Last Travel

I tried something new…

I sat at my desk today to write a blog post and I wound up staring at photographs on my wall for more than an hour. This is not the first time I’ve lost myself thinking about my travels this year. I’ve only been home for a few weeks, yet the travel itch has already returned. I’m beginning to realize just how much I miss France and Russia. France, especially, has been a consistent throb in my side this last week. I tried to write a typical blog post about just how much I miss my exchange, but nothing I wrote sounded right.

I gathered up a few songs that said it just right, (To Build a Home by The Cinematic Orchestra, So Close to Magic by Aquilo… ) but that felt like cheating.

Recently, I’ve been experimenting with poetry to sort through my thoughts, and it’s something I’ve found both cathartic and rewarding. I wrote something about this strange sort of longing that I feel for the life I had in France last year.

Here it is…

Last Travel

Air falls from my lungs when that song hits just below the ribs–

The one I listened to on metro nights just shy of 299 times.

I ride the crescendo till I’m knocked off my feet.

 

Looks like longing found her way in.

 

She’s woven through September air,

stirred into my coffee,

bleeding through headphones,

reaching out from my camera roll and

lunging from a polaroid.

 

She settles down onto my chest.

 

She crawls out of my heart and winds down my spine.

She’s an ache that rests behind my eyes and casts 6:00 AM fog

so thick I choke on tendrils of molten music.

 

She taps at my head

like she smells the sweet, sticky memories I left on the counter

and wants a taste.

 

Six weeks of Russia and six months of France bundled beneath my eyebrows.

 

Warm memories freeze my fingertips.

Neurons trapped under frost

fire slow signals that lull across glass tipped grass and

are broken by stumbling feet who seek to save a lick of dexterity

so I may write my way away.

 

Today’s plans cease into long winter slumbers with the ring of Fall outside the window,

of a home I once longed for

plagued tonight by this evening’s treasured guest,

the friend who settles over my shoulders,

at the ring of a piano’s first key.

 

She, who thrives on memory, lives in past tense

eager for the future where I return to far away–

far away across an ocean,

 a few hundred miles of sea churning with demons

that once lunged for my wrists.

 

I lay on my mattress, lulled by piano strokes

that grab at wanderlust with greedy fingers

and choke my new today,

too busy missing yesterday to remind me to breathe.

 

I remember the last sidewalk café,

last bus ride through Theater Square,

last croque monsieur and bowl of borscht,

last “Oui, madame” and “Non, merci”,

last sunrise trek and morning bises,

last click of black boots on cobblestone streets,

last embrace with a foreign friend.

Last month,

last year,

last travel.

Week One Host Family Recap

Russian Barbecues and Minty Tea

This past Sunday, I packed up my bags and said goodbye to the hostel where my fellow Americans and I spent our first month in Russia. Though it still hadn’t dawned on me that I would no longer be spending 24 hours with all of my amazing roommates, I still felt quite a depressing pang in my chest when I closed the door to room 304 for the final time. Within the span of two flights of stairs, I left my comfortable American-tourist bubble and ventured out into the “Real Russia” – my very own бабушка by my side.

Now, I knew that I would spend most of my first few days with my host family in a constant state of confusion, but I didn’t expect to meet a random Russian uncle that would guide me into the back of a van and drive me down a pot-hole ridden dirt road to a lake 30 min outside the city. At this point, it was 90 degrees outside, the van had no windows, and I hadn’t had any breakfast, so needless to say, I was a bit grumpy and would have rather taken a nap than swim in the lake. By the time we finally pulled over at our destination, I was ready to fall asleep on the sand, but my eager grandma and her friends pulled me onto my feet and lead me to the water.

I cautiously waded up to my ankles, the frigid water nipping at the 800 mosquito bites I’ve acquired throughout the last few weeks. When my friend’s uncle dove head first into the water, I gaped and made sure that everyone knew that I was deep enough already. Mr. Russian Uncle either didn’t understand or didn’t care, and he sent a wave crashing into my chest with the slap of his hand. Basically soaked at this point, I dunked and the headache I’d been building all day fell away.

After a few more minutes floating around in the water, the grandmas called us all to lunch– an perfect barbecue spread with fresh vegetables, sausages, and even a watermelon!

My host family helped me name everything on the table, and I promptly added those words to my notebook. After we packed up our picnic, we were back in the van and driving to my friend’s host family’s dacha.

Walking around the dacha was like a tour through an early 20th century country home. The house was small and colorful and smelled like fresh wood with only a few rooms but plenty of places to rest and relax. After the grandma’s led us through their gardens and let us taste everything they grew there, we sat down for tea, and if there’s one tradition from Russia that I’ll be packing in my suitcase, it’s mid-day tea.

I’ve never been much of a tea fan, but the minute you put fresh mint leaves and lemon wedges into your cup, English Breakfast becomes a lot less boring.

Coupled with a bowl of fresh strawberries and some sugar cookies… Mmm! Delicious.

That night, back at our apartment, I had my first nightly tea-time conversation with my host sister, half in Russian, half in English. This would become a part of our nightly routine, and probably the time my Russian improves the most every day.

The following morning, on Monday, we took the bus to class where I spent my typical five hours drilling grammar concepts, frantically writing vocab words into my notebooks, and receiving lists upon lists of homework assignments that I would later rant about in our LC meeting. After class, I got my first opportunity to roam Kirov with my host sister and a few other friends– something that I had been hoping to do since we arrived. We walked along the riverside, bought giant bottles of soda at the grocery store and went on a pancake hunt that brought us all the way across the city to a 24 hour cafeteria and a chocolate museum.

On Tuesday I was told that we were going on a “Quest” which ended up being an abandoned orphanage-themed escape room where I was reminded with every note of creepy, suspenseful music why I don’t watch horror movies. Fortunately, an intense rainstorm (which my teacher referred to as a “hurricane”) forced us to take shelter in a Vietnamese restaurant where I ate my weight in egg rolls and beef with broccoli.

Wednesday, our group wrote our dialogues in the park and toured an ice cream museum, and Thursday the van was back, this time driving my friend and I into the woods to a state park to ride horses. While we waited for our scheduled horse riding time, we took paddle boats onto the lake.

At that moment– paddling around and scaring мама утка and her ducklings with some country music– it felt like summer; the summer that I would be having if I were in the US right now.

Summer is stereotypically lazy; the time when we’re supposed to kick back and relax, but my experiences with the season have always been quite the opposite. I’m always busy, whether it be running around from rink to rink when I was younger, to pre-college programs these last few years. Although I’m happy that my Summer has always had a purpose, sometimes I wish that there was nothing on my schedule. It’s hard spending the 4th of July abroad every year and having no control over what food you eat or what activities you do. Sometimes, though, you’re just pedaling along in a lake at some state park in Kirov, listening to your favorite song on a cloudy day, and you think to yourself that at this moment, you could be anywhere in the world. No matter where you’re being dragged by your family, program coordinator, or strange Russian Host Uncle, you’ll wind up somewhere that feels remotely like home, and that can be just what you need.

The Effects of Brute Memorization: Navigating Around a Mental Block

How to Train Your Dragon : Making sleepy NSLI-Y students confident in how to say “But I don’t want to kill dragons!”

18, 23, 28, 53 –  these are the amounts of Russian vocabulary words I’ve been told to memorize each night over the last few days.  Granted, some words were repeats, some days our dictation quizzes were cancelled, but that doesn’t change the fact that in the last three weeks, I’ve added 308 flashcards to my “New Russian Words” Anki deck and every term was added with the intention of being memorized within 24 hours. I’ve often criticized language courses for their slow pace when it comes to introducing new vocabulary, but having now experienced a class with an opposite  approach, I miss the lazy days of writing out pages worth of sentences and Quizlet Live. 

I’ve never had too many problems with memorization, however, in the last few days, I’ve been struggling to cram even one more word into my brain. I spent an hour on the bus glaring at my phone as my mind completely erased everything I had learned the night before. I could repeat a word six times, turn my gaze to the window, then completely forget what I was saying. Carrot, Cucumber, Beetroot… all of these words are must-know, basic Russian words, but for some reason, they refuse to stick. Being the lazy, easily-frustrated, slacker I am, I gave up that day on the bus and grudgingly accepted that the day’s vocab quiz was going to be more red X’s than smily faces. When we were assigned a poem to memorize that afternoon, I began to panic.

I assumed that if my brain couldn’t even remember the word for tomato, there was no way that she would agree to letting a nine stanza poem into her memory.

That night, however, as I sat down at my desk, tea and cookies in hand, I found myself reciting lines by heart after only a few minutes. Confused but pleased, I considered myself cured– maybe my brain just works better between midnight and 2:00 AM. Naturally, I took another look at my vocab list from the day before, but once again, not a single word could get past the double-locked doors to wherever Russian food vocabulary gets stored. That magical memorization of the poem I’d done moments earlier seemed to be nothing but a fluke.

This time though, instead of giving up, I thought about why it was that I could learn poetry but not name the ingredients in borsht. I reminded myself that:

A. Nobody is meant to learn 30 foreign vocab words a night,

B. I’d been using the same method of memorization for the last three weeks, and

C. Flipping through a virtual flashcard deck is one of the most un-interesting and mindless things that a person can do.

And so, with these three things in mind, I grabbed my computer and headed off to Youtube Land where I searched “Learn Russian!” (Yes, exclamation mark included). I started watching videos that tested my listening skills and listened to various explanations of the prepositional case. When I logged onto Fluent-U, I considered myself advanced enough for the “Elementary” category, and watched a Russian Nespresso commercial staring George Clooney, where I finally figured out the meaning of “правда” and for the first time that week, felt myself improve.

There’s nothing wrong with learning new words, it’s necessary to speak in another language,  but the way you learn new words is important. My teacher here in Russia says “quantity grows into quality’, but I think I may need a new motto for my personal learning style.

I need a stimulus more active than a virtual flashcard to improve my Russian.

I need to generate my own language and focus on identifying familiar words in a dialogue or video before I sit down and flip through Anki. For me, I’ve found that recapping my day in Russian– what I wore, what I did, how I’m feeling– and watching videos online with Fluent-U to be the most useful learning methods.

Every few days or so, I switch it up. If I’m feeling like a blob, I’ll watch a movie I’m familiar with in Russian with English subtitles, or listen to a language learning podcast (Actual Fluency is my favorite) to gather inspiration. 

Sure, my grades on Dictation have taken a bit of a blow, but I’m able to stumble my way through a paragraph or two describing my daily routine in front of my teacher, so I think she knows that I’m doing okay.

Sleep Deprived on a Russian High

32 hours later…

It was a typical Tuesday morning. I crawled out of bed at 8:00, stumbled my way toward coffee, ate a banana and walked toward my car. This morning, however, I picked up more than just my backpack on my way out the door. With more than a few yelps and groans, I managed to get a 50 pound suitcase and 30 pound carry-on down the stairs and into the trunk of my car without falling flat on my face or breaking any toes. For the third time in a single year, I packed up my life and headed to the airport, not for a month of Spanish camp or a semester in France, but a six week stint in Kirov, Russia.

Fortunately, it only took a 45 minute puddle-jumper flight to get me to my orientation in New York, but this was only the first leg of what would prove to be an exhausting travel journey. When I arrived at the orientation, I knew what to expect. I met my  first group of friends at the airport, where I was instantly labeled “the one not from the Southwest”.

Our orientation was as all orientations are– a friendship factory meant to ally us before we were shipped off to our final destination, safety packets and pre-departure language guides in hand.

After two days of various seminars and history lessons, we headed to the airport to board a 10 hour red-eye to Moscow. As per usual, I didn’t sleep a wink, but I was smart enough to pack a toothbrush, cleanser, and concealer in my backpack, so I looked more, “Post-airplane Tousled” as opposed to “Exhausted, Caffeine-deprived Zombie”. From the airport we dived straight into the city, plopping down right in the center of Red Square. Seeing something that amazing surely shakes the sleep from your eyes, let me tell you that. From Red Square we headed to a small restaurant/buffet where we ate our first dose of Russian cuisine and experienced our first involuntary photo-op from a pack of confused strangers.

I supposed that Moscow would be similar to Paris, underwhelming at first and filled to the brim with tourists, but surprisingly, a group of rowdy Americans stuck out like a sore thumb. Anywhere I walk with my friends in Russia, native’s stares cling to our cameras and loud voices. It definitely didn’t help that we decided to do “morning energizers” at the park in front of the Kremlin. On the bright side, some of the guards started laughing at us and waved, so… win? Somehow, the constant walking tours and 3rd grade activities kept all of us at least partially awake, so we were able to appreciate our first day in Russia in its most recognizable city.

Flash forward 14 hours and voilá! Our train arrives in Kirov– home for the next six weeks. Sleep-deprived and somewhat wilted, I once again dragged my boulder of a suitcase up the hostel’s two flights of stairs to the suite I’ll share with three other girls, some of the best friends I’ve made so far. These suites consist of two bedrooms connected to a small, dimly lit common area with a bathroom, toilet, and a fridge– the best part of any room for every study abroad student. The rooms are adorable with window seats, armchairs, a table for tea, and two comfortable beds for those rare occasions on program when you actually get to sleep.

So, sleep.

If there is one thing that NSLI-Y lacks, it’s time to rest. Classes fill the morning hours until 1:15, excursions run until about 5, followed by culture classes, meetings with our local coordinator (also known as tea-time therapy hour), and activities with Russian peers until 10:00. As you may be able to imagine, the homework load for a language program this intense is enormous and takes about 3-4 hours to complete (with tea and rice cake breaks as needed). That puts bedtime at around 2:00 in the morning allowing for five hours of sleep on a good day. Whether it’s memorizing vocab lists for the following day’s spelling test, grammar exercises, memorizing presentations and dialogues, or reviewing the day’s lessons and looking up words you want to know, there’s always plenty of work to be done.

Because of all of this work, it’s hard to appreciate all of the excursions and activities that fill up our schedules.

I find myself dreading anything that inhibits my study time, but fortunately for my sanity, I wind up enjoying myself 90% of the time.

So far, we’ve taken walking tours around the city, visited a museum dedicated to a famous Russian heart surgeon from Kirov region, and spent a day line dancing to entertain kids at a Summer camp. With each step I take in this city, I appreciate this program ten times more. Kirov is beautiful, full of stunning landmarks, open squares, ice cream carts, and, most importantly, and Adidas store. Where else would people buy their matching track suits?

All in all, my first week in Russia has been quite an experience; I feel like I’ve been here for a month, though I know that I’ve only dipped my toes into this country’s  language and culture. I’ll keep plowing through the verb conjugations and continue adding cards to my Anki deck and continue taking as many pictures as humanly possible.

Rice cakes with peanut butter and Nutella await…

 

Why I Strive to Become Mr. American Flag Guy

That Dumb American Tourist

He struts off the plane with his head held high. His jacket swings open as he swaggers over to customs so you can see the T-shirt he has beneath with that obnoxious eagle wearing a red white and blue hat. If you were to open his backpack, you would see a travel sized American flag rolled up in the side pocket because, as he often reminds us, “A good American never leaves home without one.” The backgrounds on his laptop range from George Washington to Reagan, and if you ask his why, his answer is always “because I’m an American”.  

He wears his sunglasses indoors and refuses to use any voice level below eight. He pronounces Je voudrais as Jenny Craig- and unlike me, he’s having the time of his life.

When I went on a school trip to Europe with 42 other members of my class, I knew that no matter where I went, I would instantly be labeled as a dumb tourist- one of those annoying ones whose group takes up all the tables in a restaurant and refuses to speak anything but English. I hate being perceived like this when abroad, so, I did what any reasonable person would do and tried to blend in.

I brought all my European-esque clothes, hid under my scarf, and tried to stay towards the back of the pack where it wouldn’t be obvious that I was with the group. When in France and Belgium, I tried to only speak French. In Amsterdam, I downloaded an app to learn some Dutch so could at least say Hello, and ask for coffee. On the metro in Paris, when my group hogged an entire car and kept yelling about whales, I drifted to the back, put in my headphones, and kept my head down. I’m not going to lie, I was not only embarrassed, but miserable.

For six months while I studied abroad in France, I made it my primary objective every day to fit in. I wanted people to forget that I was just another exchange kid- I wanted to be seen as French. Obviously I still wasn’t able to completely shake that mindset, as I was very, very uncomfortable on that metro months later. But that night, I made it a point to observe and emulate Mr. American Flag Guy.

Mr. American Flag Guy is shamelessly American; patriotic, confident, aggressive, and has no problem relating everything back to big business. He was having a great time making a fool of himself on the metro, yelling on the streets, and taking tacky tourist photos at every turn. Meanwhile, I was trying my hardest to become a speck of dust on the bottom of some Parisian woman’s shoe. At that moment, I realized just how pathetic I was and reminded myself that I have years upon years to blend in and feel like a true Parisian. I would never be back in Paris with my high school friends; this opportunity to whip out the selfie stick and laugh at the top of my lungs would be gone forever in a matter of days. So, I got my ass out of the corner and joined in the ruckus.

Sometimes, it’s good to be “that” American tourist.

Sure, I was still that kind-of-obnoxious friend/mom that told all my friends to hush if they were causing too much of a ruckus on the train and I still winced when Mr. American Flag Guy expressed the cultural sensitivity of a toddler, but I was definitely enjoying myself far more than the Mandy from a few hours ago. She still uses her headphones to block out the noise.

Little does she know, however, that it’s not the sound of dumb Americans that she’s tuning out- it’s comforting melody of friends from home.

 

Top 5 Travel Bag Items

Clean, Organized, Satisfied, Fragrant, and Energized

Tomorrow, I leave for a week-long trip to Europe with my school. I packed last night, hugged my dad goodbye about 15 minutes ago, (he’s golfing in the morning and I plan on waking up at 11:00) and looked up the Dutch translations for, “Hi, do you speak English?” and “Yes, I’m American”. So basically, I’m prepped and ready to go.

At this point, I consider myself more or less accustomed to the whole packing process, having managed to fit enough stuff into a suitcase to last me anywhere from a three-day weekend in New York to a six month stint in Northern France. I thought that my last blog post before leaving on yet another trip should be a walkthrough of the bag that I take with me wherever I go.

The Top Five Things You Need in Your Travel Bag

  1. Hand Sanitizer

Let’s face it, travel is dirty. Your hands touch all sorts of screens, doors, and railings that are covered with germs and you can never be sure when you’ll be able to find a sink. I recommend Bath and Body Works “PocketBac Sanitizers” (warm vanilla sugar being a must).

  1. A Notebook

If you’re anything like me, then the key to keeping track of your thoughts is a good, old-fashioned notebook. Whenever an idea pops into my head, I see something a little funky, or learn a new vocabulary word, I always write it down. Not only is this super useful when looking back on your trips, but also is a great way to keep organized throughout your journeys around the globe.

HINT: If you’re traveling to a country where they speak a different language, have a page dedicated to “Need-to-Know” phrases: greetings, ways to ask for directions, how convey personal information like your country of origin, allergies, etc.

  1. A Snack

It seems obvious, but a lot of people forget to keep a protein bar or bag on nuts on hand. Between busses, trains, and cabs, transportation can take up a lot of your time, making it easy to miss out on meals. A snack a day keeps the headaches away. Candy DOES NOT count!

  1. Antiperspirant

We all sweat; we all smell. The sooner we accept it and fix it, the happier all our noses will be.

  1. Starbucks VIA Instant Coffee

Sure, we’d all love to think that we’ll be popping in for a café au lait et croissant every time we need a pick-me-up around mid-day. Whether you sleep in late and miss your early morning morning Cup o’ Joe or find yourself getting droopy eyed at three, on the go caffeine can go a long way.

HINT: Want to avoid not so tasty airplane coffee? Take your favorite instant brand and ask for hot water on the plane. They always have it, and you save yourself from choking down mud. You’re welcome.

To Prep or not to Prep… Not even a question

When I first began considering studying abroad in France, I searched every inch of the internet for advice. What should I wear? How does their school work? What will I be eating besides macarons and croissants for 6 months? Fortunately, the internet is full of information that ranges from “Just be yourself and nothing can go wrong!” To “Whatever you do, DO NOT wear leggings in public.”
Although I could use this blog post to tell you that indeed, leggings should be kept to the house and that you can never go wrong with black jeans, adidas, and a sweater, the information I hoped to find online, but rarely did, was pre-France French language preparation. No matter what any program website says, it makes a big difference whether you have a single year of French under your belt or five. That being said, you can’t be expected to show up day one with a complete vocabulary, but you can prep ahead of time so that you can at least ask your way around and tell your host family that your allergic to eggs.

Here are some of my favorite resources that I’ve found to be the most useful both before and during my time in France.

Youtube:

Youtube is, in my humble opinion, the best free foreign language resource on the internet. Besides the plethora of French teachers who post their lessons online, they’re are tons of entertaining channels that are certainly worth a good watch before you step on the plane. I recommend the channels Damon and Jo, and Comme une Française TV.

Grammar Books:

As vital as vocabulary words are, the ability to organize and express coherent thoughts is equally important. Picking up a basic grammar book that you can start over the Summer and continue working through during your time in France is a great idea if you want to jumpstart the French experience. I use the CLE International “Grammaire Progressive du Français” books, which come in five different levels. One caveat with this books is that they’re made for anybody learning french, regardless of country of origin. For that reason, all explanations are in French, but then again, I view that as a good thing! Another option would be picking up a DELF preparation book, even if you never plan on taking the test.

*The DELF is a French language proficiency test that determines your fluency level. It’s offered from the A1 level (Beginner) to the C2 level (Native Speaker). Having taken 5 years of French already, including AP, I picked up the B2 book and found that it was the perfect compliment to the schoolwork I was doing.

The Phrasebook:

Buy it. Learn it. Live by it. I recommend buying the Lonely Planet Phrasebook, but I would suggest getting an English Phrasebook made for French speakers. I know, it seems silly, but I assure you, this is the best way to learn genuine French phrases. A lot of English expressions don’t translate well, but with this method, your getting a genuine French phrase and an English equivalent. Definitely learn how to introduce yourself, ask directions, and school vocabulary.

Spotify:

Spotify is an underrated, often overlooked method of foreign language learning that may just hold the key to adapting colloquial expressions and, of course, French slang. If you go to Spotify’s top 50 by country section and select France, you’ll probably see a whole lot of English music, but buried in the mass of perky American pop music and whatever genre “Panda” is classified as, you’ll find some popular French music. Give it a listen and look up the lyrics online. I suggest decoding it line by line using wordreference.com, that way you not only learn the vocabulary , but also memorize the lyrics.

To resume, no matter how much you prepare, there’s no magic formula that will save you from frequent awkward pauses and missing vocabulary words on a daily basis, but knowing the difference between past and present tense is something I would definitely recommend knowing pre-departure.

Noël en France

“It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year”

Christmas in undeniably my favorite time of year. The cold sets in, strings of lights trim every tree, and best of all, we stressed out students get to look forward to two weeks with no alarm but our Christmas morning anticipations waking us up before noon.

Somehow, though, this year, the Christmas spirit seemed to be lacking. I didn’t feel the tug of excitement at the thought of weeks without school, and Christmas morning, I woke up at 10. That being said, I thought that with Christmas rounding the corner and with me being so far from my hometown traditions, Christmas would feel sad. After all, I can say with absolute certainty that Thanksgiving was my worst day in France.

This holiday, however, I didn’t feel that Nostalgia might drown me or that I was missing out on a special occasion. Why? Because although we celebrated differently here in France, we celebrated all the same.

Allow me to walk you through the Holiday Season; France style!

Around mid-November, every city with a reasonable population size puts up their annual “Marché de Noël”, a formation of vendors selling everything from Christmas candle holders to German sausages and freshly fried doughnuts.  In the case of Lille, my home city in France, an entire village sprouts up in Grand Place, complete with a giant Christmas Tree and a Ferris Wheel.

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Next up: The family room transforms from casual living area to Santa’s Playground, with presents lined up by the fireplace and snowflakes covering the wall. When I arrived home from a trip to Strasbourg with STS, my host family had already put up the tree and decked the halls which made my homecoming ten times happier.

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Christmas reaches its peak here in France on the 24th, the night before Christmas. The table is set, full of every typical “French Food” you can imagine, escargots, foie gras, pain surprise, and of course, champagne, and in between each course, presents are torn open with greedy hands.

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The night draws to a close with a special speculoos cake “la Buche de Noël”. After each family member has had their helping, they sit down to watch a movie, unfortunately not Christmas Themed, or perhaps the “12 Coups de Midi” Christmas Special Edition before tucking into bed, stomachs full.

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The following day consists of a late wake-up, lazy morning, then getting ready for the family Christmas Lupper, a meal that lasts nearly four hours, and involves so many courses of appetizers that I was stuffed before the “plat chaud” even arrived at the table. A quick walk helps you digest before you eat yet another Bouche de Noël, a cup of coffee and some macarons.

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Christmas in France is a two-day affair, but each day brings with it a plethora of delicious food, holiday cheer, and family. It’s not quite my typical Christmas Morning celebration, but I see the traditions that my host family has created for themselves, and I can accept that although they are different, they hold just as much meaning as my family’s matching PJs and Christmas Carols.

Not-so Americana

See! I Told You I Speak French!

Two weeks ago, I began writing a blog post that was to be entitled “Dude, I Speak French!” and included many an anecdote about my various encounters with shopkeepers, baristas, and waiters here in France that had me red-faced and sweaty by the time I left the counter. When you begin learning a language, you’re eager to practice with somebody, and if you’re fortunate enough to practice in the country where said language is actually spoken, your heart starts fluttering before the girl at the register in Starbucks even asks for your order.

Just as we all know the excitement to finally practice our foreign language, we all know the nervous pit that eats all of our carefully memorized vocabulary and the following disappointment that arises when the waiter switches back to English or immediately recognizes that you’re American.  In these sorts of situations, I used to turn bright red and repeat my order in English, but as I’ve progressed in my French abilities, I’ve started simply repeating myself in French until the lady or man finally stops responding in English. I still encounter this problem sometimes, normally when I don’t quite hear what people say over the sound of coffee machines, or if there was just one word I didn’t quite get, and it can be frustrating to lose that perfect practice opportunity just because you listen to your music too loud and may have damaged a bit of your eardrum.

Anywho, this blog post was going to be a three page rant about that, but after spending a weekend in Paris with my American parents (which was absolutely amazing by the way!) I’ve decided to spin the second half of this article into something new. Maybe it was my new black boots, or the way I folded my heaping scarf, but I found myself walking into restaurants and being met constantly by French, even after I talked! You might be thinking, it’s Paris Dumbo, of course the French are going to speak French, but when the woman handing out pastries at a tourist trap café automatically speaks in English to the couple in front of you after a single glance but keeps up a conversation with you in French right after, you feel pretty proud of yourself. I even once got to a register where the girl did speak to me in English, but then apologized and told me that she was so used to Anglophones that English had become a reflex.

Now, I’m not cocky enough to believe that I have a perfect French accent, or am now fluent in French, but I can tell you straight up that living around native speakers for months on end really does affect the way you speak, even if you don’t think you’re improving.

I’ve picked up so much of my host family’s speech patterns and colloquial expressions that even if my American accent does poke through, the French know that I can understand them, and that I have more that a few expressions from a phrasebook in my pocket. That sort of ease of expression can’t be taught from a textbook or another Anglophone classmate or teacher; because no matter how hard we try, we’ll never speak perfect French, at least not like the French can.

It’s frustrating when conversations get flipped back to English, and it’s hard when the words seem lost when you need them most (It happened to me today!) but it’s important to recognize that we live in a world where English is a default language, and as Americans, our seemingly inescapable accents often give us away.  I can’t stress enough how stubborn you must be to get over it and give up the comfort of your mother tongue. You can do it though, it just takes time- and possibly a twelve year old host sister who speaks through a slur of abbreviations and trending hashtags on twitter-

Relativity in Non-Astronomical Terms

Time, Space, and Relativity

If you’re wondering if watching Interstellar for the fourth time finally inspired me to become an astrophysicist, unfortunately not even Matthew McConaughey’s quantifiable love can make multi-dimensional physics appealing to a foreign language nerd. As an exchange student, I prefer to think of relativity in the context of travel; far less complex, far more comprehensible to an average human without the genius gene.

If you live in the US, how far is “far.” How long do you need to spend in the car or on a train to feel like you’re truly “traveling”. If you’re from a small-ish town like me, anything within 10 miles is “right around the corner”, while a shopping center 20 miles away is “a bit out of the way.” Something you don’t realize until you’ve spent time in a smaller country like France, is that the United States really is enormous. Flying from one end of the country to the other takes six hours, approximately the same amount of time it takes to fly from Boston to Paris.

Where I live in Massachusetts, it takes 6 hours in a car to reach the Canadian border, and God knows how long to get yourself all the way to Mexico. Those two countries are America’s neighbors, yet it still takes quite a bit of work to cross a border. In Northern France, I can hop in the car and buy my groceries in Belgium or take a one hour car ride, the same amount of time it takes me to drive to and from my rink back home, and wind up in the Chunnel on my way to England. Nevertheless, according to my host Family, Spain is very, very far away; a whopping hour long plane ride! With a flight like that, maybe I could fly a few states down the east coast to North Carolina.

I think that the differences in size of our two countries tend to influence the ways we think about time; and since time is the module through which we organize our lives, it can be interesting to look at the lifestyle differences between us. For example, I have no problem skating at a rink that’s forty five minutes away from my house because for me, that’s pretty close. In France, a forty-five minute car ride is practically a road trip. For that reason, all of my host family’s activities are within a 20 kilometer radius of their house, making it easy for my working host parents to pick us up from school, drive up to sports practice, and still come back in time for dinner. In the US, a forty-five minute car ride my not be far, but it does take quite a hefty chunk of time, meaning that I’m limited as far as the variety of activities I can participate in and the role my parents, aka my chauffeurs, play in my extracurriculars.

Since my mom doesn’t want to drive all the way home then back again to Boxboro, she stays at the rink, watches me skate, and has build a network of friends who are a part of the same community. That community may not exist if not for the inconvenience of distance. Trippy.

Anyway, next time you’re deciding how much time you consider to be reasonable, remember that every country has their scale of measurement and their own theory of relativity.