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.