I haven’t been feeling well.  This was a huge test of my self-discipline, and I almost gave up many times.  I spent a long time staring at the beautiful scenery in front of me.  I wish I had brought my camera so I could show you just how amazing us artists have it here.  We just had “The Color Talk” the day prior, so I carefully mixed up my color palette and started to paint.  I walked away. I returned. I added a few strokes here, and a few strokes there. I looked at my painting in somewhat disgust.  What am I doing here? I can’t paint. I walked away again.  This process continued for over three hours, until finally I was content.  My professors, Alain and John, really enjoyed what I produced.  I’m happy that I stuck with it, even though I’m not as thrilled with my product as they were.  The students at Marchutz will be returning to this same spot tomorrow for more landscape painting demain. We’ll see if things go better this time! I’m excited to learn, and I feel improvements each time I return to my practice.

I haven’t talked much about my other experiences at the art school, but we have been moving fast and touching on many topics.  Last week, we ventured out of Aix to discuss architecture.  We visited a small beautiful, but simple, town, as well as a monastery.  It was a long day, and words cannot describe the beauty we witnessed on this day- so I’ve included some pictures.  We have another excursion this week.  It begins early in the morning, after a long night in Aix at the fête de la musique (ending at 2AM), but I’m determined to get as much out of this adventure as possible (this is the third of six weeks eeek!)

Anyways, until next time!


D'où j'assis & inspiration

On day one, I arrived in Aix at approximately 15:00 (3:00 PM) local time after about 14 hours of traveling. Fortunately, my host mother and housemate greeted me at the Marseilles airport! Immediately, I was bombarded with French phrases and questions.  It’s been a while since I’ve spoken or heard much French to say the least…

If I’m not experiencing culture shock now, I probably did just during that first dinner in Aix… We were first called for les aperitifs, which included bread, cheese, wine, and other delicious morsels. I’m pretty sure there were close five scrumptious courses laid out in front of us over the timeframe of two hours – each one less expected than the one it followed.  I was asked if my mother was a good cook, and I had to honestly respond with pas du tout (not at all) – this meal knocked hers out of the park (no offense mom, but you burn frozen pizza).

My housemate and I have discussed plans of renting bikes to explore further – something I’m very excited to do.  We then met up with other IAU students at the Aix center in order to get to know each other better. If anyone currently involved in the program reading this is interested, let me know! We'll make a great group adventure out of it.

I hail from a small town. I am what most people would call a polite driver, and often speak only when spoken to.  Many people interpret this as being shy, and at times, I can be.  However, I defend this characteristic as a humble respect for others’ attention to their own business and lives.  I do not believe that many people have the time or patience to listen to my small talk so I often avoid it. Upon arriving here however, I’ve found I do have things to say that people will find of interest.  I've learned a lot by sharing parts of myself with others, as well as by listening to what they have to share.  It is important not to impose one’s views, but also to be willing to discuss them and be open to others.  Reading them in a book or seeing them portrayed in a paper or television program will not do the intricacies justice – We all need a personal touch in our lives and you simply can never know what you will learn or what aspects of your life will be enhanced or changed by sharing and listening to one another’s stories.

My host mother has a 12-year-old granddaughter that is interested in a lot of similar things as I so I’ve learned a great deal from her.  For example, one night we watched X-Men in French.  They spoke très vite and it was very hard for me to understand, but she was very excited to share that interest with me.  It’s also amusing to hear her get excited about other French films and sing commercials – I mean, I’m an Integrated Marketing Communications major, how could I not take notice of that!

It's a small group at the Marchutz School of Art, but this allows us all the chance to get to know each other very well.  We did interviews and presented one another to the rest of the group. This summer I am very fortunate to be surrounded by amazing people.  These include two women studying to become art therapists, although there is much more to them than that.  One is a mother, and the other lives in California and loves to surf!  There is another woman who is a member of the Art Student’s League in New York.  We also have a few fine art majors, architects, philosophy enthusiasts, comedians, musicians, and more.  Another girl from China has been studying in New York for the past year.  She hasn’t been home since beginning her college career – essentially she’s studying abroad after studying abroad! She hasn’t perfected her English, yet is courageous enough to tackle the French language. C’est phenomenal.  I am so excited to work and explore alongside these people for the remainder of my six weeks here in Aix.

I hope you all are enjoying your own adventures!

Sitting next to someone with whom you can’t communicate is like walking past a closed boulangerie. You know it contains wonderful things, but they aren’t available to you. This may not be the strongest simile but it appropriately reflects how I feel about pastry as well as the language barrier. My host mother, Marina, is a completely lovely woman. She is sweet and thoughtful and patient with my lack of proficiency in French. My host sister, Claire, is also very sweet. I know that both are endlessly interesting people. Marina is originally from Colombia and I’ve been able to grasp that she loves to travel not only from her saying so but also from the diverse knick knacks and photos around her house.  I feel confident enough to point to a wall hanging and say: “C’est très interessante et belle. D’où est-il?” but I’m afraid I wouldn’t understand the answer. Claire dances and sings very well, but because I can’t say more than “Ah, tu aimes la danse moderne! Moi aussi,” our talks haven’t gotten very far. Likewise, there are so many things about myself that I want to tell them that I know I couldn’t spit out in French. Marina took me to an art show the day I arrived after I mentioned haltingly, “J’etudie les beaux-arts et l’histoire.” Some of the paintings were lovely, and I said that, but couldn’t explain what I liked about them.

But, having completed a few of my four-hour French classes (I have then Monday through Thursday) I feel a good deal more confident! Of course, the class environment is extremely different than reality. The person with whom you’re speaking knows what level you’re operating at; they want only to help you improve; and they have tons of experience teaching and speak clearly. In reality, your conversation partner may be in a hurry and speaking very quickly, may not like non-French speakers or may simply be a mumbler; there may be noisy garbage trucks in the background, the person may be upwind of you, you may have forgotten to clean the wax out of your ear that morning, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. The list could go on and on. I think that’s what dawned on me today: there’s always an excuse for not being able to do something. Ultimately, you either shake off whatever negative circumstances may surround you and just jump in, or you keep moping that something’s wrong and never improve. And as for what native French-speakers may think of my imperfect French, I’m reminded of a small book about living according to Stoic philosophy that my father gave me last year (thanks Papa!). It says that when it comes to criticism or insults directed at you, you must first decide whether the source of the critique is a source you trust and respect. If not, then don’t worry; their views hold no weight with you anyway. If they are someone you value, consider their point without self-pity or resentment. If they are correct, make the appropriate adjustments in yourself. If they are incorrect, again, move on. So, today I’ve resolved to attempt to speak French whenever possible while allowing myself to say “pardon, parlez-vous l’anglais?” if necessary. Generally, the native French speakers I’ve met have been very kind and understanding; they encouragingly say that I’ll improve.

In terms of body language, I am happy to say that in public, my years living in New York have taught me what our advisors are telling us applies in Aix: don’t make eye contact with strangers on the street, don’t draw too much attention to yourself (especially after dark), and keep your personal items close to your body. I’ve been trying to remain aware of all of these things while still stopping to enjoy the beauty of Aix, and even allow myself to get lost in its winding streets a few times. After all, it could lead to discovering new boulangeries!
My seatmates on my flight from Boston to Frankfurt were Jimmy From Alaska and Alma From St. Petersburg; he, with a dopey and stale joke for every comment, and she with a steely gaze and the occasional polite smile for one of his jokes. It only struck me after I got off the plane and began walking to my flight to Provence how appropriately they each represented the world I was leaving and the world I was entering. (See the photo for a sketch I did of Jimmy while he napped. He looked and sounded remarkably like Milton from Office Space. And he called me “little lady” about four times.)

Such was the strange and dream-like trip from Boston to Frankfurt.

Arriving in Frankfurt was actually quite a serene, pleasant experience. The flight attendant pointed out the booth where I could exchange my dollars for Euros; it opened at six AM and I arrived at quarter of, so I sat and looked out at the runway, enjoying the peace of a nearly-empty airport. After getting change, I got a light breakfast, and was delighted to find that my next gate was a two minute walk from the one at which I arrived. I sat facing the massive glass windows, drinking coffee, eating a fruit cup, reading Vogue and basking in the soft morning sunlight. I glanced behind me at one point and noticed that a very tired, almost catatonic, but friendly face was sitting a few rows behind me. Megan and I met in the IAU Facebook group and realized that we were on the same flight from Frankfurt to Marseille-Provence Airport, so I knew to keep an eye out for her. Perhaps it was the coffee, or the excitement of my upcoming trip, but jet lag didn’t set in at all that morning. The flight to Marseille was very pleasant and short, and Megan and I found our bags on the carousel pretty quickly. And then we were off on a bus to Aix. Et laissez les bons temps roulez…comme les Cajuns disent.


This is my first personal blog – here you can follow my summer adventure in Aix-en-Provence. I love to travel and meet new people and places and hopefully I’ll be doing a lot of that. I’ll write un peu de chaque (a little of everything). Hope you enjoy!

In less than 24 hours, I’ll be heading to the airport to embark on my adventure to France.  This is the first time that I will be in another country… alone… Words almost cannot describe how stoked I am for the experience.

I started to pack today. Packing always gets me frustrated- WHAT and HOW MUCH is a girl to pack!? I feel like I just packed and unpacked from my return home from being halfway done through my four years at college. But, I am beyond excited.  I’m already convinced that this experience will be that once-in-a-lifetime kind of deal. However, I’m also nervous! Will I remember how to say even just the basics in French? Will I meet nice people at Marchutz? Will I like my host family? There are so many things rushing through my head.  

I’ve been considering more about what I want to take away from this study abroad experience. Je ne voudrais pas perdre un occasion (I don’t want to miss any opportunities). I want to meet many new people from all different kinds of places.  I’ve always believed strongly in expanding through others.  Emerson wrote of the concept of a unicorn being a collection of ideas gathered from many different places.  We wouldn’t be able to imagine a unicorn without having seen the horn, wings, and body of another creature first.  I believe that we are only a collection of those that we’ve met, the stories they’ve told us, and the places we’ve explored.  It’s true, I’m a tad anxious, but I’ve promised myself that I won’t let that get in the way of taking full advantage of what will be the adventure of a lifetime.

Let the countdown commence!