Friday, December 26, 2008

Deck The Halls With Goose Liver


Christmas only comes once a year, which I am incredibly thankful for. Firstly, my ability to act human and receive presents graciously and not cower in embarrassment like usual, only happens once a year. My wallet and my Obsessive Compulsive Disorder with finding the world's perfect gift kills for one month, and then is thankfully over. And most importantly, my digestive system can not handle all the rich food and desserts that Christmas tends to chuck at you. Sure, I am a firm believer in the whole- Christmas calories do not count- but the French have still found a way make me regret that simple life motto.

The French celebrate Christmas on the night before during the "reveillon de Noel." Some families eat their enormous meal after they attend a religious ceremony, but my host family could really care less about the religious aspect of the holiday. The kids were only concerned about eating as quick as possible and then rushing off to rip open their presents that had magically appeared under the Tannenbaum (my host Mom is German and so our tree is too.)

That morning my younger sister Shannon and I decided to try Dijon again. You see, Shannon had already ventured into my city, Dijon, but she only saw the floor tiles of the Monoprix, having thrown up everywhere. She missed the cobblestone streets and tiny shops that make Dijon a pretty cool place. First, I showed her around Fixin, stopping only to drop up some presents for Andrew and Bernard family. Andrew decided to tag along with Shannon and I on our tour through Dijon.

While Andrew went off to complete his last minute Christmas shopping, Shannon trekked off to the H&M with a mission. She had fallen in love with the European Trench coat that every single girl in France owns. She was willing to pay anything for it, but H&M gave her a good deal. Shannon was happy for the rest of the day in her fancy pants new coat, all the while looking very European.

Meeting back up with Andrew, we ran around the city into a variety of different shops searching for the perfect gifts for Martine and Phillippe Bernard. By the time 5:00 came around, we had finished with everything and were ready for our return to Fixin. I had been willing to stay and show Shannon around more, but she was done with Dijon and ready to leave.

Back at the Robert's, we sat around and waited for the Christmas festivities to begin. We brought down our enormous amount of presents and placed them under the Tannenbaum, while Leonie prepared the feast in the kitchen. The others were nowhere to be seen, and I suspected that they were quickly wrapping their gifts. In my room, Shannon and I quickly took note to the fact that dinner was going to be a formal affair. The problem? I own no generally nice clothes. Shannon and I concocted two somewhat nice outfits, but still felt slightly under dressed. At 8:00, as everyone appeared in fancy dress, Jean-Francois opened the bottle of Champagne. The biggest surprise came from Shannon when she agreed to have a glass of Champagne. Me? I sort of attacked Jean-Francois when her forgot to offer me a glass. Yeah, I really do love Champagne that much! But as I was soon to learn, yet again, I can barely hold any alcohol without breaking out in a giggling fest or doing something stupid, like falling down the stairs.

After a delicious glass of Champagne, it was time for the first course of our Christmas feast. Foie Gras, or fat liver, was placed on the dinner table, and then quickly attacked by a mad French family and one oddly American teenager. (I will give you a hint: it was not Shannon) Okay, yes, I am a Vegetarian, but I can not resist the delicious taste of Foie Gras. Plus I am a Vegetarian based on the fact that meat tastes gross, not that I have a morals in killing a poor animal. Because if that was the case, then Foie Gras is absolute cruelty. They make the food by shoving a tube down a goose throat and force feeding food until the Goose pretty much bites the big one from overeating. The French do not seem to mind the cruelty, so neither do I. Shannon, however, took an immediate hatred to the stuff, and spent the rest of the night trying to forget about what she had just eaten.

Most French families sit at the table for up to three hours with up to 7 or 8 different courses, but my host family is not exactly the perfect French family. In fact after the delicious Foie Gras, Leonie called an intermission between the next dish and off we all went. I had already drank 2
glasses of Champagne and a glass of hand-picked special wine that was supposed to specially compliment the Foie Gras. Whatever, it was all delicious to me. With all this tasty alcohol in my
tiny body, it was no wonder the I was hard time not breaking in laughter at practically nothing. I also had a little misfortune incident involving my inability to walk down the stairs properly, but really, I was just fine. (That's me in the picture being just fine!)

The second course was scallops for those of us that liked Seafood, and Duck for those that did not.
Shannon has become quite a fan of Duck, though I prefer the Scallops. While chowing down, I decided to be mature and decline an offer for another glass of wine. During the meal, the family spoke about things, and Shannon just sat with her head rolling. Even I have a hard time with understanding, but I am used to feeling left out of the conversation to it does not bother me in the slightest.
Coline finished her meal the quickest and immediately began to press the issue of presents. But Leonie and Jean-Francois wanted to eat dessert first, so they went into the kitchen and brought back two enormous cakes shaped like logs. "I wonder why the Christmas cakes are always shaped like logs," wondered Charlotte.
"I KNOW!" I nearly hurled at her as I jumped out of my seat. You have know idea what it feels like to be stupid all the time. You tend to jump on any occasion where you can be smart.
"It is because in Old Europe they would burn a Yule Log for 12 days leading up to Christmas. The cake is a tribute to the log," I explained.
My host family just sort of stared at me funny, and Shannon breathed something like, "know-it-all" under her breath. Score!
When all the cake was eaten, it was time for presents. Now, I do not know how many times I have said this but I truly hate receiving presents. The Roberts and Shannon do not seem to mind in the slightest. Shannon tore into her new presents; a Roxy bag, French perfume, Chocolate galore, and a Snow globe. Each of the three Robert kids got one big present; a Wii game console for Coline; an Iphone for Charlotte; and an electric guitar for Antoine. My host parents bought me a new cell phone, but before you say, "well how nice!" I think you should know that it was more out of spite. I have been resisting their urges to get a cell phone since August. Still it was a thoughtful gesture, and I made sure to thank everyone.
Christmas Eve was the main celebration for Christmas, as opposed to the usual Christmas day that Shannon and I are used to in the United States. I think Shannon was a little homesick when she realized Christmas here was certainly nothing like what it would be like at home. As for me? I was more than grateful to spend the day with my host family and my little sister. The thing I really love most about the holidays, besides all the presents and delicious food, is definitely spending time with family, and that is what I was able to do.





Thursday, December 25, 2008

Shannon and Julie Stick It to the French

How do you start a post that begins at Dijon station at 6 in the morning?

Words can not accurately describe my feeling on December 22nd = when Jean-Francois dropped me off at Dijon Station to catch my train to Charles de Gaulle International Airport in Paris. I had not slept a single moment during the previous night, it was cold and early, and I was vaguely aware that once I got to Paris, I would have to wait for 5 hours in a boring airport with lots of holiday travellers. And yet, the petite soeur, Shannon Rose Garner, was making her way to France as I trudged through the station and found my first class seat. I think if it was anybody else in the world, I would have just "forgotten my train ticker" or something along those lines. And even though Shannon and I do not have the world's greatest sister relationship, there is nothing more in this world I want than to show her around my world. Maybe then, just maybe, she will understand what propels the insanity that can be attributed to some of the things I do.


And so, I will try very hard not to spend too much time complaining about how awful of a time I had. Just give me 10 seconds. OH MY GOD CHARLES DE GAULLE INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT IS THE WORST PLACE ON THE ENTIRE PLANET FULL OF RUDE FRENCH PEOPLE AND RICH SNOTTY AMERICANS BENT ON MAKING HOLIDAY TRAVEL A LIVING HELL. I WOULD RATHER BE PAINFULLY PICKED AWAY BY VELOCRAPTORS THAN SPEND ANOTHER MINUTE IN THAT AWFUL PLACE DURING HOLIDAY TRAVEL.

Okay back to business.

After Shannon and I got on the Paris Metro headed for Gare de Lyon, we realized we had about 3 hours to kill, lots of catching up to do, and preparing Shannon to meet the French. That final fact was definitely the hardest for my sister to face. In the Gare de Lyon, hundreds of thousands of French travellers scurried around searching for their trains in the holiday travel. French travellers, are in fact French, and thus subject to French mannerisms, like pushing people out of the way, failing to grasp the concept of waiting in line, and of course, my personal favorite, stopping right in the middle of a busy corridor in front of other people. For me, having lived this life for 4 months, it is normal and I even find myself doing some pushing back. But for poor Shannon, culture shock smacked her so hard in the form of some moronic Frenchman cutting her off as we walked along.

"Shannon, " I said, observing her disgruntled face, "Your Grandmother is French Belgian that makes you a little French. That gives you the right to be French. So push! Shove! Curse! Be French!" She still did not get it. Every ounce of her conscience shouted to do the right thing, or at least the thing she was taught to do, which is stand back and be walked on by a bunch of festive frogs.

The one thing she can not complain about is that we stopped for a little snack along the side of the station. I had wanted her to try some French Crepe's, a good old traditional French snack. But in France it is somewhat a rarity to see people work, just like the various crepe shops had been closed. I will never understand why the shops would close on what would most definitely be their most fruitful time of the year, but this is France. But instead Shannon was able to try her very first Chocolate Fondant Cake, which I had forgotten did not exist in the good old States. It is literally a chocolate cake with no flour that is just oozing with chocolaty goodness. The first time I had the cake, I thought I had died and gone straight to heaven, and was just about ready to hand over my USA passport for a piece of chocolate cake. Now that I have become a little French-fryed I can differentitate between a good cake and a bad one, and even though Shannon was raving about her piece of cake, I knew Leonie and all the mom's of Fixin could top that cake in a heart beat. In addition, I thought it best to get Shannon a snack for the train ride. I bought my personal favorite, Kinder Bueno Chocolate, which is a German chocolate that is by far the world's greatest chocolate. Shannon agreed, even as some ignorant Frenchmen walked right into her bag and knocked it over without so much as an excuse me.
Shannon is 3 and half years younger than I am. However, if you ask the Robert's and the Bernard's, they might find something to argue about. The simple obvious fact that she is significantly taller than me, prettier than me, and more normal than me, would spark a hearty debate. And so we made it to Robert's, and Shannon was given a taste of what it is like to sit at a dinner table and have no freaking idea what is being said. At least I could catch a few words here and there. But she felt awkward, which I suppose is natural, but since my host family is by far the best host family in France, I was making plenty of excuses for her.

Jet lag propelled Shannon to sleep late, and remain exhausted throughout the entire next day. although, most people might argue that it was Jet lag and something else. For the 23rd of December, Shannon and I decided to explore the wonderful city of Dijon. Or at least that was the plan, originally.
First I wanted to show her the vineyards and so we took a 30 minute walk from Fixin to Marsannay to get on a cheaper bus so that Shannon could explore small town France. Of course she loved it, what is not to love? But had some hard time grasping how I, a city girl, could survive in a town of 715 people. Now comes the bad part. Shannon got on the bus and sat on a seat going backwards, even though she knows she gets car sick quicker than race horse on steroids. Needless to say after 12 minutes, she got up and switched seats, portraying a slightly greenish tint.
When we got off in the center of Dijon, I could tell she was still feeling queasy but not quite so bad. We went into Gap, H and M, Claire's, and a few other stores, but I should have known she was not feeling right when she turned the opportunity to go into Sephora. Yeah, she is that kind of girl. In the meantime, I wanted to take her to the Monoprix so that I could show her a French supermarket, which I have always found to be a great experience when you travel to another country. There is nothing like unlocking the mysterious and oddities of an entire culture like seeing their main dishes and their junk food all in one place.
"Look at the snails, Shannon," I said chuckling, "and all the Burgundy wine and delicious stinky cheese." She glanced, and then turned away quickly, not saying a word and following all of my moves. Somewhere between the rows of chocolate in Christmas style and goose gizzards, Shannon spoke, "Julie, I am going to throw up."

I thought she was joking, I mean sure, the French have some weird dishes, but it is not as weird as some American dishes. "Oh Shannon, knock it off, it isn't that bad," I said annoyed as I observed her eyes bulge twice their size and her pink cheeks flush to a pale tint.

"Oh no, you are kidding!" I picked up her jacket and hurled it at her head. "Hold it in, there is no bathroom for a while. The French will make you pay money!" (Yes I am cheap. But honestly, I was not taking Shannon very seriously, so please give me a break.)

Too late.

She threw up all over the floor, her sweatshirt, and her new jacket.

The first thing that went through my mind was , "how do you say in French, 'Hi my sister just threw up all over your supermarket, can you clean it up?' In Paris, they might make you pay some fee to clean it up, but people are a bit nicer in Burgundy. They would probably just shoot daggers at Shannon with their eyes and force her to watch as some poor old underpaid fellow cleans on his hands and knees.

So I looked at my sick sister, and said, "Shannon. Run!"

She was not finished either, because as we sprinted for the exit, she made a brief stop in the stairwell and chucked up whatever else was in her stomach. I groaned, but ushered her forward to a sprint, knowing I would never be able to come back to this store.

She felt much better as she and I assessed her coat in the bathroom of the giant mall. In fact, after we laughed so hard, enough to nearly wet our pants, we decided that Shannon's sweatshirt was destroyed and had better use in a garbage can. She stood at the sink in the grimy bathroom, laughing and scrubbing her jacket, which was not as bad as it could have been. And suddenly, a cross-dressing man in a woman's dress entered the woman's bathroom. Shannon stopped laughing because I shot her a look that clearly stated to stop laughing and to not say a single word. We exited the bathroom quietly, and then burst into laughter again. What a weird country.
To recover, Shannon and I decided to head back to Fixin without doing much exploring. On the bus back, Shannon fell asleep barely a few minutes after we departed. As she snored along I made sure to note something. My little sister does not go out of her way to be mean or to bring about revenge if she does not have to. But in her own not-so-subtle manner, Shannon returned the same feeling that she had been receiving from the French. She had been pushed, shoved, given dirty looks, had rude remarks made about her lack of French, and been treated in the way that the French often treat people without thinking about it. And in return, she threw up all over a French Supermarket. In 24 hours Shannon had succeeded in doing the very thing I have been trying to do for the past 4 months. She stuck it to the French.
As for me, I have learned that if you can not beat them, join them. That is why she and I sprinted out of the store, which was my idea. Shannon and Julie have succeeded in sticking it to the French.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

It's Coming On Christmas...

Before I begin my post about how Christmas is rapidly approaching small town France and the rest of the world, I feel obligated to tell you all that a major decision regarding my exchange has been reached. I am staying with the Robert's for the rest of the year! I plan on sitting down in the coming days and telling the whole story about how this came about, but right now I am busy with holiday cheer...

Oh Christmas.
A time for to spend with beloved family...
A time to give presents to those we love...

A time to celebrate the birth of our lord and saviour Jesus Christ...

A time to stuff ourselves silly with chocolate, Christmas cake, KFC fried chicken (if you are Japanese,) and Goose Liver (if you are French) and all the other delicacies of the holiday...

As for me?

2006: A time to eat KFC and clean toilets on December 25th, while pretending to be Japanese, who, as a matter of fact, do not really understand Christmas, and could probably care less about it.
2007: A time to be with my American family, opening presents, discussing my future plan of college (What happened to that idea?) and just celebrating the holiday that I have grown up counting down the days for.
2008: A time to be with my French family and my American little sister, sitting at the table for three hours and eating such delicacies as snails, foie gras (goose liver)

And so this year will mark the third Christmas in another country. True, the second year was spent in America, which is technically the place of my birth, but I have accepted a new philosophy about my life. I am a Hedonic Refugee, which are people who wake up one morning and realize they were born in the wrong country. But that is for another time. Now I just want to talk about the preparation for a French Christmas.
Since my host mom, Leonie, is actually German, our French Christmas has already been greatly affected by German influences. Besides the fact that St. Nicolas visited us on December 6th, Mutti, Leonie's mom, sent all the grand kids (and me), some Christmas cash, along with her world famous cookies. Let me tell you something, the French make the world's best Cheese, New Jersey grows the worlds best Cranberries, but those German really do make the world's best cookies. Although, according to Leonie, I come a very close second to making the world's best cookies. I have made Chocolate Chip Cookies, which flew off the plate quicker than they could cool off. The Robert's then proceeded to rave about them for the week afterward. In addition, I made Jewel Cookies for Thanksgiving, which had even Martine Bernard, who Andrew, my fellow exchange student, swears is the Goddess of the Kitchen, asking for the recipe. Then this past week, I made my Nana's famous Sugar Cookies, which are best-loved in Garner/Young family for their hardness and holiday speciality. But I added extra butter (how very French of me!) which made the cookies soft and gooey. I thought they would not be quite as good, but then after Leonie ate about 12 of them in a span of 10 minutes, I realized just how delicious everyone thought about them. Currently, I am set to make some Chocolate Chip Cookies for Christmas Eve. Even though I have said that Chocolate Chip Cookies are not a Christmas dessert, Leonie, who I am beginning to think is the reincarnation of Cookie Monster, does not care in the slightest.


Christmas music does not exist in France. This is probably the worst part about spending the holiday here. But thus far it is the only complaint I really have with the holiday season. Because a stroll through Dijon during the night is enough to forget about all your troubles. Sure, it is no New York City Rockefeller Center, but the lights are really beautiful, white and blue on all the major streets. Even Leonie felt compelled to string up some white lights on the gate outside the house.


If the Wise Men had not come bearing gifts, I would not have all the hassle of Christmas shopping, or choosing the right present for people. For Christmas all the barriers of eternal cheapness seem to fall down, I just want to find the perfect present. So even though I may not be cheap, I have a new problem. I refuse to spend a single dime unless the present is absolutely perfect, which is impossible at best. And so, before I go on any further about the parts of Christmas that I hate, just know it has not been a successful Christmas shopping season. I am going to become one of the 60% of Americans who finish shopping the day before Christmas. I hope.
Shannon Garner, the petit soeur of Julie Garner is coming to France.

Tomorrow.

Hopefully.
Since, apparently it is snowing like a bear in New Jersey, a rare occurrence but enough to spark speculation about the theory of Global Warming. I sincerely hope I will get to blog about her experience while seeing France through my eyes, the eyes of Hedonic Refugee, not a tourist.
Happy Holidays! Talk to you soon!


Saturday, December 20, 2008

My Report Card

There is truly nothing like attending school in a language you can not speak and barely understand. And yet, still getting decent enough grades to be envied by your class mates.

Having a spent a year of my life in Japan, I became quite focused on my grades. Not that I was not completely focused before hand, obtaining all A's and B's in all of my subjects. But getting grades was not the center of my life, in the way that it was my Senior Year of High school. In Japan, I watched as my classmates spent each day and night dedicated to their studies in hopes of a bright future. I think it most of wore off on me in some way shape or form.
Not many people can say that they spent the better part of their last days in high school waking up at 4 in the morning to read their history book. Even on days when there was no test. But while most of my classmates slacked up and just barely passed Senior Year, I made High Honor Roll and achieved the highest marks on both AP exams I took.

However, for as hard as I try here in France, for some reason, I just can not nail down this darn language. That is why I was incredibly shocked when I received my report card in the mail.
Before I bedazzle you, or not, you should know a few things about the French grading system. Grades are a point system based out of 20 points, and it impossible to achieve a perfect score. Scores between 12 and 18 are considered good, while 11-10 is okay, and then everything else is bad.
Francais (French philosophy and literature)
Score: - no score-
Commentary from the teacher: "Julianne takes good notes. The problems of the language only affect the material of the course, otherwise, I am very impressed with her rapid imporovement in French."
Commentary from Julie: "This is my favorite class because I love reading about French philosophy, and understanding why the French do the things they do. I also love the teacher. On the flip side, I do not understand more than half of the stuff going on!"

Histoire/Geographie (History of France during the 19th Century and the Georgaphy of the European Union
Score: -no score-
Commentary from the teacher (who resembles Voldemort from Harry Potter): "She works very well, always taking notes and participating when asked."
Commentary from Julie: "Yes, he forgot to mention that I taught the class about the American enterprise the New Deal. Otherwise, I also really like this class, especially Geography. After the last test, I now know all the names of the major cities in England!"

Anglais (English Level 1)
Score: -18-
Commentary from the teacher: "Thank you for all of your help Julie! You have a wonderful accent!"
Commentary from Julie: "Thank you, Madame, it truly is wonderful to know that I speak good English. I bet my parents will be very proud!"

Anglais (English Level II)
Score: -17,2-
Commentary from the teacher: "Thank you for all of your help Julie! You have a wonderful accent!"
Commentary from Julie: "Thank you, Madame, it truly is wonderful to know that I speak good English. I bet my parents will be very proud!"

Maths Informatique (Stuff I learned in Middle School)
Score: -11, 2-
Commentary from the teacher: "It is obvious she has learned this stuff before but I gave her lower score because she refuses to write 7 the European way and other things."
Commentary from Julie: "She hates me because I called her a man on my first day."

EPS (Gym)
Score: -10,5-
Commentary from the teacher: "Does not try very hard."
Commentary from Julie: "Only because I hate Gymnastics. You do realize that I a run for 2 hours in the combs twice a week and also swim laps twice a week. Maybe that is why I do not try hard in a class with girls who run like they have poop in their pants."

Oh there were other subject as well, but they gave me neither a grade or a helpful comment. The only other thing I want to point out is that my average was something like 14 points, whereas the middle average was 11. The kid who can barely speak French beasted the actually Frenchies.
Some things will never change.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Immersion

Four months of French immersion, and I am starting to toughen up. I mean, I thought I was pretty tough after my first exchange to Kochi, Japan, when I was dressed in a sailor moon uniform, fending my sanity from kawaii, and trying to get around in a culture that I had no concept of. Or I thought I was pretty tough when the American History AP exam came rolling into town, and I spend days if not weeks preparing and revising. Maybe “tough” felt more like “numb” during my final year of American high school, when I took AP courses, freaked out for college, ran Varsity Cross Country, and tried to get back into a life that I just did not fit into regardless of what I did. It was tough.

But now I am in France, and it is a whole new football game, as it were. This past month, I would go to sleep just as exhausted as if I had run a full marathon, even before my classes at the Lycee (high school) had really begun. The reason is easy to name: language immersion is tough. Sometimes it takes some real mental and emotional toughness to face day after day of linguistic exercise. It takes some real courage to speak up in class, to French students in my weekly classes, to the administration for trying to nail down my course schedule, and to my host family. The mix of feelings throughout a day, the struggle and success back to back, is complex to be sure. What I am finding is really just what I had hoped to find: Studying and living in French is a whole new flavor of challenge, and it is every bit as delicious as my exchange to Kochi, Japan.


One of the tricks I’ve tried to employ to keep my French improving and my spirits high is to enjoy the mistake. Its pretty obvious that an American student is gonna be pretty far from a native speaker. So making mistakes is not just inevitable, it seems to be exactly the way to improve. Maybe if I make every mistake in the French language enough times, the same part of my brain that memorizes bad rock music or Star Wars movie lines will gradually accrue more and more expertise, and I’ll wake up one more morning chattering like my Lycee Brochon comrades of 16 and 17 years.

Of course it would be much easier if people were a little nicer, but this is not Japan or even America. The biggest problem for me arriving in France with as much French as a bag of potato chips, is that I am way too sensitive for this country. I am used to and I like the enthusiastic and smiley, warm and welcoming feel. And when the French are not like this, which let's face it is all the time, it makes me uncomfortable.

Recently, I have been causing quite a problem because I tell people Japanese is much easier than French. Actually, they are both incredibly difficult for an English speaker, such as myself. Social anthropologists call this an 'implicit' culture where much of the information exchange is implied; it's between the lines where all the communicating happens. Japan — where people famously go to great lengths to avoid saying no out loud — is another example. This, as opposed to Anglo-Saxon cultures — most especially American culture — where information is communicated explicitly, usually in the form of words, and verbal subtlety can be considered morally suspect. Think of the expressions "straight talk,", "being straight with you", "straight from the shoulder," even "talk turkey". Americans consider "talking around the subject" inefficient at best, manipulative at worst. We prefer to talk turkey year-round. But talking around things is nearly all the talking in French

I have the most trouble with the "r" in French. I can not say this enough, but honest to god it is like hocking up a big sticky glob of mucus from the throat. If the r is at the end of the word, I can sometimes do the sound. But when there are various "R" in the word, there is no possible way I can even think about nailing it. It is certainly awkward sometimes, and more than a little frustrating when you can not find the words, or worse, you find the words but your pronunciation is incomprehensible. But I think if you can enjoy the mistake, you will never be disappointed.

And so, yes, I speak French, imperfectly, but well enough to get through this life I have chose. I am not a natural linguist; but I do love languages. Any skill I have in my secondary languages of Japanese and French have been acquired the hard way, throwing myself head on to immersion right in the middle of another foreign country. Difficult? Heck yes, but I benefit from the "Just jump right in the pool rather than dawdling around on the side of the ladder for an hour" style of living life.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Le Blocus, Manifestation, Protest, Riot or whatever else you might want to call it



Greetings from the front line of the Revolution!
Since mid November there have been school strikes and demonstrations of pupil power in many of the nation’s major towns and cities (or random vineyard country schools, such as my own Lycee Brochon.)---->

My classmates have been protesting against the forthcoming education reforms proposed by the infamous Darkos, President Sarkozy's education minister. And as you can see, they have been taking to the streets in mass demonstrations to voice their discontent.

In the proposed bill were propositions to reform the secondary school system, or the high schools all across this chaotic country. The school year was to be changed and organized along the lines of semesters rather than terms. Each semester the pupils were to have taken a series of modules including core modules in maths, French, science, foreign languages and humanities. On top of the core modules, we students were to be given the choice of extra optionals. Kind of sounds like the good old United States, no?Nothing particularly controversial, save the fact that under this new system, some subjects would have lost their status. The teaching of maths for example was to have been reduced to two hours a week, and students would have chosen their science subject, rather than studying all the sciences. (I am a liberal arts kids- the second someone offers to reduce the time of math and science, they have won me over!) The other idea was also to remove certain subjects from the curriculum, depending on what pupils had chosen to study for their baccalauréat (French school leaving certificate). Kids studying for a majority of arts based subjects would no longer have been expected to take maths, in the same way that science students would have been dispensed from humanities.
Now please, someone, tell me why this is such a bad thing?

But it suddenly became a debate about the quality of education.

The French education system is heavily weighted in favor of maths as it is, so why is it so bad to just remove a few hours anyway? For right now, if you are good at maths you will always get through. If you are good at everything except maths and science, you are going to have a tough time of it. *cough* ME!
Having experienced the riots, I have co,e to realize that the student protests are not actually against the reforms but mostly just against the idea of the government trying to reform
education. Any suggestion of educational reform, whatever reform it may be, especially by a right or centre right government, is enough to get students and teachers out of the classroom and onto the nation’s streets in their thousands. Everyone hates Sarkozy, at least here where I am from in Bourgogne. Plus this week is a huge week for testing of the final year of high school, quite an interesting time to go on strike, no?
Since I have said this before, and I believe I will say it again many more times this year, I am not French, and so this protest is not my concern. I sat alone in class on Friday, and again broke through the barrier on Monday for school. But when it was time to head home for lunch, I discovered I was locked in by a large pile of stolen supermarket carts that students had stolen to form a blockade. My history teacher and I had to jump the fence on the other side of the school to get out. "You know, you have been here for 4 months, that is actually a long time to go without a strike. This is normal, welcome to France."

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Presque Francais... well not really

It was a hot July day, when my mother and I arrived at the doorstep of the French embassy in New York City. We faced one slight problem since we did not have the printed confirmation notice, as our computer had failed before we could print it. Still, we were hopeful that the Embassy workers might still allow us in and give me a quick expedient Visa. You see, it is not as though this is new stuff for me. At 15 years-old, I put my passport in the mail for the Japanese embassy in Denver in request for some sort of Visa for one year. Barely a week passed and my passport was returned, stamped, and ready for departure. The efficiency and speed did not even occur to me at that point, since it was my first visa that I had ever applied for and received. And then it was time for the French visa...

We took a rickshaw through Central Park that morning. The walk was probably too long for us to do anyway. And then we arrived at the beautiful huge consulate building at least 30 minutes early. Still, there was already a long line at the door, so we found a spot in line to wait. After a long wait, the large African-American security guard, who quickly established himself as not French, but in fact, American, came out and rudely demanded to see my passport. I showed it to him, proving that I am Julianne Garner, as shown on the document that he had showing the scheduled appointments. However, he still felt the urgent need to reprimand my Mom and I for not having the confirmation number, slam the door in the face of the other people, and act like a complete animal.

On the bright side, the French were quite kind. The first lady quickly scanned my documents, accepted the Visa payment ($150!!!) , and then gave us directions. But on the bad side, I was denied. The second guy failed me because the financial forms were a few days old, and also because my Dad did not sign one document, which we later found out was rather menial and useless. He gave us the directions to return the following day, bright and early, with fixed documents for the Visa.

My Mom was furious, and I was really annoyed. But, it was a wake up call for what was to come during my year in France. The year in which every corner crossed is filled with paper-pushers, a ridiculous bureaucracy, which leaves people wondering how anything ever gets done in this country.

The following day, I did receive my Visa, but only after my Dad nearly punched the security guard, and he and I had to wait in the French consulate lobby for over 2 hours. 2 hours of waiting for a sticker and a congratulations from the guy who stamped the stick in my passport. Alas, the Visa, unlike the Japanese, it was only good for 3 months. This meant that upon arrival in France, I would have to demand another longer visa, pay another ridiculous sum, and of course go through another experience like the one I had in New York.

The application for the Carte de Sejour took Leonie and I just under 2 months to complete. It probably would have been quicker, but neither she or I had any idea what we were doing, and Rotary did not offer any help. But at least I had Leonie, because Alex in Dijon had to do the whole thing by herself. Needless to say she still has not had an appointment or even a conformation that someone received her application.

We sent the application in just in time before my Visa expired. The Carte de Sejour demanded exactly the exact same stuff as the visa, but also a birth certificate and a new financial form. In addition, it all had to be translated into French, which was easy for Leonie, but not for me to collect all these ridiculous documents. The Robert's ended up vouching for me financially, which was really embarrassing, but at least everything was finished. Finally, I was given an appointment for the necessary medical check on December 11th, just in the middle of my school testing. Not that I am complaining...

Things went pretty smoothly for having to deal with the French bureaucracy yet again. The medical exam was quite ridiculous actually. There was a set of different doctors, one who examined my eyes and weight, another who took an X-ray, informed me that my lung looked funny, and another document who asked me mental health questions. Of course, they almost failed me because I had an infection of my eye the size of a gumball. But I explained that it was from swimming and not from some infectious disease I had brought into glorious old France. In addition, Leonie and I did some translating for the agency that granted me the card. There was a Japanese couple who could not understand a single of French. So Leonie translated the complex French for me, and then I translated that into Japanese for the couple. Everything worked out great, and the doctors at the agency thanked me for helping by passing me through.

And so, I received my Carte de Sejour, or long term Visa for a longer stay than just 3 months. As I walked away, Leonie said, "Congratulations, you are almost French (presque Francais.)" The interesting thing is that this quote stayed with me for the time being. You see many times over this year, I have been accused of not being very American, in the way I eat, act, and live my life. Now no one has ever mistaken me for being French, but being this close to becoming a French person is an interesting new perspective for me.

Because the next day, I proved to myself that I am not almost French.

President Nicholas Sarkozy and his education department have recently proposed a bucketful of new changes to the French schooling system. Everyone I know that has not grown up in a French school agrees that the school system here is in dire need of a change. Yet the French are not open to the new education reforms, and so everyone of my classmates at the school took to the streets in protest. Strikes, manifestations, and protests are an everyday occurrence in France, but seeing young high school students standing outside their school with huge banners and banging obnoxious drums was troubling for me.

I was the only one in class that morning for a number of my classes. Even Andrew, the fellow American exchange student, and Nike, the German exchange student, decided to go home and not attend class. The teachers were not striking, so nearly every teacher asked me why I was in class and why I would even bother coming. My English teacher even asked what I thought about the new education reforms, since they were very much like the way schools are run in the United States.
"Because I am not French, this does not concern me."

Monday, December 08, 2008

A Visit from St. Nicolas and the Lights of Lyon


December 6 is a very important morning for most European children (and apparently some American children of Eastern European decent- as Andrew so rightfully pointed out.) On the eve of the Saint's Day, children put their shoes near the chimney and sing a song to Saint Nicolas before going off to bed. The shoes overflow in the morning with special Saint Nicolas sweet treats—chocolates and special cookies. Saint Nicholas has come during the night to give gifts to all the good little children. In addition, even though the Christmas season begins in France in early November, December 6 is unofficially the start of a season of joy, gift-giving, and chocolate binging.

In Bourgogne, December 6th is actually just a regular day. My friends, Alex and Andrew woke in the morning to a normal day with no sneakers filled with chocolate and candy treats. As for me, I awoke to find my turquoise Etnies shoe filled with German gummies, Chocolate shaped-Saint Nicholas, and a giant Chocolate mouse in a Santa suit. No one had explained to me what was going on the night before, when my 10 year-old host sister, Coline barged into my room past midnight screaming, "Julie! I need one of you shoes!" I love Coline, but I will never say she is completely sane in all of her motives. So I handed over a shoe and did not even wonder why she bolted from the room joyfully. (How stupid of me! Knowing Coline, if this had been other day, she probably would have done something mischievous like pouring a can of jelly in the shoe.)

And so, when Leonie woke up early on the morning of Saturday, December 6th for our weekly Saturday morning run, I did not even blink when I saw my shoe filled with chocolate. It was not until after the run that I fulled comprehended what had happened. I immediately questioned Leonie about why the heck my shoe was filled with chocolate, and she explained to me Saint Nicholas Day. Of course when someone gives me chocolate, I am happier than a pig in mud. I got on the computer and demanded to know what the other exchange students in France has received from Saint Nicholas. But I was shocked to find out that only Paul in Alsace-Lorraine, which is the former German territory of France, had received something.

Leonie laughed when I told her, and said, "Well it's because I'm German that we celebrate it!" I chuckled but said, "How unfair for all the other kids in France to get nothing from Saint Nicholas, since he only visits the houses of German people." And so that morning, I binged out on yummy German chocolate and thanked Saint Nicholas for his generosity in giving.

****
The second largest city in France, is Lyon, located in the eastern part just above the French Alps. It's is about two hours from Dijon by car on the major highways. Every year on December 8th, the city hosts a light festival to pay tribute to the Virgin Mary. This is because historically, Lyon was spared by the black plague, after the mayor prayed to Mary and promised to pay tribute her is she could save the city from the plague. Alas, the city was spared, and for over 300 years, the city has been lit up in tribute to her. The Fête des lumières expresses gratitude toward on December 8 of each year.Lyonnaise tradition dictates that every house place candles along the outsides of all the windows to produce a spectacular effect throughout the streets. The festival, which includes other activities based on light, usually lasts 4 days, with the peak of activity occurring on the 8th.

Ignoring the projected rain forecasts, the Roberts decided to head out to Lyon for the festival, and of course to bring me along. First, they had to find somewhere to send Coline because it would be too late of a night for her and too much walking. It was a terrible two hours listening to her whine and moan and beg to be taken along. Even though I thought it was a little unfair that we she was not invited, after how much walking we did, I realize it was definitely for the best. Next, we packed up the minivan, there was Charlotte, Clemence, Antoine, Leonie, Jean-Francois, and me driving along the major highway from Dijon to Paris. It is just under a two hour drive and I blasted Christmas music in my ears the whole way. I also peered over the shoulder of Charlotte, who was finishing up Twilight in French. I have created another addict to the series.

Jean-Francois's younger brother lives in Lyon, and so his fabulous central apartment was the first place we hit up. But because the apartment is right in the middle of the city, amidst all the bright lights, we needed hold onto each other just to make our way through the enormous crowds. I have now officially met all of the Robert's, who live in all the coolest places in France (Paris, Lyon, Provence, Normandie, and of course FIXIN!) After a cup of tea and a glass of French wine, we all set off. Charlotte was meeting up with a childhood friend, while Clemence and Antoine wanted to do something romantic, or whatever they do when they are alone together. And so with Leonie and Jean-Francois, I trekked through Lyon. Before we stopped at any of the lite up sites, we visited Jean-Francois's brother's ex-wife and his daughter, Margaux. After another glass of wine, we started the night time stroll through the city.

The church was by far the most beautiful. The exact same architecture as Notre Dame, each arch and cravat was illuminated in a brilliant blue, purple, or golden light. The site was truly awe-inspiring, which was why I was not really surprised to hear, "Like oh my gawd, the church is like lite up all prettily!" Leonie roared with laughter at a group of Valley Girls making fools of themselves in front of the great church.
"I knew they were Americans even before they opened their mouths. Only Americans would wear those awful Ugg boots that you have. Oh sorry!" she said seeing that I was wearing Uggs. "It's okay, I love my Uggs. And I also think Europeans have bad taste in those awful combat boots," I said pointing to the boots of Clemence.
"Yes that is exactly why you told me you are planning to buy a pair," she said laughing.
Ouch.

Everyone stomach was growling at that point, so Leonie bought us all a packet of hot chestnuts. How come, I wonder, do Americans have the Christmas song ('chestnuts roasting on an open fire..') but no Chestnuts? They are so delicious, especially burnt right from the bag. It is not the first time, I have had them though. The two countries in the world that love their hit chestnuts, happen to be by two adopted countries, Japan and France.

But for as much as I love Chestnuts, nothing could have compare to my new favorite thing in the entire world: Vin Chaud. Since, we had finished eating, it was time for a drink, so Jean-Francois searched the crowded streets for a stand that sold what he described as the best drink for winter time. I figured it would be hot chocolate, or maybe perhaps, hot apple cider. Instead, I was handed a glass of Vin Chaud, or Hot Wine, which is wine, heated up and mixed with orange juice and cinnamon. I took a cautious taste, because thus far every time someone in France tells me something is good, it either makes me sick, is absolutely disgusting, or is meat (which makes me sick and is disgusting!) But as soon as the drink touched my lips, I thought I had died and gone to heaven. When it is heated up most of the alcohol evaporates, but the warming sense is replaced with the cinnamon. "This-is-the-best-drink!" I exclaimed, much to the delight of the Roberts.

We continued along the streets of Lyon, lights illuminating every corner of the exuberant city. There were so many people, that it is a near miracle that I did not get hopelessly lost. Of course, it is hard to get lost when your host mom is an enormous German lady that stands a head above everyone else in France. Around 9 o'clock, Antoine announced that if he was not fed dinner soon, he would not be able to go much longer. And so, we all decided to eat at a tiny Italian restaurant in the middle of the city. Believing that I had drunk much too much already, I politely declined the Italian wine, and instead dug into my green salad. I was not really all that hungry, but my host parents, being French, are constantly dogging me to eat and eat.
When we all finished the meal, we exited the restaurant and then headed for the final spectacle of the evening. A fabulous light show lite up the entire central hall of the city and gave a little performance. The booming voice was that of a small child, who pretended to scribble all over the city with color. It was so cute, but when the town hall lite up in an aurora of rainbow colors, it was hard not be enthralled. I was sad to see it finish, but not sad to get out of the crowd. The longer I am here in France, the most I realize that I am too much of a claustrophobic for tight crowds.
After all the walking we did, it is needless to say that I slept through the entire ride all the way home to Fixin. Curling up in my toasty bed at home, I could not help but think of what an awesome day it had been.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

The Things That Are Happening

I love writing, but for different reasons than one might expect. I like to look back on my old Japan blog and read my day-to-day happenings, while making sure to notice how much I grew up with each passing day. I had planned to keep up the very same Piczo blog style while an exchange student in France, but things have changed just as much as I have. I find that when I go on the computer, there are other things I prefer to do rather than constantly update the website. And so, this is the first post of my new blog, which is not new at all. Actually I created this blog in 2005, as I planned to become an exchange student the first time around. It is a bot of a stroll down memory lane but it is sufficient enough.

Alors, there are things that are happening lately. Little things that most normal people would probably just brush off and not make too much of a concern about. But these things have made a pretty big impact on me, and I want to share them.

I did not get into Florida State University, my top choice college. I had been 90% positive I would get
into the school. I even made plans to spend my first year studying abroad in a special branch of the university in Panama, so that I might get in-state tuition on all the following years. Everything seemed perfect, which is why I was surprised when I did not get in. But I was even more surprised that I was not upset in the slightest. In fact, I was happy about not getting in. Suddenly I found myself in the same place I was last year, the year before, and the year before. I have no idea what I am going to do next year, except that I will definitely not be a Florida Seminole. But if my years studying abroad in countries that I did not choose or even have the slightest interest in going to have taught me something it is this: everything works out in the end. If you go into something with a good attitude, you will definitely gain something from the experience. And so my options for the future are now open. Cool.

Another happening takes the form of an American exchange student, Meghan, from Telluride
Meghan is on the far left.
Colorado. I first met Meghan on our journey over the Atlantic and into France. What I really liked about her was the immense similarities between she and I. We both did not speak a word of French but had good feelings about the upcoming year. We both had a really laid back attitude towards everything in general, and together we were clueless about the year might bring. Of all the exchange students I have met in France, it was she that I felt the most similar too. And that is why it hurts me to say that she is back home in Telluride Colorado.

When Meghan first told me her plans for departure, I said everything I could to try to get her to rethink the decision. Regret! Missing Out! Just over the language hump! But she replied something I found I could not argue with in the slightest, " More than anything, it's about what I gave up in America. you know how everybody has a passion, that one thing in their life that makes life worth living for? for you, you told me, it's travelling, and satisfying your wanderlust :] for me, it's music, there is no opportunity in France."

How do you respond to something like that? "Well, I suppose if music is what makes you happy, then you need to go pursue it. You are right, I can not imagine a life without traveling... it's kind of like HIGH SCHOOL." And so Meghan is back home now, snowboarding and enjoying the snow of Colorado, while swimming in a country full of opportunity for music.

And the final major thing occurring in my life is the rapid approach of the Christmas holidays. My feelings on Christmas are extremely hard to describe. On one level, I believe it is the most wonderful holiday, where families get together and exchange presents from the heart. The only part of winter that I can tolerate with the joyous music blasting in all corners of the country, stockings hung over the banister, the fresh scent of pine wafting through the air, and constant reminiscence of our Christmas pasts. Yet on another level, I despise Christmas. There are two things in this world that I really dislike because a.) I am utterly terrible at it, and b.) because I am really weird. These two things are shopping and receiving gifts. As I have said before, I am the cheapest human being alive, but I do not mind spending money for gifts for Christmas. However, I tend to try to hard to make the gift perfect. If it is not exactly perfect in my eyes, then I will not buy it. This leaves the enormous problem of finding the perfect present, which is nearly impossible. In addition, it truly is better to give than to receive, and I have such a hard time receiving gifts. I get embarrassed as I open the gift and say thank you and act like it is the greatest thing I have ever received.

This Christmas will be spent with the world greatest host families, the Roberts, and also with my
Me and my little sister in Sept 2007.
We don't take many pictures together.
younger sister, who is coming to France for the holidays. And thus I have much to do. I am in search for the world's greatest present for my host family, because they are the coolest people and I love them so much. To top it off, I have the horrible feeling that they are going to buy me a bunch of gifts as well. In fact, I know they are, as I have been wrapping my younger sister's presents from my host siblings.

And they have never even met Shannon.

In the meantime, I have learned that even the French are big celebrators of Christmas, they fail in terms of Christmas music. They have one really popular song, Petit Papa Noel, which bites the big one when it comes to Jingle Bells and Rudolph (not true... I really do not like Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.) And so, I have had to download every amazing song I could think of. I am even planning on making a CD for Leonie, since her collection of Christmas music is rather dismal. But first, I am going to learn every word to Christmas Wrapping from the Waitresses, which is my new favorite song.

"Buh Humbug, well that's too strong it is my favorite holiday!"

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Life of a Runner

Do you ever wonder how seemingly normal, otherwise-well-rounded people find their way into endurance sports? Of course there will always be genetic anomalies out there who can burn endless miles without even trying. But where does the rest of the field come from? How does a person look at something like a slow paced long run- the out-of breath feeling of being untouchable from the rest of the world, followed by the creeping night fatigue. How does someone look at something like that and say, “hey, that might be something I’d be good at”? Or even scarier - “hey, that might be fun.”

Before my big adventure, Japan-America-France, I took on another task that has forever changed who I am. I started running. Now I am sure that does not sound like much, but it is, it really is. It is not just any running either. I run long and hard runs, that often find my legs asking for a divorce.

It's weird, because before I started running, I was the biggest 'avoid physical activity at ALL costs' kind of person. The dinner table and the couch in front of the television, went way back with my butt. Running rotation in gym class often prompted 'sick days' at school. Now after all that has happened, I can not imagine what I would be doing without running. That brings me to running in France.

When people find out where I run and for how long, they just think I am utterly deranged. At home, my Track coach would remark everyday that even his best and daring runners would not undertake the courses I liked. And these 'courses' and routes are what made the country of Japan, which is 73% mountainous, the perfect country for me. It is true, I run the mountains for fun. And now in Fixin, France, I find myself spending many hours during the week exploring the local Combs, cliffs, hills, and vineyards. All on foot and at quick-paced jog.

On Saturday mornings I run in the Noisot Park with my host mom, and her close friends. Sure, I may be the youngest runner by a considerable amount of years, but, just ask them how well I run, and you might be surprised at the fact that age does not matter. I am pretty sure they enjoy kicking my butt every Saturday morning, but at least I am out there trying. I am really a terrible runner, and I liken my speed to that of an old lady on a Sunday morning. Before I started running three years ago, my mother would say that I run like a retarded turtle. Even now, after more than a 2 years of running, I run like I have a sack of potato's on my back. But you know, I figure if you really love something, it does not matter that you are not good at it and what not. And I love running.

My current host house, is located in a small village just on coast of a large park filled with acres of woods, cliffs, and mountains to explore and run through. I have already scoped out huge mountain trails, and a wonderful valley run, a mere 15 minutes away. On some mornings when I do not have an early class, I run with Leonie up the Cent March, or 100 steps, a monument in Fixin dedicated to Napoleon's 100 days in power of exile. The family dog, Timo, Leonie's prized possession, the favorite big stinky golden retriever, also runs with us. Once the runner's high kicks in, I have a tendency of talking non-stop, and I would completely understand if Leonie would just turn to me and say, "Julie, shut up!"

But runner's do not do that. They stick together. And run.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Turkey Day French-style

Andrew and his masterpiece.

The biggest paradox I have run into this year concerns the grand old American holiday, Thanksgiving, and of course, the French. How, I wonder, do the French fail to celebrate or even have an equivalent of the American holiday based on the two things the French love to do? That is spend
Not much a chef myself, but anything for Thanksgiving
celebrations with the French family.
time with family and eat, but mostly the French love to eat. I mean there are some things that Thanksgiving has, that would not be compatible in France: American football, it is seen as stupid and violent, but they could easily supplement the pigskin for a soccer ball in this country; fresh cranberries, do not even get me started on how hard I looked for cranberries, only to be told that they virtually do not exist in this country unless you count those little pink balls in a glass jar, which are not fresh; but probably most importantly is the fact that chocolate, cheese, and wine are not the traditional dishes on the Thanksgiving menu. And even that can be made to work with our wonderful holiday, as three American exchange students learned.

Andrew feels up a Turkey. Not that way,
dirty-minded fool!
And so it began on a Tuesday, November 11, Armistice Day, to be precise. Alex had spent the night at my house, apparently scheming my incredible birthday weekend with Leonie, while I sat in oblivion. The next morning she decided that she wanted to see Andrew and meet the world-famous Martine, whom Andrew and I have not been able to stop talking about. (You would not be able to stop talking about her either because the woman is the world's greatest cook.) The Bernards were entertaining some neighbors with a glass of Champagne in honor of the newly elected President Barack Obama, when Alex and I arrived. They gave us each a glass, and welcomed us into their conversation about the United States. Sometime during the conversation, Phillipe said, "When is Thanksgving?"

Since Thanksgiving is my absolutely favorite holiday, I immediately answered, "the fourth Thursday of November!"

Philippe thought for a moment and then responded, "Okay that Saturday, the 30th, you three are doing Thanksgiving for Fixin."There was never a choice in the matter. Andrew and I have learned that when Phillipe wants to throw a party, nothing will stand in his way. Plus even though I am not a cook, Thanksgiving is Thanksgiving. It's about family and eating, and as long as you are with family and food, it will be enjoyable.

Although during the massive preparations that occurred before the celebration, Andrew and I took
Admire my exacting enthusiasm, s'il te plait.
great measures to change things. First, Phillipe was perfectly content to invite all 700 people of Fixin. After an argument with Andrew he agreed to just invite the host families. I believe Andrew used the following alternative, "Well Phillipe you can invite as many as you want, if you are going to cook!" In addition, Andrew and I presented Phillipe with another pressing matter.

"You want this holiday to be authentic, right? Well we Americans do not drink wine and eat cheese for Thanksgiving. But since we realize that you guys can not go through a whole night without wine or cheese, we are giving you an alternative. One or the other, your choice." Of course being a wine-grower, Phillipe chose to serve wine at the festivities. Andrew and I happily accepted this without even thinking that he would go behind our back and serve cheese anyway. Which is
When told they could only have one of the following: cheese
or wine, the French selected wine, bien sur. But they overruled
our Thanksgiving and served cheese anyway. 
exactly what he, Martine, Leonie, and Jean-Francois decided to do.

And so began the French-fryed Thanksgiving 2008.

As I mentioned before, and probably will mention again, Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. I like Christmas too, but Christmas is all about presents. I hate shopping, and I am terrible at receiving gifts from people. I get this obnoxiously embarrassed mind-state when I get a gift from someone, but it is nothing compared to shopping process. Even though I am known to give pretty sentimental gifts, I get really stressed out looking for the perfect item, and tend to miss the whole joy in the holiday season. But with Thanksgiving, there is eating and family. It is one of the only days of the year where I can enjoy my Nana's amazing Stuffing, my Nana's magnificent Cheesecake, and hang out with my cousins and family. Luckily, Andrew has similar feelings about Thanksgiving, and we both agreed to make the day as perfect as possible.
My Nana's Jewel cookies for our festivities.

During the preparation process, Andrew found all the recipes for the Turkey, Stuffing, and Potatoes, while I taught myself how to make Green Beans, Apple Sauce, and Jewel Cookies. Alex brought Pumpkin Bread and the recipe for mashed potatoes. Andrew even procured 7 large sweet potatoes, which apparently do not exist in France at all. We ran into a few problems, however. Thanksgiving is not Thanksgiving without a big dish of mushy cranberries. And the lovely people of France have no idea what a Cranberry is. But, as Leonie discovered, the wonderful people of Sweden know what a Cranberry is. The day before Thanksgiving, Leonie discovered jars of Cranberry jelly at the local IKEA, a Swedish company. And so, the problem was solved, we would serve Cranberries.

At 2:00, I had planned on heading over to the Bernards to meet Andrew and Alex for the
The preparations ended up being way more
fun than we thought.
preparations. But I had gone for a long run during that morning, and was not entirely in the right state of mind. During the little lunch, Charlotte and Leonie kept asking questions about Thanksgiving.

"But I just do not get it. What is the reason for it?"

Even for an American, this is a pressing question. I began with the watered-down version of the Pilgrims and the Indians because everyone wants to hear that one. But Leonie is rather Americanized and said, "But that is not true, right?"

Oh crap. "True, I mean it is probably not true."

"So then what is the point? To thank God right? Americans love religion."

"Yes and no. The thing is even Americans who do not believe in God celebrate the Holiday. It's really important. It's about family and friends and sitting down for a mean to celebrate all the the things you are thankful."

"That is so bizarre."

I then proceeded to laugh so hard that I nearly wet my pants. Choking on a piece of salad, I darted from the kitchen, roaring in laughter. This is the story of me trying to explain Thanksgiving to the French. How can I explain something I do not even fully understand? Mostly because Thanksgiving
Andrew cuts the bird.
is not something Americans often question, it just is. I know that the whole holiday is built on a farce and mythical story that is probably not true, but there is something about the holiday that just binds Americans together. Explaining that to a Frenchman is like trying to explain why gravity exists. It just does.

At the Bernard's, Alex, Andrew, and I got right to work. Both Alex and Andrew sensed that I have no experience in the kitchen and sentenced me to decorations. The night before, I had traced every one's hands on a large piece of brown paper. I then cut the hands out, glued two little black feet and a smiley face, as well as every one's name on their hand. Voila, I had created the name tag Turkey's, a tradition of Kindergarten kids in America. In the kitchen, I did some basic things; sliced onions, carrots, and celery for the flavoring in the Turkey; peeled potato's (which mind you, is truly an annoying task!); and dried plates. Andrew was the head chef, ordering the girls around. I could not help but note the irony and how much the world has changed. I was happy to take his orders, since I am retarded when it come to cooking, but Alex made sure to fight with him. She did not like his stuffing recipe, which was different, but still delicious, and thought it bizarre how he cooked certain things. But all in all, it was an incredibly afternoon. Yes, we realized, that probably would not be friends is we were not foreigners in a foreign country cooking dinner for the people we love in France, but something special definitely occurred during all our hard work. We bonded while slaving over a hot Turkey and bringing an American tradition to perfection in the vineyards of Bourgogne, France.
We worked our butts off that afternoon. We had a 12 pound Turkey, which needed to be turned often, sweet potatoes, which needed to be steamed then covered in caramelized sugar, potatoes that needed cutting and mashing, green beans that needed to be cooked, stuffing that needed to be created from a variety of odd things, gravy that needed to be mixed, and apple cider that needed to heated. Some things had been pre-made much to our happiness; Martine and Andrew had created a Pumpkin Pie, although Martine insisted on bruleeing in a French-style, Alex had created Pumpkin bread that actually had much more ginger than pumpkin in it, and I had succeeded in making heavenly Apple Sauce for Coline, and very tasty Jewel Cookies, which we covered in the Cranberry Jelly.

When 7:00 approached, the French decided to be French and start the festivities a half an hour later
My first Thanksgiving with wine.
than planned. This was good because we were not exactly ready in the kitchen. But at 7:30, when the three Americans entered the wine cellar, where the party was taking place, Phillipe demanded the appetizer. "What appetizer? We do not do appetizers for Thanksgiving." Angry, he snatched my Jewel Cookies and began handing them out, and so he served a small part of dessert for an appetizer. I would have been angry, but my cookies met with an incredible praise. I explained that the jelly was made from cranberries, a traditional dish of Thanksgiving. The Bernards, Robert's, and Toletti's, the family of Alex, loved the cookies! Even Martine, the world's best cook, asked for the recipe.

I had prepared a small speech a head of time in French about Thanksgiving. Since no one, not even most Americans, understand Thanksgiving, I wanted to explain it a little bit. I talked about the Pilgrims and the Indians, and before I could let Leonie call out that this story is not true, I jumped into an explanation of a popular Thanksgiving tradition. Most families go around the table and say something that they are thankful for on Thanksgiving, and so I thought it would be nice to keep that tradition going. There was a variety of answers; family, friends, parents that bring their daughter home from India, boyfriends and girlfriends, chocolate. As for me, I explained what I was most thankful for, "As an exchange student, I have had the opportunity to travel around the world and live with many different people and families. And so, I am thankful for my parents, sister, and grandparents in America, my family all the way in Japan, and my new family here in France."

Even if Thanksgiving is a bit of a farce, at least what I said I am thankful for, is completely true.

After two glasses of tasty French champagne, it was time for food. Alex placed the perfectly beautiful
Alex and her host siblings.
turkey on a wine barrel in the center of the tables. She and I then brought out the dishes, while Andrew wrestled to cut the Turkey as a display for the Frenchies. We passed around the big plates of food,everyone trying everything since they had probably never eaten most of the stuff before. I was feeling a little tipsy after the champagne, so I was pretty happy to eat Andrew's Stuffing, which was delicious, even though it was incredibly different than my Nana's famous stuffing. We later explained to the French families that the Ludwig family in Wisconsin, the Einstman's of Long Island, NY, and the Garner/Young's of New Jersey all celebrate the holiday with different dishes and traditions. And yet, we all came together, bringing a few dishes from our family tables and creating the best Thanksgiving that France would allow us to make. We were all having such a good time, that the 3 Americans were not even angry when Phillipe demanded the cheese to be served. I protested and refused to eat any of it, but Andrew dug in and ate a whole glob of cheese.

Maybe it is time for new traditions, he said.
My beloved host parents
The group played a few games as well to pass the time between to courses. After the cheese, there was a game that involved French language expressions, which was nearly impossible for me. Followed by a game about famous French people. Finally we brought out the dessert. There was three dishes, Apple Sauce made by me, Pumpkin Pie made by Andrew and MArtine, and Pumpkin Bread from Alex. Everyone was so stuffed and full by the time the meal was finished, that nobody wanted the hot buttery apple cider that Andrew had prepared.

And so, we did it. We brought the classical American holiday of Thanksgiving to small-town wine country of France. I am positive had a good time, especially the three American exchange students who were able to show everyone what Thanksgiving is all about. Family and food. It may very well become a French tradition in Fixin.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Strikes


Grey skies, light drizzle, outside temperature 7°c, rising to 11°c later in the day. Typical November weather – bloody miserable. Christmas is still a long way off and we’ve got no bank holidays until everyone breaks up on December 19th. A whole month with only the weekends to relax.

At home, I would just feel tempted to play hokie. Phone into school and say that I am a little under the weather. This is France though. Even one day of absence has to be justified with a medical certificate. And I never ever want to go to the doctor in France again. Might as well just go to school and fall asleep during English, which would happen even if the weather was not miserable. There again, you could do what the French do regularly at this time of year, and go on strike.

We always have strikes in late November. This week there are no less then three different national
strikes.

On Tuesday French rail workers took industrial action. Their gripe ? The piecemeal privatization of the nation’s railways. Passenger lines have not been opened up to private competition yet, but the freight service is being gradually privatized. Unions argue that this is the first tentative step to privatize the entire railway network on the lines of the British model. Railway workers take unkindly to the chill winds of privatization, it means an end to those unique privileges that you get in the state sector, such as total job security for life, and in the case of train drivers at least, retirement at 55.

On Thursday it will be the turn of the my lovely teachers to unfurl their banners and take to the streets.This strike is to protest against the government’s forthcoming education reforms. Sources on the inside of state education tell me the details of the reforms have not actually been published yet. When education minister Mr. Darcos decides to do something official, every teacher in the land normally gets a copy of the White Paper in his or her pigeon hole or locker. Unpublished education reforms apart, teachers are also striking for better working conditions and better pay. That seems eminently more intelligent than striking on the basis of a vague rumor.

On Saturday, French postmen will be on strike. I’m not sure about the reasons behind this one. Personally, if I were a postman, I’d go on strike for a better bicycle. Robust they may be, but they don’t have gears.

Since all of my teachers decided to protest, I have no class today. I would love to say that is excellent news, but I am bored to death and it I really have nothing to do.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The Big 1-8 Part V: Cheesecake With 18 Candles

The deal was that since I was unfortunately taken away from host family on the night of my birthday, we would still celebrate the next night. They had already given me the best present I could ask for, two train tickets to Paris for the previous weekend. So, I objected to having anything. But Leonie argued that I should at least have my favorite dish and a chocolate cake. Nothing big and special, but at least a little something to remember for the Big 1-8.

The night of my birthday, Leonie said that she and Charlotte had made the cake. When I asked to see it, she yelled at me and said, "You need to have some sort of surprise of your birthday!" I was shocked. I then proceed to list every little surprise that the Big 1-8 had thrown at me. Train Tickets to Paris, an amazing weekend, friends at school giving me a present, a surprise party in English, Chocolate cake from Rotary, to name just a few. But the big surprise for me is that fact that I am even celebrating my birthday at all, since I had resigned to the fact that the French did not celebrate birthday's very much.

Next she asked me what my favorite French dish was for her to go and prepare. Before I could answer, she said, "And no SALAD!" Darn. So when I told her I wanted Pumpkin-Curry Soup for dinner, she gave me a confused look and said, "God, you really are weird."

Alas, after a long day at school, I came home to the Robert's tired from the adventures of the previous day. I raided my new storage of chocolate from my American family, lots of delicious Dove chocolate and M and M's. I know I said previously that it was enough chocolate to feed the French army, but then again, I forgot to mention that I can not resist the powers of chocolate. Come to think of it, I am the owner of the world's worst bad habits. I love coffee, chocolate, and wine. France is pretty much the country of temptation, I might add.

At about 8, I came down the stairs to watch the Simpson's with Coline. Normally we eat at about that time, but I could tell Leonie and Jean-Francois did not want me to go in the kitchen. I figured that they were setting the table up for my dinner. Of soup. This belief was helped my the guilty look of Coline, who can not keep a secret to save her life, even when I could not speak French and her English is not so good, she managed to tell me secrets. This dinner secret was actually killing her, and she strained hard not to burst open in and keep her eyes glued to the television.

At 8:30, the doorbell rang and in came Andrew, Phillipe, and Martine. "You are too early!" Jean-Francois exclaimed at the Bernard's. Then he turned to me, "Surprise!" The Robert's had invited the Bernard's over for some cake to celebrate the Big 1-8 with me. Except they came a half an hour early, and first had to sit through us eating my soup.

We all went into the kitchen, which as I had suspected, had been decked out in fancy candles, colorful napkins, and birthday joy. There was also a rather large pile of presents right by the place I was to sit. But before I could sit down, Coline sat down on her keyboard, and began the tune to Happy Birthday. Soon everyone was singing to me, which to me, is horrifically embarrassing and awesome at the same time. For me, I was surrounded my family. The Roberts and the Bernard's, my future host family, as well as Andrew, my fellow exchange student. I was truly surprised, but what I liked best about this surprise was that it was not too big. It fit just right for me, small and simple, but still warm and magical.

The Pumpkin-Curry soup was delicious, though I sort of swallowed it down whole without taking the time to enjoy. It was accompanied by a glass of Champagne. Even though I swore of Champagne after last Friday night, I have already failed. It only took 4 days, probably a new record for me. Meanwhile, the host families discussed Andrew and I, since we are supposed to do a swap in February. Andrew, the good eater, the guitar player, and the fluent French speaker. Julie, the terrible eater, the athlete, and the awful French speaker. I actually made sure to take part in making fun of myself. Next, Coline threw a box of presents at my head and forced me to open everything. The Robert's had bought me a huge pack of gum (hilarious...) and a few trinkets bestowing the word Dijon. Oh and another enormous box of Chocolate since, "You only exist on Salad and Chocolate!" While the Bernard's, had given me 40 Euros to the FNAC, which is a store that sells books and music. "Oh good! She is just going to buy books."

Finally, Leonie collected the soup dishes and dashed into the kitchen for the, 'chocolate cake.' And of course what better to end my birthday celebrations with another surprise. Knowing that Cheesecake is my favorite type of cake, Charlotte and Leonie had worked for three or four hours the previous night to make me a New York Cheesecake. It was more or less a French New York Cheesecake, since there was some sort of fruit in it. But decked out in 18 candles, one for each year of my life, and tasting damn near perfect, it was the greatest cheesecake or any cake I had ever eaten.

And so, turning 18 became quite a big deal, even though I had sort of planned it to just be like any other day. In fact, I think I may have had the best 'Big 1-8' birthday celebration that anyone could have asked for. Ever. Paris and Cheesecake, not a bad combination, huh?