Sunday, May 8, 2011

Adventure Day 3 and 4: Berlin, Germany

An old church on Museum Island
After our whirlwind stay in Brussels, we departed on an all night bus to Berlin, Germany. I didn't think that an all night bus ride would be that bad, but boy was I wrong. First of all, I could not sleep to save my life because of all the noises and stops that the bus kept making (turning on all the lights in the bus at each stop). In addition to noise, the bathroom on the bus had no toilet paper and was DISGUSTING. When we finally arrived at our hostel in Berlin the next morning, I was so relieved to be able to take a shower and change my clothes.

When we arrived at our hostel, the person at the front desk checking us in told us about a free walking tour that would be departing from the hostel at 1pm. We decided that since we had no plans for the day, it would be great to be shown around the city for free. We met up with the tour in the lobby of our hostel and were on our way.

Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe
On the tour, we saw all the major sights of Berlin; from museum island, to the many WWII monuments throughout the city. One of the coolest parts of the tour was getting to see where the Berlin wall once stood and hearing the guide's description of what life was like in East Berlin and East Germany during the communist rule. While seeing the wall was cool, by far my favorite part of the tour was the memorial for the murdered Jews of Europe during WWII.

When you walk toward this monument, at first it is difficult to tell what it really is. But, when you begin walking around inside it, you can really feel the impact and an utter feeling of lonliness and sadness that the monument was intended to give. When we visited it, we spent a good 20 minutes just wandering around inside, through the winding pathways lined with cement towers.
In this square, the Nazis held a book burning, now a monument

By the end of our tour, we were all exhausted, so we ended up getting street food for dinner and then returning to the hostel and sleeping.

The next day, we spent the morning wandering around on our own, taking pictures. At lunch time, we made our way to a beer garden to have delicious sausages. I was super proud of myself because I was able to order in German and have the cashier understand me (phrase book for the win!).

Overall, I loved Berlin: the youthful and artistic vibe, the history, the food, and the people. I definitely would love to go back there again someday.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Euro Trip Chapter 1: Brussels, Belgium

After our fun filled, spontaneous day in Paris, we arrived in Brussels, Belgium, ready to get to our hostel and just crash. After taking the bus for a little over 4 hours, and getting a little lost on the streets of Brussels, as I mentioned before, we did just that.

The next day, having many hours of fun at our disposal, we got up early to get our adventures started. First stop was to the bus station in order to make reservations for our bus to Germany. After making our reservations, we began wandering around the city, making a plan for what we would do that day. We decided that the first order of business would be to go to the Grande Place and see all of the beautiful architecture there. The buildings were truly magnificent. After the Grande Place, we decided to go and fond menneken- pis, a famous fountain that depicts a little boy peeing. We walked around for a while, taking in all the sights and sounds that Brussels has to offer. After walking for a little while, we see this giant group of people gathered around this tiny little corner. As we got closer, we realized that it was indeed menneken-pis, our desired destination. Our first reaction was definitely, "that's it?!?!". It is very hard to understand why this tiny statue of a little boy peeing is so famous, but we were still complete tourists and took pictures with, and of, it anyway.

Afterwards, we decided to get Belgian waffles, because they are a necessity while in Belgium. It was by far one of the nest waffles I have ever had. It was a traditional waffle, like the ones we make at home, but with a richer batter and sugar on top. I thouroughly enjoyed eating it.

Later on in the day, because we had seen every fountain in Brussels that is "peeing", we decided to take this walk that our map had recommended. It had said that the walk was a scenic tour of Brussels, down by the river; it was not. We started out the walk in a very sketchy neighborhood, and continued walking until we decided that we weren't really comfortable with the route we were taking. We then found a park, and sat there for a while before heading back to our hostel to hang out for a while until we had to go meet our overnight bus to Germany.

Brussels was all in all a cool city, and I'm glad we were able to see it.

Pictures to come when I get back to my computer in Angers.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Adventure Day 1

This morning marked the first day of our adventure throughout Europe. We started at the Angers train station bright and early (6am!) departing first to Paris, and the on to Brussels, so we thought.

After arriving in Paris, we got on the Metro to the bus station. When we got to the bus station, we tried checking in to the 9am train we were supposed to take, but were told that it was all full, so we would be instead departing at 5pm. Since we had nothing else to do, we decided to wander around Paris, where we finally ended up at the Jardin du Luxembourg. It was truly beautiful.

After spending the day in the jardin, we made our way back to the buses where we were allowed to check in and finally on our way.

When we got to Brussels, we wandered around for a while until we finally found our hostel, with the help of many maps and a hotel concierge. We are doing plenty more wandering around tomorrow, so I'll update you all as the adventure continues.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

The City of Lights and the Adventure Ahead

Last week, I had the wonderful fortune of having my lovely Mom come to visit me. She and I made a plan to meet up in Paris the day she got here. So, I departed from Angers by train after my classes planning to take a taxi and meet my Mom at the hotel. I got to the Paris train station, found a taxi, and told him the name of the hotel. For the first time ever, I met a taxi driver who didn't know where my hotel was. After a very stressful hour, and with the help of a kind hotel concierge, I got in another taxi and to the hotel.

The next day, Mom and I took the bus to the Louvre. After we got off the bus, we saw that we were close to Notre Dame so we decided to take a little detour and go see it. It was truly one of the most beautiful places I have seen. I love all of the beautiful historical places that I am getting to see here. I can't imagine what it would mean to someone who is catholic to go there, all of the history and religious importance was impossible to miss.

After our tour of Notre Dame, we made our way to the Louvre. Walking around the streets of Paris, we kept noticing all of the beautiful buildings, it is amazing that there is so much beauty in just one city. We got to the museum (which is in an old palace), and took lots of pictures before waiting in a long line to go inside. We walked through the french paintings, saw the Mona Lisa and other Italian masterpieces, and beautiful greek sculptures. It was so inspiring and impressive to see the pieces of art that I've only ever read about.

At the end of the day, on our way back to the hotel, Mom and I decided to stop at the Eiffel tower to see it up-close. It is HUMONGOUS!  After we took pictures and looked around a little bit, we decided to head back to the hotel. On our way to the bus stop, it began to pour down rain. By the time that the bus came, we were drenched and crowded onto the bus with 100 of our closest friends.

The next day, we went to the Arc de Triomphe to take pictures and go up to the top. Since we got there early in the morning (10am) we were among the first people to make our way up the 283 stairs to the top. It really doesn't seem like 283 stairs is that many, but believe me, it is. When we finally made it up to the top, after stopping to catch our breath a couple of times. It was so amazing to get to look out over the entire city, and see just how big it actually is.

After the Arc, we made our way back to the hotel, and then to the train station to go to Angers. When we arrived in Angers, I took my Mom to my host-parent's apartment where had dinner. It was so nice to have my mom get to meet them, but by the end of the evening, my brain was really tired from translating between french and english.  For the rest of the week, I showed my Mom around Angers, she went on a tour of the Chateaux of the Loire Valley, and we just spent lots of time together.

It was quite hard for me when she left because it was strange to not be going with her. But, luckily, I have a wonderful support system while I'm here and I get to talk to my parents every weekend.

This past thursday my friends and I made thanksgiving dinner for the Aumonerie, the catholic youth organization on campus. We made: 5 (yes, 5) apple pies; turkey breast, because we couldn't make an entire turkey; homemade stuffing; homemade mashed potatoes; and green beans. In order to get enough food for everyone (we planned on 40 people, including us), the three of us walked to the Géant Casino grocery store and then carried all the groceries (about 20lbs a person) back to campus and one friends house. It was really quite a sight, three american girls hefting giant bags of groceries down 3 HUGE blocks. The dinner was very well received, and we managed to make it through without too much stress. It was really fun to share a big part of our culture with french people.

In other exciting news, next weekend I am beginning my two week long spring break! My friends and I will be touring around cities in 7 different countries on a bus. The adventure starts next weekend with a Pilgrimage to Mont Saint Michel with the Aumonerie. I'll keep you all updated on the adventure!

Monday, March 21, 2011

Spring has Sprung

Delicious Pastries YUM!
Sorry for the MAJOR delay everybody! I have been pretty busy here with all my classes and things, so I haven't been able to update my blog as much as I would like.

So, what's been happening for the last month:

-I get up early, go to class; come home; do homework; watch tv online; go to bed; and then repeat the same process the next day (with small adventures intermingled with all that).

-I LOVE the pastries that I have been able to eat almost everyday here. My favorite is definitely Pain au Chocolat, which is basically a Croissant with chocolate in the middle. I have to limit myself in the number that I eat because I don't want to end up weighing 900lbs by the time I get home. The many patisseries and boulangeries (bakeries and pastry shops) make my dream of one day owning a bakery come back in full force because I really, really want to know how to make all the delicious things that I see in the windows (and of course eat :))

-I had midterms two weeks ago, and gained new cultural information upon receiving my grades. Here, in France, it is impossible to get 100% on any given assignment or test. The professors have told us that the highest grade that we can ever expect to receive is a 17 out of 20. So, as you can imagine, when I got my first tests back, I was rather surprised by my grades simply because I am so used to being able to achieve the highest score of 20 out of 20. It still takes me by surprise, and I just have to keep reminding myself that, to them, the grades I'm receiving are good.

-I set up a French bank account for while I am here and was surprised at how challenging it was for me to communicate exactly what I wanted and understand what I was being told in a process that, in the US, would have been a breeze. My account still hasn't been completed, leading to many frustrations for me because I would like to be able to use the money within my account, but I am learning quite a lot about how business is done here from my repeated visits to the bank.

-I am continually being surprised at how friendly and kind the french people are. Take my host family's friends for example. When my host parents were out of town for a few days,  one of their friends called me every day to make sure everything was going ok until they got home.  Also, when I've met my host parents friends, by chance, walking down the street they always stop and talk to me, no matter how much of a hurry they are in. I've noticed that this is a common occurrence among the french people that I have observed every day. I have found the stereotype of rude french people to be completely untrue; if you take the time to try and communicate with them the best that you can, they are kind, friendly, and helpful.

The fountain in the Jardin du Mail
-I am really, really, REALLY excited for this weekend because..... *drumroll please*.... MY MOM IS COMING TO VISIT!!!! This means that I will be going to Paris this weekend to meet up with her and do fun touristy things as well as show her all the wonderful things that I have been experiencing while I've been here.

I am having the time of my life here and I can't believe that I'll only be here for a little over two more months! I absolutely LOVE Angers, the wonderful people that I come into contact with every day, and the friendships that I have made. Every time I think about the fact that I'll be leaving soon I can't help but wish that I could stay here forever. That's not to say that I don't miss my friends and family back home, I do, I am just really enjoying this opportunity that I have been given.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Classes, Buses, and Mountains, oh my!

Sorry all for the major gap in posting for the past 2 weeks, I've been quite busy.

At the Martin de Candre soap shop
So, on february 7th we started classes! On that morning, I showed up to the université really early to find out what language (or langue) level that I had been placed in. Unfortunately, they only had one station with the list on it so all 400+ new CIDEF students were crowded around the same bulletin board, trying to find out what they were supposed to do next. Eventually, we all headed into the amphithéatre for the opening remarks given by the director of our program. From there, we then went to our respective classrooms for our first hour of language. Overall, the first day of classes was stressful and long.

For the entire first week of classes we were allowed to attend all the different option classes, which are all the classes that we could possibly take besides language. I had decided at the beginning of the week that I was just going to pick the classes that I thought sounded interesting and stick with them so that I could avoid confusion later. However, since the rest of the students in my level did not decide to do this, my class sizes fluctuated a lot the first week of class. Overall, I am really enjoying my classes and I feel like I'm learning a lot.

Frontevaud Abbey
Last saturday, my host mom invited me to go with her and my host dad to a friend's anniversary party and on an adventure before hand. On the adventure for the day, our group (consisting of me, my host mom, host dad, and their friend) drove through the Loire valley, which is epically beautiful, to the Martin de Candre soap shop within a chateau where we all bought delicious smelling soaps. After the soap shop, it was on to the Frontevaud abbey which is known for its multi chimney kitchen.

After our adventures, my host parents and I were off to another one of their friends' house for a anniversary party. Everyone was extremely kind and welcoming to me, even though I sometimes had trouble communicating with them. It was really intimidating for me to try and enter into conversations with a bunch of people who I had never met before, in a language that I am not entirely comfortable with. But, all in all, it was a fun evening filled with good food, laughter, and conversation.

This past saturday, I went on my school sponsored excursion to Mont St. Michel and St. Malo. For those who don't know, Mont St. Michel is an island, with a large hill, with an abbey on top, that was built over 400 years ago.  St. Malo on the other hand, is a town that is known for having fully intact ramparts, the wall around the city. The citizens of St. Malo continually patched holes that were made within the ramparts during both the first and second world wars, resulting in the only set in France that is still complete.

The ramparts of St. Malo
To depart on the excursion, I arose at the ungodly hour of 6am in order to be at the school by 7am. At 7:15 our group of 160 students boarded the buses to begin our 2 hour journey to St. Malo. Fortunately, the day before I had met two great girls named Bridget and Cassie who also were going on the excursion and invited me to join their group so I wasn't by myself.

When we got to St. Malo, we were given 2 hours to explore the town and eat lunch. After walking along the ramparts, our group decided to explore a little and find a place to eat. We finally decided upon a place that was close to where we needed to meet our buses, after we had explored the city. For lunch I had a HUGE bowl of mussels (moules, en français), cidre (a hard apple cider), and a delicious crêpe covered in butter and sugar.

Mont St. Michel
After lunch, we boarded the bus and rode along for another hour before reaching our final destination, Mont St. Michel. When we arrived, we were instructed by our director that we would begin hiking up the mountain immediately and then touring the abbey on our own. So, we power walked up the hundreds of stairs and steep incline of Mont St. Michel to get to the top and look out over Bretagne (the region of france that we were in). It was so beautiful up there! By the time we made it up to the top, the sun had peeked out from behind the clouds, painting everything with wonderful sunlight. After taking tons of pictures outside, we explored the church and many chapels of the abbey before making our way back down the mountain.

View from the top of Mont St. Michel
On sunday, my host mom asked me if I would like to go with her and my host dad to an arab market in another part of Angers. I figured, why not? So, the three of us took the bus for ten minutes to the market. It was the most lively market that I have ever been in! The stand keepers were yelling out prices to their customers as well as greeting their friends in the other stands. It was much louder than the market that I had been to before, and was full of foods and spices that I had never seen in person.  It was a thoroughly educational experience.

I can't believe that I've only been here for three weeks! I have learned so much and experienced so many things that it feels like I have been here for so much longer. At the same time, I know that there is still so much for me to learn and I can't wait to continue my journey!

À bientôt!

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Chateau? More like Fortress!

On saturdays in Angers there is a HUGE, open air market where it seems that the entire town goes and buys their produce for the week. Yesterday, my host parents took me to said market and showed me all that there was to see. When we first arrived, we went immediately to the flower section of the market. There were so many vendors with so many different types of flowers all in a row! It was magnificent! After looking at the flowers, we then went to the meat section of the market, where the different vendors had every kind of meat one could think of. There were so many things there that I had never seen before (like a cow tongue), including things I could not identify. My host mother purchased pork and some boudin sausages (the same type of sausage that I mentioned before as 'blood sausage' (it is indeed made with blood and other flavorful ingredients)).

After meat, it was on to the cheeses where I saw more types of cheese than I have ever seen! I wanted to try them all (even though I would probably get a horrible stomach ache) just to see what they taste like. After the cheeses, my host dad and I continued on through the market to the vegetables and fruits where there was a grand selection of any type of fruit or vegetable one could possibly need!

On saturday evening, my host parents had a group of friends over for a dinner party. That dinner party was one of the most interesting cultural experiences I have ever had. Their friends all welcomed me into their group and were frequently pausing their conversations in order to make sure that I understood what was going on. It was fun for me to just listen to what they were saying, getting immersed in the utter french-ness that was going on around me. It was difficult to follow, however, when they got into a heated discussion and all of them started talking at once, attempting to talk over one another. The party didn't end until almost 1 am, so I was completely exhausted.

The next day, my host mom took me to see the cathedral in Angers, where she explained to me the history behind the sculptures and windows. Mass had just finished so the cathedral was open for visitors still. The cathedral was so beautiful! It was full of ornate wood carvings and HUGE stained glass windows. After the cathedral, we walked down to the chateau where she showed me this view point that  looks out over all of Angers. It was truly beautiful.

We then went back to our apartment for lunch, when we had the boudin sausages, that I mentioned before, with a purée that my host dad had made. This time, they were delicious! They were still rich, but they had so much flavor that I wanted to keep eating them. I guess that goes to show that quality is everything.

That afternoon, I met up with Mary and we went to the Chateau, which had free admission because it was the first sunday of the month.  The inside was BEAUTIFUL! The chateau was full of gardens and old buildings, I couldn't help but take lots of pictures of everything. Within the museum at the chateau, there was this HUGE tapestry that depicts the stages of the apocalypse. I kid you not this thing was at least 250ft long and 20ft wide! The impressive thing is that it only took 7 years to complete.

We were also able to hike up to the upper level of the chateau which gave us an incredible view of the city and all of the old buildings. It helped that it was a beautiful, clear, sunny day so one could see everything from up on top of the chateau. I was reminded once again of the rich history of Angers, and France in general, reminding me once again that there is still so much for me to learn.