Sunday, September 30, 2012

Cognac (and the usual update)

Hi folks out there who read my blog (if such people exist)

So, stuff I've been doing in France. Well, yesterday I spent my morning baking an apple pie, to bring to lunch with another AFS host family.

My friend Elizabeth is another AFS student, from Latvia, and her host mom invited me to come with them on a visit to Cognac, which is pretty close to us. We walked around the city a bit.

King Louis I was born there, so they have this big statue of him.

Of course, Cognac is known for its cognac, and that pretty much dominates the atmosphere of the town.

We went to Hennessy, one of the major companies for making Cognac.

Across the river Charente from the main building is where they make and store the cognac (the process is long, I think they said that it takes at least three years all told). In the big room where they store all of the cognac, 2% of all of the cognac that they produce evaporates (it smells fantastic). That 2% is called la part des anges (the part for the angels) and it constitutes the equivalent of hundreds, if not thousands, of bottles of cognac each year. The fungus that grows on the walls of the building is nourished by this vapor. Pretty cool, I thought.

At the end of the visit there was a tasting...of grape juice (well, for those of us under the age of 18 :( ). I decided that maybe cognac isn't the ideal gift to bring my parents since I'm not allowed to buy it or drink it, and probably not even bring it into the states.

Yesterday evening, Elizabeth, Benedicte, Alice, and I went to a fashion show. Yes, I went to a fashion show. Never thought I'd see the day, but there you go. Benedicte warned me that the French are never timely, and sure enough, the show didn't start until more than an hour after the doors (were supposed to have) opened. I found it pretty interesting, although it started to drag on a bit. In any event, it was definitely a new experience for me.

This morning I made pancakes for Alice and me (they didn't turn out that well; I think that the french version of baking powder didn't really work out for some reason). Then I went to the market again with Benedicte. I bought three baguettes all by myself! For lunch we had roti de boeuf and potato galettes that I made, and a caramel apple cake for dessert. I think I'm going to need AFS to reserve another airplane seat for me, I'll be so fat by the time I go home!

Speaking of food, I did promise a summary of French cuisine. What I've found quite different is the layout of their meals. First we eat some sort of appetizer course. That could be tomatoes with vinaigrette, or a melon wedge, or a pureed soup. Then there is the main course, which is composed of two elements: vegetable tart and salad, or chicken and rice, or stuffed tomatoes and potato cakes, or what have you. Then either yogurt or fruit compote, or a more substantial dessert. If there wasn't an appetizer course, then there is a cheese course in between the main course and dessert. And of course, bread all day every day.

For breakfast I eat a small yogurt (they have so much yogurt here--I eat it at LEAST once every day) and two or three pieces of yesterday's bread. Stephane and Benedicte drink coffee every morning with their breakfast, and dip their bread in it, but Alice and I drink orange juice. Lunch is just as important (if not more substantial than) dinner, but the same courses apply to both meals.

The moral of this story: I'd better watch my weight!

Sunday, September 23, 2012

La Baule

Hi all,

So, as usual, lots of stuff to talk about! First of all, last weekend.

SO, on Friday night (after my first grueling week of school) Benedicte proposed that maybe I would like to go to La Baule (the seaside, south Bretagne) for the weekend. Because I'm only here for the semester, and because fall is, well, falling on us, it was pretty much the last weekend that it could happen. So she quickly booked two hotel rooms and we left after lunch on Saturday.

La Baule is a town in south Bretagne (north of us) that features the longest beach in France (9 km). According to Benedicte, it is frequented by a combination of very rich people, think French stars, and normal folk like us.

Since it is a 3.5 hour car ride, we didn't arrive until pretty late in the afternoon. We walked up and down the beach, went to dinner at a restaurant on the beach, and retired to the cute little hotel where Alice and I talked to mom and dad of the United States via skype (very enjoyable :) ).

The next morning, my host family took me to Guerande, a pretty little fortified town near La Baule.

We walked around and did some window shopping

and then went to what I was told is "The best creperie in France" where each of us ordered one salty crepe:

and one sugary crepe:

After lunch, they took me to see the salt production setups for which Guerande is known. Actually, I am under orders to tell you: Let it be known that in the family of Benedicte, Stephane, and Alice (and me, I guess) the only salt used is salt from Guerande. They have these shallow patches dug out of the ground, where sea water is allowed to enter. Then over the course of one or two days the water evaporates, leaving behind salt. The salt on top is called the fleur de sel, and it's the fancy kind that you can buy in their gift stores. They scoop out the salt and make piles of it next to each dug-out-part, and then those piles are collected and mounded into big piles. Pretty neat, and totally natural.

We went back to the beach before leaving. Because it wasn't that hot out, only Stephane went swimming. Alice and I hit a ball back and forth with wooden racquet things. We hung out on the beach for about an hour, and then it was back to St-Yrieix for school on Monday.

SO that was last weekend. And to keep from getting too behind, I'll include a resume of this weekend, also.

Friday night I went to dance class with Alice. It...well...sucked. I couldn't even finish, it was so difficult. The combinations were fast, complicated, and required flexibility and acrobacy. Hence meltdown # 2 of my exchange student experience.

Saturday morning I went shopping with Benedicte. The supermarket is very large, and the cheese section is out of control!! This is just a very small part of the cheese counter. There's also an entire aisle (both sides) dedicated to soft cheeses. And that's not counting any sort of yogurt or milk products!

Saturday afternoon I tried another easier dance class, but found it still too acrobatic for my tastes. I guess I'll wait until I get home.

In the evening, because Benedicte and Stephane had an adults-only dinner party, Benedicte made tomato soup and I made calzones for us. We had dinner and watched Les Choristes.

Today, Benedicte, Alice, and I went to the marché to buy various items for the week. For lunch, I made eggplant parmesan, Stephane grilled sausages, and I made apple crisp for dessert. They liked the eggplant a lot.

This afternoon I went swimming with Alice, helped the family with technology troubles, did my homework, and wrote this enormous post! And now, I must sign off. A bien tôt!

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Arrival & Installation

Well, I promised a post this weekend and I'll do my best to follow through. Only, my host family and I are going to the seaside ("La Boule") this weekend, so I'm not sure how much time I'll have to write. But I'll try.

SO, I arrived in Poitiers (the capital of my district thingy) after taking the train from Paris--it's a high speed train, and it only took an hour and a half or so.

When I finally managed to get all of my crap off of the train, I found my host family (well, they found me). Voila my host sister, Alice:

Before leaving for St. Yrieix, we attended a picnic lunch hosted by the AFS chapter in my district, with other AFS host families and students. I accepted a glass of cidre de Normandie before they told me that it was alcoholic...whoops!

So, my host family. My host parents are "notaire" and "clerc de notaire"--as far as I can tell, they are some sort of real-estate agent. Their names are Benedicte and Stephane. My host sister, Alice, is 14. She is very nice, and very helpful. Here is a photo of my house. It is in St. Yrieix, sort of the countryside, if you will. There are lots of farms around, and the bus that I take to go home passes a field of horses.

On the other hand, my school, Lycee St. Paul, is in the city of Angouleme. It is about 15 minutes from the house by car(although most of the time we take the bus to school). Here is the view from the ramparts (the city is/was fortified) where I ate lunch with friends on Friday. The group in the second photo is me and three of the four other exchange students at my school (four of us are with AFS, the fifth with Rotary).

So, my school is a private catholic school. But every year, the principal offers scholarships so that exchange students can come and study there. Here is the outside of my school; very reminiscent of Cambridge:

My host sister Alice and my good friend Michela, an Italian exchange student with AFS, on the street that we take to get from school to the bus stop to go home.

Monday was my first day at St. Paul. I didn't have class until 10 (the schedules are SUPER complicated, with week A and B, group A and B, and weirdly blocked out electives and random free periods. Go figure.

SO I hung out in the CDR, sort of a library, and read All Quiet on the Western Front until it was time for class. Then, of course, I had SPANISH class...and when the teacher asks what the word means, she wants to know what the FRENCH equivalent is. Argh! Most of my teachers already knew or figured out pretty early on that I'm not French, and they have been pretty sympathetic. My physique-chimie teacher and my sciences et laboratoire teachers haven't yet figured it out--they pretty much ignore my existence.

So far, I've found that the courses themselves are pretty similar to the courses here. Most of the time when I think something is complicated, I realize that it was just that I didn't understand it because it was in French. The teachers are all quite strict. You have to stand up next to the desk until they come in and tell the class to sit down. If you ask to go to the bathroom, they give you crap. Also, there isn't much technology in class; attendance is written down on a piece of paper and posted on the door for someone to come around and collect. Except in certain classrooms, where there are projectors and the like. But for the most part, teachers dictate their lessons and sometimes write on the board.

As far as my classmates, the french students (or at least those in my class; we have all of classes with some subset of the same group of 35) aren't openly welcoming, but are interested in talking to me. Most of them don't really approach me to talk, etc, but if I strike up conversation they are receptive. And the more I talk about myself and ask them questions, the more they seem to want to talk to me. There are three girls: Phillipine, Marta, and Charlene, who I sit/talk with, and a few of the boys who I know. And I think they are starting to get used to me being there and including me in their class.

Well, with that I must bid you all adieu. Coming up: my trip to the seaside, followed by French cuisine.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Bienvenue à Paris!!

Well, in the absence of internet access, I will begin this post now (9/7/12) and post it whenever I can. So, I left off on Tuesday after my farewells. Wednesday at around one, my parents and I set off for the JFK Hilton. For future reference, there is more than one Hilton at JFK. Know which one you’re going to. Anyway, we arrived only 15 minutes later than the recommended drop-off time. My parents were pretty much told to leave, and I signed in, got a room key, met my roommate for the night, and then got to meet the rest of the AFS students from America going to France, Spain, Italy, Bosnia, Belgium, Egypt, Ghana, South Africa, Turkey, and Portugal. Over the course of that evening and Thursday morning, we played ice-breakers, discussed the AFS mission, watched two short AFS films, and got lots—and I mean LOTS—of advice.

There were probably a few hundred students at the Hilton, with maybe 50 heading to France—one of the largest groups. However, only six of the students going to France (including myself) are spending the semester there. For whatever reason, the six of us took a different flight—direct to Charles de Gaulle as opposed to the layover in Zurich that the year students had. Not that I can complain about that! So the six of us (and the one girl going to Bosnia) left the Hilton at 1:30pm on Thursday. Our 5:29pm flight left pretty much on time—with all of us very excited.

Well, I guess we weren’t really expecting the fact that the flight was going to about seven hours long—and that we would jump ahead six hours. We left at 5:29pm—and of course nobody was at all sleepy until 4.5 hours later. But by the time I finally got to sleep (around 10pm my time; 4am in France) there was not much of the flight left. And that pretty much explains why in the past 31 hours, I have slept exactly 1. And because I really don’t want to fall asleep now and totally jetlag myself, I’m going to try to hold out the 5 or 6 more hours until a normal bedtime. What’s more, we’re not allowed out of the hotel until tomorrow when we take a bus tour of the city. So that is how I come to be sitting in a hostel in Paris writing this post.

But anyway, I made it to Paris and I’m now staying in a youth hostel with some 300 international students. Pretty cool!! All of the AFS people here are, naturally, French. So it’s been a weird mix of French and English. Most people, even those not from the US, know English considerably better than French. But a few people don’t speak English at all, so French is the way to go. The adults usually try to speak to us in English—I had a pretty long conversation with Suzy, who picked us up at the airport, in which I spoke in French and she in English. Good practice for us both.
I have been to France before, but I was nine years old at the time and don’t remember it all that well. Since being here, I’ve noticed differences that I wouldn’t have expected. For example, the airport bathrooms...and the VERY superior “cafeteria food”.

Some photos of Paris:

More this weekend!

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Goodbye, New Jersey!

The time has come. My bags are packed.

Thanks mom, for some great peach pie to accompany my last supper, if you will.

Tomorrow my parents will drop me off at the JFK Hilton before they take off for a trip to Maine. And I'll finally get to meet the other students who are going to France with me. My flight is on Thursday--an overnight flight. We arrive in Paris at 6:45am their time. We spend the rest of Friday and then Saturday in Paris (more about that to come) and then on Sunday I get to meet my host family at long last!

So, I've come a long way already and I have a big leap coming up. Am I nervous? Absolutely. I have been having my doubts about making this choice. I know it's going to be really tough at the beginning. I know I'm going to miss my parents. But I also know that it will be amazing and new and exciting and instructional and I'll really be able to get a taste (perhaps literally) of a whole new culture. This is it!