Up, Off, Away!

My train leaves at eight in the morning tomorrow. I’ll be gone for two weeks…and you won’t hear from me in those two weeks! I won’t have access to a computer and I can’t call America on my cell phone. I will be in a technological black hole.

You may be wondering how I will update my blog for the next two weeks. Well, to be honest, I can’t. But, you may say, how are you going to fulfill the requirements for the Honors College of a daily/near daily journal? Fear not.

I have a separate journal that a dear friend gave me for my birthday. I’ve been writing in it since day one, but these thoughts are not meant to be shared with the online world. They’re just for me. I’ll be taking that journal with me on my journey. I’ll write my blog posts in there, but I’ll just have to wait to type them up until I come back. When I return, I promise to make up for the missing blog entries, which will include all of the amazing stuff I learned and, of course, photos!

I am sorry I will be out of contact for the next two weeks, but I’m up, off, away!

 

Side note: In class yesterday, we were examining an article for grammatical points. What was the article about? Pets in France. As an addition to my blog post “The Disappearance of François,” I would like to note that in 2010, France had 64 million inhabitants…which doesn’t include the 9 million cats and 8 million dogs also living in France! See, France does have lots of cats. Everywhere.

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Vacation…It’s Important

At my university in America, we get one week off during the spring semester. Here in France? I have four weeks off during the spring semester! Four weeks! That’s a month! My first vacation, which lasts for two weeks, starts on Saturday. The only thing standing between me and my vacation? A two and a half hour grammar class tomorrow.

 

What am I going to do with my two weeks off? Well, I can’t leave France. Here’s why. My visa requires me to had a medical exam by OFII, which the French immigration office. Once I do this, I will be able to leave the country. But…I can’t get an appointment at OFII until they give me an appointment date and they haven’t contacted me yet. So, as of right now, I can’t leave the country of France.

 

That’s actually fine with me.

 

I know I’m in Europe and everyone dreams of traveling Europe. Believe me, I want to see many places and I am eager to travel. However, I am also eager to travel the great country of France. The whole reason I’m here is to learn the culture, history and language of this country…and I can’t do that if I’m a gallivanting tourist in other countries, can I?

 

Since I was a little girl, I dreamed of visiting France. I saw pictures of the Eiffel Tower in textbooks and I read about the importance of the Loire in history books. But I never experienced them. As I am learning, books are not the same as reality. My first semester of college, I was stuck in my dorm room studying…all of the time. Sure, I was involved with clubs and organizations, but I was mostly focused on studying until my brains fell out. Needless to say, that wasn’t the greatest idea. It’s super important to have a balanced life. So, I tried again my second semester and found that I could have an academic life AND a social life. I’ll never forget what my father said to me after my second semester, “See what happens when you leave your dorm room!”

 

On Saturday, I’m leaving my dorm room and I can’t wait to see what happens! I am visiting Rennes, Paris, Strasbourg, and Lyon during my two week vacation. These are places I’ve read about, these are places I’ve dreamed about…and now I’m going there. It’s incredible if you think about it! I’m so excited to go! Hmm…what are some questions that you have about my trip?

 

How am I getting there? I’m taking the train. It will my first time ever on a TGV, which is stands for “Train à Grande Vitesse.” I’ve read about the TGV, but now I’ll be able to say I’ve traveled on one. The railroad service connects all of France and it is very easy (and cheap) to get from city to city. France also likes young people. People under twenty-five get lots of discounts…and that includes the train. It is an inexpensive way to travel.

 

Where am I staying? I’m staying in hostels. Again, this will be a first for me. They are cheap places for young people to stay and I’m sure it will be an experience. The hostels, online, looked clean and I made sure they provided linens (because some do not). They even include breakfast. I’m sure it will be fine, besides they can’t be any smaller than my dorm room!

 

Am I going with anyone or am I doing this solo? I managed to talk some poor, unsuspecting victim into spending two whole weeks with me. The poor soul. Just kidding. She’s my American friend who also hasn’t had her OFII appointment. We’re happily stuck in France and we decided to travel this trip together. I’m glad she’s going with me because she is extremely interested in French and the French culture, unlike some international students abroad who just come to party. She will be a great traveling companion, I have no doubt.

 

What are we doing? Uh…we have a plan. Well, an outline. An idea…kinda. Okay, look. We booked our hostels and train tickets so we really are going, but we’ll work out the details as we can. We know some places were definitely going, but everything else? We’ll play it by ear.

 

Two weeks of vacation in a beautiful country. I think I can handle that. What can I say? In France, vacation is important.

The Disappearance of François

It has been at least a week and half since I saw François, the gray tabby who called the lobby of my dorm home. The mat he loved to sit on is now empty and I am filled with a certain understanding. For some reason I cannot explain, I know that I will not see François again. He is gone, but the mystery remains. What happened to him?

 

Most people in the dorm agree: nothing good. Most think that François was hit by a car or maybe he got some weird infection and died. But me? I like to think that François stayed in the lobby like a hotel and has now found his true home. I imagine some old French lady feeding him until he is plump and taking him to a vet to get his back leg checked out.

 

Some things change in France. They are small changes, like the absence of a friendly furry friend. Some things remain the same, like the fact that my literature teacher still cuts off the end of stories. I still have no idea how these stories end until the next class, when I am meant to know.

 

I may not know the end of François’s story, but I know the middle of his story. I know that he was a cat, unloved, but so willing to give love. He never judged me when I spoke to him in French with my American accent or when I spoke to him in English. It was all the same gibberish to him.

 

Perhaps I will see François again…or maybe I won’t. Maybe I was just lucky enough to know him for those first few weeks.

 

You may think I’m silly for caring for a cat that doesn’t even belong to me, but I care a lot about animals. When I was younger, I volunteered at animal shelters. I have had many great pets throughout the years and I even trained my dogs for agility, obedience and showmanship shows with 4-H. At West Virginia University, I help train dogs for Hearts of Gold, a service dog organization.

 

I think that animals have a lot to give us, if only we are willing to give to them. They give companionship and aid, especially in the case of service dogs. So why not stop to give them a little attention when you have the chance?

 

France has a huge feral cat population (as does Italy – when I visited Italy, I saw a garden filled with cats…and the amazing woman who feeds them every day out of her own kindness). I see cats everywhere. They are malnourished and mangy looking. It’s unfortunate that they are not taken care of, which is why spaying and neutering animals is so important. In addition, I have seen many dogs in France. Everyone has a dog, even those with nothing else. I have seen many homeless people with dogs, often giving whatever food they have to their pets, their companions.

 

I have recently met the acquaintance of another feral cat, another gray tabby who hangs out by the entrance of the university library. Perhaps he is François’s cousin.

 

 

 

P.S- As you can tell, I am preparing for my future as a crazy cat lady. Just kidding. This article, however, was a good way to bring up my observation of the feral cat phenomenon in France. Also, I do not advocate engaging feral animals, especially in foreign countries. These animals may carry infections and may be scared so they might try to scratch or bite. Always contact the appropriate animal authorities who can provide the best care for these creatures. This is, ultimately, what I am hoping happened to François.

A Grain of Sand

In France, opportunity doesn’t knock. You have to find it. You may need to search for it with a bloodhound, and then, once you have it, don’t let go. At the beginning of the semester, I signed up for the international student organization and I’ve been very involved with their events. The international student organization even sponsors a cooking team with a retired person. I don’t know much about American cooking, much less French cooking, but it was an opportunity. And in France, you don’t let opportunity walk away. Ever.

 

Here’s how it works: the retired person is paired with two international students from two different continents. You meet at the retired person’s home and there are four mandatory meetings.

 

Meeting #1: Meet and figure out what you are doing and when you are meeting

Meeting #2: Cook something from France

Meeting #3: Cook something from Student 1’s country

Meeting #4: Cook something from Student 2’s country

 

I was lucky enough to be paired with an awesome retired couple and an amazing girl from Italy (she’s actually from Sardinia – check it out if you get the chance). Today was our first meeting and the couple told us that today we wouldn’t be cooking. They would be cooking for us. The man e-mailed us directions to a bus stop and even gave us the times the buses were running. This was particularly helpful because:

 

1. I haven’t used the bus system yet. Today was my first day!

2. It is Sunday. Nothing is open on Sunday in France and the buses/trams run on a VERY limited time schedule. If you miss your bus, you could be waiting another hour!

 

I arrived at the bus stop and the girl was already waiting. She had been worried about arriving late, so she took an earlier bus. She had been waiting for a while. I, on the other hand, arrived just in time. The man pulled up in his car and drove us to his home. There, his lovely wife welcomed us inside.

 

It was my first time being in a French house. I have been to French apartments with other students, but those are small and cramped, just like the dorm room. But this was a house. And it was big compared to my tiny dorm room. And it was a real French house. With real French people.

 

I realized that I was extremely nervous. I had learned about French customs and culture in class, but this wasn’t a classroom. This was real life. I was terrified I would offend them somehow. As soon as I entered the house, a flood of thoughts overwhelmed my little brain.

 

Do I need to take my shoes off when I enter? I feel like we talked about that in class one day. I forget. Darn. Should have Googled that before coming. What do I do with my coat? Oh gosh. I didn’t tell them that I don’t drink wine. Will they be offended? They have so many books. That’s cool. I like books. Oh no. I think they asked me a question. They’re staring at me. Oh no. Oh no.

 

Uh…pardon?

 

I’ve failed. This is not an exam. I have definitely offended them. I have no idea what is…

 

Put your coat here,” the woman said kindly.

 

My coat. That’s it. Okay. You got this.  

 

Oh. Merci.

 

I didn’t have to take my shoes off and my coat was casually hung on the staircase banister. We were taken into a little parlor and so began the lunch time. What you need to know about the French and food: it’s serious. It is a very, very serious event. Food is not meant for mere survival. It is for pleasure and enjoyment.

 

In the parlor, we began to talk. We ate little appetizers which included olives, pork and some crackers with black stuff spread on top. The man explained what each thing was, but I forget what the black stuff was. I remember he said it was something that was crushed.

 

After a bit of conversation, we moved into the dining area. We were served a beginning plate, which was a traditional Nantes dish. It was an egg with lettuce and other yummy stuff. I’ll be honest. My French food vocabulary is very, very limited. Which is why this opportunity will be good for me.

 

We moved on to the main dish which was a giant sausage thing and a special pork (which is like bacon, except it’s not smoked) and potatoes and cabbage. It was extremely delicious. This is a traditional French dish from the country. They asked if we had anything like this in our country and said we definitely had the potatoes and cabbage! My father loves potatoes and cooks them with essentially every meal.

 

We then had a cheese tasting because, as the man explained, no French meal is complete without cheese! I was able to eat two of the soft cheeses, but the last one was very strong. The man warned me about it because, while the girl from Italy may be familiar with these cheeses, Americans are not familiar with strong cheese. I tried it though because, well, you have to try it! It’s a rule. When we’re at their house, we have to try it. If we don’t like it, we don’t have to eat it, but at least you tried. And you can never know you don’t like something until you try it! So, I brought the green cheese to my mouth and placed it inside. It was strong all right. I found it to be quite unpleasant, but that’s alright. I tried it.

 

We then ate an apple tart, which is a traditional French desert. I had had apple tart before and this dish was very good.

 

But we weren’t done yet. We sat down for coffee and I declined the coffee. I must have appeared really weird because I didn’t drink wine and I didn’t drink coffee. However, they seemed okay with these choices and never questioned it.

 

“We respect your decision not to drink,” they said at one point.

 

And that was that. I was much more at ease then. I did have a few moments. I tried to eat an olive earlier and dropped it. I’m not a graceful eater. But, overall, I didn’t make a huge fool of myself. And, even more importantly, I talked for three hours in French about a variety of topics including cultural differences between France, Italy and the United States, about immigration in our respective countries, and, of course, American politics.

 

As they were drinking coffee, the woman asked if the girl and I had been to the ocean since coming to Nantes. Truth be told, I haven’t even left the city limits of Nantes since I’ve arrived. “Would you like to see the ocean?” she asked.

 

The girl and I looked at each other. Yeah. Sure. One day, we wanted to go to the ocean.

 

Next thing I knew, we were grabbing our coats and piling into the car. We were going to the ocean. Today. Right now. This very second. I couldn’t believe it. It was then that I realized…this couple didn’t just want to do the mandatory cooking meetings. They actually wanted to get to know us. They wanted to show us their country’s cultures and customs, and they wanted to help us with our language. They were patient when we didn’t know a word and helped us correct our mistakes.

 

We drove forty-five minutes in the French countryside. We passed horses, farms, grape vines. I saw wind mills and the radio was set to the oldie’s station. I was in a state of awe and shock, but I was purely content. I never imagined this would happen. I felt like I broke some wall between me and them, between America and France, between differences and similarities. It all melted into one life, one moment, one ocean.

 

When we arrived in Pornic, I saw that this was a small town, but a popular destination in the good weather. It was sunny again in the region for the second day in a row. This has never happened before in Nantes. It didn’t rain yesterday and it didn’t rain today. It was amazing. So, naturally, everyone was out at the ocean on such a beautiful day. There were so many people!

 

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We parked next to the chateau which is situated right against the ocean. In the harbor, it was low tide so the boats were resting on the wet sand. A little boy was kicking a red ball to his father. We followed this narrow path on rocks. It was in the shadows so it was cold, but then we turned a corner and I saw it.

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We were in the bright sun and it shone brilliantly on the blue waters of the Atlantic. I stared into the horizon and, for a moment, between the blue sky and the blue ocean, I saw America. I had stared into the same horizon many times in Maine and, to be honest, the rocky shoreline of France was nearly identical to the rocky shore of Maine. I had finally done it. I made it across.

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We walked along the trail to an open beach with sand. I stopped for a moment. In the cold Atlantic shore, right off of the coast of Maine, I played in the water as a kid. I made sandcastles there. Maybe, just maybe, a single grain of sand from Maine was carried across the wide ocean to the same place where I was standing. My day was easily made by that trip to the beach and I cannot describe how grateful I am to this wonderful couple. They were fantastic and I look forward to our next meeting.

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They dropped me off at my dorm and I realized that it was six-thirty. I had spent more than half of my day with them, speaking French and seeing the ocean. Yes. I am in love with France.

 

Oh, by the way, to those of you in America, I waved to you across the Atlantic. Did you see me?

 

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Rings of Fire, Water, and Earth

Part I: Fire

They say never judge a book by its cover, but I did. About two weeks ago, I finished my first French book here in France! Okay, it wasn’t a book, it was a play, but still! I felt like a real French person. I went to the library, I checked out the book and then I read it. And it was amazing.

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The book had fire on the cover and a picture of books. It reminded me of Fahrenheit 451, which is one of my favorite books of all time. If you haven’t read it, you must! Anyway, I found out why the play reminded me of Fahrenheit 451. It was inspired by it! The author even gives Ray Bradbury a nod by having one of the characters comment on the similarity between plots. Here’s the basic premise of the play. There is a war and, entering the second or third winter of the war (I forget), it is extremely cold. The other resources have been used in the war (oil, trees, etc.). The only thing that remains? The combustibles.

Books.

Three characters. A teaching assistant, a student and a professor are holed up in apartment. They argue about burning the books to save themselves and enter an interesting philosophical debate, would you burn some of the few remaining intellectual and cultural artifacts to save yourself? If so, which books would you burn? Which would you preserve?

It’s a fascinating book and if you have the chance to read it, you should! I don’t know if there’s an English translation, but look for it. It was good.

Part II: Water

The boat created waves that lapped against the metal hull in a soothing rhythm. In one of the most relaxing experiences of my time abroad, I went on a boat ride on the Erdre River here in Nantes. It was a trip sponsored by the international student organization and I am so glad I signed up for the organization. They offer so many wonderful opportunities.

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The Erdre is a beautiful river and today was a beautiful day. Not a single drop of rain. On the shores, people were walking along a path. Some were admiring the flora, some were admiring the fauna…all were enjoying the peaceful atmosphere of the river. There were people sailing and rowing on the water. It was such a nice day.

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There are many chateaus along the river and we only caught a glimpse. I am surprised how close these chateaus are to Nantes and am now tempted to do some serious exploring!

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Part III: Earth

Last night, I went to the store and bought a bar of dark chocolate for 0.40 euro. It was the day after Valentine’s Day. I had good timing and I seriously wanted, no needed, chocolate. It had been a rough week. Two tests…that were two hours each! What were they on? French grammar. Oh, yes, I needed that chocolate.

From a previous adventure, I found a hill that gave a great view of the Loire River and of the city of Nantes. I took my bar of chocolate and a friend up that hill. There, we saw the lit rings that line the Loire River. They are certainly unique.

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We ate chocolate and talked on a park bench. It was a cool night, but not chilly. It also wasn’t raining, which was a plus. There was a patch of the sky where the clouds had parted. There, in that black hole in the midst of gray, I could see a few stars. They were dim compared to the stars in the clear Northern Maine sky, but they were stars.

There are many things I know in life. I know my name. I know that the Earth spins. I know that Tuesday comes after Monday. I know that the universe is vast, but I have no concept of how vast. It is truly amazing to think that I am just a speck in a swirling cosmos.

But these thoughts are far above me and now I must return to the firm ground of reality, where homework and daily tasks await.

I’m in Love

I normally don’t profess things like on social media or websites. I prefer to keep my personal information (particularly about relationships) to myself. But this Valentine’s Day, I simply can’t. This Valentine’s Day marks my one month. On January 14th, we met and it was love at first sight. I just had to share it with all of you! I’m so happy because I am in love.

 

I’m in love with the country of France. I arrived on January 14th and today marks a month. I’ve been in France for a month, can you believe that? It goes by so fast! Was it really love at first sight? Eh…kinda. That first day was rough, but any good relationship takes time. No relationship is perfect and there are certainly bumps along the way. But at the end of the day? I’m in love with this beautiful country.

 

People often ask me, which do you like better? America or France? For me, neither country is better than the other. Both have awesome qualities, both have problems. One of the best things about France? The bread. I’m serious. It is so cheap and so yummy! One of the best things about America? No immigration paperwork because I’m a citizen.

 

Did you actually think that I would confess my love on a blog? Silly reader. I did fool you a few other times though. My most popular blog posts up to date are ones that have “Bar” and “Cocaine” in the title. It seems that you are most interested in seeing me go wild abroad…not in my intellectual engagements abroad. Unfortunately, you won’t get the chance to see me go crazy abroad. When I return to the United States, I will be the same person with the same morals, but my ideas and perceptions of the world will have changed.

 

What does that mean? Well, I’m not looking for love abroad…although boys are trying! I am still painfully socially awkward and oblivious. It doesn’t matter what language these boys speak. I just don’t get the whole flirting thing. It doesn’t make sense to me. For example, at the Welcome Party, several nice looking boys engaged my friend and me in conversation. They were asking for very personal information about where we lived and what we were doing after the Welcome Party. To me, that signals a potential kidnapper. To any other normal person, that is flirting. I like to err on the side of caution though, especially abroad. I try not to talk too much about myself (single, American, young, blonde girl: easy target!), although my American accent gives me away nearly every time.

 

Other awkward encounters. Oh, at the same party, two Moroccan boys randomly starting dancing with me. One boy pulled me close to him and, naïve me, I assumed he wanted to twirl me around. So I twirled. He tried again. I twirled again. He gave up. I learned later that he wasn’t trying to twirl me around, he was trying to get a little too close to me. Whoops. I missed that context completely.

 

My most awkward encounter? While there have been many old guys who have stopped me in the streets, I was alone in a garden. A man, about fifty, came up to me. “It’s beautiful here, isn’t it?” he asked.

 

I thought he was being friendly. After all, it was a beautiful garden. “Oui, très jolie,” I answered.

 

About two minutes later, I realized that he was using that as a pickup line. A fifty year old man. Trying to pick me up. No, no, no. I tried to end the conversation politely, but he continued to talk. Eventually he got my hint that I wanted to leave and ended the conversation with, “Do you want to go to a bar later?

 

Non, merci.” Run away. Run away now! Creepy old man. Alert! Alert!

 

Wait, take my number!”

 

I’m sorry. I don’t have a French cell phone number.” Which, thankfully at the time, was the truth.

 

So, despite the best efforts of these dashing men abroad (young and old, mostly old), I am spending my Valentine’s Day focusing on the things I really love. My friends and my family. And, of course, my studies! Today, I took my first exam in my grammar class. I had to write in the passé simple! Who writes in the passé simple? Ick. I hope I wrote the right conjugations. I have my second exam tomorrow in my grammar class.

 

Before I go, a few people have asked about Valentine’s Day in France. Yes, they recognize it and they do celebrate it to some extent. It isn’t as big of a deal as it is in the United States. However, they do have lots of posters and the student union is having a Valentine’s Day concert.

 

How am I celebrating my one month mark in France? How am I celebrating Valentine’s Day? I have a test tomorrow! What do you think I’m doing? I’m studying of course…and writing this blog post. Lots to get done.

 

Here’s to a month in France! Here’s to discovering what I love –family, friends, language, literature, life! The rest will come in time…and I’m in no hurry.

 

 

P.S- I hope my awkward encounters made you laugh. I’ll admit. I’m a little embarrassed I didn’t catch on sooner.

A Tale of Two Lives

I am a student at West Virginia University. I am a student at the Université de Nantes. I have a bank account in America. I have a bank account in France. I need to apply for housing in Morgantown. I have a dorm in Nantes. I speak in English. I speak in French.

 

I have two lives.

 

I thought that living one life was pretty tough in America, but trying to balance both lives? It’s a nearly impossible task that leaves me running from problem to problem. Take this example: I was informed that my federal loans were due because I was no longer a student at West Virginia University.

 

Wait? What? When did I drop out of school?

 

I couldn’t remember dropping out of school, so I had my father contact financial aid and the Office of International Programs to get the problem fixed. I am, once again, a student. It was a minor administrative error, but it had major consequences and, if my father hadn’t helped me, the situation could have been very bad. I am unprepared to pay back my student loans at this time! I don’t have a job in France.

 

But then, here in France, my American check still won’t clear at the bank. They said it would take two to three weeks. That was several weeks ago. I keep going in and it’s clear that the bank workers are just as confused as I am. I don’t have any money, as I have yet to receive my stipend. I receive a stipend because I have to pay for housing and food – I am also paying for housing and food at WVU (this is why I have a stipend, because I shouldn’t have to pay for housing and food if I already paid for another international student at WVU). It’s complicated. Trust me.

 

For the record, I believe that the name “study abroad” is utterly deceptive. The name “study abroad” evokes an image of studying in a dorm room and happily going to class. While I am studying, I am only in class for eighteen hours a week. The rest of my time? I am in administrative offices or sleeping or eating. I do have fun, as you can see in my other blog posts, but I am constantly focusing on a problem – whether it is at WVU or here in Nantes. Therefore, I propose that the name “study abroad” be changed to “living abroad.” I am truly living abroad. I have to pay into social security and I have to pay insurance. I will need to go to the immigration offices and have a medical exam. And that’s only a small percentage of what I need to do…all for five months abroad.

 

I am living two lives, but my problem is that I am just one person. How can I possibly keep track of two busy lives? Well, luckily for me, I have people back in America who are helping me. Professors, advisors, and other faculty members at WVU keep me up to date with e-mails and are more than willing to help me with issues that arise. My father keeps a watchful eye on my accounts and keeps me from panicking. Everything has a solution. The solution, however, might not be easy to achieve. And, of course, my friends, mentors, former teachers, family (basically, you), are all extremely supportive and understanding.

 

Is it possible to juggle two lives? Of course it is. Is it easy? Nope. But I’m trying. I know that all of this will be worth it. Here’s a little story of why I believe that it works out in the end:

 

At the beginning of the summer, I packed my USB drive for the following fall semester at WVU. I had a great summer and, at the end, I packed all of my things to go back to school. But where was my USB drive? I searched everywhere. I panicked. I thought I lost it…and I was leaving the next day. But then I remembered. Everything I do, I do to make my life easier in the future. I am constantly thinking ahead. So, I asked myself, “What would Kellene have done to make things easier for you?”

 

“Well, she would have already packed it.”

 

And, sure enough, in the smallest hidden compartment of my book bag, my USB drive was there.

 

Right now, I’m trying to think ahead and make things easier for the future me. There will be panic (as usual), but then I will remember. I did all of that to make things better. And, then, at the end of the day, I will be really grateful I did it.