Monday, March 5, 2007

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!

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