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.