Wednesday, September 29, 2010


This morning I went downstairs and into the kitchen to find some breakfast. There, sitting on the table, bathed in a pool of sunlight, was a jar of peanut butter. It's unusual enough to find this American staple in a French household, but this was not just any jar of peanut butter. This was a forty-ounce jar of creamy Jif, my variety of choice in a larger quantity than any that's ever set foot in my house in Maryland. It was at least two-thirds empty. I laughed and set about making myself a tartine. It wasn't the best French breakfast, but I was surprised at how comforting peanut butter could be.

Having no classes Tuesday mornings, I've gotten into the habit of using this time to buy my groceries for the week. My first stop is Intermarché, the little supermarket between my house and the American center, and then I hit up the real market. No matter how many times I go, I remain overwhelmed by the vast quantities of deliciousness just piled up around me. I want to buy everything, and I don't know where to start, and when I've finally decided what I'm looking for, I do a little price comparison. I'm never disappointed.

Actually, it's almost impossible to be disappointed with food here (aside from the rare story of l'oreille qui coule, and no, I'm not going to explain that). My host family eats wonderfully; my lunches, while lacking in variety, are tasty and healthy; I have no objections to dropping a couple euro for a panini...and then there are the cafés and restaurants.

Countless times over the past week and a half, I've had food placed in front of me that inspired two thoughts: I wish this were endless, and I wish I could photograph it. After we returned from our tourism of the Luberon, several friends and I descended into a passage under a busy street, where, by some magic, there is a crêperie. I've managed to resist going back so far, but when the day comes that I have a desperate need for bananas and nutella wrapped in a hot, doughy blanket, I know exactly where to find it.

By pure chance, the next night, my host brother announced to me that we were going to have an evening of crêpes. Crêpes with ham and eggs, with the yolk just perfectly runny. Crêpes with lemon juice and sugar, just perfectly caramelized. Crêpes with, of course, nutella, just perfectly...nutella. Perfectly messy, perfectly delicious.

Several nights later, after a delicious dinner that I've since forgotten, the fridge and the Thermomix magically brought forth a giant île flottante. As I savored the last of my portion, my host father asked, "Anne, t'en reveux?" You want some more? Literally, you want some again? You re-want some? So, of course, my bowl filled up again. One of two wishes isn't bad.

Coming from a household where dessert was always rather regimented--cookies and chocolate are not snacks, you have them after the meal, you get one cookie, and you don't take more unless your grandmother is visiting--I'm always a little surprised when taking seconds on dessert is totally normal, even expected. My host family makes desserts for a specific night, and doesn't expect any to be left for the next day. I guess an île flottante probably doesn't keep too well, but the goal was the same for the other night's plum-apple crumble: it had better get eaten. Needless to say, I did my part for the cause.

Now, if only restaurants could grant that wish for endless food. It's not that I ever go hungry, but there's just something about the process of eating something incredible. It's the experience that I wish could last forever. This past Saturday, a couple of friends and I visited Marseille, which is half an hour by bus and a world away from Aix-en-Provence. Aix had fooled me into thinking I was comfortable living in a city, but Marseille reminded me what a real city is like. It's huge, overwhelming, beautiful. The minute we left the train station where the bus had deposited us, I whipped out my camera:

[insert photo here]

...only to find that I'd left the newly-charged battery at home on my desk. Mince. But the visit had to go on. Things I saw but of which I can't show you photos include giant streets, a market, the oldest section of Marseille, some churches, and of course the Vieux Port. At one end of the port, we climbed the stairs of an old fort, expecting a fabulous view. We got the view, and with it came some of the strongest wind I've ever felt. Hugging our bags and scarves close, we headed downhill towards the Cathédrale de la Major. This building was quite a sight (and, incidentally, got relocated to Bethesda in my dream the following night), but we were more interested in the wedding full of uniformed firemen and police taking place across the street.

While I'm happy to have seen a bit of Marseille, the one part of the visit that keeps coming to mind is lunch. We spent a good two hours or more at an outdoor table at a restaurant where, for fourteen euro (plus three for wine) we were served giant pots of mussels accompanied by frites and followed by dessert. For me, this meant a slice of chocolate-pear tart (read: heaven). I'd happily have spent all day there, repeating the experience of that meal over and over.

As I finish writing this post that I began hours ago, I am recently returned from an evening en ville. Last Tuesday, I joined several friends after class for a pression pêche, which is just whatever beer is on tap plus peach syrup. My beer aficionado father may be reading this in horror, but this girly concoction is actually one of the tastiest things in existence. We repeated this tonight, and I hope it will continue to be repeated--a Tuesday tradition, perhaps.

Yeah, j'en reveux.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Down the Up Escalator

How many times in a given week can an American in France make herself feel ridiculous? The answer, unsurprisingly, is "countless." And what's the easiest way to accomplish this? Tourism.

On Friday night, one of my new AUCP friends and I went out in search of dinner. We wound up in a little Vietnamese take-out place where we bought sizeable portions of delicious unknowns, requested baguettes in place of forks, and sat down to eat on the steps of the fountain in front of the Hôtel de Ville. While the meal may have been far from French, the attitude was not; long after night had fallen and we'd scraped the bottoms of our little plastic tubs, we remained at the fountain, watching shrieking children play hide-and-seek and discovering a mutual love for British comedy (and Firefly, and Miyazaki, and...). Seeing an older couple stroll by with ice cream cones, we gave in to temptation and went to browse the nearby glaciers. I shivered as I savored a scoop of raspberry, and we wandered to keep warm until we wound up back where we'd started.

Then, for the first time since my arrival in Aix, I remembered my camera.

In that instant, I became a tourist. As a couple of French men walked in front of us, they muttered something about toujours les photos. No, I'm not really Aixoise. Thanks for the reminder.

 That night was nothing compared to the entire next day, our first AUCP-sponsored group sortie--in other words, Tourism. At 9:15 Saturday morning, some thirty of us, sneaker-clad and brandishing cameras, piled into a coach bus (called, confusingly, a car) with something-or-other TOURISME emblazoned on the side and trucked off to visit three villages of the Luberon. About a third of our party was made up of students from the Marseille program, and when the girl seated in front of me turned around, I was astonished and thrilled to realize that I knew her from Oberlin! I'd had no idea she was even in France, but it was wonderful to have a conversation in which nothing needed to be explained about Decafe or Winter Term or, of course, OSteel.

 Our first stop was Lourmarin, where we descended from the bus-car and immediately started seeing the world through our little camera screens. As we walked along behind our guide, I'm fairly certain that no rustic stone house or mountain scenery went undocumented. We paid a brief visit to the grave of Albert Camus before being set free for an hour to explore the town, where we all flooded into the same two bakeries and exasperated their proprietors by paying in large bills for small purchases. Bonjour, madame, we're the American students with bad French who have nothing smaller than the 20-euro bills the ATMs spit out. Thanks for the baguettes and camembert, and sorry you won't be able to make change for anyone for the rest of the day!

 With bags full of fresh bread and fruit, we piled back into the bus and zipped off to our next stop, Bonnieux. This is a village perché, literally a "perched village," which I think evokes the perfect mix of height and precariousness. When the town first came into view from the bus windows, I was immediately reminded of Rocamadour, which I visited with my family several years ago. Bonnieux is bigger and its perch doesn't look quite as precarious as that of Rocamadour, goodness, it certainly is high up.

We started here, and climbed and climbed and wheezed our way up to a park at the very top, where we gratefully sat down and ate. For some perspective, the photo that follows was taken on the way down, well below the highest point.

Then it was back to the bus again, this time for Roussillon and its ochres. The colors in the land around this town are some of the best I have ever seen, and I was strongly reminded of the American west; not at all coincidentally, Roussillon has been called the "Little Colorado." As we walked through these crazy landforms, I kind of just wanted to pick up the earth and paint with it. It was that vibrant.

[obligatory Oberlin photo]
By the time we boarded the bus for the long ride back to Aix, everyone was ready for a nap. Tourism, my friends, is hard work.

On Tuesday morning, having settled back into my role as a false Frenchwoman, I returned to Monoprix yet again. I did some grocery shopping for the week's lunches, and visited the notebook section for about the fourth (and hopefully final) time.

And then, silly tourist that I am, I tried to go down the up escalator.

Friday, September 17, 2010

On Legs and Other Desirable Things

The past week has taught me a lot about my legs--more specifically, that they're in way worse shape than they used to be. It surprised me to realize that when I last left the blogosphere, I'd had only one day at the American Center, and that feels like a century ago. Since then, my legs have carried me to and from home each day and all over Aix countless times.

I've had tons of little victories in the past week and a half. First and foremost, my host family: Charles, having been scolded over dinner, informed his parents that he no longer has to be polite with me because I'm part of the family. The music of OSteel has filled the house on several evenings, and Ève's improvised dances are endearing to no end. Ulmine has quickly learned that if she walks up to me and immediately throws herself on her back, I will grudgingly scratch her belly. I know she's just using me, but I have faith in our friendship.

On Friday, after a lengthy tour of Notable Places in the city (for which, of course, I forgot my camera) and the much-awaited meeting with our language partners, my legs and I went out with a mix of Americans and our new French friends. We sloppily ate large slices of pizza, standing, and then moved on to a bar. Paragraph break for dramatic effect:

Ladies and gentlemen, I had my first legal drink in a bar called The Wohoo. I kid you not. The Wohoo.

The name suggests that my evening should have been far more rambunctious than it actually was. I had just the one beverage and traipsed home on the early side with all my wits about me, quite pleased with my evening. I already knew that I wasn't going to be much for sortir-ing here, but so far that hasn't stopped me from enjoying myself.

The next day, a group of friends and I hopped a bus to the village of Vauvenargues, where we planned to hike Mont Sainte-Victoire, made famous by the work of Cézanne. After having gone the length of the town and back without finding the trail we wanted ("leave town, go three meters, and turn left" was apparently too complicated), we settled for another that took us through the countryside at the foot of the mountain, but did not ascend. While it wasn't quite what we'd hoped, we did see some beautiful scenery, and even ran across the remains of an old stone house.

By the time we'd returned to Vauvenargues, caught the last bus back to Aix, and dined on sandwiches and fougasses at a twenty-four-hour boulangerie, my legs were exhausted, the good kind of tired that comes from hours of activity rather than laziness. Fortunately, they had enough stamina to make the final walk home.

On Sunday, I went to the beach with my host family at Carry-le-Rouet. On the way, we got a flat tire, which promised to be something of an adventure until we magically ran into a mechanic who had the necessary tools and WD-40 to dislodge the stubborn flat. Once at the sea, I forgot my camera existed until the last minute--I was far too preoccupied with the sun and the calm, cool, crystal-clear Mediterranean.

It's now nearly one in the morning on Friday, and I cannot justify documenting every moment of the past few days because a) I need to sleep and b) no one wants to read that. A last word, however: I've decided to take a ballet class this semester at the Academie de Danse d'Aix, and to be honest, my legs don't remember much of that. Two years is a long time to not dance. Wednesday's two-hour session felt like deciphering a code, not only with my feet but with my ears--hearing all the French terms pronounced correctly, rather than the familiar poor American approximations, made me even slower to catch on.

I can feel that wonderful second-day-after soreness beginning to set in. My legs and I are going to have a good semester.

Monday, September 6, 2010


I've never thought much about the literal meaning of the word "orientation," but today, I understand. Our AUCP orientation began at nine this morning; as such things usually go, we were presented with information after information and I can only hope that I didn't miss anything too important. That was all well and good, and it's great that I can now rattle off prices for bus passes and medical visits. The real proof of my orientation, though, was that I did not once get lost.

I wound up leaving the house slightly late this morning due to an incorrect clock, a forgotten notebook, and a confusing lock on the front door. I was one of the last to arrive at the American Center, but I did so without having to second-guess my route at all, so I'll call that a victory. (Never mind that the route requires only one left turn out of the driveway and then one slight left at a fork in the road. Let me have my little moment of pride.)

We lunched in groups with French students, several of whom led us to a restaurant called (I kid you not) the Burger Bar. Admittedly, my burger was delicious and covered in pesto and mozzarella and nothing like the standard American burger, was a burger. No matter! I have months ahead of me to eat all the French cuisine I want, and I can't complain about any opportunities to converse with the French.

The plan we'd been suggested was to go by Monoprix after lunch to buy notebooks and whatever else we needed, but all we had time to do was go by it without stopping. So, after two and a half hours of the TEF (Test d'évaluation de français, which I'm praying will place me into the translation course) and another thirty minutes of the IDI (Intercultural Development Inventory, one of those cultural surveys that's designed to make you feel uncomfortable about your own opinions even though it claims benevolence) I left the American Center on my own and ventured back to the Cours Mirabeau and Monoprix.

I made a quick stop at an ATM that I'd spotted yesterday while walking with my host parents, and proceeded to the Cours Mirabeau from there. I found Monoprix, where half of Aix was crammed into the shelves of notebooks; I found a couple of notebooks, even with 100% recycled paper like a good Oberlin student; and I found a few other AUCP students who wanted to go to la papeterie Michel but didn't know where it was. Having seen it on the way, I accompanied them there and immediately regretted it because seriously, Paper Product Heaven. So dangerous. Today, though, I returned home with only a Monoprix bag.

Orientation. It reminds me of compasses and navigators, not of academic introductions and lists of prices. And really, today did more to orient my mental compass than my scholarly attitude. I'm sure I'm going to have to direct my attention to my studies soon enough, but for now, my little navigational successes give me all the satisfaction I need.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Flights and Flying Creatures

I am in Aix-en-Provence.

I'm not entirely clear on what time I should think it is now, or even really how this all happened, but I'm here. If it's 4:45 EST (conveniently, my computer's still telling me) then I've been awake for something like 32 hours, minus spotty sleep on the plane from Philadelphia to Munich. Physically, I suspect I'm exhausted, but my mind is still going a mile a minute.

Wait, we're using kilometers now.

The last twelve hours have been both a whirlwind and interminable. I landed in Munich, gaped at the sheer enormity of the airport, got my boarding pass, and found my way to gate G61(!). I got back in the air, gaped at the sheer beauty of the Alps, and ate a sandwich described by a multilingual flight attendant as alternately "turkey" and "poulet." Even this mystery poultry topped the meal US Airways served me last night, which included chicken worthy of Stevie and green beans that made me glad, for the first time, that I can't really breathe through my nose.

Upon landing in Marseille, I briefly met a few other AUCP students before being whisked off by my host father, Christian. Apparently the past three years have done me some serious good, because unlike my last French homestay experience, I...I talk now. Within the first half of the car ride to Aix, I somehow found myself talking about how Basque is "très intéressant d'un perspectif linguistique parce que..." which made Christian roar with laughter at the useless sophistication of my lexicon.

We finally arrived at the house and wow, talk about immersion. I got a cursory tour and then it was off to the neighbors' house, where a giant birthday party was well under way. I was tossed into a crowd of at least a hundred French people, handed a glass of wine, and apologetically seated at the children's table. The pizza was delicious, but really, those kids have a lot more to look forward to on the beverage front. Oh, and there was cheese. Charles, my host brother, played babysitter to me for the afternoon and brought me an enormous slab of brie accompanied by bread and grapes. We're getting along fabulously.

An introduction to my host family: Christian, his wife Véronique, Charles (age 11), Ève (age 10), Ulmine (cocker spaniel, age unknown), and a mysterious other sibling who's off doing something in Paris. I know it's only been one day, but honestly, I cannot envision a better family to stay with for the semester. Everyone is so welcoming and funny and talkative without any hint of pressure, and they all have this air of vitality and spirit that I can't quite pin down or describe.

I helped Véronique with dinner tonight, or pretended to do so by stirring zucchini and onions and tomatoes periodically as they sizzled away on the stove. We ate outside in the garden, which is entirely free of mosquitoes due to the dry climate. (Maryland, take note. Shape up.) What it is not free of, however, is frelons--hornets. I thought the grape vines on the trellis shading the patio were charming until I felt something drop onto the top of my head. The something bounced off and landed by my water glass, and two nanoseconds later I was four meters away because that was a pair of grappling hornets, not a harmless falling grape. I would like to point out that I have not once actually freaked out or shrieked or anything despite multiple hornet encounters today.

The learning experiences, they are endless.

Friday, September 3, 2010

À demain.

Exactly 21 hours from the moment I began writing this sentence, my plane will start its journey across the Atlantic. It will deposit me in Munich and jet off to who-knows-where, leaving me to navigate a German airport and find my way to the next plane to Marseille. That's all well and good; the only part I can't quite fathom is that it won't be coming back for me any time soon.

It seems so recently that I told everyone who asked about my college plans and my major that I would "probably study abroad for a semester in my junior year." Somehow that shifted to "going abroad in the fall" and finally to "leaving for France in a week on Friday tomorrow." I'm excited, sure, and I'm as prepared as I'm going to get (minus the clothes and books and odds and ends still strewn about my floor), but I still can't quite believe I'm leaving.

Actually, the reality of departure hit me last Sunday night. On the eve of my leaving Oberlin for the semester, I lost all ability to handle goodbyes. While sitting in East with six of my closest friends, I burst into tears, and their attempts to cheer me up with stories of butter Elvises and impressions of savannah cats only made me sob harder. How could I endure an entire semester without savannah cats?

That night, for the first time, I truly panicked. I nearly hyperventilated and cried into an unfortunate friend's shoulder for an hour on a bench outside. In his effort to console me, he gave me the clearest insight I've ever had into why it's so hard for me to leave Oberlin: it's the only place where I feel (or have ever felt) I belong so completely. No other extended period in my life has felt so right, and now I'm tossing myself into an utterly foreign experience.

But maybe that's the whole point.

Going to Aix-en-Provence means taking myself out of my geographical, linguistic, and social comfort zone. For a person who craves control and security, it's no surprise that this is a terrifying concept. But it's one that I have to embrace if I want to stay sane, and I plan on doing just that. I'm not going to France for the classes (although I do need those to, you know, ever graduate). I'm going in order to use my French for more than discussing literature, to eat the food, to explore the cities, and to become as much a part of France as I can in three and a half months. In short, I'm going to learn to belong in France the way I belong in Oberlin.

 I make no promises about this blog, but I feel like it's the Thing To Do for this Important Experience. Hopefully it'll be an entertaining documentation of mes aventures français; if not, then hopefully the reason will be that I'm too busy eating and studying and exploring and belonging to bother writing about it. We'll see! For now, though, I'll leave you with this melodramatic introduction and return to counting socks and underwear. They're of slightly more pressing importance than blogging.

À demain, France. See you across the pond.