Carcassonne

Fall break starts tomorrow, so I have all the time in the world to make a post or two.  And while this past week has been pretty busy, especially since I needed to finish some OFII forms, I’d like to focus on my weekend trip to a beautiful city called Carcassonne.

About an hour and a half from Montpellier lies a medieval fortress, called the Cité de Carcassonne, that was restored in 1853 by an architect named Eugeène Viollet-le-Duc.

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On the inside of the fortress is a huge, old-fashioned city with a wistful feel about it.  You can tour the château or the fortress walls, but you can also find a beautiful basilica, countless candy shops, and a a museum of torture (charming, I know).

A young, impatient man guided us, showing off important parts of the city while rapidly recounting Carcassonne’s history.  One of the first things we did was visit the church, or basilica.  It’s a grand building, a bit plain on the outside, but with beautiful stained-glass windows and large but faded carvings on the walls.

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Every once in a while, three men would start singing acapella near the alter, their voices harmonizing and resonating throughout the church.  The building would fall silent as all tourists stopped talking and sat in the pews to listen– the power those young men had was astounding!  It was equal parts eerie and moving.

After that, we walked a lot, talked a lot, and were given free time to eat lunch and roam.  Although Carcassonne is a tourist attraction for many different reasons, I honestly think someone should mention that it’s pretty much the Candy Capital.  Never, in my entire life, have I seen so many candy and sweets stores in such close proximity to one another.

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Naturally, this means I spent a lot of money on chocolate.  And naturally, that means I ate all the chocolate within a few days.  Such is life.

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Because we had so much time, I took the chance to walk around the fortress walls.  Some parts seemed to be kind of off limits, but, well… if there were no signs or ropes blocking me from entering, why not explore?

Along my walk, I saw a crumbling staircase.  It seemed like it had been chained off at one point, but the chain was broken when I got there.  Of course, that meant I had permission to climb up.  As you can see, it didn’t lead to an incredibly high part of the wall, but it did gave me a nice view of the city below.

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And with a group of students, I did visit the aforementioned museum of torture– a small little building that you would miss if not for tall, armored knight standing outside its ivy-covered walls.  Although we were able to laugh because we’re so far removed from that time period, the whole thing was fascinating in a very uncomfortable way.  There are a surprising amount of woman-specific torture devices that come from the middle ages, but in general, it made me shutter to think of any person being subjected to the kind of violence that seemed normal back then.

Since I needed to clear my head after walking through the museum’s “torture garden,” I ended up finding a sweet little tea shop on a street corner.  Besides the occasional tin of candied flower petals, the shelves were stacked with tea cups, tea pots, tea plates, and tea leaves.  It seemed obvious that I would buy something after ten minutes, so I even received a freshly brewed cup!  And if you know me, then you know I can’t resit tea, so I did buy just a little bit…

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We had to leave not too long after that in order to make it back to Montpellier before dark.  Overall it was a lovely trip, and I’m glad I had the chance to go.

One of the things I can’t get over is just how gorgeous Carcassonne is.  The gray walls, the history, the quaint shop fronts, the cobblestone paths– all of it make Carcassonne irresistible.  Although it’s a bit far, I’m genuinely considering going back, if only to talk to the wonderful shopkeepers or to buy a bit more chocolate.

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Since break is here, I’ll to explore the city a little more, take some nice pictures for once, and maybe attend a conversation exchange or two.  Oh, and probably do classwork.

For the most part, though, I can just relax…. There’s nothing like doing nothing, right?

life in france

I’m not nearly as consistent as I’d like to be when it comes to writing blog posts.  I guess that’s something I have to work on, huh?

So here’s the update: I returned from Ecuador, I spent about a month in the US, and now I’ve firmly established myself in the south of France.  It all happened quickly and chaotically, but I’m in the groove of things now.  I’ll try to keep this brief because I can’t cover all of what’s happened since I’ve arrived, so here goes!

Getting to France was exciting.  I wasn’t alone on the plane ride– I immediately met a student from my university who was in the same program.  We stuck together, facing turbulence and a man spilling soda on our legs, until we made it to Montpellier.  At the hotel, we met the other 30-odd students who’ll be staying in France this semester.  We were oriented by staff, we explored, and we drank (welcome to France!).  We also learned that our French was not as phenomenal as we had thought.

Setting up my courses came next.  A few are mandatory, like grammar and writing, and others were made for foreign students, meaning I picked them because they’d improve my French and (probably) be a bit easier.  I now have an internship that will start in October as well as five classes*.  The good thing is that four of them take place with the other international students, meaning they’re meant for those who are not necessarily masters at French.  On the other hand, my one integrated class, which is a “normal” class taught at the university, is probably awesome– but I just can’t understand what the professor is saying!

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When I’m not in class or ignoring my homework, I’m walking around the city.  I can always find something interesting going on.  Boutiques, cafés, and other small shops are everywhere while musicians or other kinds of street performers are around every corner.  My favorite performance involves a man who plays a “Hang,” which is probably the most interesting instrument I’ve seen yet, but I also like the guy who covers himself in what looks like copper paint and sits absolutely still for hours on end.

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Although it’s incredibly easy to get lost when weaving in and out of side streets, I’m starting to find my way around.  Well, it helps that I’m not afraid to stick my nose in one of those obnoxiously big tourist maps*!  The people are also super friendly here, so whenever I get lost, I mentally prepare myself and ask for directions in French.  No biggie.

The center of the city is really fun to explore.  There’s a Lush (I can finally walk to one!), there are plenty of book stores, and you know I’ve already found a vegan bakery.  It’s generally super sunny and warm, although we have had a few cloudy days.  Overall, the weather is gorgeous, and it’s no wonder I’m constantly tempted by the outdoors.  Plus, once in a while, I come across a vineyard.

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This one is close to my house, which is a few tram stops away from the center of the city.  My host mom says that no one will notice if I take a bunch of grapes and bring it home, so… you all know what I’m doing on my next walk.

And speaking of my host mom, can I mention she’s an angel?  Seriously.  Straight from the sky.  She’s incredibly kind, easy to get along with, and has made me feel completely at home in her color-coordinated, Ikea-inspired apartment.  I also now have a 3-year old brother who is prone to slight mood swings and a wonderfully good-natured cat (Bébé Chat, as she’s affectionally called) that I am not allergic to.  You can’t imagine how grateful I am for that!

Now, because of the way this study abroad program is set up, the students can decide to take a few extra excursions that allow us to explore more of Europe.  The next one will be to Barcelona in about a week!  We’ve already gone on a group trip to a place called Aigues-Mortes, which translates roughly to “Dead Water.”  It’s a city not too far from Montpellier that has an interesting history– it served as a prison for a while!– but now, it’s a quaint little place, surrounded by water, that specializes in selling salt.  In fact, some of the water surrounding Aigues-Mortes is perpetually red from the salt content.  The salt attracts a type of algae, which attracts tiny organisms, which attracts flamingos… it’s a cool process.

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While here, we walked around a medieval wall that surrounds the city and learned about its history.  Towards the end of the tour, I bought a 9,50 Euro container of salt*.  I soon realized I could have bought the exact same thing for 1,50 Euro cheaper outside of the wall…  Live and learn, right?

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We took a 20-minute bus ride after touring the city so we could hop on a boat and sail around the coast.  It was beautiful, but so windy and sunny that it was hard for me to function.  That didn’t stop the other passengers from having a fun time… at one point, there was a singing competition between the study-abroad students and a young French soccer team.  (I think the soccer team won… those girls had lungs!)

Once the ferry docked and the weather calmed down, we took another long walk while admiring all the coast had to offer.  Namely, the Simpsons.

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There was also supposed to be a bull run around the time that we arrived, but I didn’t see any stampeding animals.  That was a relief– wiith my luck, I might have been hit!

Overall, I can’t express how happy I am to be here.  The south of France is more beautiful than I could have imagined.  And although I might have spent quite a few years romanticizing the city before coming I’m not exaggerating its charm!

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It’s wonderful.  From the narrow but lively side streets to the wide-open courtyards, Montpellier is a gem, and I couldn’t be happier that I chose this place for my year of studying abroad.

Make sure to tune in at some point in the near future (fingers crossed!) to hear more about my adventures in Montpellier.

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Cat pictures are hard to take, but here’s one of Bébé Chat!

*Fun facts about Montpelier:

  • Classes usually happen only once a week, compared to three or four times a week in the US.  They’re also about three hours long to make up for the difference.  Can you imagine being lectured in an amphitheater with poor audio for three hours?  I can.  I really, really can.
  • Street signs aren’t on poles here.  They’re on the actual buildings that line the streets!
  • Commas and decimals are switched (like in many other countries).  So prices wouldn’t be written as $9.50 but as 9,50€.
  • Public transportation here is bomb-diggity.  It’s incredibly easy to get around, and I was really surprised at how eagerly and readily people are willing to offer seats to the elderly or to pregnant women/young mothers.

first week and saraguro

It’s been more a little more than two weeks since I first came to Ecuador.  Part of me wonders how time has gone by so fast, but the other (more rational) part has an answer: lesson planning.

I climbed the equivalent of three flights of stairs to get this picture-- that's just a part of living in such a mountainous area.

I climbed the equivalent of three flights of stairs to get this picture– that’s just a part of living in such a mountainous area.

Last week was when I met my students for the first time, but I wasn’t teaching classes.  My mentor teacher, who has been working at Penn State for quite a few years, took the lead; meanwhile, my co-teacher and I helped out.  This week, though, we’re on our own.  We’re being observed on some days, but it’s up to us to plan and perform.

The hardest part about planning is that we’re essentially making the content of the class as we go.  For example, a math teacher is given a guide of what she has to teach and when she has to teach it.  One of her main goals might be to work on how to teach, right?  But my co-teacher and I have to do the what, the when, and the how on our own.

We do have a general guideline– by the end of July, our students will have created a sort of memoir, whether in a written or video form.  There’s just this huge gap between point A and B that we need to do a lot of work on (with help, of course).

That’s just one thing that has been keeping me busy.  Even though making lesson plans is a lot of work, my group still finds a lot of time to have fun.  Plus, we still have weekend excursions that take us to incredible parts of this beautiful country.

A shrine I found in one of the markets.

A shrine I found in one of the markets.

In our downtime, we can walk around the historic part of Cuenca.  It’s not too far from the university– just cross the river, climb up a few (hundred) steps, and you’re there.  There’s a panadería on almost every corner, so you can almost always smell freshly baked bread, and there are tons of shops.

Close to the university is also a large market that sells all types of vegetables and fruits you can think of.  They offer traditional cleansing ritaul here: for three dollars, an old, wise woman will hit you with a bundle of herbs in order to find and dispel any bad energy from your body.  (I’m not sure if a description would do this justice.  It’s something you have to see. )

And did you know that one of Ecuador’s main sources of income is flowers?  There’s a beautiful flower market in the middle of the city, where you can buy a bouquet for only five dollars.  Very close to that is a cathedral- they’re everywhere, actually- where you can buy honey, jam, or drinks made by nuns.   All in all, it’s interesting to explore.

There are rows and rows of stands like this is the market.

There are rows and rows of stands like this is the market.

The city also has a lot of fun and free activities.  A few nights ago, nine of us teachers-in-training went to a free dance class.  I can now confidently say that I salsa better than you.  Maybe.  There are also free zumba classes in the morning, but they unfortunately conflict with my Spanish lessons.

And speaking of Spanish, I’m progressing more than I thought I would.  With a bit of pantomiming and some help from a dictionary app on my iPod, I can now talk to shop vendors, taxi drivers, and my host family.  It’s often frustrating– I can’t tell you how many miscommunications have happened.  And here’s some free advice to you: if you’re using a language in a foreign country, don’t just nod and say “yes.”  If you don’t understand something, speak up.  If not, you might be agreeing to go on a night-time car ride five miles outside of the city.  You might have just consented to buy a portion of cuy, or guinea pig.  You also might be telling your housekeeper that you like getting drunk.  Learn from me, okay?  They’re avoidable mistakes.

Not that it’s all frustrating.  After every conversation, however filled with mishaps it was, I’m always proud of the progress I’ve made.

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Only positive vibes in Saraguro! We participated in a ceremony, led by two elders, to cleanse ourselves of negative energy so we could share our positive feelings with each other.

One of the places I got to practice my Spanish was in Saraguro.  A long time ago, in the United States, tribes of indigenous people roamed around.  They had their cultures and languages that were very different from the Europeans, right?  The same thing happened in Ecuador.  There were a lot of indigenous tribes in Ecuador, before they were conquered by the Incas, and later by the Spanish.  And in way that there are still Native American people and sanctuaries in the US, there are still indigenous people and sanctuaries in Ecuador.

Saraguro is a canton (or a sub-division) of Ecuador.  It’s located high in the mountains and is a two or three hour drive from Cuenca.  While we were there, we did a ton of things.  We saw the process of making wool textiles: how the wool comes from the sheep, how the wool is turned into thread and dyed, and how it’s woven on a loom.

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We also got a tour of the type of house used by the Saraguro, all the while getting insight into their culture and thinking from a member of the Saraguro people.

One of the most interesting things about Saraguro is how it’s embracing, and even depending, on outsiders.  Even though it’s an indigenous community, they want to share their culture with the modern world.  Because of this, the group has started something they call “Community Tourism.”  Basically, they invite outsiders to come into their village, their homes and their lives.  The Saraguro get to share the things that make them unique and tourists are able to experience indigenous life in deeply personal way.  In addition, the Saraguro have a plan for sharing any money they make from this project, meaning that the entire town is getting some form of monetary support.

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Our lovely guide.

Tomorrow, I teach my last lesson of the week.  I have class on Friday, but around two in the afternoon, I’m off again to another part of Ecuador!  We’re visiting a “cloud forest,” where we’ll hike and learn a bit about sustainability and biodiversity in Latin America.  I’m sure I’ll have some fantastic pictures coming up soon.

To my friends and family– I miss you all.  I’m thinking of you lots and hope you’ve doing well.  I’ll post again soon.

hey there, Cuenca

The rocks were slick with water.  I stepped forward and slipped, using the mossy ledge on the left to keep my balance while reaching for a wildly swinging rope on my right– the only thing that kept me away from the river.  With wet sneakers, I continued up the narrow ledge, gingerly stepping from rock to rock, under vines and branches, until I reached a slightly more stable part of the trail.

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We climbed up and up– the altitude was tiring, but the scenery was invigorating.  Also, there’s something about having only a thin rope separating you from a rapid waters that keeps you awake.

The Andean mountains are a bit chilly in the morning, but the longer and higher I climbed, the hotter I became.  At some point, I started focusing on the flowers, the river, and my footing more than my labored breathing.  We passed cows and llamas, saw hummingbirds high in the trees, and eventually made a loop back to the main building.

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We came here to Termas Papallacta, a spa and hot spring, after visiting our second school in Quito.  Before that, on June 29, we travelled to a small compound that housed about 900 young students.  I sat in a class, taught 8-years olds how to sing “Old MacDonald,” and was then whisked away to explore Quito’s more historic buildings.

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The day after, we went to another school.  After conferencing with the principal, we played with the kids during the last ten minutes of recess.  Giving us each a bag of chips, our trip director encouraged us to share, saying that it would be a great way to get them to interact with us.

She wasn’t wrong– within three seconds of opening my bag, a huge group of youngsters crowded around me, eagerly reaching out their hands.  While passing out snacks, I made my way over to the playground, and eventually ended up on the seesaw.  I wasn’t the only adult who was willing to have a little fun, and soon enough there was another group of young children fighting to be the one to play with us.

The recess bell rang, sounding more like a bomb-warning siren than anything else, and the kids reluctantly ran off.  Two by two, my classmates and I were placed in rooms to work with the students.  My partner and I stayed with chatty five- and six-year olds.  Gradually, they came to us, wanting help with the sums they were practicing and full of questions about our lives in the United States.

In Ecuador, being punctual is not as strict as it is in the United States, and true to Ecuadorian spirit, my partner and I were almost fifteen minutes late to our next meeting– but only because the children were sad to see us go.  As we walked to the front of the class to say goodbye, they crowded around us, wrapping their arms around our knees and thanking us for our help.

Eventually, we made our way out of the class and onto a bus that would take us to Papallacta.  We napped and conversed for about an hour, finding ourselves surrounded by massive mountains and new vegetation, before finally arriving at the hot spring.  It seemed like the only thing around us were a river and the mountains; other than that, we were beautifully isolated in the Andes.

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Our time there was short.  After one fantastic night and part of the next day, we had to leave for the airport.  On the 31st of July, we would fly to Cuenca and meet our host families.

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I won’t write about my family just yet– but I will say that they’re absolutely fantastic, as is the city.  Classes have been keeping me extremely busy, but it helps that we’re starting to settle into a routine.  Soon, I’ll write all about my family, my classes in Cuenca, and our weekend excursions!

hello, Quito

Much like New York, Quito is a city with sirens, graffiti, and dark alleys.  People move through the sidewalk in crowds while music blasts from passing cars.  Enticing smells float from brightly lit bars and restaurants while small shops see a steady stream of people come and go.  It’s different from the United States, but the night scene is incredibly familiar.

After passing through the darkening city, we pulled up to a small hotel.   We received our room assignments and lugged our suitcases up two flights of stairs.  The atmosphere is much thinner this far up, and our hearts were pounding wildly from our brief burst of energy.  At this point, we just wanted to get settled and go to bed– our flight landed an hour later than expected, and another 45 minutes to the hotel meant that we weren’t sleeping until two in the morning.  Luckily, my roommate and I were rewarded with a quaint room that was perfectly sized (for me, at least!).

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Because I didn’t feel like pulling my suitcase up another flight, I offered Michelle the loft (and the double bed!) that was upstairs.  I took the small bed on the first level.  Since breakfast was being served in only six hours, we tried our best to get to sleep– it wasn’t too hard… warm blankets + exhaustion = out cold.

After waking up, we trekked down the stairs and across a small courtyard to the main branch of the hotel.  In the daytime, it’s a completely different place!  Dark green ivy crawls up the walls and bright red flowers add strategic pops of colors.

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Tables and chairs are placed outside on small balconies and further down on the grounds.  It’d be a great spot to enjoy the weather and drink some tea!  We passed them, though, and went inside, finding tables filled with fresh fruit, juices, coffees, teas, granola, and much more.

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After eating and gathering a few things, we walked about five minutes to a nearby museum that displays artifacts from indigenous Ecuadorian groups.

You know how Europeans came to North America and interacted with, or sometimes oppressed, the Native Americans?  The same thing happened to indigenous Ecuadorian peoples, only with the Spanish.  We heard more details about Ecuador’s past in what served as a medium-sized lecture hall nestled in the museum.  Ecuador’s history is absolutely fascinating, and what’s even better is that in 2008, Ecuadorians made a constitution that promotes values of equality for all groups of people.  This includes indigenous people, but also extends to women, to those in the LGBQT community, and even to nature!

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After a couple of lectures, we were finally allowed to take a tour of the museum.  Our guide was friendly, funny, and extremely knowledgable.

“Have you ever seen a sculpture with coffee-bean eyes?” he asked while pointing to a statue.  “Have you ever wondered why their eyes are like that?”

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“It’s because they’re high!”

We laughed.  “No, really,” he continued, “the shamans do this in order to see and make sense of their visions…” a lengthy explanations about different types of shamans, purification ceremonies, and indigenous history followed.

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After the museum, we had lunch at a place called Crepes & Waffles (you only get one chance to guess what they served).  It was a bit embarrassing being in such a big group (there are almost thirty of us total), because we attract a lot of attention.  Still, eating lunch at that small place was a fun experience, and once we finished we had the chance to walk around the city a bit.

Within the hour we were off on a bus tour.  It was one of the highlights of my day.  Quito has an amazing blend of decrepit and meticulously cared-for buildings.  You can see a traditional and modern styles sitting right next to each other.  But more striking than that is the streets– and the way everyone drives!  Everything seems incredibly steep and narrow.  I would love to shake the hand of every Ecuadorian driver.  Navigating the maze-like roads is not for the faint-of-heart.

While on the tour around the city, we had a few chances to take photos.  We were gradually climbing the mountains and ended up getting some absolutely fantastic views.

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Seeing the city in this way made me realize that Quito is HUGE!  It seems to stretch out forever.

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While up on this particular mountain, we had the chance to climb up a statue of a winged Virgin Mary.  Ecuador is a very Christian country, but they differ from the Christians we might think of in America.  For example, the snake in Ecuador is revered– it’s said that he can travel to the underworld, become wise by learning there, and travel back up again to share his knowledge.  For this reason, there’s a snake at the feet of the Virgin Mary statue.

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Eventually we made our way to Ecuador’s main plaza.  Many of the buildings that surround the plaza have government connections; one has housed previous presidents, another is called the Archbishop’s Palace (although he doesn’t stay there any more– according to our guide, he “doesn’t get as many visitors nowadays”).  Oh, and in the next week or so, the POPE will be making a visit to Ecuador, stopping to speak at the Plaza while he is there.

We ate dinner in the Archbishop’s Palace, which has been partially been converted into a classy hotel.  After that, a taxi quickly took me and a few others back to the hotel, where we can unwind and prepare for tomorrow.

So far, Quito has been absolutely amazing.  The people here are warm, friendly, and accommodating– especially to such a loud and obvious group of tourists.  The air is fresher, in a way, and the mountains are so much bigger than anything I’ve seen before… they provide a great backdrop for when you’re eating outside.

There are a lot of small differences that I’ve already noticed, too, like not being able to flush toilet paper (you have to throw it in the trash can!) or the fact that natural light is prevalent (electric lights are used a bit less).  Also, the food here is fantastic, even for a vegan, and I don’t think I’ll get over how great the fresh juices are.

Tomorrow, we’re headed out at eight in the morning to observe some schools around the cities.  It’ll be another very long day, but I think it’s going to be pretty amazing.

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