Sunday, September 29, 2013

(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (to a Night at the Opera)

Dimanche, 29 septembre.

There's a particularly great moment in Pretty Woman, just before Julia Roberts' character sees her very first opera. Richard Gere's character leans over and tells her: "People's reaction to opera the first time they see it is very dramatic; they either love it or hate it. If they love it, they will always love it. If they don't they may learn to appreciate it, but it will never become part of their soul." (So no pressure for your first opera or anything, right?!)

Of course, Julia Roberts' character goes on to be absolutely enthralled by the performance and falls in love with opera. And after seeing my first-ever opera on Friday (Orfeo et Eurydice by Christoph Willibald Gluck), I think I have to agree with her! I. LOVE. OPERA.


Excursion à Toulouse

Dimanche, 29 septembre.

Bonjour and bienvenue à Toulouse, the destination of my most recent weekend trip!

Toulouse is home to: one of Europe's oldest universities, the largest cancer research center in Europe, the headquarters of Airbus, Europe's largest space center, and the largest Romanesque church in France. Oh, and it's casually been described as "the place capitalism was invented." With all that it's got going on, it's not surprising that the city is the fourth-largest in France! (To put it in perspective, however, the population of this grande ville is approximately 1.2 million ... just over that of Fairfax County.) Oh ... and it's also the name of one of the kittens in The Aristocats.


Molly and I decided to go to visit the city a few weeks ago, when we realized how inexpensive it would be to take the train there for the day. We ended up taking the train (about two hours each way and less expensive than going from Northern Virginia to Williamsburg) and spending ten hours in Toulouse with a couple of other study abroad students we know from the pre-stage. I didn't know too much about the city (and naturally neither did anybody else), so we headed to the Office of Tourism for a map and then just spent our day wandering around downtown Toulouse!

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Excursion à Aigues-Mortes et Gard-du-Roi

Samedi, 21 septembre.

Although there are several things I don't miss about the orientation pre-stage (including the oppressive heat and the sincerely ugly Triolet dorms), I do miss our weekly excursions -- a little bit of history, a little bit of sun, and enough walking to make you want to sleep on the way home. But because the end of our first month in France called for a celebratory adventure -- and because Molly and I have seen just about all there is to see in Montpellier at the moment, we decided to take our own little excursion this weekend! On the agenda: the village of Gard-du-Roi and the city of Aigues-Mortes.

Because a direct bus to Aigues-Mortes wouldn't get us to the town till noon, we decided to leave Montpellier early and stop for an hour or two in one of the smaller seaside towns on the way ... and thus our trip to Grau-du-Roi was born! Grau-du-Roi, which means something along the lines of "king's bayou" in Occitan, is a small fishing village on the Mediterranean coast that doesn't have a whole lot of remarkable attributes. (Although Hemingway did describe its "long beach and fine fishing port" in one of his novels.)  But, naturally, since it's a small fishing village on the Mediterranean, it doesn't need to be remarkable because it's inheritantly incredible. 

We only had a few hours in the town before catching the next bus to Aigues-Mortes, but it was the perfect amount of time to meander around town, take photos, and buy some souvenirs! The town was hopping, even in September, so I can't imagine how crowded it must be in peak tourist season.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Home Away from Home, No 2

Vendredi, 20 septembre.

It's crazy to think that it's already been two weeks since I moved out of Triolet! Maybe I'm just good at quickly settling into new schedules (thanks, military childhood!), but after just under two weeks with my host family, I'm starting to feel very comfortable in my home away from home.

First night.
As for my host family itself: I really like them! Unlike the other W&M students, who are all staying with couples or single women, I have an actual famille d'accueil: a mom, dad, and thirteen-year-old son. My host mom is lovely -- very pretty and always smiling, which is reassuring when I'm blundering through a conversation or making a faux pas at the dinner table! Her husband is very nice and funny, although I only ever partially understand his jokes the first time. My "frère d'accueil" (as I've started referring to him) is absolutely adorable. Although he swears he's in collège (confusingly, the name for middle school in France), he seems a lot younger than thirteen. (I think he looks more like 10 or 11! But maybe that's just because I'm old.) He's pretty quiet around me, but always friendly and smiling.

The whole family is pretty busy and since our schedules don't always line up, I don't see them all the time. It's been a little tricky to figure out how I fit into the dynamic -- I'm more than a random renter leasing a room, but it's not like I'll be asking my host mom to come tuck me into bed anytime soon! I really think that each time I spend time with my family, I get to know them a little better and make a little more progress in letting them get to know me. My homestay arrangement includes breakfasts (sometimes eaten with the family, depending on our schedules) and two free dinners a week, but I can eat additional dinners for a really modest 3 a meal. Although Molly and I can usually eat for less than that if we go out (especially since the discovery of our new favorite bakery/sandwich shop), I've been trying to stay in and eat with "my family" pretty frequently! Dinners aren't a grand affair for us, like at some of my friends' homestays, but there are lots of vegetables and always bread, so I'm usually quite the happy camper. (Hey, it beats yogurt and cucumber slices -- the go-to dinner of my Triolet days!) Dinners are a fun, bilingual affair -- my host dad speaks pretty good English because of his work, but his wife loves to practice and encouraged her son to do so as well. We speak mostly in French (for my benefit and their comfort), but usually spend a little bit of dinner speaking in English. I didn't know how I would feel about having a family that wanted to practice English all the time, but for now I don't mind it one bit! (If only because hearing them make mistakes in English makes me feel a teensy bit better about my French.)

And now for the part you've all been waiting for ... the grand tour of my bedroom!

Monday, September 16, 2013

Too Pooped to Patrimoine

Dimanche, 15 septembre.

Before arriving in France, I was warned by several people not to become a tourist, jetting off to a different country every weekend, but to try to really live in and experience the city I was in! Spending a weekend "at home" with my host family or with friends might not sound as exciting as a short trip to Spain or Italy, but it would make for a richer experience in the long run. So, although I'm beyond excited to travel outside of the city again in the upcoming months, I've made it my mission to balance all those trips with as much quality time with Montpellier as I can manage!

To be fair, I've already done a whole lot of exploring the city in the past three weeks. I've checked out parcs and cafés and grocery stores and bars and banks and museums ... and I've even ridden every single tram line! (There are only four, but still.) But this weekend, my exploration of Montpellier hit a new level, all thanks to les Journées européennes du Patrimoine.

What are these Journées du Patrimoine all about? Well, as you might be aware, Europe is old. Very old. And because it's so old, it's absolutely teeming with history -- much of which is difficult/expensive for the average person to access! In order to encourage Europeans to explore their patrimony, somebody had the bright idea to create a special weekend in which historical and cultural sites are opened to the public, free of charge. The sites, which range from museums to churches to historical buildings, often charge admission or are closed to the public during the rest of the year, so the weekend is a pretty great opportunity!

Even in a smaller and "younger" (read: not Roman) city like Montpellier, there is a lot of exciting patrimoine. And since this will almost certainly be my only chance to experience Journées du Patrimoine in Montpellier, I decided that I had to see ALL of it. So yesterday morning, I packed up my camera and water bottle, put on my walking shoes, and headed downtown to see not one, not two, but eleven patrimoine sites. Molly and I finished up the tour today with two more, for a grand total of THIRTEEN sites of cultural/historic importance.

Thirty six hours later, I'm so cultured that it hurts (or maybe that's just all the stairs...) and now you're about to be too! Scroll down for a little information -- and a lot of fun pictures! -- of all the places we visited.

Friday, September 13, 2013

First Week of School? Check!

Vendredi, 13 septembre.

FIRST WEEK OF SCHOOL AT A FRENCH UNIVERSITY? DONE. And I didn't get lost once! (Well, okay, maybe once.) But seriously, I'm actually really excited to have survived the week and am feeling really good about the upcoming semester.

I know you probably have a million and one questions that I couldn't begin to answer here, so feel free to ask anything in the comments and I'll try to respond as best I can! In the meantime, I guess I'll just describe my classes (well, the classes I attended this week) and try to give you a little bit of insight into the French university nightmare system!

First things first -- first day of school picture! Here I am standing in front of the IEFE building. It's where we took our pre-session classes and even though I don't have classes there during the semester, there's a little room just for exchange students where we all feel very much at home!

Like William & Mary, UPV has an add/drop period. It lasts three weeks and during those three weeks, anything goes. Attendance isn't really required and students dart in and out of classes, spending thirty minutes in one before running to check out another. It's a little bit of a stressful time, but it also gives us foreign exchange students a wonderful opportunity to "try out" our classes before committing to them for the whole year. This week, I went to a total of eight classes and although I won't be keeping them all, I had a good time running around and testing them all out!

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

A Little Update

Mercredi, 11 septembre.

Phew. I can't believe it's only been a few days since I last wrote on this blog. So much has changed since Friday afternoon! It's hard to imagine that only a couple days later, I have moved out of my Triolet dorm room, moved into my homestay bedroom, and started classes at the university! I can already tell that this semester is going to absolutely FLY by. We've been trying to plan little trips and adventures and outings and already it seems like we're running out of time to do all the things we want to do! I feel like it'll only be a matter of time before "oh, we have to do that!" turns into "oh, I wish we could have done that."

So here's a basic timeline of exciting things that have happened since I last wrote ... as much for my benefit as for yours, because to be honest, I'm starting to lose track of days!

On Friday, after Molly's and my celebratory adventures around Montpellier (Jardin des Plantes and the Parc Zoologique), we made a super cool jealousy-inducing detour to visit a friend who will be spending the academic year living in an ancient apartment in the heart of centre-ville. Then we headed off to our third and final Estivales! Still no wine for Molly and me, but our food of choice this week? Little shot glasses (or verrines, if you want to get technical) full of super delicious fancy flavors of chocolate mousse.

I thought I was going to miss ending every week with a wine and music festival, but three Estivales have been more than enough for me ... if only because there's basically no food left for me to try!

Friday, September 6, 2013

Oh, Happy Happy (Fri) Day!

Vendredi, 6 septembre.

Oh happy happy day! Today has just been an absolutely lovely Friday ... and it's only 6 pm!

The happiest of days actually kicked off yesterday, when we finished up our orientation classes. We had a final exam which, to be honest, was pretty rough, but the day picked up when I got my classes approved by the study abroad coordinator. After having spent hours and hours navigating the crazy confusing website, it was a definite relief! Then last night, we all met up at Place du Peyrou (which you should recognize by now from all my frequent visits!) for a sunset picnic with one of our fabulous student assistants, Ileana. It was tons of fun ... and the view wasn't half bad either!

Today, Molly and I woke up bright and early to walk over to campus and check our niveaux (levels). In addition to giving us feedback on our French, the levels -- based on our work during and exams at the end of the pre-stage -- would decide which RI (Relations Internationales) classes we would be placed into for the semester. So ... no pressure, right?

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Pre Stage: Helpful Hints

Jeudi, 5 septembre.

It's hard to believe that three weeks ago, I was sitting in my room at home, with a giant empty suitcase and the piles upon piles of clothes that I ambitiously hoped to squeeze inside it. Of course, I'd read the Vademecum and googled pictures of the city, but I really had no idea what to expect. So without further ado, here are some of the helpful hints that I wish I'd known a month ago while packing my suitcase!

I think my number one packing rule for anyone following in my footsteps is: if it fits, you bring it. I read a lot of articles and posts before I got here with advice about exactly what (and what not) to bring and most of them agreed on one thing: don't bring too many clothes! But I'm here to tell you -- bring them. Sure, I could have packed seven days worth of clothes and planned to do laundry once a week, but I didn't. I'm here to study and to explore and to live -- not to spend four months roughing it. I mean, I don't think you should go absolutely crazy and ship your whole wardrobe, but if it's something that you need, you want, or you just feel really good in, then into the suitcase it goes!

Here are some of the things that I'm glad I brought ... or that I wish I had brought more of!
  • Beach towel. I didn't bring one. Sad face.
  • Toiletries. I don't really understand why, but everything feels very expensive here and shampoo and conditioner are no exception. I didn't think I had room in my suitcase for regular-sized bottles, so I purchased three refillable travel bottles bottles and filled them up with shampoo, conditioner, and body wash. Although I'll have to refill them sooner or later, they've lasted me through the past two and a half weeks! Other toiletries to bring with you -- sunscreen, lotion, facewash. 
  • Money -- cash. If you're doing the pre-stage, you'll be walked through the steps of setting up a French bank account, to which you can then wire money from home. It's a convenient and not super complicated process, but it takes time. So in the meantime, make sure you have enough cash to get you through your first few weeks. That includes food and drinks, toiletries and other necessities, souvenirs, and some bigger purchases -- a cell phone, a tram pass, etc. I brought 500 Euros with me and although I still have lots of money left, it's been comforting to know that I have emergency funds if I need them.
  • Money -- credit/debit cards. Before you kiss America goodbye, check out your bank's ATM policies. While my credit card charges a certain fee for international transactions, Molly can withdraw money for free on her debit card! Definitely a bonus.
  • Comfortable shoes. More than anything, our Pre-Stage has consisted of a LOT of walking ... and I have a feeling that won't slow down as the semester continues. So if you have room in your suitcase, don't feel bad filling the space with shoes! Because it's still summer here, most people are wearing sandals: gladiator sandals are pretty popular, but a lot of girls wear sturdier shoes, like Birkenstocks and Tevas. There's also a lot of sneaker action -- but remember, we're talking Converse and Keds, not Nike. You might be comfortable, but you'll look like the biggest tourist in the world in your bright white New Balance sneaks.
  • Tupperware. Tupperware. Tupperware. Oh, how I wish I had packed my luggage full of Tupperware! I'm not kidding. It's so incredibly useful and convenient and although I'm sure they sell it in France, I sure do wish I'd brought my own supply.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

I Left my Heart with St. Guilhem

Mercredi, 4 septembre.

So I know it's been a little while since Sunday, but time absolutely flies here. We've been crazy busy this week, between choosing classes and giving oral presentations and going out to bars for trivia night (before preparing for said oral presentations ... whoooooops). Still, even though I'm absolutely exhausted by the time I fall asleep each night, I wouldn't trade the adventures we've been having for the world!

I couldn't possibly fit all my pictures from Saturday in one post, so here are some photos and fun facts about MY NEW FAVORITE PLACE IN THE WHOLE ENTIRE WORLD, aka the town of Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert.

It's a tiny commune about 45 minutes away from Montpellier (but still in the same department) and it looks like it just stepped out of a Paramount picture. Molly and I wandered through the streets in an absolute daze, snapping photos of every doorway and winding side street because everything we passed was more incredible than the next. Because our first stop (at la Grotte de Camouse) hadn't taken very long, we had a few hours to explore the town and eat lunch.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Second Weekend in Montpellier

Mardi, 2 septembre.

Last Friday was my second, and the rest of Montpellier's second-to-last, Estivales of the summer. Like last week, it felt like the whole town showed up on the Esplanade to celebrate the end of summer, the beginning of fall, and -- because this is France -- wine! We were a little more prepared this week and arrived with a game plan that began (and ended) with one word: EAT.

Molly went with seafood, while I tested out les tourtons. After some basic Googling, I've learned that they're sort of like beignets and can be made both savory (with cheese or meat) or sweet (with fruit, kind of like a turnover). However, I prefer to describe them as little fluffy pillows of perfection. You'll have to settle for a picture of the sign because the tourtons themselves disappeared a little too quickly. Into my belly. Because I scarfed them down. YUM.

We arrived at Estivales a little early and stayed much later than last week, so the evening is kind of a happy blur of friends and photos and food. (In addition to my little yummy pillows of happiness, I got a delicious -- and super cheap -- scoop of sorbet!) Still, it was a ton of fun to spend the evening with a lot of our new friends. Here's me with several of the kids from SUNY Geneseo, a school in upstate New York. They're all a lot of fun and super down-to-earth, which is refreshing here.

The best part of the night was, hands down, the entertainment. The band that played is called Bachibousouk -- I'm not sure quite how to describe the music, but according to the band's Facebook page, they're a French group with influences from reggae, zouk, Ska, and swing. Either way, it WORKS: they were SO. MUCH. FUN! Molly and I started off watching from the back of the audience, but by the end of the night we'd edged our way up to the front, where everyone -- including a couple other kids from our program -- was dancing and jumping around! We even got to form a conga line (I told you, it wasn't your average band) and dance onto the stage.

The view from the stage.
After a late night out at Estivales, I woke up bright and early Saturday morning for breakfast ... and then two naps. Saturday afternoon was a little more adventurous, as we went out to our first real French restaurant to celebrate Brooke's 21st birthday! We sat outside, across from the Prefecture, and scarfed down delicious pizzas and desserts.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Excursion à Grotte de Camouse et Pont du Diable

Dimanche, 1 septembre.

Today we had our third and final excursion. This time, we took a short bus trip to Saint-Jean-de-Fos, a commune located in the same department as Montpellier. (Side note: This kind of commune doesn't mean a bunch of hippies farming beets ... it's just another level of administration, like a township in the States.) Saint-Jean-de-Fos is home to a couple of famous sites, including la Grotte de Clamouse, le Pont du Diable, and l'Abbeye de Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert. You'll have to stay tuned for more pictures from the town of St. Guilhelm because there was just too much pretty to fit all in one post!

First off: la Grotte de Clamouse. Caves. Lots and lots of beautiful caves. (And the view outside wasn't bad either -- check it out!)

The grottos are a very popular tourist site, but that doesn't mean that they're particularly easy to access. It's been a while since I was in Luray Caverns back in Virginia, but I'm pretty sure they're an easier climb. La Grotte de Clamouse is full of steep stairs, slippery stone floors, and some pretty far drops -- let's just say, I did NOT let go of the railing!