One Month left to go, nine down. . . .

It wasn't so long ago that I wrote a post entitled one month down nine to go, but now I have but one month left, I'm sitting outside to write this post because the warm weather is back, and this time I'm adjusted to the humidity so I can enjoy it. When I first got here I was cold even on the nice days. Winter has come and gone, and yet it feels like no time at all has passed. The days go by slowly and the weeks go by in seconds, it seems. Oxana, my local coordinator came by the house over the weekend to check on me for the last time and prepare me for the process of leaving, which I think will be very hard. I was worried about feeling pressured at the last minute with all the arrangements so I got a bunch of info together, but together a package of winter coats and books and journals I don't need, so boots, and carves, and taped it all up. It weighs 20 kilos exactly, which will leave me with about 35 kilos for my suitcases (I have the right to 46) though I'm sure it will end up being more in the end. I had a few days of panic though because the regulations for the airline I'm using, Lufthansa, have changed since I got here, and now we only have the right to one and not two checked bags. Luckily however the association bought my ticket last year so the old rules still apply, and I won't have to pay extra. I'm going to the post office in about an hour to mail it off. I felt so relieved after getting it all set up, but then I think I may have hurt my host family's feelings a bit, with all my planning. I didn't think about it being a sensitive issue because they've been planning a trip for this summer since November, but when I was going through my stuff I found the hand book for CIEE. It has a whole section about leaving, and there is stuff about how you and you're host family, or one or the other might feel sensitive about making arrangements for departure, and or afterwards. Then when Oxana was here she asked if I was ready and Isabelle said as a joke that I was definitely ready, I'd already packed my suitcase. I know it was meant as a joke, but I felt bad all the same, and I think my family was feeling a bit pushed aside because of the box. I'm just glad to be getting it sent off today so we can forget about it, and I can focus all my attention on absorbing up any bits of culture I may have over looked before I leave.
I feel like my french has really come a long way just since January, and that I can really say I'm fluent. Now when I talk to people for the first time they don't ask me if its hard to follow the classes in French, but instead complement me on my French, tell me I speak very well. I understand the lyrics of French songs, which was something that totally evaded me for a long while. Plus, most importantly, I received a copy of the movie "Bienvenue Chez Les Ch'tis" which is a comedy about the Nord-Pas-de-Calais, and the 'patois' or the local dialect spoken here, Ch'ti. I watched it my third day here, and I understood absolutely nothing. I got maybe two jokes out of the whole movie. Well, I watched it for the first time since then the other night, and I understood perfectly. I recognized scenes and buildings in Lille, and I laughed at all the jokes. I felt like I was in on the whole thing, and that I was a part of the culture, even if only a very small part. It was a very warming feeling, but more importantly the next night I talked about it with my family, and I was able to discus it with them, recall lines, ask any questions, etc. which really completed the whole thing.
I don't have any regrets from this year. I think the whole experience has been exactly what I had dreamed it would be, and I would recommend it to anyone who has been considering it. Though I will say I think it is something you have to be motivated to do; if you're having serious regrets or are doing it for someone else, I imagine it would be extremely difficult. I have been dreaming about this since I was 10 year's old but even I had about two weeks of culture shock in the beginning where it was hard for me, and another few days during christmas break where I lost my confidence, my motivation, but that is all normal, most students go through vases throughout the first six months. Overall, I think these last nine months have definitely changed my life, and way of looking at the world. I think my opinions, my tastes, my thoughts in general have been enriched after having been exposed so thoroughly to another mode of life, and another culture. Another important aspect of this experience that I think is a lot less publicized is the chance to see your own country from a seat removed from the action. It's very interesting to see how America looks from the other side of the atlantic, and through the lens of French media. The French are at once enthralled and repulsed by the US and it's priorities. I have found however that in a few cases I have felt protective, defensive even, of the US, which I never felt before this year. I feel I have learned to look at the US from a point of view much more neutral, I see the good and bad now instead of being purely critical, which is a much more comfortable and productive place to be.
I leave the morning of June 18th, so I now have exactly a month to conclude this experience, and to make as memories as possible before I leave. I'm not terribly sad yet, because June still feels very far away, but I know it will go fast, and I don't want to feel like I let it slip through my hands. At any rate I know I will bring home a lot of wonderful things, and I'm very grateful for everything I've gained in the last nine months.
A bientot, e a la France
p.s. I just sent off the package, all's well ; ).


Lady Bug Saga II

Sorry this took so long. Pretty soon i'm going to stop apologizing for late blog posts because they're all late now. Instead I'll give you all one big blanket apology for being a lousy blogger. Ok that was my little pre-amble.
I had decided to do some research on lady bugs and heir symbolism, because I thought perhaps I'd learn something about the way they seemed to hang around only in my room out of all the house, and maybe there were reasonable ways to counter their agressive invasion. What I found was that eveyone, I mean everyone, from Europe to Idia to Japan to Australia loves lady bugs. Nobody except me thinks they can possibly have any dangerous or viscious qualities, nor are they believed by any culture documented on the web to be deamons of bad fortune. Atleast, I thought, I know I'm not dying of some disease they've infected me with, or the reciprocal of a spiritual parasite carried by these little beacons of fear. On the contrary, they're the little cupids of the world over, they are miniature passion-colored love gurus. Well, I decided, then they must be here to help me out or at least that was their plan before they freaked me out and I tried to ward them away, like a garlic-totin', silver-spear wielding victorian gothic superstitious nut case with a catholic up-bringing. It turns out they do have a tendency to cluster together around a single person, and infest people's houses. Most people don't seem to concerened about their squating but a few offered up advice including bay leaves, citronella candles and other such things on the window sills to ward them off. I however, decided to play it cool. First I made a peace offering one clearly stating my apologies for any harm done, my intention to leave them alone, and turn a blind eye to their previously onus presense in my Salle de Bain. Then I made sure they were clear: love help accepted, as that is their purported duty. When no love revelations came in the next week or so, I opted toward one of the more active routes mentioned in my research. There is an asiatic belief that I found that entails catching a ladybug and then upon releasing it, the little thing will fly off and fine you ture love and then send them your way. Hey, I thought, they're in my bathroom for a reason, why not try and gain something from these world renowned match-makers?
After that things were pretty normal, smooth no, but normal. We had some ups and downs, good times and bad. There was one episode where I let it fly after getting into the shower to find, as well as the normal five or six on the wall, one clinging to the glass divide on my side. I'm sorry, but that's way too close, way over the line, its called a personal space bubble. I had a little cow, flipped out, flicked one or two off the glass to the hard floor below, with steam pouring out my ears, and flames shooting out my nostrils. Luckily for them I chilled out and and a week later I saved two that were drowning on the ridge or the tub, they had slipped in the excess water and slid down the edge on their backs so that their golden legs crawled the air. I let them cling to my finger and hoisted them up to safety. Something about the familiar trusting cling of their feet on my hand evoked memories, and seem to cancel with the terrible nightmare that started this whole story, as this new, calm thankful reaction to my aid was what I had been expecting that fateful night. I felt a new solidarity of sorts, with my roommates. One of them was so traumatized that he didn't want to leave the comfort of my hand without a nudge. I was pleased with myself for saving them, and pleased with them for not having done anything rash since the last time I lost my temper. Then I checked on them again when I turned the shower off: all was well. I stepped out onto the star-shaped, red, shag rug on the floor and crunch - oh goo, what the (expletive deleted) was that!? I picked up the rug and gave it a hearty shake, not one but two dead lady-bugs fell out toppling and bouncy on the floor, hard shells empty and curled up. One had probably suffocated in the folds of the rug, or gotten lost in the jungle of the shag and starved to death, while the other i had clearly stepped on. I must say that humbled my good samaritan, self-righteous lady-bug whisperer feelings right there, but it was hidden in the rug for god's sake. The next day while doing sit-ups I found two more on the floor. I couldn't be sure why they were dying, too hot, or old age, maybe they mated and planted little baby squat-ers in a corner of my room and in their final act of stickin' it to the man (or poor, overwhelmed foreign exchange student, in my case) laid their weary heads to rest. At any rate there were plenty more to fill their shoes there seemed to be no change in the number of live ones sitting on various surfaces of my living quarters. I threw the dead ones away and carried on.
That night at dinner I found at out all. It turns out that my room was not the only infested part of the house, but all the bedrooms were prone to these tomato colored parasites. They aren't French coccinelles, but chinese imports to clean the corn fields of unwanted pests, but they're a bit out of control because they don't die out with the cold. Well, that put an end to my love-guru theory, and an answer on the end of the mystery. Case closed.


Normandy is four hours away from Marchiennes by car, and since we'd wanted to go to Barcelona but Gilles and Isabelle had had too much work to leave for more than two business days, we ended up driving to Normandy instead. I was pleased because while Spain would have been great, I am here to see France after all. we left at noon and drove for about three hours down to Etretat, where we stopped to see the famous cliffs and walk along the beach. The wind was crazy strong but the cliffs were really amazing to see, and it wasn't too cold. There was a cliff with a tunnel-like passage though it that was open to visitors, so we went through it and on the other side was a sheer (ish about seven feet) drop to the beach with nothing but a scraggly looking rope to help you down. Sarah and I were down that cliff faster than you can say quick-trip-to-the-emergency-room, but Gilles and Isabelle waited at the top for us. Thomas had worn shorts in an attempt to wish the weather into beach mode, but due to the wind he was cold, and so he waited in the car. Once we were down on the beach in the little cove, the cliffs blocked the wind, and the was out so it was really lovely. We didn't stay long, however because they were waiting for us in the tunnel and the little cove was too small to really walk much.
Then we hopped back in the car and drove the last hour to Vilers-sur-Mer, which is right next to Deauville (and Trouville) where the hotel was. We had chosen the hotel because of its proximity to the beach, but it was actually across the street instead of on the beach, and because of the wind, we didn't end up walking on the beach at all. Plus, we had 2 rooms and then room I shared with Thomas and Sarha had a spectacular panorama of the parking lot in back, so that was unfortunate, still, considering the amount of time spent in the hotel room, it didn't really affect the trip overall. That night we had a really delightful meal at a cafe in Deauville, right on the port. We sat outside at one of the tables in a long strip in front of heater-lamps that worked marvelously. We all had mussels and frites (like at the braderie de Lille) excpet for Thomas who had a nice fillet of salmon. The prices were very cheap considering the food and ambiance, and a good time was had by one and all.
The next morning we got up early and drove down to Le Mont-Saint-Michel (about an hour and a half) and walked up the mountain. It was truly remarkable to see, like a little mideival town built from around the side of a mountain which is surrounded by water at high-tide, and which culminates in a spectacular gothic abbey. Unfortunately, it has become an insane tourist trap, I mean Disney Land four times worse. First, there are four museums along the main route up the mountain, all four $9 per adult, free for children, so that's $18 dollars for all five of us for four museums, why not? The first one was two stories (three small rooms) of toy boats with a narration on a tv screen about the tide and the wild-life, plus a bit of history, ending in a large gift shop. It wasn't bad, a little corny, we'll say 10 minutes. The second one was supposed to be a 'light and sound' show about the history of the mountain. Ok. We go in, sit down on these little bench/ leaning pots, and the lights go down. A model of the mount surfaces out of a pond in the stage with a screen displaying footage of the real thing behind it, all to the inspirational tunes of choral singing. For the next 30 minutes we get passionate discourses on the metaphysical importance of Le Mont-Saint-Michel, including a large section on the vertical light from heaven that shines directly on the mountain 24/7 (?!). They kindly added about 5 minutes of history which sounded something like: "Then, disaster strikes! The foundation built by the romans at the heart of the abbey crumbles. . . . But wait! The mount perseveres, a new structure is built. Amazing innovations in gothic architecture are born in the reconstruction of this ethereal national treasure. Unfortunately, the bad times are not over yet. With the second world war, the mountain, gift to humanity falls into disrepair, and is over looked by the outside world. Then, The Mountain Is Saved!!! Mont-Saint-Michel is declared a national monument!" A very moving tale, no? As you can imagine Isabelle was very peeved about being so misled in terms of the content of the show, and being for to sit through something so metaphysical, and over exaggerated after having paid for history. The third museum was the home of a high up clergyman from the 16th century. It was three tiny circular rooms that smelled so intensely of dust that several small children had covered their faces with their t-shirts, and I was tempted to follow their example for fear of asphyxiation. It was interesting while it lasted but it was over so quickly that we actually went back in and tried to find the next room because we thought we'd been mistaken in leaving. The fourth museum was a guided tour ending in another spectacle of sorts, so we were packed like sardines into a waiting room with some historical artifacts to entertain us while we waited for the tour to start. After fifteen minutes of waiting we decided to skip the last museum and walk the last few feet up the side of the mountain to the abbey. The Abbey was a separate fee from that of the museums to enter so we walked around the outside a bit and then we walked back down.
In between the second and third museum we got hungry for lunch. There is a famous restaurant in Mount Saint Michel called 'La Mere Poulard' after a certian Madame Poulard who had made omelettes for the weary travelers who made it through the bog, crossing from the mainland to the mount, and then harbored them at her inn. They still serve the famous omelette. We thought it would be packed because we came right at the hight of the lunch hour, but actually everyone was standing around outside taking pictures, but no one was actually going in to eat, so we got a table right away. In the window there was a sign for Omelettes: $15. When we looked at the menu there were specials ranging from 39 to 79 euros including different appetizers, drinks and desserts with your entree. For the entrees there was a baked camembert cheese for 14, a lobster for 49, a lamb for 49, a steak for 39, and the omelette for 18 per 100 gm of a rather expensive fish that I couldn't translate, cooked with truffle oil. When the waiter came we all decided to order the omelette, but it turns out that you can only order the omelette in either 250 gm, 350 gm, or 450 gm of fish, which means the cheapest omelette you can order is 44 euros. Well, considering that neither Sarah, nor Thomas, nor I for that matter actually like fish very much, we decided to leave. We went and got galettes (crepes with savory filling) and crepes from another little restaurant a bit farther up the mountain. Not bad, not great. Overall a much nicer experience than that which we'd had at the La Mere Poulard, which is advertised like the NY hat at Yankee Stadium.
That night we went to Cabourg (about five to ten minutes from Villers-sur-Mer) for dinner. It was a pretty interior, with art deco style etchings on the large mirror in the corner, and draped silk on the ceiling culminating in a pretty little chandelier in the center. The menu was very classical french bistro food, but it wasn't very good, and certainly nothing compared to the little treasure we'd stumbled on the night before, and yet the prices were the same. We returned to the hotel and enjoyed some bad late night television, which is always most appealing in hotel rooms. The next morning we slept in a bit later, because we didn't have to go as far. We stopped at the famous boardwalk in Deauville and walked along the beach for a half hour. It was cold and cloudy, and the wind was just as strong, or we would have stayed longer. Instead we hoped back in the car and drove to the main place in Trouville and walked around the farmer's market. Then it was off to Honfleur.
Honfleur was my favorite of part of the trip. It was really magnificent. The buildings were arranged in a horse-shoe around a square port. They were all three or four stories high, which little square windows, and colorful awnings. There was a large, double decker Carousel, and all the cafes had put their tables outside to soak up the sun. We ate lunch in a cafe that had huge white stone brick walls, with an arched entry to their wind cellar, and floor to ceiling white washed french windows, open to the spring weather. I had a nice salad with little toasts of goat cheese, and prosciutto. Then Isabelle bought me a little coffee bowl with my name painted on the side, in the normandy tradition, because apparently everyone of their generation had a little bowl with their name on it, so I was very honored. When we'd walked around a bit and had our fill of the sea air, we got back in the car and did all four hours back with a five minute pit-stop so that we were back in Marchiennes by 5 o'clock. It was really a lovely little weekend trip.