A Travellerspoint blog

All that for un frigo?

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France is the country of many things: fine wine, a variety of beautiful scenery, over 400 different varieties of cheese, smokers, accordion players, people on strike, the Eiffel Tour, baguettes and, or course, French poodles. Or something like that. I was prepared to encounter all of these things during my semester abroad in France. But as I found out this week, France is also the country of long lines, fine print, paper work, and bureaucracy.
This week as the students in my university arrived to register for their classes and move into their tiny cells I also had my own paper work to complete as an international student…. Only I was lacking the help of a European passport, knowledge of the language or a Registrar’s Office who communicated with one another. In all I added up that I’ve spent about 8 hours these past 3 days standing in lines, many of which I didn’t need to be in. In France they’ve named this practice “faire les queues,” which literally means “to do the lines.” I’m sure it’s turned into a common reply to the question “Qu’est-ce qu tu as fait la journée?” “What did you do today?” to which the response must very often be, “Oh là là, j’ai fait les queues.” Just to give an example of what I mean when I say French bureaucracy, one of the “projects” I’ve been working on is trying to rent space in the refrigerator on my hall. A simple enough request you might think? Well here at Cité Université it’s necessary to go through 4 different offices in order to process such a request, and not all of them are open on the same day. So a simple task like renting space in a refrigerator spans over 3 days. In the end, things do get done, and maybe this way it makes us more grateful for the things we finally manage to obtain, even that tiny cubby hole of space in the refrigerator.

Posted by ernielow 13:24 Archived in France Tagged living_abroad Comments (0)

Baguettes et Croissant, Je Suis Arrivée!

sunny 78 °F

Bonjour, folks! After a two week spell of silence while I was spending a lovely holiday in the Algarve of Portugal, I've finally made it to France. Before I begin working on my entry about Portugal I just wanted to let everyone know that I arrived safely last night and so far I love what I see.
My flight was on time and I had a "gentil" taxi driver waiting for me -- and the best part about that was that the uni paid! Since it was upwards of 11pm it was too dark to see any scenery, although we drove right past the famed main fountain in the middle of Aix which was gorgeous under the moon and streetlights. After asking a group of guys which building was mine I found the nightwatchmen and he gave me the run down about my room and getting into the building. Even though his instructions were somewhat difficult to understand at times, I was real pleased to discover how much I did understand. I didn't have to walk up any cobble stone streets or hills with my heavy backpack to find my building, but the stress of restricting my packing to just one bag paid off when he le guard indicated that I was on the fourth floor. Surprised at how easily I'd gone through the airport and found my accomodation I had the evening to unpack, explore and exchange a few words with my neighbors. Probably the most exciting thing about my dorm is that I'm surrounded by french students! I was kind of worried that they'd just put all of the international students together and I'd miss out on that important aspect of being immersed in the language. But thankfully, that has not been the case. Everyone is so friendly and willing to help me when the right words don't come or I can't seem to navigate the different living accomodations. Case in point, the badet in mon chambre ended up being a great if somewhat embarrassing conversation starter with my across the hall neighbor.
I talked to one guy last nigt for a bit and he confirmed what I'd already heard about the american students: that they never branch out and make french friends and that they only speak english together. Just the fact that I'd initiated a conversation with him in french seemed to earn his respect, especially when he learned that I was american. Indeed, while I explored the town today I passed a couple of groups of american students who kept locked into their circle, spoke only english and seemed to be avoiding any situation in which they'd encounter the language. Very strange. I know I'll probably have classes with these students and will eventually most likely come to be their friends, but I must admit that I'd like to put that off for as long as possible so that I wont be likewise tempted to take the easy road.
When I woke up early this morning I can't quite describe what I felt to look out my window and see the wooded hills creating a half circle on one side of my building and the spires of l'Eglise Saint-Jean de Malte and the red tiled roofs poking out from the trees which line the city streets on the other side of me. It is just as I imagined, all that I'd learned previously about the town fell into place, except that now I was finally in it. Mont St. Victoire is clearly visible to the west of where my building sits on a hill overlooking the town. I can't wait to explore the woodsy and hilly areas to the south and east of me. Aix-en-Provence is the perfect mixture of city and country.
Not many students were up and about when a jet-lagged version of me was getting ready to explore the town. In fact, not many store proprietors were up either and the street vendors were just setting up. Le Cours Mirabeau is the main drag of Aix-en-Provence and it connects the Vieille Ville and le Quartier Mazarin (slighter younger than the Vieille Ville, as in 17th century as opposed to Roman and 15th century). I walked for a good while partly looking for some basics like food and TP, but mostly just enjoying the miandering streets on which I don't think you could get very lost.
Probably the most satisfying part of my day was that first bite into my very first authentic french croissant from an authentic french boulangerie. There are not words! The french have got that perfect crackle of freshly baked bread down to a tee. Delic!
À bientôt!

Posted by ernielow 02:10 Archived in France Tagged living_abroad Comments (0)

I *stomp* will *squish* make *body slam* it *heave* fit!

Getting ready to go -- tell me it only gets better from here!

sunny 98 °F

This week has been the one about which I'd always heard travellers complain, though I never fully realized the anxiety of the position until finding myself here at last. Now it's not just the packing; I've travelled to enough varied places that I feel like I could recite the packing mantras: Only pack what you use/wear at home-- if you don't wear it now, chances are you wont abroad; pack once, unpack, cut out a third of your stuff and then repack... repeat if necessary; roll your clothes; back clothes in zip lock bags and suck out the air; leave room for things you might pick up on your travels; bag your toiletries. I could go on. I've packed for varied climates, for work trips, for fun trips, for weekend trips and upwards of a month-long trip, but never for as long as a year. Suddenly, fitting a years worth of stuff into one backpackers bag has got my knees quaking.
But more annoying than the packing has been the running around town to pick up all the things I think I'll need on the trip... all while knowing that my new purchases will probably be the first to get thrown out. Yesterday was the depressing task of changing a good sum of my savings into euros. There was a time when I derived much positivity from the fact that I would finally be able to spend 14 years worth of savings -- this trip is what I've been saving up for afterall -- but in the numb blink of a bank teller's eye all the pride of a little girl with a fatted piggy bank was crushed by a criminal exchange rate. Sigh. Then came the mandatory dentist appointment. Thank the Lord I'm clear of cavities; that would've had to wait a year or at least until I got my french insurance card and was able to benefit from a socialist medical system. After dishing out more money to fill up my car (why am I buying gas when I'm going to be out of the country for a year in under 2 weeks??), I finally embarked on the last errand of the day: buying my International Student Identification Card.
For any body between 14 and 26 years old going to western europe (and probably most westernized countries in the world) the ISIC really is a must. Discounted prices on trains, flights, some stores and museum entrance fees. More than worth the $25 charge and the 30 minute drive up to the closest ISIC office, right? Well, I'm sure it would be worth it if I could find the elusive office. I spend 20 minutes walking up and down Main St. looking for number 102, since that's where the ISIC website tells me it is. By chance I walk by a map of the college that is situated on the opposite side of Main St. and find that the building I'm looking for is listed about the college's academic buildings, no where near Main St. Ok, so it make plenty of sense that the ISIC building would be on the college campus so I start out looking for it. After another 10 minutes trekking I come to the indicated building but it appears to be a dormitory. I walk around to the adjoining building; it's a laundro-mat. Hmm, but by that time it was getting close to when I needed to run my next errand so I opted to try again the next day, only this time call ahead.
The thought occurred to me that all the wandering I did yesterday was probably just a taste of the wandering I'll do in europe as a student. Only in Europe I might not always be able to read the signs or stop a passerby and ask him/her for directions. But it's somehow unpleasanter having to wander around one's own country in preparation for a year's worth of wandering in europe. There's no sense of adventure in going to the closest CVS and choosing from two shelves full of toiletries that all claim to do the same thing for your hair. There's no adventure in braving the heat and humidity of a code red ozone day on familiarly busy roads to buy last minute supplies.
It would be easy to say that I'm nervous about my year abroad, that I'm anxious that something will go wrong and that I'm sad about leaving the people I love here on the homefront. Those are all true. But I think at the root of those worries is a great restlessness to be there. Travel doesn't start with the first plane ride across the pond, I'm sure it starts weeks ahead of the departure date. I'm sure it started months ago when applying for a visa. It's here now with the hectic errands and packing. I believe this stage in the trip is called purgatory.

Posted by ernielow 05:52 Archived in USA Tagged preparation Comments (0)

Greece on my Mind

A moments pause before I leave for my year abroad has me reflecting on one particularly happy trip.

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There were only about 35 people on the three-masted sailboat cruise of the Greecian Cycladic Islands and, as my family would discover, we all had at least one thing in common. All 35 of us were in Greece, in the Aegean, on that particular boat to honor a transition in our lives. There were a handful of recent retirees taking that hesitant first step toward doing what they always said they'd do: enjoy life. There were couples celebrating monumental anniversaries, an engagement that would unite two families, students graduating from college or med school and entering the scary world of adulthood (shiver). For some of us, the dream trip was an escape from a more tearful anniversary: the passing of a family member the previous year, the first vacation after a particularly nasty divorce, the last time we'd be together as a family before a year's separation. We represented all ages, all parts of the world, but we had all chosen Greece to be the host of our joint Life Celebration.
As I prepare to embark upon a chapter in my own life journey, I've been thinking a lot about Greece. I realize now it wasn't the grand scope of Greece that made it so special, really the perfect location for any milestone celebration. No, it was the combination of all the perfect moments: the sips of ouzo, the dips in the aegean, the "kalimsperas!" in the evening, the special gleam in a countryman or woman's eyes when describing why they believe their particular island is, in fact, the home of the gods.
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Every morning we all met on the deck of the ship with our first cup of coffee and admired the beauty of the golden sun peering over the dramatic cliffs of whichever greek island with the typical blue and white villages we had pull into during the night. On cue someone would joke about how lucky we were to have such a perfectly sunny day after all those other days of rain. I don't think Greece knows the meaning of a "gray day." We certainly didn't see a single cloud white or gray while we were there.
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In the afternoons we would explore the islands and hike to the hellenic ruins they all have hidden away among the olive groves. On the island of Kia we were led to the 1,600 year old lion statue that was said to have protected the natives from raiding pirates.
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Every village we visted had a few taverns (some only had the one plus maybe a cafe) and often the propriators didn't even have a menu. A grinning, bronze-face middle-aged man would come out to the terrace and announce what he'd been cooking that morning. On Kia where we sampled some of the most delicious food of the entire trip the owner gave us a choice of an eggplant casserole, rooster, cow tongue or fish. You never asked a Greek proprietor what kind of fish it was: "It's just fishes!" he would say, shrugging his shoulders. Whatever is was, the "fishes" was always fried, drizzled in lemon and then that stapple of the Greek table, tzatziki sauce, was brought out for dipping. And it was always delicious.
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Coming from the US east coast where most of my friends flocked to the polluted and ticky-tacky shores of Myrtle Beach, Long Beach and Jekyll Island, I admit that I had who had ventured out to the somewhat more secluded and better preserved beaches had never seen truely blue water. It is only possible to describe the color blue that was in the Aegean as "Aegean blue." So blue and yet so clear that you can see the sand at the bottom 50 feet bellow you in some places. Every day the ship would anchor and allow us to jump out and swim in that blue expanse. Cold! But essential.
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Of course, it's impossible to talk about Greece the land and Greece the food without talking about Greece the people. Although it is important to realize that Greece is a combination of all three. There is also Greece's turbulent and fascinating history, the influence of classical culture, the 500 year long Turkish occupation and the Greek Orthodox tradition that lend themselves to understanding Greece, the country. But the land, the food and the people are essential. The Greeks we met were not only friendly or hospitable, they were full of life. Upon returning to North Carolina the restaurant owner of my favorite Greek restaurant, who himself is from Rhodes, summed Greek people up like this. "Greeks are great appreciators of beauty. Whether it's a beautiful glass of ouzo, the atmosphere of a beach-side restaurant or a pretty girl, Greeks melt in the presence of beauty." But what we found to be more endearing than even this is that the Greeks we met were always receptive to experiencing something of beauty. And it was this attitude, I believe, that made them so easy to fall into conversation with, so easy to befriend. They love their home and as soon as they see that you also love their home they want to share with you all the beauty of the place.
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This man with the memorable coiffure was the artist of the island of kia. He painted social, political and religious commentary as well as scenes from the his home village there in kia. There were some repeat characters such as the village mayor who he depicted as a donkey and the orthodox priests who he drew with goatish features.
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A local business man who took travellers to the top of the postcard town on the cliff of the island of santorini.
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Some of our dearest friends from the trip were the crew themselves. Vaso, Niko, Niko, George and Davide taught us traditional Greek dancing and on the particular occassion the dancing went on late into the night. The paper napkins strewn across the deck replaced shards of pottery; traditionally, the hostess of any party, in this case Dear Vaso, would chip plates over the dancers while shouting "Hopa!"
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A typical scene in the square on the island of siros. The children come out to chase pigeons, their parents to drink a Nescafe or mythos and watch the soccer game and gossip, and the grandparents to catch up with old friends. Everyone wishes everyone else "Kalispera" or "Yassis" which means, Good evening or hello.
We tasted liquors that were made from the sap of a tree that is native to a certain Cycladic island and only weeps this potent sap on this particular island. We were allowed to try this liquor because our friend, Niko, wanted to share the beauty of it with us. We swam a two miles in the Aegean, from one inlet to another, because that same friend had fond memories of swimming that little bay when he used to live there and he wanted to gather urchin from the other side of the bay for dinner that night.
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This was a different swimming excursion, but in this case we swam out away from the boat so we could get this great view of the temple of poseidon on top of the hill just as weather-weary sailors have seen it for millennia.
In Athens we enjoyed a taxi driver for 11 hours (though he only charged us for 8!) who drove us to all the tourist sites in Athens. But when we expressed enthusiasm in seeing more sites around Athens he then took us to Corinth, Mycenea and a coastal town that he took his family to just because he thought it was particularly beautiful and he wanted us to experience it. Then on the drive back to Athens he stopped at a small road-side monastery with what they claimed was a 1000-year-old painting of the Virgin. He went in with us, kissed the painting and explained that he liked to take his children there whenever he thought they needed to escape the chaos of the city. For anyone going to Athens, do not think of stepping one foot on a 50 person tour bus. Our taxi driver, George, worked for a taxi touring company owned by a man, also named George, who began the business when he realized he cared more about sharing the beauty of his country with his passengers than he did about taking them from point A to point B. Contact him! http://www.greecetravel.com/taxi/
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Posted by ernielow 10:12 Archived in Greece Tagged family_travel Comments (0)

What do you know?

New legislation that would make study abroad a priority in the US is considered in the Senate

Well what do you know? The day after I write my post about how important study abroad is and how unfortunate that only about 200,000 American students take the opportunity, I receive an email from NAFSA asking for me to write a letter to my senators encouraging them to approve the Simon Study Abroad Bill http://www.nafsa.org/knowledge_community_network.sec. Not surprisingly, I'm not the only one who's been hoping for policy and monetary support for students wishing to study abroad. The bill, which has been included in the Advancing America's Priorities Act (S.3297), would award more grants to US students studying abroad in nontraditional locations, would "increase the number and diversity of U.S. students engaged in academic activities outside the US," while building more internationalized communities on US college campuses with more globally aware students. The most exciting objective of this legislation is that within 10 years it hope to see 1 millions students studying abroad[/url=http://www.nafsa.org/press_releases.sec/press_releases.pg/hamkeansimonoped]. The underlying theme of every item in the Advancing America's Priorities Act is that all the bills regard expanding the United States global perspective as a chief priority for the 21st century. I couldn't agree more.
All week supporters of international education have been sending letters and making phone calls to their senators, urging them to support the bill which is probably being debated at this very moment. My letter was among the 1,600. I have many thoughts and reactions about this exciting news.
First, there was an amazing feeling of synchronicity; that phenomenon where opportunities present themselves in serendipitous ways, problems we've been agonizing over are solved, answers to questions we were just asking ourselves the other day are given. We need only make ourselves receptive to the answers and we experience the synchronicity. I was not aware of the Simon Study Abroad Bill when I wrote my first post calling for increased interest in study abroad, even though the Bill has been around for over a year. Secondly, the idealist in me wonders why anyone would ever think about not supporting such an initiative! International education is education after all, and it is without a doubt one of the most effective instructive tools out there.
In light of world events (9/11, global warming, immigration "anxiety" across the globe, wars that are more complex and entangle more countries than the World Wars), there is an undeniable need to create a more globally-minded United States. And yet, I reminded myself, there are probably people, senators who would indeed see such an initiative at the Simon Bill as a waste of tax dollars. We are a nation, after all, that has been infatuated with the whimsical notion of "borders" for centuries. Manifest Destiny was all about giving us two of he most formidable borders and they go by the name of the Atlantic and Pacific. Never has a word better described a country's foreign policy than isolationism described the United States for a time. The examples go on, not ending with the most latest and dramatic example of bordering that can be heard in the Minute Men's cry for a wall to be built on the border... no matter if walls can be climbed, holes can be made, dynamite can be applied. A wall is what we need to make our fantastical dream of a solid American border a reality.
So yes, I can see now why someone might not vote for a piece of legislation that would break down America's walls. But the fact is, the walls must be broken down and they will be. Never has isolationism made less since than it does in our world today... and tomorrow it will make even less sense. Teach our citizens how to speak another language and the potential for a dialogue between two warring people has been established. Give an American farm boy from Arkansas the opportunity to take off his muddy boots before entering his Chinese host family's home, and perhaps he will show an Afghani family similar courtesy when he enters their country as a soldier.
For someone who's studying in two of the most popular and westernized countries in the world, France and England, I sure have some dramatic ideas about the kind of waves one student's study abroad experience can have on the rest of the world. But my enthusiasm about study abroad has been influenced by students who've gone before me, or students my family has hosted from other countries. Even just the act of convincing another young person to have their own experience with international education is, in my opinion, worth every cent of tax dollars it will take to make the Simon Study Abroad Bill a reality. We'll see this evening if the US Senate thinks so too.

Posted by ernielow 13:48 Archived in USA Tagged educational Comments (0)

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