Thursday, January 29, 2009

I'm a big kid now!

OK after the long week of orientation and my weekend of being a reclusive Disney princess wannabe, the next week went splendidly. We started our first official week of actual classes, so my schedule during the day was back to what I’m used to, which was very nice. In the morning I speak French with my family and then go to school, where I take my classes and bring my computer so that I can use my internet, and then at the end of the day I go back home to speak more French with my family and sleep. This pretty much sums up my second week in Nantes. I’m taking classes in French Theater, The Religion, Society and the State in Modern France, Art History, Grammar, and Phonetics. Theater is fun, but the professor speaks pretty fast, so that’s interesting. We’re reading a classical comedy right now, it’s Moliere, the French Shakespeare, so the piece is a bit hard to understand, but fun to read anyway. Religion Society and the State will be my hardest class probably, because I’m not very interested in it, at least not at the moment since we’re reviewing the 19th century so that we understand the background of what led to ‘Modern France’. So it’s just like a history class, but in French. I haven’t had Art History yet because the teacher was sick that first week, but I’m looking forward to it. Grammar is pretty self explanatory and not to difficult, so that’s going well. Phonetics is quickly becoming my favorite class because the professor is really nice and I think the subject matter is interesting. It’s nice having specific instruction on how to move your mouth to make the crazy French syllables that don’t exist in English, especially when you think you’re saying things write but totally are not and have an accent that some people can’t understand. So after a week of classes, Friday night I attempted to go see a play with my friends that our Theater professor had told us about, but we got lost and couldn’t find the theater, so we gave up and went out for a while. Saturday we had a trip to Mount Saint Michel, a really cool monastery, and Saint Malo, a small ocean village. It was quite lovely and fun, the pictures should have appeared in the upper right corner by the time I publish this. Saturday night after we returned a few friends and I stopped by the grocery store and picked up some extra food for a salad and bread and cheese and went back to my host parent’s house and cooked ourselves dinner and hung out. My host parents left Saturday morning for a week long trip and told me that I could have some friends over for dinner a few nights so that I wouldn’t get lonely. Needless to say I took them up on it, because it was nice to fix myself something for once and just have a quite place to chill with friends. Also, my host mom bought me tons of food, I think that she thinks Americans eat a lot, cause she’s constantly feeding me lots and lots of food. It might also be because she anticipated me needing extra food to offer to the friends I would be inviting. But she still feeds me lots on normal days too. Maybe it’s a mixture of both, but it doesn’t really matter, so moving on. I was a total shut in all of Sunday. It was nice to not see anyone, at all, all day. As an introvert this was just the day I needed to recharge. Since my host parents were gone, I got to sleep in without worrying about whether or not they expected me to wake up at a certain time. Fix myself food, whenever I was hungry and not worry about when they were going to feed me or expect me to leave. I got to lounge around in my pjs all day long and do nothing but read and goof off on my computer without any worries at all. It was bliss! Again, being a total shut in, and not pushing myself to get out and meet people is not really what I came here for, but I figured I’d take advantage of this day because it’s probably the only one I’m going to get this entire semester. At least that’s how I justified to myself at the time, and it’s too late to go back and change things now. And that pretty much wraps up my second week in Nantes.

C’est tout!


Friday, January 23, 2009

Let the Official Learning Begin.

So after our nice weekend away and being spoiled with travels and good food, we returned to Nantes for orientation week. During this week our schedule was composed of things such as group meetings where we learned the rules of IES, the social etiquette of living with our host families, and the rules of taking classes at the local University here. We also went on a tours of the University of Nantes, and the center of Nantes with all the practical stops such as the Laundromat and the Post Office, both the small and large one. When we weren’t in big groups listening to rules, or walking around the city in the cold we were spilt into smaller groups so that the instructors could do an intensive review of French based on our needs as shown by the test we took in Tours and judge us further so that they could figure out for sure which grammar class we would be put into for the rest of the semester. If you can’t tell by my tone this week was so much fun. Seriously it was kind of tiring. Granted some of the information they gave us was needed, but there was a lot of it, really quickly, in French. Classes for the intensive review were helpful, but also very very boring. And the tours were also helpful, but maybe a little long especially in the winter. It felt a lot like they were holding our hands and leading us around like you would a kindergarten class on a field trip. As a relatively independent human being with a brain and a need to be alone every now and again this was a very hard week for me. Just a picture, for this entire week I woke up around 7 and was with my family until I left for school maybe an hour or so later, then was at school with people being herded until 6 or sometimes later, when I went back home and would be with my family for dinner and usually conversation after until 9, when I’d finally get to go to bed. That’s over 12 hours a day of me being with people, all the time, straight 12 hours of people. Not to mention hearing a foreign language everywhere is oddly tiring. I think it’s cause I still have to concentrate on it to understand.

So not the best week ever in the history of my life, but progress was made! French is starting to slowly be more intuitive for me. I can really understand most of what I hear, or at least catch the major meaning. However, forming full length sentences still eludes me more often than not. But I’m doing at least ten thousand times better than I was doing my first night and even first weekend. At the end of the week, on Friday I went to the movies with a friend, which was OK, but the movie we saw was not quite what I expected it to be and we were so tired I think at one point we both fell asleep for a while. I thought it was a suspense movie that would have minimal dialogue and lots of action/suspension to keep us entertained. In reality it was more subdued and thoughtful with maybe not lots of dialogue but the dialogue was important and metaphysical. Not a good movie for two exhausted Americans who are tired after a week of hard core French. Oh well, it was still fun and nice to do something on our own. On Saturday I went with my host family to their daughter’s house about an hour away I think so I got to meet her and her kids. I helped her oldest with her English homework. It was kind of funny since my French isn’t great. I taught her, she taught me, it was a symbiotic tutoring lesson. Another funny thing I noticed was that French countryside looks about the same as Kansas except you take away the wheat fields and replace them with vineyards. Sunday I slept and then decided to go explore some of the parks around Nantes, because it has several that are very pretty, even in the winter. It was a nice way to spend the day, a book and a park. I know, I’m such a nerd, I travel all the way to France and spend my time reading in parks instead of going out and flirting with French boys, but what can I say? After that week, I needed to be introverted for at least a day. Besides if Beauty and Beast is any indication, the nerdy French girl that reads gets the prince anyway. So now all I need is for Dad to grow old and senile get lost in a forest and taken captive by a mean French millionaire so that I can go rescue him, turn the millionaire into a good person and fall in love. That shouldn’t be too hard at all. I’ll get to work on that. Tomorrow.

Now for a quick lesson in French, C’est tout! Which means; That’s all!


Wednesday, January 21, 2009

A Chronology of My First Weekend in France, Part II With the Last Two New Facts/Experiences

The conclusion of yesterday’s post.

On day 3 in Tours, we continued to tour big cold castles. The first was Chateaux Blois which was yet again bigger than the two we saw the previous day, and had a little more history. The castle had four towers each of which was modeled after a different time period of architecture. Unfortunately it was under construction when we saw it and so we couldn’t see everything in it, but nonetheless it was fun to wander around in. For lunch I got to partake in
new fact/experience #10: eating venison. It was an interesting meal, and another thing which I don’t think will become my favorite, but it wasn’t at all bad, in fact it reminded me of pot roast, at least the way they had it cooked and the sauce it was with. After lunch we went to the largest castle still, Chateaux Chambord. This one was way cool. Louis XIV had it built around the same time as he was building Versailles. Leonardo da Vinci helped out with it, so there’s some really weird things in it like a double spiral staircase with windows so that you could look across to the other staircase. It makes it seem like magic that someone else is on the stairs that you never walk by. It was also really, really huge and lavish. New fact/experience #11:
asking artists to be architects doesn’t always give you very practical results. However, since it was always so cold and also close to a swamp and thus smelly the king never really lived there. Weird. Louis was a very strange and very lavish guy. After dinner we hopped back on the bus and rode back to the hotel, where we had dinner. And guess what we had? Blowfish? Baby pig meat? Giraffe? Nope, we had chicken and french fries. It was a bit of a let down actually. We’d been eating all this fancy French food for our meals up to this point and for our last dinner we got chicken and fries. They weren’t even like the Belgian fries that come with lots of mayo, just fries, without salt. That night me and some other students went out with the IES Social Coordinator, Samuel, to a bar in Tours. It was quite fun. The bar had an Irish theme, in France, go figure. It kind of cracks me up when I see things like Chinese restaurants and Irish bars in France. For some reason this just seems wrong to me. I suppose it really does make since though. We didn’t stay out too late because we knew the next day we’d have our ‘entrance exam’ for lack of a better word. So we headed back to the hotel and got some rest before the next day.

So, day 4 we all woke up and ate, then started our small tests. They really weren’t too big of a deal, just a small starter exam, so that the professors could know which classes for grammar and such we all would need to be in for the next week of intensive review. They took a couple hours to do and then we ate lunch, which was just fish, again kind of anti-climatic for the last meal of our weekend, which started off with eel. Then it was time for the long bus ride back to IES where our host families would pick us up. I was doing a lot better with my French by this point and could communicate better with my host parents now, but they still had to be pretty patient with me and I couldn’t really carry the conversation much at all. After dinner I went back up stairs to my room and slept knowing that the next day, Monday, would begin a not so fun week of orientation at the IES center. But that’s for my next post.


Tuesday, January 20, 2009

A Chronology of My First Weekend in France, Part I With 9 New Facts/Experiences

First, since I’ve last written, I’ve met my host parents and they are very nice. They’re very patient with me since I can’t understand most of what they say the first time. I’m still adjusting to hearing French thrown at me all the time and working out how to respond. I try to remember that this will take a couple weeks for the French to fully set in and that I need to be patient with myself also, however it’s difficult when I want to talk to people and I have the vocabulary and grammar of a French 4 year old. Actually I’m pretty sure the 4 year olds here talk much better than I do. But regardless my host mom, who speaks no English, is very nice and works with me to help me expand my vocab. My first morning here she walked me around the kitchen pointing out objects and teaching me how to say them in French. My host dad is also really nice. He speaks a little English, but just about as well as I speak French, so together we pound our way through conversation. They’re both retired and their kids are grown and out of the house. They also have three grandkids, but I haven’t met any of their other family yet. I’ve taken a few pictures of my temporary house for everyone at home to see. I got all my things unpacked and into my room, I had more space for things than I thought I would, so that’s good. Now, if I acquire a couple more things here they’ll fit.

That first night was pretty stressful and I pretty much just ate some dinner and then escaped to my room and turned on my Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me podcast so that I could hear some English and then read my English book I brought with me. It helped me feel better to understand what I was hearing for a change. I woke up the next morning and had breakfast with my host mom, then packed my backpack for the long weekend.
New fact/experience #1: I took my first shower in a real live authentic French bathroom. This means that the shower is structured like an American shower/tub except there’s no mount for the shower head on the wall and no shower curtain. So, one has to be careful not to splash too much water out into the rest of the bathroom while quickly cleaning oneself. You have to do it quickly because without the shower curtain to hold in steam/heat and the constant running warm water flowing from head to toes it gets cold pretty quick. I’m sure there’s a good trick to this, but being American I have no idea what it might be. I don’t have the vocabulary to ask my host parents about it and probably wouldn’t anyway because that’s just a super awkward conversation in any language. Anyway, after I was all clean my host dad took me into the center of town to look for a mobile phone. I didn’t end up getting one, partly because I was super confused and also because I needed more time to look around. After this extravaganza it was back to the house for lunch in which a fellow classmate joined us so that she could come with us after lunch to the IES center where we had to meet in order to leave. She’s very nice and we rode the bus together and roomed together in the hotel in Tours. The bus was two levels! New fact/experience #2: I’ve ridden in the top of a double decker bus. So, we had plenty of time to talk and get to know each other a little. I think she lives pretty close to me here in Nantes so I’m sure we’ll be seeing a lot more of each other.

So, my time in Tours was spent being cold while looking at very large castles and eating food that I purposefully didn’t ask too much about until after I was finished eating. To see said Castles please direct your attention to the photo albums for which links have appeared in the upper right corner of my blog. I won’t say too much about them here, cause it’s more fun to describe them with the pictures. OK, so Day 1 in Tours is really more like day ½. We got to Tours around 5:30 pm and randomly sorted ourselves into rooms,
for new fact/experience #3 see Tours picture album, my bed in the hotel was very cool, I want one when I grow up, and then came back down to the hotel restaurant for dinner. Quick preface, I’ve learned the French like to eat a LOT (new fact/experience #4). I kind of already knew this; however, it’s become more apparent to me now that I’m here. The only reason my first dinner with my host parents was small was because I told them I was very tired and not very hungry. Breakfasts are pretty normal by American standards, just substitute croissants for biscuits and baguettes for bagels and you’re pretty much there. However, lunch the next day was a whole different matter. We had a full course meal of salad, then appetizer, then main entrée, then dessert, then coffee. FOR LUNCH! It was a little crazy and a bit unexpected. However I thought maybe it was a special lunch for me and the other student before we left for the weekend. I have since found out this is false. This lunch also began the pattern of strange appetizers most of which were at least moderately good if not totally strange, so much so that I won’t even try to describe them, except for that to the French “appetizer” apparently means “plate of full of food with less meat than the main course”, but which could be considered a full meal in the States. A quick interjection, in the spirit of exploration I have valiantly tried to eat everything put in front of me, regardless of my preference for its taste. I have succeeded in this endeavor with the exception of a stuffed tomato appetizer, I can’t stand the texture of raw tomatoes, and a few not fully finished desserts which were left over and simply couldn’t be eaten due to lack of room in my stomach by that point in the meal. But I digress, back to dinner the first night in Tours; sure enough it’s a full course meal, with an abnormally large amount of food. When the main dish came out none of us could really figure out what exactly we were eating. It was grey and round and was definitely some kind of fish or seafood. It also had a bone that went through the middle and looked suspiciously like a spine. Sure enough, come to find out it was eel. New fact/experience #5: I ate eel. It really wasn’t too bad, but it won’t become my favorite, and I’m glad I was unaware of its origin while I was still eating it. Dessert was, and continued to be throughout the other lunches and dinners, quite delicious, no surprise there.

Day 2, our first full day in Tours, we woke up and proceeded to Chateaux Loches. It was pretty interesting and had lots of creepy towers and dungeons to check out, which was fun. And, the view from the top of the castle was brilliantly amazing. However, in keeping with the old traditions, nothing is heated. New fact/experience #6: There’s no heating in the castles in France. Most of the students, with whom I agree, came to the conclusion that if such castles existed in the US, they’d probably have central heating by now. Whether or not this is a good thing, depends on whether you enjoy taking tours of castles in the winter when you just stand in the cold and let all the heat drain from your body while trying to listen to the tour guide while really just wishing you could walk around and get the heat back into your toes even if that means climbing 100 stairs to do so. Around lunch time we escaped the cold to a nice restaurant near the chateaux in which we ate lunch. This is where I officially learned that the full course meal extends to lunch all the time, not just on special occasions. For lunch I ate what was given me, like the night before, only this time it was a normal looking sort of meat, think along the lines of a pork chop, which is what I thought it was until I found out after that it was veal. New fact/experience #7: I’ve eaten a baby cow. I was a little upset by this, at least more so than I thought I would be. I’ve never really understood the point in eating baby animals. It’s stuff like this that seriously makes me consider vegetarianism. Which brings me to new fact/experience #8: the French do not understand why anyone would choose not to eat meat. Granted most of their meat is much less processed and probably contains less growth hormones, so they don’t really get the health aspect of it that we see in America. To them meat is good, and anyone who doesn’t want to eat it is sort of viewed as lesser of a person, at least in restaurants. The few vegetarians in our group were constantly served last, and mostly they just got plates of steamed vegetables, without seasonings or flavor at all. Also, IES chose to classify those with any sort of special eating needs, such as the poor girl with a glucose allergy who can’t eat grains, as a vegetarian. This doesn’t work well, as sometimes with the vegetables, the meals come with things like pasta and bread. And for some reason vegetarian also means ‘doesn’t enjoy normal desserts’ and they’d get things like fruit cups instead of chocolate cakes. Since I don’t particularly like chocolate cake and I quite like fruit, I’d trade my desserts with the vegetarians often. Anyway, back to the point, I’m not excited about it, but I’ve now eaten veal. This makes for two new palate experiences within 2 meals, and to do a little bit of foreshadowing, dinner wouldn’t disrupt this trend. After lunch we froze in Chateaux Chenonceau which was bigger than Loch and more prestigious, and it had really big grounds, with a labyrinth. After freezing there for a few hours while wandering around we rode the big bus back to our hotel in Tours and had a dinner which I figured out pretty quick was duck (new fact/experience #9). It was quite good, and much less troubling than lunch had been. After dinner a few girls and I tried to go find a small café to hang out in and have some coffee and drinks, but after wandering up and down the three main streets having found nothing that everyone was happy with, myself and a couple others called it quits and went back so that we could sleep. I know, very very boring of us. What can I say?

Stay Tuned for Part II, with the other new facts and experiences of that weekend. And hopefully I'll get my first week posted before the second week is over! I've posted links to some flickr albums up in the top right corner of this blog if you'd like to see pictures. If you have access to facebook, they're the same as those albums minus some of the redundant and less interesting pictures.


Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Je parle français!

Yeah right!

But I will start where we left off last time and get back to that. The next day in Paris Amy, Carly and I decided to wander the city since our bus didn't leave until 22:00. Everything is in military time over here so I'm quickly getting used to it. I saw the outside of several buildings and Amy and I waited an hour and a half to get inside and see the catacombs. It was worth it because we were one of the last few let in and they were pretty cool. Pictures of this Parisian day are to follow soon-ish. The bus ride was not fun at all because there were some (think 8 or so) guys acting like they were 5 and making it difficult to sleep, but at least there was some leg room since the three of us took up the four seats at the very back of the bus. We barely made from the bus to the station at Haarlem where our host was meeting us, but we did, and he figured out pretty quick that the three lost looking girls outside the station where probably the ones he was looking for and waved us over to his car. He was really nice and had comfy places for us to sleep after the long night. I think we slept until 2 in the afternoon or something like that. That night he showed us around Haarlem with a couple of his friends, which was quite fun but I think that we were all still pretty beat from our long trip and we didn't last very long so we went back to his house and passed out again. The next day he showed us around Amsterdam, which was a very interesting city to say the least, and the next day we went back by ourselves to do a couple more tourist-like things we felt bad dragging him along for, like finding the Hard Rock Cafe so that I could get Dad pin #1. It was quite fun and the city was actually fairly nice. I wouldn't mind going back in the spring when it looks pretty and green again. The next day we were boring and slept late again then went and explored Haarlem just a little bit. Because we had to get back and collect our things so that we could leave that night (last night) to get back to our respective places of study.

So I spent another night on a bus, this time with infinitely better company. I met a nice man from Nigeria who asked me a lot of questions about Obama and what I thought of him and we talked a while. I don't know if this is a common thing but he was quite convinced by the end of the trip that we should be best friends and that he cared for me like a close friend. I promised to call him tomorrow after I got a phone so that he could have my number. Maybe it's just my jaded American self, but I find this very strange and think that the odds that I will ever see this man again are very very very small. Don't get me wrong he was nice but isn't it possible to just meet randomly on a train and have a nice chat and call that enough? I’ve only known him for less than 3 hours really because most of the ride we were sleeping. Anyway we split at the bus station because he was going another way than me and I scouted out the train station where I left my luggage and how to get from it to the one where my train was actually leaving from. I had plenty of time to ride the metro and check it out before I went back and got my luggage (not nearly as expensive as I thought it would be, which was a pleasant surprise). Then I proceeded to haul my suitcases through the metro to the other station which had lots of stairs, up to the platform. I nearly froze to death waiting a couple hours for my train to arrive, train stations here are NOT heated at all so the weather outside is inside also, and it was quite freezing in Paris this morning. The train was uneventful, and from the station I took a taxi to the IES Center where I am now. I'm rather proud that I ended up here without much incident. Especially since I was traveling by myself, I feel this is a good accomplishment. But now that I'm here, people keep throwing French at me and I'm struggling to follow all of it. I feel a little stupid, but I've been told it takes some adjustment, so hopefully it will get better soon. Another twist is that the keyboard here is goofy and French. The letters are all moved around especially the a and the m are just weirdly placed. So begins the adjustment. I meet my family around 6 tonight and stay with them tonight, but leave tomorrow for Tour for three days before I come back. I'll figure out the picture thing and show you soon what I've got so far. Plus what's soon to come.

Miss you all lots.

Until next time, Peace.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Across the Ocean in 8 Hours

So, as foretold this time I got to keep my plans as previously stated, and am currently in Paris with my friends. The plane ride was boring and long, not much to relate there. When I arrived here, I had to store my luggage and will probably have to barter an arm to get it back from the train station guy, but it was necessary so that I didn't have to haul two suitcases around Europe. And, really the price will even out, because I'm sleeping for free in the hotel that my friends kindly snuck me into and tomorrow my friends Amy and Carly and I are in fact leaving for Amsterdam, also previously stated. We're taking the bus and then I will begin my first couch surfing experience.

For those who are unaware, there is a couch surfing network alive and well in this world in which people can sign up to donate their couches or extra beds to us weary travelers for free. Well technically, in reality to show appreciation for their generosity us weary travelers will offer up small gives of gratitude. So when we get to Amsterdam we will be picked up at the bus station by a very friendly guy, or so I'm told by a friend who's stayed with him previously, and then crashing on his extra mattress and couch. In return we plan to bring him a bottle of wine and cook him a couple meals during our stay.

Well, since not much has happened since I arrived except me and Carly trekking through the Paris train stations and stopping at a cafe for some small pastries and caffeine I have no pictures to post for you and no fascinating stories to relate. Hopefully by the next time I'm on here I'll have something more exciting to say other than I'm still alive!