Archive for 2013

an education


Yes, contrary to popular belief, one does indeed need to do that pesky school thing when being abroad. Novel concept, I'm sure. Since the program here is directly run through my American university, there are slightly more rigorous requirements like a full four credit courseload and a language pledge. And there's also that bit where the process of registering at French universities is a circle of hell in and of itself, the points actually do matter, and this stuff shows up on my transcript.

Despite all the bureaucracy and administrative nonsense that has come to define our time here, somehow we all survived our initiation into the French higher education system and emerged relatively unscathed with a class schedule. Miracle of miracles. There's my art history course, which meets Mondays at Reid Hall for lecture and Wednesdays at the Louvre or the Musee D'Orsay to actually look at the pieces in person. During the week, there are personal visits to smaller museums and monuments to independently look at pieces. It's a truly surreal experience to read a document on the Raft of the Medusa in the original French, then to look at the actual canvas the next day. It's been two months of this and I still geek out at how incredible that is.

My two other notable classes are Phonetics and Arabic. The first is slowly helping me correct my awful pronunciation, which gets me in more trouble than it should (see: Taxi Incident (upcoming blogpost)). There's always a lot of giggling in that class and weird strangled noises that are my futile attempts at the French "r". Arabic is an incredibly meta experience of learning a foreign language in another foreign language that I love both for the sheer novelty value and my Ben Kingsley look-alike professor.

As interesting as the classes are, I think the most important part of my education here is the city of Paris itself.

Within the city there are over 2 million people and 6000 streets for me to discover. Dizzying numbers. It's a far cry from my cozyand very shelteredlife at Hamilton, where I know every nook and cranny of the campus and where I'm well established with vast networks of friends. Here, I'm not under the illusion that I will ever know everything; I have only tenuous threads connecting me to the other kids in the program, and for the most part, I'm left to my own devices to find my place here. It's all very exciting.

The adventures that city life brings acts as an ever-growing list of reasons why I made the right choice to come here because these experiences form an education that I find more valuable than anything that I learn in my classes. Every street comes with a history lesson, conversations with a strangers are grammar lessons, overheard conversations are listening exercises, and truly, the city has become my classroom. Likewise, leaving my home country for another always brings the perspective needed to bring about necessary revelations about where I'm from. Just seeing the little ways that things are different forces me reconsider what I once believed.

There are the memories, tooso precious, almost unbelievable, and just as important as everything else in the formation of the corpus of my education.

There are the weird, verging on unbelievable, like the time that I copied the wrong address when searching for The Hope Hippo art exhibition and ended up on doorstep of a stranger's apartment by accident. And if that wasn't bad enough, the first thing out of my mouth when the maid opened the door was "Where is the hippo?" That was also the same day that I got hit on at the Paris Mosque by a middle-aged man and ended up on an hour-long tea date somehow. There's also the time my friend and I missed the last metro home successfully navigated home with a compass and a map. Or the time I went solo to a Tuesday night concert I got free tickets for and had a French hipster lean over and tell me that he thought "Bombay Show Pig was too mainstream" (said no one ever). Nearly pissed myself laughing at that one.

Then, there are the simpler moments. Running through the pouring rain with Marnie, giggling like mad, bags of pastries clutched tightly in our hands, that moment of absolute contentment when we bit into the pastries right there on the metro platform. Quiet afternoons spent in cafes just writing and letting the quiet chatter wash over me. Cooking dinner with friends when host families are gone. Sitting alone in the streets of Montmartre, soaking up the sunlight and writing. Feeling goosebumps just standing in front of the Notre Dame, overwhelmed by the power of the cathedral.

And of course, the time I was taking the six line one night and looking out the window as we were crossing the Seine. I saw the Eiffel Tower, glittering and practically aflame, and the gently glowing city flying by underneath me. And I started to grin wildly at the sight because I had realized for the first time that nothing else mattered except for that moment right thennot the impending art history midterm, not the unfinished time bomb of a visa application, not even the damned break-upbecause I'm twenty and beautiful and in Paris of all places and life is so so good.


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Galeries Lafayette

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Meals when my host mom is gone

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Montparnasse Cemetery

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Franklin Roosevelt Metro station

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Flower store front in the 6th arrondissement

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Montparnasse Cemetery

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Islamic art exhibition at the Louvre

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Open studios at Ménilmontant

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Senate building

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Marché des Enfants Rouge 

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St. Sulpice

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Montmartre bookstore

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Sacre Coeur

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Street artist in Montmartre

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Montmartre vineyard

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L'as du Fallafel

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Paris Fashion Week

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Reggae artist at Ménil'fest


Paris from the roof of the Galeries Lafayette (click through to view)

As of today, I've been in France for 56 days. That's longer than the amount of time I spent in Tajikistan, longer than any stretch of time I've been home in New Jersey since graduating high schoolstrange to consider.

Paris is now my new home, in an apartment in the 16th arrondissement with a 68 year old widow who loves to cook. Perfect for me. There's a shelf in the kitchen cabinets exclusively for bread, a part of the fridge for the seven different kinds of the cheese we have (so French, I can't even), and a spice cabinet filled to the brim. I only eat with Jacqueline half the time because she has more of a life than I do, but the days when we do get to sit down and eat together are some of my favorites. I usually stumble through recounting my day to her, and she gently corrects my grammar and pronunciation as we go. Dinners usually just end up being me repeating back phonemes to her, making ridiculous faces the entire time, before I dissolve into giggles from how absurd the scene is.

Outside the doors of the apartment lies an entire world to discover; Paris is truly a universe unto itself.  

There's something new to discover around every corner this history-permeated city. Follow the cobblestone streets and there's another new neighborhood, another new cafe to try, another person to talk to. This city is a veritable goldmine of all things food, art, and fashionthree of my favorite things. At first, I was so overwhelmed by the prospect of Paris and the infinite options that I sat down and made a list of everything that I wanted to see, eat, do. (This was a mistake, but more on that later.) Finally armed with my Carte Imaginairea student metro card that offers unlimited access within Paris and weekend access to the surrounding areasI feel so invincible. There's not an inch of this city that's out of my reach.

The first couple weeks were difficult, yes, I'll admit it. The perfectly chic denizens, the sickeningly beautiful couples, the tiny cobblestone streets, the picturesque white facades of the buildingswith their wrought iron balconies, flower pots, and intricate stoneworkeverything frustrated me so much. Everywhere I turned was another scene that I've seen a million times before in a postcard, and I couldn't shake the feeling of being trapped inside this shadow of a life. More than anything, I missed New York City where things are gritty and dirty, honest and real. I was lacking authenticity and wanted more than anything to be a part of the other side of Paris. I refused to believe that this was all there was.

There was a moment during my first week, when culture shock hit me hard for the first time in my life. I was trying to buy a carnet of Metro tickets when I realized that the machine didn't take bills, I was a few euro short of being able to pay with coins, and on top of it all, my credit card wasn't working. A bit stunned, I just took a step back and let others go ahead of me. It took me a full ten minutes of standing there, feeling really lost and trapped in the station, before I realized that I was being completely unreasonable. There was no need to buy a full carnet; I could just use the coins I had and buy a couple tickets. Duh.

Angry at my own stupidity, I put 8 euro into the machine, got my tickets, and went through the turnstiles. It wasn't until I got onto the platform that I realized that I forgot to print the receipt that I would need to get refunded. I was only losing 8 stupid euros, but for some reason, a huge wave of emotion slammed into me and frustrated tears started to well up as the crowds rushed past me.

Everything just hit me all at once: my utter lack of language skills, the postcard I had received that morning, the lack of a Carte Imaginaire. I couldn't figure out why I wasn't absolutely thrilled to be in Paris for the year. "I made a fucking list," I wanted to scream. But the list made me feel like I was merely survivingjust going through the motions that I thought I should be doingrather than living. I was doing things just to get them done, more out of obligation than anything else. I blinked back angry tears as the 9 train arrived, trying my hardest not to lose it right there on the platform. The last thing I needed was to be that hysterical American girl sobbing on the Metro. 

Thankfully, the old adage of "it gets worse before it gets better" rang true. I just needed a shift and a bit of time.

Reminding myself that I was going to be here for a year, I let the list go as something to get to eventually. That method works well for some people, but that just wasn't the way I worked. I went back to the way things were in Taipei last summer and just set out after classes to a random neighborhood with my camera. I'm happiest like this, when I'm just wandering aimlessly, feeling like I'm discovering things myself and making this city mine. I wander the city, go to art museums, buy sandwiches for the homeless when I can, write postcards to my friends, and little by little, piece back together a facsimile of my life at Hamilton. It's not the same, and I wouldn't want it to be either, but the art and service are things I have to do to feel more like myself.

For all the unexpected struggles and momentary doubts, I wouldn't trade a second of this for anything. There have been such incredible and weird experiences since coming to France that I would have never been able to experience otherwise. (Stay tuned for the hippo story, folks. That one's a doozy.) Right now, I'm so content and happy to be here, which is all I can really ask for after everything.

More pictures to come in a later post (because, let's be honest, that's the only reason why any of you bitches look at this thing). But for now, a couple songs. There haven't been enough on this blog.

Wailin' Jennys - Long Time Traveler
A gorgeous song from a Canadian group that was a part of an incredible megamix that Katie made for me. Exactly what I needed after the week I had. Thank you. <3 

The Head and the Heart - Down in the Valley
Their new album just came out this week, but somehow I missed this track from their first album in favor of Rivers and Roads. Don't know what the hell I was thinking, because this is just so beautiful. I've been listening to this on repeat for a month now. Obsessed. 

Franz Ferdinand - Love Illumination
A different sound than the others. The single from the new Franz album that I love. If I get my shit together in time, I'll be seeing him live in Paris in the spring. Thanks to Eunice for showing me this one. 

pays basque

My sojourn in the south of France was in the heart of Pays Basque or Basque Country, a region spanning across France and Spain where the Basque people live. The Basques are an ancient ethnic group that have been living in the foothills of the Pyrenees since time immortal, with a separate culture and language that are so incredibly alive. There's the lauburu, the Basque cross, adorning everything; the wildly unfamiliar Basque language on street signs alongside the French and the Spanish; traditional dance parties springing out of nowhere. They're fiercely proud of who they are and where they came from.

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A traditional Basque dance gathering that happens every Sunday in Biarritz

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Eglise St-Martin

My program took us on two excursions deep into Pays Basque, one into the French part, the other into the Spanish part—taking me to cities that I only knew through a love poem from a lifetime ago.

Read more »

noelle et la mer

My favorite memory at Biarritz.

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biarritz: the beginning

I've been in Biarritz, a picturesque little beach town in the south of France, for the past two weeks. The houses here all have orange roofs and colorful shutters in blue, red, orange set against their white walls, something straight from Beauty and the Beast. I spend a lot of time on the beaches, which are crawling with surfers in search of waves and tourists hungry for a final taste of summer. A house on the rocks; winding, hilly roads; the Spanish coastline; a lighthouse perched on a cliff. 

As gorgeous as it here, orientation has proved to be more disorienting than I expected. I got placed in the highest level for classes—a mistake, I'm convinced—and I can barely function. Languages are scrambling in my brain, my stuttering is coming back full force, and my hearing is terrible as ever. I've been stressing myself out over the work that we've had to do and feeling like I'm constantly falling behind. 

"I'm drowning. Staying alive, but drowning," I wrote in my journal. 

It's hard to remind myself that I wanted this. I had practically begged for two years for something where I was completely lost and uncomfortable, something foreign that I could soak up and disappear into. I had wanted exactly this. I know, I know, I'm supposed to be good at this world traveler thing by now, aren't I? This is supposed to be easy. 

I think that was my mistake, honestly. There are mishaps and struggles that happen while in third world countries (bears on leashes and "rustic" squat toilets, whaddup) that I brush off easily because they're expected, almost welcomed. The difference this time around is that I had expected something easy, just because it's France, but nothing about leaving behind home and adopting another should be easy. It's the same story, whether it's just a semester in Washington D.C. or India. I'm grateful to have figured this out early. 

It's hard to remind myself that my French is improving everyday when everyone around me is too, but I know I am. Just being here, the language—the words, the structures, the accent—everything is flooding into me and  it's becoming more natural each day. My accent is still terrible, but I talk so much more confidently than when I got here. The strangest moments are those when I'm writing or talking in English and I can feel a French word or phrase about to slip out to replace the English. It's incredible. 

I'm excited to see what the rest of the year is going to bring. There's so much waiting ahead and I've already learned so much about myself and this country.

(Also, until the next blog post, follow me on Instagram at wishinbubble. I update that ish pretty frequently.)

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Le Grand Plage of Biarritz

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The Basque Coast

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Smile, you're living

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My favorite part of the walk back from school everyday: looking out over the sea of orange hats

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Sunset over the Atlantic

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Misadventures on the beach

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My favorite beach at Biarritz, with the Spanish coast visible on the horizon