Thursday, December 2, 2010

Les Vacances de Noël are Almost Here

I can't believe the semester is already almost over! Only have two more weeks of classes and I will be off for Christmas break (though final exams await after the break, unfortunately).

During the past few weeks, I have had a chance to visit several new places in Paris. As I have been rather stressed with my end-of-semester work load, I have made the time once or twice to simply take a stroll around Paris. First, I made a visit to the Latin Quarter, where I saw several buildings of the Sorbonne and the Parthenon. The next week, I (along with a couple friends from Sciences Po/Tech) was able to welcome a friend of mine from Georgia Tech who was studying abroad in London and who decided to come over to Paris for the weekend. We went to several places that I simply have not had the time to visit since arriving. In addition to seeing the Eiffel Tower from the Trocadéro (beautiful with the blue sky and bright sun), we went to see Montmartre and Sacré Cœur that evening. It was such a beautiful church, especially lit up at night at the summit of the hill where it is located. The interior was even more awe-inspiring--the wide open arms of Christ in the mosaic on the ceiling was simply breathtaking.

Of course, I cannot forget Thanksgiving, which was celebrated only one week ago. I did not really do any celebrating the day of Thanksgiving, but I was fortunate enough to be invited to celebrate Thanksgiving a couple weeks early with an American couple and several of their friends and colleagues. In fact, the company may have been my favorite part of the evening, as there was a mix of French, American, German, and Italian guests, all of whom were extremely friendly and welcoming. Of course, the food certainly was not bad, either; we had everything from turkey and cranberry to pumpkin pie! I was not only impressed by the excellent cooking, but I was also amazed to see how many typically American ingredients and dishes they were able to find in France (which is not always easy).

It is hard to believe I have already been in France for a little over three months now. It is simply going by too quickly! Maybe if I spend a little more time exploring Paris it will somehow make the time go by more slowly... : )

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Excursion to Brussels

For my first European trip outside Paris, I decided to go to Brussels during the weekend of Toussaint. (In France, everyone gets at least All Saints' Day off, if not an additional week and a half for students who are high-school age or younger). As I only spent a little less than three days there, I took the time to do a lot of planning in advance in order to visit as many museums, taste as much food, and see as many sights as possible.

One of the first things I noticed in Brussels was how very different it was from Paris. After exiting the train station, one can see a gorgeous cathedral built in the Middle Ages, a window-covered modern office building, and a 1920s art nouveau structure, all within a couple blocks of each other! Haussmann definitely never made the trip to Brussels... The city certainly has its charm, though, and I benefited from its small size by taking several walks around the city to see the many cathedrals, parks, and public buildings. The St. Michael and St. Gudula Cathedral was perhaps my favorite church, with its soaring spires and impressive "pulpit" (forgive my lack of Catholic terminology), though I was also impressed by the sheer size of the Basilica of the Sacred Heart, which was built in the early twentieth century.

Apart from the hidden treasures inside the city, I also visited several museums and famous sights. Among my favorites were the Atomium (built for the 1958 World's Fair), Mini Europe, the Musical Instrument Museum (where I saw all the "ancestors" of my favorite instrument, the piano), and of course the Grand Place (the main square in Brussels where one can find the town hall, a large church, and many little shops and restaurants in the 17th-century buildings). There are so many more things to see in Brussels than I realized, but I managed to visit a surprisingly large number of sights. Of course, as a political science major, I could not make the trip to visit Brussels without seeing the buildings that house several of the institutions of the European Union. Although most of the buildings were not open for individual visits, I was at least able to visit the European Parliament. Although we were only allowed to see the main chamber, I still enjoyed a "behind-the-scenes" glimpse into the world of European politics.

I could not talk about my time in Brussels without at least a brief note about the cuisine. Although I never had a real meal with strictly Belgium food, I did make sure I sampled many of the foods that are thought of as typically Belgium. Of the food I tried, I was probably least impressed by the "French" fries, which did not taste very special to me. The waffles, on the other hand, were even better than I had imagined. I tried both a light, crispy, rectangular Brussels waffle in a café and a hot, gooey Liège waffle, which I bought at a street stand. They were both absolutely delicious; I do not think I will be able to appreciate American waffles at breakfast as much as I used to! Last, but by no means least, I ate about a year's worth of chocolate, as I simply had to sample a little bit of chocolate from all of the major Belgian chocolate boutiques. In the end, my favorite chocolate came from Neuhaus, the creators of both the Belgian praline and the ballotin. My favorite Neuhaus chocolates were probably the truffles, with their perfect balance of bitter chocolate powder and creamy, sweet filling. It makes my mouth water just thinking about it...

Well, that is a little bit about my first venture outside France. It was a tiring three-day trip, but undoubtedly well worth the fatigue for the enjoyable experience!

Friday, November 5, 2010

A Little Bit of the "South"

Hey, everyone! I apologize for taking a particularly long time to post anything, as I have been doing a lot of traveling and studying recently. To try to make up for it, I will add several posts at the same time with extra pictures.

A couple weeks ago, I made my first trip outside of the Paris area since I have been in France. My host father has a family house in a little village near Limoges, which is a few hours south of Paris. We left on a Thursday morning, which was a little complicated due to the strikes that were still taking place (surprise!), but we got to Limoges with enough time remaining to see the town before lunch. Limoges is not a very large town, but it is full of cathedrals, bridges, and entire neighborhoods that date back to the Middle Ages. It was fascinating to see how well preserved all these areas are, and I took plenty of pictures. I am still impressed every time I see a church or a house in France that was built centuries ago, long before any Europeans had even set foot in my own country!

After our brief visit in Limoges, my French "father" and I went to the picturesque nearby town of Aix-sur-Vienne. The countryside was so beautiful, and I certainly enjoyed breathing the clean country air for a few days. It took a while to clean the house (which was crawling with spiders initially, as houses built in the 17th century apparently have more openings than modern houses to let in little "visitors"...), but after about an hour we were settled in for the two short days we would have there. Visiting Aix-sur-Vienne was a very nice change from my life in Paris, even though I certainly love the city. Everyone we encountered was very kind, they spoke with a "southern" accent (which is great for foreigners like me since they pronounce every single syllable!), and everything was much less rushed than in Île-de-France. It was almost a little like the South, actually...

Speaking of the South (and for my French readers, I mean the good ole' southern USA : )), I gave my host family a little taste of chez moi the weekend after my trip. My host parents were both eager to try some American cuisine, so I decided to make some homemade biscuits for them. Even though I was using my dad's fail-proof recipe, I was still a little nervous about all the conversions I had to make. Nonetheless, they were nice and fluffly, golden-brown, and delicious! More importantly, my host family seemed to really enjoy them, and it gave me a chance to tell them a little bit about what life is like back in the South.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Ma première visite hors de Paris

Après presque deux mois en France, j'ai enfin fait mon premier voyage hors de Paris. Pour ce premier voyage, je suis allé en Limousin avec mon père d'accueil. Là-bas, mon père d'accueil a une maison de sa famille qui a été construite en 1674. Comme il y va à peu près tous les deux mois pour faire le ménage, s'occuper de son potager, et reprendre ses forces un peu, il m'a invité à lui accompagner pour voir une partie de la campagne française. Malgré les difficultés de transport (on avait déjà acheté des billets de SNCF bien en avance, malheureusement...), nous nous sommes bien amusés.

En arrivant à Limoges, nous avons fait un court tour de la ville, visitant surtout les structures féodales, en comprenant un vieux pont et plusieurs cathédrales. C'était vraiment fascinant, surtout pour un visiteur des États-Unis où il est rare de trouver un bâtiment datant même du 18e siècle. Après la visite à Limoges, nous sommes allés à sa vieille maison à Aixe s/Vienne. Le paysage à cette ville pittoresque était tellement joli, encore plus à cause du beau temps qu'il faisait !

Pendant mon petit séjour à Aixe s/Vienne, nous avons beaucoup travaillé à la maison, puisqu'il y avait plein de légumes à récolter, quelques fuites à réparer, une pelouse à tendre, etc. Néanmoins, mon père d'accueil et moi sommes sortis plusieurs fois pour nous promener, pour faire des cours et pour aller à la Maison de la Porcelaine. Moi, je n'avais pas la moindre idée que la porcelaine se fabriquait en France, encore moins qu'elle était aussi belle ! En plus, on offrait des visites guidées de la fabrication de la porcelaine, et ainsi j'ai eu l'occasion de apprendre comment la porcelaine se fabrique, ce qui a été plus intéressant que je ne pensais.

Bref, je me suis bien amusé au sud de la France. Bien que je n'aie forcément pas fait beaucoup de choses, je me suis bien reposé et je pense que l'aire fraîche et pure du sud m'a fait vraiment du bien. Même après le retour stressant (pour lequel il nous a fallu plus que neuf heures à cause des trains annulés, retardés, etc.), je pense bien qu'il valait la peine de faire une petite aventure en dehors de Paris.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

One Last Week of Sunshine

I have had such a wonderful week here in Paris! After a week of cold, rainy weather, we have had almost an entire week of beautiful, cloud-free sunshine with temperatures in the mid-70s. The ideal weather has certainly helped me relax a little despite the stress of classes and (starting yesterday) strikes.

In order to end with the positive aspects of my week, I am taking the liberty to [briefly] vent about the current strikes. To begin, I do not even understand how the unions in France can be so upset, as the current strike has resulted from an increase of the retirement age in France from 60 to 62. That still seems rather young to me from my Anglo-Saxon perspective. From what I have heard, employees in the private sector are the individuals who will be most affected by this measure, yet these are the very people who not only cannot participate in the strike, but who are inconvenienced the most by the transportation disturbances! I suppose I cannot really judge French politics as an American, but it is still frustrating to have to get up at 4:00 in the morning so I will have a chance to get to Paris in time for an 8:00 class...

Now for the more enjoyable aspects of Parisian life. : ) Once again, I went to the Louvre this past Friday. Before entering the museum, I finally broke down and went to the Starbucks that conveniently happens to be just outside the entrance to the galleries. I am a little surprised I made it a month and a half with no Starbucks, but everything is about twice as expensive in Parisian Starbucks. Anyway, I visited the section of the Louvre with medieval/early Renaissance statues, which, surprisingly, I thoroughly enjoyed. Most of the works were religious in nature, and it was fascinating to me to see (through artistic expression) how people in different regions of Europe at different periods in time viewed their relationship with Jesus. There were many wooden statues that were larger than life-sized, which I thought were particularly moving.

To conclude with a few notes about my classes, I must say that I have really come to like French methodology (at least the Sciences Po "variety"). At the risk of sounding like a complete nerd, I think it is almost fun to figure out how to organize all my presentations à la Sciences Po (everything divided into two sections, then two sub-sections, then two sub-sub-sections, etc.). At the very least, I seem to be adjusting more and more to classes in France, which has been rather challenging coming from an American university (which is not necessarily easier, just quite different!).

I don't really know how many people actually make it to the end of my posts (which are a little longer than I would prefer...), but I hope you all have an excellent week! I hope to have some pictures from Limoges, France for my next post...

Monday, October 11, 2010

Heureusement qu'il fasse beau...

Bonjour à toutes et à tous ! Je suis sincèrement désolé d'avoir laissé passer tant de temps entre mes postes en français. J'ai passé quelques semaines assez stressantes, donc je n'avais pas le courage d'écrire quelque chose en français. Cependant, il fait très, très beau depuis plusieurs jours, ce qui me donne non seulement la force de supporter les perturbations de transports, mais aussi la force de retourner à la langue de Molière. : )

Je commence d'abord par mes études. Déjà, j'ai fait mon premier exposé il y a deux semaines, mon premier travail en groupe (un dossier cartographique pour lequel j'ai failli passé ma première nuit blanche...), et mon premier débat en groupe. Malgré mes soucis au début, je trouve que la méthodologie française, ou plutôt de Sciences Po, me va bien. C'est aussi très intéressant d'observer de tout près la méthode française de travailler, surtout en groupe. Bien qu'on prenne toujours plus de temps que prévu pour chaque travail (il me semble), on arrive toujours à bien approfondir le sujet et ainsi on est bien préparé avant le cours.

Comme d'habitude, j'ai aussi fait plusieurs trucs en dehors de mes cours. Tout d'abord, j'ai fêté la fin de la première semaine de travaux en allant à la Nuit Blanche à Paris. D'abord, j'ai retrouvé deux de mes amis américains pour aller au Musée de l'Orangerie pour voir les grands tableaux de Monet, puis nous sommes allés vers Notre Dame. Là, nous avons rejoint plusieurs jeunes italiens que mes amis américains connaissent. Pour moi c'était une opportunité formidable de pratiquer ma compréhension orale et (un peu moins) mon expression orale. Après que nous avons tous bu un café ou un petit verre dans un café, nous sommes tous revenus chez nous. C'était une soirée très agréable !

Après être allé à l'église dimanche matin, j'ai eu l'occasion de connaître un peu mieux les alentours de chez moi. Comme il faisait incroyablement beau, mon père d'accueil m'a invité d'aller avec lui au petit village de Chevreuse. C'était trop joli : Il faisait du soleil, il n'y avait aucun nuage, et il y avait une douce brise. Nous avons vu plusieurs châteaux, une église très ancienne (et très belle), et tout le petit centre-ville charmant. Ceci m'a fait beaucoup de bien, surtout en vue des grèves à venir cette semaine.

Alors, pour résumé, j'ai passé plusieurs bonnes semaines, m'habituant toujours davantage à la belle vie française. Malgré les cours difficiles et les difficultés posées par la grève, je vais très bien à Paris, et j'ai hâte de voir quelles autres aventures je vivrai avant de partir de la France!

Sunday, October 3, 2010

First Exposé and Nuit Blanche

Hello, everyone! I would first like to apologize for taking so long to write a new post. This past week was my first week with any actual assignments to present, and the preparations for this week took up almost all my time. Because of that, I also did not really go anywhere until after my last class Wednesday, so I really did not have much to write about, anyway. (That is my excuse, anyway...)

To begin with school, this past Monday was my first exposé. Exposés are oral presentations that are an integral part of smaller classes at Sciences Po. Although the preparation for my first exposé was rather stressful due to the fact that the entire Sciences Po library just happened to be closed the week before my presentation (typically French, I'd say... : )), I think the presentation itself went rather well. I will not know for sure until I receive my grade in a few weeks (my first grade in France--yikes!), but it certainly feels like I have accomplished something simply by surviving my first exposé. Only three more to go this semester...

After classes this past week, I was able to take a little time to do some more sightseeing. Friday, I saw the outside of the Opéra Garnier, the opera house that appears in The Phantom of the Opera. It was gorgeous, and I cannot wait to see the inside! After that, I continued to the nearby Galeries LaFayette, a large, rather famous French department store. I did not stay there long due to the huge number of people in the store, but I may return a little later when there are no big sales going on. After that, I made a quick venture to H&M (quickly becoming my favorite store), then I finished my evening adventures at the Louvre. This week I decided to begin my thorough tour of the Louvre. I plan to see one small part of one floor for an hour each week until I have see the entire museum. This week's section was only about the history of the Louvre, so I did not see any grand masterpieces. I did get to see the remains of the medieval castle that was originally the Louvre, though. There is a contrast between the rich, elegant halls of the modern Louvre and the primitive, rough stone of the original fortress that used to be the Louvre!

Finally, I went out Saturday evening for Nuit Blanche. Nuit Blanche is an event that occurs once a year in Paris. For this event, many places in Paris are open until the wee hours of the morning, and there are many modern art displays and presentations throughout the city. Although I am not a big fan of modern art, I nevertheless ventured into Paris to take advantage of the free admission to the Musée de l'Orangerie, where most of Monet's waterlily paintings are on display. Before returning to Bures, I was able to see Notre Dame (which was beautiful with the front rose window lit up!) then drink a café with some Italians who were in Paris visiting a friend of a friend of mine. All in all, it was a very enjoyable evening!

I guess that is about all for now. I have really started to buckle down with my studying and school work, but I am still trying to make a point of exploring a new section of Paris every week. Who knows where I will go next? : )