What is France?

I’ve been in the United States for nearly a month now. I started my internship three weeks ago and I love it. However, there are certain things that are different about life in the United States. In the United States, I can get a glass of water in a restaurant for free (without buying any other item). Bathrooms are free. Time is different (in France, it is okay to arrive late, but in the US, it is a cultural taboo). I can’t get into bars to spend time with friends because I am not 21 (even though I do not drink alcohol). Everything is bigger (especially my dorm room). Most importantly: everything is in English.

 

After months of a foreign language, English is almost foreign to me. I’m surrounded by it. I can use it at the store. I can use it to order food at a restaurant. I have to remember all of these social constructs (“hello” vs. “bonjour”). I constantly run into people and say, “pardon, monsieur,” instead of “excuse me, sir.” However, I am not totally without French. I am still working on reading the Harry Potter series in French. I saw a sign for a “patisserie” the other day and wondered why the signs next to it were in English (until I remembered that I was in the United States). On the bright side, I no longer have to use French to communicate with my French bank now that I closed my bank account.

 

There are days when I miss France. There are days when I’m glad to be in the United States. Every day, I am thankful for the time I spent in France. For years, I had dreamed of going to France. Now that I have returned to the United States, I have started to reflect on my time in France.

 

To fulfill the requirements for my Honors College, I have finished a final reflective project. It is a film called, “What is France?” In this film, I asked international students and French students to tell me about stereotypes of France and their experiences with France. Their voices give another perspective of France. I must really thank them for giving me their time and lending their voice to this important project. Many of them are not native speakers of English. It took courage to do this project in another language and to give me some great ideas to think about. The final part of the film talks about my experience in France. I think that, after reading all of my blog entries, you might enjoy seeing my experience in France in a whole new way.

 

I am particularly proud of this video because it serves as a reminder. When I was a little girl, I learned of a world beyond my own. I learned about a country called France. After years of telling people that I would one day go to France, I have finally gone to France. I survived (and even thrived) living in a foreign country for five months.

 

Here is the link to my final project, “What is France?”, on YouTube.

Wow. What a journey, right? I’ll never forget the stories I lived or the people I met along the way. Unfortunately, all journeys must come to an end. This is the end of my journey. This is my final blog entry.

 

Perhaps, one day, I will gain Neptune’s favor again and perhaps he will lead me once again to France or to…

 

Happy Travels,

Kellene O’Hara

Farewell France! Howdy America!

Part I: Farewell France

I woke up after an uneasy night of sleep. Is it morning already? Time is relative. My first day in France was so long…and my last day was so short. I started to clean my room, which was a major undertaking. I was always taught to leave things in a better state than when I found them. And my dorm room really needed some intense cleaning. There are brown stains on the floors of all of the rooms and the floors smell quite unpleasant. I tried to clean the stains with all-purpose mint-smelling cleaner, but it didn’t work. From what I heard from other students, those stains are permanent. I dusted every corner of that tiny room and I scrubbed until the little bathroom shined. I must admit. That room was pretty clean.

The inspecting woman thought so too and she signed my paper, declaring that my room was in a good state. She handed the paper to me and told me to go to the secretary of our dorm. I went and turned in the form, expecting to get my security deposit back. Before going, I joked with Kerry that, knowing my luck with France, I wouldn’t get the security deposit back. Unfortunately, this was not a joke and I wasn’t laughing when the secretary told me that there was a problem and she couldn’t give it back to me.

Can you wire it to me in the United States?

It’s impossible,” she said.

Can you send me a check?

No.

Can you send the money?

It’s not possible.

In France, there are a lot of things that are impossible. She called in two of her associates where they referred to me as the “girl” with the “problem.” The funny thing was that I could understand perfectly what they were saying, but they acted like I wasn’t even in the room. Eventually, a man looked at me and started to explain the situation in English.

I looked at him and said, “Je comprends.” I understand.

They all stopped talking and looked at me. Yes, I am an international student, but I heard every word. “Well…I just don’t know what we’re going to do,” the woman said.

Can you come back later today?” the man asked.

My flight left on Friday morning and here it was, Thursday morning. I had to check out of my dorm early because of this complicated procedure. I had to get the inspector to inspect my room and then I had to go to the secretary to get the security deposit. I was able to use my French negotiation skills to get the inspector to agree to check my room early on Friday morning, but I couldn’t convince the secretary to leave the security deposit at the front desk. So…this left me with no option but to check out early on Thursday (the latest you can check out is at 11 AM), spend the rest of the day in limbo, then head to the Nantes airport to spend the night.

So, yeah, I could come back later today.

Great. See you this afternoon,” they said.

I went to lunch, my last lunch in the dining hall. Then I went to see my ISEP coordinator to give her the things I couldn’t bring with me (my only cooking utensils that nourished me the entire semester: a cup and a spoon that I got from my coordinator at the beginning of the semester; a stack of post-it notes that kept me sane during the semester; a beach towel for the days I spent in the sun; an Ethernet cable that kept me connected to all of you). I told her about the end of my days and laughed about the entire situation. It’s rather comical really. Every problem that I’ve run into has been like a giant game. You either win…or the system crushes you. You’ve got to strategize and fight for what should already be yours…you can’t give up just because they say it’s “impossible.” It rarely is truly impossible.

I returned to the secretary’s office and got my money, fair and square.

Kerry and I then went on an unusual mission. She had a ton of one cent euro pieces. What to do with all of them? We tried to exchange them. We tried the bank (important fact: banks in France DO NOT have money in them, true story), we tried a money exchange place, we tried the front desk at the secretary’s office, we tried tobacco stores…then we realized we had only one option. To buy something with all of the pennies. In total, there was 1.52 euro in pennies. So, we went to the bakery on our street and bought a cookie. The poor lady had to count all of the coins just to get her 1.50 for the cookie. Well, at least she has lots of pennies now!

Kerry had to print something at the library so I went with her, then she went to her room to start her cleaning and I stayed at the library, looking at some books and I found one that was pretty interesting. I’ll have to look into it when I get back stateside. I left the library and found Jean-Claude, the grey tabby cat who lives by the library, sitting in his usual spot. I pet Jean-Claude every time I go to the library…and I go to the library a lot. So, Jean-Claude and I have grown particularly close. I sat next to him to say goodbye and he crawled into my lap. He is a rather fat cat for being a stray. He’s well taken care of by the staff and the students passing by always give him their scraps of food. After about fifteen minutes of pure pampering, I had to leave him. “I’m sorry, but this is goodbye.”

I was trying to remove Jean-Claude from my lap and he cried. He looked at me with his dull green eyes. I swear, if I could put him in my suitcase, I would do it. He needs a home where he can get the love he deserves and I felt awful for leaving him there. He watched me take a step away and then followed me. He followed me to the door of the university and he seemed to understand that this was where we parted ways. He sat down and watched me go.

I went down to Commerce to meet with members of the Quidditch team. Quidditch practice had been cancelled the night before and I didn’t want to leave Nantes without saying goodbye to them. When I first arrived in Nantes, I sought to be active in the university community and I sent out many e-mails to university clubs. Only two organizations replied: Autour du Monde (the international student organization) and the Quidditch club. To be perfectly honest? I couldn’t be happier that only these two organizations replied: these two clubs are the best clubs on campus, without a doubt.

Quidditch is a relatively simple game to understand, if you know the rules. After playing for two and a half years at West Virginia University, I knew the rules. But…did I know the rules in French? Unfortunately, I was recovering from some health problems from last semester, so I wasn’t able to play for a few months, but I did get the opportunity to watch. I attended the practices and learned the game all over again…in French! They have French names for the different positions and balls and, while I wasn’t able to play for a few months, I was able to get to know the players themselves. Have you ever heard that the stereotype that the French people are cold? Well, this simply isn’t true with the Quidditch team. They were quite warm and welcoming. In fact, as the semester went on, and when I was able to play again, I started to know them much better and I really looked forward to the weekly practices. They were a caring group, volunteering their time to play Quidditch with kids on Easter. And they knew how to speak to me…they were willing to speak slowly and to repeat phrases (sometimes many times). They were patient and quite forgiving when I said something strange (they were also quite good at figuring out what I was trying to say when all I was saying was a random string of words in an attempt to communicate). I could never thank them enough for their company this semester. They made life in France a lot nicer.

So, when I met them for a final meeting at a café, I was pretty sad. In that moment, I realized how much I was going to miss them. I had so much fun and I was thankful that I got that moment to say goodbye. To the Quidditch club: it was a pleasure flying with you! May the wind always be in your favor. Brooms up!

I ate dinner with Kerry, our last dinner in France. It was a good dinner, but also a little sad too. I got to know the staff at the dining hall. They were always so helpful. They help to correct my French, increased my vocabulary of food (often saying all of the food for dinner and then having me repeat it), reprimanded me for getting a sunburn (which really wasn’t my fault – I wore lots of sunscreen)…they made me feel a little bit more at home. And so I said goodbye to them.

Kerry and I returned to the dorm where we enacted Operation Vending Machine. I had money left on my student card…but I didn’t want to let the university have it. It seemed like a waste of money, but then Kerry reminded me that we could use the money on our card to buy food from the vending machine. I got Kerry a candy bar, then was going to get a pack of M&M’s for me and a can of juice…but then the M&M’s got stuck. I rattled the machine and everything moved…except those darn M&M’s. I had to buy another pack and then my perfect math plan failed. I had to get a hot drink instead of a can of juice (which I planned to take with me to the airport). Ah well. The university only got ten cents from me. And I got two packs of M&M’s.

Kerry was super nice and helped me carry my stuff to the tram stop. She sent me on the tram and waved goodbye to me. She reminded me how we became friends and that seemed like a million years ago. A million years ago, after the ISEP orientation, I saw her walking to the front desk and she asked me, “How are your French skills?” She had blown out the electricity on her floor and needed to inform the front desk. I remember going with her and asking the front desk to fix it. We were friends ever since. It seems so long ago, but it was only five months ago. She was the last person that I had to say goodbye to.

Then I took the tram to Commerce, changed tram lines and then took that tram to the end of the line. Then, I took the airport shuttle. Here’s a secret that you won’t find written anywhere. I feel super awesome for figuring it out because I’ve mastered the French system (you have to search for answers, they don’t come to you). If you take tram line 3 to the end of the line (Neustrie), you can get on the airport shuttle for free with your monthly transportation pass (compared to the seven euros that you would have to pay if you got on the shuttle at any other stop). I’m not kidding. You can only get on free at this one stop and they don’t write it anywhere. I only found out about it because I went to the transportation office, handed them my monthly pass and then the brochure on the airport shuttle. I asked, “How can I use this pass to get on this shuttle for free?

At first, the lady didn’t want to tell me. “You can’t.”

At all?” I pressed.

Well…there is one condition,” she said.

And that’s how I got to the airport for free. Once at the airport, I tried going to the front desk to see if they would check my baggage in the day before my flight, but they wouldn’t. I figured that they wouldn’t, since I’ve spent a few nights in an airport before, but it’s always worth a try. You never know until you ask, right? I found a brightly lit spot with lots of people and a security camera. I hunkered down for the night.

In the morning, I went to go check in. My flight plan was to go from Nantes, France to Brussels, Belgium to Philadelphia to Bangor, Maine. The man working asked, “So Philadelphia is your final destination?

No. Bangor, Maine,” I said, starting to get a little worried.

“What? What is this Bangor?” he asked in English, very confused.

Bangor, Maine,” I said again, showing him my itinerary.

He began to click away on his keyboard. He asked his associates. He was quite confused because he said my flight didn’t exist. Finally, he found it and then checked my baggage through to Bangor, which is good. But then he called his manager and told me that he could only check the baggage in through Brussels, that I’d have to pick it up there and then check into the other airline. “I only have an hour between flights,” I said.

“You’ll have to be quick. I’ll put a priority on your bags.”

Then, I couldn’t just pay for my baggage there. I had to through the airport again and pay at another desk. What is it with French bureaucracy? All I wanted to do was leave. At last, I went through security and then waited for boarding.

I got up to the flight attendant and she passed my ticket through the scanner. It beeped and turned red. “Oh no. It says this isn’t valid,” she said, turning to the man that did my baggage and gave me my ticket.

He looked at the ticket, then at me. “Just let her go. It’s fine,” he said.

I had a feeling in my stomach that it wasn’t fine. My last text was to Kerry who was still in France. I explained the situation about the baggage and I told her that I wasn’t sure if I was going to make it between flights. But, then again, I worry about everything. I got on the flight and was asleep before the plane even left French soil.

When I first started learning French, the first word I learned was “bonjour.” Since then, I have learned many greetings and partings. There are ways to say “see you later” and “see you soon,” but one of my favorite greetings is also a parting. When you meet with a friend, you can say, “Salut!” as you give them kisses. Hi. And, then, when you go to leave, you say “Salut!” as you kiss them again. Bye. It’s the same word. Between friends, what’s the difference between hi and bye? There’s not a difference at all because the only thing that is important is the acknowledgement of friendship, the acknowledgement that they are there. So, France…is this au revoir? Is this adieu? Is this bonne soirée for a never-ending night? Or is this salut, between us friends? Maybe it isn’t farewell after all.

I know that life isn’t certain. I know that it can never be guaranteed that I will return, but I have a feeling that my feet with touch the soil of France once again, whether it be a year from now, ten years or a lifetime from now. I’ll find a way back, if only in my dreams and in my heart.

French Food/Canada Day in elementary school. Kellene is the one with long blonde hair and a plaid shirt (I'm not facing the camera). Here, we were watching a Canadian dance I think. My love of French and French culture started with the Caribou School Department when I was in second grade and I've continued (and will continue) to study French for my entire life. It has become a part of me.

French Food/Canada Day in elementary school. Kellene is the one with long blonde hair and a plaid shirt (I’m not facing the camera). Here, we were watching a Canadian dance I think. My love of French and French culture started with the Caribou School Department when I was in second grade and I’ve continued (and will continue) to study French for my entire life. It has become a part of me.

Part 1.5: The Problem in Belgium

I arrived in Brussels exactly on time. It was almost like a game show. You have one hour to navigate a foreign airport that you’ve never been in before. You must collect your baggage, exit security, find the connecting airline, check-in, get your plane ticket, check and pay for your baggage, go through security again, find the correct terminal and gate. One mistake and you are eliminated, cast off into the island of la-la land and you may never get back to America. So…ready, set, go!

I was the first one off the plane and into the terminal. I had to walk through several terminals just to get to baggage claim, where I made my only mistake. I looked at the first carrousel for baggage from Nantes, then the second. I quickly realized that there were too many baggage carrousels to check individually. I needed to find that board with the flight number and corresponding carrousel. I found it, but lost thirty seconds. Thirty seconds isn’t a lot, but it may have cost me.

I found the baggage claim and didn’t wait for the bags to come around. I ran around the entire carrousel snagging my bags the second I saw them. I ran through the security barrier, stopping only to ask a woman where US Airways was. She told me up the escalator and when I was through there, I saw the escalator. I took it up.

And felt my heart drop. There was no map and there were a million airlines. It was a huge international airport and the airlines aren’t organized by destination. I saw one American airline and I knew I had to leave my bags behind and just run to ask where US Airways was. I left my bags by an Israeli airline and went I returned, two tall Mossed-looking security officers were standing by the bags. “Are these yours?” they asked crossing their arms.

I didn’t need a confrontation. Not now. “Yep,” I said, grabbing them and running away.

I might have looked like a terrorist, but I didn’t have time to play nice. I got to the US Airways desk, set my bag down…and was cut off by some woman who came out of nowhere! She was French and had the same problem as me. Unfortunately, our airline didn’t check our bags all the way through to our destination so we had to pick them up. And, also unfortunately, there was only one woman working the desk. And, super unfortunately, the French woman couldn’t get checked in…she was having problems.

Eventually, she was checked in and then it was my turn. Everything was working, working, working. My tickets were printed. All I needed was to pay for my bags and I went to pay for them and… “The system locked me out. It’s too late,” the woman said quietly.

“What?” I asked.

“I’m trying. Let me see if I can override it…” she said, calling in her manager.

But there was nothing she could do. “It’s too late.”

I knew not to panic. There’s always a solution. “Maybe we can change your ticket. If Air France delayed the flight, then maybe they can reimburse your ticket…” she began.

My flight was delayed at take-off, but still arrived on-time, which US Airways said was enough time for someone to collect their bags and then check-in again. I agree with that. I made it through the airport in about fifteen minutes…and I went pretty far in those fifteen minutes. It’s totally possible. But it’s not possible if some lady cuts you off in line, then there’s only one woman working the desk and no one helps her. That’s just not fair.

US Airways turned me over to Air France. The representative there told me that she needed to get her manager. She looked at me and I was still sweating and panting from my epic sprint through this giant airport. “It’ll be fifteen or twenty minutes. Why don’t you go get a water? Or…a café?” she suggested.

A café? Really Air France? You think that’ll make things better? I started to get the sinking feeling in my stomach that this was not going to end well for me. I needed to call my parents. I changed out my French SIM card for my American SIM card, but it wasn’t working. Amazingly, I found a payphone that was made for international calls. You just had to buy this card and then slide it into the machine. It was fantastic because I called, told my parents that I definitely wouldn’t be getting into Bangor today and then cried. I made me feel better knowing that at least they wouldn’t drive all the way to Bangor (which is three and a half hours south of Caribou) to pick me up when I wasn’t even there!

I returned to Air France where the woman said her manager told her to call the Nantes airport to see what happened. But then she couldn’t find the phone number for Nantes. She had to call someone else and was finally able to call Nantes. Since leaving France, I’ve been using English so I don’t think she knew that I spoke French. I heard her end of the phone call to France and I knew what she was going to say before she even said it.

“Well. Bad news. Air France owns the airline that you took over here, but we don’t operate it. Since we don’t operate it, we couldn’t check your bags through to Bangor. Since we don’t operate it, we can’t reimburse your ticket. Sorry.”

She walked with me over to US Airways, handing me back to the original woman who dealt with me the first time. She explained the situation to the US Airways woman and both of them genuinely seemed apologetic. This was a new game: the blame game. They both agreed that the system screwed me over (although they disagreed as to whose fault it was), but there was nothing they could do.

The only thing to do was change my flight ticket for the next day (which included a fee) and pay the difference between tickets. “You were with the Air France representative for such a long time. I really thought they would be able to help you,” the US Airways woman said, “Ms. O’Hara, I am so sorry.”

That wasn’t a company apology. That was a personal apology. If she had worked a little faster, if she had help…then I wouldn’t be in this situation. I arrived in a timely manner, but sometimes that’s not enough.

In times like these, you can get angry at the system for messing you up…or you can realize that the humans of the system tried to help. This woman already felt quite guilty about the whole situation and it wasn’t her fault. It was just a series of unfortunate events. “It’s fine,” I said with a smile.

“I won’t be working here tomorrow morning, but I wish you the best. What are you going to be doing tonight? Is there anything I can do for you?”

“No, I’ll be fine. Don’t worry about it. Thank you for all of your help. I do have one question though. Is there any part of the airport that’s safe?”

She looked at me. “Honey, there’s no good part of this airport. However, you can try over there.”

Great. A sketchy airport. Just where I want to spend my second night. It’s too bad I didn’t have some place where I could leave my luggage. I’ve always wanted to visit Belgium. I think it’s a pretty cool country. It’s so small, but it’s so culturally diverse. In the airport, there are so many languages posted everywhere. Even if I could put my luggage somewhere, I wouldn’t. I was too exhausted to go anywhere. Oh well. I’ll come back to Brussels one day!

I called my parents with that handy international phone booth. In all honesty, I think that this might be the first phone booth I’ve ever used in my life. BC (Before Cellular), I was in Caribou and I never needed to use a phone booth. If I was at school, I used the school’s phone. If I was at a friend’s house, I used their home phone. When I got my cell phone, I didn’t a phone booth. So, I may have just used the first phone booth of my life. That’s exciting.

After that, I knew I had a long day ahead. I ate lunch because I realized that I forgot to eat breakfast. I wandered aimlessly through the airport. I found a baggage trolley so I could just drop all of my stuff on there. In the afternoon, I found a quiet corner and slept on top of my bags. I hadn’t realized how exhausted I was until then.

Neither airport had free Wi-Fi, but both had free bathrooms which made me happy. In addition, Belgium uses the same outlets as France…thank goodness! I was able to plug my laptop in to write this blog up to this point.

At exactly seven in the morning, I returned to the check-in desk. A security officer checked my passport and receipt before I could check-in. “You bought this ticket yesterday?” he asked.

“Yes.”

“Why did you buy it yesterday?”

I guess it looks suspicious to buy an international ticket the day before. I explained my situation and told him how I spent the night in the airport. “It’s been lots of fun,” I said with a smile.

“Expensive fun,” he added, letting me through to finish the check-in process.

I got through the passport check, adding a nice new stamp from Belgium to my passport’s pages. Now, when I look at my passport, I can always remember this fun night in the Brussels airport.

I boarded the plane with no problems and found myself on a nearly nine hour flight across the Atlantic. I watched a movie, I slept, I listened to music, I slept. Fortunately, I was next to a cute Belgian boy. To make things better? He was a smart, cute Belgian boy, working on his Ph.D,  and coming to the US to attend a computer neuroscience conference in California. And, even though I hadn’t showered in two days and I probably looked like a tired, paranoid woman, he actually talked to me. He definitely helped pass the time and calmed me down a bit. I was scared about missing my second flight because I was NOT going to spend another night in the airport. “You will make your flight. I know,” he said with a smile.

Part II: Howdy America

“Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. We have just reached the coast of the United States. Welcome to America.”

“Ah! I see it. America,” the Belgian boy said. Although he’d been in the US before for other conferences, he was quite excited to return.

But, from up above, the states looked like any other country. Mountains, trees…tiny, tiny roads filled with even smaller cars and even smaller people.

We landed in Philadelphia on time and, as I stepped out of the plane, I was hit with a wave of heat and humidity, something I had not experienced in France. America. Landing in Philadelphia was pretty exciting too because Philly played a big part in American history and is the city with the Liberty Bell.

I passed through passport security, then through customs, then through security. Somewhere along the way, cute Belgian boy said goodbye to me and wished me luck. I never saw the boy again, but was certainly grateful for his company. I’m usually sitting next to old ladies on the plane (which isn’t a bad thing – old ladies are great), but it’s nice to talk to someone my age about the differences between our universities in different countries and about young people stuff…whatever that might be.

Once in the Philly airport, my problems stopped. I’d been in the airport a few times before and I knew how to navigate my way around. I made my way to the shuttle to the other terminal and then sat down at the gate going to Bangor, Maine. As soon as I sat down, I realized that I wasn’t in France anymore. First sign? Water fountains! Free water…it tasted like freedom, if anyone wanted to know. Not like that bottle of water at the airport in Belgium that was 2.50 euro (I got thirsty around midnight and, unfortunately, there are no water fountains in the Brussels Airport – I had to buy an expensive bottle of water from the vending machine).

There’s definitely a difference in culture between France and the US in terms of greeting people. In France, people are more reserved and tend to wait to initiate contact. In America? We’ll go up to anyone, anywhere. We’ll ask them their story. We’ll swap our own. I was very surprised when I was standing in line at customs and people started asking me where I was coming, where I was going… They told me about their travels to Spain, travels to across the world and back again. And, of course, by the gate of Bangor, Maine, those people shared an even greater connection. “Why do you look familiar to me? Do you teach at the University of Maine at Orono? Oh, you do! Wait, do you know Jim? Yes, I know Jim too! Of course, we met at that event last year…”

Yes. That was a real conversation. Everyone is bound to have some connection with someone else on that plane going up north. And we’re all friendly about it, all wanting to make that connection.

But, at the end of the day, all I wanted to go was go home. It had been a long journey to get Maine. As soon as we landed, I hopped up and walked off of that little plane. I’ve flown many, many times out of the Bangor Airport. It’s an extremely small airport, but bigger than the airport in Presque Isle, Maine (which is closer to where I live). I know it like the back of my hand and I was out of the exit within minutes.

Waiting for me on the other side was my father. I was so happy to see him…because now he could carry my bags for me! Oh and I hadn’t seen him for five months and all of that stuff, but mostly it was because he carried my stuff for me.

Since it was dinner time in the USA, we went to Denny’s. What was my first meal back in the states? Well, I’ve really wanted chocolate chip pancakes and chocolate milk for five months now. I don’t know if it’s a very American meal, but I really wanted chocolate chip pancakes. After eating the chocolate chip pancakes, we had to drive three and half hours north to Caribou, Maine, where I live.

By the time we got home, it was dark and raining. After spending two nights in an airport, I was eager to shower, brush my teeth and then sleep in a real bed!

Today, I woke up at eight and went with my father to Wal-Mart to get food for the week. In France, all of the stores are closed on Sunday. In America, you can get food every day of the week. It’s fantastic.

As for reverse culture shock, I haven’t really experienced it (although, who knows, I may in the coming days). The nice thing about Northern Maine is that it never changes. I leave for months and then return home to find that, for the most part, everything is the same. It’s nice because I know exactly what to expect when I return home. I’m never surprised by anything new because everything is exactly how I remember it. It’s comforting to have that consistency. It’s also comforting to know that when I go to Wal-Mart, I will inevitably run into someone that I know. The world in Northern Maine is somehow smaller and, as always, home will never feel foreign.

I haven’t done much today, other than take a nap because my throat hurts (I’m a little worried that I picked something up at the airport) and bug my parents. My father made me dinner tonight, my first American home cooked meal in five months – honey barbecue chicken, green bean casserole and baked potatoes – yum!

So, I came from France the way I left America. Tired, confused, but ready for the next adventure. It’s funny how I had a problem with the airline getting to France and then had a problem with the airline coming home from France. France didn’t want me to come, but then, when I did, France didn’t want me to leave!

What’s next for me? Well, I’ll be in Maine for the next week, preparing for the next thing. I have an internship in Washington D.C. this summer so I’ll be headed there for the remainder of my summer. Then, I start my fall semester at West Virginia University. It will be my senior year. It’s amazing (and scary) to think that I will be graduating this upcoming year!

Well, thank you everyone for reading this blog. If you’ve read every entry on this blog, congratulations. You’ve read over 123 single spaced Word pages. You’ve read nearly 70,000 words…and that’s before I add things before publishing it online. You’ve seen hundreds of pictures. You must be either really bored or care a lot about me. Thanks for coming along the journey with me. I’m so glad that I could share all of these moments with you. Now, my stories have become part of your story.

For my final Honors project, I was supposed to write a ten page reflective paper. But I wanted something I could share with all of you. While I know many of you would read that paper, haven’t you done enough reading already? I’ve decided to make a video to show you what my semester abroad was like and to allow others to share their voices on stereotypes in France and about French people. My fellow international students and French students were kind enough to share broad stereotypes about France and French people as well as their own personal observations in France. In my upcoming film, What is France?, I’ll be exploring this country, culture…and my interaction with the hexagonal country. I’ll be posting it on YouTube, with a link featured on this blog, in one month. Stay tuned!

As always, the best adventures are yet to come. So, buckle up partner! Yee-haw!

Things I Take, Things I Leave Behind

Due to a complicated checkout procedure at my dorm, I have to leave my dorm tomorrow morning and then take my airplane Friday morning. Since I’m leaving the dorm tomorrow, I have to pack. I probably won’t have internet until I return back to the United States so this might be my last post from France! I promise to write once I’m safely home. Until then, here’s a list of things I take and things I leave behind.

 

Things I Take:

-One giant uni-language dictionary

-A postcard from every city I visited

-One clown nose

-A journal stuffed full of admission tickets and scribbles made with colored pencils

-Lots of pictures, especially of churches

-Three Harry Potter books in French

-A student card from the Université de Nantes, proof that I studied at a foreign university for five months

-A Facebook filled with new friends from across the globe

-A student visa complete with my shiny OFII sticker saying that I was able to stay in France

-A wallet with significantly less euros than when I arrived

-Papers. For everything. I think I have an entire forest in my luggage.

-Confidence to live abroad…in a foreign language!

-Knowledge that I passed my exams (they posted the results early on the wall of our university)

-Memories that will live on in this blog, in my journal and in the minds of everyone who wants to remember

 

Things I Leave Behind:

-Friends. They don’t fit in my suitcase, unfortunately.

-A squeaky clean dorm room – believe me. It’s cleaner than when I got here.

-Autour du Monde, the international student organization which was absolutely amazing

-A heater that was turned off a while ago, even though it is still cold outside

-Two thin sheets that are no protection from the cold weather

-A dozen laundry soaps that the dorm gives us, unused and free to anyone who wants them

-Half a bottle of peach scented laundry detergent that I bought instead of the nasty soaps the dorm gave us

-English café on Tuesday nights

-One Ethernet cable because the dorm doesn’t have Wi-Fi

-Explanations of the great state of Maine, of West Virginia University, of the Honors College, of the USA and about the differences between caribous and moose

-My final exams, in all of their glory, will remain filed away in the IRRFLE office for infinity (they still have copies of exams from 1996)

-Jean-Claude, the tabby cat who lives in front of the university library, and François, the tabby cat who lived in my dorm, wherever he is living now

-French bureaucracy and the headaches associated with the bureaucracy

-The never-ending rain in Nantes (and the French people who say, “It isn’t usually like this. Normally, it’s very nice in France.” I’m convinced this is a lie they tell people to get them to visit France.)

-Quidditch practices on Wednesday nights

-Yummy food at the dining hall, especially the bread!

 

Well. I did my laundry this morning and I’m just waiting for my clothes to dry (they are hung out all over my room as usual because the dryer is awful here). I’ll pack my clothes, clean my room, lock the door and that’ll be that. I’ll take what I can back to the United States, tucked in my suitcase and in my heart. I’ll leave a little bit of me in France, a reminder that I was there once. If only for a brief moment of time.

The End of the List

I think I’ve done everything I wanted to do in Nantes. I finished my final desire: drink a tea at the Caribou café here in Nantes, since I’m from Caribou, Maine. Today, Kerry and I headed to the café and I drank a very hot cup of tea there. Inside, I realized that the decorator didn’t know the difference between a caribou and a moose. A moose is not a caribou. A caribou is more like a reindeer. It’s smaller and the antlers are much smaller. Not that I’ve ever seen a live caribou in Caribou…they are extinct in Caribou, Maine and live in Canada. Trust me. I’m from Caribou. I’m practically an expert on moose and caribous.

Regardless of the differences between moose and caribous, it was still nice to finally have a cup of tea there before I head back to the real Caribou. Interestingly enough, when I was taking the tram to my dorm the very first day, I looked outside and saw the Caribou café. I knew that it was a sign, a sign that this was where I was meant to be. Where our pasts and our futures cross, that is the present. And my present is to be here, in Nantes, France.

Some people call me "Caribou" - so an appropriate caption for this picture would be: Caribou, from Caribou, Maine, in front of Caribou.

Some people call me “Caribou” – so an appropriate caption for this picture would be: Caribou, from Caribou, Maine, in front of Caribou.

I’ve seen all of the major touristic sites in Nantes and have really explored the city. This really was a perfect location for me because it is quite safe, it’s not too big and it’s got a great atmosphere. I’ve traveled to many places in France and I really couldn’t picture myself spending this semester anywhere else but Nantes, the city where three rivers run through it, the city that rains a lot so you can appreciate the sun, the city where I lived abroad for five months, the city where I learned more than a binding of a textbook could ever hold.

In all of the ways that I consider Caribou my home, in all of the ways I consider Morgantown my home…I think Nantes has earned its place. It’s been my home for these past five months. My dorm room, which seemed so small when I arrived, now feels comfortable and familiar. The cat that sits in front of the university library is like my own feline friend. The chefs who work at the dining hall are like worried parents, concerned about me traveling alone and not wearing enough sunscreen. There’s so much that was “foreign” that is now “familiar.” France doesn’t feel like anything other than home.

Last week, Kerry, Kacy and I finished one of our last goals: a picnic inside the chateau. I would like to thank these ladies, and everyone else, who helped me finished my list of things to do in Nantes and France.

Last week, Kerry, Kacy and I finished one of our last goals: a picnic inside the chateau. I would like to thank these ladies, and everyone else, who helped me finish my list of things to do in Nantes and France.

Seeing the rings at night, up close, was one of the things I wanted to do while in Nantes.

Seeing the rings at night, up close, was one of the things I wanted to do while in Nantes.

Rings at night in Nantes

Rings at night in Nantes

La Rochelle

Yesterday, I took my last trip in France. I went to La Rochelle, which is on the Atlantic coast about an hour and a half by train from Nantes. Kerry was my adventure partner for this last big adventure.

 

Kerry in La Rochelle

Kerry in La Rochelle

When we arrived, we sought out a map. We easily found the tourism office and then asked for a map. The man asked us if we wanted one in French or English and we replied that we wanted one in French. After all, we’re in France to speak French! He showed us the map and I reached for it.

 

Twenty cents,” he said.

 

What? In every city that I have travelled to in France, maps have been free. I haven’t had to pay for a map…ever. There was no way I was going to start now. As usual in France, there’s always another way around the system. One thing I’ve learned in France? Don’t take no for an answer. I’m a very assertive person, but in France, it’s not enough to be assertive. You almost have to be bordering on the edge of too assertive, too pushy. If not, they will take you for a weak tourist and take your money and leave you very unhappy. So, I asked the most logical question, “Is there a free map?

 

Non,” he answered.

 

There’s not a free map?” I asked with sincere doubt in my eyes. Really now?

 

Well…” he started. So the truth comes out at last. “There is a free map, but it’s in English. And it’s the map from last year. The information is all wrong.

 

But it’s free?” I asked again.

 

Oui,” he answered.

 

So, that’s the map we took. True, it was only twenty cents. We could have paid the money and been on our way, but it’s the principle. I’d have taken a map in Spanish if it was free!

 

With map in hand, we went to one of the famous towers in La Rochelle. The tower was St. Nicolas which features a double spiral staircase (absolutely amazing) and we had a great view from up top. We could see all around the harbor, where on Saturday they hosted a cliff diving competition which drew worldwide attention. We saw a Ferris wheel, a lighthouse. It really was a charming little town. After the tower, we ate lunch in an open square before heading to the beach.

 

Me in La Rochelle

Me in La Rochelle

Harbor

Harbor

Lighthouse and Ferris Wheel in background

Lighthouse and Ferris Wheel in background

Kerry looking out at the city

Kerry looking out at the city

It was a fantastic beach because it was sand. In Maine, which is just on the other side of the Atlantic, the coast is extremely rocky. I was afraid that the beach at La Rochelle would also be rocky, but it wasn’t. It was sandy and comfortable. We sat down on the beach towel that I bought here in France and then looked at the ocean. When we arrived, the ocean was at low tide, but it came in pretty quickly. Eventually, it was close enough to where we could walk to the edge and walk into the waves. Far away, the water was a beautiful blue green. Unfortunately, when we approached, the water was a dirty, murky brown. We didn’t stay in the water for too long.

 

Art structure of the world at the beach of La Rochelle

Art structure of the world at the beach of La Rochelle

At the beach!

At the beach!

My train ticket was for later that night, but Kerry was tired and left early to return to Nantes. I stayed and checked out the other two towers. The tower Chaîne featured an exhibit on La Rochelle’s history with Quebec, which was particularly interesting to me. I’ve visited Quebec many times with the Caribou High School French club and with my parents. It was interesting to see the history of Quebec from a different perspective.

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The last tower is the oldest medieval lighthouse on the Atlantic coast, the tower Lanterne. At one point in history, it was converted into a prison, making it the third prison I’ve visited in France (and, hopefully, the last). It was the tallest tower, which proved to be a bit difficult for one man. As he followed his girlfriend up the spiral staircase, he looked more and more nervous. Then, when it was time to cross a bridge at the highest peak to enter a room in the opposite tower, he crouched down. His girlfriend turned to find him unable to cross the bridge. “I can’t do it. I can’t,” he said.

 

The woman looked like a cross between amused and embarrassed. “Yes. You’re fine. Just walk across,” she instructed.

 

He remained frozen at the point of the bridge. But love apparently makes you do crazy things. He had to cross that bridge to get to her. So he did. But he couldn’t walk across it. He crawled across the bridge. A grown man in his thirties crawled across a bridge. And then, when it was time to leave, he had to crawl across the bridge again.

 

It was a funny sight, but I also felt for the man. When I was on the Eiffel Tower, I started to feel a little nervous (although I never resorted to crawling). Heights are scary sometimes.

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This was the tower that the man was trying to get into.

This was the tower that the man was trying to get into.

Once on terra firma, I started a new mission. Find a free museum. Free museums are fantastic. They provide free bathrooms and time out of the sun. Although I had put lots of sunscreen on, I started to feel my skin burning. I know that I can’t stay in the sun too long so I went to the modern art museum. According to the free map, all of the museums were still open and I was ready to get in a cool place.

 

Which was closed. I saw a woman who worked there and she explained that the hours had changed and that the museum closed earlier now. Well, so much for that free map. Whoops. All of the museums had changed their times and they were now closed.

 

I had to make a new plan. I actually went into a store just to cool off for a bit before regrouping myself. I decided to head towards a park, which I figured would be in the shade. I went to the park which was shady and cool. As I was walking along, I started to hear some animals. All of a sudden, I found myself in an animal park with donkeys, goats and peacocks (including an albino peacock). If you were wondering, the donkeys do bite…although I was quick to move my hand away from their big teeth.

 

Danger! We bite! ---Yes, they do!

Danger! We bite! —Yes, they do!

Peacock

Peacock

Albino peacock

Albino peacock

Baby goats!

Baby goats!

I walked around the harbor one last time and then boarded my train, the last train I will take in France (until I return, of course). I came back to Nantes tired from my day in the sun and, interestingly enough, without a sunburn…except for one half of my face. Yes, you read that properly. Only one half of my face is sunburned, which makes me looked quite strange (stranger than usual, I mean). I put sunscreen all over my face, but only one half of my face got burned. It’s quite a shock and I’ve had several people comment on it today. When I leave France, the last image people will have of me is a girl who had a half sunburn on her face.

 

So that was La Rochelle, my last trip in France.

I found these shoes, but not the children to whom they belong.

I found these shoes, but not the children to whom they belong.

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Firecracker

Friday was another scary moment in France. Kerry and I headed over to the dining hall to eat dinner…except that it was closed. We thought we were just early so we waited outside. We were peacefully sitting on the benches outside of the dining hall and talking about current news events, which are usually pretty scary. Suddenly, I heard a loud bang.

It sounded just like the sounds I heard in the woods of Northern Maine during hunting season. A gun. A million thoughts raced through my mind at the same time. Where is the gun? Who has the gun? Why did they fire it? Are they going to fire it again? Random shooting? Targeted shooting? Maybe a car backfiring. Where’s Kerry? Why is she still sitting? We need to get down to the ground…

 

In a split second, I jumped up and put my hand on Kerry’s shoulder as if getting ready to push her down to the ground when I realized that she wasn’t moving. She wasn’t scared. I looked at where the sound was coming from and she had a clear view of the situation, whereas I wasn’t able to see a thing. A loud group of drunk, college boys. With firecrackers.

Great.

They moved towards us. “Do you know where bus 63 is?” one of them asked.

Kerry and I were both standing now. “No. I don’t know. I’m sorry,” I said honestly.

I’d never heard of the bus before. “Well, girls, that was the wrong answer,” another guy said, reaching into his pocket.

In all of the movies, that’s what the bad guy says before he kills the protagonist. I was on high alert at this point. I had no idea what he had in his pocket. My first thought was that he was going to pull out a gun. But this is France. They don’t have guns in France. So…a knife? I judged the distance between us. We would have enough time to escape if it was a knife in his pocket. Maybe.

Within seconds, he pulled out a lighter and lit a firecracker. He threw it at our feet. Luckily, it was a dud and it fizzled out on the ground. “Oh. It didn’t work,” he said disappointed.

For whatever reason, maybe it was the adrenaline, maybe it was the fact that I’ve been very passive in France when people have bothered me, I decided to take my stand. I wasn’t going to let some drunk college boy have his moment. I crossed my arms and said, “C’est dommage.” That’s too bad.

His eyes flashed in anger. Apparently, he wasn’t expecting the five foot blonde with a squeaky voice to say anything back to him. “Yeah. It is,” he said, lighting another one and throwing it close to us.

This time, it went off. Kerry and I didn’t react at all. They stared at us for a moment, then walked away laughing. We heard firecrackers going off in the distance. Then, we turned to each other. We expressed our anger. Those stupid drunk college boys.

We tried to eat dinner…but the dining hall was still closed. After all of that, it never opened and we didn’t know why. We had to go to the grocery store to buy a quick dinner and we talked about the boys with firecrackers.

A Thousand Deaths

To say goodbye to you is to die slightly, a part of me that aches, then withers, and wishes that I could be in your presence for one last moment. And, in my final days of Nantes, I am saying goodbye to many people and places. I am to die a thousand deaths so that I may appreciate the value of life. It is when you say goodbye, that final parting, that you become so utterly aware of what that relationship meant to you. You better understand its value at its absence. And you realize that it may never be the same again.

When I leave a friend in Maine or in West Virginia, my worries don’t last long. I know I will see them again soon. I know that only a few states stand between me and them. But after spending a mere five months in France, a blink in the eye of a lifetime? I am not so sure that I will see these people again. There’s an ocean between us, and many rivers, lakes, and mountains. The other international students, when they return to their homes, may be even further than before. We’ll be scattered across the world and perhaps, I hope, our paths will cross again, if only I should be so lucky. But chance is not in my favor and so I begin to say my final goodbyes.

This I know to be true because I can see it in their eyes. When I say goodbye to someone here, we mutter something about Facebook and staying in touch, but we know. We know that there might not be a chance of reconnecting. We know that this goodbye might really be the last time we ever see each other…and what do you say to someone then? It was great knowing you this semester Sally and we’ll never see each other again but, uh…have a great life!

It is sad, but everything that begins must end. I was always aware that the end would come, but I just had no idea it would come so soon. Since I came to Nantes, I’ve kept a list of things that I’ve wanted to do. I’ve done most of them, but I still have a few things left on my list, which is like a bucket list of things to do before I go from Nantes. Now, I just have a few days to do them.

As you may remember from a previous blog post, I went to see the rings at night with Kacy. We ate chocolate on a hill and saw them from afar. I wanted to see them up close too. So, last night, I ventured out into the cold. Kacy has already returned to the United States so this was an adventure by myself.

I went at ten o’clock, but it was still light out. By the time I got downtown, it had darkened and by the time I reached the rings, it was night. The rings were larger than I thought they were and they went on for a good distance on the piers. Nantes has a huge history as a port town so it was interesting to walk near the old hangers, turned into nightclubs, and to actually walk on the Loire River (there were grates right over the river along the riverside). I don’t often go for walks alone. I’m usually accompanied by friends, which I appreciate. Yet, there is something about taking a walk by a river late at night by yourself. It was refreshing and the air felt quite pleasant.

After my midnight stroll along the river, I was walking back home across the pedestrian bridge. I looked down at the dark and swirling Loire River. At the peak of bridge, I paused and looked out at the lights of Nantes and then back at the cold river. I had one of those weird realization moments, one of those moments where you say to yourself…I’m here. In France. In Nantes. This is a foreign country. This is real. This really happened. I spent five months in France. And now I’m leaving.

I remember the first moment I had like this in France. It was on my way to school, as I walked past the university theatre. I remember thinking… I’m in France. This isn’t just a university. This is my university. I go to university in France.

I stayed on the bridge for a few minutes, just existing in sudden and overwhelming awareness. It was quiet, dark, away from all of the nightclubs and excitement on the pier. In this moment, I had a chance to say goodbye to the Loire River and to realize that just five months ago I was reading about the Loire River in the textbook and now I was above it.

Today, I went for a walk along the Erdre River with Kerry. I’d been meaning to take more walks along the Erdre, but the weather has been horrible in Nantes. Today, the sun was out and it was quite warm. There’s something about walking along a river with a friend that makes life make sense. The river brings out our dreams, our hopes, our fears…our pasts, our futures and our presents. The Erdre is beautiful. I will miss it.

This evening, I went to a get together with everyone who participated in the cooking project for Autour du Monde (the international student organization). Unfortunately, the other cooking teams weren’t as successful as my cooking team with Valentina, Etienne and Beatrice. I must say, I got quite lucky the day I met them. We didn’t just cook. We created memories and bridges carrying us across cultures and languages. I’ve learned so much about the French culture and language through my many meetings with them. And today was the last time we would meet. I don’t know if I will ever see them again, but I’m so grateful that I met them. I don’t have enough words in English or in French to thank Etienne and Beatrice for their time and complete compassion. This was an experience that I won’t ever forget and I can never repay them for the kindness they have shown me.

It’s Sunday night. I leave on Friday morning. There’s not much time left at all…and there are many more goodbyes to be said. It is sad, of course, but there is also a sense of naturalness to it. I often feel this way at the end of a semester. I feel a sense of fulfillment, that I came, that I tried my best, that I had fun, but now it’s time to move on to the next chapter. I’ve got to keep writing my adventures. I can’t rewrite previous chapters, but I can always reread them if I want to. The best books are always worth rereading. Trust me. I’ve read Harry Potter a million times.