Friday, March 28, 2008

Toulouse for teh win!

It is time… long past time, in fact, that I sat down and actually wrote down an update. Sorry I didn’t get here sooner, but I find that it is very difficult to write about things as they are happening. It’s not that I can’t find the time, but the words to sort things into proper order and make sense of everything that’s happened escape me. So here I am, at the end of a chapter, so to speak (though to be sure it is only just the first or second chapter of the book), and quite a chapter it has been.

After my first wonky week in Toulouse spent mostly at hotels, I begun my couchsurfing adventures. What a brilliant invention! It occurs to me as my generation’s solution to the fact that the world is no longer so safe that we can hitchhike across the world and stop to ask strangers for lodging. For those of us, even in these dangerous times, who refuse to give up the freedom (and literally FREE-dom) such things provide, we have created a new solution using the modern technology available to us. Technically, I suppose I can’t take any credit for its creation, but it is certainly the participants who make the network possible.

Couchsurfing, for those of you unfamiliar, is a website that networks travelers for the purpose of meeting people and providing free lodging. Everyone has a profile where they tell a bit about themselves and receive references from those who have “surfed” with them in the past. The references make it a safe way to find strangers who have a couch available to crash on for any number of days. My task since I’ve been in Toulouse has been to search weekly (and sometimes daily) for folks available to host me. So far it has gone amazingly… sometimes tricky to find hosts, but those I have found have been wonderful. I definitely recommend checking out the site, whether you travel or not, it’s an interesting gig:

And so I begun couchsurfing, making the rounds through folks who turned out to be awesomely cool and helpful. The first French gals I stayed with let me stay for almost a week on incredibly short notice. After that I moved on to a place with three roommates and hung out with them for an incredible six days. Every morning I would wake up to Vincent making coffee, “Je fais du café, t’en veux?” To which the reply, of course, is always “Eh, oui merci. Pourquoi pas.” Somewhere between hot drinks in the morning and cold (okay, room temp) drinks at night, I’ve become friends with these quirky French folk. I was invited to hang out on the weekend and got to meet their friends, who remind me an incredible amount of the crew back home. They drink like the kids in San Diego and play games (cards, dice, charades, you name it, they play it) like the kids in Ashland. We have a total blast!

The only way I really know that I’m not hanging out with my friends back home is that EVERYTHING is in French. In fact, I am living my entire life in French right now! The only time I speak English is when I call family or friends back in the states. This is quite different from my previous sejour en France during which I had many American friends and could easily slip into my mother tongue whenever I got tired of trying so hard. This is no longer possible. I wake up in the morning, speak French all day long, and when my brain is exhausted and craps out on me, I’m out of luck and no one understands me. This has been amazing for my language practice and my comprehension is now better than ever. Here in Toulouse, for the first time, I hang out with groups of French kids and actually understand everything going on!

The only hole in the couchsurfing plan is that I’m completely dependent on finding people to lodge with, and when couches in short supply I find myself prone to “abusing the system.” It’s been difficult lately to find hosts right now. If it’s not one thing, it’s another… first it was midterms for all the kids in school, then they all went on vacation, and upon their return seem to be inexplicably occupied with various projects of mysterious import. Or so I have been led to believe by numerous replies giving a simple, ominous “I can’t right now.” This has left me in many an awkward predicament staying at someone’s house with no idea where I will be going next. My solution to this has been quite obvious: I have doubled up, repeated, and nearly worn out my welcome at the houses of those folks with whom I have already surfed. The girls I’m staying with now are the same I first couchsurfed with and this is the third time I’ve stayed there, and every time I really have no idea where I will stay, I call Vincent. The advantage of this is that I have a few places in town I’m quite familiar with and people I can count on. I keep my fingers crossed that they won’t get sick of me and that I’d actually be able to read French subtlety and tell if they were.

So with the lodging question solved (most nights), my efforts turned to finding work. Miraculously enough, it was couchsurfing which solved this dilemma as well. (I should get a job being a spokesperson for couchsurfing.) I arrived with my bags, one evening, to a new place just as my host was finishing up dinner with some friends. I joined them and regaled my story… “I studied in France last year and absolutely loved it, now I’m here to look for a job and hopefully live for a while, but the problem is I don’t have a visa, blah blah blah.” Well it turns out that my host’s friends are the owners of a little restaurant and they were looking a server for a few hours a day. A few days later I went in for a trial, et voila! A job! It’s not a ton of hours, but it’s a great start, and it guarantees me the money to stay here couchsurfing until I can find something in addition.

It’s a wonderful little job. I’ve never worked as a server, but they are very patient in training me and understanding of cultural and language barriers. It’s an adorable little restaurant completely run by a young French couple. Cecile works the front and Cyril handles everything in the kitchen. Called “La Boutique à Croustades,” they serve nothing but quiches and croustades (a kind of quiche-like pie food thing) and really emphasize local products and regional specialties. I love working there and my bosses are great. I’m actually learning to be graceful (little by little) and learning the service industry in France is like … forgive me my lack of brain power at the moment, I’m babysitting and it’s almost 1am.
All in all, life is progressing quite well here. I’ve got a job and friends, I’m beginning to know town fairly well, I’m working on a babysitting gig that may turn into regular work, and besides the fact that I don’t yet have any place to live, things are pretty amazing. Every day, I wake up (usually reasonably late), walk about 20 minutes through the adorable winding roads to work, and spend my afternoon chatting with Cecile, making coffee (which I get to drink for free), and trying not to drop things on customers. From work, I wander around town running errands and enjoying Toulouse’s beautiful weather, often stopping to sit for a while in a little café or one of the many adorable plaza’s around the centre ville. Evenings are spent cooking and dining with my hosts and occasionally going over to friend’s places or down to the local.

Well with a little picture of my life at the moment to set the stage, I’m moving on to just the highlights, which for a while at least will probably be how I handle the blogging (to make sure I get to writing something at least).

Highlights: Feb 13- Mar 24

I stopped in for a little coffee and to write for a minute at a little café by the river. The outside tables overlook the Place de la Daurade, a great little grassy area by the water only a block from work. I’d never been to the Café des Artistes though I’d walked by it many times and was happy to sit inside with my coffee and my notebook. The man next to me was painting with watercolors and I looked at him and smiled a bit stealing a glance at his painting. A few more swift peeks showed he was painting the woman sitting at the table on the other side of me, quick and practiced stroked gave her jawline, the collar of her blouse, short red hair. I smiled to myself and my amazing surroundings and sat back to my writing, but it wasn’t long before he’d finished his drawing and was on to another. My stares had become slightly obvious by this point, at least in a country as subtle as France, but as the lines appeared I couldn’t help but watch… the profile of a woman, dark curly hair. I giggled to myself as I wrote and pretended I hadn’t noticed anything. When he had finished his drawing, the artist got up and asked me on his way out if I would like to keep the sketches he had done. His French was quick and embarrassed, and I understood very little, but he set the paintings on my table and I thanked him, stunned, as he left the Café des Artistes.


Tarot! Nono, not divination… in France it’s just a card game, and a darn fun one at that. I have fallen upon a lovely group of friends with whom (the Ashlanders would appreciate this) I play games! Dice games, card games, even word games, but especially tarot. What could be better on a sunny Sunday afternoon than heading out to the Japanese Gardens with a couple of beers, a sac of pain chocolats, and a deck of Tarot. Get ready, I’m bringing it back to the states with me.


For the past two years I have been nervous knowing that I would be all alone in Europe on Easter. Last year I was traveling by myself in Munich and ended up having a perfect Easter picnic in the park with kids from all over the world. This year’s luck was no different. I am couchsurfing at the most wonderful place right now, three awesome roommates who I just adore. We had a soirée fondue on Saturday night and went to a great concert down at the college and Sunday I was invited to eat magret de canard at the home of a friend of my host. I can’t believe how well I eat here in Toulouse!

I’m going to leave you with that for the moment and hopefully I’ll be back soon with more highlights. There’s always more to tell, the trouble is getting to writing it down. Hope everyone is well back home, feel free to drop me a line, I’d love to hear les nouvelles.

Friday, February 8, 2008

La Ville Rose

My first days in Toulouse have been a bit wonky, but I suppose it is to be expected. I have discovered, probably a very obvious truth, the things that challenged me on my last trip are no longer difficult. Changing beds every few nights, not knowing exactly where I am going, carrying heavy bags, figuring out foreign transportation systems, and feeling comfortable in strange places now come very easily to me. In Toulouse, however, an entirely new set of tasks stands before me: finding a job and an apartment, making long(ish)-term friends, and making a home in a strange city by myself. I find myself as bewildered as I once was learning how to catch a train and get off at the appropriate stop. I suppose there is much hope in the fact that it is a similar feeling of confusion as with those things that I now breeze through easily, but it is never comfortable to feel in over one’s head.

Though I got off to a bit of a rough start, unable to get in touch with the folks I was supposed to stay with and having to pay for hotels, things are definitely beginning to look up. This morning, I experienced the most difficult moments of my time abroad so far. The hotel I was staying at is evidently closed on Fridays (who’s ever heard of such a thing), so I was kicked out of the cheapest hotel in town with no place to go when all I wanted to do was go back to sleep and have a sure place to leave my loads of luggage. Tired and frustrated, I found my way to a new hotel, dropped my bags and headed out to look around the city. As if in direct response to my prayers, I met a young American gal who has lived here 4 years working with a Christian association. We got to talking (I shared with her my woes of the day) and ended up exchanging information and I’ll be staying with her tomorrow night. The world works in miraculous ways.

In the arena of good news, Toulouse is beautiful!, I am having a fairly easy time making contacts (6 phone numbers in 3 days isn’t too shabby), and if I don’t run out of money first it looks like this will be a very nice place to get a job and a little place for a while. All the buildings are of lovely pink brick which shines in the sun of southern France, truly earning the city’s title “La Ville Rose.” The weather has been absolutely gorgeous since I arrived and it is a great place to simply wander around. Miraculously, unlike almost every other city I’ve visited, it is almost difficult to lose yourself in Toulouse. If it were probable to be lost in a city, I would be counted among the first to accomplish the feat since I wander off in random directions (ask anyone that’s traveled with me), but *knock on wood* I have yet to get lost here. The maps are fairly terrible but the city is so well designed that everything seems very straightforward, and so far all roads have eventually led back to my hotel room.

All in all I have been very lucky. My time in Paris was amazing. Toulouse is a wonderful city, and I am beginning to sort my way through the language and cultural barriers. Over the next few weeks I am looking forward to becoming more and more comfortable with the city and finding a more permanent place to live (wouldn’t take much to be more permanent than what I’m doing now). The perfect people keep crossing my path and I have found myself blessed by even the most trying circumstances. I will be happy to settle down, hopefully relatively soon, and begin to explore la vie en rose.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Encore Paris

I have officially been in France for a week, to the hour nearly, and what a trip it has been already. This journey seems to have begun without any adieu whatsoever, skipping straight over any typical travel structure I have ever known and moving right into one unknown adventure after another.

It all started in a little town called Conway, Arkansas, about a half hour outside of Little Rock where I stayed with two dear American friends who studied with me in France the first time. There I found an entire community of friends, most of whom I had been hearing about for eons, waiting to show me a good time. From staying at their school’s “French House” where nearly everyone spoke français and had studied in France to a party scene the likes of which rival any I’ve seen, I stayed up late chatting and playing away the hours with dear friends. It was a marvelous send off, meeting my fellow adventurers who knew me best at the heights and depths of my time in France. If anyone was placing bets on whether or not I would actually succeed in creating a life abroad, I’d give my dear Lindsay and Rachael the best odds of anyone at actually knowing what I’m up against and what I’m capable of.

I love you my darlings! Thank you Hendrix for a fantastic time!

After a dry county in Arkansas, no where could seem weird, and all my apprehension melted away the morning I awoke for my flight to France. Little Rock to Charlotte, Charlotte to Philly, and finally it seemed I might actually be on my way, Philly to Charles de Gaulle Airport, Paris. Alas, not all great schemes are executed without a hitch and two hours out over the Atlantic, the pilot announced a problem with the plane and we turned back to Philly. Come to find out that the navigation system had gone down and we sat on the runway two hours while the plane was fixed before heading out again at 2:30 am!

Always one to make the best of the situation, I had struck up a conversation with the lovely young man next to me, who it turns out was doing much the same as me. He was doing an internship in Philadelphia and returning to France to do his visa paperwork. We hit it of splendidly. He spoke English and I French, both of us practicing and correcting the other. It was wonderful to begin to get in the mode of speaking French (which at this point has overtaken me so completely that I had to keep reminding myself this afternoon to speak English with the German girl at the hostel). We entertained ourselves while the busy flight attendants refused to tell us what was going on, and included everyone in our seating area in our complaints and jokes that the reason we weren’t leaving yet is that the wing on the other side of the plane had fallen off and we just couldn’t see it. (I hear it took them a while to find the super glue.) Eventually, though, we were back on our way, and though we arrived several hours late, we neither fell out of the sky nor became eternally lost over the Atlantic. Quel chance!

Returning to Paris for the third time, I went immediately to my favored quartier and checked into the hostel I stayed at on previous visits. It is always a strange feeling going back to the rue Mouffetard. As I walk down the street strung overhead with blue lights, down to the Place Contrescarpe, everything is familiar, the cobblestones, the crèpe-makers, the cornerstones of the buildings. It is why I come back. What is inevitably missing, however, is the presence of all the wonderful travelers who I have met and roamed with there. With every step I expect to see their faces and so often I recognize someone who is not truly here. The loneliness of being alone across the sea was deeper and more tangible for the fact that it seemed like it aught not exist, and I knew it would probably be my last time at the Young & Happy hostel.

My room was the same I had called home when first arriving in the City of Lights and I made the most of my time there, eating at all my favored places and frequenting the local student bars. Rather than adopting international travelers, I found myself befriending a wily troop of local Frenchmen. Slightly graying and ever-polite, they were very encouraging towards my plight to find a job, a place, and perhaps a bit of a life here. Another perfect opportunity to practice my French, I laughed late into the night with these fellows before heading off to Ramouillet, a small town an hour outside of Paris and home of dear friends Barbara and Francis.
My time in Rambouillet is hardly describable. While I ate plentifully, drank constantly, slept in a big bed, and was spoiled rotten by things like bathtubs and internet, my hosts were as charming as one could ever imagine. They have truly become my French family and their little place a home away from home. Standing in the garden, all the tension of travel slides from my weary frame and I could sit talking to Barbara forever. An American who has chosen to spend her life in France and truly a sister in spirit, we rambled for hours upon end about everything this life has to offer and more. It was for me a safe haven in the midst of strange faces, heavy baggage, and constant transport.

Coming back to Paris for a few nights before heading down to Toulouse, I have been quite lucky, not only to have met up again with an old friend from Rennes, but also to have found what may quite possibly be the cheapest hostel in France. With nigh-German prices at 13 euro a night for a bed near La Place de la Bastille, I find myself now on my final night in this grand city, resting comfortably (and more so because of the price), surrounded by travelers (not an American in site), and am sitting now at a lovely little café overlooking the huge monument to the French Revolution and preparing for a Mardi Gras out on the town (thanks to Britt for reminding me). I have overlooked most things touristic this time around in favor of wandering, discovering, and enjoying. I spent my first day in Montmartre trolling cafés, peeking in shops, speaking French at any opportunity, and soaking in the delicious energies of Sacre Coeur, a beautiful domed church dedicated 24 hours a day to prayer for world peace. I met Michael (the guy from the plane) there and we went to the Salvador Dali museum, my one tribute to tourism and walked around on the lovely hill of Montmartre enjoying various views of the city.
My trip thusfar has, in fact, been devoid of any of the usual stories of interest worthy of capturing in blog form, but it has been the people that have highlighted my journey with their wisdom, their company, and their spirit. I therefore send out into the void a grand internet tribute from me to Michael, Olivier, Barbara, Francis, Pascal, Alexis and all those I have yet to meet who I know will light up my world.

Tomorrow I leave for Toulouse… I have no idea where I will stay (I should get on that!), I have yet to buy my train ticket, and I have never set foot in the city before, but there it is. Much in the style of this entire trip, I set off (rather unprepared) into the unknown with adequate French comprehension, too many bags, and an utterly unrealistic surety that everything will work out. If you are ever in doubt of your capacity to accomplish something, remember that the momentum of optimism is shocking and it will propel you towards feats otherwise un-thought of. And so it is I go, armed with optimism, to the city where I search a life (for a while at least). The Parisians keep telling me that I absolutely must life in Paris, but je m’en fou! Off to Toulouse!

Saturday, May 5, 2007

The Adventure of a Lifetime

I want to begin every one of my blogs with "I don't know where to begin..." but for my latest adventure it seems to be the understatement of the century. I have quite literally just had the most amazing journey ever including a week in the middle which can only be described as the best week of my life. I know not where to begin, where I am left after this trip, or where to go from here, but it is certainly somewhere quite different than anything I could ever have imagined...

Somewhere along the road my life has taken a strange turn and I find myself some sort of a grown up I hardly recognize. When did Allysha become this world traveling backpacker who makes friends all over the world and ends up on strange adventures in foreign cities? When did I become the basis for a mantra among my friends "What would Allysha do?" When did my life become so amazingly exciting that even I being here for every minute of it can hardly keep up? And how do I begin to describe such a change, such a surreal experience, such a life? Sigh, I'll try, but there is certainly no conveying in words what this has been. Here we go... I set off on a rather optimistic trip two weeks ago today to Zurich, Munich, Amsterdam, and London, with a brief and unplanned layover in Paris. I just arrived home 2 hours ago after 32 hours in transit and while everything is still so fresh I have the need for some catharsis. The trip in itself was quite an undertaking: 5 countries, 5 strange grand foreign cities, 4 languages, 3 currencies, innumerable cultures, 1 Allysha, 0 friends. I set off alone, fairly prepared, a little nervous, but undoubtedly confident in my abilities as a human, as a woman, as a traveler, and most importantly of all for me, as an extrovert.

Zurich was a beautiful city, with the lovely Limmat River running amist the cobblestone streets, lovely European shops, and fresh spring trees finally in bloom. Europe has certainly taken its time in blooming this year, but it must have begun while I was on the train to Switzerland because by the time I arrived so had spring. The weather was amazing during my entire trip, the best I'd seen in Europe, hovering around 75 degrees. Zurich was mostly comprised of the most incredible clothing stores you've ever seen in your life, all of which would be absolutely irresistable if not for the price. My first day wandering, it pained me terribly not to be able to shop amist these well-dressed and quietly capable crowd (and I am usually fairly immune to such temptations). The city seemed like the best mall imaginable, perfect serene atmosphere, cute shop after cute shop, a river running through it and the dear Swissfolk going about their usual business.

The question, "What is there to do in Zurich?" became a joke among the hostel kids as we asked this repeatedly throughout our stay and no one seemed to have an answer. Depite the lack of obvious tourist activities, it was a beautiful city in which to spend the first few days of my vacation and get my first taste of Switzerland. The real highlight of the trip here however were all the wonderful people I met at the hostel. My first night a group of more than 10 English speakers ended up hanging out on the rooftop patio at the hostel and ended up going out, roaming around town together looking for fun in Zurich. Among other things, we found a funky little piano bar with a Bulgarian piano man named Valentine who played songs like Imagine, Hotel California, and a million others that everyone sang along with regardless of language.

One of the most shocking things upon arriving in Switzerland was the sudden and complete change of language. When I got on the train in Geneva, everyone around me was speaking French and the ticketman took my ticket in French (which by now for me is quite comfortable); however, as we passed through Switzerland people kept getting on and off the train and by few hours later I couldn't help but notice the obvious change in volume and LANGUAGE. The ticketman came around again to a group of rowdy German speakers (or maybe Swiss German, couldn't tell at the time but I can now), and I saw that the same man was now taking everyone's tickets in German. Wondering what I had gotten myself into not knowing any German, I headed into a whole new world that only got more culturally distinct as I travelled into Germany.
Without a doubt, I can say that Munich was the best time of my life. With no idea exactly why, rather than specific experiences that were particularly astounding, I am in love with Munchen for who I became there. No longer the inexperienced young American who left for France, I was the world-traveling, French-speaking, cool chick from California... yeah she travels alone, but no worries, you know she'll find a friend just around the corner and probably teach you a thing or two about this town too.

Two friends from the Zurich hostel took the train with me to Germany and I met another friend there so I was well-prepared to take on a new city. I had no idea what to expect of Munich and was ecstatic to find that the people were friendly and helpful, the food was delicious, Baverian beer is in my opinion the best in the world, and there was tons to do! What a great mix of historically interesting sites and nights full of great people just out on the town having fun.

I met more people in five days in Munich than I think I have any other week of my life, and by the end of my stay when I walked into the hostel either I knew someone there or I would in about five minutes. Everyone had something new and interesting to contribute, somewhere interesting they'd visited, a new and fun idea of somewhere to go, a great story to tell. We were all on the same page, backpackers always are... "Oh you're from California, cool! You're studying in France? Do you speak French? wow, that's so great! You're traveling alone, you rock that's awesome!" Not only did I constantly get to play the part of the cool Californian traveling all over who flitted into their lives for some instant fun, but I got to hear stories and learn things I never imagined. I am obsessed with some of those who flitted into my life for a few amazing days, the Swiss German boys, the crazy Canadian, that great gal from Colorado, so many Germans, and oh the Italians.
After Munchen, I learned that it doesn't matter what circumstances I'm thrown into, I will find people to help me get what I need and I will find friends. From the man who works at the gare (train station) to the girl who just moved to Munich from California and is now a tour guide, everyone along my path seems to point me in the right direction and lead me along my way. I
can do many things on my own but one of my specialties is finding people to guide me through everything I can't. There are few more satisfying feelings than accomplishing something great and finding your way gracefully through a difficult situation and traveling is just the ticket to provide one sticky sitch to solve after another.

Before I started traveling I had been a little nervous about being alone in Munchen for Easter. I had little choice in it and all of my friends from school were similarly planning to find themselves either traveling or alone in a foreign city. With nothing to be done for it, I didn't think too much more about it other than wondering what I might do that day, perhaps a museum. Hanging around the hostel that Saturday night, I found some guys I had met the night before who were now sitting with a cheery, sweet-looking gal and promptly joined them. She and I got on swimmingly and long after the boys had gone to bed we found or created our own adventures far into the night. It turns out that she is in the process of moving to Munich (still in the hostel-living phase), but knows the city well and has many friends in town, some of whom were planning an Easter Sunday picnic to which I was invited.

What an incredible Easter... on a beautiful day in Germany, a handful of kids coming from all different cultures headed to the park loaded up with a blanket, snacks, German meatballs, Easter Candy (from one of the girl's Omah, grandma in German), and a deck of cards (okay okay, there was some German beer involved, but when in Bavaria...). We sat around for hours, playing, laughing, joking, talking. I learned three new card games and the names of all the cards in German. I can now sing a song in Swiss German and can say "I don't speak any German," and "I'm learning German quickly."

Well I had nearly finished babbling through the rest of my trip when my computer ran out of batteries when I went to make pasta for a minute and not having saved at all, I've lost everything. Unfortuately (or luckily) for you, I have neither the time nor energy to continue rambling in the same many-paragraphed detail that I have been, but will instead be summing up quickly the rest of my trip (wait til you see what Allysha's idea of wrapping up quickly is, haha).

My time in Germany was so incredible that I remember thinking walking down the street one day that there would be a time of difficulty (probably not so far off in the future) and that when that day came I would accept it gracefully knowing that it was only keeping things in balance. In the meantime, I did my very best to soak up and enjoy every moment of happiness while it lasted. Little did I know how true these thoughts would be and that the second half of my trip would truly put my capacities for grace to the test.

I took the night train into Amsterdam, just for the day, as it was the cheapest flight to London off the continent and my railpass allowed me to take the train for free. This was a perfectly symbolic exit from Munich as it was difficult, exhausting, exciting, and left me disoriented and ready for bed (much like Munchen itself). I was quite comfortable wandering the streets of Amsterdam alone having already thoroughly explored this great city, but spent most of my day here resting or napping on the wake of such adventuring. I was happy to find that even outside of Munich my magical powers of making friends in strange places sustained. I befriended two adorable Italian boys who I found on the street in the Red Light District and amazed an American and two French kids at the hostel by switching non-chalantly between languages seemingly out of nowhere. I was thrilled to learn that rather than some trick of the trip, this actually seems to be a quality that I possess, which I hope to take with me to new and strange lands for the rest of my days.

Well, as is wont to happen when one is holding on by a thread and tiredness and disorientation are threatening to break in, things began to go wrong. I missed my plane out of Amsterdam. While I can point out or invent many reasons for this occurence, the truth as I choose to believe it is simply that it was time for things to go wrong. For those of you who have never travelled with me, my main skill in travelling lies in my somewhat astounding ability not to freak out. Generally when I find myself in situations that would reduce many the seasoned travel to tears (and certainly nearly every young girl just beginning to see the world), my reaction is not upset or disappointment which I am often sure would ruin my trip much more than a missed flight. Most often I find myself laughing at the ridiculousness of the predicament I find myself in and while looking towards what to do next generally decide that while I wouldn't have planned it that way, I'm probably better off. While I did not exactly enjoy having to buy another plane ticket, I found it not strange in the least that I should have now missed a flight and revelled in the fact that I no longer had to hurry to catch a plane but could relax for a while at the airport. Ever the eternal optimist as my friends in France will tell you, (they like to joke that nothing ever goes wrong in my life... to which I like to point out that things go wrong, but because I rarely see them that way it's much less traumatic).

Finally making it to London, I was still so exhausted from my travels so far, I was elated to be staying with the American friend of one of my friends in France. Courtney was studying in London and was my absolute savior during my time in England, where a missed flight was suddenly the least of my problems. Only the first night I arrived as I went to pay for my first dinner at an English pub, I discovered my wallet was missing. After ransacking every bag I had to no avail, darling Courtney let me use her phone to cancel all my bank and credit cards from cross the ocean and try without luck to contact the family. I now was stranded in London with no money, no way of getting back to France, and no plan other than get ahold of someone. Thank goodness I was there with friends or I have no idea what I might have done (though I'm sure it would have included quite a bit of the "freaking out" that I pride myself on avoiding). I spent the next few days wandering around the city with a few pounds in my pocket that Courtney lent me, admiring the sites from the outside without the money to enter them and trying, though exhausted, to enjoy beautiful England.

London itself was a very fast-paced city and in fact one of the top three (including Zurich) most expensive cities in the world (information I could really have used on the front end of planning this trip). Everyone seemed to be hurrying along over-dressed as if there was some grand event to which they were all headed and I was not invited. Being in this city, where everything was finally in English, at this point seemed like going half way home. It somehow occured to me as inauthentic (though I know it was not) to be surrounded by so many things familiar to my own culture. After so much time in lands where everything is foreign, London brought back to me in a way that so many men in German liederhosen could not, just how far I have come. I spent most of my time trying desparately to enjoy my time there with no idea what I was going to do, unable to contact home, and longing more than anything to return to my little dorm room in the west of France which feels now the only home I can accurately claim.

Eventually, and thankfully, my third day in London, after a sizable debt was owed to my hostess I was able finally to ring my mom and grandmother, who despite my dire circumstances, after a fair amount of questioning and frustration on both sides, Western Unioned me enough money to pay off my debts, finish my vacationing, and return to Rennes (though money was then on ever an issue for if I ran out, there was no more to be had). I spent much of my time in London sleeping, living off peanut butter and jelly (of which there is none in France so somewhat of a delicacy), and sitting in parks which in every country is a beautifully free passtime. I have never been happier than when my plane finally arrived in Paris, where though I would have to spend the night in the airport, I understood the people, the language, and the land.

My first time back to Paris since arriving originally, I had no idea the extent to which France has become my home, a safe place where, though things were amazingly foreign to me at first, things are not after all so very strange. I could not afford the morning trains as they were full and the only available tickets first class, so I spent the day (where else but a park) at Montsouris Parc with three euros to my name after the train ticket. I had a one euro McDo's cheeseburger (my first in France) with a coke and lugged all my ridiculously heavy bags up and down the streets until it was time to head home.

What a time... some of the best and most challenging experiences of my life. From the diligent, immaculate Swiss to the fun-loving people of Bavaria, a short layover in tall, serious, but ever-forgiving Amsterdam to the hectic streets of London, and finally home, home to those overly intricate silly buildings of Paris, and these funny people who speak a language which sounds always as if they are saying something strange and beautiful. And finally finally, to Rennes, where though they are French, they are something more, Celtic perhaps, more rugged like the coasts of this land, they are Breton. What luck I have had to have chosen this town where I can fit in a way I never will in the rest of France. What hope has an American of ever truly fitting in France? Little. But here, here I can simply be me, a bit of a hippy, as most students are here, a bit of an adventurer, as most Bretons appreciate though they are not truely so themselves, and a bit of Allysha, which though I may never truly FIT anywhere, seems to (so far at least) work the world over... or at least that small part of it that I have so far seen.

This trip has taught me so much about the world, but more than that, it has taught me about who I am. The process of integrating experiences as great as these can certainly be rough at times. Living on top of the world as I have been, comes always with its opposite. One moment I'm sure that nothing so amazing as my life has ever happened to anyone, but when the inevitable promise of transience occurs to me it is like a blow to the gut. I am spending so much time soaking in life, truly LIVING in a way I have never known that I feel I scarcely have time to breathe, to move, to prepare for whatever comes next. I'm sure when I get there I will be underprepared as always but I know now, whatever comes, I'm in it, I'm in the game, I'm up to the challenge.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Livin' and Lovin' La Vie Francaise

Well I am about to head off again at the end of the week for another amazing adventure and thought it was about time to sit down with the latest updates on France before I am swept off to Zurich, Munich, and London on my second spring break.

The past few weeks here have been amazing, some of the most incredible in the history of my 23 years here on Earth. I picked my French life up much where I had left it after Amsterdam, but with an added degree of comfort and a pressing desire to throw myself into the French life. While the Americans I have been hanging out with divided themselves into two categories: those who love France and those who are barely surviving it, I found myself squarely in the middle... until last week. I am not sure what changed, if anything changed at all, if I was finally ready, or if I suddenly opened my eyes to something that had been there all along, but the verdict is in and I have absolutely fallen in love with France. I spent one long night in my room feeling like a failure for speaking as much English as I do here, wondering if I'll ever be anything other than an American slob here, and cursing everything I don't understand and could never be. And then I chose... I chose to step into my life here whatever that may look like and however scary it may be. I chose to force myself to speak French even though it's hard and there's so much I don't understand. I chose to live a French life, as best I could, even though I'll never quite fit in. I went to sleep, and I woke up in peace, my thoughts flowing easily in French. I told my American friends that I wouldn't be around as much because I want to let France happen to me, rather than carving out my own and different place here for the sake of comfort. All I had to do was choose, and the miracles started to arise...

Last week my friend heard about a poetry slam at one of our local bars and immediately I told her I wanted to go with her. How exciting to get to hear live French poetry! As a poet I had a secret thought in the back of my head that it would be the coolest thing ever if I could actually pull off writing and performing a poem in French. Never having performed my own poetry and never having written a poem in French, I had no idea if I would even be capable, but having thrown myself into this French life, I had to try. Anyone who has ever written poetry knows that you cannot simply sit down to write a poem and expect it to come. Poetry is gentle and you must be patient with it; it arrives in its own time. Sitting in class the day before the slam, I still had nothing, when suddenly my poem begins to birth itself. Trying desparately to multi-task, keeping up with my lessons and scribbling furiously on some scratch paper off to the side, I found my poetic voice in France, in French no less. I didn't want to try to write a poem to compete with the French in their own language, which I knew I could never do. I wanted to write something that was truly me, an American girl studying here, lost in French culture, simply trying my best to make sense of the world. Here is what I found:

Je ne parle pas bien le francais!

Je ne peux pas parler le francais.
J'essaie, mais c'est vrai.

J'ai beaucoup de choses a dire,
je vais commencer...

Ici, la France, c'est pas chez moi,
les etrangers sont tres differents.
Je veux, ici, etre a laise,
mais je ne comprends pas la vie francaise.

J'aime bien la nourriture,
les tres belle villes, les petites voitures.
La joie de vivre est vraiment reele
et je pense que les gens sont genial.

Mais moi, je ne suis pas francaise,
et je fait beaucoup de choses mauvaise.

Pardon, pardon, j'habite ici,
j'ai essaye,
mais je n'ai pas compris.

En fait...

Je parle trop fort
je souris toujours
je suis trop saoule
j'ai tort encore.

Je suis plus grosse que les femmes francaise,
mes vetements sont scandaleux.

Je ne veux pas vous offenser,
mais je ne peux pas vraiment changer.

Je veux apprendre a parler le francais,
mais tous mes amis parlent andglais.
Je ne connais personnes, les jeunes francais,
ils sont gentils mais plutot fermes

Je veux avoir des amis francais,
mais ce n'est pas facile de les rencontrer.

Je veux leur dire:
Parlez avec moi.
Soyez mes copains.
Je suis nouvelle en France
et je ne sais pas!

Je suis contente ici, a Rennes.
Je trouve la France assez bien,
mais d'etre americaine est ineluctable,
et tout le temps...
Je suis comme je suis!

S'il vous plait, aimez-moi la France!

and for those of you who don't speak French... (keep in mind that things don't translate exactly)

I don't speak French well!

I can't speak French,
I try, but it's true.

I have a lot of things to say,
I'm gonna start...
Listen up.

Here, France, it's not my home,
foreigners are very different.
I want, here, to be at peace,
but I don't understand French life.

I really like the delicious food,
the beautiful cities, the little cars.
The joy of life is truly real,
and I think the people are really cool.

But me, I am not French,
and I am constantly screwing things up.

Excuse me, excuse me, I live here
I tried,
but I didn't understand.

In fact...

I talk too loud
I smile all the time
I laugh too much
I'm wrong AGAIN.

I'm fatter than French women,
my clothes are scandalous.

I don't want to offend you,
but I can't really change.

I want to learn to speak French,
but all my friends speak English.
I don't know anyone, the young French folk,
they're nice, but rather closed.

I want to have French friends
but it's not easy to meet them.

I want to say to them:
Talk to me.
Be my friends.
I'm new in France,
and I don't know!

I'm happy here, in Rennes.
I find France pretty cool,
but to be American is inescapable,
and all the time...
I am who I am.

Please, love me France!

Terrified out of my mind, but equally determined, I stepped up to the mic not knowing at all what would come of it. I practiced night and day for the day and a half before the slam and wanted nothing more than to read my poem like I knew I could. I had asked the cute boy across the hall to check the poem grammatically and even showed it to a teacher for further imput. (She loved it so much she told me she made a copy for herself to keep.) Confident that it was at least solidly written, I stood there, not as a sad immitation of all the beautiful French poets performing that night, but as an American, a poet in my own right, trying her best to fit into this French world. I began and even as I had only spoken the title, the crowd began to laugh (not an easy feat in a French crowd) and though I was scared to death, my voice didn't tremble at all. I recited it like a true French poem, pronouncing the words differently as you would only do in songs or poetry, though with a bit of my unavoidable American accent. By halfway through my hand was shaking so much that the paper was moving inches up and down and I had to switch hands, but my voice stayed strong to the end. The crowd loved it... they laughed at all the right moments and hooped and hollered at the end. Every inch of my body was shaking as I walked back to my seat and collapsed into the arms of my American friends. I read it beautifully, like I knew I could. My first French poem, my first poetry slam, in France, in French.

After my reading, which was indeed a plea to the French to accept me, at least 4 or 5 young French people made the effort to talk to me. Amazing!! (It's almost impossible to get a French person to talk to a stranger.) My friends were so proud they were nearly in tears and sat around for the next few hours like proud parents talking about what I had just accomplished. My darling friend Dan, generally cynical to the end, told me that this is one of the stories he would tell to all his friends, "you won't believe what one of my friends in France did..." Breaking through his natural tendancy to be relatively unimpressed by everything, he said I better be as proud of myself as I should be and feel on top of the world because what I had just done was amazing! I was. On the way out I said goodbye to the bartender who we know fairly well. He told me that he has hosted a few of these slams and sometimes Americans try to read poetry at them but it never goes over very well. My reading, he said, was the best he'd ever seen of any American. To quote Loic: "You really worked your magic on them." It was incredible!

Since then, since stepping into France, since truly taking on my life here, every day has brought wonderful surprises. Every day I meet more and more French friends as I put myself out there in an effort towards immersion. On the way back from the market down the street the other day, I ran into three different French kids who I've recently made friends with and stopped to chat with each of them and do the petite bise (kiss kiss). I am excited to head off to Switzerland, Germany, and England where I am sure to encounter many more amazing things (my brain could truly use a short break from so much French), but I am even more excited to return here, home to Rennes, et ma vie francaise.

Monday, March 5, 2007

Contact Info

In case anyone was wondering how to get ahold of me, I now have a phone number through Skype (a program that lets me talk through my computer), so you can call me for free! Hooray! Call me anytime and if I'm by my computer I'll answer, otherwise you can leave me a voicemail. I'd love to hear from you! (Don't worry about time zones, my hours are completely weird here)

(916) 273-9336

If anyone wants to send me anything my address is:

Allysha Lavino
Cezembre 12
2, Rue d'Alsace
CS 51004
35010 Rennes Cedex, FRANCE

It would absolutely make my day to hear from any of you or even get some mail! *hint hint... send taco bell hot sauce and Kraft mac and cheese powder* hehe :)

Amsterdam and More

I don't even know where to start in describing my most recent adventures. To begin, France gets better every day. My experiences become deeper and richer as I come to know and understand life here. I have just had a wonderful week, my first week back from a fabulous vacation spent in Amsterdam. As I sit here writing, I am finding it difficult to switch my brain back onto English and keep thinking the French word first. (C'est tres bon, oui?) My spelling, which is usually nigh impeccable, has gone straight down the drain and I have to remind myself to capitalize words like American and leave out extra vowels which now just look right to me.

The French get two spring breaks (why didn't we think of that?), and while all of the French kids go home for the week, the Americans travel. My bags packed, my Eurail pass in hand, and an itch for adventure, I set off last week for five days in Amsterdam with my American friend Lindsay. This trip brought me right back to my first few weeks travelling around France reminding me of why I love to travel and why it is the most beautiful and difficult thing you will ever do. The city of Amsterdam itself is one of the most incredible places I have ever seen. Nearly every street has a canal running through the center and the several-storied attached houses and apartments that line the streets each have a unique look creating the most wonderful ambiance. We spent hours upon hours just wandering the streets of Amsterdam, admiring the beauty around us, and we felt, truly getting a feel for the city. We felt very lucky to be there in winter when it seemed the city could show her true face. With few visitors and bare trees, the city seemed naked and honest. We seemed to catch a glimpse of Amsterdam as those who live there must know her, apart from all the hustle and bustle of the summer.

Some of my favorite thing about the city came as a complete suprise. Amsterdam is the snack capital of the world. Okay not really, but it might as well be. They have entire stores dedicated to snacks (like the best AM/PM you've ever seen), and everything is delicious. We went crazy on these thin little waffle cookies with carmel in the middle like a sandwich. Mmm... stroopwaffels. I ate far too much while I was there, but France is not a country that's big on the snacks. It's a little bit rude here to eat between meals (maybe just a bit of baguette), so they don't have a lot of snack foods. Quite an adjustment from home where I eat throughout the day and practically live off snacks. Needless to say, Amsterdam and I got along quite well. I think she really got me.

Our hostel, which was one of Europe's top ten hostels, was right next to the huge and amazing Vondelpark and we spent our mornings strolling though the gardens while we discussed our plans for the day. Most of our vacation was spent simply wandering through the city, no destination or plan, stumbling upon new and interesting things all the time. We visited the Rijk's Museum, which was unfortunately half closed and the Van Gogh museum which we both adored. Van Gogh is my favorite painter, but unfortunately, we didn't go there until the last day and I was too tired to enjoy it like I feel I could have. My feet hurt terribly by this point from walking from dawn 'til dusk everyday, and I was so tired that when I stood up I was in pain and when I sat down I risked falling asleep in public. If I could change one thing about my trip I would have gone to Van Gogh sooner and spent the deserved hours mesmorized by his colors and vision. As it was it was wonderful, but at the time I would honestly have prefered a nap (sad story!).

Traveling with new people is always an adventure in itself. My travel buddy Lindsay and I discovered in about the first five minutes that we had very different styles of doing things. We were only saved by our commitment to constantly articulate these differences and attempt to compromise. To begin, To begin, Lindsay is six feet tall and a fast walker to boot. I, on the other
hand, am quite short and fond of wandering and walking slowly. In addition, when Lindsay is on a crowded street, her tendancy is to race ahead of anyone walking near here, while my instinct is just the opposite, slowing down to let others pass. The only compromise in this area left both of us running at an uncomfortable pace. I constantly felt like a child being lost in a crowd and struggled to keep up as Lindsay zoomed around the already fast-walking Dutch like Speed Racer passing on the left. While she, on the other hand, constantly fought anxiety when I simply could not go that fast and the crowds closed in. Watching her walk slowly with me was pretty hilarious. As my little legs took three steps to each of hers, she looked like she was walking in slow motion and I in double time. Somehow we managed to wander the beautiful streets of Amsterdam without losing or killing each other, but I was glad to return to Rennes where I refused to hurry at all for a week to make up for lost time.

Now, coming home to Rennes, it is nice to settle into a simple French (or semi-French) life. I missed my daily baguette, cheap wine, and dorm dinners with friends. I even missed being surrounded by people speaking French and the daily challenge of taking ten minutes to figure out how to say something before actually talking. Though we all enjoyed our different journeys, upon our return, my American friends all agreed that we were ready to be back in Rennes. Life has picked up much as it was before I left, but with an added degree of comfort and pleasure in my little world here. I by no means have everything down and still learn daily new words, culturisms, and interesting nooks and crannies of my little town, but it's official... I can now proficiently do life here. I can feed myself including grocery shopping (one of my favorite things to do here), cooking in the dorm kitchen, and going to the Restaurant Universitaire (aka dorm food). I may even come back knowing how to cook way more than I ever did before. Let's keep our fingers crossed for that one! My American friends and I really support each other here and we have group dinners several times a week at one room or another. Usually pasta, one or two of us bring the pasta and ingredients, another brings a baguette, and someone else the wine, while we take turns cooking. We all bring our own fork and cup and end up sitting around on big pot chowing down, since none of us have enough plates for a crowd. It's become a tradition. I love sharing anyway and what an opportunity to have so many people looking out for each other. We all share everything we have, and this week while I am very low on money waiting for my stipend, one of my friends here said to me, "Don't even be silly, Allysha. You know we've got you, we'll feed you this week." How nice to have such a community here so far from home.
Another of our regular rituals, visiting the Restaurant Universitaire, is always an adventure. After several weeks we're still not exactly sure how it works. You enter a large room packed with people to find several stations with different kinds of food. Well the trick is that depending on which station you choose, you're allowed a different number of items for one meal ticket. So to begin, you have to pay close attention to whether you're allowed two or three items, because if you go over you have to pay extra (which we don't usually have when we've settled for dorm food). Your next task is to figure what is actually considered one item, which seems fairly impossible. It seems to me to be slightly arbitrary. A small baguette never counts nor does a salad,as long as it doesn't actually have any ingredients in it (basically stale bread and lettuce are free... as long as you get other things as well). Mind you, we're discovering these knit picky little rules in French when we have only an hour to eat between classes and are packed in on every side by other students and lines sprawling every which way. Now, an entree and two side dishes counts as one item as long as it's on the same plate; if they're on a different plates, they're counted separately. It took us a long time to figure this out since an entire plate of food is one item while just an apple is another. Most days we can figure it out and make it to class on time, though many of us take less food than we think we've paid for just to be completely safe. On our first visit, my friend Rachael got into a terrible mess where a kiwi put her one item over and she didn't have the 40 centimes to cover it. The French cashier-woman would not let her return the item and became loudly frustrated at her for her obvious lack of comprehension of the system. Eventually she was allowed to return the kiwi and Rachael lived to to share the story though she definitely lost her appetite after being yelled at for five minutes in French. Overall it's wonderful having a place with a big warm meal for two and a half euro right near home, and it has now become another of those hysterical things about France that adds to the ambiance of our funny little town.

Upon my return from Amsterdam I decided that I really wanted to take this French thing seriously and needed to stop speaking so much English with my American friends and dive right into the thick of it. My mission was clear: I needed some French friends... hopefully some patient, articulate folks who would be happy to help me with my language difficulties, teach me new words, and give me the chance to practice speaking in a normal context. Well, as my life at times can tend to be a bit charmed, no sooner had I stated my wishes than two French boys came and knocked on my door to borrow something, ended up coming in to talk to me and a friend who was over, and voila - French friends! One of them lives in my building and now stops by at least every other day to chat in French and hang out for a bit. Between this chance meeting and my propensity to start talking and never stop, I have met several other young French folk who now stop by my room on a regular basis. It's fantastic! I have learned so many new words including a ton of slang that would be impossible to learn from my professors (my American friends and I are all so amused to learn French insults and are always teaching each other new inappropriate phrases we've learned from random French kids in friendly inquisitive conversation). It has also been amazing to have the opportunity to practice the language in an everyday context, hearing how the young people here talk, and gaining competence in saying the types of things you would actually want to say when hanging out with friends.

Since everyone seems to love my funny French stories, I'll pass along another little pronounciation error that has made my American friends and I chuckle quite a bit. "Beaucoup" is a very common word here meaning . Well you can imagine how often this is used... beaucoup! "Merci beaucoup," in particular, seems to find its way into nearly every conversation. The other day I was sitting around with some of my new French friends and said this common "thank you very much" after which there was much snickering. They attempted to explain to me what was so funny, but after a few minutes, I still didn't understand, and they let it drop. I didn't think too much more of it until last night when sitting around speaking French with a few Americans and a young Nigerian fellow, one of my friends begins to describe her difficulty in pronouncing the word "beaucoup" and the humorous situations that ensued as a result. My ears perked up at hearing this and she proceeded to explain what the French gentlemen laughing at me were unable to convey. Apparently "merci beaucoup" - pronounced bo - coo, means "thank you very much" (that much I knew), but what I didn't know is that "merci beaucoup" - incorrectly pronounced bo - cue, means "thanks, nice ass." One tiny syllable slightly mispronounced and what a different meaning! I don't think it should be so easy to accidentally tell the woman at the bank or your new male French friends, "oh, thanks, nice ass!" I suppose I will have to pay better attention in the future to the subtle nuances of speaking. Who knows what other secret inappropriate phrases lie hidden in my silly American pronounciation.

My new outrageous Rennes story of the week is typical of the bizarre things that occur here daily. Whenever something weird happens here now, my friends and I just look at each other and say "Well, that's Rennes for you." So lying in bed the other morning I heard a strange tapping at my window, a short, loud, semi-intermittent stacatto that woke me from my sleep. Sitting up, I looked to the window to see a giant crow on my window sill pecking diligently at something there. Now, to understand this story completely, you must know that in the dorms here, the refrigerators are quite a pain. They are all the way down the hall and are locked with a padlock so you have to put in a combination to get your food. In addition, despite the obvious precautions, sometimes food is still stolen (especially yummy-looking things). To combat these inconveniences, many students keep food out their windows since it's usually about as cold as a refrigerator outside. Counting myself among those who trust their food to the dangers of the wild, I had several food items on the sill on "the morning with the bird". After being half startled to death, I jumped out of bed to find the crow pecking furiously at my pack of bacon and had to open the window slightly and make some noise to shoo him off. I don't know why the animals here seem stranger than other places I've been, perhaps because it's Rennes, but between my weird behavior (keeping food on the window sill) and his weird behavior (stealing breakfast from someone you've never met) it was definitely an odd experience. It started raining later that morning after I had gone back to bed and I kept waking up paranoid to the pitter patter thinking, "Oh my goodness, the bird's at my bacon again." Though I never saw him again, I didn't eat the bacon (which he had maimed a bit), and now every time there's a tapping at my window, I must be honest, I am more than slightly jumpy. Perhaps the moral of this story is that bacon is best kept locked up in Rennes.

I am definitely settled into a rhythm by now, and even though it is often difficult, I am loving my quaint little life here. My classes are passing much like classes do mid-semester, slightly difficult, slightly boring, but generally pleasant. The highlight of my world here has definitely been my friends. Between the amazing Americans who have been my saving grace (people who choose to study abroad are just a cool breed of folk) and my new French friends who allow me to practice my language skills and discover the intricacies of this culture, I am with people nearly all my waking hours and it is a blast! I am quite lucky to be so extroverted and have so many different kinds of friends that I have no idea what each day will be like before I see who is behind the knocking on my door. I was finally able to figure out how to use the gym facilities at the dorms and worked out for the first time today, which was wonderful. The more time I spend here, the more I am able to navigate the country to find new and interesting things to incorporate into my life in France. I still love and miss everyone back home, but I can now definitively say that I am happy here. J'ai de la chance!