Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Ah Rennes.... at last!

Well, here I am settling into my new school, my new room, my new home. So many things here remind me that I truly am in a foreign world. Unlike in Paris and the other little cities I visited on my way out here, I am not vacationing, and this is to be my new life. There have been many ups and downs in my first week here at school. I arrived feeling like I was beginning to grasp this whole "French thing" (which for an American traveler, I was), but after a week among French students I feel more lost than ever. Although my French is proably much better than when I first arrived, my comparisons are much greater now and it is easy to be discouraged with my lack of proficiency. I keep having to remind myself that this is the curve that goes along with studying abroad - wonderful days and difficult days, and more feelings than it seems possible to stuff into one human body.
Rennes is a cute little town, not as cute as Paris, but what can you expect. It has a different style from much of the rest of France, being in Brittany (Bretagne), there is a different historical influence more like Celtic Britain. The Centre Ville is adorable but my overwhelming impression is first and formost that of confusion. None of the streets seem to keep their name for more than a block and nothing runs anything like the grids I am used to back home. Wandering down the meandering streets who can't make up their mind as to what they're called, it is easy to lose yourself among the brightly colored restaurants, shops, and bars of provincial Rennes. I have enjoyed visiting town, which is only a quick metro ride away, but still have a lot of exploring to do before I feel competent in my new little town. I have managed to find a great local pub that's a favorite of the international students studying here, the best Italian food place in the world, and a small shop full of all things Breton (what the Celtic people of this region are called), which for me was thrilling. I hope to do more exploring over the next few weeks and learn more of what Rennes has to offer.

My dorm room is, first and formost, a dorm, although I hear that I am in the nicest building of the lot (we actually have mailboxes rather than getting our mail shoved under the door!). Though small, of course, I have a single room which is nice enough for my tastes. There are, however, several adjustments to dorm life, which for me is a completely new experience. There is only one bathroom for the entire floor which is rough enough, but incredibly it is CO-ED!! and has no seats on any of the toilets. What an adjustment that is! How differently the French must think to create a situation that a week and a half later I still can hardly believe. I am very happy to be integrated into the regular French dorms, as are all the international students here. I was expecting to be segragated with all the others who are studying abroad, but am glad to have this opportunity for true immersion and regular interaction with French kids. Overall, the dorms have been a bit of a change, but relatively comfortable, and I know in just a few weeks I will feel as at home here in my little room in Rennes as I did in my studio in San Diego.

I have met many Americans who are also studying here, and we have enjoyed laughing at ourselves as we attempt to learn to live in Rennes. Grocery shopping is still great fun, but it took us over three hours just to do laundry the other day. These are the simple joys and frustrations of life abroad. The simplest errand may take all day and somewhere in the middle you're ready to jump out the window, but by the end of the day (on a good day), you feel accomplished and ready to take on the world. Most days that's what leaving my room feels like - taking on the world. To quote my favorite movie: "It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your front door... you step onto the road, and if you don't mind your feet, you never know where you might be swept off to." That's what each day in France has felt like so far. I get dressed and ready for a new adventure with no idea where I will end up or whether I will be prepared. Usually I am far less prepared than I would like to have been, but somehow I figure it out along the way. There are some adventures in life for which there is no preparation and I am certainly on one of them.
I have been lucky, being the social bug that I am, it has been easy for me to meet people. I got some wonderful advice from a good friend before leaving, "Talk to everyone, Allysha. It will save your life." It certainly has! Thanks Jenn. Sometimes when I don't think I can make a fool of myself one more time, I drawn this line around me like a mantle and step up. For once I am truly in a situation where talking as often as I do pays off...yes! This mantra, talking to as many people as possible, has certainly paid off - as just this instant (vraiment!) there was a knock at my door, my neighbor coming to let me borrow some of his French CD's to put on my computer. I have been lucky to meet many of the young French kids on my floor, an experience none of the other Americans have had so far (in part due to my knocking on the door and saying "Hi, I'm the new American girl who lives next door. I don't know anyone, will you be my friend" ...all in French or something like it, of course). A few nights ago, I had the delightful experience of being invited to a small gathering of French students in one of the dorm rooms on my floor. What a truly cultural experience! Imagine twelve students crammed into a tiny dorm room, jabbering on in French (I hardly understood a word), jumping around animatedly as they told stories, passing around a plate full of crepes (honestly!), and kissing each other on the cheeks. I felt as though I was in a French film or story... so many stereotypes jumping right off the page of my highschool French textbook and into my social life. It is not always easy to create ongoing relationships when I understand so little, but I am trying, and I think there are things that just require time and being willing to be foolish over and over and over again...

Not everything has been as rewarding as meeting wonderful foreigners, however. Anyone who has ever registered for school knows that it can be an arduous and frustrating process. Add to that a language barrier and the fact that nothing here is computerized and it is nothing short of a nightmare. I spent most of the day today running back and forth between offices trying to understand what they were asking of me to no avail. I have another such day ahead of me tomorrow, but my classes begin Monday and I look forward to gaining competence interacting with the French world. I had my first experience of a language faux pas this week. Actually, it is something I have been saying since I arrived and I only just this week found out that it was terribly wrong. In order to say that I was excited to... fill in the blank here (be in France, see the Eiffel Tower, arrive in Rennes, and most often - begin my classes), I have been saying "Je suis tres excitee pour commencer mes cours." I'm sure many of you can imagine this might be now that you know it's a huge faux pas. Apparently "Je suis tres excitee" is a term only used to express sexual excitement. So technically I have been running around France saying "I'm very horny to start my classes." No wonder I have had so much trouble avoiding the attention of strange French men! Ah, alas there are always those things you can only learn the embarassing way, sigh. Today I accidently told my neighbor I loved him instead of that I liked his music, but what are you going to do? And now I know... I'll just have to keep saying that. Well, now I know...

There was a great opportunity offered by the school this week for the study abroad students to visit one of France's great sites - Mont Saint Michel. This was a truly incredible experience! This grand fortress of an abbey is located on the top of a granite outcropping in a unique place along the north coast of Normandy. The tides here are some of the strangest in the world, with areas that are dry during the day having up to 40 feet of water by night. The tides roll in suddenly and with such great force that they come in like a tidal wave. The small outcropping on which Mont Saint Michel is made of such a durable stone that is has withstood this powerful force while all around it has been eroded away. The result is a great rock topped with a magnificent abbey surrounded by barren white sand plains riddled with rivers and quicksand. It is like nothing I have ever seen. Standing on the great stone walls of this monastery, there was such a feeling of solitude and a peace so full and heavy it was almost unbearable. I felt as if you could lay all the troubles of your heart upon the empty sand and they would be washed away by the dangerous tides each night and swept out to sea. For me, it was a relief to feel the land as such a presence and find a small piece of spirituality among all the hectic here and there required just to keep up at school. Picking up seashells from the parking lot, which in only a few hours would be completely under water, it was difficult not to be utterly amazed by this magnificent monument.
I am surviving so far, if sometimes only by the skin of my teeth, and I am told it only gets easier (which is not so difficult to believe). Every day I gain competence in something new, which is much more than I can say for most of my days at home. Though being a beginner at anything is always rough, there are plenty of other students from abroad to bumble along with, and even more people to ask for help if you're only willing to look foolish (which by now I must be). I can't wait to start my French courses (which should properly be said, "J'attends avec impatience...") and hopefully be able to actually converse semi-normally with my new French friends (and maybe even understand what they say!). I am beginning to plan some of the trips that I will be taking this semester all around Europe, so I am greatly looking forward to that, and to a time, hopefully soon, when I am settled here and it begins to feel like home.

Monday, January 22, 2007

France et Moi... it begins

France is amazing! I feel like I am a part of living history. Sitting in a stunning but simple French country house, staring out the window on a beautiful blustery day, and listening to Les Miserables, I feel so blessed. There is so much life here, every inch, every corner, oozes with love, attention, and dedication. I have just spent a week in Paris, covering all the major tourist attractions and experiencing my first taste of french life, la vie francaise. Paris in a nutshell as I could never begin to say it all:

I saw it nearly every day, and la Tour Eiffel still takes my breath away. The Mona Lisa is as amazing as she's given credit for - one of the girls I visited the Louvre with said "I just feel like she gets me," and I couldn't have said it better. For me, Musée D’Orsay was even more incredible than the Louvre. I could have spent hours in the Van Gogh room. I never realized how much I loved impressionism - so much feeling, color, vision, true expression. It is such a different and incredible experience to see great works of art first hand, and it is difficult not to be moved by such beauty. L’Arche de Triomphe (a grand arch in the middle of the city with an unknown soldier buried underneath dedicated to those who have served) reminded me of all the militaryfolk I am lucky enough to have in my life and how much I love them. There is so much undirected patriotism here, rather than pride in France, there is a genuine love of the land and the history of all those who may claim it (which includes so many more than just the French). They seem to really appreciate what it is to be human and especially what it is to give one's life for love. Visiting Versailles and seeing the door through which Marie-Anoinette escaped from the rioters has only strengthened my obsession with the French Revolution (j'aime les miserables beaucoup). So many generations of history leap out at you simply walking down the street. There are strange Catacombs underneath the city where 6 million people are buried and their femur bones and skulls are stacked to become the walls of the underground tunnel. It is completely surreal.

My hostel was in the most perfect location in all of Paris! ...le quartier latin (If this were San Diego, it would be equivalent to staying right in the heart of PB). The "Young and Happy Hostel" on le rue Mouffetard had front facing windows in a 6 person room facing out to a cobblestone street covered in shops, bars, and crêpe stands. I had only to walk a few feet to find a fabulous meal, drink, or shop. I was lucky to have found it, especially considering the place I was originally planning on staying was going to charge double and I walked out with all my bags and no idea where I was going. I could not have imagined a better first hostel experience - the people were amazing. Two beautiful and intelligent girls from Boston invited me out for a Guinness my first night in Paris. What a life-saver! I traveled around seeing the sites with the two gals and a great Australian kid for the next 5 days. We had so much fun! Meeting incredible new people has been one of the highlights of the trip so far and I look forward to even more once I arrive at school.

Everyone always says French food is amazing, and while I was looking forwards to baguettes and cheese, I must say I was a bit nervous. Not having a lot of experience with the food of different cultures (other then Mexican food, which I am beginning to miss dearly), I didn't know what to expect or whether French food and I would get along. I could not have been more shocked and impressed. The food here is amazing!! There is a different little shop for everything you want to buy, no big grocery stores, and everything, I mean everything, is delicious. The sandwiches are so much simpler than in the US (they usually have 1-4 ingredients and each in fairly limited quantity), but they are so tasty it's difficult to believe. Any hope I had of losing weight while I am here is likely shot due the the availability and scrumtiousness of french pastries and desserts. I am walking more here than I ever have in my life, but somehow I don't think that will cover several desserts a day. But as they say, when in Rome... Well here I am in France, and the French sure do eat a lot of sweets. I'm only trying to blend in to the culture of course :) Everytime I have a fantastic sandwich, crepe, or pastry, I just keep asking, now why can't they do it like this at home? Ah, I suppose I will have to get my fill during my stay. Good thing it's only just beginning!

Though there have been many amazing moments, the trip has not been without its hiccups as well. I have learned that often when traveling (especially alone), anything that can go wrong will go wrong. This is probably especially true when traveling Allysha-style (which might be called by my mother "unprepared"). I rather like to think of it as being flexible and open to the perfection that occurs spontaneously. A week into my trip, I will say, however, that it is much more difficult this way, and I am considering revising Allysha-style to mean something more like "flexible but still prepared," which seems like it might work better. There is so much to this experience, from figuring out transportation (trains and planes and metros), finding lodging (hostels, homes, and hotels), to getting to la banque, la poste, dîner, et le café internet, that I could never have prepared for from the other side of the ocean. It is definitely a town by town experiment in survival. What a great opportunity to be thrown into the deep end of life and sink or swim. Mostly I like to think that I swim, if only a rather lame version of doggy paddle. (Having just shown this to Barbara, a wonderful friend of my grandmother’s who I’m staying with a few days, she says I am definitely swimming -a strong breast, at least... although every now and then it does feel a bit like sinking). Every time I have had some kind of trauma (the hostel I was supposed to stay at lost my reservation, the D-Day beaches are closed in January, missing my train stop, getting lost, stuck in the rain, and soaked to the bone) there has been a lesson, and I have ended up exactly where I needed to be - in the perfect place, at the perfect time, with the perfect people.

Over and over again, I am struck by the astounding beauty of the ancient architecture and art dotting every street. My very first day in Paris, I wound up lost in the rain for over an hour and was being harassed by some random Frenchman, when suddenly I looked up and Voila! Notre Dame. I was speechless, shocked that just wandering down the street one could stumble upon such extraordinary beauty. The entire trip has been like that. Today I am in Caen, a small town in Normandy (northern France, right on the channel, about a half hour from the D-Day beaches), on the last night of my solo adventures before arriving at school tomorrow. Arriving at my little hotel room, I was shocked to find that not only is there a completely unmentioned grand church a block away with magnificent pointed spires stretching far into the sky, but there is a castle, truly a gigantic fortress, across the street!! What an unreal place to be with structures out of legend cropping up everywhere and a tremendous castle on my way to the bank or the pastry shop.

Tomorrow I arrive in Rennes and will see for the first time the town in which I will be spending the next 4 months of my life. I am nervous and excited. If it is anything like the other cities I have visited, I know I will love it. I have yet to find a French town that I haven't fallen in love with and I will be thrilled to make Rennes my own and learn all the little ins and outs that make a place home. Soon I will no longer be a nomad and will once again have a place to call home. That will truly be a nice change. Wish me luck, mes amis! I love you all!