Archive for September, 2010

Morning, sunshine! I’m here in sunny Barcelona using the free WiFi in a McDonald’s. Good times. We got into the airport late last night and just slept there (well, TRIED to sleep there – when all the chairs have armrests between them it does not make for comfortable sleeping) and made our way into the city this morning. And when I say made our way, I mean we took a cab – the Spanish are striking today, and everything is shut down. Strikes here aren’t like the strikes in France either. The French strikes are really quite tame. They’re all very orderly and polite; they’re basically political demonstrations rather than the image most Americans have of strikes. And furthermore, they are, as my language professor explained it, the second national sport.

No, in Spain the strikes are a lot more serious. They only strike very rarely, but when they do, everything shuts down. There are no trains, no buses; half of the airport staff wasn’t working. I don’t know if this is a national strike or just in Barcelona, but if it is national, I’d imagine that Madrid is even worse off right now. There were protesters at the airport who made it exceptionally difficult to get a taxi; they would yell and throw things at the cars. We had to walk out of the airport to catch a taxi, as the drivers all started turning around as they pulled in. It was…interesting.

We did, however, get a nice view of the city from the car as we drove around the bay. The main airport in Barcelona is on the southwest side of the city, so we followed along the water and got to see the whole panorama of city and mountains and sea, and it’s a very impressive city. Very different from anything I’m used to. Major mediterranean cities are very different from northern ones; the French cities I’m used to are nothing like this at all. I couldn’t explain what’s different; they just FEEL very different. And it’s weird to be in a city where I don’t speak the language – that’s never happened to me before.

Saturday we had the last of our little field trips for the month of September. We did a little tour of the Gulf of Morbihan in Brittany (northwestern France, for those who don’t know) which was pretty, but not very impressive, as it was two hours on a boat, seeing much the same thing for the entire time (which was entirely too long when one is seasick). After that, we had a picnic lunch on a beach, then got to see some of the Celtic megaliths at Carnac, which are older than Stonehenge (though rather less impressive, as they’re smaller stones, and they’re just in lines). There were three separate fields of them, which was all well and good, but everyone was tired and no one was very excited to be there, so it was basically a dud of a trip. We then spent almost three hours in Vannes, the prefecture of the Morbihan department, which was a pretty city, but it was entirely too long when we all just wanted to leave. Good shopping, but not much else to do.

We did finish the first part of the term here – this month has been just North American and Asian (and a few other European) students before the actual term starts Monday. We’ll have a week to sit in on classes to decide what we want to take (within our levels, of course –  not that I’m worried, as I’m already at a high enough level to take just nearly any class I want, and I don’t think that we can move down, though there’s a good chance we’ll all move up) so that will be good times.

I’m sure I’ll have more to say about Barcelona after this week!


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Châteaux galore

More adventures this week – today was another grève (strike) against some of Sarkozy’s reforms. Let me tell you – we Americans do not hold the patent on unpopular presidents (or complete lack of foresight) – the French, on the whole, don’t like Sarkozy so very much. Unfortunately for them, their Left has the same problems that our Left has had in the last couple elections: a complete lack of any really exceptional candidate. The major Leftist party here, for those who don’t know, is the Socialist Party (François Mitterand’s party) ; Sarkozy’s major opponent in the 2007 election was Ségolène Royal (who, according to my host parents, was NOT an impressive candidate; liberal though they both are, the way they described her was much like Sarah Palin: COMPLETE lack of experience and an unfortunate ability to sound incredibly pathetic in interviews; basically just someone that you’d NEVER want running a country). In any case, it’s apparently still up in the air who will be running against Sarkozy in 2012; much like Bush in 2004, he’s not very popular, but there isn’t really a strong opposition. There’s quite a bit of infighting within the PS – Royal is still in the running, but also strong is Martine Aubry, the party leader, and a few others…. so there seems to be a good chance (as of now, at least) that Sarkozy could be elected again, though he doesn’t appear to be very popular with the common folk.

In any case, the strike today was in response to another one a few weeks ago, which was about the reforms to the retirement system here. The syndicats (labor unions) don’t feel like the gouvernement (which, when used in French, only refers to the President and the Ministers; administration refers to the whole system, Parliament included) has been listening to them; I haven’t heard the official numbers yet, but it seems like it was a pretty big one today. The bus system was pretty out-of-whack… my bus to campus this morning was 40 minutes late. The main street of the city, the Boulevard du Maréchal Foch, was completely blocked by demonstrations…. good times.

Sunday we visited three of the more famous châteaux of the Loire: Azay-le-Rideau, Chenonceau, and Chambord. It was another long day, but at least the bus ride wasn’t so long. We did Azay-le-Rideau first; as it’s a small château, the visit didn’t take very long, but it was impressive just the same. And as it was early, it was relatively cool and not very busy. Chenonceau was next; it was very hot, as we got there a little after noon. We had enough time to explore the rooms that were open to the public, but unfortunately, this weekend was the Fête Patrimoine, so entry to all state-owned buildings was free, which meant that the place was packed. It was definitely enjoyable, but I don’t really feel like I got to really see it, as there wasn’t really any room to move.

Chenonceau was beautiful – the château is built over the river Cher; the most famous section is the Grand Gallery, which is the long room that stretches across the Cher, above which is another room that is used to house art exhibits. The chateau also has extensive gardens à la française (the fancy, formal gardens that French castles are surrounded by, as opposed to the more natural English-style gardens). The rose garden was especially beautiful.

Chambord was the last one we visited; it’s enormous, and unfortunately we didn’t have as much time as I would have liked to see it all. The most famous part of the chateau (aside from the distinctive roofline – about 360 chimneys) is the double-helix main staircase, supposedly designed by Leonardo da Vinci, a favorite of François I. The staircase goes all the way up the center tower, opening out upon the roof before continuing. The view from the roof was amazing.

This Saturday is a trip to the Gulf of Morbihan in Brittany. There are some pre-Stonehenge era megaliths in the area, but other than that, I don’t really know what we’re going to see. You’ll hear more after it happens.

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Another long wait over

Hey kiddies! It’s been another busy week of class, but we haven’t done anything hugely exciting to write about, so once again you’ve had to wait until I felt like writing.

Yesterday we had a tour of a troglodyte village a short distance from Angers; that is to say, it was a village dug entirely into the stone below the fields of the area. The village was fairly small; it was a series of farms, probably only for about six or so families. The entire thing was underground, except for the small central courtyard within each separate farm, and even these were hollowed out below ground level. It was actually cheaper for these families to dig their houses than to build them above ground, as the stone that has been excavated could then be sold, making the family enough money to be able to pay the workers to help them dig. Furthermore, underground dwellings are much easier (and more efficient) to heat and cool; they stay at a much steadier temperature.

As it turns out, being raised by a dairy scientist was somewhat useful in understanding how the subsistence thing worked. For example, our tour guide (true to form) insisted on waiting to see if anyone could explain things before he told us anything, and I was apparently the only one who knew that butter is made from the cream, and that nothing actually needs to be done to separate the cream from the milk, because the cream floats. Go figure.

Not to far away was the small village of Saint-Hilaire-Saint-Florent, just outside the town of Saumur, about 30 kilometers from Angers. In this village one can visit several wineries of the Saumur wine appellation. We visited the Veuve Amiot caves and got a tour of how the wine is made. Most of the wine made there is sparkling wine, in the méthode champenoise, which is to say it is made like the wine in Champagne. We then got the opportunity to taste several of their wines, all of which were bruts; that is to say, sparkling. The first was a dry white which tasted much like the Champagne that people are used to. The second was a slightly sweet rosé, and the last was an off-dry red. The first two were absolutely delicious, and I bought some of each. The red wasn’t my favorite. In case anyone has the opportunity to buy any Veuve Amiot wines, I highly recommend them. The two that I bought are Veuve Amiot, Appellation Saumur Contrôlée; the white is their Cuvée Réservée, and the rosé is just marked “rosé.”

Dinner was in a restaurant in an old wine cave nearby; it was largely mushroom-based, because the region is also especially well-adapted to growing mushrooms in the same caves; the local stone, called tuffeau (which is the same white stone used to build the majority of the Loire châteaux) is especially good at keeping the temperature below-ground steady. In fact, there was a mushroom museum (seriously) a little way down the road from the restaurant. In any case, the food was very simple, but very good. The wine with dinner was of the Anjou-AOC (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée, the government-regulated titles given to wine regions; also used for cheese and many other French products). The red was good,  but relatively forgettable, but the rosé was excellent. I would again recommend that people try rosés of the Cabernet d’Anjou appellation. I can’t remember the name of the winery, but I’ve read good things about the majority of the wines of that appellation.

Because we had some time before dinner, we stopped at the château at Saumur, one of the more famous of the castles in the area. We didn’t have time to see inside, but we were able to walk around the outside, see the Loire from the hillside, and even sample some of the locally-grown grapes. I’ll attach some pictures below; it was well worth seeing.

I’m going to tour several of the Loire châteaux tomorrow; we’ll see Azay-le-Rideau, Chenonceaux, and Chambord. I’m sure I’ll have more to write about after seeing those.

Salut! C’était encore une semaine très chargée, mais nous n’avons pas fait rien d’intéressant pour écrire, et alors, il y a encore une semaine sans nouvelles.

Hier, nous avons fait un tour d’un village troglodytique très près d’Angers ; c’est à dire que c’est un village creusé entièrement de la pierre au-dessous des champs. Le village est petit ; c’est pas plus de cinq ou six fermes. La région entière est souterraine, sauf que les petits cours entre les différentes parties des fermes, même que les cours étaient creusés aussi. Cela coutait moins cher que construction au-dessus, parce que les familles pouvaient vendre la pierre après l’excavation, et avec cet argent, ils pouvaient payer les ouvriers. Et c’est aussi plus facile à réguler la température dans ces caves qu’au dehors.

J’ai appris qu’être enlevé par un scientifique laitier est utile pour comprendre comment on peut vivre au ferme. Par exemple, notre guide a demandé si quelqu’un connaît un peut le processus pout fabriquer le beurre ; j’étais le seul personne qui a sait que le beurre est créé de la crème, et on ne doit pas faire rien pour séparer la crème du lait, parce que la crème flotte sur le lait. Quelle surprise.

Près de ce village est le petit village de Saint-Hilaire-Saint-Florent, juste au dehors de la ville de Saumur, à peu près de 30 kilomètres d’Angers. À ce village, on peut visiter quelques vignobles de l’appellation Saumur. Nous avons visité les caves de Veuve Amiot, pour faire un tour de la production du vin. La plupart des vins de Saumur sont des vins bruts qui sont produit par la méthode champenoise. J’ai acheté quelques vins que nous avons gouté ; ils étaient vraiment magnifiques.

Le dîner était au restaurant dans une cave, près du Musée des Champignons, et alors, c’était principalement un repas des champignons. C’était simple, mais vraiment délicieux. Nous avons bu aussi des vins d’Anjou-AOC.

Nous avons été du temps avant dîner, et alors nous avons visité le château de Saumur, un des plus célèbres châteaux de la Loire. Nous ne sommes pas entrés dans le château, mais se promener un peu. Nous avions l’opportunité de voir le fleuve au val et d’essayer les raisins de la région.

Demain, nous ferons un tour des châteaux de la Loire ; nous verrons Azay-le-Rideau, Chenonceau, et Chambord. J’écrirai après le tour.

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Evening, campers! Sorry I haven’t written much in the last week; not much different has happened. It’s been a good week, to be sure, but nothing I haven’t already written about.

This weekend, however, has been a busy one. As I mentioned in the last post, we had a couple field trips (as it were) this weekend. Friday night we went to see the Cinéscénie at Puy-du-Fou, which was pretty spectacular. The show itself was an enormous outdoor production; the “set” was enormous; it was a pond (which we’re fairly certain wasn’t actually any deeper than a reflecting pool) with huge set pieces of a château, some village scenes, and windmills around it. Much of the show took place on a “road” across the front, but much of it involved things moving in and out the the castle at the back of the lake, all the way around the front of the set. The cast was enormous as well, and it involved a whole bunch of live animals too.

The show itself was basically a stylistic reenactment of the history of France, all the way from early medieval times to present day. The show involved some pretty spectacular lighting and music, and eventually included fireworks and fountains choreographed with the music. I’ll attach a couple pictures below (we could take as many as we wanted, as long as we didn’t use the flash) so you can see some of the effects; it was breathtaking. The show itself was very moving as well, especially during the pieces about the Revolution and the Occupation (by the Germans in WWII), and the effects after, such as spelling out “liberty” in an enormous string of lights.

We got back really late, which wasn’t super fun, as I had an appointment at the bank at 9 on Saturday morning to open an account. The French bureaucracy is NOT a rumor. Not at all. The sheer amount of paperwork we had to sign to open a basic account for 4 months was staggering. The friend I was sharing an appointment with and I were there for a whole hour for just the two of us. I think I signed my name over 20 times. Not so much fun.

In any case, most of yesterday afternoon was spent napping (it had been a long week, followed by a late night and an early morning) and a little bit of shopping (though I didn’t buy anything myself). I did get to meet my host father’s son; I had meet Mme Burvelle’s 2 kids, Clémence and Thibaut, but I hadn’t met Louis (M Burvelle’s son) yet. 15 year olds are the same all over, it seems; kind of an awkward age everywhere.

This morning was another early start; I had to be at the university at 6:45 so we could leave for Mont Saint-Michel. It was nearly a three-hour bus ride; mostly because the route they planned had us going through several towns that they figured we should see; this was nice, but it made for a longer trip, because the bus had to go more slowly within the cities. And it was especially difficult for the bus to navigate the narrow streets.

Mont Saint-Michel, for those who don’t know (I did link to the Wikipedia pages in the last post), is a small town built on a rocky island on the border between Normandy and Brittany. It’s now connected to the mainland by a causeway with some parking spaces; unfortunately, the sea around the island rises exceptionally quickly (so fast that you can actually see the tides changing) and the water was unusually high today, so most of the parking was actually under water. In any case, we got there and had a couple hours to see the place. The first thing we did was climb all the way to the top (WAY too many stairs) to see the abbey and church at the top; afterward, we were free to do what we liked.

The church is late Romanesque/early Gothic, and is very beautiful. I’ll make sure I attach a couple pictures of that as well. The views from the top were absolutely breathtaking; there were a couple terraces that offered excellent panoramas; there was also a great view from the cloister. The abbey was mostly a series of vast rooms on several different levels; much like in big cities, it was easier to build up than out. You can see the spire of the church for miles around.

The town itself is very touristy- only about 100 people live there normally. The streets are steep and narrow and lined with several cute little shops and restaurants, and the obligatory souvenir shops. Good times. It was a really interesting place, but much too crowded for my taste.

After we left Mont Saint-Michel, we drove to Saint-Malo in Brittany. The city is about 50,000 people, but the famous part is the old walled city along the coastline. The views from the ramparts were pretty spectacular; we could see the harbor (which is pretty famous as well; it was host to many of the corsair ships employed by the crown to pirate enemy ships) as well as the small fortified islands in the bay. The city was heavily bombed in WWII; mostly by the Allies, as the Germans took hold of it pretty early on. It has been restored to its original appearance, however, and is very impressive.

Inside the city, we found a crêperie that was pretty excellent, then wandered around a little more. The church of St Stephen was a very pretty little church, with beautiful stained glass. The streets of the town were really cute, with little boutiques on either sides, and paved in small cobbles arranged in fan patterns.

After a long ride, we were back to Angers, which was a very welcome sight. It’s been a long day; though it was fun, I need some sleep.

These are all thrown in together because I’m too tired to sort them out more. The first 5 are from the show at Puy-du-Fou; the next 7 are from Mont Saint-Michel, and the last 6 are from Saint-Malo. Enjoy.

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Classes have finally started here; I took a placement test yesterday (that seemed absolutely BRUTAL), but we didn’t actually start with class until this morning, when we found out which class we were each placed in. Thankfully, I was placed in level 7 ( out of 8 ) so I don’t feel as dumb. Classes seem like they’ll be a really good time; the two professors and one TA I have right now seem pretty great, so there’s that. We’re doing a basic language class (that’s what the different levels are for) which is accompanied by a discussion section and a lab section (not sure what the labs will entail; we didn’t meet with them today), and all levels take a culture class with the same professor. Today we learned about the geography of France; in case anyone is wondering, France has 3 sea borders, 5 mountain ranges, and 5 fleuves (major rivers, think Seine and Loire). And that’s mostly what we talked about today, and what the significance of those is.

In my language class itself, most of the students are American (we have people from Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Kansas, Minnesota, California, Tennessee, and Oregon) as well as a couple Canadians (one of whom is of Jordanian heritage) some Japanese, and some Koreans. For an exercise we did today, I was paired with Yuri, a Japanese girl (who was very nice), who told me that learning French is very difficult for most Asians because Western languages are so completely different. That in itself didn’t surprise me; what surprised me was the sheer number of Japanese and Korean students that study here. In fact, there will be a Japanese student staying at the same house I am in about a month.

I’ve been eating very well, for those who are interested in French food. I’ve had the opportunity already to try several French dishes; the first night I was here I had, among other things, carottes rapées (grated carrots in vinaigrette), saucissons (a very traditional kind of french sausage), and plum tart; at other meals, I’ve tried several other french salads (usually one or two vegetables in a very specific dressing), several pâtés, some delicious white fish in a cream sauce, the obligatory cheese plate (brie and chèvre today), Turkish-style couscous, and the ever-present french bread. Which I have to say I’ll miss when I come home. I also got to try a locally-grown Anjou pear today; I don’t normally care much for pears, but these are delicious.

They have several trips planned for us; the first is to Puy du Fou next Friday, and Mont Saint-Michel and Saint-Malo on the next Sunday. Both should be a good time. We (my friends and I) have talked about visiting the Château on Sunday, as all State monuments have free admission the first Sunday of every month.

I’m sure I’ll have more to say later; as it stands, I’m too full of an excellent dinner to continue now.

Les cours ont finalement commencé ici; J’ai passé un test de placement hier  (qui me semblait tellement horrible), mais nous n’avons pas commencé avec les cours jusqu’à ce matin, où nous avons appris dans lequel niveau nous avons été placé. Heureusement, j’ai été placé au niveau 7 ( sur 8 ), et alors, je ne me sens pas comme imbécile. Je pense que les cours seront bien ; les deux professeurs et la monitrice que j’ai maintenant semble très géniale.  Nous faisons un cours de langue (les niveaux étaient pour cela), une classe de compréhension orale, une laboratoire (dont je ne sais pas beaucoup), et tous les niveaux suivent un cours de civilisation avec la même professeur. Aujourd’hui, nous avons appris un peu sur la géographie de la France ; si quelqu’un a voulu savoir, la France a 3 bordes marines, 5 chaînes de montagne, et 5 fleuves (grandes rivières). Et c’est presque tout que nous avons discuté aujourd’hui, et leur signification.

Dans ma classe de langue, la plupart des étudiants sont américain (les gens viennent de l’Illinois, l’Indiana, le Michigan, le Kansas, Le Minnesota, la Californie, le Tennessee, et l’Oregon) et deux canadiennes (une fille a l’héritage jordanienne), quelques Japonais, et quelques Coréens. Pendant un exercice que nous avons fait aujourd’hui, je travaillais avec Yuri, une Japonaise (qui était vraiment géniale), qui m’a raconté que l’apprentissage du français est difficile pour les gens asiatiques à cause des grandes différences entre les langues orientales et les langues occidentales. Cela ne m’a étonné beaucoup ; c’était plutôt le nombre des asiatiques qui étudient ici. En réalité, il y aura une étudiante japonaise qui restera à la même maison que moi après un mois.

Je mange bien ici, pour tous qui s’intéressent à l’alimentation française. J’ai déjà eu l’opportunité d’essayer quelques plats traditionnels français ; le premier soir ici, j’ai gouté, avec quelques choses d’autre, carottes râpées, saucissons (les saucisses traditionnellement françaises), et une tarte aux prunes ; aux autres repas, j’ai essayé autres salades françaises (un ou deux légumes avec une sauce spécifique), quelques pâtés, un poisson blanc avec une sauce de crème, le plat des fromages obligatoire (brie et chèvre aujourd’hui), couscous à la mode turque, et des baguettes (qui je me manquerai beaucoup quand je rentrerai chez moi). J’ai l’opportunité aussi aujourd’hui d’essayer une poire d’Anjou (ce qui était un produit local) ; je n’aime pas des poires en général, mais j’ai aimé beaucoup les poires ici ; elles sont délicieuses.

Ils ont projeté quelques excursions pour nous ; la première est au Puy du Fou vendredi prochain, et à Mont Saint-Michel et Saint-Malo le dimanche après. Les deux seront bien amusants. Nous (mes amis et moi) ont discuté visiter le Château dimanche, parce que tous les monuments nationaux sont gratuits le premier dimanche du mois.

Je suis certain que j’aurai plus à vous raconter plus tard ; maintenant, j’ai bien mangé un dîner excellent et je ne peux pas continuer.

The pictures are as follows: the main building at the university, my house, my bedroom, the street leading up to my house, and the Rue Bressigny, one of the major streets in the downtown area.

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Angers is a beautiful city. M. Burvelle picked me up from the train station on Monday and showed me around the city a bit. Campus is easy to find, and the bus system seems easy to use; there is a line that goes directly from my host family’s house to the University. The Burvelles actually live in Les Ponts de Ce, a smaller town just outside Angers (much like Savoy is to Champaign). It’s a nice area, fairly modern. The city itself is fairly typical France (well, Europe in general) – old buildings next to modern ones.

I’m not the first international student to live here – not in the least. They’ve had quite a few here in the past, and in another month or so, a Japanese student will be moving in here as well. The Burvelles are a blended family; both parents have been married before and have kids. Three of them live here right now; Mme Burvelle’s son and daughter (20 and 22) are here currently, and M. Burvelle’s 15 year old son shares his time between here and his mother’s house.

Class starts tomorrow morning with a placement exam. Beyond that, I don’t really know.

Angers est une très belle ville. M. Burvelle m’a rencontré à la gare lundi et il m’a montré la ville un peu. Le campus est facile à trouver, et la système du bus est facile à utiliser; il y a une ligne qui passe directement de l’université à la maison de ma famille. Les Burvelle habitent aux Ponts de Ce, une petite ville à coté d’Angers. C’est un endroit très génial, très moderne. La ville d’Angers est typiquement française (et Européenne en générale), avec un mélange des bâtiments vieux et modernes.

Je ne suis pas le premier étudiant américain qui a habité ici; les Burvelle ont eu beaucoup d’autres au passé, et dans une mois, une étudiante japonaise arrivera aussi. Les Burvelle sont une famille mélangée; les parents ont été mariés an avant, et ils ont des enfants. Trois enfants habitent ici; le fils et la fille de Mme Burvelle (20 et 22 ans) sont ici maintenant, et le fils (15 ans) de M. Burvelle est ici de temps-en-temps, et avec sa mère des autres temps.

Les classes commencent demain avec un examen de placement. Après cela, je ne sais pas…

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