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.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Venice: a living museum

Phew, I’m tired. I could probably pass out right now if I let myself, but I have a lot to catch up on after two weeks of vacation, so I’ll just jot a few things down before I hibernate for a few days and regain my energy. Five cities is a lot to handle in two weeks, especially for a country bumpkin like me. So where was I…Italy?

The Easter celebrations in Florence were spectacular, but the city itself didn’t impress me as much as I’d hoped. Venice, on the other hand, is another story.

Monday morning (April 6) I got a real treat in the form of my very first train ride. The journey from Florence to Venice was a luxurious roll through the Italian countryside, and I’ve vowed to ask Obama for more trains in the States as soon as I get home, because train travel is a hundred times more convenient than the hassles of plane security and less stressful than driving. And the seats are pretty comfy too.

Immediately after getting off the train in Venice, I was impressed. With the Grand Canal in front of us, Bre and I paused for a moment to take in the scene. Throngs of tourists rushed by us trying to find the most direct way to their hotels (which is an impossible feat in Venice). Because it was a cloudy day, there weren’t as many boats out, but the ferries and cargo vessels still steamed by the sinking canal-side palaces. Gondoliers in striped shirts and straw hats paddled tourists down the canal, and everywhere stood people taking pictures. All of this we saw from the steps of the train station.

After catching our breath we took out our handy dandy itinerary and tried to decipher the directions to our hostel. In Venice, there are no streets, rues, avenues, boulevards, or highways. Just calles and fondamentas, little pathways along the canals and in between buildings. This new lingo coupled with a lack of proper signage and lack of Italian knowledge made our quest for the hostel rather challenging. But eventually we arrived at the door of “A Venice Museum.” We’d read some interesting reviews about this hostel, mostly that the living conditions were pretty subpar, but it was a ton of fun, so we figured this would be our “true” hostel experience on the trip, more social than convenient. This risk paid off, because the hostel ended up being my favorite, and we met some amazing people there. It’s situated in an old building on the Canal, and we were told that Michelangelo once lived in one of its rooms, hence the “Museum” name. Parts of it certainly looked like a museum, with gilded mirrors, a large main hall, and Venetian painting designs on our room’s ceiling. Aside from the fact that we had to pay for our sheets and there was one bathroom (with no shower curtain) for about twenty girls, it was a great place to stay. The staff were pretty casual and made us pizza one night and pasta the next for dinner and served free sangria. The whole hostel ate together at one table, and we got to know each other pretty well. We met a French Canadian girl who had been on the same bus as us to Florence, and who is also studying in Aix. Because she speaks French better than English, we conversed in French during dinner, and it was a great feeling to finally be the person who speaks a second language better than someone else. We also met a lot of Canadians, and at one point I’m pretty sure Canadians surrounded me and we got into an interesting discussion on socialized health care. Of course, there was also a group of Americans there, who ended up staying in the same hostel as us in Rome. Everyone was traveling to similar places, and although we were from different countries, we all had similar stories and lack of funds, and got along pretty well. I digress a little, but hostels can make or break an experience, and I wouldn’t have had half as much fun if I hadn’t met such interesting people during my travels.

Our first day in Venice, after checking in to the hostel, we took the ferry down the Grand Canal, and while listening to Rick Steve’s commentary (via a shard iPod), learned about the glory and doom of Venetian life. The city is rich with a history of …riches. Once the richest city in the world and a crossroads between Turkey and Italy, its huge palaces along the Canal have unique and extremely ornate architecture and decoration, with both Italian and Byzantine influences. Putzing down the Canal, we also learned and witnessed how these beautiful buildings are slowly sinking into the water, and due to flooding; most of the first floors are vacant. The decaying grandeur of Venice was haunting, and made it all the more beautiful.

The ferry let us off at St. Mark’s Square, which was packed with tourists. We toured St. Mark’s Basilica because it was free, and well worth the wait in line. I have never seen a church decorated with so much gold mosaic, and it was cool to learn that St. Mark is buried beneath the church. It’s also interesting to note that the floor of the church was buckling in rolling waves because of the sinking foundation of the building. I try not to think of what will happen when this beautiful building succumbs to the sea. After the Basilica, we walked around for a while and window shopped in the stores selling Venetian Carnival masks and Murano glass, but soon tired of the press of tourists, and returned to the hostel for dinner.

After dinner, a bunch of us went out to what looked like the only bar in the town (I guess Venice doesn’t have much night life.) Unimpressed with the scene, Bre, myself, and another girl decided to explore the city some more and take a look at St. Mark’s Square sans tourists. In my opinion, midnight is the best time to view the Square, because we could stand in the middle (do a few cartwheels) and look at St. Mark’s Basilica, the Doge’s Palace, and the other buildings without being jostled by a thousand other people with cameras. We lay down in the middle of the square for a few minutes and then realized it was cold, so headed back to the hostel. Getting back was a challenge, because the streets make no sense, but we made it eventually.

The second day in Venice, Bre and I got up early to beat the line at the Doge’s Palace. In Venice’s heyday, the Doge was the top dog, and important enough to have his own secret entrance to the Basilica and a beautiful palace. In reality, though, his life sounded a bit dull. He didn’t have real legislative or judicial power, or any kind of official power, and was only allowed to leave Venice for two days at a time, with permission of the Council. Nevertheless, his palace is impressive. After a while, walking through room after room of gilded ceilings and magnificent paintings got to be overwhelming, and I couldn’t imagine anyone actually living and working there. But everything in Venice is over the top, so I guess at one time it seemed normal.

In the Doge’s Palace tour, we got to walk through the famous “Bridge of Sighs,” so named by poets because it supposedly afforded prisoners crossing from the jail to the courthouse one last look at the water before they were put on trial and probably sentenced to death. It was a beautiful day, and I couldn’t help sighing myself as I looked down at the canal below, wondering when the endless tour of fascinating but overwhelming historical chambers would end. (Note: the Bridge of Sighs may sound romantic, but to our luck, it is currently undergoing renovation, and most of it is covered with scaffolding on the outside. Better yet, the scaffolding is covered in an advertisement. Nothing like a historical landmark sharing space with a “Bulgari” ad.)

To take advantage of the sunny day, we took a ferry to nearby Murano Island, the island of glassblowers. This island had simpler, brighter buildings, still with a Venetian style, and considerably less tourists. We sat by the water resting and listening to a bad accordion player and then found some studios where we watched some glassblowers at work.

The rest of Tuesday we got lost in Venice trying to find the Jewish ghetto and a place to fill up our plastic water bottles with wine (for less than a euro!). When we left for Rome the next morning, it was with reluctant feet and a wish to come back some day before the great city disappears. Before it sinks in the sea, it will more likely become a huge museum. As Rick Steves explained, the city now only has about 60,000 inhabitants, and 1000 leave each year. A town built of bridges, steps, and boats, isn’t a great place to raise kids and make a living, apparently. (It is, however, a great place for celebrities. Rumor has it that Angelina Jolie & Co. were staying in the palace across the canal from our hostel, and Johnny Depp was supposedly roaming the island doing a film shoot. Sadly, we saw neither, but I took some pictures of the Branjolina Palace just in case.)

So it took a lot to explain my trip to Venice, but I truly loved this city. The gondolas may only be ridden by tourists at exorbitant prices and the city’s real inhabitants may be disappearing with its buildings, but it is still a beautiful place rich in history, and like no other place I’ve been.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Ciao Bella: Easter in Florence

To avoid an extremely long and much too summarized version of my spring break in Italy and Spain, Im getting ahead of the game and writing right now, in my hostel, before I rack up too many stories to retell in this space.

So right now Im in sunny Florence, Italy...actually its pouring rain. And freeeezing. I left France Thursday night with only one pair of jeans and some skirts, thinking that the slightly more Southern location of Italy and Spain would make it warmer than Aix..wrong. But despite the colder than expected weather, I have enjoyed my time in Florence.

My friend Bre and I boarded the overnight bus from Aix to Florence last thursday night at 10:30 PM and began our first real "backpacking Europe" trip. (When I say backpacking, I mean backpacking. Due to our two Ryanair flights, we each only brought a bookbag for our two week vacation, trying to avoid a baggage fee. It remains to be seen if this was a good idea.) The busride was long and I got about two hours of sleep total, and we arrived in Florence around 8:30 Am Friday morning. After dropping our luggage off at our hotel we stopped into a pastry shop to try out some Italian words "bonjourno" e "ciao" and eat some breakfast, then went on a free tour of the city with our hostel. Our guide showed us around the city famous for its Renaissance art, and pointed out the unavoidable presence of the famous Medici family and their contributions to the city. We walked by the Duomo, a giant cathedral with an elaborate facade of green, pink, and white marble, and stepped inside to see its less elaborate interior. Due to the Easter preparations, the alter area was closed off so we couldnt get a great view of the "Judgement Day" paintings on the dome, but I took a few pictures. Climbing to the top of Brunelleschi's myseteriously ginormous dome was also not allowed this weekend, so we climbed the 400 some steps to the top of Giotto's tower (next to the Duomo) to get a great view of the city.

Friday we wandered around the city some more, ate delicious gelato, and avoided the massive crowds of tourists. (I've been here three days and I still can't find a native of Florence. Apparently they flee the city on this most busiest of tourist weekends.)

Saturday morning we got up bright and early and caught the city waking up. We were free to stroll down the middle of the street uninterupted by cars, or more importantly, tourists, and got a whole new view of the Duomo and various statues littering the city. After being denied a student price (Florence doesn't have student prices for anything) we explored the famous Uffizi gallery and gazed at famous Renaissance works of Michaelangelo and Boticelli while thinking intellectual and deep thoughts. Rembering my days of feverishly memorizing Renaissance paintings in world history, I was glad to be able to know enough about "The Birth of Venus" and the various Madonnas to do more than just look at them.

Saturday was a slightly warm and sunny day, and had great weather for strolling across the Ponte Vecchio (packed with tourists gawking at gold merchants) and watch the greenish-brown Arno River slide by. We also entered numerous churches with fantastic artwork and tombs of people somehow related to the Medici's, but once we ran into churches that started charging for entry, we started looking for other forms of amusement. (I just can't make myself pay to go into a church. No matter how many tourists there are, it's still God's house.) In front of one of the churches that charged admittance, we found three Italian guys playing music in the square, and stood and watched them for a while. We found these same three guys later on in another square, too. They seem to be pretty popular with the tourists.

To break away from churches, we also walked through the giant food market and sampled some traditional Florence cuisine, a panino lampredotto. After paying only three euros for this tasty dish, we stood in line and watched as a weathered Italian man sliced and diced up steaming tripe and slapped it on panini bread. Paired with some curiously strong hot sauce, this sandwich of cow's stomach is surprisingly good.

After a beautiful day Saturday, I was disappointed to wake up this morning to a cold, grey day. But despite the weather, I put on a pretty dress for Easter and headed to church. Once we got to the church, we found a large section of the plaza around the Duomo sectioned off. Hearing drums in the distance, we wandered down the street and came upon a traditional Florentine sight. Men dressed in Renaissance costumes were running around in circles throwing flags up in the air and banging drums. It was awesome. They were much better than my high school color guard, and even the young ones never dropped their flags.

At this ceremony I met up with my friend Danielle, a friend from Michigan who is studying in Florence for the semester. Together we walked back to the Duomo and staked out a spot close to the barricade to await what we heard was going to be a parade. After about an hour of waiting, a procession of more people dressed in costume marched toward the cathedral, behind them a giant, three-story cart pulled by two huge white oxen. Then a procession of priests came out of the Baptistry building across from the Cathedral and entered the church, from which came flying a white dove, which lit a fireworks display on the cart. (The dove was actually mechanical and traveled along a wire). The spark set off a chain reaction of fireworks, bangs, and smoke which lasted for about ten minutes, covering the plaza in red, white and purple smoke (the colors of Florence.) For Easter morning, it was quite the impressive display, and the Easter Bunny might want to step up his game.
Once the fireworks fizzled out, we pushed and squeezed our way through the throng of tourists snapping pictures and made our way inside the church to catch Mass. By the time we got inside, the huge cathedral had been filled and Mass had already started, but we stood for the remaining hour and listened to Easter Mass in Italian, looking up at the paintings in the dome.

It was surreal to be here on Easter, a day that I have celebrated in exactly the same way since birth. Although I missed my family a lot and am still craving honey ham and cheesey potatoes, being in Florence for this important day was unforgettable. Tomorrow we head to Venice for two days, and hopefully the weather will get a little warmer. (Otherwise I might have to start layering my clothes in unflattering ways).

Happy Easter!

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Provencal Weather

I just saw a rainbow. Despite claiming that it has 360 days of sunshine, Aix-en-Provence has had some pretty unpredictable and not altogether agreeable weather this year. Yesterday I left my house in a skirt and sweater thinking it would be a gorgeous day, and came home freezing after class. Today I rolled up my jeans in the morning and walked home in the rain. But as I was heading down the last stretch of my street, the sun came out and I saw my first rainbow in a long time. I wondered what the French word for rainbow is, (arc-en-ciel), and paused outside my building to get a last glimpse before heading into the humid, lightless cave that is my bedroom. As I stood there, the French student who lives with us walked by, probably wondering why I was standing there like an idiot staring at the sky. I don’t think he saw the rainbow, and I hadn’t discovered the proper word at that point so I couldn’t ask him if he’d seen it. I guess I’ll just have to keep on letting him think I’m a mute being. I’m pretty sure he thinks Amanda and I are weird enough as it is, so why not add a little more quirks to our mysterious American ways?

So back to the unpredictable weather. I experienced it in full force this weekend because we went on another excursion, this time to the Luberon. The hilly region of the Luberon mountain range, where the author Peter Mayle is reported to live, is a beautiful area with lots of well-preserved Provencal towns perched on hills. It’s also the region known for its lavender fields, which during March are actually a grayish-brown color instead of the postcard-friendly purple. Despite traveling out-of-season, I enjoyed this trip more than many of our other ones. First of all, we took a tour bus with the famous George, a French guy who gives tours of the area on the weekends, and the same guy who took us to Monaco. Instead of listening to my program director drone on about art and history and remind us to turn in various forms, we were entertained by George’s dry humor and regional trivia.

But where did we go? First, we stopped at a tiny town called Lourmarin, a cute village with a pretty impressive chateau, and the grave of the writer Albert Camus. (I haven’t read any Camus yet, but I’m being tested on him in my literature class, so I probably should.) After taking some quick photos and almost leaving a person behind, we left Lourmarin and headed to Apt, a town that is described in a friend’s tour book as “actively ugly” from the outside. For an American used to Walmart and McDonald’s every five miles and suburban monotomy, though, “ugly” was too strong a word for a French town that simply had more industrial, modern buildings on its outskirts. Downtown, we walked around a huge farmer’s market and bought some delicious strawberries and cheese for lunch. And then it started to rain.

So it rained on our drive to the next town, Roussillon, where the dirt is colored by ochre (according to George, because some old French nobleman fed his wife’s lover to someone). We walked around a park with beautiful bare hills of red, orange, and yellow, and rejoiced that the sun came out long enough for us to have a picnic in the middle of the park. Then we headed down into the town itself, which isn’t much (although it’s technically classified as one of the “Most Beautiful Villages in France”) and had some drinks at a brasserie.

As we were finishing our drinks, the weather turned colder and we boarded the bus again and headed to our final destination: Gordes. According to my Irish friend, Gordes is a popular place for American celebrities like Johnny Depp and Brad and Angelina. Ruth (my friend) directed us to the very hotel where these celebrities stay for only 800 euros per night. From the outside the hotel didn’t look like much, but it probably had a great view of the valley and lavender fields. The rest of Gordes was similarly charming and very well-preserved. There wasn’t a single modern building that I could find, and “sprawl” probably doesn’t exist in the vocabulary of the locals.

The Luberon was a great trip overall, and if I wasn’t so jaded by the beauty of France already, I probably would have been extremely awed by the towns and countryside that we visited. Instead, I was just awed.

Sunday the weather was absolutely beautiful, and since I was confused by the time change (France daylight savings time is different than the US) I didn’t get up until one in the afternoon, after which I headed to the park for a picnic with my friends. We stayed there the entire day, basking in the sun and talking, getting a wee bit sunburnt. (Don’t worry mom, I wore sunscreen). I would have stayed there longer but I had to go to Mass for Palm Sunday, which was an experience in itself.

I walked into town thinking I would go to a regular Sunday Mass, but as I got closer to the church, I heard loud chanting and singing, and turned the corner to see a huge procession of people carrying olive branches and palm branches. I joined the throng and figured out some of the words to the song, and followed the procession up to the big cathedral in town. This procession was much different from at home, and we did more than walk around in a circle in front of church. We actually processed through the town, and people were leaning out of windows taking pictures. It was great to be a part of something like that, and although the French don’t show up to church in such massive numbers the rest of the year, they seem to take Palm Sunday rather seriously. Seriously enough to speak really, really slow during the reading of the Passion so that Mass takes two hours instead of one. Nevertheless, I enjoyed it. I’d like to see what it’s like for Easter Mass, but I’ll be in Florence, Italy on Easter Sunday. But that will be another tale.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

C'est la vie

This week was a week of highs and lows. On Monday I learned that my grandma had passed away, and my sadness coupled with a recent onset of homesickness made for a challenging week. I never missed my family more than when I realized I would have to deal with my sadness alone in Aix. Dealing with grief on your own, when you’re an ocean away from any family or person who really knows what you’re feeling, is tough. My family and I decided that it would be better for me not to go back to the States just for a few days, and although I would have liked to have been with my family, I know that coming home for only a weekend would not be a good thing to do when I’m in the middle of my study abroad experience. I’ve been feeling especially homesick lately, and this week was the worst, but I made it through.

Because I had a lot on my mind and a presentation Tuesday morning, I didn’t sleep Monday night. Despite my lack of energy, though, I managed to pull off a pretty good presentation on a book written in French, about what I’m still not exactly sure. I somehow survived six hours of class on Tuesday before collapsing into bed, and although I wanted to celebrate my Irish roots on St Paddy’s Day, I was sick. So the beginning of the week didn’t go too well.

Thursday things began to get better. I skipped class and slept in, got some work done, and attended a soiree at my school. That was bizarre. Très bizarre. First of all, I paid 6 euros to attend the party, which was billed by the International Association and Bureau of Sports as a “buffet, boisson, et concert.” For six euros, I could partake in the buffet, get a free drink, and dance the night away. Assuming buffet meant the same thing in France as in the US, I skipped dinner that night. Mistake. When we got there, myself and the rest of the Anglophone students were baffled at what the French call a buffet. Because there were 200 students attending and a limited supply of food, we were rationed. We could choose to eat one slice or pizza OR one salad OR one dessert. Not really worth 6 euros, in my opinion. We couldn’t believe it. We were so convinced they were joking that we hung around the food the whole night, waiting for them to tell us that there was, in fact, enough food for everyone, and we could eat a little more. (A lot of the French students were confused too, so I don’t think this was a “French” buffet so much as one with not enough food.) But seriously, I got there early to make sure the food wasn’t gone before I got there, because that’s usually how it works. The people who arrive at 11:30 PM shouldn’t expect to eat as much as the people who are there when the door opens. The firt-come-first-seved concept doesn't seem to apply here, I guess.
After eating my plate of pasta salad (which was good) I explored the soiree. In one classroom of our school building was set up the food tables, in another room a band, and in the courtyard a disco. Oh, and in the hallway, a mini bar. Our ticket included a drink, “soft” or “hard,” of whiskey and coke or vodka and orange. I may not have mentioned that this party was put on by the students, not the administration, and I’m still not sure how they were allowed to sell liquor in the school hallway. I can’t see U of M allowing that. C'est la France, we kept saying. Only in France would the administration allow its students to get drunk in the same space they learn. Nonetheless, it was fun.

Friday was a gorgeous day, probably somewhere around 70 degrees Fahrenheit. (I still haven’t figured out the Celsius-Fahrenheit conversion.) I did some homework and lazed around in the park for a few hours and didn’t do a whole lot else.

Saturday my program took another excursion to Pont-du-Garde, which is the sight of some huge old Roman aqueducts. (You’ve probably seen pictures of it, and didn’t know it’s called Pont-du-Garde.) The day was warm but cloudy, and it was nice to hike around on the trails and look at the bridge, but not too exciting. After that we drove to a museum in Arles and looked at Roman sculptures and the oldest known bust of Julius Caesar. Once again, after Athens this wasn’t that impressive, and our group got impatient when the bus didn’t show up on time. I wouldn’t have minded going back to Aix at this point, since I was tired and bored, but we stopped at an old Abbey and toured through its stone cold (literally) rooms and climbed up to the top of a tower. From the top we got a nice view of the Provencal countryside, which is starting to show the signs of spring. Being so high up I felt a huge relief, and realized how closed in I feel in landlocked towns. I’m definitely a girl who prefers wide open spaces, and the Dixie Chicks song should be my anthem, because being able to see the horizon made me feel a hundred times better about my tumultuous week and homesickness.

Today (Saturday), I felt even better climbing up Mount Saint Victoire, the highest mountain peak close to Aix. With a couple of my other friends, we took the bus to the base of the mountain and hiked up the extremely rocky but not too steep trail all the way to the top. It took almost three hours to hike up, but it was worth it. So I’ve now been to the top of two mountains in France: the Alps and Mt. Saint Victoire.
On the way down the mountain we decided to take a different, smoother route, and ended up on the other side, where we had to wait for the bus for two hours. We sat on the side of the road telling stories and glaring at French people driving by in their Pugeots and Mercedes, before being told by a nice Englishman who lived across the road that we were waiting at the wrong bus stop. So we trekked a little ways down the road to the correct stop and eventually got on the bus, returning to Aix by 6:30 PM. After rising at 8:30 AM and hiking all day, it’s been a very full day, but a beautiful one, and I’m glad that I stayed here this weekend.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Oui, comme Erin Brockovich

Here I am, spending another Sunday afternoon doing my homework in a bar. This time I'm drinking some "thé fruits rouges," a tasty berry tea that comes with an equally tasty biscuit/cookie. The atmosphere of a bar is not very conducive to doing homework, so I decided updating my blog would be an equally worthy and productive endeavor. It's hard to do homework at all here. I've been working on preparing a presentation since the beginning of the semester, and so far all I've done is read a book and write a rough outline. Earlier this morning I completed the strenuous task of writing a 15-20 line "essay" on immigration laws. Phew. My brain is tirrred.

But really, now that I'm in the middle of classes and I've got the hang of them, I've started preparing for my eight exams and being a little more studious. Yeah that's right, eight exams. There's a high chance I will fail at least one of them and have to stay in France an extra month to make them up. (Good thing about IEP exams: if you fail, you can retake them. No biggie.) So, me "preparing" for exams = rereading my notes and trying to make some sense out of them. The countless arrows, holes, highlighted words, and franglais that made sense when i write them no longer resemble facts.

But enough of stressing about classes. That's a thoroughly American pastime that I don't want to continue when I come home. Although I'm studying more, I'm also trying to do more fun things. Aix isn't a huge town, so it's easy to fall into a routine, go to the same bars, eat at the same sandwich places, and talk to the same people (in English.) I don't particularly like this boring lifestyle, so I'm trying to switch it up more. Friday night my friend invited me to "Bar-b-Cuques" a BBQ/bonfire at the top of a big hill near Cuques, one of the dorms. Around ten o clock a few of us headed up the hill (in the dark) and arrived at a curious site: the French college student's version of a BBQ. An interesting mix of Italians, French, Spaniards, and some other nationalities had set up two toasty bonfires on the hill, which was a welcome site in the cold night. On one fire, however, they had placed an abandoned/stolen shopping cart. They then commenced cooking hot dogs and steak on the shopping cart. Concerned about the dubious origins of the shopping cart, I didn't eat anything,but it was fun to watch.

Standing around a campfire on the top of the hill and looking at the stars reminded me of summer in Michigan. And then I realized that I was speaking French. I had a great conversation from a student from Dakar, Senegal, and couldn't help wondering what my life would have been like if I'd chosen to study in Senegal this semester instead of France. I'm glad I chose to come here, though, because I'm learning French French, not Senegalese French. He had a really cool accent and flipped his "r's" differently, and it was bizarre to hear a whole new form of French.

Whenever I meet a new French person, it usually takes a few minutes for them to grasp the complexities of my name. "Erin" clearly is not a French name, and the "r" is particularly challenging. It often comes out as "Ehreen" until some clever person says, ohhhh, comme Erin Brockovich?? So now, instead of trying to spell out my name and get people to pronounce it right, I just say, "Salut, je m'appelle Erin, Erin Brockovich." (Telling them my last name usually leads to even more confusing conversation and questions about why my first name is Irish and my last name is German. What can I say? I'm American.)

Monday, March 1, 2010


After eating another thrilling dinner of raw hamburger meat and fried potatoes, my digestive system has put me in a rather contemplative state of mind.

I can’t believe that today is the first day of March. In five more days I will have been in France for exactly two months. Looking at my academic calendar, I basically have a month of actual classes left, with vacation, review weeks and exams thrown in here or there. After two months, I think I’m finally comfortable with my identity as an American in France. After two months, although I don’t stare at people as I pass by and smile excessively for no reason, I’m no longer hesitant to reveal my American identity. Why would I ever be hesitant in the first place? Maybe it’s because I heard all of the stereotypes of both French and Americans, and thought it would be better to blend in than to test the validity of these presumptions. Now I think otherwise.

In many of my blog posts, I make generalizations about cultural differences I’ve experienced such as my observations when I first came to France and my thoughts on Greece. I’d like to make it clear, however, that these musings are just that: generalizations. So I’d like to take the time to demystify a few stereotypes…

I said that the French really are “cold.” I still think that, but in a different sense. Yes, direct eye contact and smiling at strangers in the street is less common. Yes, it’s hard to make French friends, because most French people I’ve encountered won’t come up to a random foreigner and start talking. I’ve noticed that this is largely due to the fact that most of the time I’m standing in a group of Anglophones. Being here has made me sympathize with the foreign students at U-M. I used to complain about the crowds of Asians who always hung out in huge groups and didn’t speak English among themselves when Americans were around, but now I understand some of the reason for that. Although I try to speak French as much as possible, when I’m with my American friends, life is just easier if we all speak in our native tongue. Recognizing how this can isolate us, however, I’m trying to cut down more on the English and initiate conversation with French students. If I were a French person, I wouldn’t approach the huge group of Americans either, unless I was a creepy man. Which leads me to my next point…

The French method of seduction is indeed more forward than the American style. But the stereotypical leering French man you hear about is actually contained to a small percentage of creepers. In clubs, they’re the guys who sneak attack dance, try to make out with you, demand your telephone number, and don’t leave when you say you’re not interested, yank your arm away, or knee them (actually that might work). Frankly, I’ve encountered just as many American guys with the same “style” at snazzy places like Necto in Ann Arbor. The guys I’ve encountered at the IEP and at civilized parties seem pretty nice, and don’t make me feel like a prize cut of meat.

I haven’t asked anyone if French women shave their legs (it generally doesn’t seem to be something one talks about in everyday conversation with strangers), but I’m pretty sure they do. The stereotype of the “dirty Frenchman” doesn’t seem to be true either. Although electricity is expensive here and showers may not be as long and luxurious due to the awkward hanging shower head, the French seem pretty hygienic and probably smell better than me. (Aforementioned shower head has made me reluctant to shower). I encountered more smelly people in Greece than in France.

The stereotype that French people are lazy isn’t unfounded, but not entirely accurate. While free time and leisurely sipping a coffee in a café during the two to three hour lunch period is certainly highly valued, lazy is the wrong term to use. I keep reading that France is still one of the most productive countries in the world, despite having the least amount of work hours. I wholeheartedly approve of this less stressful lifestyle and wish Americans would take a lesson from the French and take back recess and naptime.

I’ve addressed some common French stereotypes, but to be fair, I feel I should mention American stereotypes as well. I’ve heard people say that Americans are loud and pretentious. In response, I will admit that we are loud. Especially in large groups, we have a tendency to laugh, make jokes, and raise the level of our voices to express our emotions. Sometimes at night when this noise level is further heightened by a few too many glasses of wine, I cringe at the sound of our shouts bouncing of the extremely close walls of Aix. But when I look around me and see how happy everyone is to be in the company of friends in a wonderful place, I realize that it’s not such a horrible thing. In Greece when I ran into the bus of American retirees, I also noticed how loud they were, but they seemed to be genuinely having a good time and wanted to share their excitement with everyone else. Is that such a bad thing? Admittedly though, being loud is not always a good thing, and there are some overly expressive Americans who have turned our happy disposition into a bad stereotype.

As far as being pretentious, I think this comes from the fact that many Americans don’t learn a second language. Because English is so widespread in the world, it’s easy to travel all over the world and find someone who speaks enough English to help you find your hotel, the bathroom, a restaurant, etc. But this assumption that everyone speaks English leads to anti-American sentiments. In France as well as in Greece, simply speaking a few words of the native tongue works wonders. Making an effort to communicate in the native language shows a great amount of respect. Although I’m often embarrassed by my subpar French comprehension and speaking ability, it’s good to feel humiliated once in a while instead of trying to be an all-powerful American trying to control the world.

I think I’m getting too reflective. Although I’d like to relax more and sip some coffee, I actually have homework tonight so I’ll have to go.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Hunting for spices and Van Gogh

This week went by pretty fast, and it didn't take me too long to readjust to French living. Our daily dinner of meat and fried potatoes chez Mme. L (my landlady/hostmom)was actually comforting after the new flavors of Greece. I successfully explained to Mme. L that since I'm Catholic I can't eat meat on Fridays, so she made me an extra helping of canned green beans. Yum. (Actually I do like canned green beans. I just prefer fresh green beans. We eat a lot of canned food here.) A lot of people have asked me about how I like French cuisine, and I still can't give a good answer. The crepes are delicious and the meat has enough flavor that it doesn't need much seasoning, but from what I've been exposed to, the cuisine seems a little bit bland. While the flavors are good, I wouldn't say the food is flavorful. I have yet to eat at a real French restaurant and order the plat du jour, so I'm hoping once I save up enough money to do that I will be pleasantly surprised.

Among my American friends, our conversation often centers around what kinds of food we miss from home. To soothe our deprived tastebuds, we decided to have a taco and chocolate chip cookie night. This sounds easy enough, but when confronted with the limited selection of "foreign" foods at Monoprix (the slightly overpriced grocery store), this proved most challenging. My friends attempted to make the cookies, but had to do without key ingredients like brown sugar and baking powder (or was it soda?) I volunteered to make guacamole, but couldn't find green chilis or chili powder, and sour cream was nowhere to be found. I'll admit that part of our struggle (or most of it) had to do with the fact that we couldn't understand half of the food labels, but we tried pretty hard.

After a confusing, extremely disorganized hunt for taco food (failing to find grated cheese and settling for pre-wrapped slices of American), we gathered our materials and headed for a friend's apartment. In addition to our limited ingredients, we had limited cooking utensils, and I ended up mixing quac on a plate and eating salsa out of a sauce pan. Nevertheless, around 9:30 PM we finally sat down to eat our delicious spread of fresh salsa, guacamole, and tacos (on dessert-sized paper plates). I'm proud that we managed to pull it together and create some truly tasty food despite the challenge of the French grocery store. We're planning another "family dinner," thinking that next time will be a potluck where everyone brings whatever type of American food they've been craving.

On a completely unrelated note, yesterday we took another day trip to some nearby towns. We visited Glanum, the ruins of an old Roman city. For a history geek like me, it would have been fascinating, if I hadn't just returned from a trip to Greece where I gazed at much more impressive structures like the Parthenon.

After Glanum, we took the bus to Arles, another former Roman city. Unlike Glanum, Arles is still a bustling city/town and fun to wander through. Our program director gave us tickets to the ruins in the city and set us free, so we leisurely strolled around finding the amphitheater (where we pretended to be gladiators and witnessed what we think was the shooting of a music video), some underground crypts/forumlike structures (creepy), a smaller theater, and a beautiful church. On the way to our first destination some cheeky french kid approached us saying something about "fromage" and went up to my friend and took one of the french fries out of the sandwich she was eating. Needless to say, she was stunned. That doesn't happen in Aix. In Arles, though, I guess anything is game.

Although Arles may now be home to french fry thieves, it was once the home of Vincent Van Gogh. If any of you knew me in fifth grade, you know how much I love Van Gogh. He lived in Arles for some time and I was told that after he cut his ear off, he recuperated in the hospital there. He also painted many of his well-known works there, and I loved running into signs throughout the city that said "Van Gogh painted X painting here." And then I would look up and see a familiar scene that I never realized existed in real life. One of these scenes was the cafe scene of the "terasse de café, la nuit." Although it was raining and cold, we managed to find the very same cafe and take a picture. Sadly, we couldn't sit outside and had to get back to the bus, but I was thrilled to be there nevertheless.

On our way back to the bus we stopped into a patisserie and I bought a little piece of chocolate cake. I finally found something moist and fudgie, and it was a great way to make it through the rest of the rainy day. Because of the rain, after Arles we returned to Aix instead of continuing on to Pont-du-Garde, where there are Roman aqueducts. I think we'll return another day, though.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Greece: where the streets are paved in marble and everything is a good idea

Once again, I apologize for the long post. I spent ten days in Greece, staying the weekend on an island and the rest of the week at my friend’s apartment in Athens. If you’re interested, read on…

For some unknown reason, we had last week off of school, so my friend Martha and I visited our mutual U-M friend Molly, who is studying in Athens, Greece. We arrived in Athens late Friday night (a week ago) and Molly was gracious enough to meet us at the airport and help us navigate the Athenian metro system. (Cool thing to note: the Athens metro took a really long time to build because they kept running into ancient ruins and had to stop construction to excavate and extract the archaeological finds before continuing. Oh darn. As a result, parts of the metro display the uncovered ruins and it functions as a mini museum.)

From Friday through Monday Martha, Molly, and I stayed on the island of Syros, which is the capital of the Cyclades island group. We stayed in a hostel on Ermopolis, the capital city, and I think we were the only foreign tourists on the island. The capital was pretty bustling, since it's a major trading port, and it had beautiful architecture and two huge hills with churches on top. The view from the roof of our hostel was beautiful and we could look out over the town and the Aegean Sea.

On the island we did a lot of eating and meandering and took the word "vacation" very seriously. A typical morning on Syros consisted of sleeping in, buying fruit from the market and eating breakfast on the pier, and walking around the various sites of the island. One day we walked up to the top of the town to a Greek Orthodox church and caught some great views of the city. Another day we took a bus to a town on the other side of the island, called Kini. Clearly a tourist village, everything except one cafe was closed and we were the only tourists visiting, but we relaxed for a couple hours and drank coffee while waiting for the next bus.

The weekend was also the last weekend of Carnivale, so Saturday night Ermopolis had a festival in the center of town with lots of little kids running around in costumes. We had fun throwing confetti at each other and befriending the group of Filipinos on the island. Sunday night we hiked up to Ano Syros, the old town on another hill, and watched a parade of more people in crazy costumes, and partook of the free wine and soup that the locals generously offered us.

Since my 21st birthday was on Sunday, we went out to the bar Saturday night and celebrated. Most of the weekend we felt like the only college aged people on the island, be we found them all at the bar Saturday night, and even got some Greek guys to buy us drinks. We also made a list of 21 things I had to do for my 21st, and spent most of Sunday wandering around snapping random photos and completing fun tasks to fill up the time. We ate lunch at a great taverna and I tried fried squid for the first time. I preferred my lamb, but all of the food was great.

Monday morning we checked out of our hostel and lazed around some more. It was a beautiful warm day and we fell asleep sitting next to the beach, so when we returned to Athens we all had a little bit of “island color” on our faces.

In Athens, Martha and I did a lot of sightseeing while Molly was in class, and we explored the ancient and modern marvels of the city. We saw everything from the Parthenon to the Museum of Archaeology, and even wandered through a giant meat market and got oogled at by a lot of bloody Greek men with big knives. Hearing “Hello ladies, you are beautiful” and “You have beautiful eyes” accompanied by the waving of butcher knives was definitely a memorable experience.

Thursday afternoon we took a bus trip to the coastal town of Sounio and visited the Temple of Poseidon on the Aegean. The bus ride was beautiful and it was great to get out of the city for a couple hours.

Although seeing the sites in Greece was great, what I will remember most are the cultural differences. When traveling to Greece, Athens in particular, don't be surprised by...

1) ...the stray dogs. Everywhere. They're surprisingly well-behaved and clean, however, and instead of exterminating them, the government decided to vaccinate all the dogs and begin a widespread sterilization campaign. As our guidebook says, "these dogs are generally harmless, unless they're traveling in large packs during mating season." I was also told that the dogs come in handy late at night, and if you pet one walking home it will stay with you and protect you from creepers. (Luckily I never had to do this.)

2)...cigarette smoke. Everywhere. Although the European Union enacted a Union-wide ban on smoking indoors in public places (or something like that), Greeks seem to think this law is a mere suggestion. On my connecting flight from Frankfurt to Greece, I think someone actually tried to smoke, because the flight attendant announced angrily over the speakerphone that smoking on planes is and as been forbidden for quite some time. In Greece, bars, restaurants, and just about every other place had a smoky haze, which I got almost used to.

3)...marble. Everywhere. When Molly told us to be careful not to slip on the marble sidewalk outside the metro station, I thought she was referring to that particular stretch of sidewalk, and that sooner or later I would tread on some asphalt. But no, literally all of the sidewalks are marble, and a lot of other things too. The pink and white stone gives the city a very clean look, and made me feel like I was in a grand palace every time I climbed the stairs to our apartment or went to the grocery store.

4)...delicious food. The fact that Greek food is delicious may not surprise you, but beware of packing on a few extra pounds as a result of a zealous appetite for gyros, baklava, and cheese pie. Across from Molly's apartment, we dined not one, but three times, at "Grill & Pita," quite possibly the best place in Athens to buy a gyro. For only 1,80 euro, you can purchase a ginormous pita packed with pork, tomatoes, tzatziki, fried potatoes, and other delicious fixins.' Of course, that wasn't all we ate. Thursday night we went with Molly's friends to a taverna and ordered the "college special," an all-you-can-eat meal of traditional Greek food, for only 10 euro. The food was endless and there were so many courses I'm still not sure what I ate.

5)...random bits of ancient civilizations popping up. Everywhere. In addition to the metro station and the Acropolis, ruins poke through the ground all over Athens. Every neighborhood we wandered into, we came close to falling in to the holes filled with fallen marble columns and ancient toilets (well, maybe not toilets, but who knows what they were.) The mix of a thriving modern city and ancient foundations is fascinating and hard to wrap your mind around at first.

6)...alternative plumbing techniques. Although the Greeks can claim the beginning of democracy and various other civilized things, their plumbing is still developing, apparently. Reportedly the pipes cannot handle toilet paper and large amounts of waste, so you have to throw your TP into a conveniently located wastebasket next to the toilet. Although there are signs indicating this in every bathroom and I tried to be a good foreigner and follow the rules, some habits die hard, and a few times I came close to blowing up the Athenian sewer system with my accidentally flushed TP.

I could list more surprises, but I’ve already written way too much. I had a great time in Greece and I hope I can go back there some day. In the mean time, I’m trying to figure out a way to pay for my next trip in April to an as yet unknown destination…England? Spain? Germany? To be determined…