Tuesday, May 31, 2011

At A Loss

My host father passed away, and I'm not entirely sure what to do.

My host-uncle spoke to me about the anticipated possibility two days ago, and I mentioned that if it arose, the Chinese girls and I could seek lodging elsewhere to make things easier for the family. He was quick to tell me not to, however, because having us here would help keep life normal for his mom, and it would be very stressful for her to have us all leave.

But now we're in a pickle (at least, I am. I'm not sure if anybody's told the girls what's happened, yet, or if they've picked up on it. I was coming up the stairs with Kim when I saw the brothers in suits outside their father's room. "Fais pas de bruit"). I want to be as respectful as possible to the family, to make as little noise and fuss as possible, and to stay out from underfoot, but these are my last days here, and that's a little difficult. I need to shower downstairs, need to pack, need to pay rent, need to cook at night, and I have no earthly idea what to say to Mme. Bouhet if and when I bump into her. I'd barely know what to say in English, much less in French.

And should I buy flowers? I don't want to pretend like nothing's happened, because that's immature, but I don't know how to go about things. Even though I've lived here for five months, I'm not close to the family, but I can't go anywhere else to give them space, either. A death in the family is a very intimate affair, one in which I have no part, but can't escape. It's the equivalent and polar opposite of living with newly-weds; you empathize as much as possible, but then you want to be out and away because the emotions don't belong to you and are, frankly, a little stifling.

I leave for Scotland in six days. I don't want to leave France, but I will be very glad to leave this house behind. I only wish that I had somebody here to walk me to the train station so I can say goodbye to someone other than the empty platform with the ANGERS sign. Forgive me for seeming moody; it's conflicting to have such a beautiful day outside and somberness inside, on top of conflicting emotions on leaving France/returning home.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Finalizing France

Today is the last day of classes for CIDEF students, so it's bitter sweet. Kim and I had expression orale this morning at eight, and the professor told us to bring breakfast snacks for a party. I made PB&J as a cultural exchange food, and our French prof and Chinese classmate each tried some, though I couldn't figure out what their consensus on it was; the French don't really do peanut butter. Kim, however, put away quite a few. Champ!

The only thing I have left is 2 hours of Grammar, yuck, then tomorrow starts exams (yes, Saturday tomorrow. The socialists who run the bureaucracy have no problem giving everybody 6 weeks of paid vacation, but apparently that doesn't apply to foreign students on a weekend). So I have to study, study, study, say goodbye to my wonderful parents (who are returning this evening from the Mont St Michel, hopefully bearing a wee giftie for their globe trotting yet financially-disadvantaged daughter), and try to squeeze in as much time with friends as I can before I leave.

Expect a nifty France pros and cons list sometime soon, now that I've begun to figure out how everything works. I think I made one shortly after my arrival, but I can now update it with a little authority and hopefully erase previous prejudices and misunderstandings.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

My Parents Are Troglodytes

(meaning cave-dwelling peoples; has nothing to do with the level of embarrassment my dad might try to bestow upon me)

My parents are in France, and apart from a nightmarish experience on French highways, are supremely enjoying themselves. I am also supremely enjoying their visit, because I haven't had to buy a meal for myself almost all week! Hooray cheaps!

About an hour ago, we finished up a delicious meal at a soufflérie, a place that specializes in soufflés. Mine was basically a pizza-flavored egg cloud, scooped from a low-lying mass of fog above Sicily, I believe. It was delicious. This restaurant has obviously served Americans before, because they brought us carafe d'eau (pitcher of water) after carafe d'eau. After a long day in


we were ready for the hydration. In Saumur, a nifty town outside of Angers 20 minutes by train, we went to a wine cave. Saumur is built almost entirely on, of, and in tuffeau stone, a soft, limestone like material. This particular cave (2 km of cave, actually) dates from the 1500s, when the soft stone underground was needed to construct Saumur's castle and big houses. The cave had been storing wine for this particular wine family since 1859; the name of the company is Louis Grenelle, and makes sparkling wines (not champagne, as saying 'champagne' puts you under big copyright penalties with the EU).

We had a little bit of a time crunch, so the kind bilingual guide let us have the wine tasting first. She only poured us very, very narrow, small glasses, and I think we only tried four wines. I, however, had not had enough water this morning, and it was probably 80 plus degrees in Anjou today, so I had sweat profusely on the way to the cave. What's more, I drank them all one right after the other, so about two minutes after she took away our last glasses, I was thoroughly amused by all the nifty little wine how-to displays that you could sniff, touch, lift, etc. I don't think I was the only Carmical who was having an unusually good time, however, because I noticed my Dad was taking the rail-less stairs rather carefully.

After dinner, we met with my good friend Claire for about a half hour, and my parents and I marveled over how she is the sweetest person ever, and wondered how French people ever got the reputation for being unwelcoming to foreigners. Quite the contrary, at least outside of Paris.

But then again, are Parisians really French themselves? They're in a league of their own, I think, but it seems like they're the only team in it. Maybe they get together with New Yorkers on holidays and take turns wearing impossible shoes while blatantly smoking on the metro.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Maman et Papa

My parents arrived today! hooray!

I'm so excited to show them Angers. Now I've got to think about how to talk them into a little 21st birthday shopping. Dad will probably point out that I'm celebrating that birthday abroad, in France, a venture that is already funded by my parents. This is a minor detail.

Last week of classes before exams. Two weeks before departure to Scotland. Four weeks before return home to the the United States. The wedding bug is biting me really hard, and without specifying exactly where it's biting (this is a family website, after all), let's just use the French word: derrière.

Ready for action.
I have to shrug off that future for now, though. First, I plan on thoroughly enjoying this week with my Mom and Dad, having as much fun with my friends as possible before they go, and seriously studying for my exams. After, it's Scotland or bust, baby. I've already made reservations with Chief Carmichael of Carmichael to visit the Carmichael Estate. Life dream FULFILLED, or about to be. I've even got my tartan scarf ready to go and everything. Better work on my Gaelic before I go.

Correction: Better work on my French before exams. Bleaugh!

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

L'hostess avec le mostess

Remember when I wrote that post about how wonderful it is to be taken in by strangers? Well, neither do I. It might very well have been an assignment for Langue class. Anywho, you never really know a country until you've been taken in by its citizens in their homes, and France certainly wins the blue ribbon for Best Hosts Ever (including a sweeping landslide in the subcategories of Friendliest Invite, Most Thoughtful Gestures, and Most Welcoming Conversation).

My French friend Claire had me over to her apartment today for lunch, and was so wonderful to me. She made sure I had lots to eat, including bonbons and un gouter of an after-lunch red wine, loaned me lots of French poetry books, and even though to fill my water bottle up before I left. Mme. Soleil, whose family so warmly invited me to lunch a month or so ago, was the same, inviting me to play hide and seek (cache-cache) with the family, driving me all the way back to my house, and insisting that I come back at least once before I leave.

Our friends in Marseilles were equally generous, sending us off to see the city with lots of maps, tourist books, and advice, and seeing us off to Italy with way too many snack foods and hugs. Hooray!

So don't let anybody tell you the French are a distant or anti-guest people; it's just not the case. Sure, when you pass tons of strangers on the street and none of them smile at you, it seems very different, but it doesn't mean that if you suddenly found yourself without recourse they wouldn't jump to help you, or maybe even pour you a big glass of cidre and want to know whether or not you think that France is prettier than England (you always answer this yes).

I find as I get closer to leaving France, I get more sentimental. Today, I'm sad to be leaving the incredibly sweet people that have helped me acclimate to this lovely country.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

A Civilized Country

Dear Ireland,

Thank you for having accessible toilets that I never had to pay for. Thank you for not letting your dogs poo on the streets. Thank you for calling me 'love' and hiring only the friendliest bus drivers. Thank you for having gentle rain. Hope to see you again one day!

Don't throw things at Queen E-II when she visits this week.


St. Patrick's Cathedral
This weekend, Anna and I packed up our little backpacks, took a train to Nantes, and flew to Dublin. Hooray! First English-speaking country since I left the States, though English is the operative word here. I honestly thought that most of the Irish people around me were speaking Gaelic for a good, long while until I realized, that if I listened closely, it was English. Or at least the same vocabulary and sentence structure.

On Friday, we piddled around for the most part, checked into our hostel, and toured Dublin on foot. It reminded me a lot of Brussels, lots of brick and brownstone town houses, easy city-layout, not very touristy, so there were no obnoxious street vendors, and lots of double decker buses (not in Brussels, though). The food in Dublin ended up being much, much better than I could have hoped (sorry, I've eaten at lots of Highland Games with traditional Celtic fare, and it's blander than your grandma's trip to Martha's Vineyard). We ate fish 'n' chips in Dublin's oldest fish 'n' chips shop, delicious Victorian sponge cake, and my ultimate favorite, a massive, thick, Guiness 'n' beef (the Irish don't believe in ampersands) stew with soda bread. OM NOM NOM. (In Gaelic, nomma nomma omm).

Saturday was the game-topper, though. On the suggestion of a friend of Anna, we quit the city for the countryside, taking two buses out to Newgrange, one site of a long series of ancient passageway tombs. Easily the best decision I've made on a vacation in Europe. We got to see book-Ireland, and it was just as pretty as I could have dared hope. Lush green hills were sweetly parceled out between dark hedgerows, but with a wilder, more forested feel than the carefully manicured fields and woods of France. When we got off the bus at the tomb, we were way up on a hill, and could see out to the misty horizon. It was windy, fresh, and we could smells cows, green, and rain. Both of us girls were blissfully content. I think we would have settled down if some farmer had opened his house to us.

Entrance, Newgrange
Beautiful. Newgrange, the tomb itself, ought not be overlooked either. I wish I could take the time to describe it for you, because it surely doesn't look like much, but 5,000 years of staying power and ingenuity in the field of astrological engineering is quite impressive. Our group went way into the tomb to see a simulation of what happens on the day of the Winter solstice. The guide cut the lights, and it was the darkest dark I've ever been in, just like people describe when they go into mines. You open your eyes, and there's an altogether unnerving and exhilarating feeling of having absolutely no depth perception. I have lots of respect for my way-way-way-way back ancestors, now, who built all these megaliths even before the pyramids. You'd think they'd have enough to worry about what with mini ice-ages and all. Guess not.

Back in Dublin, we saw the National Gallery (got my Vermeer fix), ate too much (bliss), the Dublin Writer's Museum (in case you didn't see it while you were in Dublin, James Joyce wrote about it. Occasionally.) where C.S. Lewis was painfully absent (not Irish enough for you, Dublin?), lots of neat gardens, and your general European city sights, like churches, the castle, etc. Unfortunately did not get to see Trinity College, as it was closed for the Queen's upcoming visit. Sigh.

Finished reading The Poisonwood Bible on the trip. Excellent book. We landed in Tours to take the train back to Angers, and planned our trip to give us a few hours in Tours before making it back in time for translation class. After being in Tours, I came to a realization: if you have ever been in a French city, I can tell you exactly what it looked like, even without being there myself. See below:
Didn't look like that? Okay. See below:
Cities that fit this rubric: Angers, Paris (Louvre used to be the castle, remember?), Tours, Nantes, Nice, etc. Saumur, too, probably. It's at least handy, because when we got to Tours, we really wanted to see the castle, and I knew that if we could head towards the easily visible huge cathedral (gorgeous, too, PS), we'd end up by the river (we did) and the castle would be nearby (it was). So there you have it, you'll never get lost in France again.
Next week marks my last week at CIDEF before exams, and Sunday marks my parents arrival. HOORAY! Then, I'll be having one last grand adventure before readventuring in the beautiful, hot, summertime South (of the States, not France). Hopefully everything goes well, especially studying. Ick. One of my Chinese roommates was nice enough to come warn me not to get sick, because Clopinette's sleeping on my bed. Apparently, Clopinette was in the other girl's room, and sneezed a lot, and now the other girl is sick, too. I didn't laugh, but I wanted to. I knew that if I laughed at their cat-human transmissible cold, France's gypsy magic would strike me with an even worse cold. 

See the whole batch of photos via my Facebook. The album is labeled, surprisingly enough, "Dublin."

PS: Michelle from Texas, who will be arriving in Angers May 20, let me know if you'd like to get a coffee sometime! Or at least a croissant. I'm always down for a croissant.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Les Tourists

Can you identify the two Americans?

I excited la Catho today via the front gate, where the city of Angers has thoughtfully placed a good number of benches, recycling dumpsters, and a public urinal for civilian necessities. Seated across from each other on two beaches were four American parents. How did I know? EASY. The women, though they weren't dressed in the typical "American tourist" stereotype, looked like maybe they were bank tellers or office ladies on break from somewhere in the South or Mid-West, and they also had bobs (not French) of lovely blonde hair (only bottle blondes here, and mostly in the younger set). 

Their men folk, seated across from them, were wearing Dockers shorts and tee shirts (green and safety orange, respectively). Mr. Orange shirt had on some sort of hiking shoes, maybe Merrils, and Mr. Green shirt was wearing white athletic shoes with white high socks. They were the #1 and #2 most casual men I've seen in France. 

Seeing the couples made me realize just what people mean when they talk about American garb making Americans stand out, and why people poke fun at us so much because of our white athletic shoes. But you know what? Je m'en fiche! I don't care! Lord bless them and their white socks and sensible shoes. Know why? Because they're comfortable. Why are they wearing tee shirts? Because it's hot out. Why the shoes? Because as tourists, they're going to walk a lot, and they don't want blisters to ruin their trip. Why the bank teller pants and coordinating top? Because they want to feel comfortable.

I understand that when you dress dressier all the time, that becomes normal, and maybe in a cultural way, it's equivalent to jeans and tennis shoes, but I just don't understand why French women aren't suffering from massive podiatrial issues, because the girls only wear flats (terrible, terrible for your feet) or high heels. Maybe it's why all the women over 60 have massive cankles (Megan and I have confirmed this). And when my feet are hot, I just want to wear flip-flops without feeling like a hobo.

So I salute you, American tourists of the world. Sure, you're making yourself more open to pick-pocketing and snickering, but you stand firm against the snobisme of society and you wear your New Balances with pride. So maybe your photos will look a little dated, at least you won't spend the evening with bags of frozen vegetables taped to your feet. (I do draw the line, however, at bucket hats and fanny packs. Some things just ought not be brought out in public.)

In a weird kind of way, you guys make me proud.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Summer Time (And the Choosin' is Easy)

Still on the fence about my rapidly approaching summer. I want to go to Carmichael so bad, but seeing as
a) I'm living on my personal funds currently (my parents will not miss the irony in how my weekly budget has dropped by 35%)
b) I've got a wedding next year
c) the cheapest lodge/cabin for rent at the Carmichael estates magically booked half the week I wanted RIGHT as I was looking at it, including my birthday date.
I might only be able to make it for a trip, or maybe not go at all. But if I don't go, why did I work so hard all last year to save up to go? And when will I go again? And what will I do with my nifty Scotland guide?

So maybe I'll just go to a cheaper place, a big city like Glasgow or Edinburgh, and only pay a visit to the family lands.

I'm also heavily considering WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) for the week before my birthday. It's not that I've been in Asheville so long that I'm an organic freak, but in exchange for various types of help around a farm, a family will put you up and feed you for a week for free. Sounds like an excellent way to polish off my French before I head home.

Oh, and did you see the W word up there?? Wedding, wedding, wedding, wedding, wedding. I wish I could put little music notes around it.

This weekend, I'm headed to Dublin. I kind of forgot about it in all the Spring Break excitement (and ensuing shenanigans). The weekend following, Ma and Pa will be making the transatlantic voyage to Angers. HOO. RAY! I cannot wait to see them. Should be noteworthy.

In other news, the fiance is out on his long-awaited two-week storm chase extravaganza in the Great Plains. He's currently in South Dakota, I believe, and just met his storm chasing hero Reed Timmer who was staying at the same motel. I'm a little jealous, to be honest. I've never been out West, save one trip to Colorado. Makes no sense to be jealous while I'm still in beautiful France, though!

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

A Promise to Keep

I promised all the wonderful friends who asked that I would update about my Spring Break journey, but I cannot and will not try to tell the whole entire story. I tried that with Zack over Skype, and before I was through talking about Sardinia, I could see anxious beads of sweat rolling down his forehead, and by the time I finished talking about how we missed our train to Angers because the Brussels connection was late, he was very politely hiding the fact that he was asleep.

So! In lieu of a novella, I'm going to post 2 photos and their accompanying tales from each city. S'il vous plait, profitez-vous!

NANTES & MARSEILLES (stop-over cities)
 In Nantes, there was a giant, mechanical elephant, steampunk ingenuity at its best. For a fee, you could ride it, but it moved about as quick as my sister on a school morning. We tromped all over Nantes trying to find it, and finally, there it was! A majestic man-made beast on the horizon.

We stayed an overnight in Marseilles after leaving Nice to catch our flight to Sardinia. We had a long time to wait the day of our flight, and some members of the group wanted to go see the infamous Chateau d'If of The Count of Monte Cristo fame. But I could tell that Megan wasn't too keen on the idea, and I wasn't so much either, because of the ferry fee, so we decided to split and take a day on the beach. This was our first and last sandy beach of the trip, as Nice was pebbly and Cagliari was a rainy mess. Though it was a Wednesday, lots of families were at the seaside, including these two cute little girls who remind me of my sisters.

If you remember, I got super sick the Wednesday before break. I was still sick by the time we got to Nice, and it was no fun at all. I'd get really hungry, but because I hadn't eaten anything but liquids for three days, my stomach had shrunk. I'd feel full quickly, and then hungry an hour later, and then sick an hour after that. But who do I see just a block outside the train station in Nice? A handsome Southern gentleman with a friendly smile and helpful demeanor. Yes, the Colonel himself had arrived in France. In a moment of weakness, I bought a chicken sandwich, breaking my vow to not eat American fast-food while abroad. It was surprisingly spicy, and cured me of all intestinal distress. I will not take Kentucky for granted ever again.

Okay, I know I promised only two pictures per city, but I couldn't pick for Nice. Instead of telling a story, here are three photos: Roman ruins, Veille Ville (Old Town), and the beach. Click to enlarge.

CAGLIARI, SARDEGNA (Sardinia, Italy)
 When we arrived in Cagliari (have I already told  this story?), we found a sketchy green box labled BUS that would, in theory, dispense bus tickets in exchange for euro coins. I looked at it, and intuitively knew it wouldn't work. After eating $2.70 of Liana's money, it quit. We approached the only English speaking person in the tiny airport, a tourism desk clerk, and he assured us that we could buy tickets from the bus driver. Then he called us back to the desk, because he wasn't sure the bus driver would speak any English. He wrote up this classy sign for us-- La macchina dei bigglietti e fuori servizio/the ticket machine is out of order. We took our humble sign and our 3 words of Italian (grazi, bongiorno, ciao) and stood out in the rainy, disappointing mist to wait for the bus that would hopefully take us to hot steaming plates of pasta in downtown Cagliari. It did, but we got charged a 2 euro bread tax, a 2 euro service tax, and a liter of water, because we were informed that even the locals don't drink from the tap in Sardinia.

Sardinia turned out to be a rainy, dreary mess, in what was supposed to be our tropical beach destination. I would like to direct you now to a map of Europe-- WorldEuropeCountriesMap Please note Belgium. Please note Cagliari, on the large pink island, and its proximity to Tunisia. Try, if you can, to imagine that Brussels, Belgium was much, much warmer and had 4 times the sunshine. As such, we had to amuse ourself with indoor, cultural activities. Luckily, it was Holy Week, and the Sardinians take Holy Week very, very seriously, with services and processionals every single day, sometimes multiple times a day, in traditional dress or liturgical costume. Here's a shot of a Good Friday processional during the afternoon::: Nikki and I attended an Easter Sunday Mass in Cagliari, and if I thought Catholic Mass in France was out of my element, I had much to be dissorted by in Cagliari's cathedral. It was lovely, though, and I wouldn't trade the experience.

Technically, we visited Monaco while we were in Nice, but I forgot to include it and I don't want to mess up the delicate positioning of my photos and text. Here's a shot from Monaco, where the toilets self-clean and rotate their seats, where you can park your SmartCar next to a Ferrari, where entrance to a snazzy poker tournament will run you one million euro, and where British tourists show a very unpleasant side of themselves when boarding buses.

AHHHHHHHHHHHH DREAM COME TRUE. I love, and have always loved, ancient history. I think it's probably the only childhood fascination that I haven't dropped as I've gotten older (lost contenders include dolphins, architecture, being marooned). As such, Rome was epic, despite the rain that followed us from Sardinia and deluged everyday promptly at 5:30. I already talked about my distressing (yet satisfying) incident in the Colosseum, so I won't go into that site, and I'll just say that the Roman Forum next door was full of neat surprises and much bigger remains that I could have hoped for.

I spent most of my time at the Vatican running around with my camera, breathlessly asking no-one in particular "They keep that here!?" I knew the Vatican had some sweet stuff in it, but there were so many surprises I had neglected to research! I was with Amy most of the time, and I'm sure she probably got exasperated with me saying "Woah, it's that! They keep that in the Vatican!" and frittering off in a new direction. Surprises inside: Laocoon and His Sons, School of Athens, and my all time favorite sculpture, La Pieta. Saw the Sistine Chapel, lots of other famousness, and St. Peter's Big, Beautiful Basilica. Was hoping to see more relics, maybe they keep those underground, like Dan Brown says.

Only 3 of us went to Belgium, and we were only there for two nights, but it ended up being my favorite city. It was the cleanest, the best laid-out, and the cheapest to eat in. The people were probably the nicest here, and it wasn't overly touristy, because, let's face it, a vegetable-named city isn't high on most people's bucket list. Pictured are all the Belgian specialties I ate; waffles with various toppings, frites, and delicious, delicious chocolates. Attentative (is that a francophone adjective?) readers will note that I have not listed Belgian beer, which is supposedly the best in the world, though we did go on a cheap brewery tour in the city. Each thing pictured cost about 2 euro. The chocolate on the far right was a violet-flavored concoction, delicieuse.

Wait! Before you assume that I'm being crass, let me assure you that this is something exceedingly cultural. This kitschy little fountain is the Manneken Pis, probably the most famous toddler in Brussels. He has over 800 outfits (stored in the City Museum), is on almost every postcard and keychain, and no chocolatier worth his salt (cacao?) is without a box of miniature, edible, peeing boys. I even saw one enterprising shop that had constructed a larger than life Manneken Pis that, how to put this delicately... was equipped(?) to expel chocolate sauce. The Belgians don't seem to take themselves too seriously, and that's all right with me.

Ciao, for now!

Sunday, May 1, 2011