30 January 2011


Tonight my host brother and his girlfriend came over for dinner, and the five of us had a three-hour raclette dinner.  It was amazing.  They warned me beforehand that it's a dish eaten a lot in the mountain regions, and that it's very heavy.

As we had visitors, the meal began with an aperitif and pistachios.  I had extremely tangy passionfruit juice.  After 20 minutes spent chatting in the living room, we moved to the table and the fun began.

Raclette is beautifully described in this article if you're really curious: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Raclette
But basically, you take a large slice of cheese (I forget what kind^) and put it in a big spoon/little shovel on a hot table apparatus, and while you wait for it to melt you fill up your plate with potato, red cabbage, French pickles, onion, thin slices of Italian cured beef, etc.  Then you pull the spovel out of the small hot table and pour it over your concoction.  While you eat this mountain of steaming cheesy goodness, you put another slice of cheese on the spovel and repeat the process.  It's pretty darn good.

Of course, after that came dessert (thin cookie crisps and oranges with a cinnamon sauce, a Moroccan recipe), and after dessert came a tisane (herbal tea) and chocolates.  Needless to say, it was an amazing evening, made even better by my new cello (Stradivarius-modeled 150-yr-old), the new cookies I bought (not good timing, but tasty!), and the Edith Piaf CD I discovered yesterday.  Her song "Non, je ne regrette rien" is featured in Inception, which is where I first heard her, but now I relentlessly play the CD to the point where my host family finds themselves singing Edith Piaf as they walk through the apartment.  I love Saturdays.

28 January 2011

Chocolat Chaud

It is Friday afternoon, I don't have any class today, and I went to a movie last night and then slept in until 10:15.  Life is beautiful.  At the same time, I finally went running this morning, and despite my layers and gloves I was pretty chilled by the end.  Result:  I'm camping out in my room, catching up on travel journals and blogging.  I ventured out for lunch at a chain bakery (shameful, but the only one with tables where you can bring a book and eat slowly), and I'll be picking up my rental cello with my host mother in an hour.  That's right, I found a cello!  It's over 150 years old and the shop owner doesn't usually rent it out, but that's all he's got left.  This is perfect timing because I had an audition for the Rennes community orchestra on Monday night, and I got in!!!  (Despite forgetting to bring any music and playing the instrument for the first time in a month.  Phew.)

In other news, all of the American students have pretty much settled in, which means we're starting to miss things from home.  Peanut butter, I didn't bring you because I thought you weren't important.  I hope I find you here soon.  Also, I'm definitely hoping to eat at a pizzeria soon (they're everywhere).  I bought popcorn kernels on Tuesday and made some on the stove for the first time.  (My host mother thinks I'm a typical American because of the popcorn and the large amounts of bread that I can eat.)   I also found a "café-bar"that has about twenty kinds of chocolat chaud (hot chocolate), as well as chocolate chip cookies.  I'm pretty sure that all the Americans go there, but that doesn't stop me!  Overall, of course, I'm still loving the food!  Bakeries are the best.

Exciting news:  Classes started yesterday!  Apart from the fact that it's nice to finally have my class schedule (for the most part) and not be waiting for more changes, the program is looking really interesting.  Okay, I'm not really talking about the classes, although they do look interesting; I'm talking about the people in the program.

Let me see if I can make this simple.  I'm here in France with CIEE, with other American students from universities around the country.  Our program is the biggest of ten (totally guessing) international programs that all tie together with the program CIREFE at the Univerité Rennes II.  We have the option of taking classes at the university itself, but the majority of classes are taught by CIREFE professors to the hodgepodge of international students who all speak some French.  This is really really interesting.  So far I've met students my age from Brazil, Argentina, Albania, China, and Japan.  That's only with one day of orientation and one day of class, so I'm excited to see who I meet next!

I should probably also mention that during my week-long winter break, I'm going to cities in Spain and Italy with two friends from the program.  Tickets will be bought ASAP, and then I can tell you what cities.

Lastly, a little language update:  It's getting easier.  There are ups and downs, of course, like when I saw my newly-made friend from Argentina in the cafeteria line, and no matter how many times he repeated himself I had NO idea what he was talking about.  But the ups are more frequent, like last night, when I talked to my host mom Beatrice while she cooked dinner and we ate, and I realized that I'm forming phrases more quickly than a few weeks ago.  And then when I went to see a movie (a French film called "La Chance de ma Vie", a mediocre chick flick), and I followed what was going on for the most part.  Even better, things that used to be tiring and frustrating like keeping my Facebook set in French, reading a French translation of an Agatha Christie book I've already read, or leaving French websites that I visit in their actual language...  I don't notice it very much anymore!!!

Prayer requests:  Encouragement and energy to take advantage of my time here
Honestly, God is taking such good care of me.  He's provided friends, family, church, adventures, working internet...  What a loving Savior I serve!

23 January 2011

Now read it aloud!

Let me teach you a useful phrase.  It’s probably not what the cool kids are saying, (as in, the real French urban teens), but it’s pretty popular in French classrooms throughout America.  Take a deep breath, snap or swing your arm nonchalantly or something, and say it with me:  “Zut, alors!”  (zoot, Al-ore)  Rough translation:  Well, shucky-darn!  (No, really.  A squeaky clean phrase.)

It’s come in very handy today.  Firstly:
When I got to a new church this morning (on time) the entire congregation was late.  A greeter let us in and led us upstairs, paused, and said, "Um... Tous le monde n'est pas encore arrivé..."  Then the five (literally) people who were there gave us bises, and I haven't felt that awkward in a while.  And that's saying something, living here.  I was so glad I came with a friend!  Don’t get me wrong, they were all amazingly nice!

Another good example of prime usage time:
I like snacks.  And the wonderful thing about snacks is their texture.  I’m not one of those people who can have an ice cube or a yogurt or juice and call it a snack.  In fact, I’m kind of in awe of those people and hope to be one someday, but I probably chose the wrong country to be living in then.  Zut, alors!  (Very good.)  Anyway, I like bread or pretzels or cookies or something not nutritionally a good idea that might not even taste that good, but you can chew it and feel sustained.  The family tends to have bread on a cutting board in the kitchen, which takes care of that, but lately the bread availability has been a little low.  Today I get back from church to see my host parents taking their grandbaby for a walk, and what do I do?  I scurry to the kitchen (remember there was a dinner party last night) and find four (four!) loaves of different kinds of bread.  Anyway, throw into the mix that they didn’t get back for a while and that we ate lunch at 2:00 and dinner at 8:15, and you’ll get… one repentant bread-eater.  There must be a French word for that.

It’s bedtime!  (Oops, that was 30 minutes ago.)  I’m in the bathroom washing my hands (salle de bain, translated "room of bath" because the toilet’s almost always in a separate room "toilette") when suddenly the lights go out!  Say it on your own now!  I literally did say it aloud this time, in the dark bathroom.  Now all is well, however, and you know a new phrase!  (Unless you’re one of those many French students out there. I’ll teach you slang terms for police and boyfriend another day.  Still from a classroom, so still nice and clean.)

22 January 2011

Bon appetit!

It's been two weeks now!  I'm settling into the customs and the language a bit more, although I still speak way too much English, but I've noticed something.  Today we took a walking tour of the city of Rennes, and a guide brought my attention back to the ancient buildings and the tucked-away churches.  I'm already taking this place for granted.  I want to wake up every morning with the realization that I'm so blessed to be here, because I'm not here forever!  The language, the FOOD, the cobblestone streets...  What a great place to be, even at 7 in the morning!

I should probably mention that my host family's grandaughter is staying here this weekend.  She's 4 months old.  And really really really cute.  Also the most fashionable baby I've every seen.  When family or close friends get together here (in my classy, haute couture slice of French life), they show each other their new clothes and talk about the designers.  Or artwork.  I just stare at the champagne and wonder how many sips I have to take to be polite.  Tonight I politely bowed out of a dinner party that started at 8, and I can hear them still talking through my door.  It's midnight.  The French and their dinners...

It's time to talk about cultural differences.  You know, like the difference between hugging (American) and giving "bises"or kisses on both cheeks (French), which is very overwhelming for someone with a personal bubble like mine.  Or the difference between "vous voy-ing" and "tu-toi-ing", the more and less formal ways to address someone in the second person.  I still use the more formal "vous" for my family (with frequent slip-ups into informality), while a lot of my friends were told to "tu-toi" their families at the first meeting.

The biggest cultural difference, though?  FOOD.  Oh my goodness, yes.  Where to start?

Breakfast ( le petit dejeuner): Usually small, like coffee and a piece of bread (My host mother bought me cereal, thankfully.)

Lunch (le dejeuner): I've eaten at lots of creperies as well as the Resto-U (school cafeteria), and I can promise you that the restaurants are better.  (Surprise!)  I live in the Brittany region of France, which has a culture that's sometimes very unique from the rest of France, and one of the regional specialties are galettes.  They are sometimes called crepes in other regions, but they use a darker flour and usually include cheese and egg.  Delicieux!  Today we had oysters* and smoked salmon (yum).  
*I've had them in soup as a kid and didn't really like them, but I thought I'd give them another try.  They looked like they came straight out of the sea, and my family informed me that in Brittany you swallow them without chewing.  Okay, I thought, I can handle that.  Funny thing is, when you swallow an oyster without chewing, all you taste is salt water.  Not my favorite food.

Afternoon snack (le gouter): This one is mainly for little kids and the occasional American college student.  This one is my weakness.  I've visited a boulangerie every day after school this week.  My extremely thrifty Michigan college self is shocked!  But it's worth it, even if every day I have to promise myself that I'll start running tomorrow...  I've gone through several "This is my absolute favorite place and I'm going to be a regular!" phases so far.  Also, this one grocery store has massive bars of Swiss chocolate that are okay, I guess...

Dinner (le diner): This depends on the family, but mine is an extreme case: 8:30-9:00, somewhere in there we'll start.  I KNOW.  Hence the gouter.  My host mother serves lots of fish and vegetable dishes, which sounds healthy, right?  They're all amazing, and there are two very good reasons for that.  Butter and cream.  That sentence about running also applies here.  We eat bread (baguettes without butter) with every dinner, and I was introduced to a dessert called "fromage blanc", or "white cheese" the other night.  It tastes like bitter plain yogurt (to me) that you sweeten with jam.  Hm.

In case you are wondering, I have eaten escargots, and they were amazing.  I have not seen frog, rabbit, or deer pate yet, or I think I would have tried them.  I am also developing a large cheese repertoire, but we're still working on that one.

And the best part is, I've only been here for two weeks!

16 January 2011

Am I French yet?

Bonjour tout le monde!  I've been in France for exactly one week now, and it's about time I updated the people in my life about... my life.  One intense, great, jam-packed week, in one (hopefully short) blog post.

First, the progression of my thoughts on speaking French:
Day 1:  Hey, not bad.  I can totally communicate!  Sometimes I might even pass for French!
Day 2:  If by communicate I mean get my point across eventually, sure!
Day 5:  Oh...  Wow.  That thing called grammar?  My brain can't do that as fast as my mouth can talk.
Now:  As long as everyone is patient and I don't panic, it will be okay and hopefully I'll get better.  No promises on becoming fluent.

Basically, every time I open my mouth, I have to stop and make a conscious decision to try using French, which is much harder for me and much messier for other people.  But I'm trying!

Well.  I left the guesthouse on Monday morning, and after a (frankly) horrible metro ride with two huge suitcases, one of which lost a handle during the trip, I met up with the other Americans in the CIEE Rennes program and started orientation.  We stayed in a hostel in Paris until Thursday, explored all the local sights (I finally have a picture of me with the Eiffel Tower), and tried to speak French to each other and the four French students that are our "moniters".  It was great, to summarize a lot, and then we filed into a bus and drove to Rennes.  As is customary in this program, you are placed in a host family after a personal interview with the program staff, which takes a lot of facilitation, so we found out who our families were... on the bus ride to Rennes.  I had about two hours to process my information: Middle-aged couple, lives in a nice apartment "au centre-ville" (downtown), internet, no smoking or pets, husband is gone during the week for work, adult children visit occasionally.

We got off the bus and poured into a room on campus with all of our luggage.  The host families were on the other side of the room, and we all watched each other surreptitiously until they started pairing us off.  The madame who came to get me is small, brusque, and very very fashionable.  I was so nervous that I told her my sister was "fifteen hours" instead of fifteen years old, and that took about a minute to come out of my mouth.  Huh.  She was pretty intimidating for the first two hours, until I realized how quirky she and her husband are.  Now I love them, and I barely know them.  They both have big black glasses, look very French, and are really funny.  As for the apartment...  WOW.  I have a giant, beautiful room, and the whole apartment is... huge, beautiful, and classy.  Hard to explain, but maybe I can put up some surreptitious pictures later.

Anyway, today we went to the fresh-air market (second-biggest in France=HUGE), where I tasted the world's best cheese and saw loafs of bread with a diameter the length of my calf, every kind of seafood imaginable, and tiny skinned lambs.  That last one was pretty sad.  It's the kind of place where I badly want to take pictures but desperately don't want to look like a tourist.  After that, crepes and cider for lunch (slightly alcoholic- I'm proud I tried it), finally buying a cell phone, and exploring.

In the Disney princess movies, the girls always have some special secret place where they go to sing and hide from stepsisters.  I think, largely because of the movies, that I've always looked for those, and today I found the best secret nook.  My apartment's location in downtown Rennes is both great and a little too much city, so I was thrilled to discover a giant park two blocks away.  By park I mean mossy little stone statues, a merry-go-round, rose gardens, and a 30-minute walk.  I'd been having a little bit of the lonely blues (which amazingly haven't really been a problem so far), but this surprise gift from God completely cured it.  How beautiful.  Bed now, church tomorrow, the world on Monday.

09 January 2011

Bonjour, Paris!

I have finally checked in to the guesthouse where I am staying, and I am so ready to crash.  However, so many amazing things have happened already that I have to write this now, or I would sleep away all memory of it.  (If there are typos, French keyboards are SO different from American ones!  You will note the lack of contractions; I cannot find the apostrophe!)

The flights went pretty quickly (and I slept a lot), and I walked out of the airport and into the train terminal around 7:15.  Riding the train in to the City of Lights (it was still dark) was interesting; I got to sit and look out the window, but I had to haul my two rolling suitcases through some challengingly narrow turnstiles.  I arrived in the neighborhood of this guesthouse and spent the next half hour trudging through the suburb dragging my bags and getting weird looks from joggers and early-morning dog-walkers.  Let us just say that the guesthouse looks just like an apartment, and I was picturing a monastery.

There was no one around, so I stashed my bags in a luggage closet and, after hastily digging through my carryon and changing running shoes and sweatshirt for peacoat and flats, I took a long walk, hugging my purse and trying to look as Parisian as possible.  I think I could have succeeded if I did not keep abruptly turning the other direction in an attempt to navigate.  Let us blame the jet lag.

All in all, the people I have run into seem much friendlier than I had pictured them.  Two middle-aged women bonded with me over a confusing turnstile, a little girl on the metro might have told me that she was enchanted to meet me, and tons of people have dogs, which just makes me happy.  I went to Hillsong Paris after the standard wander past, turn, wander back, repeat.  (Unfortunately I am wearing my red coat, so people might start to notice.)  It was great to be around a welcoming, dynamic group of Christians, and not only did I learn some French worship songs, but the (bilingual) sermon was really encouraging.  It was about the future and the plans of God, (the future is not before us, it is within us), which was encouraging to hear as I start this new adventure. 

In short, God is still the same, everything else is different, and I like it that way!  Bed time!!!

Prayer requests:  Energy, peace, and and a smooth transition on the metro tomorrow (more hefting really heavy bags) and into orientation.  Thanks!

01 January 2011


It's been a couple of years since I began to think about studying abroad somewhere, and suddenly I leave in seven days.  It really hasn't hit me yet, that one week from today I'll be landing in Paris and roaming the city for a day before meeting up with my program for orientation.  When I realize that for a moment, inevitably I start jumping up and down.  For the most part, though, I'm slowly accumulating ethernet cables and skirts and advice, and waiting for myself to fully understand that I'm about to move in with a French family for five months.  I heard someone say once that waiting periods are very hard for humans to handle well, and I would have to agree.  It's time that I get on the plane and see for myself what I've been imagining for such a long time.

I found this Tennyson quote years ago, but it's perfect for the coming semester:
"Yet all experience is an arch wherethrough
Gleams that untraveled world whose margin fades
Forever and forever when I move.
How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnished, not to shine in use!
As though to breathe were life!"