Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Je parle americain

For those of you who may be wondering, I didn't get kidnapped in Ireland or abducted by aliens. After spending two days in London, I flew back to the States, where I've been living a strangely surreal and eerily normal life for the past few weeks. I never really felt the reverse culture shock. I simply landed in Detroit one evening, got in my mom's car, and ate Chinese takeout for dinner. My one week at home was typical. I went swimming in Lakes Michigan and Superior, read a book, relaxed. As soon as I got back to the States, it's as if I forgot I had left. I forgot that I hadn't seen my family in months, because nothing had changed at home.

I couldn't sleep last night because I kept thinking about Aix, and I worry that the images of my home of five months are already blurring at the edges. I try to picture my daily walk to IEP, through the fruit market, past the Mairie, and it looks like the life of someone else. Did I really stroll down the Cours Mirabeau every Friday night? Did I really take eight classes in French? How did I ever comprehend my Professors, let alone take oral exams? (which I passed, by the way. phew.) Was that really me? Was that really my life? While in France, the time seemed to stretch forever, and Aix became so much a part of my real life that it didn't feel like anything extraordinary. It was life. But real life here, in America, is so different that France doesn't seem real. It doesn't seem like a memory, but a wonderful dream. That sounds cliche, but there's no other way to describe it. You try to hold on to a good dream but it always slips away. That's how it is with Aix.

Actually, the reason I couldn't sleep last night was because my air conditioning broke AGAIN. And since I'm in Washington DC for the summer (oh yeah, forgot to mention that), broken air conditioning means many sleepless nights, zero energy, and endless frustration with the world. Only a week after I got back from France, I flew out to DC for a summer internship, where I'll be until the beginning of August. My building has had crazy problems such as no AC and the fire alarm randomly going off at three in the morning, three nights in a week. I've lived through the hottest June in DC history, with something like more than 16 days in a row with above 90 degree temperatures. In the two and a half weeks I've been here, I've reconnected with friends from last summer, gone to a baseball game in Baltimore, FINALLY gotten carded at a bar, and eaten yogurt and granola to my heart's content.

Despite my subpar living conditions right now, I feel at home and happy here. DC is a great place to be for a young geek like me (yes, I'm officaly a geek. I'm lobbying for software companies. Doesn't get more geeky than that.) I'm living in the center of American politics, where I can't go for a run without passing a historical monument or American icon, where tourists from across the country mingle in the Metro with government workers, interns, and all manner of over-ambitious, workaholic types. The DC culture couldn't be more different from Aix, but it couldn't be more American. And that's why I'm here this summer.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Galway Girls

In my previous travels throughout Europe this year, I’ve often been disappointed by how much industrialization, tourism, and American culture have diluted the cultures of places I’ve visited. Ireland, however, has not let me down. It’s everything I would have imagined, and more. The Emerald Isle really is emerald, thanks to all the rainfall and agriculture. The people are welcoming and the Guinness is good. Ireland may be my favorite European country that I’ve visited.

My friend Katie and I stayed the first weekend in Galway, on Ireland’s beautiful west coast. It’s the Republic of Ireland’s third largest city, but it feels like a small, lazy town on the sea. Our hostel was right in the middle of Quay Street, a touristy but fun street packed with traditional pubs and locals and tourists alike. Every night we were there we walked out the hostel door and wandered through the sights and sounds of the busy street. We hopped from pub to pub, sipping Guinness and listening to a mix of traditional Irish bands and more “modern” cover bands, all of them good. In a city with live music every night in every pub, I was in heaven.

I will devote a small paragraph to Guinness, because I’ve discovered it’s always a lovely day for a Guinness. I’m normally not a beer fan, but the fact that the foam on the top looks and tastes as good as ice cream, and you have to drink it reall sloww, and that it’s basically a meal, makes me give a thumbs up to the Irish brew. Our first night in one of the pubs we got a long tutorial from a drunken Irish man at his stag party on how to find the best Guinness. Because apparently not every Guinness tastes the same. According to Paul, it’s best at a small pub in the middle of the countryside, which may or may not have something to do with how often they clean the tap. But if the Guinness is good, the pub will be full, and a full pub means good Guinness.

While in Galway, we made the acquaintances of a number of very friendly Irish men, of all ages. I got invited to have a pint with an elderly gentleman in the middle of the street, but politely declined. Compared to the French guys I’ve been used to, Irish men are much friendlier, and much bigger. I couldn’t stop marveling to Katie at how muscular they are, and I still can’t get over it. It’s nice to see some real men for once. (French guys are still beautiful, but it’s nice to see guys who aren’t skinnier than me. I no longer feel like a whale.)

I especially loved the nightlife in Galway, but believe it or not, we did do some fun things during the daytime. Our first day we took a walk down the “Prom,” a long path along the seashore. The weather was grey and drizzly, but since it’s Ireland we figured this was normal, and the haze over Galway Bay just seemed to make it more mystical and “Irish.” We also took some bus tours in the Galway area. The first one we went to the Cliffs of Moher, a natural beauty that was nominated to be one of the world’s next 7 wonders. Along the way, we stopped at a number of picturesque villages, old castles, and scenic outlooks, the whole time guided by a cheeky old Irish man named Desmond. Now Desmond clearly loved the young ladies and made some entertaining comments about the aphrodisiacal (is that even a word?) powers of Galway oysters, and kept us entertained with his stories.

The second day we took another bus tour north of Galway to the Connemara region. Although at first disappointed that our guide wasn’t Desmond again, Mikey Rooney kept us entertained with a short history of Ireland, random tidbits of information about sheep herding and peat farming, and a serenade of a traditional Irish song. He knew a lot of random facts and never ran out of funny things to say, so the daylong bus tour was never dull. On this tour we visited Cong, a village where the 1950s John Wayne film “The Quiet Man” was filmed. We’ve never seen the movie, but apparently a lot of other people have because Mikey talked about it a lot. The Connemara region is countryside of beautiful rolling hills dotted with lots and lots of sheep. I loved the sheep and could hardly stop myself from jumping up and down when the sheep in the road halted the progress of the bus.

Galway was beautiful and fun, but after four nights we were ready to move on to Dublin. We got to Dublin Tuesday morning and took a taxi to a relative’s house, where we were lucky enough to stay for a couple days. After we drove around in circles trying to find her house, we sat on the doorstep for about an hour wondering where Ann was, because although I had called her to let her know we’d arrived, I called the wrong number. Silly me. So eventually, after talking to a nice neighbor who invited us inside for tea and let me use his internet, we contacted Ann and she came home to let us in the house and show us around. Then we hit the town and walked around some touristy places, ate “Bangers and mash” for lunch, which I swear made me drunk, walked to Dublin Castle, and wandered down to Temple Bar, where we watched some street musicians and tourists. We went to another pub for some music last night, and of course another Guinness. Wednesday, after sleeping in, we took the metro to the seaside town of Howth in Dublin Co., where we finally tried an “Irish breakfast” and wandered around the harbor looking out at the Irish Sea. The weather was beautiful and sunny and a perfect way to finish up our stay in Ireland. Now we're in London for another day and a half, and then heading home. Hopefully I won't run out of money before then.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

White shirts and skinny ties

Well I’m a hot mess. It’s ten AM. I’m sitting in the Marseille airport in black wedges and a lowcut black dress, hair straightened and eyemakeup still applied (although a little bit smeared). I’ve never looked this good in an airport. And I’ve never felt so drained in an airport (which is saying a lot, considering how draining air travel can be.) Why this glamorous state of distress? Well, I decided to celebrate the end of my exams and final day in Aix Sciences Po style. Last night (although it was really only a few hours ago) was the IEP’s annual “Gala,” a classy (and expensive) end-of-the-year celebration for all of the students and professors in my school. It was a dressy affair, so we all got dolled up last night and then a bus picked us up at the Rotonde and took us out to the “Aixagone,” what I swear is a summer camp that happens to have a nice building with an auditorium. As the bus pulled down the gravel driveway, we passed a pen of donkeys and some crazy playground structures. This scene seemed at odds with the extremely well-dressed and beautiful French students milling around (not to mention us classy foreign kids).

Inside the Aixagone, we were treated with champagne, wine and finger food, serenaded by some students’ rock band singing old 90s American songs. (Can’t escape the 90s here). Then we were herded into an auditorium, where we watched a variety/awards show put on by the IEP students. I had no idea what to expect from the Gala, so watching the dance performances, film clips, and comedy skits was a great surprise. (Although I was pretty tired and couldn’t decipher all of the French that was said.) After the “Spectacle,” buses took us to a nightclub, also in the middle of the countryside. We drove down a dirt road to get there and I was sure the bus wouldn’t be able to fit through the old stone gate at the entrance, but French drivers work wonders in small spaces. By the time we got to the club it was after 1 AM, and since I haven’t slept all week (literally) because of studying for exams, I was pretty tired. Nevertheless, I had a blast dancing and oogling the ridiculously good-looking boys I’ve had the priviledge to go to class with and occasionally talk with for the past five months. Seriously, an IEP party could be a fashion shoot, there are so many well-dressed, probably rich, handsome people there.

I had so much fun I had to force myself to leave at 5 AM to make sure I could get home in time to finish packing and catch the plane to Dublin (my next destination and final trip before going home.) Packing my life into two suitcases was difficult, so by the time I finished that, I took a fifteen minute nap and headed for the bus station, where I missed my bus to the airport, took the next one, made it through check-in and security without fault, and am now sitting here waiting to board the plane to Dublin, where I will meet my friend Katie.

The last 24 hours have been surreal. The last week really. Exams were tough. Real tough. Although we had zero work throughout the school year, all of the work was crammed into exams, because you are expected to memorize and understand literally everything the professor says, spit it back, and apply it to real life. Since I’m an international student, all of my exams except one were oral, which is supposed to be easier, but it freaked me out, especially since all seven of them were crammed into the same week. There’s nothing like thinking of responses to detailed questions on the fly in another language to get you motivated to study 24/7. I had a scare earlier in the week because I thought I would actually fail an exam or two, but I stayed up all night Tuesday night, took my exams at 8AM, 9AM and 10:30 AM, and finished feeling pretty good. So I don’t think I’ll have to repeat a semester. Phew. Plus, I can now tell you all kinds of useless information about maritime law, nuclear fission, De Gaulle’s foreign policy, and many more fascinating things. In French to boot. I’m proud of myself I guess.

So anywho, once I finished exams I relaxed in the hot sunshine, did some shopping, and started saying goodbyes. The past month has been such a whirlwind of studying and last minute things that it never really hit me that I was actually leaving. But saying goodbye to friends I’ve made here, who I may never see again due to a huge ocean between us, makes me realize that I’m leaving, and not coming back (at least for a while).

The Gala last night also made me feel the finality of leaving. I started this semester with the IEP masked ball, and I ended it with another IEP ball. In some ways I’m disappointed that I know the French students hardly better than I did at the beginning of the year. But I do know them, have had classes with them, and consider myself a part of their school, so I didn’t feel like an outsider anymore. I only wish I could be there longer. My last image of the club as we left is of a line of guys in white shirts and skinny black ties (the skinny tie is coming back. Just wait, America.) dancing on the bar with blissful, un-self-conscious abandon. For some reason this image stuck in my head. Maybe because I’ve never seen American college guys so unconcerned about looking like a goof when dancing.

Basically I love IEP, Aix, France, Europe, everything. I’m really glad I made the decision to come here. My bank account may beg to differ, but it’s all about the experience right?? While I’m excited to go home, see my family, and make some real brownies, I will definitely miss France. I’ll miss the laid-back lifestyle, although most of it comes from an acclimation to inefficient administration. I’ll miss walking through the produce markets every day on the way to class, and being able to meet my friends in the park and share some cheese, wine, and a baguette. I’ll miss hearing French spoken everywhere, and I’ll probably be speaking a bit of Franglish when I come home, but no one will understand when I say I just “ratéed” or “Ca marche.” I won’t be surprised if I start telling people “it’s not grave.” It’s hard to say what I love most about France, because what I love are the little things, the everyday life, because the French in the South make an effort to take each day slowly and cherish every minute. My hostmom always told us not to eat too fast, because there’s no hurry in eating. I’m going to try to take that mentality back with me. Even during my toughest exam week, I took a few hours off to eat ratatouille and crepes with my friends one night, something I would never think of doing at Michigan. I went to the beach in Marseille Saturday even though I should have studied more. But it all worked out and I realized that it is possible to take life slower and still get things done.

Now I’ve got a week left in Europe, and I’ll be in Galway, Dublin, and London, with my best friend. I’ll try to write a little bit about these last adventure, too. For now I’m going to find a corner somewhere and sleep. I don’t know how my body is still working.

Sunday, May 16, 2010


So in my last post I said I was sure the weather would cheer up soon. Wrong. It has rained every day since I returned from Paris, and today there looks to be some sun, but it’s still cold. Argh. But despite the crappy weather, I’ve managed to enjoy myself and savor my last few weeks in Aix. Yes, my last few weeks. I’m leaving in a week and a half and trying not to think about it too much. Unfortunately, all of my last days here will be filled with studying for exams, because I have three this coming week and four the week after that, and then I’m on a plane to Ireland, London, and then home.

I do manage to squeeze in some relaxation during all this studying, and spent all of yesterday at the Cannes Film Festival with my program. It was a much needed break, and spending the day pretending to be rich and famous, with our eyes peeled for the real rich and famous, was pretty fun.

Of course when we left Aix yesterday morning at 8 AM, the skies were sunny and clear, so I put on a cute sundress, hoping for a sunny day by the sea. And it was sunny. Most of the day. Actually just the part of the day that we spent inside watching films. We got to watch two films while we were there, both of them I wouldn’t have gone to of my own will, one of them I didn’t like, and the other I surprisingly enjoyed. The first film, called “Dreamland” was produced by an Australian, and that’s all I knew about it before we sat down in the luscious red velvet seats of the theater. The movie started off interesting enough. We soon discovered that it is about a man driving around the Nevada desert near Area 51, looking for UFOs or aliens, or his inner self, or the answers to life’s persistant questions. We never figured out what he was looking for, because he never talked. He just drove around in his Ford sitting by campfires, gazing up at the sky, and making patterns in the desert sand with his pee. Riveting, I know. As a work of art, the film was great, and the music and scenery, and other filmy stuff all put together was really effective, but watching something without a plot or dialogue for two hours, it gets a little boring you know?

The second film we watched, called “Bedeviled,” is what some would call a Korean drama/horror film. As a rule I don’t go to scary movies, but was forced to in the case. I actually liked it, though, since this movie had a real plot, and the first hour of it was really good drama (I cried). When the beaten housewife turned into a crazy killer, it got pretty gory, and even I, who doesn’t mind gore if it’s justified, had to cover my eyes a couple times. I won’t go into details, but it overall it was an impressive movie and I would maybe see it again. Also, I managed to understand everything by listening to Korean and reading French subtitles. Success!

After the films, we took our bus over to the seaside area and walked around looking for famous people, then lined up with the paparazzi by the red carpet. I’m pretty short, so I spent a lot of time on my tip-toes, craning my neck over people’s heads to take pictures, but I did glimpse Woody Allen and Naomi Watts, as well as Francois Mitterrand, the former French president. I probably saw some other famous people too, but I’m horrible at recognizing them. My friends claim they saw Alexis Bledel from Gilmore Girls, but as I said, I’m not so good with the recognition.

After playing paparazzi for a couple hours we explored some side streets of Cannes (which is a beautiful town even without the beautiful celebrities) and hung out down by the beach while the sun set. I even dipped my toes in the sea, surprised that it wasn’t really that cold.

S eeing famous people from my country made me miss the Americans I actually know, and this trip made me feel a little better about returning to the land of Hollywood, peanut butter, and oversized cars. I’m trying to do something “French” or just fun everyday I have left in Aix, because I’m really going to miss it. But I’m excited to go home too.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Paris, je t'aime

So here I am, sitting in my bed, with a pile of scarves, towels and sweaters on top of me. I sent my ski parka (which I’ve been using as extra padding), warm comfy sweaters, hoodies, rainboots and warm jackets home with my mom, since when she came to visit me the weather was sunny and hot. Mistake. Today, and ever since I got back from Paris, the weather has decided not to cooperate and instead make me cold and miserable. It also doesn’t help that Mme has already turned the heat off in our room. (She probably thought warm weather was here to stay too.)

Okay I’m done complaining. It’s just kind of cold here right now.

So how was my mom able to take stuff home, anyway? She was lucky enough to miss the volcanic cloud and train strikes, and fly over here a week ago without any problems. I picked her up at the airport and we took a bus to Marseille, where my mom wanted to stay for a night. As a proud resident of Aix, I hold (or held) the same prejudice as other foreigners and French alike who believe Marseille is a dirty, dangerous city. At least that’s what my hostmom keeps telling me. She was shocked to learn that I not only took my mom to Marseille, but STAYED THERE OVERNIGHT!!! Oh la la!

Despite it’s bad reputation, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that I am quite fond of France’s second largest city. Located on the coast of the Mediterannean, it is home to lots of seafood restaurants, a diverse population, and rich maritime history. We learned all of this as we walked around the “Vieux Port” and successfully (or maybe not?) got dinner at a seafood restaurant. Despite the challenge of not knowing any French cuisine vocabulary, we managed to order “moules frites” (mussels and French fries) and crab cakes (that actually turned out to be crab legs.) So we didn’t quite order what we thought, but it was pretty tasty, and I was proud of my ability to translate the waiter’s questions for my mom.

Although I have done a lot of traveling this semester, last week was the first time I stayed in an actual hotel. For a person used to dorm-style hostels and living out of a backpack for two weeks, our small, clean hotel room with a view of some creepy deserted building across the street was a luxury. Explaining to my mom how to use the shower head and why it wasn’t bad that the windows had no screens made me realize how acclimated to French and European culture I’ve become. No one has screens in the windows here. It’s no big deal. In many showers the showerhead just hangs down, and it’s difficult to wash and hold the water at the same time. No big deal. The continental “breakfast” only constitutes a coffee and some toast. C’est normal. C’est la vie. C’est la France. My mom wasn’t too bothered by all of this, and adjusted pretty quickly, but I can imagine some American tourists being very disappointed and confused with this lifestyle. Once again, I am left with the realization that Americans are very spoiled, and take a lot of things for granted.

Another luxury I got to enjoy while staying in hotels with my mom was TV. Yes, French people watch TV. But I don’t. Due to the fact that my hostmom sleeps in the living room, the only TV I see is the news during dinner time, so I was really excited to watch French reality TV and cartoons every day. As a rule I avoid reality television, but the only interesting thing I found one night was French Survivor, and after that “L’amour est aveugle” (Love is Blind). Maybe it’s just the samples I got, but French reality TV seemed to be missing something. Maybe it was too realistic? Not enough staged drama? For example, during the Survivor episode, the contestants had to hang upside down from horizontal poles, and the last person to fall down won. Sounds exciting, right? Some people fell down right away, but after two and a half hours of hanging upside down and probably losing circulation in their hands and feet, two contestants still remained. Meanwhile, the audience was treated to scintillating scenes of the rest of the cast lounging/sleeping on the beach, waiting for the challenge to end. I was pretty much on the edge of my seat the whole time. Eventually the narrator/MC guy figured out that the contest wouldn’t end soon, so he made it a little interesting…they had to hang by ONLY ONE HAND. Oh my gosh. That did the trick, and somebody won. Finally.

After Survivor ended, I was pulled in by a show called “Love is Blind.” Three men and three women had to talk to each other in a pitch black room and find the love of their life. It actually looked interesting, but ended up another disappointment. One couple didn’t like each other, so a girl went home. So they replaced her with another girl, who, big surprise, liked the rejected guy. And the other couple liked each other right away. So no drama there. What remained was a beautiful woman who sort of liked the not-so-beautiful guy. (By French standards, he just wasn’t buff enough, but he really wasn’t bad.) The show failed because although they couldn’t see each other, they could feel each other, and like real blind people, could figure out what each other looked like. So everything ended up being about appearances and body type anyway. In the end, the beautiful woman didn’t go home with the “ugly” guy, and the narrator made a comment about how love really isn’t blind, implying that if you’re fat you can’t find love. Way to go, French television.

So now that I’ve wasted time on TV, I’ll talk about what we actually did. Saturday we took a boat tour in Marseille to the Calanques, which are rocky inlets along the coast. They were beautiful, and getting out on the water was great. Aix is a pretty dry town, and there aren’t any lakes nearby, so staying on the Mediterranean was a refreshing break. We also explored some of the old parts of the town and shopped a little, then caught a bus to Aix, where we ate dinner at a nice restaurant. (My first time eating French food at a restaurant in Aix.)

My mom and I were a little sad to leave Marseille because we liked it so much, but to our surprise Sunday happened to be Carnaval in Aix, and there was a big parade down the Cours Mirabeau in the afternoon. We enjoyed looking at all of the kids and adults in costumes, and watched a band perform on the Rotonde. The whole street was closed off, and the day was hot and sunny, and it was the most action I’ve seen on a Sunday in Aix since the stores opened for the special sales in January.

The rest of our time in Aix last week was spent touring the town and eating delicious French food. The weather was beautiful the whole time, and my mom couldn’t have picked a better time to come visit.

Last Thursday we woke up early and hurried to the train station, hoping to catch our train to Paris. But there is no TGV (fast train) from Aix downtown to Paris, which I forgot, so we ran to the bus station to catch a bus to the TGV station. Luckily we had chosen not to stop for breakfast, so we had just enough time to spare to get to the bus.

In Paris, I learned that I made the right decision by studying in France. (Not that I didn’t know that before.) Out of all the cities I have visited, Paris is my favorite. I loved the architecture and all of the bridges over the river, and pretty much everything we saw. It also helped that I understood the language. But I love French culture, and I finally understand it enough to appreciate it fully.

The first day in the city we walked to Notre Dame and toured the cathedral. Although it was one of many huge churches I’ve seen lately, finally seeing the famous flying buttresses, rose window, and gargoyles in person was an incredible experience.

We stayed in the Latin Quarter, so we were withing walking distance of most touristy places, as well as a variety of restaurants. We tried some Tibetan food the first night, and walked down to the river afterward to take a boat cruise on the Seine. The bridges and buildings were beautiful at night, and for my first glimpse of the Eiffel Tower it was a shimmering gold. I think I prefer it at night, actually.

Friday we toured the Louvre and walked down the Champs Elysees. (I didn’t realize how long this stretch of fancy shops and restaurants is.) I marched up to the top of the Arc de Triomphe and caught a view of the city, then rejoined my mom at the bottom and commenced the search for a good restaurant. We ended up walking all the way back to the hotel from the restaurant (which was near the Champs Elysees). Although it was a longer walk than expected, seeing Paris at night a second time was worth it.

Saturday we braved the metro and went to a flea market on the outskirts of the city, and I actually got into looking at all of the old books and trinkets. From there, we metroed up to Montmartre and walked around the old part of the city, which is crowned by the famous Sacre Coeur church. My mom forced me to get my portrait drawn for an exhorbitant price, and I wasn’t happy with her. I don’t like being stared at by every person who walks by and having my real face compared to an artificial one. But I got over it eventually. We also ventured down to the less savory part of this district, so I could say that I saw Moulin Rouge. (This is also where I learned that “moulin” means windmill in French.) The peep shows and various other clubs were interesting, to say the least, (from the outside, of course) but it was nice to get back to our “home” area of the Latin Quarter for dinner.

Sunday was free day at the Musee d’Orsay, so we walked over there, only to find a huge line. Apparently everyone else likes free museums too. While waiting in line, it started pouring rain, but we held out from buying an umbrella from one of the guys trying to sell them, confident that the rain would shortly stop. It did stop, eventually, but not before my feet were soaked. Luckily, we had a long enough wait that I was relatively dry by the time we entered the museum.

I’ve already mentioned my love for Van Gogh, so it should be no surprise that I was in heaven in this museum that showcases Impressionist artists. It had a number of Van Gogh works, as well as Monet, Manet, Cezanne, Renoir, and some other big shots. Regrettably, the museum was too crowded to fully appreciate every painting, but I enjoyed it anyway.

To complete our Paris tour, we walked down to the Eiffel Tower and I convinced my mom to go up to the second floor. While we were up there, we saw a rain cloud approaching, got a little wet while the cloud passed over, and watched a rainbow appear after the cloud passed. It couldn’t have been a more perfect Eiffel Tower experience, and I’m glad my mom paid the hefty fee to go up.

Now I’m back in Aix, preparing for my exams (which might be next week, might be the week after…the school still hasn’t figured that out.) I’m hoping the weather will cheer up soon, and I’m sure it will.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Churros and chocolate: a vacation from vacation in Espagne

After running around Italy at hyper speed and spending way too much money on tourist attractions and gelato, we decided to take it easy in Spain, and treat it like a real vacation. Staying in Sevilla made this task a piece of cake.

Bre and I took a luxurious Ryanair flight from Rome to Sevilla Sunday afternoon. We had heard of the horrors of Ryanair and their strict rules about carry on baggage, but by wearing excessive layers of clothing and sitting on our backpacks for half an hour, we successfully made it through the baggage check without having to pay an extra fee. (In reality, our friends had exaggerated a little. Ryanair's carry on baggage size restriction isn't any smaller than the other airlines. They just don't allow for much creative interpretation of their rules and charge hefty fees for disobeying.)

When we touched down in Sevilla, in the south of Spain, we were greeted by sunshine, a warm breeze, and the sweet scent of oranges. I've never smelled a city so delicious. Sevilla is full of parks, orange trees, and everything green, a welcome sight after the cement landscape of Rome and treeless Venice. Walking to our hostel, we saw the street train rolling at a slow pace through the center of downtown, and I loved the sound of its bell. For some reason it reminded me of a port city with a foghorn muffled by morning fog.

Although Sevilla isn't on the sea, it's on a beautiful river which used to be a main trading port. The river scene rivaled the Ponte Vecchio in Florence, with a lot less tourists. Less tourists was a common theme in Sevilla, and I felt like I could finally breathe again. During our time there we decided not to spend more money on museums, and found the free attractions, such as la Plaza de Espana, where the planet Naboo from Star Wars Episode One was filmed. Also, although Sevilla's cathedral charges an entry fee, we mistakenly walked inside before it opened and got a quick peek for free. Impressive, even with the lights off. Bre's friend from Wisconsin, and my friend Gayle from Michigan are both studying in Sevilla this semester, so they took turns showing us the sights of the city and explaining the Spanish lifestyle.

From what I can tell, the Spanish lifestyle is pretty laid back, maybe more so than the French. They have a nice long break in the middle of the day, and don't eat until 9 or 10 at night. When making food at our hostel, we attempted to be "Spanish" and eat later, but could only hold out until 8 PM. But at least we tried, right? We allowed ourselves one dinner out, too, and went to a tasty tapas place with Bre's friend. It was delicious, and super cheap. We tried four different tapas and two glasses of "tinto de verano" (Sevilla's take on sangria) all for under 6 euro. Throughout our stay, we remarked repeatedly that it was uber cheap compared to Aix and Italy. I would go back just to eat cheap, delicious tapas.

We also went to a bar with flamenco, which was very touristy, but interesting as well. Sadly, I was exhausted and could hardly stay awake during the performance, but I enjoyed what I saw when my eyes were open. I loved the Spanish culture and how bright and colorful it was. I'm determined to learn Spanish now, so I can visit places like Sevilla and not feel like an idiot.

Sevilla was one of my favorite cities, and like Venice, I was reluctant to leave it. But we had to go on to our last stop: Barcelona. Many people have told me that Barcelona is their favorite city in Europe, and it's very hip and "the place to be," so I had pretty high expectations for it. However, I had low expectations for its pickpockets, and after hearing numerous horror stories, was prepared for the worst, and never let go of my purse in the city. (Luckily, neither of us lost anything.)

As a city, I'll admit that Barcelona is pretty cool. The crazy, colorful Gaudi architecture can be found everywhere, and I especially liked his designs in Park Guell. We also saw the Sagrada Familia, the architect's unfinished cathedral, and it was different from any cathedral I've seen so far. We didn't go inside though, figuring it would be better to pay the 10 euro fee when it's actually finished. (But since it's been in construction for 130 years, it probably won't be finished in my lifetime.) Gaudi's designs would randomly pop up as we walked down the street, and we'd have to stop and take a second look at the curvy architecture. It reminded me of something from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, almost edible.

In addition to the more modern art, Barcelona has a beautiful Gothic quarter, with an old cathedral. This, we also chose not to pay to enter, and admired it from the outside. The Barri Gothic reminded me a little of Aix, and made me a wee bit homesick, I'll admit. Because as much as I liked the marvels of Barcelona, it is still a huge city, and I was pretty tired of all things urban at that point.

While the combination of old and new in Barcelona is cool, my favorite part was the beach. Two of my friends from Michigan who are studying in Madrid met us in Barcelona for Friday and Saturday, so we all trekked to the beach Saturday afternoon after grabbing some delicious fruit and sandwiches from the market. When we arrived, the weather was sunny and warm, a little nippy for sunbathing, but we stripped down to our bathing suits in defiance anyway. There were lots of other people doing the same thing, and we had the delightful opportunity to see a completely nude man on a bicycle ride by not once, but twice! But apart from the biker and an old woman liberating herself by going topless, the beach was pretty clothed in general. Despite the hawkers who walked by us literally every thirty seconds trying to sell everything from massages, tattoos, "sexy donuts" and "sexy beer," we enjoyed the sun and sea for an hour before it turned cloudy and cold. The weather in general wasn't great in Barcelona, but we made the best of it. Seeing the water put me at ease and reminded me of home, and I can't wait to go swimming when I get back to Michigan.

Saturday night we went out to a restaurant, which I like to call the Spanish equivalent of Big Boy. I'm not a fan of Big Boy, but I am a fan of this restaurant, because we got to try delicious paella for a cheap price. Bre and I split the Spanish dish of rice and seafood, and I had some difficulty making myself eat the crustaceans. I've never had to pull the legs and head off of my food before I ate it, and if I hadn't been helped along by a glass of sangria and a tourists resolve to try everything, I may not have been able to eat it. I made some comical faces in the process, but it was tasty enough to make me forget my initial disgust.

Craving a milkshake after dinner (since I have an uncontrollable sweet tooth) we stopped into Burger King, since they're everywhere in Barcelona. Normally I would have sampled something more traditional for dessert, but at 1 in the morning, the usual places weren't open. So we sat in BK slurping our "BK Fusion" (no milkshakes there) and watching people come into the restaurant until around 3 AM. I hear Barcelona is known for its night life, but as usual we were too tired to actually sample it, and I was quite content to catch up on the year's events with my Michigan friends and enjoy the night sights of Barcelona sans clubbing.

Sunday morning Bre and I rose at 7 AM to catch our train, arrived at the train station to learn that there was no train to France (thank you, French strikes), and were herded to a bus instead. Luckily, the bus ride was only a few hours, and we got to our connection in Montpellier at the same time as the train would have. And then we discovered that our train from Montpellier to Marseille no longer existed. So we walked around the beautiful French town for a few hours and napped in a garden before finally catching a train back to Marseille in the evening. Apparently it was the only train back to Marseille, because it was packed with irritated, exhausted travelers, and we had to sit on the floor for part of our journey. The French train strikes coupled with the Icelandic volcano have virtually stopped European travel, especially in France. I consider myself lucky because I have friends who are stuck in the States, stuck in Brussels, stuck in Morocco, and stuck all over Europe. I've never been happier to be back in Aix, studying for finals and suntanning in the park, able once again to eavesdrop on the conversations of people around me. (In a non creepy way, of course.)

If the air clears and travel improves, my mom will be visiting Aix next week, so hopefully I'll be able to show her around the beautiful place I finally call home.

Monday, April 19, 2010

When in Rome...

Everyone told me that Rome wasn’t built in a day, and you can’t see it in one day either, so we set aside five days to explore the great city. We were reluctant to leave Venice Wednesday morning, but had to move on to our next city, so we boarded the train again (yes!) and headed south.

In my travels, I often imagine cities as they were at their peak, and get a nasty shock when I realize that today they are just modern cities with hints of their long history. This happened in Rome. As our train pulled in to the station, looking at the graffiti on the buildings, I realized that Rome is, after all, a city, with lots of people, lots of cars, and noise. Fortunately, this city has a lot of other things to offer.

After checking into our hostel, we walked down to the Coliseum, took some pictures from the outside, and tried to find our way to the nearest McDonald’s, where we were told there would be a free tour. Seeing so many McDonald’s was also a shock. Aix doesn’t have McDonald’s, or Burger King, or Starbucks. It seems to be one of the only European cities that has successfully kept these fat food joints out. I vowed not to eat McDonald’s in Europe, and have so far kept my promise, although I may have to try it sometime because I hear the meat is of a better quality here. But anyway, we met a tour group at the golden arches and received a very detailed tour of Roman architecture and art history. The Romans liked to steal columns from the Egyptians, so these towering pillars dot the city, always topped by some sort of Christian symbol, which makes for an interesting mix. Although I complained about Rome’s “cityness,” its architecture is really beautiful, and the buildings come in lots of pink and yellow colors, as well as traditional grey.

Our knowledgeable tour guide took us to the popular tourist spots, such as the Spanish Steps (crammed with too many tourists) and the Trevi Fountain (also crammed with too many tourists.) Legend has it that if you throw one coin in the Fountain, you’ll come back to Rome some day. Throw two, and you’ll fall in love there. Throw three, and you’ll get married there. Throw your blood in the fountain, and you’ll have all three and good luck for life… This last one I made up, actually, because just as we were posing for pictures next to the massive fountain, jostling for a good position, I got a bloody nose. Although I would like to say that it was because of a fight with another tourist to get close to the fountain, I have no idea why it happened, but it makes for a good story.

Wednesday night Bre and I met up with some of my friends from Aix who were also in Rome, and we went out for some pasta. (Real Italian lasagna is so much better than anything I have tasted in the States, and I don’t think I could duplicate it if I tried.) After dinner, Bre and I walked around the monuments, hoping to find them less busy at 9PM, but no luck. We walked up to the top of the Spanish steps and watched some German school group singing campfire songs, and met some interesting people from California. Around midnight we went back to the Trevi Fountain and finally got to get close enough to touch the water. And then they closed it for cleaning.

Thursday we got up early and took the metro to the Vatican. While waiting in line to enter St. Peter’s Basilica, we got a good look at another Egyptian column topped with a cross, and the podium where the Pope addresses the public. (We missed the Pope himself.) After the guards checked to make sure our clothing was acceptable (no sandals or bare shoulders) we entered St. Peter’s. I could go on and on about this church, because it was truly magnificent. I never understood how large it is, but it is the largest Catholic church in the world (although a church in Africa supposedly claims otherwise). We wandered its cavernous rooms for over an hour, and my neck hurt from looking up at the ceiling so much.

We also took a tour of the Vatican Museum, but made the mistake of paying a hefty price for a horrible tour guide. She didn’t tell us anything new and never explained the paintings we were looking at, and by the end of the tour Bre and I were going to demand a refund. But then we reached the Sistine Chapel and forgot our frustration. Like everything else important in Rome and the Vatican, the Sistine Chapel was packed with people. No longer really a chapel and more just a piece of art, the room was humid and buzzing with low chatting, although the guards yelled “No Talking!” every few minutes. I also got a sore neck from looking up at this ceiling, and it was awesome to finally see Michelangelo’s great work in person. There is so much detail in the artwork, and all on the ceiling. I can’t imagine how hard it was for him to do it, but he did.

I would have stayed at the Vatican Museum longer, but it was closing, so we headed back to our hostel and had free (yes!) pasta for dinner. The next day (Friday) we toured the Coliseum and the Roman Forum. By this time, I was exhausted and a little sick of looking at old things and contemplating their significance, but it was a nice day and good to sit on the steps of a temple and nap. (oops!). It was also cool to see where Julius Caesar was burned, and made me want to read some Shakespeare. (Et tu, Brute?) After that Bre obliged me by going to the sight of a scene from “Roman Holiday” where Audrey Hepburn sticks her hand in La Bocca della Verita (Mouth of Truth). Big surprise, there was a line to take your picture with it, and a small fee, so I just took a quick picture through the gate.

Friday night we went out with some British friends we’d made in the hostel. I’m delighted to learn that pasties (my favorite yooper food) are everywhere in England (since they came from Cornwall) and you can buy them at the grocery store basically anywhere. If I make it to the UK, I will surely find some. We had so much fun Friday night that on Saturday we decided to take it easy and found a gorgeous park, where we took a long nap in the sunshine. The rest of Rome was similarly lazy, and we were ready to move on to Spain.

To me, Italy, and especially Florence, was very similar to Southern France, and I didn't find many extreme cultural difference like I did in Greece. The few real Italians we encountered seemed more expressive and loud than the French, but like I said, most of the people we saw were tourists, and the real Italia remains a mystery to me.