Saturday, October 10, 2009

Mishaps in the South aren't really mishaps at all

If anyone has ever read my blog thoroughly, than you would know that I have this amazing tendency to get into fascinating situations of getting lost in the middle of nowhere and attempting to find my way back into society. It happened in France, Japan, New Jersey, Australia, Belgium, Germany, and probably more places. The South is no different.

If life is defined by the amount of dumb situations we manage to find ourselves in, then my 18 years-of life already merits at least a dictionary. Besides having spent the night in a train station in Paris after missing the last train home, walking 8 miles from a movie theater to my house on a frigid February evening with 103 fever, or signing up to run a 5K with a broken toe, my life at Clemson would not be officially complete until I could add something humiliating and hilarious all at the same time into the mix.

With ROTC, cadets are required to submit a medical report and receive an eye examination, to get into the program. Since I have long parted with my pediatritian, the ROTC staff was kind enough to find me a doctor and optometrist to complete the medical portion and finaly be eligible to contract as an Army officer (If I decide that is what I want with my future.) The Optometrist was located on College Avenue, a whooping 15 minute walk from my dorm. While the regular doctor was located in Seneca, which I wrongly assumed was just a bus ride away. How wrong I truly was...

I prepared myself as well as I could. I researched all the CAT bus routes, prepared myself for the inevitable chaneg from the Seneca Express to the Seneca Business Loop, created little scribble maps about roads I would need to turn down to get to Wells Highway, mapped out what stores I would be passing and at what time. The plan was to arrive at the Seneca Railroad Park and then 5 minutes later take the Business Loop. After 14 minutes, it would stop at the Lowes, Bi-Lo and I would exit and walk right until reaching Wells High way. Then after a short 500 or so meters, I would arrive. I would be there 45 minutes early, but it was the only bus ride and it is much better to be early than to late.

Of course, I did manage to forget one simple minute detail that everyone failed to mention. The doctor's office had picked itsefl up and moved farther down the raod about 5 or 6 miles from a city area to the middle of the woods. And thus, long story short, I did not arrive at the doctor's office early, or at all for that matter. When 2:30 came around, I was exhausted, hot and sweaty from the sudden burst in humidity, disgusted by how rundown and dirty Seneca was, lost out of my mind, and miserable with the prospect of missing the appointment and getting in trouble with my ROTC sargents. In defeat, I scanned through the documents and found the number of Upstate Medical Associates.

Frantically, I typed their number into my dying cell phone, and through the tears of defeat listened as I heard, "Hello! Upstate Medical Associates? What can I do for you today?" Well you could magically transport me to your office with your mind powers, but I hope I am not asking too much.

"Hi," I sniffled, "I'm JujuB, and I'm scheduled for the 2:30, that" I wiped my tears and looked at my watch, "well it was 5 minutes ago. And I'm- I'm sorry but I'm truly lost in this place and maybe you could give me directions or um... cancell my appointment."

"Well, goodness, where are ya?"

"I'm I'm um.... walking along a big road. I took the Cat Bus to Lowes... but that was over an hour ago. I followed Google Maps, but I'm hopelessly lost. I think I'm near the Applewood Shopping Center, I think."

"Lord, bless your heart, yo're walkin'?"

"Yes ma'am."

"Lordy, Ima goin' send the doctor to come pick ya up. You just stay rite thare, and shill be rite thare to get ya. Don't ya' worry bout' a thang."

And sure enough, 10 minutes later, an elderly doctor pulled up her pickup truck right in front of the spot I was standing at, wiping my tears, and said, "Hey, youn' lady. Are you JujuB?"

"Yes Ma'am."

"Well hop on in! I'm your doctor, sorry for the mishap, we'll get things settled right now. Ya aren't from 'round are ya?"

"No, ma'am. What was your first clue?"

And so I got a ride with my doctor back to the clinic, where I was placed in the front of the waiting line. During the examination, the doctor offered to give me a ride, but another one of my friends (another southern, in fact) was already waiting outside the clinic to bring me back to Clemson. In the car on the ride home, I ranted about the long walk and the fact of being late and lost. But I also told her all about how shocked I was of the kindness of the doctor for actually having come to pick me up. I just did not think that sort of thing existed anymore. Kindness, that is.

"Honey!" she said with all shreds of seriousness she could, "You're in the South now! I dunno 'bout you godless cold northerners but we Southerners take of each other."

I could not have said it better myself.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

We like to spell at C-L-E-M-S-O-N

For those of you poor souls who have never been fortunate enough to attend and be a part of a Clemson football game (or those of you Gamecocks, who choose the Dark Side,) you ought to know that we Clemson folks have a special talent. We may not have the strongest football team, the #1 national ranking of public universities, the country's most beautiful campus, the school with the best food, the dorms resembling the most like palaces, but we are freaking amazing spellers. I may be so bold as to say that Clemson is THE best school in the entire country for spelling. In fact, I think after I am going to contact US News College Ranking about adding a new category about the school with the best spelling record. That will put Clemson at #1 for sure.

You see, you can not be on the Clemson campus, surrounded by Clemson folks, at Death Valley during a game, or at a drunken party without hearing the spellers in action. The Student Body is made of cold misfit Northerners (like myself) and warm Palmetto-sporting South Carolinians, Chinese Exchange Student and regular ones, Fraternity Boys and Gothic ones, cheerleaders and book worms, 4.0 and academic probation people, and so it's just one of those things that we all have in common. We can all spell, and we are damn good at it.

Whenever our Clemson Tigers need some support, you can always hear a classic, "C-L-E-M-S-O-N!" with the lovely fist pumping into the air and andrenaline ripping through people's hearts. The trick with this particular cheer is to know that the last letter also merits a hand circle in mid-air. It has taken me all of two games to realize that this circle is in a leftward motion. Some drunk guy that reaked of Vodka called me a flipping idiot for having that incorrect. I do not think I will ever mistake it again so long as I live.

Another crucial spell is the quick and easy motivator. That being said, after a field goal, or in between downs, or plays, a nice quick and simple, "C-L-E-M-S-O-N T-I-G-E-R-S!!!" Say this with speed and enthusiasm and with the loudest possible voice your body can muster, and then you'll probably have it.

Usually in the third or fourth quarter, the cheerleaders lead the entire stadium in a rousing rendition of good old-fashioned spelling. The Stadium is broken up into 6 portions, each calling out a letter in our lovely name. Where I stand on the Hill, I have thus called L and O. But I can not imaine being the opponent team when the entire Stadium of 80,300 people are screaming at the tops of their lungs the name of home team. I get chills thinking about it, and I am the one doing it.

The fact of the matter is short and simple, we like to
spell Clemson. That's who we are, and who we always be. In the spirirt of my University, I say C-L-E-M-S-O-N!

Monday, September 21, 2009

True Rivalry

Okay to start, I grew up in the suburbs of New York City. More specifically, a small town called Verona, New Jersey, with about 13,000 residents. I graduated in 2008, and spent 3 years attending Verona High School. Now to all of you locals of Clemson, or anyone whose neck is slightly red, sporting a confederate flag on your truck, or waiting anxiously for Nascar, I might say you ought to be offended. Verona Home School, a town just 20 miles outside the limits of New York City, is home to the Verona Hillbillies.

And like most sports team, we had a rival, the Cedar Grove Panthers, who we dominated (or were destroyed by) each and every Thanksgiving for as long as I can remember. And of course, you had some people, like me, who could really care less about, "caging the panthers," or defending oneself against a rival dressed in Carhartt overalls with straw in their teeth, and pretendng to be retarded. But you had others, who talked real big about trashing up each other's school, which town was stronger, encroaching fights between residents. It was all rather foolish to me.

Then I came to Clemson.

Maybe because I have been here for a little more than a month, and was not born and bred to be a Clemson Tiger, but honestly, the rivalry thing to me is nothing more than a few silly phrases hurled back between Clemson and Columbia. Or was, nothing more than trash talk, and the occasional chicken joke. Then I went to Columbia, South Carolina for the very first time.

One of my hall neighbor, who I will refer to as IQ, is part of the 'Divided House' thing, whereby her boyfriend goes to the UNiversity of South Carolina (USC, which is not to be confused with the REAL USC in Southern California.) She is one of those crazy Clemson fans that pretty much came out of the womb with stripes, and apparently nearly murdered her boyfriend when he announced his intentions of becoming a Gamecock. Even though the poor guy is not really that big of a fan of the Gamecocks, I do not think he can even bring up their games in front of her. I thought she was a little psycho at first, but the more I live here at Clemson, and encounter other fans, the more I realize she is pretty lame compared to some of the fans.

I am that girl from the North or everyone gets annoyed at with when I make fun of this silly rivalry. "Seriously, guys, it's football! Who cares? We have more things to worry!" Evil glares are thrown my way, followed by the occasional, "your not from around here," or, "just you wait till you begin to understand this rivalry." And of course, you have your real compelling argument, "Gamecocks SUCK!" I am not convinced, it's a game! Grow up people!

For his birthday, IQ decided to invite his friends, and some of her's to a Mexican restaurant in Columbia. She invited me along, originally out of pity, as the the girl with nothing else to do. It was a great opportunity for me, as well, because I love South Carolina with all of my heart, but have only seen the small town of Clemson. This, my friend, is not saying much in terms of knowing about your somewhat adopted state. Plus it was another opportunity to get the lay of the land. I finally figured out that Irmo and Greenwood were names of towns and not bugs, and Ninety-Six was not just a football play.

When we finally arrived in Columbia, I was pretty disappointed. Zaxby and IQ had spoke about how dirty, unsanitary, dangerous, and disgusting Columbia was. Apparently, homeless people could be found on every street corner, and crime and poverty is just lurking on every avenue. All I have to say is that I should have expected this from two girls that think the Clemson campus is dangerous, and carry Mace with them every where they go. Ya'll should not even think about coming to New York, is all I got to say about that.

But what did shock me was that, when we exited the car, just outside of the residence hall of IQ's boyfriend, something mind-blowing happened. Sure, we may have been asking for it, with the fact that each one of was in an orange tee-shirt, but even still! As the three of us walked along the sidewalk to the hall, a truck pulled up slowly behind us. Honking, the rolled down the windows and screamed,

"Wrong School, ass----" I'm pretty that if I could hear the rest of what they said, I would have been utterly baffled.

Seriously, people, are you telling me that I am not allowed in Columbia, because I go to Clemson? When we got into the safety, or lack there of, the USC residence Hall, we replayed our story for IQ's boyfriend and his roommates. They burst into laughter and told us it was our own fault.

I like to say I have seen it all, but then something like this comes along and completely shatters my faith in the human race. My fault? It's my fault that ya'll have nothing better to do with yourselves? And then, it came to me. Like a calling from the heavens, this statement materialized in my mind, and before I could begin to understand the repercussions  I entered face first into the rivalry.

"My fault? MY FAULT? Guess what? Your campus sucks! You all are the friggen' chickens, just because your mascot sucks, does not mean that's my problem. And guess what? EVeryone knows Clemson is better? Our campus is gorgeous, your's is like the projects. Our academics are better, and do not even try to argue that. Gamecocks suck."

I am now officially a Gamecock hater.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Feeling Culturious?

Part of the New Student at Clemson at program is a mandatory course called Clemson Connect. I wish to emphasize the word mandatory because no one I know would really want to do this if they had the choice. The first assignment was to read a book and attend a session by the author, who we all respected until she admitted that it was not she who choose the end result of her characters. Apparently the fictional characters decide their own fates and 'speak' to her. In addition, during the first few days of life at Clemson, one is required to attend a convocation, a small group session called One Clemson, attend a Library Workshop, and finally write a report about one Culturious experience at Clemson. It's horrid. If I'm being honest.

Culturious is defined as something involving curiosity for another culture, religion, lifestyle, or anything different than the lifestyle you are accustomed to. The examples they gave us were meeting some of the foreign exchange students, attending church with a friend from a different religion, trying a different sport unfamiliar to you, asking questions and getting answers from a roommate or fellow student with different lifestyles. Personally, I thought it rather odd that a school as un-diverse as Clemson would assign a project as such, but oh well?

I am a little weird myself, having spent a year in Japan and a year in France, so I tried to think of something at Clemson that was culturious. I thought it would be cheating if I wrote about helping the Japanese exchange students get to class with my language class, attending the French language table, trying foreign food (certainly not for the first time,) among other things. I wrote about something that was truly a new experience for me.

I wrote a report n what it was like to live with a Southerner.

The Project was distributed on August 25th, and I submitted it on September 2nd. Meanwhile, I decided to go around and hear about the other topics that my fellow Clemson students were choosing. These are a conglomeration of some of the excellent topics.

*Trying Sushi; Apparently trying sushi is culturious. I just thought that it was trendy when Americans ate Sushi, but apparently some of my fellow Clemson students had never eaten raw fish. The predicament: Disgusting! Steak and Potatoes are a million times better. Humans are not meant to eat raw fish.

*Attending Catholic Church; The difference between Catholic Church and Baptist/Methodist/Non-denominational are the following: Catholics don't want to be at church and aren't sure why they even go, but they feel they must raise their children in the Catholic faith; Catholics have cheap wine; they respect and worship their pope, but aren't sure why; peace be with you means to shake someone the hand of someone you know, but no one else; the priest tells you a verse of the bible, but doesn't teach it. (My roommate wrote about this topic, just fyi.)

*Southern Cuisine; Fried Okra. Grits. Fried Chicken. Biscuits and gravy. Sweet Tea. 'Nuff said. I might get a coronary just writing about the stuff.

*Meeting the Chinese Exchange Students; Not all Chinese people live in the Great Wall, sleep with panda's, and eat rice at every meal! Mind you there are only 2 undergraduate Chinese students (that I know of.) That being said, I don't know if this is a large enough sample to rule out that most Chinese people don't live on the Great Wall!

*Conversation with an African-American: "I talked to this very friendly black guy! He told me that if I wanted to make friends with black people at Clemson, I should refrain from asking them what sport they play." Yeah that's a very good idea.

*Going to a Waffle House for the First Time: Response from a born and raised South Carolininian when finding out his Michigan roommate was writing about eating at a Waffle House: "What the hell? What kind of place is the North of this fine country. It's Godless ice desert with no Waffle Houses!"

Monday, August 31, 2009

The Third Exchange

For those of you who might know me, you could probably skip this post and move onto something a little more interesting. As for everyone else, this might explain some of the erractic, irrational, strange, funny, and flabberghasting situations I manage to get myself into. And lord knows there are a lot of those.

I absolutely detested high school and my small town with every fiber of my ever being. I will not get into it, but I had planned my escape since practically the very first day of Kindergarten. That change kept at the ripe old age of 15, when I spent an entire year in Kochi, Japan. I returned home to American to graduate, but rather than heading off to college like all of my peers, I decided I was not exactly ready to go off to college. I went to France for a year instead, and traveling all around Europe with a few dollars, a reckless behavior, and an awesome host family.

In all, I have done some really stupid things in my life, but they have made me who I am, a stronger and more wise person. And when I returned from France, I decided that I would give it everything I had to fully reintegrate and be an American again. After all, I was headed to American-pride stronghold South Carolina, and I would do my best to fit in. It could not be that hard, could it?

Oh, yeah, it could be that hard.

Sure, I was born and raised and instilled with a Northern mentality, having grown up a whooping 20 minutes away from New York City, but America is America, is it not? It's all relative, same history, same language, same prejudice, same culture, same way of looking at the world around us, right?


I spent a year of my life chasing samurai and eating raw (possibly still living) Sushi, a year surrendering to laziness in France, eating baguettes and Creme Brulees. Surely a year in my own country, could not possibly be that different?


And thus, not only will this blog be about the trials and tribulations of a college kid at Clemson, but also the trials, tribulations, and trials of a Northern world ambassador in a place called, The South. It is possibly my third exchange to a different country. Very possibly the most mind-boggling of all.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

First Day of Class

Nerves kept me awake all night. Staying awake all night made the bags under my eyes resemle the Big Brown Bag at Bloomingdale. Morning coffee. Not enough caffiene. Apple suppressed the hunger. Hair looked like I was hit by lightening and I did not want to wake up Elizabeth with a request to use her straightener. Oh boy.

On my way to class, carrying a bookbag that happens to be the same weight that I am, I discovered that it rained last night. I suspect that it poured. I slipped in mudd, dirtied up my knees, spilled coffee on my KHAKI skirt, and had no time to go back.

Everything that can go wrong, probably will.

On the bright side, Japanese teacher was very impressed with my Japanese. Until she found out I lived in Japan. Then she was embarrassed.

French time.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Serial Goodbyer

You think at this point in my life, having gone away for two years, leaving behind a thing called my life, and saying goodbye to the people I know, I would be used to it by now. And I guess for the most part I am.

It is not quite so hard for me to say goodbye anymore.

Because, for the most part, these things are temporary. When I said goodbye to my parents before I set off to Japan for a year, I was so very upset. I did not think I could survive a year without my parents telling me what to do, peers telling me who I had to be, and my environment making me feel comfortable. But I did, and I began too realize just how very strong I am. So strong, in fact, that when it was time for France, I barely lifted a hand to wave at my parents while I skipped through the gate. It was not out of spite, it was because goodbye is only a temporary thing, so why even say it at all sometimes?

It is a little different leaving the host country though. In that sense, even though you may know that you will be back, usually you do not know when. And everything that you have come to love will be different. You will not be a kid anymore, living in a host families house, struggling with language, friends, and life. Next time, you won't have that love at first sight, honey moon period, or gradual growing bliss of the host country. It becomes just normal, everyday life, and that never fascinates people. Even after a long absence, the things I miss most about Japan and France are not the first wonder and amazement with the place, it's the family and the way of life, which really became my own.

I am off to College tomorrow, the next big adventure in my life. Meanwhile, I am here in Verona, New Jersey, letting go yet and again and saying goodbye. There are some people I should say goodbye to that I have not even seen since my Senior year. There are some people who may pat me on the back and wish me luck, tell me to stop by when I come home for vacation, or hug me and tell me how much they miss me. I feel numb when this happens. I do not even know how to react. I do not feel anything usually. Have I hardened myself so much against goodbyes, that I am indifferent to them? Or I have just accepted the fact that goodbye truly is not forever? Circumstances withheld, that is.

I think I am just a serial goodbyer, about to commit another goodbye.

Monday, August 03, 2009

Back Here

Sometimes I think that this whole thing has been just one big dream. That I am just beginning to open my slumbering eyes to the creeping daylight pouring through my window. The bright movements and voices of the dream are alive and in full-force playing through my mind. But soon, once my mind becomes fully aware of the day, they'll fade like they always do. And the characters and setting of the dream will be forgotten or thrown in a waste bin in the back of my head.

But it was not a dream. It was reality. Reality normally gets a bad reputation, but this type of reality does not merit a bad reputation.

It merits the truth. That simple saying of c'est la vie can sum it up beautifully and be understood in two languages. Reality can be cruel, gentle, scary, boring, hopeful, understanding, unfair, harsh, bitter, magnificent, among others. This past year in France contains a few of those adjectives listed above. It was never easy, and there were times when I lost all faith in my capability. I guess that is another reason why the past year of my life was not what one could consider a dream, or for that matter even a nightmare. It was just life.

Being back in America is different than when i was back in America after a year in Japan. Back then, it was rather difficult, and painstakingly nightmarish. I had not been ready to leave Japan, and probably needed one more month to tie up all the loose ends of that year abroad. Being home in America was like being in a place that no matter how much you tried, your family tried, you just did not feel right being in. But this time it feels right to be home. For as sad as I was leaving France, I knew it was the right time. There came a point in my year in France, after all the traveling, when I began to just exist, and not really live. I needed to live again.

So why now? Why now do I come online and write about being back?

Because I have let go. I have let go of that quiet part of me that hoped my year in France would be the best year of my life, and I would never want to leave. That yearning part of me that wanted to be part of a family as crazy as the R's. The taste bud that reminded me just how French I was at every bite of cheese, sip of wine, and breaking of bread.

That's not who I am.

I'm Julie Garner, American by birth, French by necessity, and Japanese by dream. Now I am off to start the next great adeventure. Which happenes to be something just as different as a year in a foreign Asian country, trying to wave and accidentally sending someone to their death. Or as mind-boggling as a European nation, constantly on strike, barely ever working, and yet still managing to be a booming economy. For this born and bred Northern Yankee, I am off to the fiery dixieland of the American south, land of secession, fried chicken steak, and Southern Rock.

Clemson University, here I come!

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Last of the Last's

In this final hours of life in France as an exchange student, or better yet, in these final hours of life as a Rotary Youth Exchange student in general, there are so many 'last's.'
The last time I drink my favorite Capriccio Nespresso coffee.
The last time I run in the Combs with Leonie.
The last time I sneak some Nutella from the jar.
The last time I drink some delicious Gevrey-Chambertin premiere Crus wine in Gevrey-Chambertin.
The last time I laugh at my pain-in-the-ass host sister fight with her mom over nothing important.
The last time I write a blog about France while still in France.
The list goes on and on because with each passing moment, something ends. Something in my life ends suddenly, and very possibly for good.

The think is that, what most people have a hard time understanding is that it is a lot harder than most people give me credit for. I think some people look at my life and think, 'lucky brat has lived in Japan and pranced around Europe for a year.' Nobody seems to understand that every where I go I meet someone new, do something wonderful, or even fall into a comfortable routine or pattern. And then when it is time to leave as such, I have to just drop it all and go home. Sure this year has not been easy with every passing minute, but honestly, for how upset I am right now, it is hard to say that I am not going to miss France.

Today is my last day in France. My last day as a Rotary Yoth Exchange Student. My last day living with the R's, who have become more than just a host family to me. My last day in Fixin, France, a place I have spent a year calling home. My last day with Chacha, Ant, Coco, and Clem. My last run in the Fixin woods with L. My last evening to fall asleep on the Mezzanine above Coline's bed. My last time to indulge in Nutella, Nespresso, Cote d'Or chocolate, and authentic Bourgogne wine. My last day to turn on the radio or TV and hear just French. My last day with the damn Bisous (thank god!) Everything is a last, and it is really painful and tearing me up inside.

I have said this before, but it is true. It is not as easy as I thouhgt livin the life that I do. I know I am luckier than most people in the entire world, but most people have never had to leave behind everything they loved, their entire life, and family once let alone twice.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Final Letter To The R's

Over the course of my two-year tenure as a Rotary Youth Exchange student, I have had 4 host families in Japan and one in France. I am not into comparing, since I have spent the entire past year being compared to fluent and lovely Andrew. But as of right now, I am closest with my final host family, the French family, that I refer to as the R's. Just before I I made my way back home to America, I wrote them a letter.

Dear Everybody,

I do not know where to begin. Maybe a simple thank you would work, but I d not think that is sufficient. After all, thank you is just a simple three words. And three words do not come close to summing up an entire year in another country.

It all started that month of August 2008, when I arrived at your home on a hot and humid afternoon. I was so nervous because I knew almost nothin about you. I had spoken to L only once on the telephone and learned the following: Chacha, 18, was headed to India for a year with Rotary, Antoine, 14, and Coline, 10, the monster of Fixin. But the eveing, my first night in France, unble to speak a word of Frnehc, I felt relieved. I already knew how much I was goin to like you guys.

It is starnge to think about that first evening. It has thus been ten long months. And I am still here at the Robert's. I am still happy, of course, and for the most part, I think you all are too.


I know I am not very good at showing emotions, so I hope that you all realise just how much you have meant to me over this year. The saddest part about saying goodbye to you is not knowing if I will ever see you all again. My sincere hope is that we all continue to stay in contact over the years. But I know that I we all lose contanct, I am never goin to forget you all and all youhave done for me.

I hope that you all continue to stay in good health and happy with all that life gives you. Good luck for the future and know that you are always welcome wherever I am in the world.

Love Always,

Julie Garner

Monday, July 06, 2009

Rotary and Me

When someone says the dreaded dilemma, "I have good news and bad news, which first?" you know you are in annoying situation. Usually the good news is not that good, but something random that the other person has thought up to lessen the bad news. Like, "Good news is that the weather is nice, bad news is your Grandma fell down the stairs and broke her hip." So theoretically, you have to actually pretend to care that the good news is actually something good, while really the bad news sort of tears you up. It is one of those things we Americans have become pretty good at, that is, hiding our emotions in order to not let others catch our weaknesses.

Anyway, I want to start with the good news, or at least the good stuff. I can not even begin to say how thankful I am for all that the Rotary International has done for me, a middle-class, surburban, American teenager that has lived in Japan and France for a year each because of the Rotary's kindness and hospitality. The program accepted me, arranged schooling, host families, and other opportunities for me. If it was not for Rotary I can not tell you the person I would be today, after all, I never choose Japan or France. They were both given to me from Rotary. I would never have met the R's, had a big sister, Naoko, been fluent in Japanese, become a wine enthusiast, learned Tea Ceremony and the Koto, among a multitude of other things.

The Japanese Rotary was the most kind and wonderful oranization that I could ever imagined existed. They paid for all of my activities, including travel throughout the whole country, Koto lessons, private school, and even host families. For all that they have done for me, I suppose I came to France realizing nothing could be like Rotary Japan. But I have come to hope that nothing like Rotary France exists.

And now for the bad news, which is not exactly news, but more or less the blunt truth. The Rotary is France, while supplying with a host family that I very much adore, has done nothing else at all. I do not even know where to begin with my feelings towards this Rotary. Perhaps it is the fact that I have had to fight each and every month for my Rotary allowance, and have already been told I will not receive any money for June. Or maybe that no one ever calls to ask me if things are going okay with my host family, life in France, or anything in general. Sure their lack of 'care' has enabled me to jump on a train and explore Europe with no restrictions, but it is still ridiculous. It is unfair for my host family, who could very well have serious problemes with hosting me, to have no one to talk to. In addition, they have to pay for my lunch at school, which every Rotary in France for, except mine who said, 'she gets a monthly allowance, let her pay.' This would be fine, but my meanly allowance would not cover lunch everyday at the school. But no matter, I rarely ate at the school anyway.

In addition, my counselor refuses to do anything. Who picked me up from the airport when I arrived? Alex's counselor. Who drive us to the train station at 4 in the morning for Toulouse? Alex's counselor. He also refused to attend to required district conference, so I had to find me own ride. In addition, while Alex and Andrew have had lavish weekends skiing in the Val d'Isere or on the beach at Cannes, I have done not a single thing with my Rotary club. I met my counselor only one, in November in my birthday, whereby he required my presence at a meeting, did not speak to me a night, had someone else bring out a cake while everyone was leaving, and then drove me home.

But the worst part? The Rotary came to the hosue last night to discuss my departure and my year. This is normally done in a a big meeting with the club, but I was in Belgium at that time. Interestingly enouh when Rotary called and said I was required to be at this meeting, Leonie pretty much told them to stick it where the sun does not shine. She was going to require me to come home just for a couple of clowns who had ignored me the majority of the year. I did not know about this till last night when I was yelled at for not coming to the meeting.

At last night's discussion, they questioned me about my year. I gave a an answer and then they proceeded to make conclusions based on things they knew very little about.

"Did you like school?"
"Not particularily. I did not make very many friends."
"Oh so she integrated badly into French culture and school life, what a shame."

It continued like that.

"How do you feel about livin with the same family all year?"
"It worked out great for me, but of course there were some difficulties. Never the less, I loved them a lot."
"Difficulties? Hmmm.... well I knew we should have pulled her from Fixin and this family after Charlotte came home early. She messed up the dynamics of the family. Julie, you need to understand that they like you a lot, but I am sure they will be pleased to see you go home."

The entire meeting was bloody ridiculous. I would have been seriously offended and disappointer, perhaps even shedding tears but I have sort of given up on caring what Rotary France does in concerns with me.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Numbness to the Current Situation

I keep telling myself that the best thing I can do for myself is sit down and write a good blog entry for the future, and more importantly for the present. I'll thank myself in 5 years when I come on here and laugh about my hectic last few days in France, and feel better now getting everything off my chest. But I can not do it. Besides the fact that I have no idea what to say, I do not know what I really feel or think. There is also nothing amazing or even worth happening here to talk about it.

It's is my second to last fell day in la belle France. The Robert's are schemeing something drastic because instead of speaking in French, they have all reverted in German. If they speak slowly, I might be able to understanbd but they have no intention of letting me know what they are planning. They slipped only once last Saturday when Leonie whispered her plans to Coline, and then began talking out loud about her fear of heights and how getting a hot air balloon would not be a good idea at all. But apparently with the recent thunderstorms erratically striking Burgundy, Hot Air Ballooning is out of the question. Since then, they have been much more careful, which is driving me mad. If there is anything I hate it is surprises. Well, I actually really like surprises, but I act like a complete moron when I am surprised. Example: For my birthday, I received tickets for a weekend in Paris. I did not believe my host parents until after 2 glasses of champagne, and by then I was too out of it to really think what had just happened.

I hate surprises.

But I also hate my seemingly bitter but lack of grasp upon myself and the current situation. This year I have really begun to understand how little I know about myself, and how I do things often that surprise even me. Maybe that is one reason why I really can not account for my attitude. I feel so detached from the world, but it is my own fault. I think a part of me realizes that even though I might be rather pleased to get going home, things will and can never be the same. First, I will never be able to come back to Fixin the way I am now, which I suppose is a good thing because I am not so sure many people like me very much. Second, leaving France is truly the end of an era.

Two era's actually.

The first is my roller coaster in France, my odd love-hate relationship with the country and everything that comes with it. But the second era is a bit bigger, more complex, and kind of chilling for me. I spent my Junior in Japan, my Senior year afraid to grow up, and a Gap Year in France finally accepting that fact that it is time. It is time for me to accept that I am not a little kid anymore, and to move past that stage in my life. France was my final level, and the moment I leave, I feel as though I leave behind my last memory of childhood.

Right now all I can think about is everything that has happened. And also trying to bury it in a giant hole in my heart and not think about it these last few days. Trying to numb it, and doing a somewhat good job at it.

Saturday, July 04, 2009

Going Back

“It's know the end of something great is coming, but you want to hold on, just for one more second...just so it can hurt a little more.” -Anonymous

I wonder if they read my mind.

Friday, July 03, 2009

Finish Line In Sight

Another Sunday in France. My final Sunday in France, in fact, bt that does not excuse the fact that it is Sunday in France, which means as usual there was absolutely nothing to do. Nothing is ever open, no one ever works, and the only thing that ever gets accomplished is eatin and drinking. Sunday's are the day when the French sit at the table for hours without end gorging on everything from salad to cheese, always complimented with a fine bottle of wine. I hate Sunday's in France, I always have and suspect I always will.

Yet, unlike every other Sunday I have spent here in France, I was prepared for the boredom. I had purchased a book, okay, in English, against my own principles, but nevertheless it was a dose of medicine against Sunday in France, the disease. Due to the recent release of the film based on the Millenium series by Swedish author Stieg Larsson, along with it's enormous success, I decided to read the book before I sat down and watched the film. Even though I had bought the book to read on Thursday when my plane from Paris to America is in motion, I opened the cover and scanned a few lines and have been hooked ever since.

Thank god for the book because if I had to spend another Sunday cooped up doing nothing, I would definitely go mad. What is more, that as of recent, I have been a total basketcase, a wreck of emotions, a roller coaster of mood swings. I fear for those around that have to put up with my outburst of tears, followed of a slew of bubbly laugh fits. I am going home in a few days and I have to deal with that fact. But I am not going a very good job at it.

I may have dealt with this before, having come home from a year in Japan, but it has done little to prepare me for this. I was not ready to leave Japan, and I did not prepare myself in the slightest. I suppose that is why my basketcase stage came when I was back in America. But this time around, I al fully aware of the approaching departure date. The day runs through my mind with each passing moment, along with a million other things.

A part of my thinks that once my United Boeing 747 takes off from the runway in Paris, the roots I have planted in France, will come with me. A piece of me things that my erratic and loving host family will quickly forget about me as more than just a random American that lived in their house for almost 11 months. They are really my only tie to France, besides my love for Fixin and Burgundy in general, and my love-hate relationship with France. All the other friends I have made this year are Canadian, American, or Belgian. This theory of losing touch is somewhat backed by host mother, whom I love like a best friend, but is far too busy with her own troubles to worry about keeping in touch. I have shed quite a few tears in the past few days hearing about how she had not really kept in close touch with her host family from America, among other things. It has not been a very good experience in this respect.

But as much as I throw the things I regret or that have plagued me this year, on a scale, I can not bring myself to regret this year in France. Sure my minimal French, lack of friends, non-existant social life, empty schedule book, hardships with some cultural aspects, and constant boredom, will always remain a pittance when thinkin about this year. Yet my extensive travelings and good, well at least steady, realtionship with my host family, outweighs the bad stuff.

So I wonder if this can really be called a finish line. Is it really something I am racing to finish? Do I really want it all the end- that is- my relationship with the R's, my ties to France, my hatred for Sunday's, my minimal French language skills, among quite a lot of other things? I need to stop thinking about all this, back to my book.

Thursday, July 02, 2009


My second host father hated my passion of running. I could not give you an exact reason for it, I just do not think he liked me very much, which is fair enough. But those who know me know that I sort of slip into a cima without running. I sit on the computer and do nothin, whine, hide, hate my life, and whatever else. I need to run, it's my thing. Of course, my host father turned out to be an over-protective businessman that knew very little, but at the time, he never let me run. "Kochi is too dangerous for a young American girl," he would say.

His wife, however, could not bare to see my face fall everytime he would stand at the door, facing me, and wagging his finger. She could tell that I spent hours cooped in my room because I could not do anything else. She hatched a plan to let me run early in the morning, before her husband could awaken and stop me.

So almost three times a week, I would wake at 4 in the morning for a run that was often-much needed. The problem was that it was always pitch-black and I was alone. My solution was simple; and IPOD. That way I could run along the Kagamachi river in peace, alone, but still surronded by the voices of various Japanese artists. Since downloading was also forbidden in the household, I had to rely on the collection of my host mom, a menage of JPOP and Japanese folk music. Not really my cup of tea, but I dealt with it.

She was also a fan of the musical Mulin Rouge, a film which I found to be cute but nothing special. Still, with nothing else to listen to, and in desperate need of some English, I downloaded the music on my IPOD and listened to it as I ran along in the early morning hours. One morning in particular, I got the song Lady Marmalade stuck into my head. I must have even started singing it aloud, at least the French perverted part that is, because I passed a bakery with a hardworking man out front.

"Furansugo dekimasu ka?" he asked me. When I turned around to answer him that I could not speak a word of French to save my life, had no intention of learning, and felt ill at the sound of French, he caught a glimpse of my face. "Gaijin! Furansujin!" he exclaimed madly, trying to figure out why a foreighner, whom he assumed was French would be running in Kochi at 4:30 in the morning. Before I could correct him, he scurried off into the bakery.

Two things occured that made me feel annoyed. I had been mistaken for a French person, which was the ultimate crime against my American blood. Second, he had mistaken me for a French speaker.

After a full year in France, living amongst the French and speaking the language, I have yet to be mistaken for a French person in France. A piece of me is happy about that, but another part is sad about it. I really have not adapted all that well in France.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Back Home... in Fixin

"Back home, I always thought I wanted so much more
Now I am not too sure." -Yellowcard

When I left on May 26th, 2009, for my whirlwind tour of Belgium and Normandy, I was not completely positive, I would return. Besides the fact that everytime my host parents would ask for some sort of ballpark answer as to when I would return, and I would give them nothing, there was also a dozen other things telling me to not go back. What I mean is that I was sure I would return to Fixin, but maybe on July 1st, the day before I leave for America. In my mind, I was convinced that if I came back to Fixin too early, I would spend the days wasting away in dreary existance, hating myself for not setting my return date to America earlier, wondering how long my host family would tolerate me there, and most of all growing more and more annoyed with Fixin.

But that is so far from how I feel now, that I feel shocked having once felt that way.

I suppose even in those final days of May, at the very start of my travels, that weird longing feeling for Bourgogne should have foreshadowed my roller coaster of emotions that has thus far been the month of June. I could not stop thinking about the R's, Fixin, and my beloved Bourgogne, and I must have talked about my exchange quite often with Zoe. Then with Paule and Ronnie, it was confirmed how much I talk about my French adventure, when Paule said, "You talk about the R's more than you talk about your own family!"

And when we made the 12 hour journey from Normandy to Sainte Maxime, in the South of France, the motor way took us through Bourgogne. I was warmly welcomed back in Bourgogne with a brief rain shower and a mount of thunder. I smiled to myself knowing that something’s would probably never change. But as we drove closer to Dijon and then farther away, I kept getting the pressing urge to call out, "Stop! Drop me off here, I want to go home!"

I think it was then that I realized that I needed to go back. Back? Yes back home. A wise man once said that, ““Home is not where you live, but where they understand you.” I do not think anyone will ever be able to understand me, not even myself. But I think my host parents have gotten a pretty good base during the course of this year. The more time goes on, the more I learn things about myself that I never knew. For example, I was sure I would want to spend the last month of my exchange traveling around France on a backpacking excursion. Yet, suddenly, I discovered that the only place I really wanted to be was with my host family in Fixin.
Yesterday, as the TRANSCO bus dropped me off in front of the Roberts, hauling my large sack on my back, I opened the gate for the first time in over three weeks. I saw the shadow of L and Coco on the back porch, so I snuck around the car and hide behind the bushes for a few moments pondering how I would say hello.

That always works.

Along time ago, well three weeks egos, practically in tears, as L and I ran through the train station trying to catch my train, I thought she would maybe be annoyed with seeing me again. I had just asked her that morning if she thought I had wasted my year in France, not having a good base in French, and not having a grad experience with high school. I did not think I would upset her having asked that question, but after the experience, I realized I probably did upset her enough.

I figured she would be surprised to see me- maybe a little happy if only to stop the menial worry about me- but not overly joyed. Especially since I did not call and tell her I was coming home. But seeing her surprise- a warm truly happy surprise- and Coco’s content smile to see me, and I knew I was back.
I missed Fixin so much.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

It Gets To You

Merely a day after I returned rom my whirlwind tour of Belgium and Normandy, a few hours after I realized how nice it is to be home in Fixin, I made the decision to see Dijon. Dijon is, as one may know, the closest big city to Fixin, just 25 minutes away by TRANSCO bus. It is a clean, safe, and friendly city, although I have to admit I have some problems with Dijon. I find it to be rather dull and tiresome ater an hour or two. How many time can you walk around the Vielle Ville, before you recognize every place, have shopped in all the stores, and worst of all have run into about 15 people from your school?

You start to wonder if Dijon is really made up of 300,000 people and not 200. The midget that sits in McDonalds passes you on the main road and says, "Hello! I love America!" The skater punks in Place Darcy still can not do anything more than a Pop Wheely on their boards. The Moroccan bum still sits outside Chez Paule's, but with a new sign, "My children are hungry, please help!" Yesterday it said, "I am all alone and I do not speak the language well, please help!"
But when I went to Dijon the day after returning to Fixin, I went to do a little shopping, not exactly soul searching. I went to get a hair cut, not a reality check. I did not go to say goodbye to Dijon, seeing as I will be back there quite often in the coming days, yet my goodbye to Dijon started anyway.

It's weird how you have relationship with places, since they are not people and they can not love you back or even hate you back. With Dijon, like my year in France, I have ridiculous highs and lows. There were days when I could not get enough of the city, and days when the thought of going to Dijon made me angry. There is absolutely nothing to do in Dijon, and so much to do at the same time. After 6 months, I remember when Alex told me her Dad had JUST figured out she lived in Dijon, "Oh... like the mustard!"

I remember the huge protests that swallowed Dijon after the closing of the only mustard company located in the city. Or the many times that I ventured into the grand ville for a beer at Flannery's, but only ater Andrew and I did our ritual. We had to go say hello to the Dijon Chouette, or Owl, pop into H and M or a quick look, glance through the FNAC for the latest Bob Dylan CD. I still have not done all the things I feel I have to do in Dijon, but I just do not feel compelled to tour the Palais o the Dukes or tour the Mueaum of Archaelogy. I would rather listen to the guitar players in Place Darcy, get a beer at Flannery's, or bore mysel doing the same things over and over again in Dijon.

So you think you know a place like the back of your hand, it is safe and boring, but still comfortable. That's me and Dijon for you.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Nice and Night Trains

After the Aeronauts and I set off for the South of France, we arrived at the summer home of my Great Aunt Mika in Sainte-Maxime, Provence. As much as I would love to tell you about how excellent that experience was, the truth is, I felt that the time had come to return to Fixin, even if a part of me knew that is was silly. I was bound to be bored to death back home in Fixin, but I missed the R's and my messed up life in France.
On the morning of the 16th, as we hate a delicious breakfast with the whole clan, I spoke, "I think want to go to Nice today and then take the train home from there." Ronnie and Paule were visiblly annoyed, since I was supposed to stay another day and this new change of plans would entail a long car ride to the nearest train station. But they agreed to drop me off in Saint Rafael for Nice.

It was sad to say goodbye, since I had grown so very fond of my cousins over the past few weeks. They had so much for me and now I was returning, but Paule knew that I had to go back. She knew I missed L and everyone at home. She also knew that I needed to get back to Fixin for some closure to the year, which was not the best but needed to be finished.

They dropped me off at a station, where I took the local train to Cannes, my favorite city in the South. I got up because I wanted to formulate a plan. Throughout the year I have wanted to take a Night Train in France, I can not tell exactly why, except that I wanted to be able to say I took the Night Train in France. So at Cannes I purchased a ticket from Nice to Paris and from Paris to Dijon for the next day. Okay I paid extra, but also less because I would not have to rent a room in a hostel in Nice that night.

Finally arriving in Nice, I hopped on the tram for the Old City. After a quick milkshake at McDonalds, I climbed the old fort with a beautiful view of the sprawling city, a former Italian city that decided it preferred to be French. The place was full of tourists, and very few actual French people, but I really the ambiance of the city. It is a big French city with more Italian influence and recently Russian and English influence. The view of the old fort was incredible, even if I was soaked with sweat after the climb. I stayed a few moments and then redescended into the old village. After a long stroll along the Walk of the English, I decided to be daring. During my exploration of the old city, I bought Tomato Ice Cream. Tomato is my favorite food, but I am sad to say it does not make good ice cream.

I took a quick dip on the water, but it was not enough. I was overheatted and about to take an all-night train. It did not spell a good experience. Luckily I had some sleeping pills, which I eagerly took right before I returned to the Cannes station to take the train to Paris. I ate a quick dinner, before I boarded the night train. On the train, I was assigned to a car with all women, all of which were 40 years my senior and I would find had a problem of snoring. In a tiny compartment, 6 beds are piled one on top of the other for passengers. The train is also the slow and shakey kind that has you bobbin your head all night. Hours after the train had stopped, I still felt like I was moving. The pills kicked in pretty early, and I fell asleep barely an hour after the journey began. But they did last. I awoke at 3 in the morning, having had about 6 hours of sleep. I was not sure where we were, but I was able to watch the land pass by and the sun rise as we crept closer and closer to Paris.
When we arrived, I jumped off the train, kissed the ground, fought for power over my equilibrium, and then trekked from Paris St. lazare to Gare de Lyon. I had about 4 hours to kill, but with the greatest hunger I had ever felt in my life, I ate just over 4 pieces of chocolate criossants and almond bread, drank 5 coffees and 3 orange juices. I was pretty much shaking when I finally got on the TGV to Dijon.
The best that can be said: I at least accomplished that, and now I never have to take another night train again. Ever.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Paris or Normandy?

I think I have discovered my very least favorite place in the entire grand country of la belle France. I did not think I could despise a place more than the Pigalle Metro station in Paris, where every time someone comes in a 5 foot radius, my life flashes before my eyes. No one speaks French or English, or makes any contact with you in that grimy classless Metro station. I made the decision in April, when I was changing trains in Pigalle Station, to never ever set foot in the place so long as I lived. And mind you, this is coming from the same kid who has no fears whatsoever.

But fear for my life has nothing to with my new least favorite place in France. Not once should I have to fear for my life there, unless maybe if looks can kill. And I certainly received a ton of death glares In the beachside resort of Deauville, Normandy. Paule and Ronnie’s ranch is just a short drive away from the famous French seaside resort of Deauville. It is famous because it is a short TGV train ride away from the city of lights, and thus a very popular spot among Parisians on a long weekend. As I, unfortunately, found out.

After a morning of stomach troubles, I decided to put the incredible weather to good use. First I did a long hike through the Norman combs, where I found myself mostly yearning for my own Fixin combs. Afterwards, Yves and I hopped on our bikes and decided to bike to the seaside. We figured it would be as quick as an easy car ride. But after an hour and half of biking, the sweet arrival was the only thing that kept me from falling off my bike. I had lost Yves along the road, and I later learned he made it to Trouville, the sister city of Deauville, while I made it to Deauville.

As soon as my bike entered the area surrounding Deauville, I could tell I had entered an entire new world. The beautiful day had invited all the vacationers out into the sun, and since it was later in the day, most had flocked into the villages after a morning at the beach. When I say vacationers, I may as well tell you that everyone was from Paris on a nice weekend excursion to the shore. Thinking nothing of it, I hopped off my bike to easily navigate the crowded sidewalks. I was pretty sweaty after the long bike ride in the sun, and I was rather parched. My objective was to search for a supermarket where I could buy my favorite drink for excersizing, 0 Calorie Red Fruit Mineral Water, which has become a tradition to purchase during a long bike ride.

As I navigated the sidewalk, I was vaguely aware of the people-watchers at the ritzy cafes lining up on the streets. I could see from the corner of my eye, their eyes scanning this obvious foreigner in maroon Adidas sport shorts, wearing an ugly tee-shirt with visible sweat stains. My hair was tossed and wind-blown, and my cheap 12 Euro glasses, scratched beyond repair, sat on my head. I looked like an athlete who just biked 15 to 20 kilometers, not one of these classy flamboyant Parisians. A few people even made snide comments about taking a bike in the crowded streets, but I just pretended not to understand what they said.

When I finally found a Supermarket, my throat felt like sand paper, and I hurried into to look for my drink. I found it and paid twice the price I pay for it in Dijon, but I did not care. I rushed outside the store, and yanked off the bottle cap. Standing just beside a café, themed by the magnificent color purple, with paying customers that were willing to pay 8 Euros for a cup of coffee, I thrust the bottle upwards and began loudly gulping away. It was only after I drank half a liter of the bottle that I became aware that every customer was staring at me in pure and utter disgust. A few of men snickered loudly, while their wives resembled someone utterly scandalized. They were all wondering how lowly Deauville has sung to let in a character like me, sweaty, frumpy, and rude.

After I finished the bottle, I had plans to go to the beach and dip my feet in the Atlantic Ocean. I pedaled along the sidewalks of Deauville, just beside the glorious newly-built mansions overlooking the ocean. When I arrived at the beach, I jumped off my bike, locked it into a safe, and then began running towards the water. At some point, I realized I was surrounded by an ocean of bikinis. I felt so uncomfortable by the livid stares that I returned to my bike without even touching the water. I did not even look back as I pedaled as fast and as hard as I could to get out of that Parisian paradise.

Never again will I go to Deauville in the summer season.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

The Answer To The Pressing Question

I have grown up a lot over the course of this year in La Belle France, in so any ways, that I sometimes stop in mid-sentence with astonishment. Did I really just say there? Do I really feel that way? When did I become this person I am today? A lot has changed about me, but there is just one thing I want to discuss today.

I cannot remember the first time someone asked me the inevitable question that I now accept everyone wants to know. It is natural; of course, you do not meet many people like me. That is an all-American girl of 18 years-old that has spent a year in land of the rising sun and a year amongst the frogs. I no longer need to say I have a pretty unconventional life, but sometimes people are still just utterly baffled. They often want to know how it was possible to graduate High School having spent the two year’s abroad, the major difference between my three perspective cultures, family life in Japan and France, school systems, and huge culture shock experiences. But most importantly they want to know which country I like better, France or Japan.

It has taken me over 8 months to finally accept this healthy curiosity. 8 months, in which, I would have to work really hard to suppress my anger every time someone posed the question. Something like a ticking time bomb would go off as I would compile my answer. But a million things would rocket through my head.

It’s none of your business!
How could you ask a question like that?
Do you really expect me to compare the two countries, France and Japan, in a series of sentences?
Why ask such a thing, because I am sure you do not care that much?

I truly believed that the French who asked the question would fall into anger if I said Japan, while my host families in Japan would be upset if I said that more of my heart belonged to France. Later, I believed that it was human nature to ask such a question. People want to hear bad stuff, rather than asking me if I have had two wonderful years, they ask which I like better.
I formulated a quick response, to which I said to everyone immediately. “They are just too different to compare.” End of answer. Goodbye. It never left anyone satisfied, including me. While others would nod gently and not press harder for an answer, I would nod my head and give a little smirk. But deep inside, I really wanted to tell everyone the truth.

Sometime in the past month, perhaps because many people have stopped asking me which country I like better, I have fallen into the understanding that it is natural for people to want to know. It is merely only curiosity that drives one to ask that kind of question. It often has nothing to do with being nosy or expecting to hear the worst. And so, I am finally ready to tell the truth.

There is something about France that is indescribably intoxicating. A country of choice, peaking mountains, miles of sandy coastlines, row after row of the sweetest grapes in the world, and cities of history just waiting to be uncovered. Even on the coldest and grayest days of a harsh winter, France is still beautiful. And the lifestyle, after you finally get used to the bisoux, the relative ease, the barrels of fine wine and delightful cheese, the historical importance spewing out of every crumbling building. France has given me an aesthetic side and most importantly has taught me how to take of myself and the importance of pleasure.

But oh my Japan will always be the place where I was a young blue-eyed brown-haired, freckle-faced kid constantly being stared at in awe. Most people find that Japan is a closed society, but I never had that problem. I was loved from the moment I arrived in Japan, having always been surrounded by friends and family, people who showed a caring nature and compassion. And for the first time in my very life I learned the importance of having friends and how to be liked and loved. I arrived in Japan a shy and timid girl who never quite fit in anywhere she tried to be, and left a girl who was bubbly in every sense of the word.

So there is my answer. I prefer France as the country of pleasure, beauty, and culture, while I dream of Japan for the people, and the sense of belonging. Perhaps this will satisfy everyone’s pressing question.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Fine Wining

Eating with my cousin’s Ronnie and Paule almost always entails eating at an incredibly delicious restaurant with prices far too exorbitant for my taste. Never the less, I have not been disappointed yet, and instead I have begun to learn what it feels like to live the life of treating yourself well.

But one cannot forget practically the most important part of the whole meal. This is France, and I am staying with a family highly influenced by French culture. In fact, Paule tells me her father was a connoisseur of Burgundy wines, even though he was Flemish and not French in the slightest. You might have guessed it: the purchase of an excellent wine to supplement a delicious meal.

Paule and Ronnie both know that for the past few month’s I have lived in the middle of the action, or lack thereof it, depending on your point of view. They know I live just a few meters from all sides from sprawling French vineyards in the world’s greatest wine growing region (arguably.) They know I live in a town called Fixin, well known for its ‘tough’ wine’s, which only go well when supplementing a big juicy hunk of steak. They also know that I know the Cote de Nuits wine region like the back of my right hand. When a name of a small village is dropped in the region, I know it because more than likely I have tasted it, rode my bike through it, have acquaintances who live there, or something along those lines.

And so, of course, at each fine restaurant we eat at, a bottle or two or three is ordered to supplement our meal. With fish, we always drink white wine. When the rare sun pokes it’s head out from the clouds, and we eat a light meal of salad or some sort, always chilled rose wine is on the table. When Ronnie and Paule eat a steak, a good Burgundy red is always somewhere on our table. But none of us really likes the taste of Fixin wine, which Ronnie describes as, "closer to vinegar, than Burgundy quality."

What my cousins do not know, is that no matter how hard they try to impress me with their ordering of the best wines, I really do not know the difference. True, I know the different between cheap table wine and a 1990 Clos de Vougeot classique Grands Crus, but I have not reached the point of snobbery, like almost all of my fellow Fixin folks, who could tell the difference between a Fixin Hervelet and a Fixin Village, which are something like 5 meters from each other and apparently have vibrantly different tastes. I think it is because I have never had anything but the best wines, that my taste buds are not really attuned to the difference between a truly awful wine and a truly amazing one. I just know the amazing ones.

At Le Mere Poulard, the fabulous restaurant on le Mont St. Michel, Ronnie ordered a 2000 Clos Vougeot, which costed him about 300 euros, which is more than I have spent in the past 3 weeks of traveling on trains, food, and lodging. Of course it was utterly amazing, but even if it was god-awful, I do not know if I would know the difference.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Fine Dining

Paule and Ronny Aeronauts, my cousins, friends, and hosts of this nice travel occasion around Belgium and Normandy, have a well-loved hobby, in which they invest much time and money in.
They like to eat. And I do not mean eating in the sense that you put food in front of them and they gobble it all up no matter what it is, McDonald’s or Caviar. The Aeronaut’s are instead gourmands in search of the very best restaurants that our world has to offer. From what I gather, they will not eat at a restaurant unless it has been Michelin rated, which is a famous system that recommends only the very best restaurants.

With Paule and Ronnie, I have dined at a classy terrace in Brugges, soaking up the rays while devouring a delightful plate of fresh caught Eel. In the Zeeland’s, Netherlands, we dined at a famous tower restaurant overlooking the dykes and harbor, with incredible historical purposes. The Duke of Bourbon married his wife there in the 16th century, but more importantly, Paule and Ronnie took my grandparents to dine there many years ago. The excellent combination of Tuna and Cod, followed by a plate of Italian custard and strawberries, was magnificent.
Here in France, we sat beside the ancient church of Bayeux, and treated ourselves to a delicious meal. Paule and Ronny ate a specialty lamb, which you can only get on the seaside of France and the Netherlands, because of a special wind that blows salty nutrient inshore for the animals to eat. I opted for an excellent Vegetarian menu, which was just as delicious and probably even better.

But nothing quite compares to this evening after a wonderful touring all around Normandy. We started by viewing the powerful American Cemetery, and moved onto the Saint-Mere Eglise. Then onto the world famous Mont St. Michel, looming off the coast of Normandy. There we luckily got into the most famous restaurant on the island, Le Mere Poulard.

In 1874, Annette Poulard established an inn just inside the gates of the Mont for impoverished and starving pilgrims after their harking trek across the dangerous bay. She would sit them down and serve them her specialty; a big old fluffy omelet. It was not long before she became known as mother, or Mere. The legacy of her cuisine continues today, with her original inn and original oven. Diners can watch as chefs whip up the omelets over an open fire with classy ingredients like Lobster or Lamb. However, Le Mere Poulard is no longer for impoverished pilgrims, and today one must be willing to spend over 50 Euros a plates. This is ridiculous by my impoverished exchange student standards, but just right for Paule and Ronnie.

So of course, after the Abby tour, the four of us were seated in Le Mere Poulard for a meal. As usual, I sprung for the cheapest menu, which ended up being 35 Euros, minus the wine. I received a first course of delicious Tomato Soup, followed by Mere Poulard’s famous omelet with zucchini and tomatoes, and finally a small plate of fresh fruit and sorbet.

What have I learned? The cost may be steep for this edible legacy, but the history and quality is priceless.
Oh and one more thing I have learned from my experience fine dining: if you expect to be allowed to eat there again in the future, do not ask for ketchup. The first time, I mentioned ketchup; Paule shot me down and acted horrified at the concept of putting ketchup on a perfectly buttered, sautéed, and perhaps even gold-plated piece of fish.

As for ketchup on an omelet at Le Mere Poulard? Ronnie could have killed me when I flagged down the waitress to ask if they had any ketchup. And the waitress gave me the most disgusted look I have ever merited in my entire life, as she spat a firm, “Mais, non!” I could tell she wanted to add something about the restaurant not being McDonald’s, and that I ought to go there for some ketchup. But she had some restraint, which I suspect had something to do with the fact that she likes Obama (everyone in Europe likes Obama) or she got a good tip from some American’s in the past.

I guess I will always have a little American in me.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

A Dream Come True

Amidst all the visits to war memorials, tombstones of the fallen soldiers, and war-ravaged villages of the past few days of my Normandy Journey, something incredible happened. One of my greatest desires, tucked gently in the pocket of my closed up heart, was realized as Paule, Ronnie, Yves, and I trekked across the land to the border of Normandy and Brittany. There floating miraculously in the far distance lay the most beautiful and breathtaking thing I have ever seen in my life, something even more beautiful than even my wildest dreams could concoct. Le Mont St. Michel.

When little girls dream of France, I think most of them see the Eiffel Tower. I am not the best person to make this generalization since I have never been a normal little girl, and I never dreamt of France, other than a few hard feelings toward the country regarding their not-so-nice words towards my country in 2003. Deeply influenced by the words of the television and the teachings of my parents, I had resolved to never set foot in that horrid European country so-long as I lived. Well that worked out well, huh?

Due to a schedule error at my middle school, my first year of high school found me placed in French 101, where we never actually learned French. We did, however, study a lot of about the land and more importantly, the huge tourist sites. I remember having to do a report on le Centre de Pompidou in Paris. But someone else was given le Mont St. Michel, and they presented an amazing speech. They talked about the old pilgrims making religious pilgrimages across the grand bay. Some died in the crossing from quick sand and the huge tides that swept away the shores, and are often described as being quicker than a galloping horse. Those that did make it the Mont St. Michel arrived exhausted but mounted the steps to the Abby situated on top of the mountain. In the Abby, Benedictine monks lived peacefully in prayer in possibly the most beautiful place in all of France. From the walls surrounding the abbey, one could look out onto the bay, the shores of Normandy and Brittany, and all that is the Northern coastal France.
I clung to these words like a love-sick woman finally hearing the three words she has waited a lifetime for. And no matter how much resentment I felt towards France, a little piece of me yearned for that mystical Mountain and vowed to one day see it. But I did not realize how big that little piece really was until I finally stood at the foot of the Mont.
True to the Norman fashion that I have come to know over the past week and half, the sky was gray with ominous clouds that meant rain. There it was looming in the reachable distance, the tides subsided so that all we could see was the fine silt sand that has long claimed many pilgrim’s lives. The point of the and mountain, reaching towards the sky, holds a gold sculpture of Saint Michael, the archangel, as he slew the dragon, a sign of the devil. Though I am not a believer in the word-for-word bible, chills raced through my body, as I thought about the significance of the statue. Perhaps, the God of War really has protected and watched over the island, since it has survived the 100 Years War, the French Revolution, and both World War’s. A rock island in the sea, reaching to the sky and heaven , and I could not help but see how the mystical place held the best of the all these worlds we have.

We arrived at the the foot of the mountain, parked our car, and then went out separate ways. Paule and Ronnie had seen the Mont half a dozen times and are a bit too out of shape to take on the hundreds of steps that one is required to climb. Yves and I, with very little time before the abbey was bound to close, had to break into a short sprint up the hill. The narrow cobblestoned street bursting with tourist traps, was a blur in my hastiness. In a slow jog, I hurried up the stairs, often just carved into the side of the mountain and reached the admission desk long before Yves. I paid the fee and also purchased a headset to further understand the origins of the mountain.

I learned of the history, architecture, and lifestyle of the monks that inhabited the abbey. I feasted on all the historical significance, while indulging in the scenery indescribable. I often find that when I want to see something ever so badly, I make unattainable expectations, which lead to disappointment. But the Mont St. Michel never cease to amaze me and far surpass my high expectations.

As Yves and I returned to the foot of the mountain after the abbey tour, we strolled aong the ancient fortification walls with some of the smart tourists that had discovered the secret passageways to get there. My camera was plastered to my nose as I took over a hundred pictures of the mountain, but stopped to listen to an Irish or Scottish family standing just beside me. Actually, the father was from the United Kingdom, while the mother was from Germany or the Netherlands, as I could tell from the accent. Her children, little ginger’s, like their father, were tugging her along after Daddy.
“Ugh… slow it up. I do not want to climb again. Go ahead of me, “ she urged her kids, and then turned to me. “I suppose it is good that they are interested in culture, but honestly, it is just a rock with a religious place on the top. I do not see what the bloody fuss is all about.”
I smiled and replied, “Being here is a dream come true for me.”

She studied for a moment, and then replied, “You ought to set your dreams a bit higher than a rock on the French coast.”

Trust me, I have dreams much higher and harder to attain than seeing the Mont St. Michel in my lifetime. But the truth is, when a dream comes true, no matter how big or small, I remember again just how much life is worth living.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

65 Years

I wonder if it really is bravery to answer your country’s call and join the Army for war. So many of my fellow countrymen did in the 1940’s, in an effort to combat the Japanese and the German Axis forces. But what I wonder if bravery is really the right word for responding to Uncle Sam’s call. Because I am pretty sure Uncle Sam did not say in his criteria that these men might have to cut their lives, brilliant and shining, epically short at the hands of a machine gun on the beaches of Northern France. Or tortured to the point where death is seen as a God-sent in the far East.
I passed the 65th anniversary of Debarquement Day at the department in which my fellow Americans, among other Canadian, British, French, Belgian, and others, arrived to free occupied Europe from Nazi tyranny. My President, Barack Obama, also came to pay tribute to those that died and those that brought freedom from tyranny. And I was wholly disappointed in his speech. He spoke in tribute, of course, but also remarked of the many mistakes his fellow countrymen made on that fateful day.
Now I do not know about you, but on a day as sad and powerful as D-day, I want to hear prayers for the dead, patriotic songs, and stories from the veterans themselves. I am fully aware that our troops made some mistakes, and I am constantly reminded with every village I visit, how much havoc and destruction the allies wreaked on Normandy. Never the less, on this sacred day, we need to remember the bravery and sacrifice of the allies. Not their mistakes and failures.

One of the sites we visited was the thriving town of Arromanches, where a few days after the Debarquement Day, the British constructed an artificial port to transport goods into France to the troops. The remnants of the port still float softly off the coast, an eerie reminder of the pains the allies took to combat the Germans. But what really intrigued after a visit to the museum was the fact that the port was constructed after almost 2 weeks. Why? Prior to D-Day, the Allies could not be completely sure the landing would be a success. After all, historically speaking the 1942 Canadian Dieppe Raid was a disastrous failure, ending in either the death or capture of 6,000 Canadian troops. The lesson? The German Atlantic Wall was powerful, ready, and deadly.
But this got me thinking, something that everything I have seen in Normandy has prompted me to do. If the Allied commanders were not entirely sure of the success of Operation Overlord, did any of them ever think about the men they were sending off into battle? Did they ever stop to think that they could very well be sending of thousands of men to their premature and fiery death’s? Even though things went somewhat according to plan, so much could have gone wrong that it is baffling to me.

On another note, after I saw a nice film in the Arromanches 360 Dome about the war and today, I returned to a seaside café to find Ronnie and Paule waiting for me. When I plopped myself down in the seat and began to talk, Paule quieted me down instantly. I could tell she was eavesdropping in on the table next to her. The table was filled with three elderly German men, not old enough to have fought in the war themselves, but certainly not young enough to be history buff’s here for a good lesson. They were talking quietly, and from what I could tell, rather solemnly.

Back at the car, Paule announced what she had heard the men talk about. The middle man, a lanky blue-eyed blond fellow, was telling the other two that it was his first time in Arromanches, a place he had always wanted to visit because it was the name of the faraway seaside town in France in the letter from his father. The last letter from his father, postmarked June 3, 1944. His father, a German soldier, had been stationed in the Norman countryside of France, a place which he described as paradise and the farthest place in the world from danger. Not 4 or 5 days he later, he was shot dead by a British soldier in the struggle for Arromanches. He left behind his wife and sons, one in which had come to pay tribute to his father.

It’s a sad reminder of the horrible costs of both sides of the war.