Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Une randonnée*

*A hike

The week following the end of our mémoires wasn't homework-free, but all remaining projects were considerably lighter. As we wrapped up each class, I felt a sense of urgency to be done school that contrasted sharply with my need for more time. I just wanted endless days that I could spend giving all my love to every corner of this sand-coloured city. That said, I would miss the majority of my classes at CIDEF. I had learned so much from them, and the teachers were so good to us. I felt no grief at seeing the back end of our Le Point magazine subscription (weekly current events journal that we were made to read articles from every class), but otherwise was sad to close that chapter of my education.

For the weekend of May 20-22, Matt and I had been invited to our friend Élise's house in La Vendée, the department where I had given a presentation about Canada. Élise's parents live deep into the countryside in a small community called Belleville-sur-Vie. Matt had been to stay once before and had had a blast, so I was excited to get away for some weekend adventures. Élise's cousin Marjo came with us and we met up with Élise's brother Julien at the house. The poor thing had lost half a front tooth in a mock historical battle the day before his family birthday party. The five of us sat down to a delicious meal and a movie before collapsing, exhausted, into bed.

The following morning, Élise's parents greeted us with smiles and the softest, fluffiest brioche, a sweet French breakfast bread that's light as air. We only had one item on the agenda for the day: the beach. Belleville is about a 30 minute drive from Les Sables d'Olonne, a popular spot with summertime vacationers and year-round retirees. It being off-season, the beach was busy but not overcrowded. The sun was hot and lying on the sand was rather more comfortable than going for a swim in the ocean. I splashed around for a while but didn't have the guts to go in farther than waist deep. The boys had brought a couple of skimboards and took to the vigourous surf. By late evening we were all sun-drunk and sandy, so we packed up our things and headed home. Shortly after our arrival we sat down to a marvellous meal prepared by Élise's parents. We had to se coucher (go to bed) early that night as we would be up at daybreak to go on a hike/scavenger hunt.

Apparently, many of these randonnées are organised across the country. A team pays a certain fee to participate, and they must follow a course through fields and woods to stations placed throughout them. At each station the team has the chance to answer a question on their question sheet. The teams to get the most answers correct, win. Élise, Matt, Marjo, several other cousins, and I signed up first thing in the morning and set off into the forest. I can only imagine how far we must have walked. Thank goodness for one of the cousins who lent me her sneakers. I had not packed for the occasion. Neither had poor Matt, who was suffering through with runners a couple sizes too small, until someone realised they had a spare pair. But gosh, what a hike. It felt like we were exploring the entire department as we pushed through tall grasses and strolled down country lanes and forest paths for three and a half hours. The questions were mostly agriculture-related, so I wasn't of much help in answering. I was able to sight read some notes, however, to help people figure out a traditional farming song. In the end, our team came in 16th place (only the top 15 teams got prizes). It had been quite the little adventure.

We went back to Élise's, cleaned ourselves up, and got ready for Julien's 20th birthday party. All the family was coming over, Matt and I being the only privileged friends attending. And what a party. You could have happily died eating just the hors-d'oeuvres. We ate and drank for hours revelling in the family camaraderie. Perhaps it's just a cliché, but it does seem that the French know how to do family get-togethers well. Everyone was very sweet to us. After lunch, the "kids" all went over to the grandparents' pool where we soaked up some more water and rays for the afternoon. Eventually, it was time to hit the road back to Angers. Back we drove, Matt, Élise and I, through the belle campagne (beautiful countryside) of La Vendée and Angers' department Maine et Loire. We sang to the hits on the radio and chatted about life and the future til we were home safe and sound. Another great weekend in the welcoming home of one of our friends.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Les beaux printemps*

*Beautiful spring

After saying goodbye to Claire and then Ben in Paris, I made my way to Montparnasse station and onto my train for Angers. It had been a fabulous vacation, but I was happy to be going back. The train pulled into the gare (station) early afternoon and I was greeted by a smiling Adrien who had arrived to drive me home. I had only been gone for 12 days, but it had seemed so strange to be having adventures away from Angers and my friends there. It was comforting to be back.

I spent the afternoon doing laundry (oh the piles!) and grocery shopping to replace the unidentifiable moldy bits in my fridge. It felt strange to have so much time off on a weekday. I met up with Adrien and Matthieu that evening for a celebratory drink. We were all bubbling over with exciting stories to tell, as the boys had spent their vacation frolicking around Berlin. Matt had joined them for the beginning before he continued on to Spain, and all three got to experience a sort of freedom that apparently Berlin provides in spades. I'd love to go back and see it again as I'm sure it would seem like a whole new city at age 21.

Now, the vacation being over, the due date for my secularism paper looked than much nearer and more daunting. I would normally never consider dedicating even one moment of holiday time to schoolwork, but I had missed our little headquarters at the library and was rather keen to get writing. So Friday morning, the day after my return, I reinstalled myself in our usual corner and set about to work. Once started, the snowball began rolling. Just to take a moment to bask in self-satisfaction, might I say that I think I have finally learned how to really, properly, effectively write a paper. High school was excellent preparation, as were my first two years of university, but for what seems the first time, pages of well-supported research flowed easily from my fingertips. My notes made sense and were organised, my resources abundant. The more I typed, the more the idea of writing 3000 words became less perturbing.

Matty returned that Friday from Ibiza, suntanned and full of narratives. We met up for crêpes in the evening and then joined Mathilde and her friends from the University of Angers, Andréa and Camille, at Andréa's apartment for a little fête. We partied in the jam-packed flat until the wee hours of the morning, at which point Andréa's futon seemed so much more appealing than a bike ride home. Suffice it to say, there is no greater 'walk of shame' than to bike through the teeming streets of centre ville on a Saturday morning in your party clothes from the night before. Quelle honte (how embarrassing)!

The next two weeks were devoted to working. We ate, breathed, and slept our mémoires (papers). Even when my classes didn't start until late morning, I woke up in time to be at the library first thing. I always stayed until closing and occasionally went to the University of Angers library to work past 7pm. One evening, not feeling like having a completely anti-social night, I called up Matthieu and Adrien to see if I could pop round on my way home from the library. They were both exhausted and Adrien was just on his way out to spend the night at his mother's, but we stood in Matthieu's doorway for a minute just to say hi and be together.

Despite the busy work schedule, we found a moment or two of divertissements (entertainment). The first weekend in May, a bunch of my French girlfriends celebrated the completion of their masters theses. My little mémoire of which I'm terribly proud is nothing compared to what these girls produced. Between 100 and 150 pages on the most specific and interesting subjects, each relating in some way to language or learning. Many of these masters students were monitrices during the September programme, which is how we became friends. Several of us who attended the party were still deep into the writing process of our own papers, but what better form of motivation than to prematurely celebrate the end?

A week before my mémoire's due date, I was given an incredible opportunity to witness a part of daily French life to which I'm sure very few exchange students are privy. Florence Gamory, my langue prof from first semester, had asked if I was available to go into an elementary school in la Vendée, a department (geographical/political area) about an hour from Angers, to talk to students about Canada. The school was in a little town called Fontenay-le-Comte where most of the students were unused to foreigners and had not likely done much travelling. The teacher of this class (probably grade 1 equivalent) had organised a year of learning about the world, and so had asked Florence to bring in some students from the Americas to bring to life that chapter of their studies. I was joined by three other girls from the US, the Dominican Republic, and Columbia. The students were darling. They looked up at us from their comically small chairs and desks with wondering eyes as we presented slide shows on each of our countries. It was entertaining to see which pieces of information captivated them most and to find out what they didn't know. A few of them had never heard of hockey! At the end we each played a few representative songs. I chose Céline Dion, of whom they had never heard (before their time, I suppose, although everyone my age and older knows all her French songs), Michael Bublé, whose name was unfamiliar but whose music they knew, and Justin Bieber, an instant hit. He's adored by everyone in their early teens and younger in France, a fact I learned from my host-siblings. The teacher presented each of us with a bottle of wine as a thank-you (only in France...), and then we drove back to Angers.

Our mémoires were due the 16th of May, a Monday. The weekend previous to it's accouchement (birthing) was work-filled, but non-stressful. Most of the students in my class had paced themselves well. I had finished writing before the weekend, and even had time to have it edited (merci Adrien !). I churned out my bibliography, added some annexes, sprinkled the paper with illustratory images (a requirement of the paper... Honestly, you'd think the people who were marking it were children. "I wanna look at pwetty picturesssss!"), and made the last editing touches until my essay was a work of academic art. On Monday morning, Matt and I went to the school's printing office to have our papers bound. Before lunchtime, I handed in all 23 pages and 3500 words to the school secretary. It felt like rather an accomplishment.

Oh! I knew I'd left something out. My early return date to Angers after the holidays conveniently gave the chance to watch the event of the season: The Royal Wedding. With every plan to go to the library and work diligently that morning, I instead set up my own media centre and watched all the live coverage from the preparation to the wedding to the balcony scene afterwards. I also distracted every other person in our little corner, and soon the video stream flashed across every screen in the room. Several strangers came up to my computer to watch with me, gushing over the dresses and sharing royal gossip. I think I spent (wasted?) about 4 hours in dreamily following the proceedings.

I know I've already waxed lyrical about the weather in Angers, but it really was exceptional. While Canada was drowning and freezing, the inhabitants of Angers were skipping about in shorts and skirts, taking in the sunlight. Hoards of students would pour out onto the grassy grounds of La Catho to have their lunches or simply to loll about like cats in windowsill. While observing the students from my perch in the library, I noticed something interesting about French boys - no, not that they're terribly handsome, everyone knows that. What I've noticed is that they enjoy hanging out in groups of other boys. They'll sit quite comfortably, sweaters hung nonchalantly over their shoulders, coffees in hand, and enjoy each other's company without feeling the need to show any North American machismo. They're so elegant, these boys. Close guy friends will kiss each other on the cheek just as they do with girls, or else shake each other's hands. (Although I have seen something rather drôle - boys who go in for the manly fist pump/hand grip/pat on the back thing that North American boys do, but then they finish this display with la bise, just to remind everyone that they are, in fact, French.) They all have an awareness of how to dress that, I'm sorry, but many Canadian boys just don't pick up on. They're not flamboyant dressers, and they don't wear berets or neck scarves, but you will never see a French boy in very baggy jeans, or sweatpants, or Budweiser baseball hats, or a pub crawl t-shirt. In their ability to embrace the company of other boys without fear of people questioning their manliness, they actually exude more confidence and therefore attract the attention of the swooning foreign girls. Take note, gentlemen.

The rest of my May adventures make for quite a story, but I'll leave them for another time.
Bisous !

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Des photos du voyage

Claire outside one of the doors to our hostel The Crown and Bard, in Prague, the Czech Republic

Colourful buildings in our neighbourhood in Prague

The Easter Market

Stunning Baroque church

You could buy beautiful painted eggs at the market, although not this large

Another Czech church

My travel buddy

Beautiful clock (a trumpeter would sound every hour)

Our walking tour of Prague

Beautiful architectural details

Czech street sign

Synagogue in the Jewish Quarter

Jewish Quarter

Jewish Quarter

Our hostel room

The beer train restaurant

Meeting up with Jason and Eddie

Overlooking Prague from the castle

Overlooking Prague

Finally found someone who spoke French whom we could ask to take our picture

Back of the Cathedral

Great hall in the Castle

Noble families' coats of arms

Off for our picnic in the gardens

Springtime in Prague

The incredible windows in the cathedral

Beautiful organ pipes and musical decorations

Sunset as seen from our hostel room

Inside the Baroque church for the choir concert

On the main bridge

Our German friends!

In Vienna

The cathedral (this kind of beautiful tiled roof could be seen in all the countries we saw)

Inside the cathedral

Hanging out in the Hofburg gardens

Hofburg Pavilion

Former royal residence

Royal Library

Globe museum

One of the main squares

Hofburg Palace at sunset

"An intelligent person obtains the best education when travelling" -- Goethe

Sidetrip to Bratislavaaa

Contrast of building styles

A little Slovakian beer


Our ascent towards the castle

Self-timer fun

The Castle (closed for Good Friday)

A view of the communist block apartment buildings ... ugh

Old city centre

Schönbrunn Palace outside of Vienna (the lineup to get in)

Beautiful Victorian gardens

A labyrinth!

The National Art Gallery

Vermeer's "The Art of Painting"

By the door to get tickets to the opera
The line-up

Inside the opera

Our view before people sat down

The orchestra

Outside the opera after skipping out

The Vienna Boys Choir (someone else took this for me, since I couldn't see them)

On our way to Budapest

Budapest Parliament

I forget what this was called

View of the Danube

Gate next to the National Gallery

Crossing from Buda to Pest

The Cathedral

The "Iron Curtain", artistic interpretation

A piece of the Berlin Wall

Oldest subway station in the country