Saturday, March 28, 2009

The Things I Learned in Toulouse

If you have been reading my blog as of late, I am certain you have read about Toulouse, or Rotary's attempt at a Model United Nations. Here are some of the wonderful things I have learned at Toulouse, surronded by over 400 other exchange student, representing 29 different world nations.


1.] There are bigger rivalries than the Yankee's verses the Red Sox.
-Aussie's vs. The Kiwi's
-Canada vs. The United States of America that Canada THINKS actually cares
-Johannesburg vs. Cape Town
-Mexico vs. The US of A (in off tune singing of our national anthems)
-Argentina vs. Brazil (in soccer)
-Vegemite vs. Nutella vs. Dulce de Leche vs. Peanut Butter
-The French vs. The Rest of the World

2.] Everyone takes fun things to school no matter where they come from.


~Australian: So you live in the Patagonia region of Argentina, right?"
~ Argentinian: Yeah, do you know the really cold part?
~Australian: 'Course, so yeah, um... do you take Penguins to school?
~ Argentinian: You are an idiot.
~Australian: Hey Hey! I am Australian, do you know how many times people have asked if I ride Kangaroo's to school? So where are the South Africans, I wanna ask them if they take Lions!

*American: Someone just asked me if I have a bible in public school!
*Jules: Oh yeah I get that one too, just after I explain that not all Americans eat Big Mac's three times a day and own hand guns.

3.] The whole world is bad at Geography.

~Julie: Oh, hey, you are from Germany? Where abouts?
~German: I'm from Essen- in Northern Westfalen. Do not know if you know it, but it i pretty famous, it has a UNESCO World heritage site.
~Julie: Of course I know it! I passed through during the Sprng vacation, when I stayed with a good friend in Bielefeld in Northern Westfalen! Do you know Bielefeld?
~German: No, actually, sorry. I am not very good at Geography, my Dad says I should have been born an American. So where are you from originally?
~Julie: America

-Julie: Hey I can not believe our hostel is in the middle of a big field with nothing. it must look like home in Iowa, hunh, Danielle?
-Danielle: Hilarious
-Julie: I'm sorry to pick on Iowa as much as I do. But at least I know where it is!
-Danielle: Don't worry, and it is good you know where it is.
-Julie: Yeah, I mean, Iowa, come on! It is just like a square stqte with a big zit.

-Julie: Oh wow, you are from Brisbane?

-Ausralian: Yeah, you know it? But actually, when I get back I am going to move to Townsville for Uni.

-Julie: AHHH! One of my best friends live there, she goes to James Cook! Yeah for Townsville!

-American: Did you just say Townsville? "The City of Townsville.... the POWERPUFF GIRLS!"

-Julie: Oh dear, God.


4.] Even in a foreign country, everyone likes a little taste of home. This is what we had all brought:
-Mexicans: Tequila
-Australians: Vegemite
-Argentinian: Dulce de Leche
-French Rotarians: Nutella
-Taiwanese: 餅
-Japanese: ポッキー

5.] The French Treat Their Own Country Like Poop
*After the bus dumping it's septic tank in the middle of the road incident, see previous blog entry for details.

Canadian: The French treat their country like shit... literally.

~American: Next time someone dumps crap on the road, let's all yell, "You have been Rotaried" or "With sincerest intentions and cordial love from Rotary."


*Canadian: Why did you guys dump the septic tank all over the road! it was disgusting!
*French Rotarain: It is biodegradable.

6.] Everyone is a little bit patriotic, even if they do not want to admit it.

Julie: Okay guys they are playing the Star Spangled Banner, get up on the chair and scream your loudest. We can not let those Mexicans beat us!


-Australian: Dude, you guys sounded horrible when you sang your anthem. Yeah- you were the loudest but you blew out the rest of our ears.
-American: Shut up you stupid Aussie- what the hell does Advance Australia's Fair even mean? And plus, WE CAN DO IT!

7.] We have all been in French-fryed.

French Rotarian: I see you have grapes on your blazer, are you from Burgundy, Bordeaux, r maybe Alsace?
Julie: I'm a Burgundy girl, through and through.
French ROtarian: Where in?
Julie: Little town outside of Dijon in the Cote de Nuits. Perhaps you know Fixin?
French Rotarian: Oh Course I know Fixin. Now tell me, which do you prefer, Fixin or Gevrey-Chambertin?
Julie: Hands down, Gevrey-Chambertin. However, if you are eating a red meat dish, you can not pass up a tough hard wine, such as Fixin. Plus the Chardonnay of Fixin is really quite good, and you can find Chardonnay in Gevrey-Chambertin. So I suppose it all depends on the circumstances when you are choosing the wine.
French Rotarian: HAHAHAHAHAHA.... I love it, and 18 year-old American girl is giving me advice on French wine.

-Brittany B.: My host parents give my host sister Morning After pills at the dinner table.
-Julie: My 14 year-old host brother has sleepovers with his girlfriend all the time at the house.
-Australian: My host brother grows Marijuana in his bedroom.
-Canadian: My Rotary can not make it through a meeting without someone drinking too much.
-Julie: What happened to the days when these things used to alarm us?
-Brittany B.: Yeah we have been here too long.




Thursday, March 26, 2009

Evolution of Julie Garner's Rotary Blazer

That tall slightly boring girl in the middle with the ratty hair- that was me. But this post is not about the evolution of me. Because yeah I lost some weight and learned how to use a hair straightenr, but the real item that changed is that ugly Navy blue blazer that I am wearing. The first thing I want to point out is that this picture may have actually been the last documented occasion that my blazer was Navy. It is now Multicolored- like a walking Gay Pride parade.

For those of you who do not know the traditions of Rotary Youth Exchange, the ownership of a blazer is perhaps the most important tradition. While most countries recommend navy blue, the blazer may also be dark green, red, black, or maroon. The color of the blazer usually depends on which country or region the exchange student is from. For example, Australia FES's are always green, Canucks are usually Red, and the French are the ugliest blue ever created. One Rotary tradition is that students cover their blazers in pins and patches they have traded with other students or bought in places they have visited as evidence of their exchange. It is popular for the students to bring a large collection of national- or regional-themed pins and trade them with students from other areas. This tradition is popular worldwide.
In Matsuyama, Japan, in October 2006, I attended my first ever District Conference. Our blazers were required and as you can see the gaudyness of my blazer was starting to sprout. It was in September that I got my first symptom of an illness that has forver plagued me since. My good friend, Yurie Hirosue, who had been an exchange student in the United States just the year before, had asked me to bring home her blazer form New Jersey. She had collected more pins than I had ever imagined possible. Not only had she swapped her Kochi, Japan pins for other pins from around the world, but she had bought collectable pins from all the places she had visited in the United States, which was numerous with her Cross-country America bus tour. One afternoon when she and I wee shopping in the arcade in the Obiyamachi Arcade, she bought me a pin and told me that it was time to start decking out my blazer in pins in the way that she had. I sort of ignored her, nodding and saying, "Yeah, yeah, whatever," because I suspected my blazer could never come close to her masterpiece. But that night, when I put the pin on my blazer, I caught Pin fever. I began to search high and low for cute items for my blazer, starting with Hello Kitty keychains, and then on to pins from around Japan. Since I had very little interaction with other exchange students, which would have offered me to opportunity to swap pins, I had to take matters in my hands.

On August 13th, 2007, I left Japan after a year-long exchange. Although I do not have any pictures of me in my insane blazer, I do have a picture of little Maako, my host sister, who insisted on trying on the big silly coat that I was required to wear. She started a trend and soon all of my host families and friend were trying on the ridiculous blazer that was decked out in pins and trinkets from around Japan and from other exchange students that I had met and swapped pins with.

If memory serves me correctly, I remember thinking that my blazer was tied with Yurie's. In addition, I did not think I would ever see a blazer quite like mine, whereby, there were hundreds of pins all bunched up in the front. Sure I knew there were people around the world that had blazers covered in more stuff, but I had set some basic ground rules. I would not cheat, like much of the others had. I would stick to pins and keychains given to me or from the destinations I had seen. I would not put boxes of food, garbage, or pins I had bought from home just to give the jacke some life. No one in the entire world could say that. That is, no one in the entire world could say that they had been psycho enough to set rules about what goes on the jacket and to refer to those who put empty boxes of Pockey chocolate treats on their back as cheaters.

For Halloween 2007, I dressed up as a pin collector. Can you guess what I wore?

In March 2008, I decided that I was not ready for college. In 2 days of uncertainity, I filled out an application for another exchange, and was accepted to Rotary yet again. This time France was selected. Obviously this brief description does not give the whole story justice. But I encountered a few questions and problems. The least of which was what I was going to in regards to a blazer. I did not know a lot of Yo-Yo's, and those I talked to told me to just bring the same blazer as before. None of them had blazers quite like mine from the first exchange.

On August 27th, 2008, I arrived in Charles de Gaulles International Airport, Paris, after a long layover in Washinton DC. I was able to meet with about 60 other exchange students from America heading to France, and each gave me the same distorted questioning look. "This is my second exchange!" I always yelled. I think some people thought I was bragging, but I did not want the others to think I cheated and put a bunch of random pins from my closet on my blazer to make it look pretty. This was authetic.

Of course, I have traveled extensively through Europe since I have arrived in France. I always try to add one pin to my blazer from each destination, since I believe that the Rotary blazer is a walking scrapbook. And plus, this past weekend in Toulouse, all 400 or so exchange students in France met for a grand convention. I added maybe about 25 new pins to the blzer. I gave away more pins than I got, but I am still pretty impressed with my blazer. I can no longer wear the blazer, as it it to heavy. And so 15 minutes ago, I threw my blazer on a hangover (actually I had to forklift it on a hangar.) Hung it on my door and snapped this photo. I promise this is not the final evolution of my blazer, but at the end of this year, I think I owe it a nice long retirement.




Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Model UN at Toulouse


The Rotary Youth Exchange student that had to come to Toulouse for a big convention were told to be at breakfast at 8. The Chaperones came and awoke everyone up at 7, except that in my room, 6 different alarm clocks went off at different time to designate shower and mirror time before breakfast. My district was the first group at the breakfast hall, or better put, the first group to be disappointed with the stale bread and cereal of the breakfast hall. Someone made the ominous comment that thus far we were not being fed well. If Rotary France could not feed us well, then there was no hope to end world hunger.
Before we arrived at the first stop on our tour, the exchange students took the opportunity to do the famous pin swap. We walked up and down the aisle swapping our pins and business cards with our fellow exchange student. Unfortunately I quickly noted, a lot of people did not have pins to reciprocate with while others refused to give up pins if you could not give them one in return. Sure enough by the end of the day I gave out more than I received but still had the world's most ridiculous looking blazer. Our first destination was a large government hall, modeled in the form of UN building. There were great halls and desks that faced a podium speaker. The 450 or so exchange students were broken up into three groups and sent to different parts of the forum. But first one of the Rotarians noticed a thing of plastic grapes on my blazer and asked me if I was from a wine region in France. I told him Yes, a little village called Fixin, which I did not expect him to know. But I was shocked when he immediately began chuckling and demanding whether I thought the Premier Crus of Fixin was the best in Cote de Nuits. I told him, certainly not, but that I would not have Fixin with anything but meat because it was a thick and rather tough wine. He was roaring and shouting that I was the most well adapted sophisticated American exchange student he had ever encountered.

In the Toulouse UN building, I was placed on top of an overhang, which all of us quickly decorated with flags from our perspective countries. The meeting was a description of the city of Toulouse and also the biggest industry, Airbus. We were shown a movie about how the factory worked and why Airbus are the best planes in the world. (Except I screamed our BOEING! and pissed a few Frenchie's off.)

It one point during the meeting, I had to get up and use the bathroom. I took a clapping moment to do so, but when I returned a few Rotarians told me that I would not be allowed to return to my seat. When I asked them why, they told me my blazer made too much noise. I was embarrassed, especially when the made me stand by the door and a few other exchange students took pictures of me. When the meeting was over, I regrouped with Alex from VT and Andrew, and after a quick and disgucting lunch, we headed to the Space Museum. Honestly, the museum was horrible. In the end, we had no time to travel to Toulouse and see the Centre Ville, and so I traveled 12 hours in a bus to the South and did not get one quick glance at the city. But then again, what do you expect from a museum about space? Think about the irony in the idea of this museum. The best that can be said was that I found some friends from the plane and I talked about Japan for 2 hours. I was shocked that people were so interested, but everyone was in awe as I told them about my amazing first exchange.

When we finished up with Space Museum something amazing and impeccably French happened. We were to be the only section to return to our Hostel, but first we drove about an hour out of the city, into the deep country side. In a trailor park area, the chaperones got out of the face, and then quickly got back on for some reason. Then the bus began to smell of rotten tuna and also started to back away. The people in the front of the bus were first hand witnesses to seeing poop and piss all over the road from our bus. "The French treat their country like shit... literally." All the exchange students went nuts, but when asked, the French Rotarians only said, "it is biodegradable!" If you are sitting reading this disgusted and not chuckling or the least bit surprised, then you have not spent the better part of a year in France.
After we returned to the Hostel, got dressed, and became ready for the grand Gala, our group again set off. After an hour long drive, we arrived in an enormous banquet hall, where the 450 exchange students piled in one side, while the ROtarians piled into the other side. At our table, the entire district 1750 plus one goofy Aussie named Nick (see first picture above) sat and waited to be served. We were all starving and I downed my glass of wine almost immedaitely. Langueidoc, not exactly excellent but smooth and tasty. Then at 10, we were all served the first course, Foie Gras, my favorite food in the entire world. I downed that goose liver quicker than you can say Rotary. Afterwards we had some time to mingle with the others, swap pins, and prepare our skit. Each district was required to do q 4 minute skit or show for a talent show type thing. Some districts knew months in advance. 1750 threw together a movie in that last 3 days. I wll post this movie as soon as I can.


Then the greatest part of the entire evening happened. The National Anthem playing. Each country represented had their national anthem played on stage. Advance Australia's Fair. Kimegawa. Oh Canada. God Save the Queen. The Start Spangled Banner. It was maybe the most beautiful thing I had ever seen and participated in. Everyone's heart burst into patriotism no matter how much one loved or did not love their country. And plus, everyone respected each other's songs and even contributed. I sang the Kimegawa with the Japanese girls and I also sang the Oh Canada part with my good Canadian friends. When the French Rotary played the wrong song for the Russian national anthem, the one Russian exchange student, a tiny little Asian boy, got on stage and sang it all by himself. Everyone cheered for him and even gave him some rhythm. And then they played the Star Spangled Banner. Danielle, Andrew, and I jumped on 2 plastic chairs and screamed the song at the top of our lungs. It was so heart warming and touching and it is in those moments that I realize that I have so much more to learn about the world around me.


The main course was soon placed on our table. It was some sort of meat, but I was so hungry I pretended it was not. It turned out to be Duck, which is stored in jars over time to keep fresh and tasty. It was so delicious that I was practically drooling over it. When the meal was finished it was time for the skits. Most of the districts did skits. A few Latinos did a few intimidating dances. The Paris district made fun of French striking and went on an, "Exchange Student Strike." It was hard to hear and really appreciate all the skits, which is why our movie dd not go over so well. Instead when the movie was over, the Bourgogne kids got up and did the famous drinking song. All the Rotarians loved it.


After our delicious chocolate dessert, and a schedule two hours behind, we finally headed back to the Hostel. Instead of going to bed, most of the students had a big dance and drinking party in the lobby once the Rotarians went to bed. As for me? I found my favorite Canadian, Paul from Ontario, who I met on the plane, and pulled an all nighter in his room with his district kids. Everyone was so nice, and since we did not get any sleep at all, we were oddly rfreshed at breakfast. That is a lie. We were utterly nuts at breakfast. None of us could stop giggling, and saying and doing stupid things.


The morning before we set off back to our homes, the Rotary organized a cute little Olympic type game thing. It was a lot of fun, though Alex from VT and I sort of just watched. After another terrble lunch, we were all set to trek by the Bourgogne and Champagne. I sat in the back of the bus with Andrew, Alex, and Danielle. My three new best friends. The 4 of us had been the best of friends throughout the convention and I think being with them made Toulouse worth it. On the whole, outweighing the pros and cons of the convention, I have to say it was an amazing opportunity and I am thankful for it.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Rotary's Attempt at Model UN


Every 3 years the French Rotary organizes a grand convention consisting of all the hosted exchange students, currently residing in France for three days in a select city. They said that we were the lucky ones, seeing at 2009 was one of the years that the grand convention was to be held. Last time it was held in Paris, just a an hour and 20 minutes away on the TGV. This time it was held in a place called Toulouse, over 12 hours away on a bus, and the home of Airbus and warm weather. To be honest the negatives about the convention outweigh the positives. I had never been to a Rotary function that was so unorganized, there were too many people and not enough time to get to know anyone, we were rarely fed any food, and the conditions of the place we were staying in were a little questionable. But I like to think of myself as a optomist because even though I have not sleft more than 5 hours in the past 72 hours, eaten an actual edible and filling meal, or have seen the city of Toulouse after having taken 12 hours on a bus to drive there, I experieced an opportunity unlike any other in my entire life. Because there was a moment, somewhere during the national anthem ceremony, belting out the beautiful Star Spangled Banner, and being surrounded by 450 other exchange students from 29 different countries, where it me. I can say it a million times, and reading this blog over and over, I realize that I do say it alot. My life is so unconventional, but I sit here in awe because I am 18, young my life's standards. I speak Japanese and plan to spend many more years there. I live in France now with a host family that is half French and half German, that I just love. I write emails to Australia, Argentina, Germany, Japan, Brazil, and Belgium on a daily basis. I just spent a weekend with people from around the world, 6 continents, 29 countries, and all a little crazy.

This is my life.

Of course, things in life are never easy. I suppose this is why our journey began at 3:45 in the morning at the station in Dijon. Out Youth Exchange Officer, Patrick Lautier, picked up Alex, Andrew, and I from the station, where we waitied for him patiently after an evening of celebrating a late St. Patrick's Day. We also met up with the always lovely, Danielle Garbarino, our favorite Iowan currently residing in Macon. Then we set off for a rest stop, where we met up with the Champagne kids. Alex Hughes, Rafael Ramos, Wan-Ting Lu, Anna Good, and Amanda Benin greeted us all warmly. In that list of names, there are 2 Americans, a Brazaillian, a Mexican, and a Taiwanese. I will let the reader figure out who is who. Then we waited for an hour or so for the huge bus carrying all the exchange students in the state of Lorraine, France, picked us up.
At 5 when we boarded the bus, the only thing on our mind was sleep. But unfortunately, I seated myself next to an Argentinian boy, who was high as a kite, and singing at the top of his lungs. It was so annoying, and I got no sleep at all. Instead, I waited for the sun to rise, to begin making my way to the front of the bus to catch up with Danielle and the other Alex. The entire bus ride was uneventful, and after 12 hours, the only thing anyone wanted to do was get off. We made a few food stops here and there. Ultimately though, it was hot, tiring, no one knew what to expect, not even the Rotarians, and everyone was a little annoyed.
When we arrived in Toulouse, we were all a little surprised at our surroundings. We were residing in a Hostel/ YMCA style-camp in a large field area. Where is the city of Toulouse, we all pondered. We soon found out that the group of 400 exchange students were split into three different camps. The Paris district of my good friend Brittany Barretto, for instance, was staying at a hotel in the city, while my district was placed in the Boonies. We asked Iowan Danielle, if she felt like she was home. She said Yes.
The rooms should have been ready at 12, so we were annoyed to learn that they were still not ready when we arrived at 5:oo. In the meantime, we waited and met with the other district at the campsite, Alsace and Rhone-Alpes districts. It as the beginning of the catching up, the reunion, the getting to see old faces. That was what the whole eveing turned into- one big Hug. First, it was seeing Paul Towler, my favorite Canadian from Ontario, who I sat with on the plane. He and I caught up so quickly, and I quickly remembered why we had become friends so quickly on the plane. Then I saw Brittany B., who attacked me with a big hug, and then proceeded to tell me about her upcoming exchange to Taiwan and her bus trip to Spain. There were others too, girls I had seen on the airplane, that gave me a hug and asked about France. The thing that I quickly noted was that things had changed in our knowledge of French geography. In Washington DC as we waited for our flights to Paris, everyone always asked the stationary question. So, where are you going in France?
Macon.
Dijon.
Metz.
Mulhouse.
Caracassone.
Rheims.
The they would put on a smile and nodd happily, saying awesome or cool. But in reality, they had no freaking idea where it was. I was guilty as well. But this time, everyone had some idea where the places were located.
The evening meal was a disorganized buffet where all the students somewhat attacked the table to eat, since most had not been fed at all during the day. But before the feeding a huge stampede of nationalities took over the banquet hall. At least 150 of the students were from America, followed about 100 Mexicans, 50 Australians, 40 Brazalians, and then the rest. But the Americans were by far the least patriotic of the bunch. The Mexicans took the cake in patriotism and started a huge Mosh Pit surrounding their flag. They sang some national song and shouted Vive la Mexico! Australia fought pretty hard for some spot light and Brazil made some noise as well. Suddenly, the Paris district presented the Americans with a black exchange student, with an odd resemblance to our beloved president. He was hoisted into the air with an American flag, and then the entire banquet hall was suddenly silented by huge roars of a group of American kids screaming, "We can do it!" I do not even like Obama, but I have to say, he has made Americans a trendy thing again. Plus we shut up the Mexicans which is what made us very happy.
After dinner, the other campsite groups returned and our districts went back to the rooms for showers. The Rotarians gave out no rules, and went to bed quickly. There was nothing to do but hang out and get to know some of the other exchange students. There was supposed to be a big party in the banquet hall, but instead I stayed behind with Danielle, Alex from VT, and Andrew and realized early that what I was most going to enjoy about the weekend was spending time with these 3 other awesome exchange students.
TO BE CONTINUED>>>>>

Monday, March 16, 2009

Solitude

Saturday afternoon, in between a fit of laughter while filming a movie with my fellow exchange students, Andrew and Alex, my stomach dropped and suddenly the bright colors were washed out with gray. Andrew was leaving soon for a party and Alex, who I had just spent the past 3 nights with, annoying, fighting, laughing, and speaking franglish with, was set to be picked up by her host Mom. I was going to be alone. Again.


And I think I have finally discovered the root of my problem of life in France. It is that little feeling of having nothing in the agenda book, no one to call up and go for coffee and walk with, and no one to laugh at inside jokes and stupid mistakes. Solitude, my friend, is the very problem. Perhaps much of this solitude can be traced into the language barrier, after all, there are times when I feel like I just can not do it anymore. French is the hardest language I have ever encountered, and some of the Francophones are not willing to help me progress. I know there are moments when my brain shuts off and I give up slightly and retreat to the internet, where I can communicate and be heard. But the internet is an empty box, I have just recently discovered.

For the February Winter Vacation, I passed the first week with my father skiing the beautiful Chamonix Valley. The second week I spent in Germany, immersing myself in a fascinating country and hanging out with an old friend. I spoke English throughout the voyage, which I suspected would hinder my return to France. After all, after my Christmas vacation in Paris with Shannon and New Years with Brittany in Fountainebleu, had my return to Fixin and school in a complete and utter shell shock. It took me a good 3 weeks to get back into life, and I feared that the same thing would happen again. Looking back qnd those few weeks after the Christmas vacation were some of my darkest days.

Things are different this time around. Certainly the first day or two was terrible after my reintegration to France. It was everything I thought it would be. My French was terrible, and Leonie was not home to help me get reacclimated into French life. Just Charlotte, who was out and about, Coline, who has discovered a new passion for the internet, and occasionally Jean Francois. I got caught cutting class on Tuesday because I could not motivate myself to go. The rain fell and everything was very cold. I stepped on the scale and almost died at how much weight I had gained.

It seemed a Godsend when Alex and I decided to hang out on Wednesday afternoon, to prepare for the upcoming Toulouse conference and also to keep her company. She was unable to go to school with her knee which was twice the size of a normal knee. Apparently she fell on the slopes somewhere in Switzerland and had to be helicoptered down the mountain. Now she was missing school because her knee throbbed and she wanted some company. It was a mutual feeling although I did not have trouble with a knee, but instead was yearning for someone to talk to.

I got on the first bus to Hauteville on Wednesday and together we discussed very important thing; what exactly we would be doing for the talent show in Toulouse, the upcoming birth of her host nephew, and baking. We immersed ourselves in English, cooked for her host family, watched a movie in English, and kept each other company. Joyeaux Noel and Lord of the Rings, Cinnamon Buns, vanilla Pudding, and STuffed Peppers, Alex's star-crossed crush. I had so much fun that I decided to come back the following night and stay with Alex. Afterall, she would be a ll alone anyway and her host family invited me to come again and keep her company throughout the night. We also needed to do more planning for the convention at Toulouse.

By then the Toulouse convention had begun pushing us down and we decided to start our talent show project, a movie with the 10 Commandements of Life in France. Or at least what we felt was the 10 commandments of life in France. And so, Alex decided to come stay in Fixin with me throughout the weekend to film. Even Andrew found some time to come help us out and film. For 3 clueless American teenagers with a video camera, our movie was coming out excellent. We laughed till we cried, and made fun of French culture politely without offending anyone; except maybe ourselves a little. It was in that afternoon, just as we wrapped up filming for the day when I realized that I would soon be alone again.

And yet. The sky was blue and the sun shone down on Burgundy brighter than I had remembered from last time. Spring had arrived almost over night in Fixin, around the same time that my French came back to me, and about the same time Leonie came home from Germany. Normal was on the return. Or what I remembered the term normal to be. The kind of normal that I felt when the autumn was here and I still had an infatuation with life in France. Solitude was no longer waiting for me in the upstairs, even with the new computer my Dad gave to me when he was here in France. Instead, after Alex left, I threw myself into hanging out with Clemence and Antoine, speaking lots and lots of French, catching up with Leonie, and basking in the Spring sun. Best of all, I went for a run. My first long run in 3 weeks in the combs of Fixin. And I could not help but notice the green buds on all the trees, the smell of the fresh air that almost hurt my lungs, the life returning to the vineyards of Fixin.

And I forgot all about being lonely.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Journey Down The Vallee Blanche


Jon Kraukawer, author of Into the Wild an avid naturist, once described in an essay, the valley of Chamonix as, "the death sport capital of the world." Having vacationed in Chamonix for about a week, I think I managed to get a good firm grasp on many of those sports. Firstly, there was the overconfidence in my ability as a skiier, which led to a few black diamonds and untimately a few glades in the forest. Then I moved into paragliding high above the Chamonix Valley. But finally, and perhaps, the most dangerous was my venture down the epic and world-renowned Vallee Blanche.

Vallee Blanche, translated into English, means White Valley. Sounds kind of romantic, right? Something out of Japanese Haiku about the spirit of nature, or perhaps a Monet watercolor painting. It certainly does not hint of struggling down an exposed 30 degree ice ridge in your ski boots in a howling gale, jagged rocks slicing through one's skis, and deep crevices waiting to catch you as you topple over. So what is so special? For the normal on-piste skier, as most of us are, doing something tricky usually consists of finding a more difficult way of going down the same mountain. Nothing wrong with that. For me it is making the choice to try a black diamond over a blue square. But going off-piste is different, a while other ball game if you will. You have to know what you are doing and if things go wrong, they can go very wrong. But for all tose years of me going on family vacations in Vermont, off-piste was never a feasible option that did not end in a good scolding by my parents or a face plant in the snow. The risk/reward ratio does not stack up. The Vallée Blanche is special in that it is both accessible and thrilling. There are risks, but the rewards are huge. It is one of Europe's longest ski runs, offering a trail of 22km, more this year because we were able to reach the bottom, with a vertical descent of more than 2,000 metres, in a grand valley with Mont Blanc towering over you.

Of course, there are people who warned us. When Dad and I went to hire a guide at the station, the lady behind the desk asked me if I could handle Black Diamonds. Overconfident, I said, "Oh yeah, of course." To which she asked, "And mogels?" I groaned. I hate mogels. She told me bluntly that the Vallee would be too difficult for me since it is entirely ungroomed and thus covered in mogels. But I insisted anyway. The only date in which we were able to get a guided tour was Friday, the final day of our excursion. We could not let the opportunity pass, even though I was warned that I was not ready for the Vallee Blanche, it was our final day, and most importantly we would have to hurry down the mountain so as not to miss our bus to Geneva.

We bought the passes and then set out that Friday morning to meet our guide and group at the Aiguille du Midi lift. Our group consisted of 4 Scottish guys, 2 men and their father and another guy; a German fellow with a impeccable English; and my Dad and I. On the telephrique up to the top of the Mountain, I peered around and noticed that in the car of about 50 people, I was 1 of 3 woman. Weird. But the best part of our group, besides Colin the cute Scottish guy, was the guide, Michelle, a 70 year-old Frenchman who was absolutely hilarious. Besides the fact that he embodied all the principles of a Frenchmen on a pair of skis, he knew everyone in the entire valley, told the lamest jokes ever, and the roared in laughter at them. Michelle brought us to the top of the mountain, where my Dad struggled with dizziness die to the high altitude. He gave us all equipment to carry, belt with harnesses on them, which he explained were for so getting us out of crevices of we fell in them, and also beepers for avalanche safety and search and rescue.

"Now listen here," Michelle began, "if you fall in a small crevice, no harm done, I just get you out and everything is good. But do not and I repeat do not fall in one of those 10 meter crevices." Someone said, "Yeah because we are dead at that point."

Michelle looked at us all seriously and said, "No that is not the reason, it just makes a lot of paperwork for me." Then he burst into laughter, the only one to find himself truly funny. After some time of waiting for the other groups to head down the mountain, we all tied ourselves in a line and began the Vallee Blanche descend. We emerged from the Aiguille du Midi station through a tunnel and suddenly you see why you are roped. You have to climb down a ridge, skis and poles in one hand, hanging on to a guide rope with the other, for about 100 metres, with sheer drops on either side. Fall off to the left and you head down 1,500 metres to the valley floor. Fall to the right and it is only 200 metres – still enough to kill you. My Dad went first, followed by myself, and then the rest of the group. The very beginning was also the greatest challenge of the day for me. Even though it had changed drastically from the time my Dad first ventured down the valley, whereby he had to edge on his butt down an ice bridge, a long and deadly drop above the Earth. Our group was able to slowly trudge down the side of the hill (see the picture.) Unfortunately the path was very icey and one had to hold the skis while also holding a rope to say upright. While my Dad sped down the hill, the guy behind me was taking his time, so I often found myself being yanked in different direction fro, the rope tied around my waist. Even though we trudged down the mountain slowly and carefully, it was scary and challenging and painful, and for the first time all week I really lost confidence in my ability. I had not even put on skis yet and I already found the run to be difficult. I wondered what was to come.

When we made it to the bottom of the first hill, Michelle instructed us to put on our skis, and follow him. First, we had to talk with about 50 other of his friends on top of the mountain, but then we were all off. The first hill was tough, since every skiier who passes through the Valley must go over it, but after that, it became simple and even enjoyable. Our group had signed up to take the originla and most simple route down the mountain. The "vraie" is less steep, this route is the easiest to ski, taking one into the heart of the Mont Blanc massif. Mountains like the Grand Capucin, the Tour Ronde, the Dent du Géant surround the calming valley. We followed Michelle closely as he led us through the legendary Vallee Blanche on the traditional descend. Since the next section was fairly simple, I took the time to enjoy the breathtaking scenery. Even though this valley is far from untouched by human hands, having thousands of daring skiiers pass through here everyday, it is so close to unspoiled that it was hard to imagine the huge amount of people passing through the valley on the day. Jagged rocks topped the surrounding peaks, as my Dad and I realized we had picked the perfect day weather wise to explore this valley. The sun shone warmly upon the brilliant white valley, often melting the snow and ice and causing it to tumble down with a nerve-wrecking crash. I was able to witness quite a few mini avalanches that day with the weather being as beautiful as it was.


Further down you have to cross a number of crevasses, and there are points where you are vulnerable to an avalanche. It is fairly obvious where that might be, yet we saw people stopping to take photos exactly where an avalanche would sweep them away. We were told: the next five minutes are dangerous; we cannot out-run an avalanche, so we have to keep moving. We kept moving.

But as the clock neared lunch time, Michelle gestured for the group to follow him along an incredibly and rock filled path to a tiny little shack for lunch. I let everyone go in front of me, so as not to hold up the men from eating. From the distance I watched the men complete the path and reach the shack with no problems, but it was my turn I had a hard time imagining why everything looked so easily. Firstly the highly groomed and skiied over path had a variety of visible rocks. I had to pull off my ski goggles so that I was able to see everything. It took all of my ability to avoid the rocks, but I think it might have been something else. The path was barely a foot and half wide in length, and to the left was the steep slope of the mountain going upward covered in 6 feet of snow at least. Yet to the right was a massif 40 degree drop. If I slipped and ended up going down this side of the mountain, I can not assure you I would have survived. 100 feet below was a huge glacier, and there was virtually no place to fall that would catch me. Of course, none of this really occured to me until I was in the hotel in Geneva that night listening to my Dad say, "How stupid was that? You could have died!" Since I had been the last skiier of the group to make the trek, my Dad had to wait at the shack in panic after he had just barely made the cut. Of course he had a broken hand so things were a bit more difficult.


At lunch, our Model United Nations enjoyed a quick lunch of sandwiches and drinks, discussing the amazement of the French, the luck at the weather, the incredible scenery, and of course our hilarious guide. While we ate filling lunches of sandwiches and water bottles, we noted that Michelle ate Tartiflette on a plate that was the size of his enormous backpack, supplimented by Rhone-Alpes grown wine. He also was sitting witha group of his friends and laughing at his own jokes. After an hour had passed since we all finished our lunch, we began trying to get Michelles attention, though with no such luck. Eventually he stopped eating and we began our descent again.
By then the skiing was pretty straightforward. We hit one major mogel field, but for the most part it was all good. We crossed the Mer de Glace, one of Europe's longest glaciers, which is a gentle slope with just enough drop to keep one moving. There is a scruffy part at the end where you descend to the glacier's base, but it's not difficult. In fact, laughing at the top of his lungs, Michelle led the group straight into a dried river bed, and into a crushed glacier. But at one of the easiest parts of the run, I had an accident. Over a flat area where one had to keep the skis close as not to stray off the path, my ski got caught on a rock and I went flying. Even though one of the Scots had the same problem, it was I that had managed to fall into a crevice. It was only a 6 foot crevice, but Michelle worked tediously to get we out as quickly as he could. It was a good thing he did not tell me about the danger of the crevice until afterwards because I think I would have panicked.
The only physically tough thing about the whole run besides the first part is that you have to climb the equivalent of several storys to reach the top of cliff if you are able to ski down the whole mountain, which is a long pull at the end of a strenuous ski-run. This pqrt was easy for me, a Cross Country runner, but it almost killed my Dad. Even Michelle had to pick up my Dad's slack and take his ski while the rest of us carried our own skis. My Dad, panting and sweating and moaning, wondered, "Why did they not build it so that it went from the glacier itself?"
Well, they did.
Old prints show it ran past the cliff, higher still. But global warming has receded the glacier by several hundred metres. So a wonderful day ends with an uncomfortable reminder of the changes taking place on our planet. At the end of the climb, my Dad announced to the group, "Back in '84, I swore I would never do it again. Well this time I really will not ever do it again!" He was not lying when he swore that the mountain did get higher, and it pains me to think that I may never get to do this again. I find that curiously fitting. We can marvel at the glory of the Alps and know that we are privileged to share and enjoy them. But if the Vallée Blanche also reminds us of the fragility of nature, then that is not a bad thing too.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

"These French Are Just Too Much"

Well, my Dad survived. Luckily.

He had quite a cut up face from his lovely face plant, as well as a broken hand, which he ignored for the rest of our trip. When I knew that he was okay, after he went into a rant about how everyone kept telling him to go to the doctor for his injuries, I joked that his accident was France's revenge on the Garner family. After all, Shannon did throw up in a Super Market and then pulled a Hit_in_Run. His confidence had been shattered, however, and he took breaks whenever he felt it was necessary to. I skiied alone often, which was a breath of fresh air at first, but soon turned sour. In 9 years of skiing, my Dad, aunts, uncles, and cousins would ski down the mountain and take a variety of breaks so that the last person, which was undoubtedly always me, could catch up. I used to get embarrassed because I was always last, and I read the situation to be that of annoyance. My family must have been annoyed at always having to stop and wait for the last runt of the bunch. My embarrassment grew into annoyance, and I constantly yelled at the group to stop waiting for me, though they always fought back saying that it was the right thing to do. Now I can see that this excuse in BS, for a lack of a better word, they liked to wait because it gave the, a chance to catch up, and I liked someone waiting for me because it meant someone cared enough. When I skiied alone, it was different, I thought it would be better but it was not.
While I skiied away, taking advantage of the decent weather that came in the following days, my Dad was able to observe some of the finer points of French living. He watched them eat, smoke, eat, complain, eat, drink, eat, and I think I forgot to mention eat. "These French," he began to say as I approached the snow-covered table at the lodge, in which he sat, "are just too much." It is true that my Dad embodies the concept of Proud to Be An American, but he has become pretty liberal with a daughter who does not spend much time in the United States. He began telling me what an absurdedy it was to watch a French family. He could tell that they had been waiting anxiously for Lunch time since they awoke that very morning. After a long morning of skiing, this particular faily sat down, cracked open a bottle of wine, and began devouring a suspicious looking dish, which was enormous and heavy. "Drinking at 12 in the afternoon!" he exclaimed shocked by all accounts. And as soon as he began raving about the dish, which I told him was called Tartiflette, I could not help but chuckle at his findings. "Tarti- whatever it is- look at it! Heavy cream, cheese and potatoes, but look at the size, I could not eat that in a week!" One English-speaking Frenchman told my Dad that Tartiflette was nourishment for the kids, and my Dad went into a rant about how eating too much would make you not want to continue skiing.

These feelings of amazement at the attitude of the French have not changed since the first time my Dad ventured to Chamonix. Back then, apparently, he punched out a Frenchmen when the fellow took a swing at him for not letting his wife rudely cit him in the ski line. I once told my host parents that my Dad used to make fun of the French for their actions during the Vallee Blanche full day ski experience. While the Americans and British in the guided tour took our sandwiches and water bottles to eat quickly and get back on trail, the French skiiers took from their backpacks, various bottles of wine, cheese, and essentially a three-course meal. My host parents looked at me confused and asked, "well what is wrong with that?" I thought about it for a moment, and since I had been living in France for 5 months at this point, I said, "well I do not know anymore, but I used to think it was funny." But being with my Dad, an American by all accounts, especially unused to the way things are done, has brought the fun back for me. I do not think it is funny that the French insist on bringing wine and cheese to picnic a top an active ski glacier, but I do think it is funny that my American Dad is baffled and pointing out how weird it all is.
Another thing that completely shocked my father was the French concept of waiting in line. You see, there is no French concept of waiting line. It is every man for himself and it is a dog eat dog world. Even though my Dad took quite a few spills of the slopes, ran over sharp glass and jagged rocks on the Vallee Blanche; he reckons his skis are damaged severly because of how often the French ran over his skis on the line. He had a hard time racing to the lift so that a French kid who had been standing far behind hi, would not beat him to it.

I did not feel bad leaving my Dad in the lodge all alone, because half of England had ventured to Chamonix this week, and my Dad was excited to talk to anyone who would listen to his struggles wth understanding the French. And most of the Britas seemed to be in the same boat or even more flabberghasted by the French. He met a lot of lovely Brits, Scots, and a few Aussies, but barely any Americans. I reminded him how strong the Euro was compared to the Dollar, but I am certain he will figure that out when the bill comes. While he chatted up with Brits and also discovered something very French that he could not find anything to complain about. Expresso.


But as Dad skiied with me for a little bit and then went to the lodge, I found I had no one to stop and wait for me. Instead, I just went up and down the lift, until finally I stopped. No one was there to wait for me, and though my Cross Country Runner legs did not need a rest, I found it necessary. There I was, not entirely on top of the world, but damn close. The Chamonix valley visible below in the distance, but too small to make out the hotel or any other of the landmarks I had come to know. Occasionally, when I stopped, there would be a cloud perched upon the top of the mountain making things hard to see, or perhaps a cloud upon one of the other mountains in the distance. Neverthe less, being this high up, with ability to grasp a cloud, is an intriguing concept. Just after the first day's welcoming snow fall, the trees around the valley had been covered in powder and all around the valley was the simple, innocent, white cotton of snow, with just a hint of green. Standing a top Argentiere and I could peer out to see Brevent and Flever, while a top Brevent, I could point out the slopes of Argientiere, Mont Blanc, and even Le Tour in the far distance. Along time ago when my Dad would describe Chamonix, he had said it was the closest thing to heaven that Earth allowed to get. He was right.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Ski Trip Avec Mon Pere

I have been skiing for 9 long years.
I wish there was a way to emphasize the word long. That way readers would see that I am completely serious about the length of time that has passed since I plopped on those Dynastar skis at Big Squaw Mountain in Maine for the first time ever. It was cold, as it usually is in the winter time, which if you have read this blog before you will know my feelings on the cold. It was then that I had commenced with the very sport that was going to spend 9 years being a gift and a curse in my life.

Now do not in the slightest get me wrong; I love skiing. I can not help but chuckle while zooming down a hill at full speed. And I just love the feeling of bundling up nice and tight in layers of ski attire and conquering the cold frigid air as it tries to seep into one's bones. I love riding the lifts and hearing people tell their life stories in 3 minutes, and tempting fate by choosing a black diamond path that I know will be too hard for my ability, or sneaking into the glades against my father's wishes to seek out a new path in the woods, or racing and losing to my Dad as we rumble down the ski slope.

The curse part of skiing? Simply put, the part about skiing I dislike, besides the cold, is that I have sucked at from the time I started; And for 9 long years I have sucked at skiing, though I never once contemplated quitting, because I knew one day I would be a good skiier. I had to be. After all those years of being terrible, I deserved to be a pretty darn good skiier eventually. I hoped.

For those years of skiing, my Dad always talked about the greatest ski trip he had ever gone on, to a faraway mountain resort called Chamonix. Great skiing surrounded by a charming excellent little town. And when he found out that I would be spending my second exchange in France, I could tell that the first thing thqt cqme to his mind was the breathtaking valley of Chamonix and the trip he had taken there all those years ago. I do not when he decided that we together would ski Chamonix during my exchange, but I do know that he never regretted his decision to plan the trip. Chamonix had been that magical to him.And as I was to learn, the apple does not far fro, the tree, just as the Chamonix valley was to become magical for me.

On February 21st, the very first day of my winter vacation, I trekked from Dijon to Lyon and then onto Chamonix to meet up with my father. However, on the train ride to Chamonix, someone forgot to tell me that I had to transfer trains and I ended up on the other side of the Rhone-Alpes. Luckily, my Dad was not too worried when I finally arrived in Chamonix 4 hours after I told him I would. He was a bit too busy sleeping off his laxk of sleep from the plane from Newark to Geneva. But as soon I burst through the doors of our tiny hotel room at the Pointe Isabelle Hotel in Chamonix-Mont Blanc, my Dad, who I had not seen in just under 6 months burst to life. He could not stop talking about Chamonix. Waiting for me, he had had some time to wander around and he noted that little had changed since his grand trip, it was still the charming town with awe inspiring views of the mountains.

Finding ourselves crammed in the tiny hotel room, we decided to do some exploring and head out for dinner. First we stopped at a bar, and for the first time, my Dad drank with his 18 year-old daughter. He kept remarking how it weird it was to be sitting at a bar and drinking with the same kid, who's diapers he changed, but he was later going to regret that on the ski slopes. After all, I was the one who was going to remark how weird it was to be beasting my Dad, a skiing pro by all accounts, while after all these years of his intimidation, it was now my turn.
At dinner, I chowed down of a Duck Salad ( I will let the reader do some imagining on this one...) while my Dad had his usual Steak and Potatoes. We sat around discussing my year, mostly me pointing out how recently things have gotten really murky, though he tried to cheer me up. After dinner, we stopped at a super market and I insisted that my Dad try some fine delicious Bourgogne wine, zhich I hand picked out. As usual, I was right about my wine, and my Dad continued to stammer how weird things were.

On our first night in Chamonix, I slept horribly. I was still trying to overcome Broncitus, and my Dad's snoring was loud to say the least. Both of us nearly slept till 9, and when I awoke, my Dad urged me to peer outside and see the landscape. Opening the window curtains swiftly and became apparent that I would not be seeing the landscape. The buckets of snow falling heavy onto the Earth would prevent that. My Dad was overjoyed, and after a quick breakfast at the hotel, he and I were off to La Flever, a smaller mountain recommended by the hotel reception for our first day of skiing, which we both wanted to just be something of a warm up.

Unfortunately for us, the snow fell too quickly and it was a virtual white out. I first run of the day left my calves throbbing, since I had to slid down the mountain slowly in order to see where I was going. We continued to ski for an hour or two, until my Dad gave up and left me to do a few runs by myself. I did not mind the white out, so long as I was on a nice easy skiiable trail. At around 3, we took the bus back to Chamonix, went for coffee, and then took showers. After we had dried off, we went for another stroll through the town and did some shopping. Then it was time for Dinner. Again, I ordered the wine, and again it was perfect. My Dad, still choking at the idea of his daughter ordering delicious wine, had yet again steak and potatoes. We agreed that tomorrow we would head up to Argentiere, a harder mountain on the other side of the valley.

We began to regret that decision at around 2:30PM on top of Mt. Argentiere the following day. Even though the morning had been wonderful weather, the afternoon brought with it a cloud that seemed determined to sit a top the mountain. Vision was hard to come by, and the gray color of Europe was all around. Perhaps because I have been here for 6 months and almost used to the ugliness, I was okay but my Dad constantly complained about not being able to see and how terrible the cloud made weather conditions. I brushed him off and sort of forced him to continue skiing even though he made it plain that he would prefer to sit it out. In truth though, I suppose I was being selfish. I had never in my life skiied better than my Dad, and yet on this day, I had so much confidence in myself that I think I could have skiied better than an Olympic Medalist skiier. I do not know what it was, but I think perhaps, it had finally occured. 9 long years invested into skiing had finally paid off into what I was skiing right now in far away Chamonix France.

He got ahead of me at the bottom of the hill, and I lost visual of him. When I spotted him again, he was face down in the snow, which I could see had turned red in spots from blood. My Dad's blood. And he was not moving...









Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Reaffirmation That Goodbye is not Forever

Throughout my life there have been moments of pure insanity, whereby I am sitting perfectly normal in my American mindset, thinking about something, and then suddenly... WHOA... something happens that completely rattles my mind.

In the winter of 2006, just after I found out about my acceptance into the Rotary Youth Exchange program and my placement in Japan, I called up a fellow exchange student residing in the next town over, Montclair. Mind you, at this time, I was younger and not quite as experie ced as being around foreign people. Exchange student, Yurie Hirosue, my close friend from Japan, had been my biggest supposter although I later found out that she thought I was too young to survive a year in Japan. As I was hanging around with Yurie, studying a little Japanese and enjoying myself, two other exchange stdents stopped by the house and invited us for some Starbucks coffee, an American pastime. There was Ale Fiejoo from Argentina, who had lived at our house for 5 months, and Judith Huget from Germany, who had been to my house many times and befriended my family (mostly through insults.)

As we walked through the streets of Upper Montclair, we all pointed out the frost and chill in the air. But winter was coming to a close, and the three were baffled at how quickly their year abroad was moving. They had each reached the halfway point and were somewhat shocked at the idea. When we arrived at Starbucks, we all went to the counter and ordered our coffees and desserts respectively, and then sat down at a small table in the store. Drinking and chatting, I found myself looking around at all the faces and feeling amazed. There was me, Julie, born and raised in a Conservative New Jersey family, proud to be born Americans. Judith Huget, hailing from Bielefeld, Deutschland, and probably the most patriotic of the group. Ale Fiejoo from Santiago del Esteo, Argentina, quiet but determined. Yurie Hirosue, from Kochi, Japan, who was having the hardest time of the group. We were all friends, maybe not the best of friends or a group that would be very close of we all had not shared the common ground of the Rotary Youth Exchange program. Yet there we were sitting in a Starbucks cafe, enjoying the company. 4 continents, 4 different countries, and 4 friends. Thats was amazed me for the first, though certainly not the last time, about being an exchange student.

Of course, somewhere along the line, I realized that that special circumstance would never again maybe. I would never share a Vanilla Creme with a Japanese girl while laughing at the sarcasm of a German. Maybe I would sit down for lunch with some Japanese girls during my exchange, but never would it be Judi, Ale, and Yurie in a Montclair Starbucks on a wonter day. And I would never feel that magical amazement of a 15 year-old sheltered American kid surrounded by a bunch of fun foreign students. And when August rolled in, I realized I might never even see Yurie, Judi, and Ale together, or even alone.

I have left America for a year. Twice. I left Japan for an unknown length of time. And on each occasion, I left people behind. People I love, and people who love me. But in terms of leaving, those that have come into my life in this past year, and my entire life, for that matter, I never really think it is the end. Because even though we may never see each other under the same circumstances, our legacies and memories will live on. A piece of my heart will always been in Kochi, Japan, where I have made more friends and family than ever before. Yes, there are people that I say goodbye too, knowing full well that it truly is goodbye for ever. Though, I accept this fact, it also would be a lie to deny that it isn't scary.

I am not going going to look at my life in terms of years. Yes, I'm 18 years-old, and far older than my age. I will always acknowledge this. But I am also going to use another system. I'm going to measure my life in terms of friends, family, the people I touch, and all the places I go. Life takes us in a million directions, and you can to look at it life a nuisance, or an adventure. For me, it is an adventure. And on that adventure, I am taking everything in, learning and growing, and then taking it with me when I go. And that is why some goodbyes are not as hard as others, though they should, perhaps, be harder. Besides occasionally knowing that I will see the people again, those that I will not cross paths with will still live on. Life will go on, but I don't think I will forget anybody, and I don't think anybody will ever forget me.

Here is my reaffirmation that saying goodbye is not forever. Because even though I waved goodbye to those lovely girls at the end of their years in 2006, we all agreed to keep in touch. And while I was on exchange in Japan, I spend many days with Yurie Hirosue and her family, exploring Japan, speaking Japanese, and keeping alive the bond of our friendship. Of course I still keep in touch with Yurie since I have come home, just like I kept in touch with Judii and Ale.
It has not always been easy with language barriers, time zones, hectic schedules, graduations, and life in our home countries. But we have managed to keep in touch.

It has been over 2 years since I last saw Judith Huget back in America, when she came to Verona to hang out with Ale and I. I thought I would see her again before she left America so I never said goodbye with a hug and a promise that we would meet again. But that did not matter too much. Because I am now in Germany staying at her house with her family. Life goes on, and when I see the people I have once said goodbye to again, it is a reaffirmation that the life I have chosen is an excellent one. Having friends from around the world is wonderful.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Keep On Smiling

Edit: This was written on Friday, February 20th, just before the start of my fabulous break. I was sick and upset, but still trying to be optomistic.

I tell everyone that my life motto is "Wherever you go, go with all your heart!" But in reality, it tends to change with the weather. Last week, my motto was, "life is not all cupcakes and smiles," and the week before, it was something like, "practice makes perfect (so keep practicing French!) 'Wherever you go' This is definitely the underlying life motto, but today, I have decided on a new motto. One to live by for a few more days hopefully, and one to remind me to stay strong and stick it through.

"Keep Smiling..."

I have, yet again, fallen ill in France. I have the same fever with a touch of broncitus and basically I just feel like crap. There is no better way to put it in the simplest terms than that.

On Tuesday night I awoke in the middle of the night with sweat pouring out of my body and the inability to feel warm. I went to school the next day, where I was chastised by one of the teachers for not signing up for the end of year Bac exam, in which all the students have to take. Actually let me rephrase that, all the French students have to take. This is because they have to pass the exam in order to graduate French high school and move on to University. Since I am not going to University in France, I did not think I had to take the test. In addition, the test is not Math, an international language of numbers, but instead it is French classical literature and philosophy... haha.

On a lighter note, things are much better with my host family. All is forgiven, and they do not appear upset in the slightest with the blog anymore. However, on Monday, after two hours of school and a long time of just sitting around and doing practically nothing, I approached Leonie with a piece of trouble I had on my mind. Drawing on an experience of an exchange student I knew from the past that had spent a year in America, I asked Leonie, a former exchange student herself, if she thought I should go home. I know, I know, some of you may be thinking "What? I thought things were better?" Let me explain.

Every little problem, emotion, or bad experience just semed to pile up at once. I did not cry, but I presented my dilemma thoughtfully and with an open mind. First, my French language is terrible. Sure there has been some progress, but on the whole, not enough to feel completely comfortable. Even Leonie agreed, and mentioned that she thought I had given up on learning French at one point, with how much English I was speaking. I know that is a problem, but I am just tired of being laughed at by class mates and others when I even attempt French. I like to think of myself as a strong person, but after a while I really am not so strong enough to resist mean comments as such. Second, I fell unaccomplished. I do not speak French very well, and I have not done anything really great that would make me want to stay. I told her that even though she had forgiven me for the blog, the entire past week I felt like I was walking on egg shells in her house. The one thing that I felt totally confident and happy about was my host family, and I had spent the last week feeling like my host family was done with me. And plus, with how little school I have, I mostly just sit around the house and do nothing. Nobody from school ever invites me out anywhere, and really, I have no friends. This would not be a problem, because I do have Andrew and Alex, but those two have bucket loads of friends, speak great French, and just seem to love everything about France. They tend to get annoyed with me when I point out even the occasional bad point about this country. And I do point out the things I do not like about France. Like bisous, and the immense liberla attitude towards amny things. Thirdly, I just could not figure out why I was even here. I have incredible high points and deep dark low points, which make this roller coaster of a year rather tiring. I believe I even used the term emotional train wreck when I was making this point to Leonie.

She listened really well, nodding and even taking things in. And when I was finished she made a few statements to consider. First, she began to understand exactly why I so easily threatened to go home. Apparently she had a hard time understanding why I was so willing to throw in my hat after the blog incident and pack home and go home. But now, she understood exactly. Even though she agreed that my French was not so good, and that I had not made many friends, she asked me if going home was really a good idea. After Charlotte had first come home, she had felt a little regretful that she was unable to complete her year in a foreign country. Would this happen with me? But al in all, she told me, this conversation was the first time that she had really begun to understand my trouble in France. She thought I was overreacting before, I suppose, but this time, she understood. Before she walked away, she told me to really think about my decision, and not let anybody affect it, the school, her, Rotary, or my parents.

Then on Friday, I received word from my Dad that I had been waitlisted from my top school, Clemson. Sure waitlisting is better thanbeing denied, but I did not get in either: It all sort of added up and fast: the illness, the wanting to go home for feeling like a failure, and then the denial. What was I doing? I sort of fwelt like I had no control over my life anymore, the little voice inside my head, usually optomistic, had stopped giving me words of encouragement. I felt really alone and upset.

I do not not know when it occured to me how silly I was being. Maybe I was asleep, burning up from a bad fever, or coughing hard enough to rattle my brain. Sure, things are going really tough here, but I have to stay. Maybe school is difficult, maybe my French rather poor and disappointing, but looking at this year and I have learned more and done more than I could have possibly imagined. I have traveled EVERYWHERE, and I am not even halfway through the traveling part. I have been to London, Paris, St. Tropez, Versailles, and next week I am off to Chamonix and then Germany! And in March and April, I am going to Toulouse, Marseilles, Fountainbleu and then Eurotour! Plus in the scheme of things, how could I leave my host family? Yeah, I am sure they would enjoy having their house back, but then it is unmistakeable their reaction when I told them I was going to stay. When at dinner on Friday the 20th, just before I set off on my ski trip with Dad and then Germany, Jean-Francois, in English, asked me if I was going to stay the year or if this would be one of the last times he would see me. I jokingly apoligized and said he was stuck with me for a while, actually until July 2nd. Jean-Francois actually cheered and I felt that he and the rest of my host family were generally happy and relieved that I was staying. It was not a fake cheer either, it was genuine. And that definitely made things better.