Thursday, October 24, 2013

Two Down, Two to Go

Mercredi, 23 octobre.

I don't know about you, but to me it feels like, recently, this blog has turned primarily into a way for me to unload all the information I've been accumulating from museum brochures and to post all the travel photos I don't want to upload to Facebook. And although I've had a lot of fun sharing my adventures, I think it's about time that I waxed a little more philosophical.

I realized today that my two-month anniversary of arriving in France (and the halfway point of my semester) had come and gone without me even noticing.

I arrived on 17 August, just over two months ago. I remember anxiously peering out the windows of the airplane, hoping to catch a glimpse of my future home. I remember standing in baggage claim with Molly and the other W&M students and exchanging curious glances with the other American students on our flight. I remember sitting on a hot bus by the train station, staring out at the graffiti and city streets and wondering if someone had made a mistake and sent us to Detroit on accident. We spent our first afternoon wandering around the neighborhood around our dorms, loudly exclaiming how excited we were to be in France ... and secretly wondering if we all hadn't made the wrong decision.

First day of exploring = many discoveries and many selfies!

Slowly but surely, we discovered Montpellier. We visited centre-ville for the first time and were relieved beyond words to realize that there was, in fact, a world beyond Triolet! We discovered shortcuts and bakeries and picnic destinations, eventually leaving our maps at home as the street names became more and more familiar. It's kind of funny to look back at how differently I viewed the city ... and at how wrong I was about so many things! The train station, whose surroundings seemed so dingy when we arrived, is actually a stone's throw from the beautiful historic center of Montpellier. The other Americans that we were nervously sizing up at baggage claim are now the people we hang out with all the time. Oh, and I totally couldn't see Montpellier from the plane while landing. (Rookie mistake.)

France has definitely been full of surprises: some more pleasant than others. It's been hard to adjust to the prices here; everything -- from food to clothes to shampoo -- seems more expensive, even before converting from Euros to dollars. People don't smile or say hello in the street (although guys have no problem cat-calling at any girl who walks by). There's a frustrating amount of dog poop on the sidewalk. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, the city itself is not as picture-perfect as the postcards -- or, in my case, the Google Image results -- make it seem. The ornate buildings in Place de la Comédie and the quirky slanting streets of the Écusson do not extend outside the historic center. And even those postcard-worthy sites aren't quite what the photos suggest. It's a city, after all: there are homeless people and cigarette butts and you cannot walk a block without seeing a wall covered in graffiti. And yet, it's somehow better than I could have EVER imagined.

Before coming here, I had some ideas in my head of what life in France would be like. But I could never have imagined picnicking at the Place du Péyrou at sunset. Or walking along a narrow street and suddenly catching a glimpse of a cathedral. Or getting a bird's eye view of the city during les Journées du Patrimoine. Or feeling so comforted by the sight of the tram after a long weekend in Paris.

Sometimes this place is even better than the postcards make it look. 

It's these little, simple things that I do without thinking that really make me love it here. They make me realize that over the past two months, Montpellier has become my home away from home.

Speaking of home, I'm surprisingly not homesick. Maybe I'm one of those people who adapt quickly? Or maybe France is simply that great? Or maybe I just don't understand the definition of homesick? But I really think I haven't felt it yet. Granted, there have been some less-than-fabulous days -- like when I spent 12 hours searching for my house key, or when the toilet paper dispenser at school fell on my head each time I went to the bathroom! And of course, it's been a little difficult to look at all the photos of all my friends and sorority sisters having fun without me. But despite the occasional twinge of regret that I'm missing out on prime CW cider run weather, I never find myself wishing that I were back in the States. (Exception: my phonetics class, during which I would usually prefer to be almost anywhere else.)

I know that when the time comes, I will be happy to return to Northern Virginia and be reunited with all my favorite things (in particular, blueberry cake donuts and Taco Bell). In fact, you'll probably find me at the airport waving an American flag and shouting the national anthem. I'll be overjoyed to see my family and friends and will, hopefully, be able to look back on my semester in the knowledge that I'll be coming back to this beautiful country sometime soon.

But at the moment, I can't picture myself ever wanting to ever leave France. So I'm sure you can only imagine how terrifying it was to realize yesterday that the long séjour stamp on my Visa is halfway to its expiration date!

Okay, so there are still over eight weeks left. Eight weeks that will be absolutely filled with classes and papers and exams and jampacked with day trips and adventures. Eight weeks during which I will finally travel out of the country (Luxembourg and Belgium, here we come!) and will get to take my mom on a whirlwind tour of France. Eight weeks that will be spent visiting as many beautiful towns, exciting cities, and -- when the time comes -- CHRISTMAS MARKETS as humanly possible.

Eight weeks in which I will continue to eat my weight in baguettes and to fill up my phone's memory with photos of picturesque alleys ... and, of course, more selfies.

Hooray for awkward selfies in Montpellier, Marseille, AND Paris!

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Excursion à Marseille et Aix-en-Provence

Dimanche, 20 octobre.

Yesterday, Molly's host mom offered to take us to Aix-en-Provence for the day! She used to live there and wanted to visit a friend, so we profited from a free car trip and a great tour guide. Although we didn't spend a ton of time in Aix, we did get to walk along the Cours Mirabeau (the city's main street) and explore the surrounding neighborhoods.


Many of the city's buildings have been meticulously renovated to their original appearance. Owners have to be careful to use the same styles and paintcolors as the original buildings, so the process is apparently painstaking and expensive. And in a way, the unaltered appearance is more picturesque -- especially if you're trying to channel the turn-of-the-century-starving-French-artist vibe. But I definitely prefer the renovated buildings. They're just so bright and lively ... like Provence!

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Excursion au Château de Montferrand

Dimanche, 13 octobre.

Today I went on a hike with my host family! They've been talking about taking me somewhere for a while, but because I've been so busy, we haven't yet had time. So this weekend, we put on our sneakers and headed the countryside of Montpellier to explore Pic Saint-Loup and the Château de Montferrand.

You can find a little bit more information about the ruins here (in French), but basically they are what remains of a twelfth-century fortress built to overlook and protect the Montferrand Valley.

According to my host mom, a princess once lived here who was loved by three brothers who went off to fight in the Crusades; when they returned, she had died from the plague, so they went off and became hermits on different mountains. Pic Saint-Loup was named after the eldest brother (who naturally got dibs on living alone on the very tallest of mountains).

I had a ton of fun hiking up to the top of the ruins. Although it's almost impossible to tell that there used to be a fortress here (the walls are in total shambles), there are lots of old rooms and cellars to crawl into and explore. It reminded me a lot of the places we used to adventure to in Germany!

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Passport to Paris: Highlight Reel

Samedi, 12 octobre.

Okay, so you've sat through my posts about Versailles, Paris at night, and Paris "off the beaten path" -- and now it's time for the best part. Buckle your seatbelts, ladies and gentlemen: here come two days full of all of the absolute best/most famous parts of Paris!

You've already seen Versailles and the beautiful places we visited on Friday and Saturday night, so I'll stick with our Saturday and Sunday daytime wanderings! First stop, les berges de la Seine. The banks of the Seine, where they surround Île de la Cité (the island on which Notre Dame stands), are the absolute heart of Paris and definitely my favorite part of the city. It's along this part of the banks of the river that you find the Palais du Louvre as well as dozens of other famous buildings (including the Assemblée Nationale and the Musée d'Orsay.) Everything is imposing and beautiful and just ... wow. C'est parfait.

Hello, Louvre! It's been a while.

La vie parisienne est dure, n'est-ce pas? (The Parisian life is hard, isn't it?)

Passport to Paris: Helpful Hints

In finishing up my many many many many blog posts about Paris, I've realized that it might be useful for me to include some helpful hints for travelling to Paris! I'm not an expert or anything, This post is geared to future study abroad students, but I really do think that the hints could be useful for anybody!

Preparing for your trip...

Plan ahead. Especially if you're studying abroad close to the city, it can be insanely tempting to book a spur-of-the-moment, last-minute trip to the City of Lights. Don't. Plan ahead. You will save oodles and oodles of money on transportation, have a wider choice of hostels/hotel rooms, and be able to plan your adventures.

Do your research. While visiting some smaller French towns, it's enough to visit the Office du Tourisme upon arrival and ask for a map and some recommendations. This is NOT the case in Paris. Do your research! Buy a map and find out what sites are located close to one another -- or better yet, what sites are located off the same Metro line! Read travel blogs. (I loved this breakdown of Parisian neighborhoods and read enough posts about Versailles to know that we absolutely had to go visit Marie Antoinette's Hamlet.) Feeling high tech? Download apps: there's an amazing free Paris Metro app that gives you offline access to maps and a lot of the museums have apps as well. You can even download free walking tours of certain parts of the city and take yourself on a free guided tour! Just remember, once you're in the city, your map will quickly become your new best friend.

Get creative with your Google searches! If you're planning a trip to Paris and you just googled, "What to do in Paris" ... assume that I am judging you. That is not the purpose of Google. The purpose of Google is to use KEY WORDS to find EXACTLY WHAT YOU ARE LOOKING FOR. So try more precise Google searches -- for things like "Paris off the beaten path" "Paris in 48 hours" "free self-guided historic tour Paris" "best free activities weekend Paris." I even searched for famous movie locations, to find guides to spots like Saint-Etienne-du-Mont and the Cafe des Deux Moulins! My favorite example of one of these quirkier guides? Exploring Paris through children's books! (It reminded me of my own childsized adventures.)

Prioritize! Paris has an unbelievable number of museums and monuments and chances are, you probably want to see them all. But you can't. (Sorry.) So prioritize! Check out the collections and entrance fees of the museums you're considering visiting and see what option sounds the most appealing to you. (Le Musée de l'Orangerie was lovely, but the admission price is a little steep if you just want to pop in to see Monet's giant water lillies. Try d'Orsay instead.) Want to see Paris by night? Take pictures of the Eiffel Tower at Place du Trocadero across the river instead of the Champs du Mars; from there, it's much easier to hop back on the Metro to the Arc de Triomphe and you can walk down the lit-up Champs-Elysees!

When in Paris...

Bring your student ID. Being a jeune (young person) in France ROCKS. Sure, I have a theory that it's done out of guilt for the record numbers of youth unemployment, but the fact that France gives students and young people free access to just about everything is absolutely amazing. If you're under 25, you can typically get a discount on admission fees, but if you're an 18 to 26-year-old resident of the EU (hint: show your French student ID card and put on your best accent/Parisian smirk), just about everything is FREE. In all of Paris, the only thing we paid admission to was the Catacombs. Of course, it's absolutely worth it to spend the money on these things -- the Musée d'Orsay is well worth 9 euros and I would have given an appendage to get into Versailles -- but if you can save the money and spend it on postcards and pastries, why not?

Try to blend in. One of my number one goals in going to Paris was NOT to stand out like a sore thumb! Molly and I both made an effort to look and act the part while we were there -- dressing to blend in, bringing purses instead of giant backpacks (the idea is to look like you're casually exploring your own city on your weekend off!), and hiding our maps and cameras when possible. The result? We were spared some of the hassle of being an average tourist and had a lot more ease communicating. No one asked us where we were from and we were never forced to switch to English -- a problem a lot of exchange students have in a city where so many residents are bilingual! (It's frustrating, but understandable: why sit and listen to an American struggle through French when you can just speak to them in English?)

Find cheap souvenirs. Word of advice -- unless you are Donald Trump or have some sordid desire to spend 3 euros on a postcard, the Champs-Elysées is NOT the place you want to buy your souvenirs. Stick to areas that are touristy, but not overly popular. (Read: NOT the Eiffel Tower.) We seemed to find the best and cheapest souvenir deals in Montmartre, in the little shopping area just behind Sacre Coeur. Do be careful though -- this part of Montmartre is a super touristy area where it's easy to get conned or pickpocketed. Keep your bag close and ignore street vendors ... unless you really want dirt cheap Eiffel Tower keychains!

Take a million pictures. I was in Paris for less than three days and I took 600 pictures. A lot of them were utter garbage (oh, another blurry picture of the Eiffel Tower?!) and have since been deleted, but I still have almost 400. And after a little bit of editing, I found that I'd taken quite a few diamonds in the rough! Sometimes it's frustrating to stop and pull out your camera on every street corner, but in the end, I'm so happy to have taken all the pictures I did! Our weekend was an exhausting and exhilarating blur, but now I have my photos to remind me of all the incredible things we saw and did.

You can never have too many pictures of the Eiffel Tower!

Just "Dire Bonjour!" My favorite thing in Paris was what I referred to as disant bonjour (saying hello). Don't have time to visit Napoleon's tomb? No big deal, we can just wave hello to the Hotel des Invalides on our way to the Musée de Rodin. No desire to climb to the top of Sacre Coeur? No worries, just snap some photos on the way through Montmartre! Telling yourself that you're only going to "window shop" a couple of places is a great way to save time and still experience so many of Paris' famous sites!

After you leave...

Edit your pictures. Please. Just as a great big favor to me and the beautiful city that is Paris, DON'T be the millionth tourist to upload a blurry faded picture of the Tour Eiffel to Facebook. Take a little bit of time to sort, crop, and edit and find the best shots to share with your friends. Please.

Do you see what I'm talking about?

Keep everything. Ticket stubs, maps, brochures, Metro passes? If you find yourself saying, "Wow, what a big pile of papers, I have!" just channel your inner Little Red Riding Hood -- "The better to scrapbook with, my dear!" (It also makes for fun reading for anyone who cares enough about your life to read the brochures of the museums you visited while studying abroad.)

Friday, October 11, 2013

Passport to Paris: Off the Beaten Path

Warning: This post features some images of the Catacombs that could be a little disturbing ... and some pictures of Parisian boulangeries that will most certainly make you drool.

Friday, 11 octobre.

Paris is full of so many amazing sights that it would truly take a lifetime to see them all! So it's completely understandable that most trips to Paris consist of only the basics -- the most famous of monuments, churches, and shops. But there's something so much more magical about discovering sites just a little bit off the beaten path! Of course, "off the beaten path" in Paris doesn't necessarily mean we were meandering through side streets, discovering unknown cafes and never-before-seen art exhibits. It just means that we tried to visit sites that aren't always on the top of every tourist's list!

Our first slightly quirky stop was La Cimetière du Montparnasse, where we ate our breakfast on Saturday morning. Like the famous Cimetière du Père-Lachaise (where the likes of Oscar Wilde, Edith Piaf, and even Jim Morrison are buried), the cemetary was built in the 19th century to replace the ancient overcrowded cemetaries. The Montparnasse Cemetary isn't quite as famous, but it is "home" to some pretty recognizable names, including John-Paul Sartre, Charles Baudelaire, and Eugene Ionesco. It's also incredibly peaceful and beautiful ... although I, for one, could not get over the views of the Montparnasse Tower (Paris' only skyscraper) in the background -- talk about contrast!

We were amazed that Baudelaire, despite being one of the most famous poets in French history, didn't even have his own tomb. But, like many artists whose works we saw last weekend, Baudelaire's genius wasn't immediately recognized: he lived in poverty and spent the last years of his life partially paralyzed after a life of drugs and alcohol abuse. His mother, who is also buried here, lived a few years longer -- long enough to see her son's poetry begin its rise to fame. The tombstone, which was being tidied up (by an employee or a volunteer, I have no idea) when we arrived, is covered with Metro tickets, excerpts of poems, and flowers left by eager readers.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Passport to Paris: Une Nuit à Paris (... or maybe two?)

Mercredi, 9 octobre.

Paris is amazing at any time of day, but "La Ville-Lumière" is truly magnificent at night. There seem to be fewer tourists and those that remain tend to blend into the background much easier. We spent our first night in Paris exploring -- what else -- the l'Avenue des Champs-Elysees.

We took the metro from the apartment we were staying in (located in the 14th Arrondissement) to a stop on the far end of the Champs-Elysees and just started walking. We passed so many fancy stores and beautiful window displays! It was amazing. 

Of course, no visit to Paris' most favorite street is complete without a visit to one of its most famous monuments -- l'Arc de Triomphe de l'Etoile. The 19th century masterpiece (the largest triumphal arch in the world at the time it was created, although the title now belongs to North Korea) was commissioned by Emperor Napoleon after his victory at the Battle of Austerlitz. I don't want to bore you with facts and figures, but you can brush up on your history of the monument here!

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Passport to Paris: That Touch of Pink

Lundi, 7 octobre.

A couple of my favorite snapshots from Paris ... with a special touch of pink!