Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Early Autumn

This morning on my short walk to school, I looked out over the vineyards and was enraptured by what I saw. Mist covered the fruitful lush fields, while an orange sphere rose slowly and magically in the sky. It was a rising beacon and signal to start the day. I could see my warm breath as I trekked along, until the light of the sun met my face and my body was covered in warmth. Words, especially mine, can not do it justice. Autumn is here in France. And as if living in France was not charming enough, seeing this country's cities and villages blazing with autumn colors is simply breathtaking. Though it is much chillier than my American fall or tropical Japanese Aki, autumn is by far my favorite season of the year.
Last night, after my supplementary sport education class, I was walking back through the cobbled streets of Fixin. There was that unmistakable autumn "smokey" smell and the early evening air had a cold tinge to it. The viticulteurs, or grape farmers, continue to ride by on their tractors at all hours of the day and night, chugging along huge barrels of great red grapes, about to be sent to a winery. Even in Fixin, a village of just over 700 people, the narrow streets contained quite a few people, mostly foreigners. Some with cameras plastered to their faces, taking snap shots of the vineyards, while others wore dirty sweatshirts and ripped jeans, which is the unmistakeable sign of someone that had just returned from a day in the vineyards. Everyone is engaged in the harvest of the grapes. The French are not known to be hard workers, but when it comes to the production of their precious wine, they are willing to work dawn till duck is necessary.
The Harvest is in full swing, but I am certain that it will soon be finished and the wait for the wine will begin. Even though it has been less than a week since picking began, the slew of students, migrant workers, and retirees that have found temporary work picking the grapes, has succeeded is finishing with most of the plots. Today I went back to my favorite plot of land to steal some of the tasty grapes for my own eating. I found that every bunch of grape had been picked except for the ones that were rotten or not ripe. I settled for some of the youthful grapes, and fought a pang of sadness at the fact I would never get to eat some of the delicious summer ripened grapes that I have been eating so much of it. Instead the vine bushes with change from their fruitful green to a dying yellow, as the cold weather continues to slowly creep in.
Every day of the past week of my life here, in an attempt to rid myself of a headache from the French language and my almost total immersion, I have hiked into the mountains surrounding Fixin. I have not told anyone about it because my host parents would be angry that I was alone in the woods. I take the long trodden path from Brochon up into the foothills of the cliffs, where the path becomes little more than a few occasional footprints and broken branches. I discovered a rocky path that takes you up into the cliffs, to a special spot, where I can cry and not be heard, scream and not be understood, and think and not be annoyed with. Oh and the view! From a top the tallest cliff, I look out and see Brochon and Fixin in the distance, smoke rising from the tiny cottages, miles and miles of endless vineyards, the changing colors of the forest, and I feel the preciousness of being alone. It is here that I realize just how much I love autumn.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Choice

Ultimately every little thing that we do as a living breathing human being makes an impact or has a consequence on everyone else in this lifetime or in the next. Sometimes if I am bored, or just baffled about a Deja Vous or something, I sit back and think about these sort of occurences. Think about George Bailey in It's A Wonderful Life. What if my Dad had never met my Mom? Or what if my Grandpa had never been a soldier in World War II, and met my Grandma, the daughter of a Belgian foreign service member in Haiti? Or what if my Great-Grandfather had never been sent to Haiti, and had been sent to Thailand instead? When I think long and hard about all these things, I can not help but believe that everything happens for a reason. What of on November 16th, 2005, at my first Rotary interview, I had written down Germany, a country that would have been guarenteed to me. Instead, fate would have it that I received Japan, my third and final choice on the list. If I had not received Japan, would I have love my year abroad so much, that I would have applied to go on another exchange? And would I have been given France? Even if on the off-chance I would have received France, would I have been sent to Burgundy? It is probably best not to dwell on thinking about this stuff so much, because what is done is done. Choices were made, actions were implmented. Life has gone on.
But another choice was just recently presented to me. One as life-altering as some of the others I have just mentioned. First and foremost, I need to give some details as to the situation. I live with the Roberts, and their oldest daughter, Charlotte is (or was depending on when this is read) an exchange student in India. Not even a few hours after she arrived, she made the decision in her head to return home. At first she was placed in a hovel ramshackle village in India, with only a cold shower and a hard bed. But the Indian Rotary quickly brought her to a wealthy family in the middle of a sprawling city and conditioned to many of her needs. However, Charlotte had already told herself that she needed to return to France, and that she could not survive India, regardless of the situation. After less than a month, the return tickets have been booked. Charlotte is coming home. Here is where things get complicated. The Roberts have agreed to host me for 5 months, and Andrew for 5 months. But I would be sleeping in Charlotte's room, and essentially taking her place in the house. Now she is coming home. This is the problem.
As soon as Dijon ROtary found out Charlotte would be returning to France, the decided to pull me from the Roberts and place me in the heart of Dijon, in a fancy private school that was well-equipped to handle exchange students. But when Leonie RObert found out about this decision, she told the Rotarians that it would not be necessary. She and Jean-Francois wanted me to stay, and after this past month they considered me to be a part of their family. Of course before the final decision could be made, Leonie wanted to talk to me about the whole thing first.
And so today we took Timor the dog for our usual walk through the gorgeous vineyards surrounding Fixin. Since grapepicking is still in full swing, there were many people and the sun shone making the atmosphere almost perfect. "There is something important we need to discuss. Something Jean-Francois and I have talked about and we want you to think about it before you agree," Leonie said. My stomach dropped from my chest, and I suddenly felt like I cimmotted some murderous act. In my 5 experiences with host families, I have never had this kind of an opening line with any of them. Something must be horribly wrong, I reasoned, and then waited for Leonie to begin.
She opened with the a less than obvious question, "Are you making friends at the Lycee?" I nodded, because I am making friends, sort of. "Do you like living in the countryside of Fixin, or do you prefer the citylife of Dijon?" Is it not obvious, I very much prefer the countryside, long spacious vineyards, mountainous trails to run in, and cliffs to climb (though I would not tell her this...)
And then she began with an obvious statement, "since Charlotte is coming home..." She went on to say that it would be very easy for Charlotte to sleep in the loft above Coline's bed. But I jumped in and said, that I would not mind taking that loft and allowing Charlotte to have her room back. But Leonie quickly cut me off. She explained to me that the other night she talked to Patrick Goudot, the main Rotarian she knew, and the only Rotarian that seems to want anything to do with me. Once he found out about Charlotte, he had told her that he could have me a new host family in Dijon and enrollment at the private school as soon as possible, even before Charlotte came home. It amazed me that Rotary could move so fast when their is a problem, but can not seem to budge when nothing is going on at all.
Shocked, and unable to configure something to say, I mustered, "Oh."
"No do not get the wrong idea! I told him to just wait a minute. We do not want you to leave. In fact, I talked to Jean-Francois about the whole thing, and we want you to stay. We told the Rotary you would be staying, but we wanted to talk to you about it first and see what you thought."
What do I think?
What an unfair predicament to be put in. It is not exactly the Robert's fault, and I am in no way accusing them of being unfair to give me thisoption. But please understand, in a matter of seconds the whole course of my exchange was tossed up in the air. I had never even considered what would happen to me if Charlotte returned, and truthfully, I do not think the Roberts had either. When Charlotte had originally made her return threats, they had been too concerned about keeping her in India to think about what would happen in France. Plus they like me a lot, and I firmly believe that they want me to stay in their home for the rest of my scheduled time here. But once Rotary mentioned another plan for me, it seemed like the wheels began to turn. Yes, the Roberts stated that I would remain in their home, and they reaffirmed that they wanted me here. But if there was another option, why not consider it? Now there is a few ways to look at this situation:
A.] That Leonie and Jean-Francois are great enough people that even though they want me to stay with them, they also want me to know there is another option for me if I want to take it.
or
B.] They are suggesting this option because even though they like me and would not mind me staying with them, it would be much easier for Charlotte to return if I am somewhere else.
Although I prefer to accept choice A, the choice B is still lurking there. Now here is the thing: Leonie had told me once, before the dilemma with Charlotte, that she felt once she agreed to host, she was obliged to host. In addition, as we continued to discuss the situation, she said a few other things that appeared cloudy to me. Stuff along the lines of, "well Charlotte ruined her exchange, why should we put Rotary through messing up another one?" Or most importantly, after my remaining 4 months when I move onto the Bernards, and Andrew is supposed to move to the Roberts, Leonie had suggested to Patrick Goudot that another family in Gevrey-Chambertin be found since that is the Rotary club that is hosting Andrew. Continuing our discussion and I got the feeling that Leonie would feel bad about having me leave. I even said that I wanted her truthful opinion, I would not be angry or upset if she wanted me out. Even though it was unfair for me to say this, becaue I would be upset if she choose that, she said, "you are kind part of the family now."
I really do love this host family. My experiences with hist families have mostly great, and I can not help but thank my lucky stars for this. But I also can not interpret the situation. When asked point blank whether they want me out of the house or not, Leonie and Jean-Francois said No to Rotary and No to me. But do they mean it or are they just easing their own consciences? Do they know they will feel bad about having me leave because of their daughter's return, or do they generally want me here? I really do believe they want me here. I have to believe that, because I like them so much.
So here it is. The choice. My ragtag old crumbling school, which I find to be incredibly hard because of how much pressure they put on me to be just a regular student even though I am not, or a fancy private school in the sprawling gorgeous historical city of Dijon, that has experience with exchange students and thus understands what it is like to not speak the language? The Robert family, including the cituation with Charlotte, and eventually the Bernards, or a fresh new slate of host families, good or bad, that reside in the city of Dijon, and not far out in the countryside? The vineyards of Fixin surrounded by plentiful mountains and countryish feel or the historical masterpieces of a city called Dijon? Can I give up that daily walk through the vineyards, for a daily stroll through the city?
The choices we make affect the rest of our lives and those of others. Even though people might consider themselves lucky to be given the opportunity to voice their opinion in this matter, I do not. I think it is unfair for me to have to have to understand and accept this. I do not blame anyone, except maybe myself a little bit. Someone who is more grown up could handle this a little bit. Perhaps, even I am taking this way out of porportion, and perhaps there really is no issue at all.
Currently I am slated to stay here at the ROberts, and I am very happy about that. But I do not want three months to go by and then have myself wonder what would have happen if I chose to go to Dijon. I do not want things to get bad when Charlotte returns homein the foreseeable future. I do not want this choice to hurt people down the road, that is myself or those that are taking care of me. I guess we will just have to see how things roll.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Life and Times of a Grape-Picker

Quit my day job? Nah.
I think that today, no right now, would be the best and probably most accurate time to type this editorial/journal entry. If I waited till tomorrow, I might either be dead or unable to at least type simple sentences. And if I am capable of moving, I suppose all I would do is complain and whine about how hard it is to move and what a stupid thing I did and how I could never do it again. So having just finished two cups of espresso, swallowed 4 Ibuprofen, taken an hour long HOT shower, I finally feel it best to sit down and tell the world exactly how I spent my anniversary of my first month
I live here. Seriously. It's not just a dream.
in France.

That is right, exactly one month ago, my United Airline flight filled with 63 exchange student landed in Charles de Gaulle Aeroport in Paris!

Exactly one month ago upon arrival, I ate celebratory Indian food with the Roberts, my host family, and celebrated their daughters departure for India. Yes, one month ago I drove down the Route des Grand Crus for the first time in awe at the beautiful scenery of the Burgundy countryside. And even though I am an exchange student in France, I consider myself first and foremost an exchange student to Burgundy, which is the gorgeous wine region of France. And because I am living in Burgundy, my experience is completely and utterly different than most exchange students in France. And so on my one month
Participating in the grape-picking is a challenge for everyone.
anniversary of my arrival in Fixin, France, I participated in grape-picking for the world famous French wine!

It was something that had been long planned. In fact, on that very first night at Charlotte's Going Away party, my second host father, Phillipe Bernard informed me that I would be participating in one of Burgundy's more famous activities. After all, if you know anything about the region, it definitely has to do with the famous delectable wine. And since Phillipe Bernard owns 45 acres of vineyards, and produces 50,000 bottles each year, and is also hosting me for half of exchange in France, it seemed only natural for me to participate in this activity.

And so, on the morning of September 27th, my obnoxious alarm clock frightened me from sleep at
6:30. I quickly threw on a pair of old jeans from my host brother Antoine, because Leonie said that I would surely ruin the pair I wore during the picking. I also put on a tee-shirt, Verona Cross Country Country Sweatshirt, and grabbed a special glove for my hand so that I would not cut it up during the picking. Downstairs, I brewed a full pot of coffee and drank it black, so that by 7:15, when I set out for Clos St. Louis, the vineyard of Phillipe Bernard, I was fully ready.

Or so I thought.

Walking along the Route des Grand Crus at half past 7, and I was shocked to see so many people. Actually I saw more tractors than people, but the rapid movement of slumbering small-town Fixin is definitely curious. Tractors riding up and down the avenue carrying pickers and barrels of grapes for harvesting rode past me on my morning walk. Everyone had a bright smile on their face and waved at me.

"Bonjour!"

"Bonjour!"

"Bonjour!"

At Clos St. Louis about 30 people had gathered around Phillipe, who was giving out directions to the group. He was telling everyone about the days activities, the grape-picking, the breaks, lunch time, and the various vineyard plots we would be going to. People come here from all over the world to participate in the picking of the grapes, but I was surprised that the only foreigners in the group were Andrew, me, and a Chinese couple that spoke almost no French. Or English.

"Too bad they are not Japanese, huh?" Phillipe chuckled.

As a group we all set out for the first plot, just across the Route Des Grand Crus and Phillipe's
Phillipe's farm.
house. Everyone received a large black bucket to put the picked grapes in and a small red pair of special grape cutting scissors. They did not appear sharp, but after Andrew seriously cut his Pinkie finger, I realized that these scissors were seriously dangerous.

The first thing I noticed on that morning was how cold it was. Although the sun had not fully risen in the sky, I was cursing myself for not having thrown on warmer clothes. My hands were numb from frost and I had not even begun to work yet. The group walked down to the end of the vineyards, where we were all placed in a specific line of grapes. I pulled the special glove over my hand, bend down, and began the tedious task of cutting the Burgundy grapes. The first grapes we picked were ripe and purple, which would be later used to make Red Wine, the speciality in the area.

Andrew cuts the grapes!
Early on in the picking process, some experienced men came around and explained to us what we should be picking. Since the season so far has not been for the fermenting process of the grapes, there would be a lot of moldy grapes. We should leave those on the vines or just cut them off and leave them on the ground. Those kind of grapes can not be used to make wine, or anything for that matter. Instead, we should just collect the ripest, freshest, and most tasty grapes we could find. I emphasize tasty, because I had the tendency to try every single grape from a bunch I picked. I am beginning to understand that there are in fact differences between the taste of grapes according to their locations.

In an earlier post, I whined about how I could not tell the difference between a wholesale Bourgogne and a Grand Crus. I can admit this online and in English for an audience of, what I assume to be primarily Americans. However, if I admitted this out loud to a French audience, I would be excommunicated from Burgundy life. Thus, I usually hold my tongue until someone else tells me whether the wine is good or bad before making an comment on it.
Grapes grown in the most scenic spot.

But being out here for the grape-picking (vendange) I  can finally see how the grapes grown on the sides of hills, with deep roots and less sunlight, taste better. Even though these hill grapes are grown a lot less because of the difficulty in perfecting their exact growth on a hill-side. Taste is good for wine, but the quantity is the most important thing when you are grape picking. What I found was that the fields that had good drainage tended to have the easiest grapes to pick. That is there were much more bunches of grapes to cut and put away in the better fields. And usually when there is better drainage, there is a lack of moldy grapes. This is another key factor to good wine production.

The group strutted along their designated vines, plucking away at bunches and throwing them into the black pots. When we were finished, one of the experienced stronger men would come around with a huge container on his back. We were then supposed to dump our pot in the container, so that he could take the grapes to the truck and we could continue to fill up on more and more grapes. I thought that these container carrying men had the easy job, prancing around with a container on his back and waiting for the others to do the dirty work of picking and dumping. But
Andrew is made for grape-picking. Julie, not so much.
then I saw how tough and heavy each container was. I also made the stupid first time mistake of actually dumping half of a pot of grapes on one poor fellow's head. He groaned and then pulled out a hanky to wipe away all the squished grape juice seeping off his head. Needless to say, I did not see him once more during the rest of the day.

After about an hour of picking, the group stopped for amid-morning break. Me and my tiny bladder caught a ride with a truck back the Bernard's place and grabbed my camera and used the facility. The others drank coffee and ate some of Martine's delicious Chocolate and Quiche, all the while discussing the days grape picking strategies. Everyone was a little bit worried at the amount of moldy grapes we had to keep throwing away, but the full-time vineyard employees did not seem all that worried. When I returned with my
Out group.
camera, Phillipe had the group take a nice group shot with a vineyard backdrop, then he ordered us all back to work.

For about 2 more hours, the pickers were hard at work, navigating up and down the vines, finishing up, and then being placed in another vine line. Andrew and I had a nice discussion as we plucked away at the grapes. Lucky for me, I had a great glove on my left hand, which indefinitely spared my hand from deep painful scarring cuts. Andrew is going to have a major scar on his left picky from a cut. When Leonie lent me the glove, she explained that every year at least one picker per vineyard has to go to the hospital with an infection. She already knows I am a bit of a spaz, and figured that one person would invariably be me without protection. But the gloves did not just protect me from the scissors. There were thousands of creepy-crawlers hidden in the vines. Andrew nearly wrestled with a HUGE Daddy-Longleg Spider, while encountered some sort of little fiend that hissed at me. I took my scissors and snapped the little bugger in half and then hissed in triumph.

Beating beasts in the vines.
Even though grape-picking is pretty interesting on the whole, it is also very boring. At school, I encounter boredom from having a hard time understanding and drifting off during class. But out in the vineyards cutting cutting cutting, I have boredom from the monotony of the act. Up and down you stand up, then kneel back down on the cold ground, plucking away at the grapes and then throwing them in the black pot. Then when you are all filled up, you stand up again and pour the contents into the container of one of the men, who takes it to the truck to bring back up to the winery. Over and over and over again. Your brain gets exhausted from doing the same thing over and over. Thus when the group headed up to the Bernards for lunch, I was really pleased.
Our lunch.

Martine Bernard is absolutely incredible in her capacity to cook. Next Saturday she has to cook for 150 people, touring and working here in the vineyards. The funny thing is that I thought just the 30 of us would put a lot of strain on her efforts.But in reality 30 people is a dream come true for her. For lunch, she miraculously brought out two huge pots of Chicken and Vegetables with wheat on the side. Phillipe served wine, of course. While he prompted Andrew and I to do our part in helping. I stood along side of Martine and served people from the pots, while Andrew read a loud the roll call. Everyone got a laugh at his pronunciation at French names. Phillipe said that if they though that was funny, then wait till tomorrow when Julie does the roll call. Wait.... tomorrow? It will be a miracle if I survive today.

After I finished serving the group and myself, I devoured a delicious plate of vegetables and dipped bread into the sauce. Everyone enjoyed their tasty hot meal after a long fruitful morning. When we were finished, Martine brought out a little plate of cheese, which was also delicious. And finally, she brought out her famous handmade Strawberry or Raspberry Jam Tarte. Although, I had never eaten it before, Andrew had told me all about it, so I was really excited when I got to sink my teeth into Strawberry Tarte. Alongside a cup of hot coffee, I was very content. Of course all good things come to an end, and soon enough we were sent back to work.
Yum, grapes!

This time, we loaded into one of the rented trucks and headed to a field in the distance. The grapes were green, and thus used to make white wine, but I preferred to just eat them right from the vine. This field also had really good draining, because there were thick and healthy bunch of grapes. The only problem was that it was hard to locate the stem of the grapes because it was green and the same shade as the grapes. But I managed to figure out a way to combat the evil spiders, locate the stem, and control my devouring of the grapes. Since I myself prefer white wine to red wine, I also took much better care to pick the most perfect grapes. I figure since I am definitely going to be drinking this stuff soon, I may as well make it the best taste I can.

It's not that glorious of a job.
Soon enough, we were back in the truck and being relocated to another red grape vineyard. We had to finish some of the vine lines that we had started in the earlier morning, but by that point I began to realize why grape-picking is much more strenuous then it looks. Leonie had warned me about it, but I had not really heeded her warnings. Firstly, the grapes are always located at the bottom of the plant. There really are not any grapes on the top, and those that are on the top are usually not ripe enough to be cut and used for wine. So basically you have to bend down or get on your knees to cut the grapes off. The problem is that after a few hours, your knees begin to throb. Mine were moaning in misery after about an hour and a half, so I decided to just bend over from the back and cut the grapes. That is even worse! My back was howling after less than an hour, and I found that I had get back on my knees, which hurt again. There really is not easy way to do this, except if you sit on your but, and even that has its downsides. The ground is incredibly rocky, so it is easy to cut of your butt. (I can not even sit down properly right now.)

And thus after 4 or 5 hours of hard labor in the vineyards, I knees ached, my back throbbed, and my
Green thumb?
butt had scrapes and sores all over it. I was not in a happy place, but I pushed on cutting and throwing the grapes into the pot. To top it all off, as I plucked away at grape bunches, a furry brown spider crawled across the bridge of my nose, causing me to go into a fit of fury, which many people found hilarious. Another thing I want to point out is how dirty I had become. There was dirt on place I did not even know could get dirty. Plus my sweatshirt was covered in those annoying little itchy grape seeds. Some had managed to get into my socks and pester me during the picking. I wondered how in earth I was going to be able to get clean again.

Luckily, I had brought my camera, and Phillipe gestured for me to take lots of pictures of the group. He wanted the world to see his workers for his his future website, and he knows that photography is my side job. So he let me off from picking to take a few snap shots. But as you can probably tell from the photos, some dirt got on the lens, and a few photos came out blurry. Nevertheless, it was a good opportunity to get some candid photos of the grape pickers. Phillipe even allowed me to go back to winery to take some photos of how the grapes are de-stemed and sent into a big vat to wait and become Bourgogne wine. I watched as the tractor mechanically lifted the huge tub of grapes and pour it all into a mechanical machine that some squished off the grapes from the wine and then sucked them into a gigantic vat, where it would wait for the next step. The steps are different with the wine, though. Red grapes for red wine must be kept with their skin so that the liquid turns red, while the white grapes and immediately stripped of their skin. The process is incredibly long and tedious, but also fascinating for me.

I could not tell you how many hours I actually worked today plucking grapes from their stems. But if my body could tell you, it would say something like, "too long!" I had departed the Roberts at 7: 15 and returned at 6:15. Sure you can give or take a few hours of breaks, lunchtime, and photo time, but still I spent a long portion of the day plucking away. Relief came in the form of the group arriving back at the house and being greeted by Martine, who had made us even more food! In the courtyard of the winery, I zoned out with Andrew as the rest of group packed up their things to head home. Mostly everyone would return the next day for another day of grape picking in the Burgundy countryside. I, however, received an invitation from Ma
rtine to help out in her kitchen cooking and cleaning up after breaks and meals. I will probably take her up on that.

But all in all, grape-picking is very very very tiring... and worth it. Everyone that comes to Burgundy should try it once. And I emphasize the word ONCE. I do not think I can handle it more than once. My knees, back, and head might fail me, but it all comes down to the experience. The experience of living in this incredibly gorgeous place, and participating in a famous activity of the region. That is really what it is all about. And now what I need the most is a long deep sleep...

Thursday, September 25, 2008

What is America?

The French are obsessed. They have a lot of obsession, for example, wine, cheese, and bread are pretty much the standard obsession. They are also obsessed with having an annoying bureaucratic red tape society, but that is for another post. But what I have noticed is that they have another obsession, they seem to be enamored with the concept of states in a union.
Regardless of what Americans think about the French hating Americans, it is just the contrary. The French hate some things about Americans, but other details they admire with fascination and hope. One of these things is that our 50 states, in context this is 50 clear governing bodies of different people, lands, and culture, can exist in peace and under one national governing body. The French find it amazing that someone from Alaska can be told what to do by representatives from Florida. People have asked me with curiosity, how a Floridian can make fair and justified decisions when he has never lived in temperatures below freezing, like his companion in Alaska?
It is hard to answer for me because I have never known anything different. My country has never known anything different, except for the Civil War, which the French refer to as the war of secession. And we all know that did not work out too well for those states that seceded. When the French ask about secession, I try to explain the South Carolina was justified in seceding from the Union, but they did it for the wrong reasons. It is not exactly the right history, but the French just listen and imagine that time in America.
Before I came to France, I would never have thought that the French love the concept of states. They want to desperately for the European Union to become it's own country, with the current countries becoming states that answer to a governing body. I personally do not think it is possible because each country has always been it's own independent country. Cultures clash, prejudices exist, and differences are stressed. But in the words of my host father, "if it can work for Florida and Alaska, why can it not work for Spain and Finland?"
Thinking about this obsession with states, I began to do a little understanding of my country that I had never truly considered. The states are so different and the cultures and people may be very close or completely clashing. Can you really expect a Texas man to give up his right to a gun for property protection, for a Massachusetts liberal that does not understand why Texas needs his protection? What would Washington public school need with money allocated from the national government to install air conditioners in schools? How can you expect a patriotic Georgian to understand why Vermont wants to secede from America?
This past week, having gone on our Rotary youth exchange Orientation in Versailles, I began to understand just how different the United States of America really are. The 11 exchange students were mostly Americans, and the main characters are: Moi, hailing from the 'Sixth Borough' of New York City, called suburbia New Jersey. Alex from West Hampton, Long Island. I would say New York, but I think Long Island ought to be it's own state. Alex from Sugarbush Vermont, really to become it's own country. Andrew from the heart of the Cheese, Wisconsin. Danielle from cornhusking Iowa, she admits it's pretty boring. Meghan from Telluride, CO, except she grew up in Texas, so she was the product of two extremely clashing cultures. From the land of George Bush to the town of Barack Obama mania. And finally California-girl Lacey, who is in the middle of LA and San Francisco.
At some point Alex made the comment, "everyone here is American. I wish there were more countries." But I was more than happy with what we had. I loved chatting with Meghan, who told me, "When I first moved to Colorado, people would ask me why the hell I supported such an awful person like George Bush? They did not even know I supported him or not, just that I was from Texas." She told us all about having to ride on a Gondola to school every morning, which was different than in Texas. Oh and I can not forget to mention that Meghan says, "ya'll." Such a good little southerner...
And then talking with Alex from VT, and definitely agreeing that Vermont was a cool state, but is just much too liberal and full of country stores. I am beginning to think that we ought to just let the little state secede from the Union. Alex told me all about the flag that had been seleced for the new state, which was essentially the opposite of an American flag. We also agreed that Rutland was an ugly town in Vermont.
Mr. Wisconsin and Danielle from Iowa knew a lot about each others states, I suspected it was because they tried to top each other in who was more boring. But they had a great sense of humor, because we took every opportunity to poke fun at the boringness that is Wisconsin and Iowa.
"Yeah well New Jersey is gross."
"Oh please you can not say a word. What the heck can you do in Iowa? Grow Corn?"
"Well Wisconsin is known for cheese..."
"And that is about it."
California Lacey did not fit into the stereotype of the bimbo Valley girl. True she hails from smack dap in the middle of San Francisco and LA. She told us all she was Mexican and Native American, and did not use the word 'like' or 'totally' once to tell us this. But of course, we all know California is the best state in the Union. Behind New York and Dirty Jersey, of course.
I got a long the best with Alex of Long Island (okay, fine New York.) Maybe this is because I come from the Armpit of America, and she comes from maybe the shoulder blade?Well in terms of living style, Alex of Long Island and I both live in the suburbs close to New York City. We both know the term 'guido' and speak very fast accented English. Of course I love making fun of New Jersey. Who doesn't actually? It truly is the armpit of the United States, geographically at least. Where I live, the area is gorgeous, not a hint of being armpit-like. Plus there is no place in the world with better bagels and maybe even pizza.
Thinking about all these clashes of state cultures, I realized that the states that make up my country have some similarities to the European map. There are a bunch of little countries thrown together because of location, each differing in cultures and mindset. But how come America just works, while Europe has light years to catch up on before it becomes a single country?
That brings me to my final question, What exactly is America? I mean what makes it unique in this world? How come we can all get along as states under one governing body? WHAT IS AMERICA?
America is everyone of every culture you can imagine, living within the same borders.
America is the white headlights after headlights on the other side of the freeway, as we drive and drive along.
America is smiling through every awful, uncomfortable situation, talking with your hands, and looking people in the eye.
America is confusion, everything too blaring and bright, too fast, too hard to understand.
America is walking under an expanse of pale sky too large to possibly comprehend.
America is ignorance, not knowing, never knowing, and not caring about knowing.
America is resistance, knowing you should just let life be, but wanting something more.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Fun French Quotes

“France has neither winter nor summer nor morals. Apart from these drawbacks it is a fine country. France has usually been governed by prostitutes.”

–Mark Twain

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“I would rather have a German division in front of me than a French one behind me.”

–General George S. Patton

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“Going to war without France is like going deer hunting without your accordion.”

–General Norman Schwartzkopf

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“We can stand here like the French, or we can do something about it.”

–Marge Simpson

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“As far as I’m concerned, war always means failure.”

–Jacques Chirac, President of France

“As far as France is concerned, you’re right.”

–Rush Limbaugh

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“The only time France wants us to go to war is when the German Army is sitting in Paris sipping coffee.”

–Regis Philbin

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“You know, the French remind me a little bit of an aging actress of the 1940s who was still trying to dine out on her looks but doesn’t have the face for it.”

– John McCain , U.S. Senator from Arizona

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“The last time the French asked for ‘more proof’ it came marching into Paris under a German flag.”

–David Letterman

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“Only thing worse than a Frenchman is a Frenchman who lives in Canada .”

–Ted Nugent

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“War without France would be like … World War II.”

–Unknown

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“The favorite bumper sticker in Washington D.C. right now is one that says ‘First Iraq, then France.’”

–Tom Brokaw

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“What do you expect from a culture and a nation that exerted more of its national will fighting against Disney World and Big Macs than the Nazis?”

–Dennis Miller

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“It is important to remember that the French have always been there when they needed us.”

–Alan Kent

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“They’ve taken their own precautions against al-Qa’ida. To prepare for an attack, each Frenchman is urged to keep duct tape, a white flag, and a three-day supply of mistresses in the house.”

–Argus Hamilton

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“Somebody was telling me about the French Army rifle that was being advertised on eBay the other day –the description was, ‘Never shot. Dropped once.’”

–Rep. Roy Blunt, MO

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“The French will only agree to go to war when we’ve proven we’ve found truffles in Iraq ”

–Dennis Miller

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Q. What did the mayor of Paris say to the German Army as they entered the city in WWII?

A. Table for 100,000 m’sieur?

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“Do you know how many Frenchmen it takes to defend Paris ? It’s not known, it’s never been tried.”

–Rep. R. Blount, MO

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“Do you know it only took Germany three days to conquer France in WWII? And that’s because it was raining.”

–John Xereas, Manager, DC Improv

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The AP and UPI reported that the French Government announced after the London bombings that it has raised its terror alert level from Run to Hide. The only two higher levels in France are Surrender and Collaborate. The rise in the alert level was precipitated by a recent fire which destroyed France ’s white flag factory, effectively disabling their military.

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French Ban Fireworks at Euro Disney

(AP), Paris , March 5, 2003

The French Government announced today that it is imposing a ban on the use of fireworks at Euro Disney. The decision comes the day after a nightly fireworks display at the park, located just 30 miles outside of Paris , caused the soldiers at a nearby French Army garrison to surrender to a group of Czech tourists.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Life Defined in 3 Languages

This morning after the hideous alarm clock destroyed my peaceful slumber, after my birds nest hair was straightened, after I swallowed two Ibuprofen pills because my entire body is sore from 3 hours of running in the mountains and basketball practice, after I through on an outfit that was far too preppy and clean-cut for school, I headed downstairs. I am unable to function without half a liter of coffee every morning, so I greeted my host mom with a familiar grunt, and received one back, then poured myself a cup of black gold. After my instant humanization thanks to black bitter French coffee, I sat down and had a nice conversation about the upcoming day with my host mom. She asked me the time in which I would have a free period at school, to which I competently replied, "San heure." I'll will be the first to admit that my French skills are quite embarrassing, but I know how to say times in French better than anything else. So I was annoyed when Leonie gave me a look of incomprehension, I repeated "San heure" or "3 o'clock." She continued to look confused, and then said, "Just say it in English." The problem is that I do not want to speak English, because I feel that I speak English way too much. Thus, I again repeated, "SAN HEURE!" And as soon as the words came out of my mouth, I realized my mistake. I should have said "trois heure" because san is three in Japanese.

Imagine what it feels like, a cultural conflict contained in your voice, words a haven from daily exposure to a world with noise and language. I open my mouth and words fused by the cadence of memory slip from my ready tongue. If only I can remember what language to speak. This language blunder is not uncommon for me. I can not say at this point that I am triligual, because my French is not so good, and my Japanese is not perfect either. Yet not a day goes by, where I find myself stumbling over Japanese and French words in a blur of emotions. By the end of this long, but short in the scheme of things, year, I will be able to say that I am trilingual in three languages.
Funnily enough, my host mother, Leonie Robert, is also triligual, but truly and fully trilingual. She was born in Germany, an exchange student in America and later in London, and is now a French citizen. Thus she speaks German, English, and French. She has a much stronger handle on the languages and does not make so many confused errors as I do, but at least she understands my language blunders. "For you foreign is Japanese, it will take some time not to get confused by Japanese and French anymore." We have some pretty awesome talks about languages, which usually involves me insulting German; and her poking fun of Japanese. In one moment of upheavel over my poor French, I groaned, "I hate these damn Romance langauges, I do not think they are all that pretty either. I like really ugly languages, like English and German..." She smiled, possibly insulted that I had called her native tongue ugly. "Oh and Japanese is ugly too!"

My Japanese is very important to me, and it is usually one of the first things I tell people about. Even though I am in no way 100% fluent in Japanese, I could go to Japan and find my way around easily. In addition, I am enamored with the language. There is not one thing about Japanese that I do not like. The 5,000 Kanji characters do not scare me, the backwards grammar tenses do not mean much, and the unique sound only makes me excited. Plus I have almost a perfect Japanese accent, sure I have a slight noticeable accent. But when I make a mistake in Japanese it is a grammar error, not pronunciation. But mostly my Japanese is a gateway to a memory. A memory of a place where I wore a school uniform, was called a gaijin at least 500 times a day, and truly felt like I belonged and was meant to be there, regardless of how often I was reminded I was not Japanese in the slightest. I am so determined not to lose my second language, that I find myself watching dramas and movies on my computer in Japanese rather than English. Its probably hindering my French slightly, but I spend all day at school in French and I figure I need to stay connected to Japanese somehow.

And French... the language of love, of reason, of beauty for some. For me it is the language of a constant headache. I am truly a terrible person for saying this, but I am not one of French's biggest fans and I will argue with you if you tell me it is the most beautiful language in the world. Of course I am willing to say that I may change my ind about the language after I become more proficient in it. After all, as an exchange student there is no hypocrisy there is only change.

Seeing as I am essentially a European mutt mix, I figure learning a language from the old world is a good thing. The only problem is that I am truly, passionately, madly, and deeply terrible at Romance languages. This statement does not come without reason. I spent 6 years in Spanish class, and absolutely abhor that language. It seems irrational and unjustified, but whenever I hear Spanish I get angry or annoyed. Funnily enough, my first choice had been Argentina for this exchange. But like Spanish and Italian, French has sprung from the roots of the Latin language, and they all share many of the same characteristics. Even though French does not make me angry like Spanish, it still does not offer me the same ease and enjoyment that Japanese and English do.

Another thing that bothers my about French is the throaty grunts that you are supposed to make with certain words, but not with others. The language is all about throaty noises, and hocking up a hairball on occasion. This past week I have had a really terrible head-cold, and found that on a few days my throat was throbbing or I was unable to speak without coughing up icky stuff. Of course, imagine that on top of trying to hock up a hairball in French.

For me, Japan and Japanese will always be the memory of a year when I grew up and learned how to be independent and to just be happy with being who I am. I am not sure how France and French will stick to my memory, but I am certain with things are going that I will come to terms with French and even love it.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Little Miss Un-American

My room decoration.

Last weekend, Leonie's sister and mother came to Fixin to visit Leonie and her family. The amazing thing about Leonie's sister is that even though she was born and raised in Germany, she is truly and deeply a California girl through and through. She told me that she could probably never again live in Germany or Europe for that matter because, "it is always so gray." The same woman surfs off the coast of Santa Monica every weekend, does interviews for German newspapers with Hollywood stars (yes- I heard all about her horrid Las Vegas weekend with Paris Hilton), rides a horse in foothills around Los Angeles, and lives life to the fullest in the California sun. Talking to her was like getting a big dosage of good old American Apple Pie. But the subject of the UnAmerican idea is not a California German, it is me, who apparently is one of the most unAmerican Americans that people here have ever met.

Recently, I met an Australian Au pair in Gevrey-Chambertin at a wine tasting party, who said something incredibly profound and true. "The longer you are away from home, the more patriotic you get. Even though you may or may not miss home so much, you still find that little sliver of differing nationality makes you different, even special in some way shape or form." She proceeded to tell me how her favorite care package from home was an Australian flag, and how even though she had discovered the vineyards of France, the language of Italy, the classics of England, all she wanted to do was go home and dig a spoon into a jar of vegemite and watch a game of Aussie Rules Football. Even though America is not my most favorite place in the world, I do love it and am proud of my country and my heritage. I love being able to say that I am American, and then explaining that I am Irish, Welsh, Belgian, and German. Or that just 20 minutes from my house is the capital of the world, home to the finest bagels and pizza, New York City. I am having similar feelings about my own country, especially when I hear my host parents talk about the states with pride. Of course they have been everywhere in my country, even more places than I have, and I am quite certain they know more things about it than I do. Or how I can talk endlessly about some American originals, like Fireworks of the 4th of July, the concept of Free Speech about ANYTHING Reeses Peanut Butter Cups, Cake Batter Ice Cream, and a short but compelling history lesson. Oh and my heart swells when I hear the Star-Spangled Banner, and I am convinced that there is no finer anthem in the entire world with as much as beauty and pride than my own.

But the more and more Leonie and the other French people get to know me, my downfalls, my weaknesses and my strengths, the more and more they make comments about how unAmerican I am. It was the same way in Japan as well, only the Japanese made comments on how Japanese I was, rather than how unAmerican I am. Here are some examples of why they claim I am unAmerican.


  1. Firstly, I have been alive for 17 years and 10 months, and have NEVER EVER eaten a Big Mac. To many non-Americans with certain stereotypes and beliefs, this simple fact is too unbelievable to comprehend. Of course I have been to McDonalds before, but not quite as much as everyone seems to think. In both France and Japan, when teenagers go out to town to hang out, McDonalds is a mandatory stop along the way. In America, my friends and I NEVER go to McDonalds when we hang out. And on the off chance that I do go to that place, I get a coffee, a yogurt parfait, or a garden salad. Even before I became a partial vegetarian, I would only chicken fingers. 
  2. Secondly, as I am sitting here typing this editorial, I am also sipping on the most tasty coffee I have ever had. A strong espresso spright from the espresso capital of the world, Italy. Even though I am certain my sleep will probably be hindered, I do not care. According to the stereotype, Americans love watery weak coffee, full of cream and sugar. As for me, I can drink any kind of coffee, black, creamy, watery, you name it I love it. In addition, I never EVER drink Soda, the enemy sugar drink, the vitamin of the typical American. I once gave it up for a year as a New Years resolution, and after a year passed the drink became much too intense for my taste. Carbonation burned my throat, and I found that water felt much better anyway. Although in Japan, I loved tea for drinking, and in France, wine is really growing on me.
  3. Thirdly, I am incredibly concerned about my health and keeping my weight at a minimum. I was once rather overweight and I never want to go back to that state in my life. Now I am very aware about which foods go into my body, and I do my best to get a complete supplment of fruits, vegetables, breads, dairy, and meat substitutions. I am also the first to admit that the American portion size is ridiculous and large, and that pretty much all we eat in America is processed and terrible for you. On this note, I am also the same size jeans as most of my friends at French high school and even Japanese high school. What I am trying to imply is that, I am tall and slender. I do not have a lot of fat on my body, and thus can not allow the stereotype of the fat American to continue here.
  4. Fourth, I like French cheese. Now I know this sounds rather silly and stupid at the same time, but what you have to understand is that even some French abhor various French cheeses. The cheese made here in Bourgogne is especially strong, and I can smell it from about 10 feet away. Yet spread on some French baguette with a little wine as a supplement, there is nothing better. EVen in Japan, I shocked crowds with my crazy palette. I pretty much ate everything they put in front of me, even though I was never sure what I was eating and whether it was alive or not. I never asked until after I was finished devouring the meal, and f I really really liked what I was eating, I sometimes decided not to even ask. Not many people will admit to eating horse, whale, Octopus, poisonous blowfish, and other crazy odd dishes. Of course I ate Crocodile, Green Ants, and Wombat in Australia, but I suppose that is a different story. I wonder if the ability to try anything makes me unAmerican too?
  5. Fifth, I am a bilingual American. Bilingual American. Apparently that is sort of Oxymoron. Something like a Humorous German, Victorious Frenchman, or Tall Japanese. There is this (stupid) hilarious joke that is strictly European regarding Americans. "If you speak three languages, you are trilingual. If you speak two languages, you are bilingual. If you speak one language, you are... AMERICAN." Haha, so funny I forgot to laugh. Now the inability to speak another language is not exactly a bad thing in the slightest, but I can speak another language, and I am very proud of it. In fact, as of recent I have been watching many shows in Japanese to keep up my second language. Even though it probably is hindering my French, I love my Asian tongue and do not want to lose it. Plus, people here are baffled at me when I say I speak Japanese. This big American girl, poorly attempting to speak French, can actually speak Japanese. Regardless of what the Europeans claim in their language conquests, most are truly only multilingual. Those that can speak another language, only speak either English, German, Spanish, or Italian. Now even though this is incredible and commendable, my French comrades can not seem to fathom ME speaking Japanese. Furthermore, I am having a pretty difficult time differentiating between Japanese and French. It is not as though they are similar in the slightest, but my brain is in foreign country mode. The only foreign country mode it knows besides English speaking countries is Japanese, so I find myself answering in Japanese quite often. My host mom nearly wet herself when I explained to her that the weird grunting sound I make is actually a sound of agreement in Japanese, she thought I was just weird at first. When I write letter to Japan, I also find myself slipping French words into the texts. I am sure I will be able to control this language overload, but for the time being, I just have to fight to differentiate the two languages.
  6. A few days after I arrived, or perhaps I should say, a few minutes after I arrived, some people asked me about my view of politics. Of course Politics is the third rail, wherever you go and to whomever you speak to. I myself am hardcore Libertarian, with incredibly liberal views on social issues, and incredibly conservative views on economic stances. Personally I dislike Obama very much, but I am not certain McCain is the man for the job. SO before I arrived in France, I decided to play the ignorant politics card. Of course, that lasted for about 5 whole minutes. I was soon exchanging my views on world politics, why America did not sign the Kyoto Protocal, how politics changed after September 11th, why I think Obama would not make a good president. I also watched the Japanese Prime Minister Fukuda step down from office, and was not so pleased by that aspect. And I can not deny my new fascination with the prospering European Union and its call to be governed by one single governing body. So yeah, call me crazy, but I am fairly informed about world politics and their effect on the world.
  7. Americans do not do a lot of traveling, and most are content to stay at home and not do a lot of traveling. Of course who in America has time to travel? While Europeans get 6 weeks of paid vacation time a year, and a bunch of benefits and job saving techniques, Americans have a mere two weeks of leave. But still, most Europeans have been to a whole bunch of other countries, they do have lots of vacation and the luxury of existing very close to many other countries. As for me, it is my passion to travel and see the world. I have lived and loved Japan. Seen and explored Eastern Australia. Grasped and Understood the Northeast United States, and am slowly but surely comprehending and feasting in French Europe. In my Geography class at school here, I was the only student to be able to name all the European capitals, and I am not even European. In addition, I fought with the History teacher when he said that the Triad of Developed World Countries, North America, Europe, and Japan, had all experienced the Industrial Revolution. In French/English, I explained that Japan had not experienced the Industial Revolution because they were not open to the world yet, until Commodore Matthew Perry in the 1860's. The next day the teacher returned to school and told the class I was right.

So do these few little quirks, strengths, and weaknesses make me unAmerican? To me, it is not about being healthy, engaging myself in politics, being right in History class, speaking another language or anything else. To me this is about seeing and experiencing the world and all it has to offer, letting go of preconceived notions, and just being myself. And who I am? Well, I am still in the process of answering that. But I do know the way I am is greatly affected by recent European knowledge, experiences in Asia, and people from all around the world. If that makes me unAmerican then so be it. But I am an American, a weird cultured one.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

My First Rotary Meeting

I have been here in France for a little over three whole weeks. To me, this thought is chilling and yet surprising at the same time. Three weeks ago, on my first night in France, I met the Robert family, ate Indian food, and realized my French is quite terrible. Some things have not changed, like how I still think my French is terrible. But I am learning, slowly but surely. The thing is, it feels like I have been here so much longer than I really have. Things have fallen into place much easier than I suspected, and I even though I continue to uncover the differences between America, Japan, and France, I have certainly dented the surface. At this point, I feel like I have known the Roberts for much longer than 21 days, and even though I speak mostly in English with them, a language much easier to express myself in, I can fully admit that they know me very well also. For instance, I make fun of Leonie for growling in a ridiculous French manner every time something annoys her, and she pokes fun at me when I stick my tongue out at something I do not like. It probably took us only 3 days to notice these things about each other, but now we can sit back and make fun of each other and not worry about hurting the others feelings.

Anyway, during that time, the program I am here with, Rotary, seemed to forget I existed. I really loved being so involved with my host Rotary in Japan, but I did not let the French Rotary ignorance get to me. I figured that they were just busy, or that they wanted things to become more routine before inviting me to a meeting. However, Andrew, my fellow American exchange student, had been warmly welcomed by his Rotary. They brought him to a meeting, paid his allowance on the first day he arrived, and even took him on a hiking trip in the Burgundy countryside. Finally, the Roberts decided to find out what was going on regarding ly status as a Rotary Youth Exchange student. Jean-Francois best friend, Patrick Goudot, is the former president of the club, and he finally got around to inviting le to the meeting.

On Monday night, after I joined the Cours d’Orientation class at my school, whereby I learn Orientation in the middle of the woods with some classmates for three hours once a week, Leonie dropped me off in front of Monsieur Goudots work. It was only then that she told me that Monsieur Goudot is blind. This would not have affected my opinion of him in the slightest, until I let him. Besides the fact that he was fluent in English, he could also get around just as well as anyone who could see. I was completely enamoured by his mobility and way of life, while he told me about the host Rotary club.

There are 5 clubs in the city of Dijon, and only 2 of them allow women to join. The Rotary Club Dijon Ducs de Bourgogne is not one of them. There are 50 French wealthy CEO types within the club, meeting only once a month, which perhaps explained their lack of participation in my exchange. It is really weird for me to see how the club worked. The top 8 club members meet in a small room for an hour before the dinner. They count the money and discuss what they plan to do with it. I unfortunately had to sit there for an hour and attempt to listen to them discuss their plans of motion. After a really long day of French High school, I had had enough of the language and was not really straining myself to listen. But I did understand them discussing funding a monument in a local vineyard. It was one of the longest hours I have been through in my life, but I sat there with my Rotary smile and got through it in one piece. Towards the end of the small group session, a much younger college student entered the room. He was introduced to me as a Romanian Frnehc student that Rotary had helped to fund his educqtion studying English in London. He was a really great guy and he assisted me at various times during the evening.

The first qnd most interesting thing I want to point out is the Rotary rules. There are 4 D rules, NO drinking, drugs, driving, and dating. EVen before I walked through the door of the main banquet hall and introduced myself, an older Rotarian thrust a glass of Champagne into my hands and offered me a toast. Then he proceeded to tell me that if I did drink it, all the other Rotarians would think I was rude and unaccepting of French culture. I swear the more I say, "no thanks, I am following Rotary rules," the more people seem to feel they must get me to violate these rules. So after a glass of DELICIOUS French-made Champagne, I made my rounds at the meeting and met everyone.
First things first, my Rotary club had no idea they were even hosting me for a year. Or better yet, they had no idea I existed. They do now, however, and plan to invite me to their monthly meeting. Optional attendance, of course. They also have very little if any experience with exchange students, and had to be reminded by the main Rotary that they needed to give me an allowance and even acknowledgement. Except, once they met me, they were certainly intrigued by me. Even though I spoke no French, by the end of the night, they heard all about my experience in Japan, my existance in Fixin, and my host sisters trouble in India. I am not even certain if they know what country I come from however.
Regardless, I had a great time. The food was absolutely delicious> There was crab meat for appetizer, steak (which I did not eat) and corn loaf, followed by coffee flavored mousse cake chocolate pie. The surroundings were also beautiful, perched up on the top of an expensive ritzy hotel in the city of Dijon. The club is named after the historic origins of the Burgundy region, whereby for hundreds of years Burgundy was essentiqlly its own country, rules by a variety of colorful dukes and their family lines. Their family crest is now the banner of Dijon and banner of this particular Rotary club.
Even though there are no woman allowed in the clubs, the wives of Rotarians were there. They all adored me as well. One woman in particular pinched my clubby cheeks about 300 times over the course of the night. She told me her daughter, currently 30 years old, had been an exchange student to North Carolina, USA. She said her host family smoked pot every morning, and were vegetarians, which she thought was the strangest thing ever. Then she observed me pushing my steak to the other side of the plate, and she burst into laughter and apoligized greatly. I told her I ate chicken and fish, but she still could not help but chuckle at this freaky American girl. Another woman, whose husband drive me home that night, promised to take me to Paris with her and her husband when they got around to going this year.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Just Before the Harvest

September 25th marks the first legal day that people of Fixin, Burgundy are allowed to begin harvesting the grapes for wine season. I am not entirely certain whether this day is the same for the whole Burgundy region, but either way farmers of the region are physically not allowed to begin their harvesting and wine making prior to this date. Though being here for these past four weeks, and experiencing the frigid cold weather of this particular season, I am positive that most farmers would not even consider breaking that date. In fact, this year, 2008, is projected to be catastrophic for the French wine growing region.

Well at least here in Burgundy, I can not speak for the Bordeaux region. Also the word catastrophic seems a little dire. However, I am slowly beginning to understand that the religion of the French surrounding wine might be some reason for this ominous depiction of the upcoming harvest.

When I first heard that alarming fact, I thought that my  presence here might have something to do with it. You see, the truth is that I can not physically walk home from school without picking a handful of grapes from the vineyards and devouring them whole. Each day they grow a little bit riper and ever more tasty. They started off being much too sour but now as their ripening date closes in, they are getting terribly delicious. I have eaten so many grapes, that I thought that maybe there would not be so much production this year on my account. In addition, I have discovered some interesting things about grapes. Did you know that rubbing the juice from a grape on your skin is soothing and actually good for keeping it clean? Sure it may be sticky, but it is worth it in my opinion.

But in all seriousness, 2008 could truly be a catastrophic year for the industry, and it is already certain
that wine grown in this year will not be very good if they can even produce it all. The fact is, summer has been incredibly mild and rarely warm enough for the proper growing temperature. In addition, it is September and it is frigid cold and ALWAYS raining. Out of the days I have been here, probably about 2 weeks have been wet and rainy, and while I do not mind the occasional rain and thunderstorm, the wine producers are pessimistic about the looming vendange.

On September 11, I attended my first ever wine tasting session. My host father was invited by a local travel agent, who wanted his companies business in the wine cellars of Gevrey-Chambertin. He thought that it ought to be my first occasion to sample the local wines. Even though I have been fortunate enough to try some delicious and incredible wines already, such as the 1962 bottle at the Welcome Party, I was not expecting the extravagance and excitement of my first wine tasting session.

Gorgeous Fixin.
The owner of the wine cellar was the most passionate wine grower I have ever met in my entire life. Granted, I have met about 4 winegrowers and all of them in the past month here in France, so that might not be saying too much. I could not help but be enthralled by his enthusiasm and dedication to his cause. His English was great as well, and he explained to me some very fascinating facts about the wine industry here in Burgundy. Unfortunately, he left out some huge details that would have been very useful in my surviving the evenings wine experience. For instance, he could have told me that you did not have to drink every glass of wine given to you. It is even proper for most people to drink a sip of a glass, absorb the taste, and then spit it out into a little jar. When I saw some others at the wine tasting doing the spitting thing, I was utterly abhorred, and thought it was incredibly rude and disgusting; I noticed my host parents were not spitting, so I figured it was rude of the others to spit and that our wine grower host was probably offended by the spitting. In reality, my host parents did not spit because they will NEVER spit out free wine, or any wine for that matter. They can hold their alcohol pretty well. And also the host was not offended by the spitting, in fact, he encouraged it for the first few wines we tasted, which he claimed were not good. After I had a little too much to drink, he explained most people taste and then spit out so that you do not get to drunk so early. In addition, for these wine tasting things, they always begin with the low grade wholesale wines, in order for you to open up your palette to the richer and better wines. Therefore most people do not even drink their first few glasses, or they do and then spit it out.

My Fixin
In French, the Burgundy region is actually pronounced Bourgogne, so from now on I am going to be referring to it as that. The most famous wines produced here are red wines made from Pinot Noir grapes or white wines made from Chardonnay grapes. The region I reside in if the Cote d’Or, where Bourgogne's most famous and most expensive wines originate. The Côte d'Or itself is split into two parts: the Côte de Nuits which starts just south of Dijon and runs till Corgoloin, a few kilometers south of the town of Nuits-Saint-Georges, and the Côte de Beaune which starts at Ladoix and ends at Dezize-les-Maranges. The wine-growing part of this area in the heart of Burgundy is really only about 20 miles long, and within the vineyards, tiny cramped but rustic villages and hamlets have sprung to house the viticultuers, or wine growers.

Bourgogne has a higher number of Appellations d'origine contrôlées (AOCs) than any other French region, and is often seen as the most terroir-conscious of the French wine regions. You have your cream of the crop, Grand Crus vineyards, down to more non-specific regional appella tions, usually named after the specific town, and finally wholesale wine, denoted as Burgundy brand. The Côte de Nuits contains 24 out of the 25 red Grand Crus appellations in Burgundy, while all of the region's white Grand Crus are located in the Côte de Beaune. This is explained by the presence of different soils. Finally, the Bourgogne wholesale brand is the least expensive but because it is from Bourgogne, it is still delicious.

There is a practice here of denoting wines by their specifically grown location and vineyard. Thus usually a Grand Crus bottle might have a specific name of the plot of land, in which it is grown on. It will probably taste completely different than the wine grown from grapes grown just 20 meters away. Of course that depends on the landscape and soil. After all, the Grand Crus vineyards of this region are usually grown from the middle and higher part of the slopes, where the vineyards have the most exposure to sunshine and the best drainage, while the Premier Crus come from a little less favorably exposed slopes. The relatively ordinary Village wines are produced from the flat territory nearer the villages. Or so they tell me. There are signs bestowing the name of each town at the edge of each town property line, but true wine enthusiasts want more specific signs. They want signs displaying the specific name of the plot of land, where grapes are grown, because, according to my host mom, “it makes people dream.”

Part of the French culture is to drink delicious wine with French cheese and bread, which was also served to us on that evening. That may sound ridiculous, but if I were to tell you the most important thing to know before coming to France and staying with a French family, it would be that. Even though I had planned on not eat anything and just eating dinner when I got home, my host mom advised my to spread some cheese and a couple slabs of bread and eat. It would absorb the alcohol faster.

Tucked deep in the earth, the wine cellar was truly incredible. Back when these impressive cellar were built, the deeper the cellar meant that you had more money and wealth. This cellar was not particular huge, and barrels were piled on top of each other, however, it was deep, cold, damp, and rather eerie. Even though I am not really sure when it was built, the musty smell and clumps of old mold, claimed something in the 200 year-old range. I had so many questions for the winegrower, and he was so enthusiastic and happy to answer everything for me. He told me that the barrels for the Grand Crus wine had to be replaced every year, so that the wood did not absorb into the taste. But that for wholesale and village wines, barrels were replaced once ever two to four years. When you drink certain wines, it is completely proper to actually suck in a breath of air and make a sort of hissing sound to let air get absorbed in the drink and give a greater taste of the wine. (He explained that I ought to do at a Rotary meeting I front of the wealthy CEO sophisticated people to show how intelligent I was concerning the wine industry, they would be very impressed.)

The Gold Coast.
We started the tasting with some Bourgogne wholesale brands, which are supposed to be the cheapest of the wines. Even still, a bottle usually sells for 10 Euros, which is about $15, in my opinion not so cheap. The wholesale brand tasted okay and I drank all three glasses offered to me, without spitting out one. Yet when we moved up to a richer brand, a wine names ofter a town in was grown in, and also a step up on the wine scale, I failed to see much of a taste difference. Sure I did notice some things, like how Fixin wine is thicker, sharper even, and it is supposed to be eaten with thick meat and tough meals. I could tell when we had wine from the Beaune region, which the winegrower distinguished as, "feminine." It had less of a bite than the other village wines, and was supposed to be eaten with breads, salads, and other lighter foods. I also could tell the difference between white wines, and red wines. Already, I know that white wines are much much taster and easier on my throat. White wines are steadily becoming my drink of choice, even though there are not many grown in the Cote d'Or region.

Vine porn.
And yet, when we tried Grand Crus Wines, some aged 15 years, others considered to be the tasty in the world, I could not tell the difference between them and the wholesale brands. Even though I did not say this, my host parents could tell that I was not able to establish a difference. They told me I would make, "a pretty cheap date." My host Mom promised me that by the end of the year, I would really understand the differences between these wines and their importance to France. She told me that some people even went to school to learn how to understand the differences in wine tasting and growing. I told her I would rather go to school to learn History and Geography, but hey whatever floats your boat, right?

Of course by this time, I was not 100% with it.

I can't even handle how pretty Fixin is.
I did not count how many glasses of wine I had drank, but A LOT is the best way to put it. Even by the time, I figured out you could spit them out, it was too late for me. I also refused to spit them out, and opted to take a sip, swallow, and then pour out the rest of glass. I may be pretty cultured and open to new ideas, but spitting out wine in front of bunch of people is not something I really want to take an interest in. As the night went on, I found myself leaning up against a nice barrel for support. I also discovered some interesting things about myself, for instance, when I have a little bit too much to drink, my eyes droop. Apparently, I truly do look Japanese at this point. I also start smiling a lot more, and chuckling at little things like how the wine glasses are silly looking, fat at the bottom and slender on top. Apparently, I thought that was something to laugh at. I also told the group that the cheese in France is so good, that the French can take over the world with it. I do not exactly that remember, however.

I did get home in one piece, and I clearly remember getting in the car after saying goodbye to the winemaker and thanking him for the opportunity. The next thing I remember is Friday morning, my host mom coming in my room and telling me to hurry up, that I was late for school.

Ah French wine...



Tuesday, September 09, 2008

First Impressions

I'm just chilling behind that window
enjoying my free time.
Free time is always a good thing. I must admit that I have a lot of free time, but that it comes in brief intervals. A half an hour here before lunch, or 15 minutes before the espresso machine is all heat up. And when I do have a long period of time of nothing, I snap on my running shoes and trek out for a run, open up my French book and attempt to understand the works of Montesquieu and Rousseau, or create a new post for the website. But when I can not run, need the English language or do not feel philosophical, or am too fed up with these damn French keyboards to type, I read my old works. I hurry up to the old website, Julie in Japanland..., and bathe in my old writing on a 15 year old girl living, learning, and loving Japan.

I like to think that I have come along way since that time. My hair is shorter, I am much smarter and cultured, and my writing is actually readable and not such a blur of emotions. In addition, I finally know the differences between there and their. Perhaps one day, after I live here in France a little longer, falling deeper in love with this mystical place, I will sit down and write all about what it feels like the be apart of three cultures. Or better yet, to be confused, baffled, intrigued, enchanted, hungered, and wise in three lands, homes, and mystical places. But for now I want to give myself a gift for a few months and years down the road. The knowledge of my first impression of France, French school, and life here. After all, reading those stories of my first day of school in Japan is like strolling down memory lane. I find that many of my initial emotions to Japan changed in the course of the year. For example, in my first two weeks I lay in the uncomfortable bed, sweating from the immense heat and broken air-conditioner, and wondering how I was going to do it. How could I possibly live in a place where they do not even hug? Or eat rice for every meal and even cold dead fish, that may not even be dead? Or how to bond with a 22 year-old host sister, who slept at all hours of the day and really wanted nothing to do with me? Yet, 350 days later and I was being forced out of the country because my visa was about to expire. I probably would not have left for any other reason. You see that same place that I had initially despised, had become my home, filled with friends and family. And yet some
How can Fixin not stun you
upon on first impressions?
things never changed over the course of the year. My initial impression of school life was that of bubbly silly Japanese girls who obsessed over Disney, cute things, and their American exchange student. It was love at first sight. That did not change in the slightest.

When the man who drove to Fixin from Paris pulled up in front of the Roberts home, my heart nearly burst with excitement and nervousness. Then a beautiful tall skinny woman with a young smiling face burst out through the door, giving me the warmest first feeling I had ever felt. She was followed by another young women, slightly plump, but also smiling. They both greeted me with the French kiss greet and even though I swore I would not allow myself to make prior judgements of expectations, I knew everything was going to work out within the family.

Of course the tiny rustic village of Fixin has another such feeling. I must say, for a Jersey girl growing up in suburbs of New York City, Rotary seems to enjoy sending me to the countryside. I will not even go into the Japanese experience, but the French is not much different. Actually it is incredibly different, depending on your perspective. My classmates at the school think this is the middle of nowhere country bumpkin land. They talk about the area as I do when I insult the Cornhuskers of Nebraska and Iowa. Yet to me, this place is an absolute paradise. I live in an ancient house on a narrow street, just beside hectares of fields fertile with life, greenery, and grapes. On one side there is lush green hills, and on the other side in a flat area, where you can see kilometer after kilometer of vineyards, farmers in their fields, highways, and slumbering villages.

The quiet life.
People here can not seem to agree on how many people live here. The town website says 750, while others claim closer to 700. "Well they are all old anyway, its closer to 700 because people keep dying," says my host father as he chuckles at his own observation. Regardless of the population, everyone knows each other and appears to like each other. Now I am quite certain that they do not all like each other, but at least they are incredibly cordial, always waving, smiling, and kissing. On the second day, Leonie told me she hated the neighbors across the wall because they are always shouting and causing trouble. Yet not an hour passed, and I saw her kissing the patriarchal
 neighbor and inquiring about his health.

And because everyone knows each other, they also know me. Even though I have no idea who most of the Fixin inhabinats are, when I run along the Route des Grand Crus, or walk Timou the dog through the vineyards, I see people look up and smile at me. It's the not the same curious yet frightful stare I merited all the time in Kochi, Japan, whereby I was perhaps the first foreigner that they had ever seen in their whole life. In fact, here in Fixin dozens of tour groups filled to capacity with yap-pity Germans, clueless Australians, annoying Japanese, fat Americans, and others flow through the area on a daily basis. The people of Fixin have indeed soon there fair share of foreigners. Yet I am different. I run along the historical roads, sneak tastes of the ripening grapes, kiss and greet, attempt an understanding of the language. I am not a tourist, and they all know that and acknowledge that. On the other hand, I am not French, which they also acknowledge as well. No matter where the wind takes me, I will never truly be one of the crowd. But I find myself forgetting that sometimes.

Strolling through the vineyards/
On my former blog, I dedicated an entire section to my first day of Japanese high school. It was well worth it. I did a speech in Japanese in front of over 2,000 students and teachers in Japanese, having studied the language for about 2 weeks. In addition, it was exciting; I felt incredibly welcome and a little awkward. To stay I stood out is a bot of an understatement. I felt like that pink elephant in the room everyone talks about. Yet, this time around, I find that I do not have the will or heart to do that this time around. The first day of French High School was not exactly a milestone earth-shattering day of my life. In fact, it actually sucked quite a lot.

My host sister, Charlotte's best friend, Margaux Brun picked me up from in front of the Roberts at
quarter to 9 and we walked side by side to the Lycée, which is the French word for high school. The school is called Lycée Stephen Liegard, but not one person I know actually refers to it as that. Since it is located in Brochon township, people just call it Lycée Brochon. From across the vineyards, the area of the school is impeccably gorgeous. There is a huge 17th century chateau situated on the land, and it is surrounding by hundreds of small green trees in the surrounding school park. It is a beautiful effect for being surrounded by vast wide open vineyards. Yet as you near the school, and or people tell you the truth about the school, your fascination with it becomes disillusioned. Situated on the other side of the school park is an ugly eyesore building, built in the last 50 years, that truly is falling apart. That, my friends, is the school. The gorgeous chateau is for the girls that live in minuscule villages not reached by the prefecture buses, or just too far away for them to get to each and everyday. Which is great for girls who live in hamlets, but not so good for Americans girls who love pretty old buildings and thought they would be attending school in one. But that was the least of my worries.

The first thing that I thought when I walked on the huge green elegant campus was, "Oh crap, I look like such an idiot." Now in no way do I consider myself preppy in the slightest, but surrounded by the French kids of the lycée, I was squeaky clean and shining, something no one wants to be in this culture. You see I always thought the French culture in fashion was EXPENSIVE designer clothes in name-brand things. I suppose I though just because Paris is the fashion capital of the world, that little Brochon would be exactly the same. Instead I walked into a campus ruled by two fashions: Grunge and Punk. When I say grunge, I really do mean Seattle in the 1980's. The punk scene is not much better, although I do have a soft spot for kids in Bob Dylan, Rolling Stones, and Doors tee-shirts. Girls of the school had long dreadlocks, which looked as though they had not been cleaned in weeks, and huge baggy jeans and sweatshirts with weird band names or references to drugs and alcohol. Oh and I can not even begin to tell you about the piercings. There I was standing in a miniskirt with blue hibiscus flowers, and an elegant white top. I had actually got up earlier to straighten my hair and put on makeup. In short, I thought I looked really cute, but surrounded by my peers, I looked like a total moron. I began to wonder who the real different noncomformist was now?

There are three grades in lycée: seconde, premier, and termiale, which are the equivalent of American 10th, 11th, and 12th grades. I was placed in premiere, which is the epitome of an American Junior year. But that is not so bad because I am actually close in age to many of the kids. The seconde year has a set of mandatory classes that everyone must take. But in premier, you have to select a course of study, in which to join. At the my school, there are four courses. That is S, ES, L, and STG. S is for the Science and Math specialities, during the course of the week, they forgo liberal arts classes for supplementary maths and sciences. The ES track is economics and social sciences. It is the most mainstream track because it has a little bit of everything in it, and not just one main focus. I am not entirely sure what the STG track is. Antoine's girlfriend Clemence is part of this track and she is studying business to take over her family's wine business. But I reslly have no idea what all that entails.

I was placed in an L class. L as in literature. Even though I specifically asked to be placed in ES, but since my French is nonexistent, they thought it best I be placed in a stream with a bunch of French classes. The only problem is that the French classes in the L track are ridiculously hard. They focus on ancient French philosophy and old literature. Do not get me wrong, I am fascinated by philosophy. But I can barely read Goodnight Moon in French, let along Rousseau and Montesquieu. In addition, the L track has a second main focus on languages. Obviously English is my specialty, but they also put me in Spanish, which is perhaps my most least favorite in subject in the entire world. For as long as I can remember, I have loathed the Spanish language. It sounds terrible, especially coming from someone who is slowly becoming a language keeper, but the Spanish language drives me insane. And the Spanish at the school is taken by kids who have had the course since they were very little, and are thus quite good at it.

When Margaux brought me to SS6, my homeroom for the morning, she introduced me to my main teacher, Madame Serfatti, the French teacher. She could not speak a word of English, and did not seem to care in the slightest that I could not speak French. When she took attendance, she told the class I was a foreign student. The class was enthralled, but I was mortified when I could not understand her question of where I came from. Everyone in the class roared with laughter, as the teacher made a quirky comment about me knowing the language apparently. I think if it had been any other human being in the world, they would have been mortified. But as this is is my second time around as an innocent, stupid foreigner it did not bother me. The saying goes, "I am not retarded, I am foreign." It is a quote to live by in your first three months of exchange.

After waiting in line along for about an hour for library books, the class returned back to the room. Madame Serfatti began to read off everyones schedule in class, in French, with weird groups and different times for each lesson. Needless to say I was entirely helpless and lost. In addition, she read the classes out really quick and if I thought I understood I wrote it down in Japanese as it is much quicker for me to write than Francais or even Anglais. The other kids in the class ignored me for the better part the class, even when I begged the girl in front of me to help me out. She told me she would help me after class, but by that time I just decided to go up to the teacher. I was so overwhelmed and fed up, that I just wrote down all the classes and stormed out of the building as fast as I could. Before I left, Madame Serfatti, who I had started to like because of seemingly careless and easy attitude told me that I was surely going to have a hard time in her class. Especially since we would be beginning with French philosophy. As I walked away from the crumbling school, the only thing I could wonder was how I was going to manage an entire year in this awful school.

There are plenty of other things that I have had first impressions on worth discussing and puzzling about. I think the most drastic for me is the French greeting. Basically when you greet someone you know well, or as I slowly learn, if you know them at all, you do this sort of kissing thing. First you kiss one side and then you lean back and then kiss the other side. Cheek, that is. For me, it is utterly torture. It is true in the statement that I am a very cold person and rather much dislike all shows of affection, except of course for hugs, which are unmatched and unbeatable. But this greeting thing is freaking me out, I absolutely hate it, regardless of how many times I lie and say that I get it and it does not bother me so much anymore.

Oh and school is the worst!

The kids always, and I really do mean always, kiss each other in the morning and often just before departing school. Since school for me has gotten better, and I have met a lot of nice people, I get kissed on the cheek at least 20 times a days. And if I stay till the end of the school day, I get kissed a great deal more. Sometimes just before a Frenchie goes to greet you, they may ask you a question, like how are you? I am physically incapable of kissing greeting and answering a question, so I do not usually answer the question until after the greeting is finished with. Some people find that rude, while others who know me well enough can not help but laugh at how hard I am trying and how much I am failing at this greeting thing. Of course, the students see how much I detest the greeting thing. I think at first they were offended when I would close my eyes or hold my breath during the ritual. Now, most understand that it is not part of my culture or heritage and that I am just not used to it. But that does not seem to stop them. In fact, the greeting thing has increased significantly as I make more and more French acquaintances and immerse myself further into this country.

One final first impression worth talking about is the wine. Oh yes- the wine! As I am often reminded, I am living a dream for the most stringent wine enthusiasts. Some people would give their left arm to be living and loving this French wine country that I have been randomly placed in. It is true, I love it here. But I really do not understand the big deal of wines. Sure they are elegant and very popular, but why on earth do they have such a huge following? I first compared them to fruity alcoholic soda of France. That did not go over to well. On my first night, I committed a horrible sin by saying the wholesale Bourgogne brand tasted only slightly different then the Gevrey Chambertin Grand Crus brand. To me the only different was that that one gave me indigestion, and the other burned my throat. I can not even tell you which one is which. I have learned to keep my mouth shut when talking about wines, because I am bound to insult someone with my lack of taste. But Leonie, assures ,e that by the end of the year, I will become such a wine enthusiasts that I will be able to tell the differences between all the wine grown in the world and all the wine grown within Burgundy. I would tell her not to hold her breath, but you know what? I have lived to eat most of my first impressions. Perhaps by the end of the year, I will love school, French greetings, and will be a wine enthusiasts. The best that can be said is that I am quite optimistic about the whole thing.