Friday, March 6, 2009

Learning is COOL! And other life discoveries.

I apologize profusely for taking such a long hiatus from writing. It's been quite the busy few weeks for me. The more I am here, the more I want to be outside exploring and meeting people, especially now that spring has begun. However, I am back (by popular demand, duh) and will do my best to fill you in on my life as of late. So without further ado...

A few thursdays ago, Professor Hamouda -- my kooky Maghreb professor -- invited a handful of Tunisian, Algerian, and Moroccan students to the classroom for an open discussion on Islam and Arab identity. The students, who were all born in their respective countries but who have moved to France at some point in their lives, are currently studying at the university in Aix or Marseille and met Professor Hamouda at a protest against the bombings in Gaza, ironically. The class itself usually lasts for an hour and fifteen minutes, but my (new, holler) friends and I stayed drinking sweet mint tea and "debating" for almost three hours. As trite as it may sound, I have never before learned so much from someone my own age. The encounter made me remember why I love school more than I sometimes care to admit: you can ask, say, challenge anything in the name of academics. But wait, there's more! The idea that two completely different groups of people, from two completely different upbringings, who live in two completely different worlds can come together in one classroom and just talk, listen, and learn from each other kind of just rocks. Isn't that the whole reason we go to school, anyway? I mean granted, you need an education to get a job, to make a living, all that silly, non-important stuff. But what ever happened to the whole idea of learning just to learn? Somewhere along the line, at least from my experience, the word "education" has taken on a meaning that is no where near its original intention. Aaand tangent complete.

We talked about a variety of issues, but the main topic of conversation revolved around the stigmatization of the words "Muslim", "Islam", and "Arab" in modern Western society. The exchange with the students, all but one of which practice Islam rather fervently, highlighted a)my ignorance when it comes to other religions and/or ways of life, b)how easy it is to make misconceptions and generalizations about ways of thought with which we are unfamiliar, and c)the enormous disparity within Islam between those who are religious and those who are not.

I could go on about our debate for hours, but what struck me the most was the clear separation between Islam seen from insiders and Islam seen from outsiders. You might recall that a few posts ago, I talked about how convenient it is to make sorts of blanket statements about things that are foreign to us. Well, how about this for a blanket statement: "muslims are extremists". I am embarassed to admit that before taking this class, it probably would not have been unlikely for such a statement to come out of my mouth. Surely, the events of 9/11 only fostered similar ideas. But what was interesting was hearing that 9/11 was actually really hard for them, too, because of the labels and stigmas people started attaching to Islam.

On the other hand, it's not hard to see why people would do this, since Islam is so radically different from any other religion. Take the Koran, for example: contrary to the Bible or the Torah, the Koran gives clear orders to its people and against its infidels. In her witty banter the day after the debate, Professor Hamouda told us that she tried to read the Bible but gave up because there were far too many characters and histories. As well as being really funny, though, the admission is oh so telling of the fundamental differences between religions of the Occident and those of the Orient.

It's unfortunate, but the extreme fundamentalists truly do give Islam a bad name. A Tunisian student admitted to us that it's really hard for a moderately religious, practicing Muslim to receive a warm welcome not only in Western society but also in (his or) her own society. She explained that walking down the street in France with her veil, people look at her and mumble "what a poor girl", and she laughs because she doesn't FEEL like a poor girl. For her, the veil is not a limitation, because she is the one who chose to wear it (albeit because the Koran told her to). Now, it's the woman who asks to be veiled. It's the whole idea of "who are you to tell me I'm oppressed?" and actually feeling the opposite that I was expecting to hear the least that day.

If there is one generalization I'm sticking to, it's that the notion of "moderateness" (is that a word?) simply does not exist in the way it exists in Christianity or Judaism. The girl I just mentioned is one of many students who have adopted their religion very late in their lives. The students shared stories about how at some point in their adult lives (some before coming to France, some after) they decided to turn towards a more rigorous, purist form of Islam. Now while I think sometimes Professor Hamouda is guilty of bigotry in her vigorous opposition to the Koran, I do have to agree that there are some serious after-effects of the regression to an archaic, pure form of any religion. The veil, for example, has completely lost its symbolism as a tradition element; it has become empty of meaning, obsolete, reduced to being worn by old people in the rural, profound countryside. Instead, it is now a religious sign, an instrument of proselytism that fuels any xenophobia from outsiders looking in. I will admit, now, that I love Judaism for its culture aspect, and for the fact that I do not have to be religious to feel part of the Jewish community. After our debate, an Algerian student confided in me that he was amazed by that concept and really wished it was as prevalent in Islam.

So there you have it, the first of many posts to come about my life since February. Stay tuned for a recount of my trips to Nice, Florence, and Paris!


Thursday, February 12, 2009

I ate rabbit...And I liked it (Hope my vegetarians don't mind it)

Normally I wouldn't write this frequently, but luckily for you, the past few days have been full of note-worthy events.

First things first: I ate rabbit Wednesday night for dinner, and it was REALLY good. Like, "I can't believe it's not chicken!" good (puns! I love puns! 10 points if you understand this reference, Mollie Fox excluded). The Daniels refused to tell us what we were eating until the meal was over, which was both cute and kind of creepy. As it turns out, the morsel I took was
the bum (apparently the most delicious part). I felt really bad after I finished my plate and had a strange desire to track down the rabbit's family and apologize, but then I got over it. My only hope is that Matt Yashinsky does not read this blog.

Thursday morning after class (Contemporary French Press and Media), some friends and I went out for c
offee with our professor Monsieur Desorgues, an adorable old man from Avignon who is genuinely interested in what his students have to say. We sat down at a lovely little cafe in the sun (on the right, with the yellow awning) getting to know each other and discussing university life abroad. I realize I've said this about a million times, but I really do relish the cafe culture here; there is nothing more relaxing than enjoying a small cup of coffee while reading, writing, or just watching people pass by.

Professor Desorgues rarely misses the opportunity to slip in a word or twenty about how much he loves the french language, and I'm beginning to understand why. Most french people I've met so far (especially professors and adults, b
ut many students as well) boast about the beauty and rich history of the french language and rest adamant about the preservation of its formalities. Traditionally, the French have two words for "you" ("tu" and "vous"), and each is reserved is for specific occasions. The "tu" is informal and familiar and is thus used between family members and friends, while the "vous" is much more formal and polite and is to be employed when speaking with strangers, passerbys, and any figure of authority. During coffee, my professor lamented that usage of the "vous" is currently declining and stood firm that its extinction would be a terrible degradation to the French language.

Just as they are shamelessly proud of its conventionality, the French also seem contented with the simplicities and subtle
ties of their language. Even I find that most, if not all things are better said in French. Actually, I think I have an easier time expressing myself in French, especially when I write. In terms of fine nuances, English just kind of pales in comparison. Example one: there is one verb, "tutoyer" for the entire trend I described a paragraph earlier. In English, the most simple translation of this verb (while still being accurate) would be "to use the 'tu' form with someone in conversation". Buuuzz kill. Example two: the grape versus the raisin. In French, what we call a grape is "un raisin", and a raisin is "un raisin sec" (sec means dry). Someone remind me why we made up a completely different word for the same thing? Example three: clever colloquies. Consider the english expression "to be in a pickle" and its french equivalent "être dans le pétrin" (literally: to be in a tight spot). I don't get it. Cool imagery, but the last time I checked, I wasn't stuck inside a cucumber covered in vinegar. But come to think of it, yeah, I am in a pretty tight spot for waiting till the last minute to do my work. Je suis dans le pétrin. Done deal. Fourth and final example (I promise): the use of the reflexive. Alphonse drinks too much one night and tells you how drunk he is. You turn to him and say "I can tell". Or in French, "ca se voit", which directly translated is "that sees itself". It sounds weird, but makes just as much if not more sense because it places the emphasis on the action (Alphonse being wasteyface) rather than the subject (you noticing that Alphonse is wasteyface).

That same conversation also made me realize how un-PC certain french people are, especially older adults. At dinner, it's not rare for the Daniels to make sweeping statements about a certain political party, gender, or race (their personal favorite). They are admittedly old-fashioned and... how do I say this... kind of in awe of anyone who is not white or catholic. And despite his intellect, so seems Professor Desorgues, who continued to make the same mistake (like, 5 times) of calling my friend Tina Chinese when she is really Taiwanese, even after I corrected him. After Tina left, he commented on how k
een and enthusiastic she was and asked me, "ils sont tous comme ca?" ("are they all like that?").

I am genuinely surprised at the frequency of these sorts of fill-in-the blank statements (i.e. "Asians are good at math", "Jews have a lot of money", "Alberta Wright is dumb"), even though I know they are not meant to be malicious. And I thought I overgeneralized! This is of course not to say that the French are more narrow-minded than Americans (auuu contraiiire mon frere); it's more to suggest that France might be more attached to its history and less ready to adapt to the changing demographics of the modern era. You dig?

On a lighter note, the rest of thursday was pretty funny. On our way home from coffee, Talia and I encountered a theater tr
oupe all dressed up in costume and walking around the city promoting for a play. They happened to follow us all the way home, which provided for some great photo opportunities. Then, on our own street, we bumped into another professor. If I had to make one of those blanket statements based on the compilation of my interactions with this professor, it might be that "Arabs stand really close to you when they talk".

Later that day I happened to run into two other friends randomly on the street. First, a french friend whom I hadn't seen in a week, and that evening a friend from Newton (!) who is here on a different program. Aix is so funny like that. It's not tiny, but you still constantly run into people, kind of like earlier this morning when I literally bumped into yet another professor in the dairy aisle of the supermarket, which is helpful when you don't know whether to buy sweet, extra fine, or half-salted butter. Half-salted, in case you were wondering.

Thursday nights events are worthy of their own blog entry, so for your and my sake I'm going to stop here. Lots to talk about next time, so stay tuned!!


Tuesday, February 10, 2009

"F***ing Fromage!"

I'm currently writing this entry in my journal, at a lovely cafe off the Cours Mirabeau where I'm enjoying a cappuccino and good conversation with some friends. I find that it's much more pleasant to write outside and on paper than it is to type on a laptop. I feel especially content today for a number of reasons, but primarily because this happens to be the first time I have seen the light of day in 24 hours. You might be wondering why on earth I would ever do that, but believe me, it was not my choice. However, to attempt to make up for my lack of writing recently (and because suspense is kind of fun), I'm going to backtrack and describe the events leading up to yesterday's "situation" in a not-so-chronological fashion.

First things first - vocab:

~coureur du jupon = womanizer (literally, runner of the little skirt)
~je remuerais ciel et terre = i would move mountains (literally, i would stir the sky and earth)
~gonflé = cheeky/full of it (literally, inflated)
coquin(e) = naughty

A lot has happened this past few weeks, but for length purposes and to ensure that you do not fall asleep while reading this, I'll try to recap as much as possible.

At this point, I feel one hundred percent settled in here in southern France. I'm getting used to my classes, my schedule, my surroundings, and the general rhythm of everyday life. This habituation is sometimes not such a good thing, though: I have reluctantly come to accept for example the fact that for the next few months, I will have to live in peaceful coexistence with dogs and their fecal matter. There is so much poop on the ground that I simply can't risk looking up when I walk. I have thus concluded that either French dogs poop exponentially more than do American dogs, or their owners ignore said poop's existence. I'm inclined to believe the latter. A friend wisely affirmed that there are tons of trash cans and tons of plastic bags, but no one has yet made the connection.

I am however relishing certain aspects of life in France. Besides food and wine, I relish France's secularism. I never really took the time to realize exactly how much our country insists on religion in every day life. Take, for example, the pledge of allegiance that many of us had to recite every morning in elementary school. Of course at that age, I didn't take the time to think about what I was saying, but looking back at it now, I have to say I'm a little annoyed: nobody ever asked me if I agree that our nation is one under God! My french family explained to me that this "under God" morsel is comedic to most French people; they apparently laughed whenever Obama uttered "God bless you" during his inauguration. I honor personal beliefs and convictions, but I don't care to be subjected to any religious majority just as I wouldn't wish to subject others to mine. I think the French are just so much more tasteful in what they deem private versus public. They have realized that religion is better left in the private sphere. Think about how many conflicts (forget wars) arise as a result of religious disparities. For fear of starting to sound like a broken record, I rest my case there.

In other non-personal credence related news, France STILL rocks. I'm perpetually on a natural high of genuine contentment with a place that suits me so perfectly. Nothing makes me happier than simply being with friends and learning new things about the people and the culture here in Aix. Two weekends ago, we all gathered at Bellegarde for a musical soirée during which the talented few played guitar or sang, and the rest of us sat around drinking wine, talking, and taking in the music. I forgot how nice it is sometimes to just close your eyes and LISTEN. I remember looking around and not seeing a single person without a smile on his or her face. By the end of the night, everyone's arms were around each other singing anything from Disney classics to Celine Dion to Bill Withers. Simply put, France gives off great vibes.

A week or so ago, the group went over to Mme. Daniels home for a wine tasting class with Guillaume, James Bond's twin brother. It is safe to say that everyone at the table was locked in a wine stupor before you could say "coq au vin". As we ate, Guillaume introduced difference wines and explained which foods go well with which wines, and why. Generally speaking (from what I gathered), white wine pairs well with white meat, while red wine works best with red meat. Also, something about tannins and acid. Sorry, you'll figure it out.

After the wine tasting, a group of us went to a bar/club/who knows called O'Neills. It was the first time since my arrival in Aix that I went out dancing, and I forgot how amazing it feels. Biggest truism of my life right there. It was also a first for me to go out on a Tuesday night (9A: this is beyond plaque-worthy) regardless of the fact that I had class the next morning at 8:30. Oops. Nonetheless, we grooved (haha, I just said "grooved") to music like any white Jewish girl would before parting ways and heading home.

The following week can be defined by the word "oops". Indeed, I refer to the current stage of my life as "the period of the oops", as the past few weeks in Aix have been full of discoveries, the majority of which are inadvertent and rather unfortunate. Kind of like, "oops, I bought toilet paper instead of paper towels", or "oops, I just got sideswiped by a car", or my personal favorite: "oops, I bought the wrong thing at the supermarket and did an entire load of laundry with fabric softener doubling as detergent." Pro: my clothes smell yummy. Prevailing con: they aren't actually clean. It's funny, until you realize that it's not.

This past weekend, Talia and I flew to London and spent a few days there with our friend Morgan from Barnard who is currently studying economics at UCL. To state the obvious, London was wonderful. Morgan was an incredible host, and I let my inner tourist out. We visited several landmarks, including the Big Ben and Platform 9 3/4 (if you don't know what this is, shame on you). Obligatory touristy pictures were taken of red telephone booths and double decker buses. Saturday was perhaps the most quintessentially British day ever: "high tea" at Harrod's. During this time (around 3:30pm), mothers in cardigans and children in button down shirts and sweater vests gather at a table to sip on tea and eat perfectly cut sandwiches -- sans crust, obviously -- scones, and pastry's (see picture). I am convinced that whoever invented the word "proper" did so solely to be able to describe this phenomenon.

It felt weird to be an English-speaking country with skyscrapers and fixed shower heads, and I take that as a sign of successful immersion in France. I definitely missed Aix more than I thought I would, but I must admit was in heaven when I took my first sip of starbucks and had my first bite of pad Thai for the first time in weeks. And don't even get me started on McDonald's. Such delicacies do not exist in France. For the better, definitely. A weekend fix of typically American food was all I needed, and by the end of my trip I found myself longing for a croissant and a croque monsieur. I realized on the plane ride home how happy I am to able to call Aix my home.

Which brings me full circle to yesterday's events. Upon arriving home from a long day of traveling, Talia and I were starving and made ourselves a lovely dish of pasta with cheese and butter and a side of green beans. It was a delicious five-star meal, topped off with a bowl of cereal for dessert. Before bed, I read a few articles and completed some sudoku puzzles (level: fiendish, bitches).

The next day, I woke up with a very odd feeling in my stomach. Regardless, I gathered up the strength and went to class. It became clear after a few minutes that it was only a matter of time before -- well, you know. Miraculously, I made it through class, and told the professor of my next class that I didn't feel well and was going home. It was a race against my body to see if I could get home before serious damage was done.

I won that battle, but I definitely lost the war. I will spare you all the details, but suffice it to say I was very, VERY sick. Within minutes of opening the door and installing myself in the bathroom, I hear the door open and see Talia make a beeline for her bed. With a single glance and without exchanging a single word, it was mutually understood that we had fallen prey to a little virus called food poisoning. And so it happened that I had my first "I want mommy" moment, the two of us spending the entire day in a state of catatonic helplessness traveling back and forth between the bathroom and the bedroom. For those of you who watch Sex and the City, picture the scene where Charlotte and Harry spend the night on the bathroom floor after eating rotten cheese at a fancy restaurant. Only I'm Harry, and Talia is Charlotte. Again, one of those oops' that's funny, until you realize that it's actually not.

With this beautiful story and insightful analogy, I leave you. There are, after all, dishes to be dried with toilet paper and laundry to be softened but not washed.

Bisous a tous!

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Culture disparities and the Art of Shmoozing

I've decided that from now on, I'm going to start my posts with one or two slang words/phrases of the week so you can get a bit of a sense of the kinds of vocabulary I've been learning and attempting to put into play. This week's words:

un moko OU un mickey = a booger
bourré = drunk (literally, stuffed/packed)

So I'm going to assume that those of you reading this know me well enough to know that I'm a very curious person and enjoy getting to know people through intimate conversation. I'll have you all know that in France, which is typically unreserved and even in-your-face about certain topics (think sex, drugs, and rock & roll), I'm actually apparently kind of an asshole because I ask too many questions. Why, you ask? Well, as it turns out, what's taboo here is very dif
ferent from what is considered taboo back in the States. The more time I spend here, the more I see the distinction between the private life and the public life, and I realize that personal matters are simply not discussed until you already know someone on an intimate level. I've so far been called "direct", "indiscreet", and even "intrusive", which makes me laugh pretty hard because I think that's the last thing someone would call me back in New York or Boston. When I mentioned this cultural difference to one of my professors, she reminded me that it's just a matter of the chronology of the topics and themes that one can address and prompted me to think about whether or not relationships have this sort of unwritten formality in the States. What do you think?

Aix is so picturesque (the photo doesn't even do it justice), and I have figured out why. I attribute it to the notion of size and space. Props to the French for not going around supersizing everything and realizing that bigger is actually not at all better. Houses cars, coffee shops, restaurants, streets, even small-scale things like plates, beds, and lamps -- it's all downsized. Just goes to show that the simplest things in life can beautiful without being flashy or immense in proportion.

Four days a week, the program arranges for me to eat dinner with a french family who I've come to love very much. The Daniels are sweet, charming, and inadvertently HILARIOUS. They are an adorable married couple in their late 50s/early 60s with a hyperactive little dog nicknamed VHF, which stands for "Very High Frequency" (comic genius). This is not a joke; the dog is perpetually on crack.

A professor commented the other day that discussion is a national sport in France, and I find that this is most prevalent at the dinner table, where common topics of conversation range from the portrayal of homosexuality in television to partying, alcohol, and marijuana (specifically how to "be careful when buying hashish because sometimes they put in other herbs to make it smell better so they can charge you more" -- direct quote from Monsieur Daniel). Generally speaking, politics and religion are to be avoided, and the muddling up of the two is simply unheard of. And as a sidenote/to articulate my personal sen
timent: the whole "In God we Trust", "church ≠ state but that's not actually true" thing we've got going on in the States is even more baffling and illogical to the French than it is to me.

Dinner table Dos include putting one's palms on the table so everyone knows where your hands are, sitting up straight, and reluctantly accepting another glass of wine. Don'ts include eating before everyone is served, putting cheese on your apple (apparently it's really rude), and turning down another glass of wine. Meals so far have been...pretty hit or miss. Hits include quiche, potato au gratin with a slice of bacon on top, croque monsieur (think ham and cheese sandwich, but classier), and cheese ravioli. Misses include hot dogs with the meat of a sheep and fish stew. Desserts are almost always hits (think chocolate mousse and Camembert), with a few exceptions (think creamed leaf -- as in the leaf of a tree).

Another thing I've picked up on is the difference in rhythms of daily life. Even in cosmopolitan Aix, life moves at a leisurely pace. People sit for hours outside at cafés, smoking, drinking wine, reading, writing, talking, or just watching people walk by. Meals are longer and more ceremonial, yet relaxed and undisturbed. People walk fast and with purpose, but when they arrive at their destination, they sit back and enjoy the moment for however long they wish. I find that this way of living is so vastly different from the States, not just in big cities like New York but also in suburban or rural areas like Newton. Take the following expression which is often uttered by a certain Rome-bound suitemate at Barnard: "let's shmooze". Arguably, by this a (college-aged) American would mean "let's lounge around and chat for a bit but then I've got to run and do X Y and Z". A French student, au contraire, would by this probably mean "let's lounge around and chat at my house for a bit, then go to someone else's house to lounge around and chat for a bit". The tranquility and ability to live in the moment is one part of Provincial culture that I am adapting to with ease and pleasure.

Now that I'm fully settled in here, I've been taking the time to read the blogs of my friends who are elsewhere: England, Greece, India, Italy. Comparing my experiences with theirs has been so interesting and has made me more aware of Aix and its aforementioned particularities. India is a world away, radically different from anything I have ever known. In Greece, history is everywhere, and in a (seemingly) much more unconcealed and omnipresent way than in France. Even Italy and Paris, which are both just a short train ride away, have their own cultural and societal norms, values, and overall conditions and ways of life. I apologize for the cliché, but it is truly remarkable.

In terms of my daily day-to-day life he
re, not much has changed. I get along fabulously with my roommate Talia. We're very compatible in the ways we view friendships and our opinions on the importance of laughter. Tribal dances for good luck and spontaneous outbursts of Disney music occur frequently, here at 3 rue Mejanes in Aix-en-Provence, France.

The other night all of us gathered
at Bellegarde to celebrate Matt and Marquise's 21st birthdays and say goodbye to a friend who had to leave the program. Every person/group was responsible for bringing both a plate and a bottle of something. Needless to say, it was awesome and my stomach thanked me.

Next weekend, a trip to London. Tomorrow, grocery shopping and class at 4:30. Sweeeet!

Gros Bisous,

Saturday, January 17, 2009

France these days...

...continues to make me smile. Although marked by the start of classes and subsequently early wake up calls, the past few days have once again left me in a blissful state of mind. And while I'm certainly struggling when it comes to sounding French, I am somewhat better at looking French, which is actually really easy, because all you have to do is wear gray or black and act cool, of course without trying to act cool. Ok, so actually, it's pretty hard, because you can imagine how trying to act cool actually makes you look like a complete loser. Dad, I'm sure you can understand where I'm coming from.

Culture shock is actually not a myth, believe it or not. I find myself having to adjust to certain cultural differences every day (however banal they might be), regardless of the fact that France is a Westernized country. For example, as many of you might know, many showers here do not come equipped with shower heads, meaning that you have to actually hold the thing over your head. It makes showering a laborious process instead of a relaxing experience. My shower happens to be one of these showers. Which is dangerous, because (insert joke about how I never shower as it is here).

Aside from that, I really am getting used to life here. The language barrier is more prevalent then I thought it would be, though: I make lots of little mistakes every day, and sometimes not so little ones, kind of like last night when I inadvertently used a Marseillaise expression to call someone a penis instead of an old geezer. Oops.

I have however learned many slang words and expressions and put them to great use. The other day I successfully delivered my very first joke! I was so proud. I've also discovered the slogan of my life: "qui aime bien chatie bien" (rough translation: I tease you because I love you). The expression has given way to many other great variations, including "qui aime bien donne bien les frites" (if you love me, you'll give me some fries).

Classes started on Wednesday. My schedule is terrible and will make it a little harder for me to travel on the weekends, but I won't let it stop me! Here are the names of my classes: Texts and Contexts after the Revolution, Literature and film of the Mahgreb, Contemporary French Press, History of Provence, and Conversation. I've only had each class once, so it's hard to gage what they will be like. So far, though, I get the impression that I'll be working harder than I thought. Certain professors speak pretty fast and assume that we have a preexisting knowledge of historical and cultural events, which is frustrating. Others are kind of crazy, which is funny for the first 5 minutes and terrifying for the last 70.

Yesterday for lunch I went with some friends to the cafeteria of the local university. You pay only 2,80E (about $3.75) for a full plate, a side, and a dessert. The quality of the food is nothing to write home about, but nothing to complain about either. Tons of students go to eat there to save money and talk with friends in between classes.

At night we started off at Bellegarde, which was quite the scene. After a few glasses of wine we headed out to O'Shannons, a bar near my street where Talia and I ran into our downstairs neighbors, a pair of Israeli boys who speak mostly Hebrew and English and who are here working at the airport in Marseille. The bars here close at 2am because people go to clubs afterwards, so we left and headed to a friend's apartment to hang out a bit more. We came home around 6am, just as the merchants were setting up for the markets. For one reason or another, it made me feel really calm and oddly content to see that people are waking up when I am going to sleep.

Tonight Talia and I are going out to dinner with our friend Bastien to a sushi restaurant. I'm curious to see what sushi will taste like here...


Sunday, January 11, 2009

Settling In

The past few days have been absolute bliss. I'm getting more and more used to my surroundings; Talia and I were able to get home today without any directions! It felt pretty awesome.

Last night was amazing. We went out to dinner again as a group to a crê
perie in the center of town and I played it safe with jambon (ham), emmental (swiss cheese), and oeuf (egg). One of the many great things i've learned here is that even "fast food" tastes like it's gourmet -- today Talia and I got a slice of pizza on the street, nothing special, and I think i would dare to say it was the best pizza I had ever tasted, even after Italy. How is that even possible?

After dinner, we went to l'auberge Bellegarde again, drank wine, and talked about French vulgarity and American demographics. Renaut and Reda gave me a crash course on French slang and promised there would be more to come. I've started writing down useful words and phrases I learn in a journal (thank you Mollie and Elinor!) so that I can remember to incorporate them into my daily conversation and sound cool. For example, I learned that "j'ai un faible pour" (which literally means "I have a weakness for") is a cute, subtle way to say you have a crush on someone. Definitely practical for me, as it may or may not describe the way I feel about every French man that crosses my path...

I've also started writing down names of particular wines: my favorite so far is called Sauternes, and it's a very sweet white. My friend Alexandre promised to take me wine shopping one of these days and teach me how to choose which wines for which occasions. The first thing I learned was to look for the mark "appellation control
ée", which basically means that the wine was made directly from the vineyards and thus is usually high quality.

Around 11:30 we decided to go out, and as a big group we had to settle for "Le Castel", une boite (a bar/club) that was pretty empty but nonetheless a good place to start off. I had no idea everything would be so expensive, though: one drink cost me 7 euros (about 10 dollars)! In a way, though, it's good because it forces me to be more economical and really think about what will give me the most bang for my buck. In some series of unmemorable events, I ended up with a "vodka caramel", which as it turns out is really just straight up vodka with caramel syrup. No complaining there (sorry mom). After that Much struck a deal with the bartender and scored us 15 mysteriously colorful shots for 12 euro (so about 3 shots for 3,5 dollars each -- again, not complaining. And again, sorry mom). The funniest part about the night, though, was seeing a five year old boy (yes, you read that correctly) breaking it down with his mother and a group of girlfriends on the dance floor. Keep in mind that it's around 1am at this point. I thought to myself that only in France is this absolutely adorable and not borderline child abuse.

Le Castel was getting kind of boring, so we headed to another area to find another bar. As a big group, it was really difficult finding somewhere that could easily fit all of us, so we split up and Talia, Danny, Kevin, Much, and I headed to O'Shannons where it was, for lack of a better word, hoppin'. O'Shannons closed early and the five of us headed back to our appartment on Rue Mejanes, which unbeknownst to us was just around the corner (that seems to happen very frequently in Aix). One of Much's friends, Bastien, joined us there and the six of us got into a long discussion on politics and religion. They explained to us that in France, these issues are quite complicated and as a result usually considered personal matters that are neither intertwined nor readily discussed. Contrary to (my) popular belief, I've found Much and Bastien, who I would say represent the young "intellectuals" of France, to be very soft spoken and unpretentious, and I really like that about them.

Our guests finally left around 5am, and I went to bed shortly thereafter. The next day (Sunday) Talia and I slept in, woke up, and took a nice stroll around town. I felt a bit tired, so I went into a shop and ordered what I thought was coffee. As it turns out, when you order a "cafe" in France, what you're really asking for is ESPRESSO. Yikes. I drank it anyway and actually enjoyed it. Afterwards I did some damage and went shopping. I HAD to, the sales only last for 5 weeks! (Kate: GREAT SUCCESS!)

On our way back home Talia and I stopped at Monoprix (a Target equivalent) and bought some groceries. Tonight we're going to play it simple with pasta, since living the high life comes at a very high price. Tonight, who knows, but it's Sunday so not a lot is open. The French take leisure very seriously: on Sundays only the major stores are open, and a few smaller ones that are currently boasting sales. I'm not sure about bars and clubs, but I think it goes the same, and anyway students have classes during the week so I wouldn't think to see a lot of people out partying.

Tomorrow we have orientation, so we'll be picking classes and learning more about the program. I am so happy about the way everything has been going and I'm hoping that soon I'll start feeling like a French student who knows her way like the back of her hand. For now, though, I couldn't ask for any more!


P.S. Pictures soon

Friday, January 9, 2009

Travels and Day One

Today was my first day in Aix-en-Provence, and I'm already in love with it. I flew from JFK, to London, to Marseille, where I luckily bumped into Matt, a junior from Vanderbilt who I happened to overhear talking about the program. The two of us took a bus from Marseille to Aix, which was about 30 minutes. After arriving in Aix we shared a cab to 15 rue Cardinale (the "centre") and met other students and our "tuteurs", who were nice enough to accompany us to our apartments and give a hand with luggage.

I had spoken to Marie, my french roommate, a few days ago, and she had warned me about our apartment having a lot of stairs. To say that our apartment has a lot of stairs is perhaps the biggest understatement of the year: there must be at least 100 steps that lead up to our apartment, which is on the very top floor. Let's just say if I don't have buns of steel by the time I return to the states, something is seriously wrong. I absolutely cannot complain, though, because once I settled in and looked around, I realized how lucky I was. As it turns out, my apartment is right smack dab in the middle of the city, on an adorable little street called Rue Mejanes. Shops are on either side, as well as some cute little sandwich shops. Did I mention that for the next five weeks, there are intense sales? Oh la...

I've already met some wonderful people here. Vanderbilt pairs us up with French students as tutors (there are three of them: Mia, Jerome, and Jean Michel), and through the tutors I've met a ton of French people already. Tonight we all met up for dinner with the rest of the Vanderbilt students, and afterwards some of us started meandering around the city before deciding what to do next.

This would probably be the best time to say how absolutely breathtaking I find Aix. Before coming here, I imagined it as a quaint little town with some students here and there, but it really is a vibrant, chic, student-filled city that could easily double as "Little Paris". The streets are extremely narrow, and cars will run you over if you don't see them coming (french drivers -- especially taxis -- don't exactly preoccupy themselves with the safety of others). Everywhere you turn there are shops and places to eat; you really can't take a bad step. Most of these little side streets lead to the main drag of Aix, which is called Le Cours Mirabeau. At night, when the lights are up, you can't help but to feel like you are in a movie. The majestic feel of everything makes me smile constantly: Jean Michel even remarked at dinner "
Vous les américains, vous souriez beaucoup, non?" I still can't decide if this is more telling of French people than it is of Americans, or vice versa...

After dinner, some of us went to l'Auberge Bellegarde, which is a beautiful big house in which some students are lucky enough to live. There, I met friends of friends, and we all sat around drinking wine and talking into the late hours of the night. Talia and I were exhausted, so our friends Reda, Letizia, and Marquise accompanied us back to the Cours Mirabeau, from which we were able to find our way home. I'm now sitting in bed next to Talia, who is also on her computer, wiped out from an incredible first day. I feel like I can already call this place home, and I haven't even been here for 24 hours. Tomorrow we're going grocery and cell phone shopping. I've never been so excited about something so banal!

A demain alors, bisous!
xx Danielle