Since I waited to get this blog started until I had already arrived in France, my time has been spent getting the domain, setting up my blog and getting everything organized, so I am now two weeks into my study abroad experience and it has been a whirlwind! In these two weeks I have already accomplished a lot of things and had some fun, and I’ve also had a lot of stress and anxiety. It feels like it has gone by pretty fast, but I already kind of feel adjusted to my new routine more or less. This post will probably be much longer than most just because I will be recapping everything I experienced since I got to the airport, all the way to being two weeks into my adventure. I decided to break it into two parts because they ended up being pretty long and I know it’s a lot to read. I promise I will try to keep them shorter and more updated in the future!
So let me go ahead and recap the first week for you:
Let’s start with the terrible good-byes with my family and the plane ride to France:
This was tough.. I left January 2nd so I could make it to France in time to start an intensive French language seminar at my school. New Years Day was spent with my family and Julian (who basically packed all of my bags for me.) I went and said good-bye to my grandparents, then we had a nice steak dinner at the house and tried to be as normal as possible, but I was stressing over if I was forgetting something, how freaking heavy my bags were, and if I was ready to take this leap.
Julian decided not to come say good-bye at the airport, so we said our good-byes that night. When it was time for him to leave, I broke down.. For the first time it was real that these kisses were the last I would get for five to six months, and this was really the first time Julian and I have faced anything like this. He really is my rock and I lean on him so much for support and he is always there when I need him, and what was I going to do without him there at a second’s notice if I need him? It really broke my heart to say good-bye to him, and I’ll stop there because I’m getting a little teary just remembering it.
I finished packing, more or less, and said good-bye to my big sis Jessica who is experienced in living away from family and has high confidence in me.
I got about 3 hours of sleep before waking up at 4 am to make sure everything was ready and we were going to be on time to my 6am flight. My good-bye with my precious puppy Luna was extremely anticlimactic.. She obviously had no idea what was going on and wanted nothing to do with getting out of bed at 5 in the morning. We loaded up the car and just like that I was on my way out of Albuquerque.. I brought one large suitcase, one of those Victoria’s Secret getaway bags that everyone just HAS to get free (with a $75 purchase ;) ), and my school bag, and all three were HEAVY as hell! Sure enough, my suitcase was over the 50lb limit so I had to pay a whopping $100 for the extra 7 pounds I packed..
When all was said and done, I hauled my carry-on bags to the security gate and it was time to say good-bye to my parents and little sister, which was also heartbreaking. I could see how much they wanted to be happy for me, but how sad they were deep down to see me leave. I was sad to leave them, and once again, their embraces brought tears to my eyes, and it was very hard.. But somehow I managed to walk away and get through security, watching my family wave and disappear from my sight.
I flew from Albuquerque to Minneapolis, which was pretty short and sweet, and there I had to rush to my next gate to go straight to Detroit. That flight was also pretty short and sweet and everything was going smoothly. I had about a five hour layover in Detroit which was sucky because to my surprise, the Detroit airport is really big, really cool and has lots of stuff to look at, but I could barely get from point A to point B with my heavy ass bags. I stopped at a restaurant for a nice burger, and then found a place to sit for a while. Talked to Julian on the phone for quite a while, and eventually made my way to the gate. Finally, I boarded the Delta/Air France plane, and took my isle seat next to a little French girl and her grandpa. The plane was huge, and you hear a lot of English and a lot of French (duh.) I believe the flight was around 7 hours or so, and in that time I watched 22 Jump Street, Julie and Julia, and the opening scenes of several others which I ended up getting bored with. I had a crappy airplane meal of pasta, salad, a roll, and the best part was the chocolate chip cookie brownie thing. Exactly the same meal I had when I went to France almost two years ago! They also gave us some breakfast stuff, which I ended up throwing away because somehow an egg biscuit sandwich on a plane doesn’t seem appetizing. The last couple of hours always drag on but I listened to music and finally we landed! It was a rainy, dark morning and it of course takes FOREVER to file that many people and all their crap off the plane, and then we all have to catch a bus to the terminal. Then, I was truly on my own. I had to find my own way to the customs line, which took forever of course, then had to find the baggage claim and manage to carry all my bags myself, and then manage to find Danielle.
I haven’t introduced you to Danielle yet: she is basically my lifesaver. Had I not found her ad posted on my new school’s housing website, and had she not answered my email, I wouldn’t even be in France right now in all likelihood. She is a retired woman who lives alone in Paris. Her daughter, Gabrielle went to my school (Université Paris Dauphine) and she now rents her daughter’s old room to exchange students. By a stroke of fate, I responded to her ad out of desperation, and she and Gabrielle saved my trip! Anyway more about her later!
So I walk into the greeting area with all my crap and I am looking for someone who I have only seen in one picture.. It was about two hours after my plane landed because of all the customs and baggage claim stuff, and I was worried she left or something. Suddenly, I saw a cute older lady carrying a little paper that said “Michelle Miller- Dauphine” on it and she looked very stressed and worried. I greeted her and she was super excited that I made it in one piece, and relieved that she found me. We walked to her car and loaded up my stuff. It was about a 30-minute car ride from the airport to her house, in the rain and fog, and I was terrified the entire time. I find it funny when people always say New Mexicans are terrible drivers, because in France, they are absolutely CRAZY! Every car or bus ride I’ve ever taken in France has given me anxiety because they are so aggressive, fast, and the roads make absolutely no sense to me. Anyway, we arrived at her building in the 19th Arrondissement, unloaded, and stopped at the bakery (patisserie) that’s right next-door for some croissants. We made our way up to her apartment and by this time I was dying of fatigue. Let’s remember I woke up at 4am, and it was now about 3am back home so I had been awake nearly 24 hours! We ate and she showed me around a little. The apartment is very cute but very not what we imagine as a French apartment. My room is marvelous, a great size with a window that looks out on the square (Place des fêtes, which is also the name of the neighborhood where I live, and my metro station.) The building as well as most of the directly surrounding buildings are very tall, ugly, 1970’s looking apartments with no charm, but it is still pretty in it’s own way. (I’ll post pictures of my room and the neighborhood later!)
She asked me what I would like to do first and my immediate response was SLEEP. I went to sleep for about 5 hours and when I woke up we walked around the quarter a little, and got to know each other. It was already dark, but with the Christmas lights that they still have up, it was very pretty. She showed me where all the different grocery stores are, and many of the cute little stores around the neighborhood. It was a nice walk and when we came back I had a nice piece of salmon waiting for me, which she made me for lunch but I slept through it. She showed me more practical stuff throughout the apartment and all the spaces in the kitchen and bathroom that she so generously cleared for me to use. I presented her with the gift my mom and I picked out for her; it was a really pretty, traditional Zuni necklace/pin and she was really interested to hear that it was made by Native Americans and was very grateful. She then got dressed up to go to a soirée with some friends, and she wore her new necklace, which made me happy. :)
After she left I unpacked a little, and called Julian and my parents,to let them know I was okay. I was still extremely exhausted, so I went to bed and slept, for a long time. I don’t think I’ve ever been as tired as I was the first few days, and I really didn’t do much besides rest.
On Sunday, though, I did get to celebrate “The Epiphany” or also called, “Tirer les rois” (find the king) with Danielle and a couple of her friends, which was a new experience. Traditionally it’s a celebration in honor of the visit of the Magi to the Christ child, but it is now less of a religious celebration. In France, they celebrate the first Sunday of January (and pretty much the rest of January) with a round, flaky cake called a “galette”, which is typically made of puff pastry layers and a frangipane center. We also tried another type of galette, which is popular in other regions of France, (seen on the right), which is more of a brioche type cake with candied fruits in or on top of it. I prefer the traditional galette myself.
The special part of these cakes and this celebration is that baked within each of these cakes is a small porcelain or plastic trinket, usually some type of character, called “la fève” and the person who gets the piece of the cake with the favor inside becomes the king or queen for the day, and store-bought galettes all come with golden, paper crowns for the person who finds it. I have heard of this tradition before, but I associated it with Mardi Gras which is false as far as French traditions go, but I believe in Louisiana they do have round king cakes with purple, green, and gold frosting or sugar, and the favor is always a baby. Same idea just spun a different way and maybe at a different time of year. Either way, I can tell the French love eating these cakes and celebrating this tradition the entire month of January.
In all their adorableness, they made sure I found the piece with the little trinket inside (which was a figure of an old policeman), so I was the queen for the day! We also drank cider, which I really don’t care for, and her friends asked me questions about America and where I come from. It was a very pleasant afternoon, which left me very tired and ready for more sleep.
That Monday she showed me how to navigate the metro, and conveniently there is a metro station directly below us so I just have to walk downstairs, and then I did some grocery shopping.
On Tuesday, the 6th, I embarked on one of the less fun parts of arriving in France which is opening a bank account. The reason for doing this is to avoid big ATM fees from both your bank back home and the ATM you withdraw from or when you charge your card anywhere. It’s just better to have a Carte Bleu, so Danielle and I went to BNP Paribas, just because it was the only French bank I knew of, and I thought they would be an easy bank to open with, but they quickly told me it’s too hard for foreigners to open accounts if someone in their family doesn’t already have one, or some BS like that. It was obvious they just didn’t want to deal with it, so we went next door to Danielle’s bank, La Banque Postale, which is also the post office. After a long and somewhat confusing chat with one of their clerks, we were able to successfully open an account, but it was going to take days before I’d get my card, and even more days before I could put money in the account. At least it was opened.
That day, I also started my intensive French language seminar at my new school in the 16th arrondissement. It’s about 40 minutes and one line change on the metro and fairly easy. Danielle came with me to make sure I didn’t get lost, and when we got there it was sort of like saying good-bye to your mom on the first day of school. I found my class like a big girl and started mingling with the 8 other kids in my class, (five Americans, a German, an Italian, and a Brazilian.) The instructor of the week long course was a crazy-haired, enthusiastic French woman, who corrected you on every single mistake you made in French and tried her best to make sure we were up to date on French culture and nonverbal cues as well. We focused heavily on grammar, which is my weakest point, so I was glad to be working on it, but it also frustrated me because I suck at it! Class was Tuesday through Saturday from 2pm to 6pm, so it was always dark when we got out, but I made it home safe!
Wednesday, I went to school a little early to try to pay my course fee for the seminar, only to find that the international office, and most of France it seems, shuts down between about 12 and 2 for lunchtime. I’m exaggerating, but really, the French love their lunchtime and sometimes it is really difficult to get service during those hours. Upon my arrival at the school, I was asked to show my student card, which I didn’t have yet, so I had to show them my acceptance letter to the school along with my passport. I had no idea why but I didn’t think much of it, but little did I know that as I was riding the metro that morning, 12 people had been murdered at the headquarters of a newspaper I’d never heard of, Charlie Hebdo. As we all now know, it was a terrorist attack on the satirical newspaper that publishes, on occasion, inappropriate or disrespectful cartoons of the prophet Mohammed. This was the worst and deadliest terrorist attack in France in over 40 years so it was clearly all you heard about and truly a tragedy. When you read about the details it really is disturbing because the French, like us Americans, really value free speech and freedom of press and I couldn’t imagine how enraged we would be if something like this happened in the U.S. I went straight home after school that day and felt a little uncomfortable in public places for a few days after, but I was never legitimately scared or worried for my safety, just a lot more alert to my surroundings.
Thursday, I finally got my fee paid, but since I was much too early for class, and I found that there aren’t many good places to sit or hang out at the school; I decided to explore a little. The weather wasn’t great, rainy and windy, but I ended up at the Arc de Triomphe, which is marvelous and very close to my school, and walked along the Champs Elysees looking for a warm dry place to sit for a while before I had to go back to school.
I had a nice sandwich lunch at a little café and then made my way back to school for class. We discussed current news (ie:Charlie Hebdo stuff), and then jumped back into grammar, vocab and pronouns. The cool part of class was that she spent the last hour of each session talking about French culture and things you don’t really learn about in French class back home. We learned about French hand gestures, which are very different from American and Italian ones, and we learned how to not immediately identify ourselves as Americans (i.e. saying “um” instead of “euhh” or counting starting with our index finger instead of our thumb like French people do.) It was fun and silly and actually very informative.
Friday, Danielle showed me the farmer’s market that takes place downstairs in the square every Tuesday, Friday and Sunday. It is a huge operation and you can find all your groceries and more there if you are into fresh, natural ingredients. She bought some fish, fruit, nuts, and some veggies, and she just showed me around to all the different vendors. I saw a lot of great looking produce, bread, cheese, and meat, but I also saw things I really didn’t want to see, such as an entire stand for horse meat, live crabs and lobsters, plucked chickens with their heads and talons intact, and freshly killed squirrels and rabbits. Nonetheless, it was cool to see an authentic French market that I’m lucky enough to have just outside my window three days a week. I’m a little intimidated by it, but I’m sure I’ll be shopping there in the future. The rest of the day was just another day of class from 2 to 6 and as I did all the other days, came home, made some type of easy dinner, conversed with Danielle and hung out in my room and talked to someone in my family.
Saturday my class was rescheduled to be from 10:30am to 2:30pm so we could have the rest of the day to do fun stuff. We had lessons for the first two hours and then the final two hours was for the final exam. I still don’t know how I did on it, but I felt like I did mediocre on the test. That grammar really gets me! Hopefully I passed the class! Even though grammar and all that bores me, I was actually sad to be done with that class because I feel like having that once or twice a week would really improve my French. After school, I headed home and decided to do some more grocery shopping. I stayed in that night and had a nice spaghetti dinner with some left over steak and French bread, followed by my new favorite thing for desert, yogurt. I called in a night early because I had to get up really early Sunday morning to go on a hike with Danielle and some of her retired friends. She is in a hiking club and they go on hikes (randonées) every Sunday, always in different places. This particular hike, Danielle was to be the guide!
So that brings us to Sunday, the 11th, and I had to wake up the earliest I had since I came here, to be ready to leave the house by 8:20am on the dot. I made sure to dress super warm and she lent me a small backpack to carry my lunch in. She on the other hand, had a hardcore hiking backpack that was almost as big as her and it looked heavy. Keep in mind; this is a 67-year-old woman we’re talking about!
We left the house and took the metro to an RER station (the train that travels to the suburbs of Paris) There, we met up with about 15 other people, mostly women, who all had intense hiking bags, shoes and even those ski pole walking stick things. This was the group in the club who takes it slow and stead, there is also a group of fast walkers. I was the youngest one by at least 20 years, but everyone was extremely nice and tried to make small talk with me. It was about a 45-minute train ride to our destination, (which I’ve forgotten the name of,) but it was just a charming little suburb that we walked through to get to the hiking trail. The weather was the nicest and warmest we’d had yet, the sun was out for the first time and we were walking through a really pretty forest with tall trees and you could hear gun shots in the distance from hunters chasing after birds and small prey. There was also a farm, big grassy fields, hills, and some rivers/ponds.
I soon realized why Danielle had given me a really worried look when I showed her my tennis shoes the night before.. It was wet. Back home in New Mexico, regular tennis shoes are perfect for hiking in the mountains so I thought it would be fine, but even though it was sunny and warm, the ground was wet, and muddy. And slippery! I forgot about how marshy and soggy the ground was in the French countryside. I definitely had trouble walking, and tried my best to not completely ruin my Nikes, but the surroundings were absolutely beautiful and the weather was very agreeable, I even had to shed some jackets.
After a pretty long morning, we decided it was time for our picnic, and we hiked up a gigantic, steep hill that made me tired and grumpy, and it was beginning to get cloudy and windy, but once we were up there, the view was beautiful.
We met up with the other group from the club (the ones who hike further and faster) and we all had some lunch and then it was time to eat galettes! Several different people brought galettes, most were traditional frangipane, but Danielle decided to bring an apple king cake instead to change it up a little. I had several slices of the deliciously simple cakes and somehow ended up finding a favor again, this time in the shape of Turbo, the snail from the American movie. I wore another crown and got to be part of the elite group of few who were the kings and queens of the day. They were also poppin’ bottles of champagne, wine, and cider, and passing around fancy cheese, and more sweets. This was unlike any picnic I had been on before, and I had a really good time. After we were all full, we packed up, nature pee’d and headed to the backside of the hike which was very pretty.
We made the long hike back down to the train station, and it was a very pleasant and beautiful walk, and I had some good conversations and laughs and took many nice photos of the area. By the time it was over we had walked about 18km (11 miles) which Danielle told me was short for them, but I was exhausted and really wanted to get home to my bed. Danielle on the other hand didn’t even break a sweat and was a great guide. I’m not so out of shape that I couldn’t keep up with the group, but I wasn’t able to keep up the pace Danielle was going up at the front, and for 67, she is still a spring chicken!
We rode back to Paris and I was anxious to get food and sleep, but Danielle decided to go (with all her hiking gear) to the gigantic rally held at the Place de La Républic (very symbolic) in honor of the lives lost in the Charlie Hebdo shooting. I thought it would be best if I stay away from that kind of activity, but I was happy for her to get to go. Well over 1 million people attended, as well as many world leaders, so it was a huge deal, and I fully support it, but I felt I should stay away from things like that.
I took the metro home, and it was the busiest I had ever seen it because of the demonstration. They were so full that sometimes people couldn’t all get on or off in time for the doors to close. When it was my time to get off the metro I had to push through a wall of people and I was the person who had the doors literally shut on me, and people had to pull them open again for me to get out! It didn’t hurt me luckily but I was freaked out, and then when you get off there are a million people in the stations so it takes forever to get wherever you’re going. I was starting to get very frustrated, but I finally made it home and immediately jumped into a long, hot shower. I washed all the mud off me and relaxed and after that I got into my comfy sweats and made dinner, which I think was oven pizza, and then I had a nice talk with Julian. I’ve been happy with how much I have been able to keep in contact with him, my parents, grandparents and everyone. Danielle finally made it home safe and said she enjoyed the rally and felt very patriotic. We both relaxed and it was a nice end to my first week in Paris!
Stay tuned for week two! :)