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…

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Journey to the land of Picasso

I've discovered I'm really not a fan of Picasso. Sorry art critics, surrealists, and lovers of kindergarten sketches--it's just not my style. And believe me, I know. I spent an entire day touring what seemed like every known homage to Picasso in France. Apparently the artist spent some of his life here, and he's quite beloved in the area.

To explain...Saturday we took our first program sponsored "excursion" (finally, I know where some of my $7000 program fee has gone.) We hopped on the tour bus at 8 am and drove about two hours to Antibes, a beautiful town on the Mediterranean. After staying up late the night before, missing breakfast and failing to sleep on the bus, I'll admit I wasn't in the best mindset for wandering an art museum all day. So, when we arrived at the Picasso museum in Antibes, I was already in a bad mood. I don't know where Picasso's great works are, or what his great works are, but I'm pretty sure they're not in Antibes. We wandered around looking at a lot of elementary sketches of what probably became good art. But as much as I tried to find the symbolism in the paintings, and as much as I tried to understand the tour guide's long-winded and monotone interpretations of the art, I just couldn't get into it. Put me in a Van Gogh museum any day and I'll drool for hours, but Picasso-- eh. I very shortly got sick of looking at images of abnormally large breasts and goats and resigned myself to the fact that I may never be able to appreciate Picasso.

Now that I've complained about Picasso, I must concede that I was lucky just to go to a museum with his art, in a town where he lived and worked. (In fact, one of the pieces of art was actually painted in the museum wall, by him. Too bad it was just three circles with some dots in the middle). The museum had some other artists' work, too, and I did enjoy looking at that. Picasso himself seems like he was a pretty interesting person, but I'll leave the art appreciation to a more devoted follower.

After escaping the museum and revitalizing myself in the fresh air, we wandered around the old walls of the city and looked out at the beautiful Mediterranean. There were a few sailboats out on the water, and I'm thinking I want to find a way to get on one during my stay here. We wandered around Antibes for a while more and smelled all the delicious scents in the market before discovering the most delicious looking gelati stand I've seen so far. Of course I had to partake in not one, but three flavors.

Full of gelato, we got back on the bus and headed to Vence, another small town with an artist obsession. We stopped at a chapel designed by Metisse, who I am also not that fond of. However, once the Dominican sister explained the symbolism of literally everything in the chapel and how Metisse spent years designing everything, I was able to appreciate the black and white scribbles on the wall as something more than black and white scribbles. The stained glass windows were also very pretty, and when the sun shines in just right, it throws a rainbow of colors on the walls.

After Metisse in Vence, we drove to yet another town devoted to Picasso. There, we looked at some art on the walls of an old Roman chapel and stared at Picasso's statue of a man and his sheep in the middle of the town. This town looked a lot like all of the other Southern French towns I've visited, only dirtier. And the men were creepy. Needless to say I was glad to get on the bus and finally return home to good old Aix, which I'm realizing is a very clean and very beautiful town.

Saturday night, recharged and back in Aix, my friend Martha and I went to a party at one of our German friend's houses. Our friend, Katrine, is in a franco-allemand exchange program where the students each spend a year in Germany and a year in France, so luckily there were a lot of German and French students at the party. In fact, Martha and I were the only Americans there and we got to speak French the entire time. (I was a just a little bit ecstatic about this.) Everyone brought drinks or food and they made vin chaud, so it was a civilized little soiree. I received countless numbers of bises from the French students, and I think I like their kind of greeting. It's so much more friendly than shaking hands. (And so much more enjoyable when you're meeting a gorgeous French boy for the first time.)

I had a great time at the party and I'm quite proud that I was able to speak French the entire time without making a fool of myself. Hopefully I'll get more opportunities like that. And hopefully I won't have to look at any more Picasso art (although that's doubtful.)

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Je deteste le buttlift

For those of you who don't have time/are too lazy/don't care to read what is surely going to be a novella, here's my weekend au ski in a nutshell: I went skiing in the Alps, got dragged halfway up a mountain on my butt, discovered the "convenience" of French roadside bathrooms, and ate way too much nutella.

The longer version:

After weeks, maybe even months, of anticipation, bragging to friends and family, and making the big decision to pack my ski jacket and snowpants in my suitcase coming to France, I finally got to go skiing in the Alps. Yeah that's right, the Alps. (I still can't believe I did it.)

Organized by my school's (called the IEP) international organization, a group of about 25 foreign kids and 6-8 French students boarded the tour bus Friday night and headed off for Pelvoux, France, a ski station about four hours from Aix. By the time we left Aix, the sun had disappeared, and we couldn't see much of the countryside on the journey. Even at night, however, you can tell that France is a beautiful country. Driving by clusters of lights on hilltops, we'd occasionally pass a castle, lit up in the night. I don't think my jaw stayed shut for more than five minutes the whole trip.

Just as we got off the freeway, we stopped at a respectable-looking rest-stop for a bathroom break. At this point we were far enough North that it had started snowing, and waiting in line was a wee bit cold. Shortly after getting in line, my friend announced that there was actually no toilet-- just a hole. All of the Americans froze in horror and said "WHAT!!" of course. Now I'd heard of hole-in-the-ground toilets in Italy, but I was under the impression that France is a little bit more "advanced."Everything else about the rest-stop was well-kept, clean, and shiny, so I did a double-take when I opened the door and stared down at the slit in the floor that took the place of a toilet. I'm still recovering, actually.

Back on the bus, we were treated to a poorly dubbed film about rock-climbing and another French one about a black family skiing in the Alps. (random?). Eventually we arrived in Pelvoux, pumped up by the movies and ready to hit the slopes. Unfortunately, they don't have night skiing in the Alps, so we had to wait until morning. We stayed in apartments at the base of the mountain, but it was so dark when we arrived that we couldn't see where the ski runs were.

Saturday morning we woke up at the crack of 8 am, ate some nutella and bread, and picked up our ski equipment from the rental place. In the daytime, we could clearly see the mountains, and that the chairlift was a few hundred yards from our apartment. At first, I was a little disappointed that this "station" only had one chairlift up the mountain, and that on the map it looked like there were only a few runs. Then I discovered that the Alps are just a little bit bigger than Boyne or Nubs, and the reason there's only one chairlift is because it takes twenty minutes to get all the way to the top, and all of the runs take an equally long time to complete. Also, after the chairlift ends, there's another lift, which we dubbed "the buttlift" because you literally sit on a disk and it pulls you up the hill, with your skis still on the ground. I'd never seen something like this before, and was so confused about how to do it the first time I tried, that I lost my balance and fell. Too scared to let go, I let the buttlift drag me about 100 feet up the mountain, trying to figure out a way to stand up again. As I was being dragged, I kept passing signs that said something like "if you fall, get off here" but since they were written in french, it took a while to realize that's what they said. So eventually I just let go and fell into three feet of snow, lost my poles, and watched my friend continue up the hill. As I sat in the snow, trying to formulate a plan of escape, French skiiers glided by me, shouting out advice in French, which I of course didn't understand, but nodded and agreed with them nonetheless. One guy picked up my poles on the way up, and I said "Merci" and then panicked because I didn't know where he was going. I decided to take my skis off, which is a bad idea (like I said, three feet of snow), but luckily the man came back with my poles and very kindly helped me put myself together and, after a lot of hand gestures and "je ne comprend pas" showed me how to get back to the groomed part of the mountain.

This experience traumatized me just a little, and although I eventually braved the buttlift again and successfully rode it to the top many more times, I always hated and dreaded it. Going all the way to the top was definitely worth it, though. The view from up there was breathtaking, and the runs at the top the most challenging.

Saturday around noon we stopped for lunch and ate at a little cafe halfway up the mountain. We sat outside in the sun, and once again, I couldn't keep my jaw closed, couldn't stop myself from saying "this is so beautiful" every five minutes.

We stopped skiing at 4:30, and my friend Kelsey and I reserved some time in the sauna (for a 'small' fee of 6 euro.) Luckily, there were two French guys in there at the same time, so we got to practice our French for half an hour. Turns out they were also students from Aix, and were pretty easy to talk to. The sauna is a great place to have a conversation in a foreign language, I've discovered. Conversation isn't necessary, but it's awkward if no one says anything, so having a small vocabulary isn't as much of a hindrance. I've encountered a lot of problems with the language barrier so far. I feel so boring when I talk in French because all I can talk about is food, customs in the United States, and the weather. I sometimes feel bad for the French people who have to constantly supply vocabulary and talk slow just to have a simple conversation with me.

Saturday night this language barrier was also very noticeable. We went over to the French students' apartment for some "vin chaud" (hot wine is delicious) and the room was clearly segregated into Anglophone and Francophone people. Kelsey and I decided to be a little daring (or maybe it's just because we had nowhere to sit) and planted ourselves in the middle of French territory, making it impossible for the French kids not to talk to us. Once again, we ended up comparing cultures and complaining about how we don't understand our professors, but it was fun to finally talk to some French students. The IEP, and most things in Aix, are clearly separated into foreign and French students, and it's really hard to mix, so even talking to our fellow students for an hour was great progress.

This is getting really long and I'm sure no one really wants to read about every detail, so I'll wrap it up. Sunday was equally beautiful and relaxing, although the bus ride home took six hours or so because the traffic was so bad. The weekend exhausted me and I could hardly stay awake in class Monday. Now I'm (mostly) recovered, but I want to go back. It was one of the best weekends I've had here, and I hope I can go skiing again before I leave.