Thursday, August 29, 2013

A Typical Day of Pre-Session Life

Mercredi, 28 août.

I realized that I've written a lot about my adventures since being here -- planned excursions, trips downtown, even the life-saving grocery shopping trip of 2013. What I haven't really talked about, however, is what I'm doing the rest of the time. (It's not all picnics and olive tastings.) Over the past 10 days, I've adjusted pretty well to the schedule -- and I've even taken some pictures to help you get a sense of my surroundings! So here it is, a typical day in my "pre-session" life:

For starters, I wake up every morning around 7h. (Per usual, a side note: the "h" stands for "heure" and is used sort of as a replacement of the colon and/or the word "o'clock" in French.) Class starts right at 9h00, so waking up two hours early leaves plenty of time to get ready and go to breakfast first. Of course, seven in the morning isn't really tbat early, but I always set a couple of alarms just in case it's hard to get up! Sometimes, if I'm lucky, I wake up as the sun is rising just behind the building across from me. It's so pretty that it almost makes up for the fact that I live just over a glorified prison yard!

As you saw before, my room is super tiny, so it takes no time at all after my alarm sounds to get dressed and pack my bag for the day. Because Molly didn't have a cell phone until just the other day, she had a more exciting alarm -- me banging on her door in my jammies!

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Yes, I WOULD Like Some Cheese with my Wine

Mercredi, 28 août.

You know that snarky expression -- would you like some cheese with that whine? Well now, it has a whole different meaning to me! And the answer is a very resounding YES.

As part of my French Civilization course, we went to a wine tasting today. I don't want to ruffle feathers or make anyone die of shock, but let me just say ... I am now officially NOT a fan of vin. (<-- Rhyming very much intentional.) First of all, I don't really like wine, so the whole idea of tasting loads of it wasn't exactly tantalizing. Still, I figured that it would be a fun time and would maybe introduce me to some varieties and flavors that I hadn't known existed!

Second, I was absolutely starving by the time we arrived at the Maison des vins du Languedoc, the site of lesson and wine tasting. BUT THERE WERE NO SNACKS. None. Not even a little plate of Saltines to help cleanse the palate! (Sorry, but I'm allowed to say things like "cleanse the palate" because I'm French now.) It was so bad that at one point towards the end, I saw a box of rocks, thought it was a bread bowl, and started to drool.

No snacks. Only tons and tons of wine!
Third, there was a frustrating realisation that occured when we all realized that "wine tasting" did not imply wandering around a vineyard, casually tasting wine. No. "Wine tasting" meant sitting at desks in an overly air-conditioned room at the Maison des vins, listening to a friendly but perhaps overly enthusiastic oenologue, or wine expert, talking about, well... wine.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Excursion à Avignon et Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer

Dimanche, 25 août.

A few months ago, when I was accepted to study abroad in Montpellier, I changed my Facebook cover photo to a shot of me, cheesing on the ramparts of some city. I knew it was taken somewhere in the South of France, and I had a feeling it was Avignon, but I wasn't sure. I decided I'd keep a look out for anything that looked familiar during our visit, but didn't think I'd have too much luck.

Me in Avignon ... approximately age 8?
Can you even imagine my shock as I realized that not only was my cover photo definitely from Avignon, but it was taken on the very ramparts next to which the bus had parked! You can recognize the tower and -- if you look closely enough -- the hole in the back wall. I couldn't believe it! Naturally, I had to take a picture.

I couldn't get onto the exact same part on the ramparts (for that privilege, you have to visit the Pont du Gard and pay an entrance fee), so I settled for a slightly different version! But hey -- same squinty eyes, same cheesy smile, and same red jacket!

Et Maintenant ... Un Vrai Tour de Montpellier!

Samedi, 24 août.

We spent this evening on a petit tour of Montpellier, conducted by Michel, one of our guides from Nimes. (Again, not really sure what makes him so qualified, but he's great!) The plan for this post: lots of photos and not a lot of talking. There are too many beautiful photos and what I have to say would bore you anyhow!

Our first stop was la Cathédrale Saint-Pierre de Montpellier. It used to be attached to a monastary, but was later elevated to the title of "cathedral." The church suffered some serious damage during religious wars between Catholics and Protestants in the 16th and 17th centuries, but ultimately was the only church in Montpellier to survive the wars. It was later rebuilt, hence the slightly different styles of architecture -- Gothic and Romanesque. We didn't have time to truly explore around the cathedral, but I can't wait to go back and see the inside!

Check out the giant columns -- they're 4 and a 1/2 meters in diameter, or approximately 12 American study abroad students in circumference.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Hoorah pour Vendredi!

Vendredi, 21 août.

My high school French teacher had a very particular tradition. Every Friday afternoon, as we crammed binders into backpacks and lined up behind the door, waiting for the bell to release us to the quickly-approaching weekend, she would lead us in a song. Hoorah pour Vendredi! At first, it was silly and kind of embarassing. Hoorah pour Vendredi! However, by the end of freshman year, we were hooked. We sang it -- loudly and marvelously off-key -- every Friday in French class for the next four years ... even when we didn't end our Friday afternoons in Madame Pluchinsky's room, we would all find ourselves humming the tune in our heads. Tous les eleves et les professeurs disent... Hoorah pour Vendredi! Even senior year, when my class got a new teacher, we continued our tradition: the song echoed through our classroom each Friday afternoon.

I've been away from my high school French class for over two years now and no longer feel the need to end my week with a made-up song. But today, I definitely felt like singing! This week has been such a different, new, exciting, overwhelming, and exhausting experience that there's nothing to say except: Hoorah pour Vendredi!

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Oui Oui -- to the l'Oulivie!

Mercredi, 21 août.

Yesterday afternoon, as we walked in to the Ionesco Building for our first French civilization course, we noticed a sign that read:  "Tomorrow, Wednesday August 21st, you have civilization class outside! Visit Oulivie, an olive plantation just outside of Montpellier in Saint-Gely du Fesc. With tasting."

So ... we're taking the time that would have been spent in a stuffy classroom and spending it instead touring and snacking at an oliveraie? I mean, come on -- great class or greatest class?! So I swapped out my backpack for a purse, my pen for a camera, and headed off to the Languedoc countryside with dreams of "I Love Lucy" in a giant wine vat dancing in my head.

Un Petit Tour de Montpellier

Mardi, 20 août.

It's weird to think that I've only been in Montpellier for three days. Although it definitely does NOT yet feel like home, I think I'm settling in pretty quickly! We try to speak French as much as possible, although English is definitely more prevalent amongst the majority of study abroad students. (Ugh.) And I think I'm starting to have at least a slightly better sense of where I am in the city as we're walking around -- as long as I have a map to fall back on!

I guess the thing that is making this all feel the most real is that we began our orientation classes today. I have three hours of grammar in the morning and two hours of "French civilization" in the afternoon. Both classes are taught by French university professors, though they're very different. I'm not sure exactly how it'll go for the next three weeks, but our grammar class definitely seems more difficult. (But I can't complain, because I know that I really wanted to be put in the advanced class!) We have a workbook and handouts as well as homework and exams. The civilization course, on the other hand, is all about getting us informed and excited about Montpellier and France. We only have six meetings, two of which are field trips -- to une oliveraie to learn about olive oil production and to a meeting with a wine specialist to learn about la viticulture in the Languedoc-Roussillon region! 

In the meantime, we're using our spare time to get to know Montpellier. Yesterday, after taking our orientation placement exams (45 minutes of written exam followed by an oral interview) and a delicious Mediterranean buffet, we decided to explore the Centre Ville de Montpellier. It wound up being a wonderful decision because in addition to being a great workout -- around 4 hours of nonstop walking -- it gave us the opportunity to see the Montpellier we had all dreamed about.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

In Which Grocery Shopping is a Big Deal

Mardi, 20 août.

Let me start off this post by saying that een if the only thing that went right today was my dinner, it would still have been a good day. I ate a chevre-and tomato-sandwich on baguette with saucisson sec (an inexplicable purchase but not one I regret) and kiwi and followed it up with strawberry yogurt for dessert. Of course, I used a folded stack of toilet paper for a plate and a shoebox as a cutting board, but hey -- things are looking up! Especially when considering that my dinner last night consisted of exactly one yogurt and two peanut butter crackers. So a chevre sandwich was a definite step in the right direction!

And what was the reason for this feast? Why, a trip to the supermarché!

Monday, August 19, 2013

Excursion à Nîmes et au Pont du Gard

Lundi, 19 août.

Phew, what a day! Today has been my first full day in Montpellier ... and I am pooped! But more about that later. First, I have much more exciting stories all about our first excursions to the historic city of Nîmes and the famous Roman aqueduct, le Pont du Gard.

The city of Nîmes is about an hour's drive -- or, in our case, bus ride -- away from Montpellier. We were met in the city by our tour guides, Christophe and Michel. (I genuinely have no idea who Christophe and Michel are or what makes them qualified to give tours of historic sites of the Sud de France, but as it turns out, they were great!) Our first stop was the famous Arenes de Nîmes.

The amphitheatre at Nimes was just as impressive as I had remembered it. We were running late, so we didn't have a ton of time to explore ... plus, it was crazy hot, so walking in and around the sunny arena wasn't exactly on the top of my to-do list. We did, however, get to learn a lot about the history of the Arenes and take photos from the very tippy-top!

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Home Away From Home, No 1

Samedi, 17 Août.

Welcome to my new home-away-from-home! I'm living in a student housing campus called Triolet and, well, it's just about as spartan an existence as you could imagine. My room -- yes, I do have one all to myself -- is on the second floor (which, funnily enough, is really the third floor in France) of Building C in Room 058.

And here's the view out the window! The tennis courts aren't particularly lovely and look a little too much like a prison yard for my taste, but when I'm sitting at the desk, all I can see are the tops of the trees and the pretty blue sky. So that's good.

The bathroom is ... unique. It's all one tiny room with a toilet, sink, mirror, and shower. It's about the size of my entire bathtub at home and you have to press the shower head every couple seconds to keep the water flowing, and yet I like it. It's bright and clean ... and feels sort of like I'm brushing my teeth in a spaceship!

Bon Voyage!

Samedi, 17 août.

Bienvenue from la France! It's just past 8:00 pm here. That means it's currently 2:00 pm in Centreville ... and also means that I have been awake for over 30 straight hours. And let me tell you, fatiguée doesn't even begin to describe my level of exhaustion à ce moment. Earlier this afternoon, I started to fall asleep while sitting straight up on a park bench. So yeah, it's been quite a long day ... but I guess that's because it all began, well, yesterday!

I spent Friday morning packing (and unpacking and repacking) and headed off to the airport around 1 pm for my 4:15 flight. Goodbyes were difficult, but I know I'll be back in Virginia before I know it! As for the trip itself, the flight from Washington Dulles to Charles de Gaulle was a breeze ... well, as much as a trans-Atlantic plane flight can be! Our plane was an absolute goliath, and if you think I'm exaggerating, look up the Air France Airbus A380 -- it's the largest passenger aircraft in the world. Check out this photo of the economy class! I had planned to sleep most of the flight, but between the airline food (say what you want, but I really liked it) to the inflight entertainment (I finally got a chance to watch Lincoln), it was all just too exciting to miss a second!

Here are some helpful hints if you are planning to fly Air France anytime soon:
  • Not many things are written in stone anymore, but the Air France baggage weight limits are literally carved in granite and hung over the check-in desk. Just kidding! But actually, they're insanely serious about weight limits. I got my boarding pass and waited in line for 20+ minutes, only to be sent back to repack because my carry-ons were too heavy!
  • Allow plenty of time to go through security! I was at Dulles Aiport more than two and a half hours before my flight and didn't have a whole lot of free time after finally getting through security.
  • Forget the weather outside: wear your heaviest clothes on the plane. Air France is crazy picky about the size and weight of your luggage, but they don't look twice at the size and weight of YOU. When I went through check-in the second time, I was wearing two jackets, sunglasses, and a digital camera. I'm almost certain that I could have bundled myself up like a sausage without any questions! Besides, it's cold when you're a couple thousand miles up in the air and an extra jacket won't be wasted!
  • Do research on your destination airport. Learn the rules, print out a map ... whatever will keep you from dragging a heavy duffel bag in circles around Charles de Gaulle Airport!
  • If you can, take the Airbus. It's two stories, has comfy seats with individual TV screens and is basically the definition of chouette. I actually sort of miss it...

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Packing? Pas de Problème!

Tuesday, August 13.

Packing has begun in earnest at my household and let's just say, it's one of the more difficult experiences of my young life. It's not like I've never packed before. Every year during my childhood summers, I spent weeks loading Barbie dolls into my Going to Grandma's carry-on for a few weeks of family visits in the USA. Back then, moms were in charge of boring things, like clothes and toothbrushes. In more recent years, I've stuffed suitcases and backpacks for weekend school excursions and week-long trips to the beach. But to pack a suitcase for FOUR MONTHS? Honestly, I can't even imagine.

For some reason that most likely stems back to homework procrastination, I started making a list a few months ago. It's strangely simple, divided into categories and neatly organized on -- what else? -- a PowerPoint slide. Clothes. Shoes. Toiletries. Food (the sole entry here is JIF Peanut Butter, which according to rumors is not available in France). And, most descriptively, "Other Stuff" (a comprehensive list of everything from "favorite book" to "camera batteries").

To help quell the quickly-descending panic, I've been doing some packing-related research. Turns out, I'm not the only college student studying abroad to keep a blog! (Huh...) In addition to other student blogs, I've been able to find some great sites and lists, courtesy of other universities' study abroad programs. Check out some of the most helpful resources below!
  • This Basic Packing List for Study Abroad (courtesy of a self-described "study abroad junkie turned photographer") divides necessities into essentials, clothing, toiletries and miscellaneous. She also provides a helpful section that explains not just WHAT to pack, but HOW to pack it. Particularly helpful tip? While many brands are available internationally, some toiletries (especially feminine products) might not be sold where you're travelling!
  • La Petite Fille Abroad is one of my new favorite finds. She has several packing-related posts, and you can find all of them here. Another post details her personal flying tips, from asking the flight attendants to fill up your water bottle to bringing your best moisturizer onboard!
  • This University of Illinois article called Things to Learn Before you Leave is pretty great! Even though the first suggestion is "don't take a lot of stuff" (a theory to which, I'm scared to say, I do not subscribe), the article is extremely helpful. It provides a sample packing list (although again, it's worryingly short). Particularly helpful hint? Use safety pins to lock your zippers and prevent pick-pocketing!
  • Don't let the simple PDF format fool you: this packing list from Oakland University is one of my favorites so far. In addition to listing the items you should pack, they give reasons -- flip flops are great for showering in hostels, dictionaries are cheaper to buy in the States, etc. They also give some quanities to refer to when packing clothes ... although, again, I can't say that I'm going to be sticking too closely to those!
  • Getting tired of reading what TO pack? Here's What Not to Pack for Study Abroad. Although some of these tips felt a little obvious (well of course, I'm not bringing a suitcase full of hangers!), some were also extremely helpful. Particularly helpful tip? Don't pack shampoo and conditioner! They weigh down your suitcase and, besides, you can buy them easily in your host country!
I'm sure that there are billions more study abroad sites and blogs with lists just as good if not better than these ... and sometime in the near future, I'm sure I'll be posting my own packing list and suggestions! But for now, I figured I'd share my finds.

Ultimately, I know that I know better than anyone what I'm going to need, use, and wear while studying abroad. After all, although these people have experience on their side, they don't know me and how much I absolutely need to bring my new white Keds. But I'm not going to lie, reading all these posts and articles is already making me reconsider my (supposedly well-thought-out) packing lists! Since I first googled "what to pack to study abroad" an hour ago, I've already updated my list of toiletries, put back a few shirts and nixed a couple pairs of shoes.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

T Minus 6 Days

Saturday, August 10.

This time six days (142 hours) from now, I'll be snuggled in my Air France economy seat, flying somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean. Six. Days. Can you believe it? Because I can't! I'm not sure when the fact that I'm going to France is finally going to sink in, but I'm almost certain that the reality of it all won't hit me until I'm boarding the plane next Friday.

However, I still do have six days ... and thank goodness, because there is a LOT to be done! In addition to getting my life organized for France, I'm finishing up my Clue Week planning and crafting, saying goodbye to friends, cleaning out my room, and having a lot of last-minute adventures! It's been a really great summer thus far, so I don't want to ruin the end of it with a bunch of lazy boring days full of panicking and packing! So the next week will be filled with beach days, road trips, and meals at all my favorite restaurants ... and, of course, a little bit of packing.