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Category: France Study Abroad 2012
From August 21st-January 6th I was in France studying. I lived with a host family during that time, and took classes for international students. A wealth of new experiences were had: rock climbing, surfing, new foods, and meeting some incredible people.
10 minutes of free wi-fi in CDG airport. Waiting for my plane to Dublin. Two hour layover. Board a flight to Chicago. Three-hour layover. Board a flight to Mpls, then home. The lady made me mad at the airport because she wouldn’t speak in French to me. Come on! My last hours in France. I know that you can hear my American accent, but it’s not that bad!
Yesterday, waiting at the train station in Tours to head to Paris, I ran into Ines and Nic an hour before I was to board the train. Quelle chance? 7 and a half minutes. Met Sergio, Armida, and Rasmus at the train station to say goodbye. Bought a sandwich. Boarded the train. Sat next to a guy who was reading someone’s doctorate for two hours. Listened to Angus and Julia Stone on repeat. Really, check them out if you haven’t!
Walked with 70 lbs of luggage divided between my big backpack and the little guy from the train station to my hostel. Damn. Lots of stairs to reach ground floor from the tunnels of the metro. Have you ever thought about what it would be like to be a metro conductor? They’re modern day miners! All you see are trails of white lights, and then big bursts of fake light as you reach another platform, and then you head off to the next stop. Sounds like dying.
My friend Lucas used to peel clementines in one-go. I don’t know why, but I have been doing it the same way since. Looks like a new kind of Pangea. What if a new planet erupted somewhere in the universe, and the landmass there formed the way in which you managed to peel your clementine in one-go? What if?
3 and a half minutes to go!
I’m excited to get on my bike. Of course I’m excited to see my family and friends, but to get on my bike and cruise around Lake Minnetonka. That’s one of the best parts about living in Minnesota. The bike paths are spectacular!
Met a couple from Peru on the train.
Met a girl from China at Smart Place hostel.
Met a dude from LA, another from Oregon, and a girl from Plymouth. Go figure?
It is now the end, officially. Came back from Germany this afternoon and am holed up in a friend’s dorm room, double-checking my flight times, Paris metro times, and I’ve booked the hostel I’ll be at for tomorrow night.
I don’t know what to say, and I’m not ready to answer the question: “How was your time in France?”, even though it’s been somewhere in the back of my mind this entire semester. “How was it?”–the easiest question to ask, the hardest question to answer.
d) I dunno.
e) All of the above.
How are you supposed to say whether an entire 4 months of your life in a different country–all the thoughts that you had, every new experience, even that time you stepped in a puddle, was good, bad, okay? Words, pictures, the small film clip of your friend sleeping in the minibus, your friend’s family singing on Christmas, the view of Hamburg during a double-decker bus tour–showing these remembrances is the best one can do in order to recap such a time. Because it was everything.
e) All of the above.
The pictures one posts on facebook, Tumblr, blogs, romanticize the experience, shrouding, “my time in France,” in an untruthful, or partially-truthful way that does not do it justice. It lacks the meaty bits. It’s just the eyes, or the smile, or the hands, and it needs to exist in its entirety. The boring bits, like the kneecaps, unless you have a fetish for kneecaps, the sometimes unpleasant parts, like the callous on your foot serving as a hat to your bunion, the parts you just wonder about, like your weenus, and yes, the beautiful aspects, perhaps the eyes, the smile, or the hands.
This study abroad experience has not been without its low points. France was unable to hold me in a trance for the entire duration of my time here, but I am glad that it didn’t. I’m glad that France was a bit grittier than expected, a bit rougher at times. It wouldn’t have been so interesting had it not been.
A friend once told me that in high school, he was quite content overall but did not feel as much as he does now. Something like heartbreak drove him to feel in new ways, to explore his emotions. In intense moments of sadness, he told me that he smiles to himself. He gets a weird pleasure from experiencing something so intense. The highs are higher if they follow an extremely low low, and vice versa. They complement one another, and the two need to exist in order to exist, if that makes sense.
It’s getting late, and I should go to bed. I want to end on a positive note, though. I have a new carabiner now, and it is from Australia. My friend Sergio gave it to me, and he told me that he has had it for 7 or 8 years, and its really special to him. It still works, so I can use it, he told me, but I’m only borrowing it only until we see each other in Mexico. Then I’ll give it back to him. And I gave him mine–the first, and only carabiner I bought in a rock climbing store in Minneapolis when I decided that it would be cool to climb someday.
Last night was fun, perhaps too much fun. It was a good way to end things in Tours.
I am officially departing from my host family’s house this morning. Tomorrow morning, I hop on a train headed for Paris with my friend Nick. There we will stay with his cousin and his cousin’s girlfriend, visit Paris’ marché de noel, and I’d really like to visit Shakespeare and Company. I haven’t been there yet.
Saturday morning I head for Germany.
For those of you who are reading this that I will not see for a while, goodbye. It has been a pleasure and I will do my best not to forget all the good times that were had. I will miss you and this environment of international students.
Pour ceux qui lisent ceci, qui je ne vais pas voir pour longtemps, au revoir. C’était un plaisir, et je vais faire mes meilleurs efforts de ne pas oublier les bonnes expériences que nous avons eu. Vous allez me manquer, et également cette atmosphère des étudiants internationaux, et exceptionnelles, va me manquer.
Je range mes affaires et je nettoie ma chambre. C’est l’un de mes derniers jours à Tours. Oh la vache… Tout est passé trop vite. Il me faut encore acheter des billets pour l’Allemagne et planifier un peu ce qui se passera après le nouvel an. Oh, je passe le noël et le nouvel an en Allemagne à Nuremberg et Hamburg.
Hallo, mein Name ist Matt und ich bin 22 Jahre alt. Ich komme aus Minnesota. Ich bin der Freund von Ines und Annika. Ich studiere Anglistik. Vielen Dank für die Einladung.
Was there something to be celebrating? He didn’t know, but all the same, he found himself on the shoulders of his dad, and he was laughing. He rarely got to go up there because his dad had a bad back from the years he spent lifting people onto gurneys as a paramedic.
The house the boy lived in with his dad, mom, and sister was low-ceilinged, and above the opening where the dining room became the living room hung a white shelf. And on that white shelf sat a collection of fragile things with sentimental value—a picture of his mom’s marriage, two Russian doll-sets, a black-glazed sculpture of a wolf that he had made in elementary art class.
Although the boy could not recall why he was on the shoulders of his dad, he remembered that it was fun, and his dad was not simply walking, but prancing with a bounce in his step. And each time one of his feet would push off the ground, the delayed effect was like that of a slinky. The energy would move from the base of the dad’s step, up through his body, and then through the boy’s, propelling the boy ceiling-ward.
“I’m gonna hit the ceiling!” the boy thought excitedly. For him, it was a rush. It was the same sensation he got standing on the tire swing at Shirley Hills, rocking it back and forth so high everyone riding had to pay close attention to avoid getting beamed unconscious. It was the same sensation he got when his parents would swing him into bed. In those moments, he would become the tire swing. The only difference is there would be no bars or chains to hold him back, and for a split second each night his parents would do it, he would be flying.
He held onto his father’s head the way he would hold onto a basketball before shooting it, and in both cases, neither gave him much control.
“Ahhh! There’s no one in-control,” he thought, but he let it go because honestly, he couldn’t stop laughing; the joy was so intense.
The feel of my dad’s hair and ears between my hands.
The moss-green carpet of the living room.
TV on the left.
The enormous thumps of our combined weight.
Duck under the overhang leading into the hallway.
90-degree left turn onto white tile— we’ve entered the kitchen, and mom is making dinner.
We’ve landed on the border between the white tile and the moss-green carpet.
We didn’t fully make it out of the kitchen.
And all those fragile things are now dispersed around our splayed bodies–mom’s wedding picture, those two Russian doll-sets, and my clay-fired wolf.
Laughing so hard.
The boy remembered his mom freaking out, and his dad checking to see if he was alright. Seeing that the boy was alright and laughing uncontrollably, his dad apologized to his mom. The boy could tell that he only half-meant it, though, because everything was fine. 17 years later, the boy realized what they were celebrating.
I was sitting on the bus today, and across from me sat a little boy. He was maybe two. He was wearing a heavy winter coat, and his feet barely extended past the end of the seat. He looked less like a boy and more like a small pile of laundry with a head on top. Seemingly unaware of everything around him, his attention was directed towards his right foot, which he swung around in circles. And when he got bored with that, he stopped, and continued to stare ahead.
One of the best parts about French public transit are the little kids that ride the bus. I remember from the psych courses that I took the mirroring principle in which we tend to copy those we are having an interaction with. Often, if we see someone smiling, we tend to do the same without thinking about it. The same goes with frowning. We might not frown, but we might take on a more negative attitude as a result. You can read more about it here if you are interested: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mirroring_(psychology).
Like I said, the best part about riding the bus are the kids. They’ll often try to copy whatever ridiculous face you make at them. What I like most is that they are not afraid to laugh if they find you funny. A lot of people seem to be afraid to make eye-contact on the bus, so they’ll just stare out the window, but little kids are different. They have no reservations, and they’re fun. One of the people that I have grown close to here is a lot like that. I will call her Liz.
A couple of years ago I talked with an English professor about the differences between childish and childlike. We often forget to distinguish between the two, but there is a large difference that one should be aware of. Childish has a negative connotation, and just means that you have some maturing to do, like perhaps you still lie to avoid taking responsibility for your actions, or something like that. Childlike, on the other hand, I associate with the traits of children that we should try and hold onto–innocence, openness, our imaginations… Liz has a lot of these good traits, and reminds me of the kids that I see on the bus.
Her imagination is unparalleled. One time Liz, Bartholomew, and I were having coffee and tea in our favorite café–Café Tourangeau–and she started playing with her teapot. It was no longer a teapot, but had become a small territorial elephant who felt threatened by B’s teapot. I don’t think B’s small elephant necessarily had any qualms with Liz’s small elephant, but when someone else is mad at you without reason and is unwilling to cooperate, one is not left with many choices. Eventually the little metal spoon that came with my café au lait became implicated in the matter, but his involvement did not end up mattering much.
She then drew our attention to a little boy with glasses climbing around on the booth behind us near his mom who was sitting at a nearby table. It was one of those times where the child was just restless, you know?–when they make eye-contact with you because they’re just looking for something else to do other than sit quietly and listen to their mom’s boring conversation that excludes talk of good guys and bad guys. She told me that earlier that day she was on the bus, and she saw another little boy similar to the one who was making eye-contact with us. He was trying to read the newspaper, or was reading it for all we know, and it was one of the strangest things that she had seen. Perhaps he was an old man trapped in a child’s body.
Liz also gives really nice hugs. She gives you a small squeeze at the end to let you know that she means it when she says, “Have a good trip home,” or “Tonight was fun.” She also rides a long board which makes her ten times cooler. Finally, she draws. I haven’t seen much of her art, other than a poster that she designed for a friend’s concert, but I know that she has a lot of heart and a big imagination, thus I would bet that her art is lovely. I showed her a small piece that I had written about a boy who falls in-love with the sun, and she said that she would try and do the illustrations for it. I hope that we can publish a children’s book together someday. That would be a dream.
I want to share you with one last thing–a music video by Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros about the importance of staying in-touch with our inner-child. It’s beautiful. They are the traits that will get us furthest in life.
P.S. I should give credit to Stephen Chbosky for his book The Perks of Being a Wallflower. I have recently been addressing my journal entries and signing them in the same fashion that his main character, Charlie, does. Thus, the credit should be attributed to him.
I’m sorry that it’s been such a long time since I last wrote to you, and I promised that I would give you an update on Thanksgiving in France, but right now I would rather write about other things. Furthermore, as [ ] as it was (I don’t want to lie to you, so I’ll let you fill in the blank), I don’t know how enjoyable it would be for you to read about. I’ll tell you about some other stuff though.
First of all, my exams are over, as well as all of my classes. I finished yesterday morning, actually. I was kind of afraid to be honest–for them to be over. I remember what it was like the first two weeks in Tours before classes had started , and honestly, I didn’t want to experience that again–the disorientation, the idleness, and to be frank, the loneliness of it all. Luckily, I had a bike to go exploring, and this blog to write some of it down. Things are different this time around, however.
It’s different because of the friends I’ve made here, and if you have time, I’d like to tell you about some of them. For the sake of privacy, I’ve left out their real names.
I met Bartholomew at La fac à velo. It’s this event that the university puts on during orientation week so that new students can become more familiar with the campus and their fellow students. Yup. That was just a summary of every event that universities put on at the beginning of the year. Anyways, Bartholomew was one of the first people I noticed. I had met a couple of other Germans at the beginning of the year who I was standing next to, and I saw him out of the corner of my eye. The first thing I noticed about him was his bag.
I thought to myself, “That guy has a cool bag.” (Incidentally, he bought the bag from a specialty Peruvian goods store, and I now own a green one just like it.)
And then I noticed that he just looked liked someone kind. It would be impossible to write down all of the subtleties that can create this appearance of kindness, but if you ever meet B, I think that it’ll be the first thing you notice about him as well. If not, I’m sure that the ink stains on his hands and pants will be the next thing that catch your attention.
One day we were in Language class, and during our ten-minute break at the halfway point, we had determined that it was of the utmost importance that we find the right restaurant to eat at after class. Graphs and charts, any kind of pertinent research that would aid us in the decision making were all necessary. Bartholomew sat by the window and I sat by the door on the other side of the room. His head was down and another potentially exploding pen in his hand as he appeared to be working with a passion. I imagined that he was compiling the data that we had talked about, and the entire class period, I couldn’t stop laughing imagining that he had taken our conversation to heart, devoting all of his mental faculties towards deciding on a place to eat after class instead of paying attention to our teacher. He was just doodling faces, though.
Those are the thoughts and memories that I associate with his ink-stained hands. B is a very calm person, but when he talks about William Blake or another one of his favorite writers, I can picture him being swept up in creativity, scribbling away as fast as he can to get his ideas down until his pen explodes. He also has some pretty worn out sneakers, two pairs.
“I like them,” he once told me. “I like to think that they make some kind of statement.”
The shoes that he has are the converse-esque shoes that I picture all struggling grad students walking hurriedly to class in. The statement, I would say, would be in response to the materialism and the obsession with status that one often runs into in France. One day we were walking near La faculté de Tanneur past the store windows, looking at the ridiculous prices, the mannequins, and the large posters behind the mannequins featuring beautiful men and women in settings that one just has to laugh at.
There was one store in particular. The clothes were supposed to convey American ruggedness, or perhaps the 1950’s, uniformed, college student with all of life’s doors standing at attention. The poster behind the mannequins featured a group of people, one of them, a man with a ridiculously beautiful beard, a stocking cap, and a knitted sweater and parka. They had leather bags with them atop that mountain, aviator sunglasses, and… a football. Hmm. One of them was also carrying a flag sporting the company’s logo. We talked about how inferior we felt in-comparison to individuals capable of looking that beautiful and casual in nature.
His shoes make a different kind of statement, though. His shoes speak of his kindness. They’re worn because of the amount of walking he does accompanying others to class, to the bus stop, to wherever they need to go so that they don’t have to walk or wait alone. He’s that kind of person. One might not even guess that he were a student because he never seems to be in a hurry, only ready to accompany you to wherever you’re headed.
Sometimes the busyness of a city can bring one down. Today, a 60-year old couple cut in front of me in the grocery store, and I have watched high school-age kids on the bus refuse to offer their seat to an elderly man looking from left to right, clearly wishing to take a rest. I find it nearly poetic that there are people like B who always put others before themselves, that move at a pace reflecting a world in which one does have the time to stop and ask so-and-so how they are doing in a way that doesn’t yield the response, “good, and how about you?” I have another friend whose favorite thing to do at the end of the day is to walk slow. She told me that you barely pick up your feet, that you mostly drag them, and you take as much time as you like. You can look at the trees, at the buildings, feel yourself breathing… whatever you like.
The last story I want to tell about B is the night that I spent at his place. It had been a really long day. I had stayed up till 5am that morning, and woke up at 9:30am, so I hadn’t gotten a lot of sleep. We had just spent an evening with some of our friends at Grandmont in the dorms. After dinner and hanging out, it was around 1am before people started heading to bed. I was too exhausted to ride my bike back, so I asked B if I could spend the night.
“Of course,” he said (I could never imagine him saying anything else. Like I said, that’s the type of person that he is.).
After talking for a while, he told me, “You’re tired, and you should get some rest.”
He kindly offered me his bed, which I graciously accepted. There was enough room for two people, so I assumed that we would share the bed. When he didn’t move however, I asked him where he was going to sleep, and he told me not to worry about it, that he was going to have some tea, maybe read something on the internet, and then join me a bit later.
“Okay,” I said, and I remember closing my eyes and my head touching the pillow, and like that, I was out.
Around 4am, I woke up naturally and peered over where B was. He was sleeping at his desk. He didn’t want to wake me up by disturbing the bed. He slept at his desk all night like that.
The next morning, we had breakfast in his room around 9am. He set out a plate of pastries and offered me cereal, juice, tea, fruit…
“I don’t really like having money. Then I can have a simple breakfast like this and not feel guilty. When I do have money, I usually just waste it on IHOP,” he told me.
When I asked him about sleeping at his desk, he said, “One needs to prepare for an apocalypse somehow.”
That was longer than I thought it would be, but B is a great guy and I want to remember him as I do now. I’ll introduce you to the others later. By the way, I’m reading a really great book called, The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky. I think everyone should read it. Journal entry: December 21, 1991 and pages 74 and 75 in particular of the Pocket Books edition made me cry. The last time I remember crying was last week when I was listening to Bon Iver while waiting for the bus, but before that was when I was hit by a car.
Have you ever had one? The better question perhaps is, “Did you/do you have the patience to wait each day to open the next door/window to retrieve the treasure inside?”
Maybe it’s a false memory, a created memory from something that I thought I was once told by my parents or a friend, or a scene from a film, but I vaguely remember having a Christmas calendar when I was younger. Whether this actually happened or is solely based on logic, I did, or would have eaten all the chocolates in one go.
“What?! No! But you have to have the patience to wait each day!”… or something like that, said my friend Ines.
My friend Andrew, from Georgia, also confessed that he had never properly experienced the joys of a Christmas calendar, not that he didn’t have the patience to wait each day (he is, by far, one of the most patient people I have had the pleasure to meet), he just never had one.
Well, now we both have one.
Last Thursday, Andrew, Ines, myself, and a bunch of other international students met at a bar called Ailleurs to listen to our friend, Gabriele (I’m sorry if this name is misspelled), pronounced Gab-Ree-Ell-Uh (with an Italian accent) sing and play guitar.
Upon arriving, I was greeted by Ines with a bisou–the French kiss on each cheek, a smile, and this beautiful new calendar. It is difficult to see from the picture, but each present has been individually wrapped with a number attached corresponding to each day of the month.
Dec. 1: Vollmilch-Schokolade am Stiel!
I have been studying German over the past three months, and the translation of such a phrase should most likely be: chocolate Santa sucker with a picture on the wrapper of Santa eating a chocolate version of himself. Other words currently in my repertoire are:
1) Ein-coffen=grocery shopping
3) Vender-trappen=spiral staircase
It is also worth mentioning what a talented musician Gabriele is. One only need look at his face for 2 seconds to understand how much he loves it. He was not in the bar that night, but off someplace else where everything is in-sync. It was a great time just having a drink, being with friends from all over the world, and listening to some good music. The following is a picture of him playing during a night of flammenkooken and galettes. You can see the effect his music had by the look on Ines’ and Davide’s faces :)
Tonight I am celebrating Thanksgiving with my host family. Expect a new post and more pictures soon!
Yesterday, I felt weightless. I felt… like my body didn’t belong to me, that I was a spectator in a movie theater with the same hopes that something otherworldly would come my way.
It was a strange night, truly. I attribute it to the simple question of post-graduation plans. I contemplated how I would react if the world came to an end in a week, sat in a giant Christmas tree by the river full of blinking lights and stared at the Ferris wheel. Afterwards, my friend Ines came to join me in the tree, and we talked about God, religion, and her hopes for the future. Then, we went to a bar called The Pale and drank beer and cider with 4 others, staring intensely in each others’ eyes as we clinked glasses (“santé”) and wished each other good health (if you lose eye contact or cross arms with someone else while clinking, you’re apparently doomed to 7 years of poor love-making), and played cards.
Originally, my plan was to walk to the bar to meet Ines there, but arriving early, I decided that going for a walk down by the river was what was needed. As I made my way to the river, I peered into restaurant windows. I saw couples–older, younger–and groups of youth decked out in their finest attire with feasts before them. Were they celebrating an anniversary perhaps, a birthday party, or were they colleagues getting to know one another? . . . Would I too be dining in fancy restaurants someday and the subject of some other foreign undergraduate student’s confused thoughts?
Or, would I be the older man out for a late night stroll by himself, hands in his pockets, window shopping?–“For who?” I asked. “His children, his life partner? His dog??”
Would I be the drunk woman that I saw sitting on the steps of a shop, gallantly singing at the top of her lungs while families walked by in mockery, having never considered, nor will ever consider, that hard times could befall them too. Families with such strong, confident, reassured convictions of how their futures will unfold that they do not have the capacity to understand that the woman whom they’re mocking on the street corner might have never considered being their either.
Coming to the end of Rue Nationale, the Ferris wheel stood before me, and behind it stood an enormous pine tree filled with Christmas lights. I had never noticed this tree until yesterday. I lied beneath it for some time, looking up through its branches at the network of lights flashing on and off, moving, pulsing, as if the tree were alive.
I climbed onto one of its branches. It was very thick and sturdy, and there were so many of them; it was not difficult to reach the top of the tree. The last time I had been in a pine tree that high was in high school when I climbed the pine tree in Matt Harrison’s backyard to avoid being turned into a zombie during night games. I remember I was level with the roof of his three-story house. I could see the tops of most of the trees surrounding the golf course that he lived next to–Red Oak, hole number 9 if I’m not mistaken. The sky was such a dark blue and the stars such a sharp contrast. I was so absorbed in what I was looking at, that I forgot the zombie apocalypse was still upon me. I felt that same way sitting by the Loire last night, staring at the Ferris wheel and down Rue Nationale where I had come from, the people I had seen earlier having most likely begun finishing their dinners.
“What would I do if the world were to come to an end in a week?”
It’s a given that I would be on Skype with my family and friends, that if the world were thrown into chaos and raiding the stores was socially acceptable, I would go straight for the dark chocolate and hard cider first and set up camp in IKEA. Second, I would try and get a tattoo. Third, I imagined myself at Grandmont climbing the rock wall. If the world were to end, I figure most college students would try and spend that last week completely inebriated, and the rock wall would be one of the only secluded places left, and, despite the world hypothetically ending, I would still want to work towards becoming a good climber.
When Ines came, I asked her about God and her future plans.
She told me that she wasn’t sure if she believed in a God. However, she did say that she was something of a religious pluralist, and I thought that was cool. Finally, I asked her what her plans were for the future, and she told me that she wanted to see the world, that she didn’t have a dream job, that there wasn’t anything in particular that she was truly passionate about. Upon further reflection, she told me that what makes her happiest is the opportunity to make others happy, and that if she could make someone else’s life better, that would be what she would call her passion. I thought that was beautiful. If the world had more people with that goal…
After shaking the branches and making bird calls for the benefit of a group of french girls below, we made our way to The Pale to conclude an interesting night. I stopped worrying about whether or not I would find a way to continue climbing, if my life would be satisfying, what I would do if the world came to an end. I thought of a quote that my friend Elise listed under her favorites: “In the end, we all die.”–Skyler. Rather than being fearful of what might or might not happen, sometimes it just takes a hard-hitting comment like that to relieve oneself of the unnecessary worrying that only hampers experience, thus freeing oneself up for the possibilities to experience.
A belated Thanksgiving reflection perhaps, but I’m grateful for: whole foods, climbing, people like Ines, that tree, and this time in France.
It’s been a while. Life has picked up here in France a little bit, and I have gotten lazy. Some cool things have happened since I last wrote, and still being pressed for time (I have a test tomorrow on castles and my host family is watching a movie based on the life of Beethoven), I’ll keep this short and sweet.
Last weekend I went caving for the first time. It was one of the coolest things that I have ever done. At the same time, it was admittedly terrifying. The only exposure that I had had to caving prior to going were glimpses of horror films, a group of British girls descending to the earth’s deep places only to get massacred by strange cave-dwelling creatures. What also made me nervous was the fact that without our headlamps, we would be shrouded in absolute darkness, and if none of us made a sound, absolute silence–both of which we experienced for 60 seconds after lunch.
We spent five hours underground. It was fairly cold with the water that came up to our chest at certain points. We ate lunch underground as I already said, in one of the bigger rooms. The floor was brown, we found out, due to bat poop. That made lunch a little less enjoyable, haha. We crawled all over the place and through tiny holes that makes one feel claustrophobic, dragging bags with us full of climbing gear and plastic containers containing all the mashed sandwiches.
I was grateful to see the light after five hours. We rappelled back down to the gate entrance, which is also something that I have never done, and afterwards, stripped down and washed the speleo suits and harnesses in a nearby creek. It was cold to say the least. Everything we were wearing beneath the speleo suits was wet–pants, sweaters, socks, underwear… the last time I remember being that cold for that long was the time I slipped in a creek at Wolf Ridge in fourth grade and had to walk back. Afterwards we were greeted with cups of hot tea.
It’s incredible, the people that one can meet through these stages.
I met a really cool guy named Gaetan. He is 27 and has lived in South Africa for some time climbing, surfing, and working with computers. He is finishing his masters degree now, and I see him often, nearly three times a week at the school’s climbing wall. He has been climbing for around 4 years, I believe, and has done some pretty intense things. He told me that he climbed a horizontal wall, maybe 600 meters long. I do not know any climbing terminology, but I know that one can sleep suspended from the wall for extended climbs, and he did that for the horizontal climb.
I have also gotten more into climbing here. I signed up for a course at the beginning of the year, and I would climb for two hours every Thursday. I have started to love it more and more, perhaps because of Sergio and Armida (the two climbers from Mexico) who ask me whether I am going to go each night. The past two weeks I have gone four or five times. It’s a really great sport, and it’s such a good feeling–finally succeeding in reaching the top of a route that you haven’t been able to get all week. It has become something of an addiction, and all that has been on my mind lately has been moving to Colorado, Utah, somewhere mountainous where I can learn the sport. This is a pretty good video to get you inspired:
I stumbled upon a picture of some professional climber who was using his teeth to grab the wall while he was dipping his hands in more chalk–pretty incredible the lengths that these climbers go to to reach the top.
That’s all really. Missing home a bit, but things are still cool here, and I am finding ways to engage myself and stay occupied. I hope all of you that are reading this have a great Thanksgiving with your families! I’ll be having Thanksgiving here on December 2nd with my host family!
I wish I could remember word for word something that Jonathan Franzen wrote in his book, The Corrections. Honest would be how I would sum up his style in a single word. His descriptions are so powerful, yet specific, and oftentimes I will remark to myself how interesting it is that he has had the same thought. F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote, “That is part of the beauty of all literature. You discover that your longings are universal, that you’re not lonely and isolated from anyone. You belong.” This is how Franzen makes me feel.
He wrote the other day something to the effect of being pulled by things autumnal and nautical. I felt as if that he had written that for me, and a desire to head back to Bretagne transpired, just in time, I would say.
Cup after cup. One in the morning at breakfast, and another in the afternoon, frankly to pass away the time and have somewhere to get some work done. I could feel the effects of the caffeine, however–a noticeable increased heart rate, anxiety, shaky hands; I could feel the blood pulsing through me as I stood by the bus stop with my pack ready to head to Rennes.
“You must be a runner,” the nurses would always tell me whenever I went to the doctor for a yearly checkup.
I looked forward to hearing them say it, and in fact, I took a bit of pride in this confirmation of my health.
Standing by the bus stop, being able to feel my heart race and knowing simply that it was faster than a 60 beats per second, I thought to myself, “This is it. I have officially entered adulthood at the age of 22. I have finally begun the rough decent to high blood pressure, terrible vision and hearing, aching joints…”
Yes. It was indeed time to go somewhere.
I went to Rennes, located in the region of Bretagne, or Brittany, in English. The food is excellent, especially the traditional meal of galette, crêpe, and cider. Furthermore, Bretagne has a rhythm and a hum of its own. When I go to Minneapolis, I think progression, hope, farmers markets, and bike lanes. When I’m in Fargo, I think eternity, but in a good way. I have ridden so many times on country roads that seem to go on forever, and when you’ve gotten into a rhythm pedaling and the sun is in the middle of setting and beautiful, you feel like you could go on forever. Bretagne is a city as carefree as a loose sail in a light breeze. You drift in Bretagne, down the ramparts, from shop to shop, hand in hand with someone you care about, and you admire the sea, watch the waves, and sit with the warm sensation of feeling in-love (most often due to the cider).
Sitting in Le Corps de la Garde, a crêperie in Saint-Malo, I watched and observed all the people passing by. They peeked in, I peaked out. For both of us I imagine it is like peering into a fishbowl. You may make eye contact with the fish, but it’s not awkward, you just observe one another.
I felt that I had known them before, as if, in a strange way, they were my favorite cousins I only got to see twice a year, and as if the last time we had seen each other, we were 12 and had spent a lazy afternoon eating apples and talking in the only tree in my grandma’s backyard big enough to fit us all. Their names are Laura and Guillaume, and I had the pleasure of couch surfing with them for two nights in Rennes.
They inhabit an apartment not far from the heart of the city. It has charm–the framed photos on the wall of the two of them, pictures and souvenirs of places they’ve traveled sitting quietly on the bookshelf, the comfortable white futon where I had slept, the clay teapot that sat forgotten in the living room, a handful of dishes left in the sink for tomorrow morning.
The first night that I was there, we had a Breton meal–homemade galette, a sweet crepe for dessert, and some cider. The second night I made them pancakes with berries, hazelnuts, all lathered in peanut butter, layered in banana slices, and doused in maple syrup, huevos rancheros on the side. We stayed up late both nights talking and played poker on the second night.
The next morning Laura and I woke up early for a run down by the canal–7am. It was peaceful. There was mist rising off the surface of the water, and the moon was still out. When we came back, Laura took me to the boulangerie connected to their building, and we had tea and pastries for breakfast along with an assortment of things to spread on top. I chose caramel au beurre salé–caramel spread made with salted butter. The night before, she took me to the grocery store, and we bought 6 different jars of different kinds of spreads because I had not tried many of them, and as Laura said, “it’s a party!” She was kind enough to send me home with the jar so that my friends could experience caramel au beurre salé as well.
It’s weird when you think about it. We hadn’t known each other before, and in two days, we became friends. She was so nice to me, I felt guilty half the time, for no reason other than the fact that she was so kind, always asking me if I wanted more of something, if I was comfortable enough, coming with me into town before I could meet up with my friends so that she could give me a tour, offering to drive to me across town to my friend’s house so that I would not have to ride the bus. Where is this kindness coming from, I thought? It was, beautiful, in a way, and, in-tune with how surfing with Lucie made me feel, I felt truly connected to humanity, in-love with it.
All things nautical and autumnal. I feel refreshed in a way, steady and supported.
What I would like to do is begin this story similar to the way that Tim O’Brien might begin his stories, or perhaps the way Hemingway might try and capture some horrific war scene that he would rather not talk about but knows that he must anyways. Here goes:
It was cold, damn cold, so cold that it is necessary to swear to express how cold it was. A long sleeve, a polar, and a hard shell–North Face’s unbeatable 3-layered approach to guarding oneself from even the most inhumane conditions, yet I was still… cold. Having to traverse the frigid nothingness that is the bay of Mt. Saint-Michel, we went barefoot and had to wear swimming trunks. What we didn’t have on bottom we attempted to make up for on top. A hat, gloves, those three unbeatable layers, and a scarf fashioned from a quick-dry REI towel.
We trudged–for three hours, we shuffled our feet so heavy with mud that saying we were barefoot would be to dance on the edge of fib territory. We slid–in the harsh clay-water that refused to give us any form of reliable support. We sank–in the clay-water that bore with pride the half-sunken remnants of sacrificed flip flops like the leftover chunks of carnage left in the teeth of a lion who has just made his kill. We bled. O yes. I cut my heel on a rock, and I bled everywhere, and when I say everywhere, I mean if we wanted to find our way back to that rock at the end of the day, we could have.
And on it went. Sliding, sinking, and bleeding in a chilly light sprinkle that mixed on our faces with all the sweat and tears that the expedition could squeeze from our glands. Time didn’t exist, and yet it did. We never knew when we were going to reach our destination, like a mirage in the desert that keeps running away from you, or that spry kid you’re babysitting who would rather not go to bed and knows the layout of the house very well. At the same time, we felt with painstaking alertness every time an impression was made in the sand by the unconditioned, infantile pads of our feet, every twist of our bellies signaling that it had been too long since we had last eaten, every dry, miserable gust of wind that managed to continuously penetrated the three layers of defense and send our tired eyes into a moistureless tizzy.
As the sun had fallen, all we could see was the far-off light of the lighthouse back on shore. It was not so much a sailor’s beacon of hope as it was the light at the end of the tunnel. We were trapped, souls marching on in-limbo between heaven and hell, never knowing when our numbed feet would finally hit sand, when we could finally rid ourselves of the sensation of dampness. And there was a constant fear hanging over our heads of the sea remounting to a depth that we could not handle. Would we make it back to land in time, or would we get swallowed up with desiccated jellyfish that we had seen throughout the day strewn across the sand?
As we sauntered on in silence, I couldn’t help but imagine the misery that plagued the lonely lighthouse keepers of the past. How many ships had they seen, so close to safety, yet tossed and pushed till obliteration, the cracking of the hull splitting the night air with more force, more resonance than the storm itself. How many had they witnessed helplessly flailing about in the clutches of the sea until fatigue and hopelessly had overtaken them? Nothing to turn to in their towers for comfort from the traumatic scenes they’re forced to witness, all that is left to do is to hug oneself in the folds of a blanket with traces of sentimental value still in-tact.
…and here is where the tone shifts.
“No one gets left behind!” my friend Rasmus would often say jokingly. It was a bit difficult at times, but nothing more than getting a bit cold and tired perhaps, nothing that no one has never experienced before. Heroic war cries served the purpose of adding a bit of humor to the situation. It also made sprinting to catch up with the group a bit more fun as well. In actuality, we ate well, we slept well, we saw some pretty sweet things. The worst that happened was the onslaught of mosquitoes that managed to bit quite a number of the group who had decided to venture to the top of one of the islands.
The first night that we were there, we got settled in the hostel. After a couple hours of UNO, which gets pretty interesting playing with 16 people from 5 different countries who all have their own set of universal rules, we went to bed.
I woke up the next morning at 7:50 to go for a quick run. I headed into the center of town, past a bunch of cool shops and wove my way around some cobble-stoned streets (not the most forgiving on one’s knees), I ended the run at the edge of a river. It was foggy and the sun had not yet risen. The city was still quiet, and all that I could see was the soft contour of the city, and all I could hear was the sound of the river.
As I said, these SUAPS trips our quite the deal, and we tend to eat pretty well.
-warm milk, various types of teas, hot chocolate, various flavors of juice
-cereal (with chocolate morsels or Special K)
-baguette (with your choice of Nutella, butter, or a variety of jams)
After that, we made our lunches and piled into the vans for the trip to Mont Saint-Michel. After arriving on the edge of the bay, we met with our guide, reluctantly took off our shoes, and set off for the island.
The depressing story above was not entirely fabricated. There was a lot of clay and a lot of sand, puddles, little streams, but it was pretty fun to traverse. We ran and slid in the clay, we sank deep into the mud, and I did manage to cut my heel on a rock, but it was pretty small and bled a lot more than one would expect.
After 3 hours or so of walking, we finally made it to the island’s edge, and it was there where we were introduced to the quicksand (hence the guide who carried rope with him in case someone should sink too far in.) My impression of quicksand was that it was dangerous, and indeed, it is, but apparently the quicksand around Mont Saint-Michel is not as deadly as the way it is portrayed in the 1994 version of The Jungle Book, or pretty much any film-portrayed version of quicksand. I have never seen anyone play in quicksand the way that we did.
Like squashing grapes for wine, you can sink faster. Also, one must find a good spot to sink in. After you sink down to about your kneecaps, you can lean any way that you like without falling completely. Our guide informed us it was impossible, and after watching an exchange student named Lipu bend back until his head touched the sand, I believed it.
Extricating Yourself From Quicksand
1) Don’t panic, a rather obvious one.
2) Remove one of your legs by pulling up and moving your leg back and forth.
3) Rest your leg on top of the quicksand, either the bottom of your foot or your shin, and slowly do the same with the other leg.
4) After you have gotten both legs out, shuffle off the sand on your shins, or walk off if the quicksand isn’t that treacherous.
We walked around the island for 45 minutes or so, and I was surprised to find an entire city upon it. There are lots of shops and restaurants, and although it was rather touristy, it was still really cool nonetheless. We figured out later on from all of the dry, comfortably-clothed individuals walking about that one can drive there if they want to. We got quite a few odd looks for our bare feet. One guy who kept talking to us in Chinese even took a photo of myself and the German girl whom I was with, and she later informed me that that was the second time that that had happened to her.
After leaving the island, we made the walk back, and it did feel as if time had stopped. It was so dark out, all you could make out were the outlines of the group and the light from the lighthouse. As the sea remounted, we had to traverse some streams that were pretty high, up to my waist, and that was not so fun. However, after three hours, we finally made it back to the cars, and an hour later, we found ourselves showered, seated, and enjoying a delicious dinner.
-Yogurt for dessert
We headed farther west the next day into Brittany for a full 20km day of hiking. Dry feet really made a difference, and we were, if anything, grateful for the conditions of day 2.
François treated us to some huitres, or oysters, and a delicious regional white wine. There was a sizable market in Cancale where we had the oysters, and it was there where I purchased a ring with Celtic symbols on it. I found out later that it supposedly changes colors due to one’s mood, and because my hands were so cold, the ring was black for most of the day, meaning that I was en colère, or mad.
The hike itself was nice. It was very similar to the last hike in Bretagne around l’Île de Morbihan, but what made it interesting was talking to Sergio and Armida, a story that I’ll save for another post. Essentially, they’re modern day nomads who occupy their days now finishing up their Masters degrees and rock climbing, and it was really interesting to talk to them about all the places they have lived, all the jobs they have occupied, what they have done to get to where they are now.
At the end of the day, we loaded up the vans and drove the three hours back. We had a dinner of sandwiches, pouches of apple sauce, brioche, and said our goodbyes. Furthermore, we all survived the trip.
“Il faut profiter en France!”–should have been the title to this blog, despite all the moments of confusion, ou bien, “YOLO,” which stands for you only live once if you’re not familiar with this acronym. I have heard “Il faut profter!” so much in France, and unlike YOLO, which was painful to my ears from the first time that I heard it, it has been seemingly effective in getting me to do things that hesitancy and fear would have kept me from doing.
I went to a boite, the literal translation being box, but it’s real definition being night club, with some close friends who had an in, so to speak. It was a reservation only sort of thing, having to know the right people to get in. Not to inflate this story anymore than what is actually true, but from my point of view having never been to a night club before, damn, I felt like a high roller.
A bit disoriented at first from all the French and loud music, I set in our squarish seating area and sipped on a drink. As my head moved back and forth on auto-pilot trying to understand what this French night club was all about, a ray of light had descended upon the center of the stage where stood the most beautiful woman I have ever seen. Like a horse with blinders or a dehydrated child with tunnel vision, I couldn’t see anything around but this woman at center stage.
She took the mic and began singing Adele’s Someone Like You. Although I had heard the song so many times before, had seen it being made fun of in so many different ways, I almost began crying, and I the last time I can of think of that I cried was when I was hit by a car 5 years ago. I decided after that that I wanted to dance with her.
Now, for some reason, no one danced, practically the whole night. I am not sure what everyone was so afraid of, but they’re had to have been over a hundred people in the night club and an average of 15 people dancing per hour. It was pretty disappointing, but all the same, I danced my ass off like it was a LDB banquet.
To the sides of the dance floor are two smaller stages, and there is a pole on each of the stages. Wonder what those are for? The singer got up on one of the stages and continued to sing (not using the pole, and by inserting the detail about the poles, it is not that I was hoping nor implying that she would dance on the pole, it was merely a detail, all sarcasm and dry humor aside).
“Il faut profiter en France!” a little voice told me in my head.
“Okay,” I thought. “Why not?”
I climbed the stairs and danced with her on stage, and I could say that it was the realization of something more than a dream, of something incomprehensible to the human mind, but, my friends, it was more. As great as tasting french fries has been, as seeing someone walking down the street wearing an actual beret, the normalcy of eating chocolate three times a day… that experience topped the list.
Other things worth noting from the night:
-I learned that you don’t smile for pictures when you’re in a boite. You just look at the camera knowing the camera is looking back at you, much like a staring contest.
That’s about it actually, and yes, profit from the experience!
“I think that if we run backwards, we can make time go in reverse,” Annika told me.
“Okay,” I said. “We have three minutes until midnight, so if we want to do this, we need to go now!”
With that, Annika and I got out of our chairs where we were in the back of a bar called La Belle Époque, and as I began climbing the stairs, I looked back and Annika had already started moving in-reverse.
We emerged from the back of the Belle Epoque, traversed the bar, and found ourselves standing beneath the awning. It was drizzling–nothing serious, but enough to make us hesitate. Regardless, we ran out from under cover into the middle of cobble-stoned Place Plumereau and began running, forwards to avoid slipping. We ran a lap. Looking at my watch, we still had another 40 seconds to go, so we made another round.
10 seconds before it was officially the next day, we started walking, and I turned to Annika and asked her, “Any last words? Is there anything that you would like to say before you’re officially 23 years old?”
“Thank you,” she replied. “Thank you for sharing your birthday with me.”
I had been invited to Annika’s birthday by my friend Andrew who was invited. In fact, I had only had tea with the two of them one time. When I arrived with Andrew, Annika was surrounded by all her friends, many Germans, some Italians, and some French, and she greeted me as if the celebration had been planned for my birthday and not hers.
It was extremely nice of her, and I was completely taken aback by all of it, especially her response to my question. It was so simple, yet sincere, and heartwarming. I don’t know if I have ever met someone so nice before.
Thank you, Annika. My 22nd birthday in France couldn’t have been any better.
This past weekend, I went to Bretagne, hiking for two days–day one: around l’Île aux moines, day two: around the Gulf of Morbihan–20 km each day.
Our final destination was a beach. We arrived close to the end of the day, and we stayed until the sun began to set.
After a long day of hiking, feet tired, heels sore, with a burst of energy, I raced two girls from the trip–Cassandra and Louisa–up the final hill that opened up to a breathtaking view of the Bay of Biscay. We stood on the beach at the bay’s mouth, beyond that, the Atlantic Ocean. I slipped off my shoes and socks, rolled up the bottoms of my jeans, and waded out into the saltwater. It was cool and refreshing as I pivoted back and forth at the waist, churning up the sand and the seashells as my feet sunk deeper and deeper where the waves met the beach.
The water was pretty cold, so I dared Cassandra to make the plunge with me, and without hesitation, she agreed. Wading to our knees–not bad, our thighs–getting colder, and finally, after the water had reached our waistlines, we held hands and dove in. It was so cold, I came up gasping for air and crying out.
“You Americans are crazy!” Cassandra exclaimed, as if she couldn’t believe that I had convinced her to go into the water, her eyes wide and alive.
My jeans were soaked after that, and not having any spare clothes with me, I borrowed Miranda’s bright blue rain coat and zipped it up over my waist. I draped my sopping, sand-covered jeans over the beach fence, and played catch with a frisbee with the others in the group. Saron, an awesome Aussie with Ethiopian roots, who says things like, “bloody hell, mate!” and “no worries,” could be found snapping photos. Others in the group were cartwheeling, doing handstands, and collapsing in the sand.
We made our way back to the vans, changing out of our wet clothes and picnicking in the parking lot, dining on brioche, bread, Nutella, jam, eggs, cheese, meat, juice, etc. It was delicious.
When we were back on the beach, I saw Miranda admiring the sea, and she turned around and asked me, “Does it feel like you’re in a movie?” and I replied, “Absolutely.”
There is no better way to describe the past weekend, perhaps this experience as a whole. Something about the sea and the culture is so gripping–sea-faded, salmon-colored pants, French horizontal blue and white-striped nautical shirts (that originated in Bretagne by the way), fisherman in rubber boots with windswept hair and wrinkles from the sun and wind, old, wooden boats of deep blues, greens, reds, etc. stranded by low tide, 100+ year old stone houses with window shutters, expansive gardens, peeling paint, and creeping ivy. I saw a man pulling his kids in a cart behind his moped. They had matching stocking caps and coats. I watched couples sitting at cafés along the shoreline, a cold tall glass of hard cider (also famous in the region, along with galette), looking as if they have been there all day, and they plan on staying another couple of hours; France seems to be on a different time-schedule–time is nonexistent.
I don’t see how one would want to live anywhere else after having experienced Bretagne.
This may be the first time that I have begun typing without anything particular in mind, but I think that it is good to write these sorts of posts every once in a while to see where they go. That way, you find out what really has been l’expérience the most impressionante.
It’s 10:12pm here, and everyone in the house has gone to bed but me. I find myself sitting on les-Girault’s large, rip stick red sofa, and there is a nice fire in front of me and to my left. Looking back on the past few days, there are a few things that come to mind, most immediately, “Cotton-Eyed Joe” by Rednex.
My host family has some American music that they love listening to–Adele, some strange artist from the 80’s with an extremely high singing voice for a man, and that song we all remember from middle school dances, “Cotton-Eyed Joe.” O yeah.
The memories are coming back–my hair gelled up in the front so that it looks like a wave about to crash down on my forehead sending saltwater into my eyes, that abercrombie t-shirt that I would wear consecutive days in a row and pair with some exotic Hawaiian necklace (puka shells?), the Axe cologne (the green one, kilo?) that my pre-pubescent armpits didn’t need, and probably my favorite part about middle school dances–looking, yet pretending not to notice the other huddle of girls across the way. Let’s not forget the dance circles that would form during a particularly catchy song where a few brave souls would venture into the middle, showing off their best worm or that easy break dance move that everyone knows how to do.
I remember those dances well, one reason being my heightened sensitivity to all things romantic, a characteristic I attribute to a natural disposition, perhaps, and from watching a fair amount of romance films as a kid. I don’t know why, but I loved them. I also liked Barbies, but I digress.
Among the discomfort, the magic, and prospect of locking lips with someone, songs like The Electric Slide and Cotton-Eyed Joe always stuck out. Why? Because no one really knew how to dance, and these songs provided an out, a way for everyone to look cool, to participate, to feel a part of the group.
I followed my little brother “Boubou” into the parlor where he continued to flap the wings of the origami crane that he had just made, where Miranda and “Dadin” were playing hockey with a homemade stick and my bundled up running socks, and before I knew what was happening, Dadin had stopped playing hockey and turned on Cotton-Eyed Joe. Like magic, as if it were all pre-planned like a mini flash mob, Boubou dropped what he was doing, Sandrine entered the parlor from the kitchen, and they all began to dance, counting out loud the steps so that we could learn as well.
Within maybe 30 seconds, Miranda, Ella, Roxanne, and myself had learned the dance, and began joining in with the family.
1-2-3-4… double right foot tap forward, double right foot tap backward, touch foot with left hand, swing foot out towards the right and pat it with the right hand, four hops to the right (CLAP), four to the left (CLAP) REPEAT
and when things would change, you pretend as if you are pulling a rope as you move forward, and after you have gone forward for four counts, you hop backwards to where you started with your head down and your hand on your head, holding onto your cowboy hat, your other hand tapping your thigh as if it were the horse’s, telling it to go faster.
We listened to the song twice, all eight of us dancing in the parlor together. Dadin and Boubou had the biggest smiles on their faces, and it was really cute to hear them announcing the steps. Sébastien and Roxanne usually one move off, and Sandrine laughing during the chaos that resulted from trying to spin in circles with a partner in a crowded parlor.
This makes me think about a lot of things–the significance of Cotton-Eyed Joe for my French family, how fun and spontaneous living with them can be, and how much things have changed since abercrombie and Axe cologne, school pizza vs. round pizza, that damn car seat that I sat in until I was twelve because Oprah decided that she wanted to investigate into car safety for children.
Here I am now, 21, going on 22, sitting next to a warm fire in France, pursuing a degree in English Literature and French, not knowing what is going to come after I go back home. I guess it doesn’t really matter though, does it? To a degree, it’s important to have something that at least slightly resembles, could at least adequately pass for, a plan, but “if someone were to have asked me ten years ago, at the ripe age of 11 years, 11 months, and change, where I would be in the next ten years,” I would have said that I would be training for the Olympics for running or going to school to design houses, not that I would be in France as a student, sitting next to the river drinking wine, going dancing, surfing, and hiking in some of the most beautiful parts of the country. No. I wouldn’t have seen that coming.
Classes started with a bang, a small bang. It’s as if you were sitting by the fire engrossed in a new book that you just received for Christmas and your little cousin was playing with an old, wooden, western, cork gun–barely noticeable. But the gun keeps firing at random until you stop, a mental jerk, on every third or fifth word, and suddenly your cute little cousin is popping you in the cheek, forcing you to fold over the corner of the page and leap out of your chair, chasing him around the room and giving him the attention that he desires.
Starting classes was maybe something like that.
Up until this past Monday, school has been the last thing on my mind since I arrived over a month ago today, but it has finally started, and I am not sure how I feel at the moment taking classes.
I am sure that my parents will find their way to this blog post, and I would just like to say for their sake that this trip will not have been an academic, nor financial, waste. Rest-assured knowing that classes are going to go well, as always.
What I want to talk about, though, are the other, perhaps more valuable aspects of studying abroad, and why taking classes is not the focal point around which these experiences pivot.
My feet. Walking in Pays Basque with a 40lbs pack on my back and a 15lbs backpack on my front. It’s extremely hot in the long sleeve shirt that I’m wearing, and I can feel the pack sliding with each step and every slight adjustment that follows with each footfall, with every arm swing. I don’t know exactly where the hostel is. I’m hungry, and I’m mentally-fatigued, but I ask anyways:
“Excusez-moi monsieur/madame, mais òu se trouve…” (Excuse me, but where do you find…)
Sometimes the response I would receive was unkind, but 95% of the time, I have been met with a very thorough response conveyed through slow speech, plenty of gestures, and once, when I was looking for a coiffure (barber shop), someone drew me a map. Something that I recently read in a culture book is that, if you ask politely, acknowledging the fact that even though you may be a lost tourist, you are still interrupting someone’s day, the French will appreciate that and go the extra mile to help you out.
And I would always make it to where I needed to go, exhausted perhaps, tired, hungry, etc. , and every time that I have gotten to where I wanted to go, I look back and see that it wasn’t a direct, air-conditioned, plush-seated, taxi ride. If I were to map it out, the trail would zig-zag and loop. There would be signs of frustrated erasure marks, peanut butter stains, and I imagine that the paper’s surface might resemble something like the surface of a naked brain from having been stuffed too quickly, in too many pockets, too many times.
I went to La Tranche Sur Mer, located on the west coast of France, as a field trip through the sports/recreation program at my school. We went surfing, skim boarding, and body boarding. I refused for the longest time to go body boarding because I wanted to use the time to learn to surf. After the first day of swallowing saltwater and getting tossed around like your dad’s old work shirt in the laundry machine, I decided the second day that I would give it a chance. I flippered-up, donned my wet suit, and kicked out hard past the breaking waves to where it was calmer. I waited with my friend, Valentin, and some others from the group for a gros vague to come in, and when it finally did, we all caught it, and before I knew it, there was this massive, breaking wave, pushing me towards the shoreline at what felt like 60mph, and it was such a huge rush. Furthermore, all of my friends were surfing parallel to me on my right and left, and I felt like I was 5 again, swinging with a friend, and suddenly, both of us were going at the same pace.
“We’re married!”–We would exclaim, and it was that same, goofy surge of joy from locking eyes with someone else while both of you are having the time of your life, moving at fast speeds without having to do anything.
And at the end of the day, sun-kissed and sandy-haired, we retreated back to our lodging to share a meal, a French meal, and I mean fish soup, ratatouille, noodles, pork on the grill, dessert, bread, cheese, and beer. The French take their food seriously, and the fact that it’s a student field trip doesn’t mean that they’re going to settle for anything less than outstanding. The food, the surf, the people… incomparable joy.
This is difficult to describe in words, but what I have noticed, have grown to love and attempted to adopt, has been the way the French pursue something. They invest themselves fully, committing themselves entirely to do a good job. I see it in the way that they dress themselves, through the thoroughness of their responses to a question, to how vigorously and efficiently they clean and stay organized, and in the way they carefully write in cursive. My host family has been the basis for a lot of this.
I watch their nine-year-old, “Boubou,” spend his free time inventing things, like the car that he made out of wood, two skateboards, and a razor scooter roped and nailed together that he takes down the sloped driveway at breakneck speeds, slamming into the garage door with his feet outstretched. A family friend brought a simple toy over, and Boubou ingested the entire manual, commenting to his parents all the cool things that you could do with the cards that were included.
I see quality in the way that “Dadin,” the oldest, plays piano and recorder, and how helpful he is to Miranda, Ella, and I in explaining things. I taught him a simple chord progression that someone else had taught me. In the key of C, it’s C major, G, A, and F. Hopping from one chord to the next, and staying on the white keys, one can come up with an unlimited combination of songs. I taught Dadin the progression, just once for a 15 minute session, and a week later, he played it back to me, having practiced it the entire week.
I see quality in the efforts that my host parents make to make the three of us feel welcome, from the traditional meals that my mom cooks and the commentary that follows, to asking us if we need anymore blankets, towels, etc. The whole family is really great.
Classes will be great, I’m sure, but the rest of it has made the experience so far.
I had 4 hours left before I had to catch my train back to Tours from Paris.
“Alright,” I told myself. “I need to go to the top of the Eiffel Tower today. A Parisian experience is incomplete without it.”
After eating at Les Deux Magots, a café made famous by Hemingway, which was also a really sweet time because I am almost certain that there are scenes from Paris je t’aime that take place in there, I took off for the Eiffel Tower. After a series of subway connections, I finally emerged on the street a mere couple blocks away from the monument. Nearly beneath the top, I noticed a group of people surrounding a guy with discs on the ground.
“It’s very easy!” he said, in the voice of a French carny. “Find the white disc and double your money!”
I remember specifically telling myself that I should pass right by without stopping. There have been so many occurrences in my life where impulse has gotten the best of me, and the results have not been so favorable. 21 years of unfortunate experiences should be enough to know when I should just keep walking, right? Curious, I decided to stop anyway, telling myself that I was only going to see what they were doing, satisfy that curiosity, and move on.
I watched him shuffle the discs on the piece of felt, and then turn the platform once 180 degrees to reverse the disc. Easy, I thought, and from my vantage point, which was slightly off to the side, I had a pretty clear view of the disc’s bottom before it landed. I watched for three or four rounds, guessing correctly each time, yet watching people hand their money over having lost.
Just as I was feeling confident with the game, the carny reeled me in. He was waiting for people to put in some money, and I stumbled eagerly through my wallet, perhaps a bit anxiously knowing that I was going to win and walk away with more money. All I had were two 50 euro bills.
“That’s all I have,” I told him. And he saw that I had two and tried to get me to put it all in, but I resisted and put in just one.
“Way to go Matt for not losing all of your money in one go.”
You have that much self-restraint. Now, it should have been easier considering that a girl before me had guessed wrong, and that left two possibilities. At that point, I was more than sure that I was going to win.
I couldn’t believe it. I was absolutely shocked, as if someone had just diagnosed me with cancer and I had months to live. My heart was racing; I felt shaky. I should have left their, but my natural response was this:
“OMG!!! I need to get it back, FAST!”
I threw in my last 50 euros the next round and guessed wrong again. In 30 seconds I had emptied my wallet of 100 euros.
I could feel the world around me beginning to collapse. My vision felt as if it were blurring. I honestly felt like falling over at the shock of what had just happened.
And there was no one there to turn to for comfort or sympathy, and moments later, after the crowd had finally begun to realize what a scam all of it was, the guy packed up his discs, pocketed his money, and walked off. The crowd dispersed, and I was left there by myself, still trying to comprehend what had just happened.
In my dazed state, I willed my feet to bring me to the tower, hoping that the mere sight of it, and all that it represents to me (my love of French culture, the moment I first watched Amélie and had decided that I wanted to start learning French) would lift up my spirits, and perhaps comfort me somehow–I imagined two of its legs detaching and scooping me up, rocking me back and forth, telling me that it’s alright that I just got scammed out of 100 euros–enough spending money to go out for lunch for two weeks or 4 plane tickets for Ryan Air, destination Sicily, London, Madrid…
I ended up sitting, on one of the many cement cubes, gazing up at the top of the tower, sad that I now didn’t have any money to go to the top.
“I am not going to eat lunch for two weeks,” I told myself.
I thought that if I could regain all of the money back through sacrifice, I would somehow feel better.
“That’s just stupid,” I thought. “It’s not worth punishing yourself over, and that will make you only more unhappy.”
As I sat there, feeling down, I began to think about what had come out of the situation. I definitely learned something: Don’t ever, ever engage with street vendors, no matter how curious you may be! My parents always told me that I have always been one to learn the hard way. That is definitely true looking back at a couple major events in my life: the $170 fine for bridge jumping in the middle of a busy channel at noon on Saturday, perhaps the busiest time, and place, that one could have gone bridge jumping on Lake Minnetonka; throwing stones at an abandoned church building at 5am during a sixth grade sleepover (granted, those were my rebellious years by far–skateboarding, punk rock music, eating sugary foods all night long!!!), stapling my finger (twice) in first and fourth grade. I have made a lot of mistakes, but losing 100 euros in 30 seconds tops that list.
BUT the point is, I learned something! and after I had gotten over myself and my mistake, I bought an ice cream, engaged a non-English speaking Romanian in conversation (and forced the conversation even after he waved me away saying “No English”). The best part about the day was that I found out there are not one, but two ways to get to the top of the Eiffel Tower: the elevator or the stairs. It turns out that the stairs cost a mere 3,50 euros, and I was able to make it to the top of the Eiffel Tower after all.
I threw myself up those stairs, determined to make it to the top, feeling as if once I were there, everything would be alright. I rushed past ambling families taking their time, taking the steps two or three at a time. I finally made it, calves burning and all. The sensation of looking out across Paris, of finally being at the top of the tower after so many years of seeing it in movies, idealizing it… I am sure that the only thing that could have been better is if the tower were to actually have come alive and scooped me up with two of its legs.
At the city’s sports expo, Miranda and I volunteered during the Roller Club’s demonstration to be 2 of 8 people to be jumped over. In addition, we climbed the “advanced” side of the rock wall, watched and learned a basic salsa step, went windsurfing, jet skiing, and watched a Capoera performance.
Darling, France has really reeled you in
You look so different with your wings
They’ve grown to twice their size
They’ve grown to twice their size
Maybe they’ll stop running into you
as long as you refuse to move
You don’t care
You don’t care
Just keep working it out
And great sea, I’m giving you one more,
but don’t come asking for any more
These babes are yours for now
These babes are yours for now
In giving you the strongest bones of all of them
I’m only asking you to send her a lover
her a lover
So she’ll keep working it
Just keep working
Just keep working
Just keep working
Working it out
And darling, a makeshift bow of yarn and glue won’t catch him before he captures you
So go on find another… find another
Because you’ve got all of the right things… you’ve got all of the right things
Because you’ve got all of the right things… you’ve got all of the right things
Yeah, that’s what you’ve got
Yeah, that’s what you’ve got
So just keep working it out.
If you have followed along to the lyrics and the song and you have a few minutes, try thinking about how the song could be interpreted. Here is a question and a quote to help generate some ideas:
What might the over-sized wings signify?
“I’m only asking you to send her a lover…”
Now, there are three pieces to this puzzle, so bare with the seemingly disconnected fragments until the end where I can hopefully tie everything together, illustrating the significance of this post and its applicability to more than just myself and France.
My good friend and roommate, Kristi, wrote to me in a letter that she thought of me while listening to this song. She told me how great it has been watching me make strides over the past academic year as I embraced learning a new language, and how she interpreted the song as me being the person France has captured.
A few days before my trip, my aunt gave me a card that she had made with the design of an owl on it that she had created. She has been an artist all her life, and it was quite incredible. She had the chance to visit France a long time ago when she was studying art, and she wrote on the inside of the card, “France will change you.”
Finally, today, I walked over to a woman with a table at the annual market. She had paintings behind her that she had created, and on the table were piles of journals with illustrations and designs on the inside, conveying all that she had seen, felt, tasted, smelled, discovered… On the cover of each of these journals was a country name, and she told me that she had gone to each country for a year, and had started in 2002, I believe. She nodded her head immediately, eyes wide and alive, when I asked her if the experiences had changed her.
Although the idea of new experiences affecting change is nothing new, I think that we sometimes forget the significance behind this idea. Kristi told me, when our workloads were at their most stressful during the semester, that she could not live without new challenges because she finds that she grows the most from them. Being scared, feeling displaced, questioning identity, purpose, feeling discomfort–these are the moments from which we learn, and they are not without their high points as well–elation, discovery, sense of place, moments of clarity, contentedness. Another friend told me that when conditions are beyond shitty, he smiles to himself, for many reasons, but one being that it feels good to be able to feel so much, and I think that it lets him know that he is alive.
The main idea of this post has traveled all over, but I think the reason I am writing to you now, why this song came to mind, is because today was a particularly hard day. I felt a lot of the above sentiments, and frankly, I missed home. However, I know that feeling this way is necessary for learning from the experience, and because of this, it makes me happy to know that France has not been one perfect streak of elation.
Thank you for taking the time to read this post, and if you have been following along on my adventures, I would like to thank you again. The blog has been getting a surprising amount of traffic, and I am very grateful. Cheers!
I loved our mailbox. I loved it so much that the first time I learned to ride a bike, I would make sure to give it a hug every time I ventured past our driveway. Not only did I love that mailbox, and my ninja turtles bike helmet that made me look part amphibious, part superhero, I loved how it felt to be rid of training wheels and coastin’ on two’s. Biking and running have always been the two things that I go to to decompress, and today, I had one of the best rides.
REI features Loire Valley cycling in its adventures section, with good reason. Today I biked the 10km from Joué-les-Tours to Villandry, and I had to restrain myself at every turn to not reach for my camera. “Save it for the castle,” I told myself, but there were some shots that had to be taken. I passed an older couple from Amsterdam who were kind enough to take my picture atop a jolie (beautiful) hay bale. It reminded me too much of the Montana that I grew to love. French country homes lined the path that transported me to depictions of WWI and II that I have only seen in movies. There were also a number of people in tents lining Le Cher’s banks, fishing, cooking breakfast, sitting and watching the river flow. A “bonjour” here, a “salut” there. It was that kind of ride–accommodating.
I arrived in Savonnière and paid a visit to the caves at the suggestion of my host mom, Sandrine. They are known as the Petrifying Caves if you translate it to English, so called because of the petrification process that takes place there. How the process works is this:
Parents send unwanted children forth into the caverns wearing either sunglasses, holding mirrors, or sporting cameras if they can ensure that their child’s eye will not leave the viewing window; they don’t want any deaths on their hands. Once there, the tour guide commands the basilisk in parseltongue… Objects are placed beneath the small streams within the caverns. Over time, 6 months to a year for objects, and 2-3 years for rubber molds, 3-4cm thick calcite deposits collect on the items, transforming them into the objects below.
Finally, there were two passages the tour guide informed us of–one that leads to Château Villandry 2km away, and another more impressive passage leading to a smaller castle 7km away constructed during WWII as a place to hide members of the French Resistance. That is at least what I heard, but then again, I catch maybe 70% of what people are saying.
Arriving in Villandry, a mere 2km farther along the trail, I stopped at a delicious boulangerie named La Pétrie. There I indulged in spinach quiche and coconut and pineapple crumble.
That is Ella by the way. She is another student from Concordia College, and she’s pretty great. I have been getting to know her better over the course of the past few days. We went to this boulangerie at the suggestion of another guy living in our house named Beau, named by his brother after some famous basketball player from the 80s or 90s. Hardouin is the name, and after having partaken in their soon-to-be-infamous sandwich, boisson (drink), et dessert deal for around 7 euros, a steal among dining places in Tours, I would highly recommend it to anyone that is in the area.
And I think that Ella would too.
She wasn’t even posing. Just kidding. But I’m sure that if she were by herself with no strangers nearby she would have made this same pose due to untainted bliss stampeding through her being like a business of ferrets liberated from Pets Mart. She told me while we were eating that the sandwich that she had ordered–ham and cheese on buttered baguette–was the part of France that she had been dreaming about coming back to since her first experience at 16.
“I’ve got cuts on the roof of my mouth,” she said. “That’s when you know the bread is good, when it cuts the roof of your mouth–crispy.”
I could agree with that. The bread is phenomenal here. Furthermore, I think that there may be something to be said about the cutting of the mouth principle. Take Cap’n Crunch’s Peanut Butter Crunch for instance. You would not continue to eat something capable of cutting your mouth unless it was worth it.
For dessert we had cherry and strawberry tarts. Très magnifique!
Last spring during one of my weekly prep sessions with my faculty adviser, she told me a story about this big blow up that had passed between a previous student of hers and that student’s host family. During the middle of the night, the student, hungry, had decided that she wanted to eat a can of peas that she had bought earlier that day. She got up in the middle of the night, let’s say 1:00am, ate the can of peas, and unsure of whether her host family recycled, left the empty can on the counter top. The next morning, her host parents were furious with her, and in response, the student had become equally upset.
I’m sure that you can imagine where both parties were coming from. The student was upset because she thought herself entitled to eat the can of peas that she had bought and that her host family had no right to be upset with her. Her host parents were upset because the student had not told them that she wasn’t getting enough to eat, and perhaps it was an additional slap in the face because the student had chosen to relieve her hunger with canned vegetables. My professor had been dragged in the middle of it, and apparently the incident was enough of a hassle to motivate my adviser to tell it to the students travelling abroad every year.
Well, before I came to France, all I had heard about was the incredible food. The baguettes, the croissants, fish, meats, wines, cheeses… and considering the volume of food consumed at Lac du Bois, the French immersion camp that I worked at this past summer, I thought that I would have no problem getting enough to eat. Maybe it’s because I have been running, or because I have not been smoking enough or drinking enough coffee, or perhaps it is just my response to the stress of being in a completely new environment, whatever it is, I found myself extremely hungry a few nights ago.
The first day that I had arrived at the house, I had brought with me some left over food that I had bought during my sojourn in Basque country–a baguette, a bag of muesli (a morning cereal composed of different types of grains), and a delicious jar of Nutella, made of glass I might add–go France! My host father told me upon arrival that I could keep it in my room or in my kitchen. Naturally, I put my food in the kitchen thinking that I would just have the food for breakfast.
It was in the middle of the night, a little past ten. The lights were out in the house, and everyone had gone to bed. I opened my door and quietly crept down the staircase. I hit a Nerf gun lying at the bottom of the staircase, and muttered “shit” quietly under my breath as I stopped moving for fear that I had been heard. Nothing. I turned the lights on, retrieved what I had came for, and switched off the light on my way out. I had nearly made it to my door, a quiet evening with some baguette and Nutella awaiting me, when I tripped on the last step, not realizing that I had one more to go. I was just outside my host parents’ door, the first one facing the staircase opening, and it was loud enough to wake them. As I lifted up my leg to keep going, the door opened, and the hallway light was turned on.
I can only imagine the scene from the eye’s of my host mom. One, it was my host father who knew that I had put my food in the cabinet. My host mother was unaware that I had any food in the house. I was certain that she must have thought my jar of Nutella was her’s, that I was stealing. Secondly, I was able to stutter something in French like, “O, hi, I’m so sorry, I was just really hungry,” as I stood there terrified with only a jar of Nutella in my hand. Finally, the entirety of my emotions were magnified by the story that my faculty adviser had told me prior to my trip. Of all the information that had been told to me, I remember this funny story of miscommunication best, and for some reason, it had filed itself away as the quintessential, student-host family miscommunication incident bound to happen, at the same time easily avoidable.
Luckily for me, my host parents are not the same ones as the poor girl who had decided to indulge in a can of peas. My host mom said that if I am to eat, I am to do it downstairs, and if there is anything that I do want to eat that they don’t offer at the house, I am allowed to buy it myself and store it in the kitchen. I panicked over nothing, I guess, and the night ended happily with me recounting this entire story to one of my roommates. That baguette and Nutella couldn’t have tasted better.
Aside from getting acquainted with my host family these past two days, I have wandered around the downtown area. I feel like I am in a movie, and I realize that I am in the honeymoon stage, but whatever. I’m going to enjoy it while it lasts.
On Sunday, nearly everything was closed besides a few cafés. However, I stumbled upon a large market where vendors were selling antiques and other possessions. I stumbled upon old diaries written in perfect cursive, old photo albums full of pictures of families taken 30 years ago, a lot of dishware, old books and maps. It was nice aimlessly meandering through this market. Walking back up Rue Nationale where all the shops are, I wound up at the edge of the Loire River.
People play music there. They sit on the benches with their heads in each others’ laps, or they will be walking down the path hand-in-hand. Some people will come just to eat their baguette and watch the river flow. This is not some romanticized rendering of events to create something interesting–It truly did seem this nice.
With all this extra time on my hands before school starts, I have taken to writing a lot in a journal that I carry around with me. I read 3/4 of Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast the summer before last, and what I remember quite well are Hemingway’s descriptions of what it was like to write in the cafés of Paris. Always, always, he would talk about the food and drink–how good it tasted after not having eaten anything all day, what the exact order was so that we too could someday go to the same café and sample what he was having. That was what I was needing today: Hemingway.
I imagine that Hemingway was the type of guy that loves everyone right away, not because of small commonalities, but because he seems to have liked people in general, because he was excited with life and wanted to share that excitement with others. I am no Hemingway scholar, but this is my impression of him–a gregarious, strong-willed story teller who would have been the type of guy to pull you around the city by a strong grip of the hand, recounting amazing stories, and ordering platter after platter and drink after drink until you were both exhausted and warm with content at the same time.
Today, I was wishing that he were with me. I would have asked him what he thought about love and France, and how the two seem to so easily coincide, what he most enjoyed about Paris and the country itself, maybe why he chose to write… who knows? That probably would have been enough. With him, I imagine that a single question would have been all that was needed.
Regardless of whether or not he was here with me, today was nice. I bought some peaches, a baguette, and a yogurt and sat by the river for a couple hours reading, eating, and watching people.
Just arrived today in Tours, France where I’ll be attending the University, or UNI, as the English and Aussie travelers say it.
My host parents are Sébastien and Sandrine. I have only arrived three hours ago, but so far I feel very welcome in the house. Around 9pm here, I had the best meal that I’ve ever had in my life. I’ve decided to put the vegetarianism on hold to more fully experience the culture, it was baby cow meet in a delicious sauce with choux de Bruxelles (brussel sprouts) and fresh baguette, an assortment of cheeses, and some kind of creamy caramel dessert with petits gâteaux, or little cakes. The house is incredible. In my room I have a bunch of old french furniture, big windows with drapes, a bathroom, and a queen bed. It’s quite the place. I’ll post pictures soon. À bientôt! (Talk to you soon!)
I met a cool guy from Belgium who is spending the night at the youth hostel. Starting tomorrow, he is going to spend two weeks walking on le chemin de compostelle which is a transnational walking route. He plans to walk from Bayonne to a city in Spain called Santander, a 350km jaunt, or 217.48 miles according to Google. “We’re young,” he said, “so why not?” Why not I thought? It was inspiring to hear his story, and I passed along one of the lucky seashells that I received from Marie-Sabine. Good luck, cool guy from Belgium.
“Is this normal to see here?” I asked the woman walking along the beach? “Ah, bah, non!…” I was referring to a guy walking behind and above me along the sidewalk dressed in a lime green thong with arm straps. That was the beginning of the most interesting night I have had so far.
It started out as polite conversation–“Where are you from, what are you doing here in France, etc.”–that evolved into the story of the eye of Sainte-Lucie. The woman pulled out a handful of shells from her purse.
“They look like ears,” I said.
“I’ve heard that before, but many see them as eyes. Do you know the story of l’oeil de Sainte-Lucie?” she asked.
The quick and dirty behind this legend is this: Long ago, there was a woman named Sainte-Lucie who became very ill. Upon getting better, she gave away all of her money and possessions to the poor. Her husband got very mad at her, and as a result, she ripped out her eyes (who her husband adored) to get back at him and threw them into the sea. Sailors who found the eye-shaped stones called them the eyes of Sainte-Lucie.
“They supposedly bring you luck,” she said, and with that, she dumped all four of the shells in my hand.
She told me that she had spent the last hour combing the beach, and the only one that she had found today, she had dropped and lost. Sometimes she would spend six hours a day looking for these shells, and maybe find one. Quelle gentillesse (How nice), I thought.
“I would always get bored on the beach, and then one day I saw some people who looked as if they had lost something and were looking for it,” said Marie-Lucie. That’s how she picked up the habit.
As the conversation continued, she asked me if I had been to all these places in Biarritz. The palace hotel? The rock of the virgin?
“No,” I replied to all.
And with that, she asked me if I would like to go see them, and she gave me the best tour that anyone could receive. She was full of history of the city of Biarritz. She talked at 100mph in elementary English and perfect French, narrating the scenery out my window, all the while narrowly missing pedestrians clogging the streets. If you have ever seen Amélie, it was like the scene where she grabs the blind man by the hand, pulling him along the busy sidewalk, describing everything that she sees at lightning speed. It was unexpected and serendipitous.
I owe it to her to share the story of Sainte-Lucie with you all, and I hope that you’ve enjoyed hearing about it.
I had the pleasure of staying at the surf hostel in both Bidart and Biarritz. For those of you who have never stayed in a hostel before, I encourage you strongly to do so. I’ve met a lot of like-minded people there so far from all over the world. Australia, England, Germany, etc. and it’s been an incredible experience. Hostels are communal in that you share a room, you share bathrooms; it’s much like staying in an apartment with people that you have never met.
My first night in Bidart, I stayed with two girls from Australia and a girl from England. The two Aussies were on holiday, while the girl from England had come recently from Argentina, having recently been fired from a work as you go job. At least that is what I caught. The accent was pretty strong. There were two surfers from Germany, a honeymooning couple from France, and the brilliant owner of the Surf Hostel establishment, Jono, and his two brekkie-cooking staff members following the surf. There were a few other English girls as well.
The environment encourages the formation of relations. You live with them, you eat with them, you go surfing with them or sit on the couch and chill. The best part about hostels is how quickly and naturally all of this seems to come. Many travel alone, some of them for months, and you begin to depend on the people that you meet along your trip for company. Everyone seems to want to make a friend at the hostels, which is pretty awesome.
After parting with the hostel in Bidart and Biarritz, I took the bus to Anglet where I am now. After checking in and meeting a few other people, I walked five minutes to the beach and rented a board for an hour. I talked with the shop owner who I had rented from my first day in town with Lucie, and I made conversation with a guy whose daughter was completing her fifth day of lessons and had been to the States before on holiday.
After unsuccessfully catching any surf, and successfully getting repeatedly smashed by oncoming waves, I struck up conversation with a smiling Indian man who I had been surfing next to with an apple red surfboard with a chicken being hatched painted on it. He too had been bullied by the waves, and we walked to a better part of the beach to have another go.
I caught the bus from Anglet to Biarritz where I spent a day walking among the city. Instead of having a bakery, pharmacy, and a few other shops like the surrounding towns (Anglet and Bidart), Biarritz was full of restaurants, glaceries (ice cream shops), everything imaginable. I bought an ice cream from one of the glaceries, and then I went to a café where I had the best salad that I have ever eaten in my life and a glass of wine. I followed up the experience by having a haircut. Une coiffure, or a salon, is unlike anything that I have ever experienced. Usually, I let Great Clips get the job done, but this place, I imagine, is where the gods get a trim.
I stopped back at the beach at Anglet on my way back to l’auberge de jeunesse and watched the sunset on the beach. There I met Marie-Sabine.
I arrived in Biarritz yesterday at 22h 41 to conclude 25 hours of travel from Minneapolis. I spent the next day in the Bayonne area where I met up with a local whom I had met through couch surfing, and we spent the day paddle boarding and surfing. At the end of the day, we went to the boulangerie where we bought a fresh baguette, a delicious chocolate pastry, and five beignets which are balls of deep-fried pastries covered in sugar.
Surfing was surreal. In fact, it was the reason that I came to the Biarritz region in the first place. When I was younger, maybe twelve, I subscribed to Surfing magazine. The nearest waves are so far away from my tiny suburb in Minnesota, but watching enough Rocket Power and that trip to San Diego were enough to get me hooked. We rented two planches en mousse–surfboards for beginners with foam on top, managing to catch a few waves. The water was so crowded with surfers of all ages, everyone eager to catch a wave for just a few seconds.
That afternoon, my new friend, Lucie, gave me a ride to Bidart farther south along the coast, a 3o-minute drive from Spain. Les Pyrénees compose the backdrop of this beautiful city with its winding streets, clay-tiled roofs, and sun-tanned, ocean-sprayed residents. After locating the surf hostel in Bidart, we wandered towards the direction of the ocean, stumbling upon a path on top of the cliffs overlooking the ocean. Part of it was wide open, the other part enshrouded in trees forming a tunnel; the scene was calendar worthy.
We took a side path that led us out of the tree tunnel, and we came out upon the most breathtaking view imaginable. 100 feet up, we stood on a small patch up level ground that stretched out like a peninsula, not into water, but a steep drop off in front of us and to our right. We were level with a flock of seagulls nesting in the cliff side. We spent a half-hour, maybe an hour there, talking about words in both French and English that were different for the other to pronounce; “purple squirrel,” and “beach,” not “bitch,” some of the funnier ones to hear her try and say.
I told her how I loved saying French words, no matter what word, they all sound beautiful in my opinion, and she responded by saying that her and her friends make fun of Americans by saying that the English we speak sounds like someone speaking through chewing gum leaving the mouth nearly sealed and allowing only ugly, distorted sounds, to escape.
After she left to go back to Bayonne, I went back to the surf hostel where I was greeted by my new roommates–a honey-mooning couple from France, another couple from Germany, two guys from Germany, and three girls–one from England and two from Australia, all drawn to the Biarritz area for the surf. All of them are extremely friendly and open, and that is the way that I have found France to be if one decides to be the same.
It felt like a relay race as I walked through the gates into the airport in Paris, hopping from one group of friendly Parisians to another. “Pardon madame, mais, est-ce que vous connaissez la station de train TGV? Pardon monsieur, mais comment est-ce qu’on trouve le terminal 2? Excusez-moi, monsieur, mais qu’est-ce qui se passe là?”… I asked so many questions today, and people could not have been friendly. Yesterday, I made the mistake of getting in the wrong train car. I was awoken a couple hours of later by a friendly, but confused woman whose seat I had accidentally taken. After the confusion had been resolved, she refused to take her seat, and chose to take the seat that I was supposed to be in instead. My friend Lucie drove me around Basque country, paid for my chocolate pastry and kept offering me the beignets that she had bought. She also made me breakfast, lunch, and dinner in her apartment. I tried to pay her multiple times for the hospitality, but she kindly refused in such a way that made you feel almost guilty for even asking. She had a smile and appeared happy to have done everything for me.
This whole experience so far has been overwhelmingly eye-opening, from a cultural perspective, but also from being taken aback by the kindness of the people that I have met. Other observations that I have enjoyed:
-Short-shorts are in down here, as well as speedos.
-The dairy products are so much creamier here!–the yogurt=fantastic.
-Low-flow toilets are the norm, as well as smaller eating utensils and less wasteful home appliances (washing machines, refrigerators, dryers (everyone seems to use clothes-lines), etc.).
-The majority of people down here are beautiful.
-The laid-back mien of walks, slow-lunches, and I-don’t-care-whose-watching-because-I-feel-like-kissing-you kisses.
Last night was a mixture of restlessness, and some of the most bizarre dreams that I’ve ever had, even for dreams. I dreamed that my friend John had six arms, and appeared on the set of a music video at a school where he commenced to dance and embrace the rapper in a six-armed hug. I also had a dream that I was sitting atop the ocean at night, and it began to rise. I was lifted out of the water because I had been sitting on an enormous blue whale the entire time, and that whale began to fly.
I’m not sure how Freud would interpret the dreams I had last night, but I would guess that, from the first dream, experiencing a new culture might be strange and abnormal, but if you’re open to the new experience, you might just be embraced by it. As for the second dream, I have been sitting in the ocean my whole life, unaware that there was a flying whale beneath me the whole time that could take me into the sky.
My aunt told me, “This experience will change you.” I hope she’s right.