I’ve been home for almost a week now and, as expected, I miss France. I miss a lot of things. France, and the French language, had a lot of weird quirks that took some getting used to. But once mastered (or at adjusted) the quirks became great fun. Anyways, for my final blog post I figured I would just give a quick recap why I would love to go back to France
What I miss the most is how relaxed the culture in Aix was. I found this to be much different in Paris (obviously) but I noticed that in France relaxing was important. Back in America it is often shunned, as if relaxing is equitable to wasting time and wasting time seems to be the ultimate sin. In Aix I would often start my day by leaving for class 30 minutes early and do “homework” at a café before my day officially started. What really ended up happening was I would drink coffee, people watch, and try to eavesdrop on French conversations for 30 minutes. Looking back on it this was often the highlight of my day. Now, back in the states, that last statement seems a little depressing. How could the highlight of my day be sitting and doing nothing? Why wasn’t I “seizing the day”, or some other stupid cliché to the same effect? But in hindsight sitting there and doing absolutely nothing was wonderfully relaxing and to be honest I plan to do more nothing here in Seattle.
One of the many people watching opportunities- street performers
Another thing I miss greatly about France is the food. I’ve become spoiled, nothing here tastes quite as good as it did in the wonderful Mediterranean climate. In Aix, everything I bought at the market was likely no more than a day from being picked, and I would assume, grown naturally. Back in Seattle, which is actually a really good place for food, I’m finding that everything (at least produce) is either flavorless from such long shipping times, or giant balls of sugar from selective breeding of fruits to quench the American thirst for sweets.
A pic-nic with some of the marvelous Provincial produce
Finally I miss the people. You tend to form really strong friendships when thrust into a new situation with new people and I found that to be quite true in France. I got to meet people from all over the U.S. with similar interests and curiosities that I never would’ve met had I not done this adventure. I’m sure I will be seeing some of them in the future, be it a planned meeting or our paths just happening to cross. In any case I will be looking forward to that day.
And some of the people I will miss the most
I hope that someone has read my blog and if you’re out there, thanks, I hope you’ve enjoyed it. I’ve enjoyed documenting my experiences and I plan on continuing my newfound travel blogging tradition whenever it is I’m able to travel again (soon I hope).
Before beginning this post I want to let you know that I won’t be recounting everything I experienced during my trip to Morocco. My role as a blogger for IAU is not to report on the status of the world and I will not be doing that here. However, I will share with you some of the highlights of my excursion to hopefully show you a bit of the culture of the beautiful people of North Africa.
I flew into Fes on the 28th of June and I stepped out of the plane into a blazingly dry 35-degree heat from the pounding late afternoon sun. I followed the crowd of people being herded into the “arrivée” section of the airport. I handed security my passport, got it stamped and continued on into the building where I was given a new sim card for my phone. Finding this very curious I asked why I was getting this and was given the ominous explanation of “if you are in an emergency or get your phone stolen we can track it”. I hesitantly thanked the young woman who gave it to me and continued on in. I soon met my ride to the hostel and 30 minutes later I was checking in at La bague de Kenza in the Medina in Fes. There, I was introduced to a man by the name of Fouad, who would soon become my most trusted and reliable contact as well as my best friend in Morocco. He welcomed me in, toured me around, showed me my room and explained that I was now part of his family, not just his guest. In my mind I thought “sure, whatever”, but this was the first time anyone had truly backed up this bold statement. For example, after unpacking a bit I decided to head back downstairs to ask Fouad what I should do for dinner, to which he responded that he would gladly make me a traditional Moroccan dish. I said hell yea and he was off to prepare a chicken and vegetable tanjine with a traditional Moroccan starter salad of chilled tomatoes and eggplant. While this was already above and beyond what I expected from the owner of my hostel, he then came back to talk while the food was cooking. I explained that I was a student currently studying in France. I mentioned that I was interested in learning languages, one of them being Arabic. When he heard this his face lit up. I was then given a good forty-five minute lecture on the Arabic alphabet and some basic phrases, afterwards, with my new found languages skills, I told him شكر (“shokran”- thank you). Following the lecture I was presented with my dinner that, while scalding hot, was absolutely delicious.
Not the greatest picture, but a view up out of the sunroof from inside the hostel
The terrace at La bague de Kenza
Some of the spectacular views from the terrace
My notes from the Arabic crash course
Before heading off to bed that night, I noticed a flier in the lobby of the hostel explaining a local tourist attraction, spending a night in the Sahara desert. While I normally avoid tourist attractions, as they tend to be over priced and over hyped, I couldn’t help but think this was an awesome opportunity. What cemented my decision was that I asked Fouad about the expedition and he gave me nothing but positive reviews. He explained that I would be staying with the local Berber people, who were originally the nomads of the Sahara and who developed a rich culture from the sand, the sun, the solidarity and the camels. He explained that he was a Berber himself and spends as much time as he can with his Berber family. He showed me pictures of these precious moments in his past, recounting fondly his past experiences with the life he seemed to miss so much. After hearing the longing in his voice, and seeing the photographs of him playing music, cooking traditional food and sleeping under an unimaginably clear sky, I was sold before I even heard the price (MISTAKE: don’t do that, check the price first).
So, on the morning of day 2, I got into a red four-door sedan that I would be spending the next 7 hours in on my way to one of the most remote places in the world. While long drives aren’t really my thing, I must say that I got a great view of the Moroccan country side, and I got to see things (such as the redwood forest, local monkeys, and an old river valley turned forest) that not many people get to see.
Lots of driving
The old river valley
I was grateful to arrive at Merzouga, a touristy town on the edge of the Sahara, where the next part of my journey would begin. I was introduced to my Berber guide who would take me on a 40 minute camel ride into the desert and to the camp where we would spend the night.
I had never ridden an animal before. I may have tried to ride my dog when I was little but it didn’t turn out quite as I had expected. But this was different. The camel lied down, I hoped onto its back, my guide slapped it on the butt and I rose quickly into the air, as if I were a backpack. The power of the camel was incredible and I could now, at least for a few seconds, understand why riding horses and other such animals was seen as enjoyable. This was, however, until I realized after about 10 minutes that it kinda hurts, and after about 30 minutes my groin wasn’t having it anymore. Aside from a bit of discomfort, I found the ride very enjoyable. I felt a little bit ridiculous as I’m a freckly kid from Seattle pretending like I know how to ride this beast. Something here (me) just seemed out of place. That said the ride was very peaceful. There were long stretches without conversation; the only noise was the occasional grunt from the camel or the shifting of the sand. I could truly understand why some people felt so connected with the desert; it is a place without outside interactions, and one that is profoundly beautiful.
My guide with my camel
The Sahara and our shadows
We reached camp a few hours before dark and I found myself the only non-Berber there. Experiencing a bit of culture shock I wished that my fellow western folk would arrive soon, and that they did. About 30 minutes later I greeted to camp five Francophiles, who consisted of three students from around Paris, an Italian, and an Algerian, all of who were very friendly. After a bit of an awkward beginning, we were offered tea (Berber whiskey; A mix of mint tea, green tea and sugar) and local almonds. We sat together, munched and slurped, and traded philosophies under the Moroccan sunset. At this moment I truly found some peace. I found that these people, all of whom were different nationalities than me, older than me, and had a different native tongue than me, were actually no different than me. They were from a more privileged part of the world, they knew it, but they didn’t try to hide behind it. Instead they decided to spend a night in the sand and grit, eating a meal cooked in a tent, all for the chance to “faire la connaisance” with a foreign culture. Immediately I realized that they were my kind of people.
My tent and the center piece of the camp, Mr. Camelskull
Taken from atop the highest sand dune I could find. There were multiple camps, ours was second from the right
Once the Berbers joined us, we spent the next five hours eating, talking, reflecting, philosophizing, playing music, joking, telling riddles and in general just enjoying ourselves. I found it interesting the languages being spoken. The main one was French, however one of the Berbers spoke much better Spanish and would often respond to questions in Spanish. To that the French and Algerians struggled to understand, however the Italian and I could understand him. I would respond to him in French and the Italian would respond in Italian and he understood each perfectly. We had a triangle of languages going on that I found fascinating, and as a student of international relations, my globalization bells were ringing.
Eventually the night wore on and our fatigue set in. We collapsed onto on our backs, gazing up to the pitch-black sky, marveling at the number of stars present before us. At one point, I counted three comets cutting across the night sky, all within a few seconds of each other.
The Berbers playing music
And me pretending like I do...
Soon sleep drifted over us and many in the camp began snoring. The insomniac that I am, I was still a ways away from drifting off and I remained awake. Late in the night, I noticed the wind picking up, it soon got to the point were I was forced away from the night sky and back into my tent. Not long after I began seeing bright flashes of light accompanied by very deep crashing, clacking and clapping sounds. In my naivety I thought, “wow, who brought all these fireworks out here?” But it soon became clear that it was lighting that I was seeing and I was about to get a good view of a Moroccan thunderstorm. Clouds soon blocked out the remaining stars and the wind intensified. The time between the flashes and the booms shortened as well, indicating that the storm was moving ever closer. At one point the flashes and bangs were almost simultaneous, meaning the storm was right above us. At this time we began to get rain and strong wind that brought with it the sand from the surrounding dunes. Even though I couldn’t see anything aside from flashes, I was in awe. At one point, there was about a lightning strike every 3 to 5 seconds with winds that threatened to bring our reinforced tents to the ground. All I could do was marvel at this moment in my life. Somehow I, some red-headed kid from the upper-left corner of the U.S., found himself in the middle of a powerful Saharan thunderstorm, sharing this bizarre experience with a bunch of Francophiles and Berbers whom I had met merely hours before. All I could do was laugh and enjoy the rain in the scorched sand that is the Sahara.
The next morning we awoke before dawn, scarfed down a breakfast of bread, olives, fruit spread and tea, and scrambled up the biggest sand dune to sit and watch the sunrise over the Saharan skyline. Again I found the peace that I had experienced while trekking through the desert the day before on top of that powerful animal. I was taken by the silence and serenity of the scene and no one spoke as no words needed to be said. This pause passed quickly and it was soon time to begin my journey back to civilization.
My breakfast with the Berbers, simply yet surprisingly good
Trying to watch the sunrise on a cloudy Saharan morning
Day 3 and Departure:
After getting back to Merzouga, much of my third day was spent in a car heading back to Fes. I was exhausted from the day before and felt myself slipping away into sleep during much of the car ride.
We arrived back to the friendly Fouad who asked all about the trip. He was delighted to hear that I enjoyed myself and demanded that he make me dinner again, to which I replied once more, hell yes. This time he accompanied me while I ate his spectacular beef and kafka tanjine. We sat in the living room, watching a French television station covering Egyptian and American news. We watched as the protests against Mohammed Morsi intensified and as Barrack Obama visited South Africa during the NSA wiretapping scandal. Fouad and I chatted politics and he said that he really appreciated America, to which I was greatly surprised. He said that he was grateful for our democracy and our freedoms, as they showed the world that this kind of life was possible. I reassured him that we do have a lot of problems, but he remained adamant that we were a good country with a great leader. I couldn’t help but admit that overall we Americans have it pretty good, and that he should try to make the trip someday if he could. Maybe up to that northwestern corner, the one that I call home. He replied with a wishful “someday” and an إن شاء الله (“inch Allah”- God willing)
My final meal in Fes- Beef and Kafka Tanjine with olives, bread and Berber Whiskey
I left for the airport the next morning, thankful to be heading back to a familiar country and to my old routine. I will always remember my trip to Morocco. There were things I wish I hadn’t seen, things I wish I had done and perhaps a few things I wish I hadn’t eaten, but all in all it was a very insightful trip. Through the journey I got a view into a culture I had never seen before, an appreciation for the true beauty of Northern Africa and a new found confidence in myself that only comes from pushing your own boundaries. My trip wasn’t all happy days and pie but all in all I’m glad to say that I went and I survived, and I encourage you to do the same.
I’m in an airport, except this time I’m not going to France, or even the US. I’m sitting in the Aix-Marseille international terminal (MP2) waiting to board my flight to Fez, Morocco. When I originally came to France I had decided that I wasn’t going to leave the country. It is expensive and I came to France to experience France, not to hope around. My thinking has obviously changed, however, as I realized that I could book a round trip with a stay at a nice hostel for 4 days at just less than 230 euro. That’s not cheap but compared to how much it would cost to Morocco from the US it is quite the bargain. It made enough sense (no pun intended) for me to do it, especially since I’ve wanted to see Africa for a long time. When I was growing up I was fascinated by Egypt and I was actually looking for flights to Alexandria as well (those were about 600 euros). Anyways, I obviously decided to money binge on the trip and I’m pretty damn excited.
As of right now I have nothing to report besides a tiny and overpriced airport, which there are plenty of in the US, so for this entry I will instead be talking about my excursions with IAU to Le Luberon and Marseille.
The excursion to the Luberon region took us to some of your typically tiny yet tremendously beautiful French towns. As you can see from the pictures there is no shortage of scenery and I would love to get lost wandering the back alleys and hiking trails that cover the region.
Our first stop was to a small village (whose name I forget) to buy food for lunch. The plan was to explore the local market and get picnic supplies for the second part of our excursion. As with the beautiful scenery, there was certainly no shortage of wonderful food either. In my half hour of meandering through the market, I found multiple vendors of fromage, some bakeries, multiple olive and tapenade sellers, as well as more fresh, locally picked fruit and vegetables than I had ever scene before. If you like to geek out about food, you have to check out these markets. Throughout my wandering, I managed to buy some tomatoes, apples, cheese, a salmon and broccoli quiche, some chicken liver pate, and a pistachio macaroon, this was all about fifteen euro which, for how much I bought, ain’t bad.
The village from afar, notice the gorgeous scenery
We left our visit to the market very hungry but with food in hand. Our bus took us to a castle from the Roman era. It was constructed during one of the massive Roman conquests on top of the biggest hill in the region and it thus had a spectacular view of the area, one that I’m sure was very strategic at the time. We inhaled our lunches, each trying what others had bought, and I found myself being more and more satisfied with each bite, there honestly wasn’t anything that I didn’t really like. If I were to change one thing about America, forget human rights, equality, health care or public safety, I would swap out every subway in the country and replace it with a miniature version of the Provence markets- that’s my dream of a better tomorrow.
Anyway, we finished off our day with a hike through some red canyons (again, beautiful) then made our way back to Aix, returning just in time for dinner, although I honestly wasn’t too hungry.
Here is the left side of the Castle, still going strong since the 13th century
From the Hike in the red canyons
A week later we got to experience a very cool cultural event, le Transhumance in Marseille. Transhumance is an annual occurrence in which local townspeople reenact an ancient tradition in which sheep and goat herders would lead their flocks up into the Swiss Mountains for the summer. They often came from North Africa, Spain, and southern France (fact check this before you quote me) where the climate in the summer time wasn’t terribly hospitable and often caused a shortage of food for their animals. Thus this annual migration was quite essential for the herders and they couldn’t have survived without it. Because of its importance, the tradition found its way into popular culture and is now celebrated annually.
By some stroke of luck, I got to see it this year. A few friends and I left for Marseille early Saturday morning. It was first exciting as none of us had ever been to Marseille, so we were in fact traveling to a foreign city speaking a second language all on our own. For some this may not seem like much of an accomplishment, but we all felt relatively adult at the time. We arrived in Marseille and eventually found our way to the port where the Transhumance was set to begin. While walking the streets I noticed a very familiar feel to the city. If there weren’t French signs everywhere I could have mistaken the city for a more ethnic part of San Francisco or Boston. They all have a similar port town feel, one that I guess jumps cultural borders and perhaps that’s why there is often such a strong bond between sailors. Or perhaps it’s because they are locked on a box surrounded by blue for months at a time but whatever; I’ll go with the port culture theory.
There is some definite port town vibe here
Anyway, we found ourselves at the port, staring at literally thousands of goats and sheep. It easily surpassed all the sheep and goats I had ever seen, though to be honest I hadn’t really seen that many. We stopped to admire the port, the sea and the animals but soon came to the conclusion that it smelled too much like a farm. We decided to go find a café for some coffee and to wait for the festival to begin. After about an hour of sipping coffee and talking it was finally time. We heard cowbells, stood up and looked into the street. There we saw the leader of the Transhumance, the Centaur. This is the lady who stands on top of three horses and commands the movement. I honestly don’t know if this actually happened, or was since adopted more as a tourist attraction than as an actual historical fact. In either case it was very impressive. She seemed in complete control of it all and moved gracefully with the animals as if they were truly one, truly like a centaur. After her we met the thousands of goats and sheep’s again, this time they looked panicked and were running for their lives. It dawned on me that this must suck for them; do they have any idea of what’s going on? Either way it was fun to watch. After somewhere between 15 and 30 minutes of watching terrified farm animals being chassed by border collies and Berbers it all seemed to be over. The only thing that remained was a lot of poop, again bringing back the air of the farm.
The Centaur lady in all her glory
The slightly less glorious but still awesome pack of sheep
It was certainly a spectacle. I enjoyed watching the Transhumance if only for one reason; this would never happen in the US. With it, I got to see the manifestation of another people’s culture and history play out in front of my eyes. The fact that they have continued to do this for thousands of years boggles my mind. In the US I’ve never lived in a house more than 50 years old. Ancient history (at least ancient white people history) of Seattle dates back the 1800’s, which would be the last 30 minutes in the 24 hour-day of the history of southern France. I have never been in a place so old and so steeped in tradition. Experiencing this difference in history has, to my surprise, been the most fascinating and nourishing experience of my trip so far. The food is great (read: wonderful), but I can get good food in the US but I can’t get a Roman castle; at least not an authentic one.
I’ve been in Aix for about 2 weeks now. It has been an interesting experience thus far and I can honestly say that I’m quite excited for my next 4 weeks here. I arrived two Saturdays ago after about 24 hours traveling that took me from New York to Iceland to Paris and finally to Aix. Arriving Paris was an experience. I had never been outside North America and I had never been forced to use a language other than English. This all changed when my plane touched down in France’s biggest city.
After an hour or so of wandering I found my train station. Problem was that I had no idea the procedure for boarding the train. Do I just hop on? Do I need to check in somewhere? I had a ticket but it was a print out and I thought I had to exchange it for a real ticket. With these questions piling up I eventually got over my nervousness of testing out a foreign language for the first time and found myself in front of a very stern looking Parisian woman. She was very slender with a hard, worn face that was honestly a bit intimidating. I immediately regretted my choice of help but that went away as soon as she said “Bonjour”. I posed my questions and she responded very kindly clearly, as if I was her lost American pet. I’m guessing I wasn’t the first to look bewildered in front of her. At this point, I had my first real French conversation. One where the other person wasn’t’ a teacher and didn’t speak French. I couldn’t pass off any Franglais here, but something amazing happened; she understood me.
I had a fatigue-induced revelation following our little exchange. It blew my mind that she made some noise, then I made some similar noises, then she responded with more noise for about 30 seconds, and finally I said “Merci beaucoup et bonne journée”. The conversation lasted for maybe a minute but in my sleep deprived state; I had a bit of a realization. It dawned on me that language is at its most basic element, just making weird sounds in different patterns. Not knowing the language is like being color blind (in that you are blind to that pattern), the color exists but your brain doesn’t have the ability to discern it. The only way you can “see” the language is to learn is to its pattern. Maybe this is a weird thought, but it seemed normal after 24 constant hours of travel.
I arrived in Aix without much problem, and soon after I was at my homestay’s house. My homestay family consists of Madame, who is a very sweet middle-aged lady, and her boyfriend (husband? Not really sure) seems to be quite nice as well, though he has a very thick accent so I find it hard to communicate with him. For the first week that I was here we were also home to two Russian students. They were with a different study abroad program and were only about 13 or 14 years old. “Les garçons” spoke a bit of English so we bonded over the weird stereotypes that we had of each other’s country. For example, they were quite surprised (and very disappointed) to learn that not everyone in California has long hair and skateboards. I also learned that Vodka really isn’t that big in Russia. It’s used like bread here in France, as an addition to a meal, but not the meal itself. I’m going to blame Hollywood for those misconceptions.
My host parents took the russians and I to the beach (in Sausset) the first day I was here. It is absolutely beautiful here.
The Russian kids. Who were actually addicted to soda, they had six each during our little excursion to the beach.
My classes have been wonderful. I’m taking Ethics of War and Peace, with a truly great professor. We are looking at what the ethical constraints of conflict are, and what they should be. We incorporate real world examples, such as the conflict in Syria and the NSA wiretapping scandal, and ask what we would do if we had control of the situation. It is a lot of work, with long readings every night, but I find myself so interested in the subject that the readings are somewhat enjoyable and they are often articles I would’ve read on my own.
My other class is advanced French which I’m enjoying greatly as it is being taught by two French woman who live in France. I like my French professors back home, but I find it a bit more interesting to learn French here because both my professors and I are constantly immersed in the subject. It seems like I’m learning a more current French, as if I’m learning French French, not American French. Also a tip to those learning French in America, please learn how to pronounce what your saying. I never really practiced that, mostly focusing on grammar, writing and vocab and less on the speaking aspect. Dumb. I now have such a poor accent that a lot of people here can’t understand me. It has gotten much, much better since I’ve been here, and I’ve even passed for a Frenchman on several occasions, but it would’ve been nice to start out with a high level of confidence in my speaking.
All in all it’s been a really good experience so far and I’m only barely a third of the way done. I’m going to end this post before I begin rambling on something else (I have much to ramble on) but I will post again soon regarding my experiences so far in le Luberon and Monaco.
But until then, Bonne Journée.
And some more pictures..
At night the city often projects different slogans onto the buildings. It's become a game to see who can find all of them and apparently there is one for each letter of the alphabet.
The Market in Aix is stunning. Anything and everything is for sale, and the food is absurdly good.
First off, how do I write a blog? I’ve never done this before, aside from class projects but those don’t count, so I don’t really know what to write about. The prompts? Am I excited? Yes. Nervous? Definitely, I have next to no traveling experience. I have never been outside of the country except for a weekend or two in Vancouver, B.C. And since I grew up in Seattle, this just felt like staying in a northern and more polite version of Seattle. But now I’m going to France. What am I doing? I took Spanish in high school, shouldn’t I be going to Mexico or something? I guess not. I speak some French. I started about a year ago (pretty much on a whim) by taking an intensive French class at my university (the University of San Francisco) and loved it. Now, just about a year later, I’m tutoring for that same level of French. That said I still sometimes wonder why I’m not in Spanish.
There is some growing nervousness. Some of the thoughts that dance around my head include many stupid things like what happens if I get stuck in Iceland (my 4 hour layover)? Do they speak Icelandic there, or did I just make that up? When I land in Paris, how do I find my train to Aix? Will I freeze up and forget all of my French?
But I try to put these thoughts out of my head, as worst-case scenarios are exactly that, worst-case scenarios. They never happen… right?
Anyways, someone much smarter than me once said, “apprehension and excitement are opposite sides of the same emotion”. This reigns true regarding my nervousness about France. While there is a bit of apprehension, I am also extremely excited. I look forward to seeing how the culture of Southern France differs from our own. What is their pace of life like? What do they value? What can I learn from them? And what teachings can I bring back with me?
As someone who takes great pleasure in food and cooking, I’m very interested in seeing the famed French cuisine. Especially when it is mixed with Mediterranean ingredients (some of the best in the world), as it will be in Aix.
I am also eager to improve my French as well. Doing so will help me understand the French culture better as well as help me converse with a totally foreign culture. As a non-fluent French speaker, I will definitely be outside of my comfort zone. Which brings me to what I am most excited about, my chance to grow as a person. I expect my boundaries to be pushed in Aix. In fact I’m hoping to shatter my comfort zone. Only then will I be able to walk outside of it, expanding my personal horizons to hopefully become a more understanding and culturally aware individual.
My home in three weeks, (thanks google images).