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.

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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