Sunday, November 30, 2008

Turkey Day French-style

Andrew and his masterpiece.

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

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

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

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

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

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

And so began the French-fryed Thanksgiving 2008.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"That is so bizarre."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Strikes


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Big 1-8 Part IV: The Actual Big 1-8

Already my 18th birthday was not going as I planned. Firstly, I had hopped to just let the day pass and not really make a big fuss over it. After all, what is the big deal with turning 18? You can get your driver's license at 17. You can drink at 21. Okay sure you can vote at 18, but I missed the darn election by a whooping two weeks, so that really was not a primary concern for me. According to Leonie, you can also get sent to prison at 18, and as I learned in Paris the weekend before, you have to pay full price for a ticket into any museum. So really, the 'Big 1-8' seems not so big and special.
And yet, for how the day turned out, it would be foolish for me to complain that things had not turned out how I expected. Because sometimes, if you get lucky, as is the case with me, things turn out far better than you had expected.

Probably because I was utterly exhausted from the weekend in Paris, I awoke in a hazy grog, and actually forgot that it was my actual birthday. Leonie was the first person to greet me with Happy Birthday! Oh yeah! That is today isn't it? Haha.

Four hours of French school on a Monday morning. Doesn't that sound just peachy? And so, when my alarm clock rang at 7:30, I decided to give myself a little birthday present: an extra hour of sleep. I missed Spanish and Math class, my least two favorite classes in the entire week. So that when I finally arrived at school, it was time for English. I do not like English so much either, but the teacher really is kind to me, which is pretty rare among the teachers here at my lycee. But even before class began, Annabelle and Alice, two classmates who I have sort of begun becoming friendly with, surprised me with a birthday gift. Annabelle gave me a Christmas calendar, and Alice gave me a Marapan Santa Claus candy. I was shocked that they remembered, and even more surprised that they went out of their way to get me a present. But the surprise did not end there.

Suddenly at the end of English class, the entire class burst into a rousing rendition of Happy Birthday with a french pronunciation. My English teacher had orchestrated a mini-surprise birthday celebration, passing out cake, and asking me to tell the class what the 18th birthday symbolized in the United States. As I munched on some blueberry birthday cake, I told the class that you can vote and get sent to prison, the only two things of any important tied to the big 1-8. The teacher also gave me three bars of delicious Lindt Chocolate tied in a bow. It was a really nice surprise, and I made sure to thank her very much when the class finished.

After one more hour of French, I was heading back home. Normally I have three hours off, and then three hours of Cours d'Orientation, which is orienteering in the woods, but since my ankle was not in a good state, Leonie wrote me a pass to get out of the class. And thus, I had the whole afternoon off to do as I pleased.

At the house, I discovered a huge birthday package from home. I tore it open in a crazy state, yanking out three new pairs of Converse, an awesome peace bag, and enough chocolate to feed the French army. There was also a Halloween present for Coline and all the ingredients for my Mom's best chocolate chips for Leonie. I was so happy, but probably not a tenth as happy as Leonie was when she received the bag of Nestle Tollhouse Semi-sweet Morsels and also a bag of Peanut Butter Morsels.
Excitement is a good word to describe the feeling I was having, when I went off to search for the house phone. I called me Mom and Dad, mostly to say thank you for the present, but also to hear my Dad sit in awe at the fact that I was 18 years-old. I talked to my family for just over 2 hours, telling them all about my Paris excursion and mostly about how things were getting better here in France. Just as I was about to hang up, Leonie popped up and insisted on talking to my mom. She wanted to say thanks for the cookies, but they ended up talking for a long time about other stuff too. It was kind of weird for me to sit there and listen to my Mom and my "French" mom (she would object to being called French...) talk about me. But it was not bad, so that was of course a plus.

When finally they both hung up, Leonie left my room, and Coline entered carrying with her the movie Mean Girls in French. And thus, I sat back wit my 10 year-old French sister and watched Lindsey Lohan struggle through American high school. I tried to explain that American high schools were different usually, but that the movie actually gave a good footing for what it is like to go to American high school. Neverthe less, I adore that movie, even in French, so it was fun to watch. But eventually I had to start getting ready for that evening.

Let me explain. It has been three months, and I have never met my club counselor with my host Rotary club. That is fine with me because they are not very strict and I have pretty much free rein to do whatever I want. For example, when Leonie and Jean-Francois bought me and Alex the Paris tickets, they informed Rotary that the pair of us would be in Paris for 2 days all by ourselves. Rotary did not really care, except they set down one condition. On the evening of November 17th, my birthday, instead of spending the evening with my host family like I would have liked, I was dragged to a Rotary meeting. Normally I do not mind going to Rotary meetings, as the food is good, and the French Rotary serves wine. But I would have much rather spent the night with the Roberts.

Oh well. I went to the Rotary meeting, where I sat and listened to my club members discuss matters of importance to the club. I was the youngest attendee by at least 40 years, and one of three woman in the room. But I am not complaining because I got to drink lots of tasty red and white wine. And just as I was preparing to leave, the lights dimmed and the entire club sang Happy Birthday to me with a big chocolate cake. Wine and Chocolate cake is not a bad way to spend the evening of your 18th birthday. And even though I went to bed that evening, incredibly happy about the way my birthday had gone, I had no idea that there was still more to come...

The Big 1-8 Part III: The Seconde Day in Paris


Views like this make any day special.

The cold played the part of an alarm clock for me on Sunday morning. Alex tapped at my door, but I was already dressed and ready to go. I just needed my coffee for a kick start. Even though I have not slept through the night in the best four days, pulled my Achilles tendon during a run just before Paris, and was just all around exhausted, I still managed to be just fine and to have an awesome day.
While all the kids slept on that cold Sunday morning, Alex and I hopped in the car of Fabrice for the St. Germain train station. The day before we had bought our return tickets, and so we were good to
Oh my goodness. More things I
have always wanted to see.
go and got right on the train. Even though we got off at the wrong stop once, due to the mis-marking of a subway station, we managed to finally get to our first stop of the morning: the Arch de Triomphe. As we were climbing out of the subway station, I peered ahead and exclaimed, "Alex, where is it? I do not see it anywhere!"

"Turn around you idiot!" she said smugly.

And there it was. Just like the Eiffel Tower, it actually existed. And it was just as beautiful and romantic as I had always hoped and imagined it would me. Well, maybe romantic is not a good adjective to describe a military gate and memorial, but close enough. And because it was so early in the morning, there were almost no crowds. Our mission: climb the Arche. Since Alex had already climbed the Tour de Eiffel and Notre Dame, she wanted to try something new. I was pretty content doing anything. Especially since it was free for me to do it all.

When you climb the Arch de Triomphe, you have to climb up this huge DNA strand stair case. And by huge, I mean, it probably goes on and on for about 10 floors. I was fine climbing, but Alex and the majority of other
Climbing the stairs up the arch.
people had a hard time. Of course at the time, I had to go to the bathroom in a very Julie-like move. On top of the Arch, I can now officially say I have peed on the Arch de Triomphe. What a horrible thought.

At the top of the Arche, we looked out and saw the entire city of Paris. Did you know that the reason why all the building are so small is because their is an ordinance that no building can get bigger than the surrounding monument? Alex pointed out Montmaresse and Sacre Coeur, her favorite part pf the city for it's Bohemian feelings. We also planned to hit up that area in April for our Eurotour. There was also la Defence, the business district far out of the way of the historic city, and one rather lonely and eye-sore like tall building in the middle of tiny buildings. We called it the phallic symbol of the city. Of course, we could have better weather, but really, the gray clouds could not get us down in spirits. After all, standing on the top of the Arche peering out at the city of Paris, just before your 18th birthday, is pretty cool.

To make matters even more enjoyable for me, a group of Japanese tourists stumbled up the Arche.
Basically a photo at any random European
monument. 
They mistook for a Frenchie and said, "Bonjoulll!" with their Japanese accent (which apparently is how I speak French as well.) To which, I responded, "Konnichiwa. Ogenki desu ka?" From there, I was in Japanese mode. An opportunity to turn off my English and French and jump into my second and favorite language to speak, Japanese.

When we descended the Arche, we peered on the brightly lit Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. I could not help but point out that I have been to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in London, Paris, but never in my own country. We took the few obligatory tourist photos, and then made our way down the world-famous Champs-Elysees. I would love to tell you that we were just making our way down the street and taking in all the sights and sounds, but in reality we were just searching for a Starbucks. The street, normally bustling with tourists, shoppers, and rich folks, was nearly dead. Store clerks were hanging lights in the windows, and preparing for the holidays, while Alex and I trudged along the street seeking a Starbucks.

Oddly enough, Starbucks has not conquered the Champs-Elysees just yet. Please get on that soon, Starbucks.

Canons in Europe. No! War NEVER comes to Europe... ha.
When we finished walking down the street, we decided to march through the gardens of Tuilleries and up to the Lourve. I was no mood for more art, and apparently you need a whole weekend to get through the Lourve art museum. That is, if you are as aesthetic as I have become, which is still hilarious to think.

All the excitement from the Arch had worn off by that point. I really needed a coffee, but not half as bad as Alex. We sort of crawled through the Tuilleries gardens, stood in front of the glass pyramid of the Louvre for about five minutes, and then agreed that if we did not find a Starbucks, we were going to have to settle for McDo coffee or something. But as we walked along the backstreets of the Louvre, a group of Spanish tourists walked by with cups of the golden substance. Alex, of course, nearly toppled them in order to find the location. And sure enough, within
five minutes, we were seated in a warm American Starbucks, sipping a Mocha Frappucino and a White Chocolate Mocha Latte. After a few sips, we became human again.

In fact, we pulled out the Paris map, and committed to walking a few miles back in the wrong direction to explore La Defense, the military museum, the tomb of Napoleon. The walk was truly enjoyable, because we were full of delicious coffee and in the city of love, Paris. We crossed the Seine river, and acted like complete American tourists racing up and down the gardens outside La Defense. Waving at cute French soccer players, sticking our heads in cannons from the 18th century, and taking a million ridiculous photos. We probably looked like complete morons to others, but we could really care less. Finally, though, we decided to get into the museum to see the Tomb and the history of the French military (do not laugh. They actually had a lot of
Napoleon's tomb. A bit of a pominjay, n'est-ce pas?
victories... in the beginning.)

Much to the delight of Alex, the lady selling the tickets believed she was under 18 and let her in for free. First, we explored the chapel that housed the tomb of Napoleon. He currently resides in an enormous wooden tomb, below a dome dedicated to all of his great victories across Europe and the world. Be sure to note, there is not a single mention that he eventually lost, but that is okay. It was still really quite cool.

Next we headed to the exhibit about the French military in the Franco-Prussian war, the preclude to World War I, in which France lost Alsace-Lorraine to the Germans. Then the exhibit on both the world wars. Of course, being the history buff that I am, I had to sit and read nearly everything. At one point, Alex said, "Okay I am so done with this, I will see you at the end." For me, reading about how the French saw the war was incredible. They were really fair, shedding light to the pathetic surrender of World War II, and also how they would have won World War I, had the Americans not joined up. They made fun of their uniforms, and how they were essentially walking targets for German soldiers. They paid tribute to the large
amount of Jews that they deported during World War II. It was an intriguing exhibit that I hope to again visit one day, since I sort of ran out of time.

With only a half an hour left, Alex went off to fed herself at the Cafeteria, while I sprinted through the exhibit on Ancient French military history and the triumphs of Charles de Gaulle, the world's greatest Frenchman. At 3:30, we met up in the center of the great museum and then began the trek to the nearest Metro station. Our train back to Dijon was leaving from Lyon Gare at 5:30, and we wanted to be back in time. Even though I was more than happy to walk, I am sort of glad Alex insisted on taking the Metro. I am not sure if my body could handle it much more exercise. It was only when I sat down in the Metro train that I realized just how exhausted I truly was.

At the station, Alex and I walked around all the surrounding stores in search of a place to buy Ice Cream. I was having a major craving for a nice dish of Chocolate ice cream, but alas, we could find nothing. We settled for a Belgian waffle, which we ended up splitting to cut costs. And sure enough, it was time to board our train for Dijon. Oddly enough, it was a relief for me. Even though I had an absolutely amazing birthday in Paris, I was eager to get back to Fixin. You see, I came to realize something during the excursion. I had recently been in a sort of a fog, disliking most things associated with France, especially school, the kids at my school, and most other things. But I forgot one thing. I have the best host family I could ever have asked for in my life. So sitting down at dinner surrounded my Jean-Francois, Leonie, Charlotte, Antoine, Clemence, and Coline, that very nice, pretty much completed my incredible birthday weekend. Even though there was more to come to the Big 1-8 in France.

The Big 1-8 Part II: C'est La Vie en Paris



It's birthday magic!
Waking up at 6:30 on Saturday morning is ridiculous and unethical. Except of course, if you happen to be catching a train at 8:00 to spend the whole weekend in Paris. For your birthday.

Then, it is okay. No, wait. Then it is awesome.

After a cup of coffee and a piece of chocolate, Alex and I were in the car and ready for the drive to Dijon station. Alex was absolutely miserable, while I could not contain my excitement. At the station, Leonie walked us up to our train. Of course, since it was quarter to 8 in the morning, cloudy, and gray (oh how rare...) it was also frigid cold. In fact, in just 5 minutes, I realized that I had made the foolish mistake of not packing enough warm clothes. Leonie would probably have waited for us to board the train and get settles, but it was far too cold and she pretty much ran back to the car as soon as she could. But before she left us, I gave her a big hug! I love my host family and their delightful surprises so much!

Our train was the world-famous TGV, directly to Paris, and just under 2 hours. I sat and read Harry Potter, followed by the Paris Weekend guide, a present from my host family for my birthday. Meanwhile, Alex tried to sleep, but I made sure not to let her get too comfortable. When we finally arrived in Paris, the pair of us were well enough versed in the day's
activities and headed straight for the first destination.

American girls in Paris.
The Bastille was the prison that was stormed and sparked the French Revolution in 1789. Today it is only a monument in the center of a busy street. Needless to say, I was disappointed. "Where is the prison?"
I moaned. "Oh Shut up," Alex had to say eventually. Our next stop was the Place Vosages, an off-the beaten trail destination that had been recommended by Leonie. We got a little lost but eventually made our way to the symmetrical garden/shopping center. It was beautiful as it was was a square center with symmetrical walls and great garden in the middle. After a brief look around, we decided to head to the world famous Le Centre de Pompidou Modern Art Museum. But first, we desperately needed a Starbucks.

A Mocha Frap everywhere I go.
As we walked along the quiet streets of Paris, Alex spotted a nice looking fellow carrying a Starbucks cup. I jumped for joy, while she pretty much attacked him and demanded to know where to find the Starbucks. It turns out the little coffee shop was just around the corner from the Pompidou. We nearly sprinted to it, as for two American girls Starbucks is truly a beacon of hope, when it has been a long time since you have indulged. Come to think of it, I have had a Mocha Frappuccino in New York, London, Kobe, Kyoto, and now Paris. I really am just a Mocha Frappucino in paradise. After we had been fed and our energy restored, we decided to enter le Centre de Pompidou. It is an incredibly modern art museum, that is known to Parisians as a big eyesore. That is because the modern building is fully exposed from the outside and the pipes are in bright vibrant colors. Blue pipes are water, red pipes are heating, yellow is for air vents, and so on and so forth. For me, the building is absolutely fabulous because I love bright obnoxious colors. But for me, seeing the Pompidou has been a dream come true. In my French classes of the past, we studied landmarks of Paris, and for some reason I was always assigned the Pompidou. It annoyed me at first to be assigned the ugliest building in all of Paris, but that is not the case at all. And finally after all those projects, including one in which I actually had to construct the Pompidou with pipe cleaners, I finally got to stand there and see it for myself.

Le Centre De Pompidou. One thing I have been desperate
to visit my whole life.
Living in France truly has changed me in at least the aesthetic side. I can remember a time when I used to find every excuse in the book to not go to the MET in NYC with my friends. I hated art and believed it to be ridiculously boring. Now I jump on every opportunity o experience and see now things. This is either the product of living in a place like France or having Jean-Francois, the future famous sculptor as a host-father. And so, I really did love the Pompidou, even though at times the art was rather baffling. Modern art just is I guess.

After our visit to the museum, Alex ate lunch and then we decided to make out way over to the Latin Quartier, where all the University life is. First, we stopped and explored Notre Dame, which was the only spot in the whole city where I found it to be crowded. I am not complaining, but I always thought there would be a lot of people in Paris. Alas, even the ones that were in Paris were
Notre Dame.
pretty rude and obnoxious.

Finally, we made our way into the Jardin des Luxumbourg for a little stroll. We also bought some tasty French crepes. Alex munched on her nice little Sugar Crepe, while I devoured a Crepe with Chestnut sauce. Both of us could not believe how much we had done so far, and so early in the day.

Our next stop was the Musee d'Orsay, the former train station turned home to Picasso, Van Gogh, Manet, and many other world famous artists. Even though Alex made sure to tell me she had been there before, I was feeling rather artistic and wanted to go in. Of course it was also free for me. Even though I was celebrating the 1-8 here, I still was only 17 and thus free in all of the museums. Poor Alex had to pay full price, and she certainly complained about it enough. I really enjoyed the museum, but was pretty glad when the closing time announcement came on about 2 hours after we went in. I had exhausted myself with art for one day.

As it was growing dark and nearing the time we had promised to be in St-Germain, Alex and I
All the French Stereotypes!
trekked off for the train station. We stopped along the way to buy a box of truffles for Fabian and her family, who would be hosts that night, and also bought a few necessities for ourselves. The train we took was not part of the Paris Metro, and it took 30 minutes to arrive in St-Germain. We were told to meet Fabian between the Church and the Chateau. Of course, we managed to get it all mixed up and lost. But eventually, we met up with Fabian, sister of Jean-Francois, a petite blond French lady that was full of generosity and smiles.

Alex showed off her French skills, as well as her talking skills. Even when Fabian posed me a question about the Roberts, Alex made sure to peep in and talk. I love Alex to death, but she could drive a saint crazy once in a while.
That evening after a delicious dinner and meeting with some of the Robert's cousins, I was learning
Alex and I in Paris.
quite a lot about my own host family and their relatives. For example, Kinderly, Charlotte's best friend and cousin of the same age, is currently studying in London. She had gone to middle school in Los Angeles and her English was perfect. Coline, Margaux, and Luic, are all 10 year-old cousins and are all obsessed with the Simpsons.

After dinner, Fabian and her husband took Alex and I to see The Duchess. It was a really great movie, even though I had to concentrate really hard to just stay awake. Back at house, after a quick shower, I tried to sleep, but find myself far too cold to get much shut eye. But during the night, I realized we walked for over 12 hours!

The Big 1-8 Part I: Surprises and Death Threats

On Thursday November 13, I asked a friend from class at school how French people celebrate birthday's. "Well," she began, "they really are not that big of a deal. I mean there is a small party for the friends, singing of the song, and a cake. But really, it is not a big part of French culture." In addition, my close friend and Rotary Youth Exchange to Liege, Belgium had told me that she celebrated her birthday with a little dinner, a small cake, and then curled up in a book. It was a small insignificant affair.

As for me?

Well my birthday turned out much different than I had originally planned, that is, when I told Leonie, "You know I do not think I am going to celebrate my birthday this year. Since it is not a really big deal here in France."

Not only was my birthday significantly different than how I had intently, it was also much longer. The festivities began on the evening of Friday, November 14. It is my tradition to take a shower directly after the dinner meal, and so almost as soon as I finished my dinner of green salad, I rushed to the shower. Warm, clean, and curiously tired from a long afternoon run, I threw on pair of sloppy pajamas, Snowboard Life is Good pants, an old baggy t-shirt from Japan, and a warm colorful sweatshirt. I realized I resembled a bum, but I did not care.

As soon as I got outside of the shower, Jean-Francois called up from the kitchen, "Julie! You want some Tea?" Of course, I wanted Tea, I never say no to a cup of Tea on these cold nights.
I hurried downstairs and into the kitchen to be greeted by two obnoxiously sneaky smiles on Jean-Francois and Leonie's faces. "Quoi?" I asked curiously, and slightly worried at the same time.Jean-Francois gestured to the dining room, where laid out on the table was four glasses and a bottle of champagne.

"So where is the Tea?" I chuckled.

Meanwhile, I watched Coline, give away the hiding spot of another surprise in the room. "Uh...no Tea, but I know you like Champagne and another surprise," said Jean-Francois.

Suddenly, I tilted my head into the room to see Alex sprawled across the couch, "Surprise! Hope you have your bags packed, because we are going to Paris!"

"Paris? What? Uh? Hello! Wait... what?" I stammered.

"For your birthday, we got you two tickets to Paris for the weekend. You and Alex will go and stay with Jean-Francois's sister during the night, and do what you want during the day. You leave tomorrow morning at 8!" Leonie explained.

I do not even think I can begin to describe the shock and surprise I was feeling. Suddenly, everything made sense because this past week the Robert's have been keeping a lot of secrets. Not well, unfortunately. I would walk in the kitchen and the morning, greet Leonie, then she would say in French, "Hold on she is in the room, I have to leave." Jean-Francois and Leonie always speak in English when they want to keep a secret from their children, but with me, they have been speaking French. Unfortunately for them, I can understand a little French. So on a number of accounts, I found myself, saying, "Wait, what? What is happening to me?" Now, it fully made sense. But the real shocker came to the fact that Alex had been able to keep the secret. She had slept over the past Tuesday night, knowing about Paris. Yet when I told her about the recent secret keeping of my host family, she even played on my fears, "Hmm... I wonder what they are thinking."

After the Champagne bottle was opened, glasses were poured, I turned to my host family and said, "Wait are you serious?" Alex burst into laughter, as I really realized that my incredibly awesome host family had just bought me train tickets to Paris for the weekend.

After two glasses of Champagne, which I am obviously unable to even handle, I sat back laughing and trying to listen to Leonie and Alex speak French. I could understand everything, but my French is not so good, especially under the influence. For some reason, though, my Japanese gets really good, which furthers my belief that the Japanese drink too much (even the language is connected to alcohol.)Alex and Leonie discussed how to get to St-Germain, the out skirting village of Paris, where Fabian, Jean-Francois sister lives. They also planned a temporary itinerary, since, as Alex pointed out quite often, she had been to Paris 4 times already.

Observing, that the champagne had taken a questionable effect on me, Leonie sent me and Alex to bed. But, after Alex settled herself in Antoine's room, Coline declared war on me. After a round of tickle torture, followed by another round of her flipping my the American finger, the Italian F-word, and a number of other international curse words, I ran into my room and slammed the door in her face. She decided then that she would dedicate her whole night if she had to in order to get into the room and retaliate. She rammed herself against the door for 20 minutes, all the while slipping notes under the door, "You is dead."

"Julie ares dead dead dead!"

Finally, Leonie and Jean-Francois got her under control, after I allowed to flip me the bird once and for all. There is nothing like getting two tickets to Paris for your birthday followed by a nice death threat or two.

Election Day

People keep telling me that the results of the election 2008 will be remembered for how America stood up and mandated change. For me, I will always remember election 2008 in annoyance. Not because of Obama's victory, because really I had not decided who I liked more; but because my host country was utterly ridiculous about the election. Not 10 minutes would go by before someone else would bring up the election, and then pester about what I thought about the current state of world affairs in regards to America and the financial crisis. Then after a thoughtful and truthful somewhat pessimistic answer, I would get, "Oh good so you support Obama?" A poll taken at my French high school in the days before the election confirmed the common French mood with regards to Barack Obama. Over 80% of the students admitted they would prefer Obama over their own Nicolas Sarkozy.

On November 6th, I awoke in the bed of Alex Einstmann after a night in the town of Dijon. Alex bleeds liberal blue, and was floating through the house with optimism for Obama. I physically can not have an intellectual conversation before caffeine is injected into my body, so I sat silently listening to her.

After coffee, I decided to take an early bus back to Fixin so that I could eat lunch with my host
family. But I knew that no matter where I went on this day, I would be hearing the names of Obama, McCain, and "Bousch." Of course Leonie Robert is German by birth, and since I have never ever in my life met or heard of a conservative German, I am just going to say that it is her birthright to be liberal. During our walk on that day, she mentioned Obama a few times, full of hope. Ironically Jean-Francois was in Chicago on a business trip, but I could not help but note the irony in a trip to Chicago, the capital of Obamania.

But do not get the wrong idea. I am actually a very politically aware person, and very interested in world affairs. However, I feel as if this election is a direct response to the universal hatred of George W. Bush. I think people are voting for Obama not because they fully understand the policies he plans to implement, but because he promises a change from everything that is George W. Bush. And yes, America needs a drastic change, especially in these times of economic crisis, however, are the radical policies of Obama really the way to go? I vowed that if Obama was elected? I would remain optimistic is that maybe, just maybe, his drastic change was the way to go.

I went to bed on the night of November 6th, feeling tired from the previous night's events, but overall annoyed by the term 'election 2008.' I did not care who won, just that it would be over in a few hours. America would have a new president, the world would continue to love or hate us, but life would go on for me and I would not have to hear about Obama and McCain. Oh how wrong I was...On the morning of November 7th, the house was quiet. The birds were chirping merrily outside as the sunlight poured into my room. I did some nice stretches in bed and did not concern myself in the least about what was happened around the world. In the back of my mind, I knew that America had a new president, but I did not care who. I wandered downstairs alone, turned on the coffee machine and mde my morning brew in peace. I opened up Coline's history book and read about the French Constitution, while I finished up my delicious cup. It was an utterly perfect start the day, but I figured it was impossible to push off the results of the election for forever.

I trudged out of the kitchen and went to the living room to turn on my computer to see the election results. As soon as the French news channel, chirped that Obama had been elected president, I actually had the thought: “Hmmm, maybe I’m not really awake.” I went in the living room, fumbled with our 7 TV remotes, and was finally able to turned on CNN just in time to hear the human cyborg, Anderson Cooper say that President-elect Obama would be speaking soon in Bryant Park. "Whatever," I mumbled, then turned around to go get my running shoes. I wanted to run because, I needed to run. In the matter of a few hours the world had changed on me, or at least the way I saw it had changed and I know it’s ridiculous, but I wanted to go out and see if the world looked...different.
Stoic, pre-pubescent Antoine making an Obama black joke
pretty much made the day.
That evening, Leonie FORCED me to sit in the living room and watch clips from the election with her. I say forced because she literally pushed me into the chair and said, "this is a historical event, you need to see it!" She had jumped on every opportunity to rub into my face that Obama had won. She knew I really had no preference, but she also knew my parents were big McCain people. It was really just a big joke between us, but nothing sums the comedy of the election like Antoine Robert, "Isn't it funny that there is now a black family in the white house?"

Looking back at this election, at the moment of Barack Obama’s victory speech before a multitude of 200,000 Americans in Chicago’s Grant Park, any chronicler had to sense how special this instant was. America had been changed because of this election and would move in a different direction than had John McCain won. We did not know yet how exactly Obama would pursue his agenda or how successful he would be, but we did know that Americans had acknowledged that they faced a momentous choice, a grand historical tipping point, full of promise and danger, and decided to entrust these times to the 47-year old son of a black Kenyan and white Kansan. The world is happy with our decision, and even though I myself have some reserves, he is my president and I plan to show respect for him.

Who knows? Maybe he really is change for the better.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Coming Out of the Fog

In the words of Chief Bromden of A Cuckoo's Nest, I have come out of the fog. Okay sure, my brain was nuked by shock treatment, but in those moments of sadness, it sure could have been.

A lot has happened thus far in this intriguing November. Unfortunately, I have been in a bad state of mind. I would not say I was homesick in the least, but the honeymoon period whereby I loved every thing about France ended suddenly and very drastically. I found myself feeling just the opposite, hating everything about France from the customs to the weather (But not the chocolate...)

Luckily, I am back. That is, I am back to being the same girl I was in Japan when I realized that not everything is supposed to be perfect and that you just have to make the very best of everything your host country hands to you. Living abroad is not easy, and I had forgotten that in my instant love at first sight with France. I never felt love-at-first sight for Japan, and my passion for that country developed over a period of time. Thus was not the case with France, and so I temporarily forgot my own advice about living abroad. But I remember it now, just as things are getting better.
There are a few things that have helped me to come out of the fog, so to speak.

Firstly, last Thurdsay, I bought myself an early birthday present; a watch. Now it may not seem like much, but the purchase of a watch means that I have become fully aware to the time. My host family has been hinting for me to buy a watch for forever, "This is the 21st century, Julie!" But in reality, my brand new watch has awakened me to the passing of time. I have been here in France for a little under 3 months, which is incredible if you think about it. Even though I have been a little under the weather for the past 2 weeks, the majority of my stay has been wonderful. But apparently quite fast... 3 months have passed far too quickly in my opinion. 3 months in Japan would have been the changing of the host family into a new one. While I am incredibly fortunate enough to be with the Robert's for 2 more months, I still have trouble believing how much time has passed. In addition, the watch is proving to me that time is continuing to slip by rapidly and that I ought to make the very best of everyday.

Secondly, I am on the third of seven Harry Potter books. I never even completed the second one in Japanese, yet here I am slowly making my way through the series in French. And the nice thing is that even though I do not understand every single thing, I can understand the majority of all that is written. My reading skills in French are truly spectacular considering I never studied the language. My speaking is terrible, given. But I figure if they really want me to understand, I could always just hand them a pen and paper. Plus if I can understand that which is written, I am certain my comprehension and speaking skills will come in no time.

Thirdly, Coline and I have suddenly developed a great little relationship. I taught her how to put the middle finger up to her temple and scratch. This gives the effect that you are scratching your head, while also utilizing the f-word. Leonie and Jean-Francois have yet to figure out the whole scheme, or why after Coline is yelled at, I seem to burst out in random laughter while Coline innocently scratches her head and looks cute. But besides that, I have uncovered the blackmail that she is incredibly ticklish. A few nights ago, after I tickle tortured her for over 15 minutes, I ran into my room and barricaded the door so she could not come in and retaliate. The stubborn little bugger hammered at my door for over an hour trying to get in, all the while slipping me death threats under the door. "You is dead."

Fourth, for as much as I utterly loather going to school in French, especially my host schools; things are quite clearly getting better. I am kicking butt in my history class, and the teacher reminds the students that if I could just speak French, I would have the best grades in the class. In addition, the girls in my class who usually leave me out of everything, and beginning to include me a lot more. A few of the girls actually bought me little trinkets for my birthday, and the rest never fail to say hello.
But I have missed out on some important things that have happened to me in this roller coaster of a month. My writing suffered, because I decided that if I had nothing nice to say I was going to write nothing at all. Except now, looking back on the low days, and I realize that a lot of stuff good and bad did happen. And the truth is, that I do not want to forget anything about this year, the good and the bad. Now that I feel better, I realize I have a lot to catch up on. And so I am going to start writing it all down...

Friday, November 14, 2008

On the Bright Side, I Did Get A New Watch

Being that I am an incredibly cheap person, I also have a tendency to be stricken with a case of serious Shoppers Remorse. That is, when I find something that I really like, but I talk myself out of buying it because of either the price or feeling unsure whether I really need it in the long run. As was the case, when on Tuesday November 11, I went to Toison d'Or with my host family and Alex. We had the day off from school since it was Armistice Day, and the rainy weather prevented us from going to Beaune as was our original plan. So we went shopping instead at the only major mall in the Dijon area, about 30 minutes by car from Fixin.

Somewhere along the rows of hideous French fashion oriented stores, I spotted it. The most perfect watch in the entire world. Actually it was far from perfect. It was big, silver, and actually in style (which is rare for me to like something that everyone else likes.) In addition, it was dirt cheap in terms of the cost of watches in France; only 20 Euros. And even though, I have never in my life been a watch person, preferring to pester everyone else for the time, my host family has been hinting for some time that I really need a watch. Especially since, there are about 10 clocks in the whole country of France because people prefer their wrist watches.


But some reason, I talked myself out of the purchase. Even though it was an excellent price, I knew that I would have to pay 55 Euros in the coming days to get my Long Term Visa, and money is a little issue with the USA right now. I reasoned that I would eventually come back to Toison d'Or, and if I really needed the get a watch, I would buy it. But for now, I would just walk away with no regrets.

Oh how wrong I was!

I did not sleep well that night. Or the night after, on the sheer account of this damn watch. I promise you I am not crazy, but I suffer from an awful case of Buyers Remorse, in the opposite effect. I made little lists in my mind about pros and cons of buying the watch. I sat in agony during class on Wednesday, making sure to note every time one of my class mates checked their watch for the time. Some higher power even played a nasty trick on me when one of the kids in the school approached me to ask for the time. By Thursday morning I had resigned to the fact that I had to buy the watch. Not only because I obviously really wanted it, but also because I was beginning to fear for my sanity.


So on Thursday afternoon, I sat down for lunch with Leonie and explained the situation. She gave me a look; which finally confirmed that she thought me to be completely mad. Then she explained the bus schedule, warning me that I was in for a long ride. But before she could explain just how long of a ride it was, I firmly stated that it did not matter and that I needed to get this watch by the end of the day. She rolled her eyes, mumbled under breath about what a wackjob I am, and then handed me a bus card. She knew there was no reasoning with me.


And so after school ended at 4 on that Thursday, I made the 40 minute walk through the vineyards to Marsannay to catch the Divia Bus because the local bus did not go to Toison d'or. I should have known then. After the 15 minute ride into Dijon, I got off the bus and then asked around for directions to the bus to Toison d'Or. This concluded in me chasing a Divia bus about 6 blocks through the sprawling streets of Dijon, in between crazy French drivers and city life. But I refused to miss the bus and did not mind sprinting for it.


I was so relieved and excited to be situated happily on the nice warm, Divia bus for Toison d'Or, that I did not mind standing and being squashed by some stinky people. That lasted about 3 minutes. The bus was about 60 years old, full of stinky teenagers that had not showered in a month, and making furious stops every 3 feet or so. I felt so sick that I nearly missed my stop after the 40 minute bus ride. I rushed out of the bus, fell to the ground, thanked the lord for Deodorant.

But I had arrived, and I was not going to waste any time. I knew the watch purchase would make me feel better. Or so I thought.

Luckily, the watch was still there, and I picked it up and nearly chucked it at the saleslady. But as I got ready to pull out my wallet, I saw another watch. It was much smaller ad more along my style sense. I had a terrible moment of indecisiveness, wandering whether if I was doing the right thing or if I should take more time to think about it and now consider the other watch. But I was so tired and I knew I could not miss another night's rest on the count of a watch. I continued with the purchase, and held no regrets as I handed over the 20 Euros.

A new watch of my wrist, I walked out of Toison d'Or quite content myself, but not entirely sure what I was doing in terms of getting home. I had planned on taking the bus to Dijon and then a direct to Fixin, but I was not entirely sure of the times. Plus I saw a Divia bus with Marsannay written on it. I figured I would take the direct bus to Marsannay where I was sure I could get on a direct bus to Fixin. And so I took a chance and got on the bus to Marsannay.

Since it was past rush hour, the bus was not full to the brim with people, or quite as stinky as the earlier bus. I was even able to sit down in the front of the bus and give myself the opportunity to stare stranght ahead to combat the bus sickness. On a crazy, and stupid impulse, I decided to get off at Hoptial General in Dijon, knowing for a fact that I could take a direct to Fixin from this stop. However, my new watch came in handy and I found that I had missed the direct by a whooping three minutes. The next bus was not for 30 minutes, and I was cold and not willing to wait. So I got another bus headed to Marsannay.

What I did not realize was the final stop for Marsannay buses was the very edge of Marsannay, on the edge of icky Chenove and about 15 minutes by car from Fixin. And as I was soon to learn, about 40 minutes by foot. The foot of a Cross Country runner.

Once I reached Marsannay, I realized that no buses came this way anymore. I did not have a cell phone, or the number of the Robert's house. The only thing I did have was a decent sense of navigation. Oh, and a new watch. The night had fallen, and I could see my breath as I deliberated my few options. Seeing no choice, and feeling like a complete moron, I began sprinting for the Robert's. I had told Leonie I would try to be home by 8, which gave me about 30 minutes to run 6 kilometers through cold, dark, and quiet vineyards and three sleepy towns. The perfect setting for a horror movie, as Leonie later reminded me.

The running did not bother me so much, but the cold was awful. It hurt my lungs to breath in the cold crisp nighttime air of early winter in France. I was not exactly dressed appropriately either, with a sweatshirt and shoes designed for fashion not sports. And I was starving, as well. But I did not care, because I did not want my host parents to worry and I really wanted to get home. Home. Home. Home. Home. Weird, I thought.

Leonie was somewhat pissed. She had good reason to be. I had told her I would take the direct bus, and even though I tried to lie, she could tell from my breathless enthusiasm and my frozen pink cheeks. "This is why you need a cellphone!"
"Hey I got a watch, what more do you want from me?" She sighed, and then cooed over my new watch for a little.
Was it worth it? I wondered as I helped set the table for dinner. Was it worth that annoying bus ride, that awful cold sprint through pitch black vineyards? Probably not. But it was worth when I sat down at dinner, with my new watch, surrounded by my great host family and laughing about the whole incident and all the other stupid things I have got myself in to while in France.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Dear America

How are you? It has been a long time. I have not talked to you in a little over two and half months. I hope you have not been too upset that I am having trouble with calling you home. It really has nothing to do with you, but I am a world traveler, that has been fortunate enough to call quite a few places home.

Well, anyway, I wanted to write and congratulate you on the election of your new president, Senator Barack Obama. There are a few things I want to tell you regarding what happened to you and the world on November 6 of this year. Since I missed this election by only two weeks, but am fairly well educated enough to have stood aside and watched Election 2008 as a humble observer, I have a few things I think you would like to hear.

Well, for the first time in my memory, it is actually cool to be an American. Well, at least according to the rest of the world. I have always thought it was cool to be an American. I loved being set apart in Japan as the 'gaijin,' and nothing beats telling people that you live only 20 minutes away from New York City, which is undoubtedly the unofficial capital of the world. But I am pretty sure I thought it was the coolest to be an American in those chilling days after September 11, when we all banded together, there was an explosion of patriotism, and everyone in every state prayed and hoped for the safety of our grand country. Of course, Americans have a pretty short memory, but more on that later.
Here's to free champagne!

As you may know, I live in France. Now I know things between you and France have not always been a big piece of Chocolate Cake. But France is your oldest ally, having helped you kick the crap out of the British during the Revolution. Of course, you have repaid your debt many times over in World War I, World War II, and Vietnam, but it is still nice to remember an old friend. And I have to tell you, even though she blames you for the awful financial crisis currently plaguing the world, France is also incredibly pleased with your recent election of the Senator Obama. In fact, just yesterday, I toasted a glass of delicious Champagne with my second host family in Senator Obama's honor. (Mind you, I did the toast for the delicious Champagne, not so much for our new President-elect.)

The thing about France is that they are pretty shallow in their politician sense. The reason why 86% of France preferred Obama to McCain is simple.

McCain is a Republican. The French live by the following equation:

George "Bousch"= Republican= Horrible.
And so, theoretically,
John McCain=Republican= Horrible.

And so theoretically,
Barack Obama=Democrat (not Republican)= Savior.

If I tried to explain all the reasons why 'Bousch' is hated in France, this letter would turn into a book.
There are plenty of other things France loves about Senator Obama. For example, Obama wishes to implement a system of Socialized Medicine. My host father put it in really thought-provoking terms for me as he tried to explain why socialized medicine is the way to go. "When you live in India, well that sucks to be you. But when you live in France or America, two highly developed first world countries, it is the duty or the right of the government to provide some sort of medical coverage for everyone. Think about it, why should my children receive insured medical care just because they were born in a well-off family, while other children born into impoverished conditions, should suffer and receive nothing. It is just not a fair system." He makes a great point, and I suppose it would not be such a bad thing to receive national medical coverage.

But then again, I have had an experience with the French medical field that certainly frightens me to the idea of socialized medicine. I got a little common cold while on my trip to England, nothing that I could not fight off with a few days rest. Except since going to the doctor is essentially 'free,' my host parents insisted I go. First, she checked over my condition, which included extensive exhaustion and an incident of throwing up, by examining my feet, and then writing an enormous prescription. Since France pays for medicine prescribed to it's people, I probably should not be surprised that I was prescribed about 4 or 5 different types of medicines. Only 2 of which had anything to do with being tired and nausea. I had a simple 24 hour bug, and the French doctor decided to prescribe me enough medicine to nuke an entire army. Of course, this new implementation of socialized medicine will be done completely different than in France. Maybe it Will work like in England, where you have to wait a month or two for an MRI scan, that could be done in a day or two now. But who knows?

Since obviously the American ideal of free market has it's flaws, Senator Obama plans to do something about it. I mean since most corporations are not highly regulated by the government, they are allowed to do anything they want, with limits obviously. For example, there was very little regulation in the banking fields in recent years. And so banks, began handing out mortgages like candy on Halloween. The result: we are in a financial recession. We as in you, America, and many other countries in the world. The Senator is definitely going to do something is because he promised change. He never exactly told us how he would do this 'change,' but change is change if you want change to change the upcoming change.

Of course, regulation of cooperation's comes at a price. You are going to need to hire a great deal more people to add to your already enormous bureaucracy. Come to think of it, you are going to need to add staff to the payroll in Socialized Medicine and Regulation. Wow, America, isn't that something? Well, if you ever need some advice, do not be afraid to ask France. France loves the bureaucracy. In fact, I think everyone is somehow tied to the government in some way shape or form. I will never forget applying and being denied my first French visa because of having a paper that was a few months old. Of course the process is even more fun. They require you to go to the French embassy, stand in endless long lines, be harassed by a nasty security guard only to be denied and forced to come back. When I was finally approved the visa, I had to wait for additional ridiculous amount of time for the chief at the embassy to eat his breakfast, do his morning run, learn the alphabet in sign language, AND THEN sign the approval form. And to top it off, the visa was for 3 months, which meant that I had to apply for another type of visa upon arrival in France.

Well, before November 6, everyone asked me who I was voting for.

"I am 17 years-old, I can not vote in this election. I miss the election by 2 weeks!" I would reply
glumly.
"Well, that is a pity. Two weeks? Wow. Well, who would you vote for if you could vote?"

Oh crap. There is really no right answer to this question. I do not like John McCain, but when it comes down to it, I feel he is the lesser of two evils.

But because I really do love you, America, I am happy for you. I will smile and say thank you when people congratulate me on getting Obama as the new president. I will suck it up and call the Senator, President Obama when he becomes the 44th president of the United States.

You know, come to think of it, I am so glad that I decided to wait another half a month before being born.

Friday, November 07, 2008

The Secret To A Little Piece of Happiness Part II

The south of France is just stunning,
 no matter which way you turn.
Afterthought: I found it really strange that I felt compelled to write another editorial on another discovered secret piece of Happiness. People tell me I am an optimist, though I never believe them usually. But as I popped on to my website to check some new comments on my comment board, I reread my preface to the website. I am truly in search of what I want to do for the rest of my life. And
I think it is revealing itself in the self-discovery of the things that make me happy.

I suppose I must have been about 12 years-old that summer. That is, the best summer of my life, and I
Lake Powell. Summer of 2002.
will never ever forget it.

In June, my family headed out to Utah, and spent an entire hot and magical week on a houseboat on Lake Powell. There is no other way to describe Lake Powell except that is truly magical, with great sandstone caves, crystal clear water, endless coves to explore, and constant sunshine. In mid-July, I traveled with the People to People Student Ambassadors to California for 2 weeks. It was my first true experience with traveling away from home, and being all by myself. It is true that I was with group of other kids and a few adults exploring and discovering off-the-beaten path middle California. But it was the first time I realized that I could do anything on my own, if I really tried. And even though I can not pinpoint the exact moment, it was in this trip away from home that I caught the travel bug and my life was changed for forever. Then in August, as luck would have it, my family trekked up to rural Beechhead pond in the middle-of-nowhere, Maine for two weeks. Surrounded by my cousins, endless outdoor activities, and just all around excitement for a little kid.

Of course, nothing in this life is perfect, as I find out everyday. In Utah I was plagued with a stomach virus. California saw me with such a terrible case of influenza that I popped a blood vessel in my eye from throwing up. And, please excuse me for the crudity but, I had a hemorrhoid in Maine. I suppose, after looking back, it is a really miracle that I even survived the summer, let alone consider it the best summer of my life.

Bormes-les-Mimosas.
During the week of Toussaint vacation, here in France, I traveled with the Robert's to their vacation home in Bormes les Mimosa in Southern France right on the Mediterranean Sea. Of course I consider myself lucky to be given such a wonderful opportunity, especially since I spent the week before the trip in London. I know I know, "what a brat! She gets to do all this traveling..." Plus I do not know anyone in the world who does not want to vacation in Provence on the Mediterranean Sea. But the thing is, I discovered something really interesting while I was there, that relates to the best summer of my life, and the life of everyone in general.


Before I left for London, when I was telling my friends, "I'm off to London, then to Provence,
France!" I got a lot of hatred comments of jealousy. I can understand why, after all, it is Provence! But after dipping my feet in the crystal clear blue waters of the Mediterranean Sea, exploring the harbor of St. Tropez, the vacation spot of the rich and the famous, and shopping on the ancient cobblestone streets of Bormes les Mimosas, I discovered something. To be fair, the weather was terrible and I was really yearning for home during my excursion. But I found the key to another piece of happiness.

You do not have to go far. You do not have to do it all, or what they tell you will make you completely happy. You do not have to go to St. Tropez, New York City, Paris, London, or Tokyo to find beauty in this world. You do not have to to sit in a beach chair on the Mediterranean Sea sipping a Daquiri to find happiness. You can open the front door and see the sun shining and be perfectly content with your life. You can reach the pinnacle of happiness while sliding down an old rickety water slide on a dock in Maine, looking up at the stars, or divulging into a good book.

I just recently completed reading the classic French novel by Antoine Saint-Exuphery, Le Petit Prince, or The Little Prince. What I am trying to say can be summed up in the brief quote spoken by the little Prince, "People where you live," the little prince said, "grow five thousand roses in one garden... yet they don't find what they're looking for..."
"They don't find it," I answered.
"And yet what they're looking for could be found in a single rose, or a little water..."
"Of course," I answered.
And the little prince added, "But eyes are blind. You have to look with the heart."