Monday, April 27, 2009

Sur le Pont d'Avignon

The non-party crew finding other ways to have fun.
The Bridge of Avignon, popularized in songs.
Things have gotten a little bit tough on Eurotour 2009. The bus is split into two camps, those that drink like fish, get sick, and ruin it for everyone, and those of us who that do not. I think anyone who knows me knows me, knows what camp I fall into already.

Although, after Venice, I was part of the group that was caught with alcohol in our room. Of course, in the words of one of the Rotarian chaperones, “Those stupid students with Vodka, that get caught, have no excuse. They are drinking to get caught. Julia, Julie, Page, and Christina getting caught with wine. Well, that is class, very well-adjusted to France, I have to say.” (Mind you, this is not a justification for getting caught with alcohol in our room, just a funny French anecdote.)

But the Rotarians have been covering for all the kids. If the bus driver found out, he would send us all
home. As punishment, the driver has obliged the Rotarians to enforce some incredibly stupid restrictions on our group. As in the night before Avignon, we were assigned our rooms, given a curfew, and patrolled throughout the night. Everyone was so upset and angry, and so the night was full of complaints. “This trip sucks! We never get to do anything! It is too much! I do not like anything we have done! It is such a waste of money! Why are we even going to Avignon, it is so boring and not worth it?”

The city of Avignon sort of became a scapegoat for everyone’s problems. No one had any interest in the walled city and the Palace of the Popes, which we were scheduled to visit and explore. Everyone was angry for the restrictions, the long time we are spending in France, the disappointing Italy experience, the lack of time we had in Germany, and Austria. I suppose I sort of fell into this pattern, as well. Which is why I am pleased to tell you, that after spending the morning in Avignon, I love the city and have had an excellent afternoon exploring and discovering.

The morning the Rotary group had a guided tour of the Palace of the Popes, used in 1300’s and 1400’s, which built up the city into the walled masterpiece it is to. During that time, two families spilt Catholicism into Rome and Avignon, with two rival popes and kingdoms. The masterpiece of Avignon remains today, a walled city full of spectacular ancient wealth and history.

The Palace was incredible, and I found that the best way to enjoy was to ignore the ignorance of my group members, showing little or no respect for the religious masterpiece. Even though I myself am not interested in Catholicism, being in the Palace has given me a whole new outlook and experience to add to my beliefs on the church.

After the tour Victoira, Julia, Ploy, Chin Ting, and I set off for our 3 hours of free time in the city.
Back in gorgeous France.
Even though we were told to stay within the walled city, we decided to bend the rules just this once and take the free boat service on the Rhone River, which would give us excellent view of the city and Pont d'Avignon. The boat took us over the River and into a small island in the middle of the river. We were all excited for the opportunity to be able to cross the mighty Rhone River, and our captain was so kind, giving us advice on how to get back with the best views of the city. We followed her advice and walked long the river boat, the boat whipping our hair, but the warm sun making everything all right. We laughed, skipped, sang, and danced as we got excellent pictures of Avignon. When we crossed the bridge, we headed back into the city and made our way for the touristy section.

The bridge is amazingly beautiful in its rural decay condition.
We met up with the Rotarians, who gave us some Olive Oil to taste. Yuck. Then we all bought a big cone of Nutella Soft Ice Cream, which we devoured delightfully. With some time, we did a little tourist shopping, buying some music boxes and pins. We were all having too good of a time to reflect about what the rest of the group was doing. That was until two others came by and told us that the group was in a bar getting rip-roaring drunk in retaliation for the restrictions set upon them.

Is that really all Roary exchange students in Europe ever do?

Throughout the trip, we have been to Germany, Austria, Italy, Monaco, and the only thing that Julia really wanted to see was the Pont d'Avignon, an ancient bridge that has a famous French song written about it, that she knew from her French songs. Staying true to everyone’s wishes we decided to do the bridge with just 15 minutes left. A top the bridge, Julia dance ‘Sur le Pont d’Avignon’ as the song calls for, and in her eyes I saw all her dreams come true.

We have been to Venice, Milan, Munich, Paris, but sometimes the secret to a little piece of happiness
I look like trouble. But I think I was just scheming about
how to acquire more ice cream.
lies in the memory of a child’s song and the realization that places from songs, book, and movies really exist, even if they are not the huge tourist cities and places. Our experience in Avignon may very well have been the most relaxing and enjoyable part of the entire trip, even if the bus ride to Annecy was full of ridiculous drunk Mexicans screaming at the top of the lungs.

We did not care, though.

Saturday, April 25, 2009


Like Paris, the Italian canal city of Venice holds this mystical appeal of absolute beauty and wonder. It is the most romantic thing to sit besides one’s amour a top a gondola, and share a kiss below the many bridges of Venice. The rustic elegance of the city allures tourists from all around the world, to share in the magic. While I myself found Venice to be beautiful, and exceeding even my own wild imaginations, I will be truthful and say that I did not love the city or my experience.

Bright and early the group awoke to eat breakfast in the hotel. The bus driver is required by law to have one day of the week off on vacation, and so, we were told that we would have no bus.

Because Europe.

Instead, another driver picked us up and brought us to the docks where we took a ferry. The wind whipped our hair to our sides as we laughed and cheered, all of the 48 exchange students were psyched to experience Venice, a city, like Paris, that we had all grown up dreaming about.

When we arrived we trekked along the sea front to the Place Saint Marc, one of the famous points in all of Venice. There we were hassled by more street vendors than I can count and practically forced into buying stupid little chatchkeys. (Yeah, I realiz
Definitely American in this one.
e now, I have no idea how to spell that word.)

At one point the police saw them hassling us and even came over to yell at them, but it did not matter. When the guide came over to meet us, she explained the history of the Venice town center. The only problem is that her accent was extraordinarily thick, and there were too many tourists. It was rather hot, we were being hassled and pushed, people were screaming and slamming into to us. It was not a good situation for any of us. The only saving grace was a trip into the Basilica, which was incredibly beautiful and ornate.

Riding the gondola.
The tour continued through the narrow roadless passageways of Venice. We crossed over the ancient bridges and over the graceful gondola riders ferrying passengers through the canals. The problem was that one gondola was followed exactly by another, and the boats even hit each other on the gondola. It was really like "It's A Small World" in Disneyworld. But the difference is that when your plastic fake little flotilla hits the boat in front of you in Disneyworld, it seems a bit more natural. In Venice, it just sort of felt cheap. We all began to wonder where the mysterious romance lies in a gondola traffic jam with harking tourists.

When the tour was over we were all given a large amount of free time to travel around the city and explore on our own. Hinata, Chin Ting, Victoria, and I set off to shop in the markets, and search for a bite to eat. I brought some food with me, while the others girls ate sandwiches. My experience in Verona prepared me for the overpriced food, I knew we would have to face.

Gondola rides.
Afterwards, we found a place with delicious Italian Gelato. I enjoyed two scoops of Nutella and Specullati, and then headed into the crowded markets to do some shopping. Venice is famous for glass, and I had hoped to buy some glass gifts for my parents. However, an maybe it is my own personal space issues, I found myself extremely uncomfortable and annoyed after a few minutes. Shop owners hawked over every movement I made and hassled me to buy things, it was reallt unbearable.

French and Italian are very similar, so I was horrified to understand the shop owners refer to Victoria and I as stupid fat Americans. There were too many people on the streets to march and explore individually, and I was very happy to head back to the Pace St. Marc at 3 for our Gondola ride.

Everyone says that riding the gondola is one of those "must do’s" before you die. For 45 minutes, I rode along the narrow waterways with my new and close friends Page, Christine, Julia, Ploy, and Franklyn.

We did all the required romance things.

We kissed under the bridges (on the cheek, of course!) sang along with the gondola guy, took in all of the sights. I do not know if it was really worth all the money that we paid to do it, but I have to say that I enjoyed seeing the beautiful canals of Venice from the water view.

Friday, April 24, 2009

What I Love About the Places

No matter where you go, there you are.
I think I have come to some sort of understanding regarding my voyage in Italy. I wrote about how terrible my experience was in Verona, and I suppose I could come on here and write about my disappointment of Venice and Milan. Disappointment is the right word because I did not dislike the ancient Italian cities, but found that I did not fall in love with them. Instead, I am mature enough to say that while Italy is truly a beautiful country, it is not my style, not my place, not my people.

It's the people.
But the thing about Italy is that it has sealed the deal and taught me something very important about myself.

In 2004, I traveled to Australia, fell in love, swore I would move there and live there one day. In 2007, I lived in Japan, fell head over heals, and even pronounced myself as Japanese in my last life. In 2008, I took a trip to London, swooned over the excellent mix of history and culture, and announced that I would one day make it my home. In February 2009, I traveled to Germany, loved it so much that I convinced myself it was the country that I had meant to exchange to, and not France.

And yet...

Even though I have had a roller coaster of a year in France, there are still people in that country that I love and miss even on a short trip such as this EuroTour. That is right, as the days continue on and the Eurotour travels back into France, I find a slight twinge of anxious yearning. I can not wait to see Leonie, Jean-Francois, Antoine, Clemence, Coline, and Charlotte. And as I was thinking about this absurdity, my absurdity, I began to learn something about myself.

The same goes for both Japan and France. It's the people.
The single reason why I fall in love with a country, declare it my second home, and scheme a return as soon as I am home, is not for the beauty of the place, the history, culture. No, it is for the people.

It is for the Masaki’s, the kindest Japanese parents I have ever loved, the hip Londoners that found the one American in a group of rude Frenchie’s, it is for those fun-loving Germans at the night-club that made me feel beautiful, and it is for the Robert family, who have become another set of parents and siblings for me.

Sunset’s over the great blue ocean, ancient towering buildings, endless miles of mountains with snow-covered peaks, are truly wonderful and heart warming. But they are even better when surrounded by the people I care about, those who treat me kindly, or those I love. This is what I truly love about the places.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

In Fair Verona, or not...

Julie in Verona.... but there is no romance like
Juliet in Verona.

Sometimes I think that one of my biggest problems in my life as a traveler is that I tend to fall in love with places really easily and immediately think I could spend the rest of my life there. In October, I said that London was my favorite place in the world and I was convinced that I was going to move
Delicious, yes. Overpriced and for tourists, yes again.
and spend the rest of my life there. Then I spent a cold gray winter in France, where I was told the weather is a million times better in the winter than England. I no longer think I can spend the rest of my life in London.

In February, I traveled to and stayed for a week in Germany with an old friend. I convinced myself that I should have gone an exchange on Germany. The people were so fun, chill, and open, the language fascinated me, and I had the same ‘fitting in’ feeling that I felt in Japan. Now as I sit on the bus driving through Italy, which many people consider to be the most beautiful place in the world, I have a confession to make.

I do NOT think I can spend the rest of my life here. Seems like a strange statement to be labeled as a "confession," does it not? Well, this is me, after all. 

Verona coliseum.
In fact, and I hope I do not sound spoiled or arrogant or something in saying so, I really do not like Italy. At all. It is unfortunate, because it is a beautiful country. But after spending a few days with the fun-loving Germans and relaxed Austrians, being around the pushy, touchy, and rude Italians was not fun at all. If I want to go a country where people are rude, I can go to France, but honestly, the Italians I have encountered make the French look like Girl Scouts. Of course this is just my experience, and I hope I do not affect anyone’s opinion of Italy.

On Friday the 16th, our bus group awoke in the midst of the Austrian Alps. The mist shrouded the mountains and blanketed the valleys as we drove along a deserted highway into Italy. When we drove into Italy, the only thing to welcome us and inform us of our country crossing was our cell phone, which received a "Welcome to Italy" text message standard at all border crossings. Otherwise, it was impossible to tell that Austria had ceased and Italy began because the mountains continued around us, although they were covered with snow. While others seemed disappointed that Italy and
My friends are cool.
Austria did not seem that different, I alerted the bus that the part of Italy we were driving through was Austria’s until after the Treaty of Versailles ending World War I.

Our first stop of the day was Verona, Italy, the city in which my hometown in New Jersey is named after. The sun was shining brightly and the sky was brilliant blue shining down on the ancient city of Verona. We were given about 4 hours of free time, and my walking group decided to eat Italian pizza, a classic and must while in Italy. We found a nice restaurant that claimed to have some part in Romeo and Juliet’s whirlwind romance, even though I know Shakespeare wrote the play after a poem, and no one is really sure if it really existed or was just a sort "Hatfield-McCoy" myth. Already, I began to become suspicious of the tourist trap.

The famous (infamous) balcony of Juliet Capulet.
At the restaurant, we were charged a 6 Euro surcharge when the waiter put a bowl of bread at our table. It does not seem like much, but we are poor exchange students. We were not expecting that in the slightest, but we were not alone. Other kids were charged extra for sitting outside, for listening to orchestra’s, and for the tap water!

I understand that Italy makes most of its money from the tourist industry, but I do not like to think of myself as a tourist, and I do not want to be treated like one. And if I am treated like a tourist, I do not want be treated like a dumb one, who cannot understand the language. After all, Italian is not that different from French, in which I can speak, and Spanish, in which I can pick out a few words or ask my Mexican friends about.

After our incredibly disappointing meal, we decided to visit Juliet’s Balcony. Even though my group was fully aware that Juliet did not live at that house, we all felt it was a must-see. The cute little courtyard was filled with tourists, which was expected. But when we tried to mount the balcony, we were told it would cost us 6 Euros just for 5 minutes on the balcony! Collectively, we agreed it was not worth it, but were all a little disappointed.

With just a few minutes left, Vicki and I went into the market, where we were grabbed by a bunch of
Love notes in the wall at the Juliet-balcony house.
people trying to force us to buy things from them. Vicki, who I have confided much about my life to, joked around that maybe it was my destiny to not like anyplace called, Verona. As our free time dwindled to a close, Vicki and I headed back to the bus, dodging Italians that tried to force into buying things by hassling us.

On the bus, I felt so terrible at my first impression of Italy. I thought this was supposed to be the most romantic place in the entire world, but instead all I felt was disappointment and a pungent feeling that felt a little bit like disgust. But much to my surprise, I was not alone. A lot of the kids that were on the bus felt that we had spent the afternoon in a tourist trap. Someone said that it was perhaps because we all had high expectations of Italy that were not reached in that afternoon. But I think I know another reason. I am an exchange student, living ina country for an entire year, absorbing and living a culture that it is quickly becoming my third (second) culture.

I am not a tourist anymore.

None of us are.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

On the Bus

Just clowning around with Hinata.

The thing about this Bus Tour is that we do, in fact, spend A LOT of time on the bus. The trip is nearly half way through and we have spent more hours on a bus than we have touring the places and destinations of the trip. Sometimes we find ourselves complaining that we do not have the opportunity to get to know our destination well enough since we spent so much time crossing the great big continent of Europe. But at the same time, we are getting something else, something more interesting and enriching.

Each Other.

The worst selfie in the history of bad selfies.
Passing through German and just barely touching upon Munich, I was not so upset as some others. I know for a fact that I will be back in Germany, since I absolutely adore the country. But I know I will not be in Germany again on a Bus Tour surrounded by kids from around the world. So I am putting my heart and soul into enjoying everything, including the long moments on the bus when there is nothing to do but listen to our Ipod, type a Blog entry, and talk. And we certainly do talk!

The bus already has two cliché type things. We have the party kids, who sleep on the bus and not at night. They are usually bit too busy with hangovers to enjoy the bus time. Then there is my group, the goody group that enjoys the concept of night sleep and hanging out on the bus.

Comparing world money.
On the bus, I have thus far sat with Hinata, a Japanese girl from Tokyo. We speak with each other in three languages, discussing our respective lives and everything from Japan to France to America. She and I love talking with each other because together we bring a little piece of ourselves into our conversations.

What I have learned is that no matter what, everyone likes that little taste of home. When I talk about my exchange to Japan with Hinata, I can see her eyes light up with yearning for her homeland. When we progress from French to Japanese to English, I smile because it is my language of birth. A little piece of home.
Bus time fun.

I never say no to a taste of Peanut Butter and a conversation about 4th of July barbecues. I suppose I am lucky in those regards, since there quite a few Americans to hang out with and reminiscence about our great country, but there are not so many Japanese exchange student for Hinata for hang out with. That is why it is easy to see the utter joy in her eyes when we talk about our favorite foods in Japan: Okonomiacki, Curry Rice, Ramen, Shashimi, and Manjuu. Ir her silly little laugh when I tell her about my experiences dodging Kanchos, taking Purikura, singing Karaoke, and flubbing up in the Land of the Rising Sun. The nice thing is that because we talk about Japan so much, Vicky from California and Julia from Canada, are becoming enriched with knowledge of Japan.

Julie and Julia.
I have met another Canadian. I have to say that so far in France, I have loved every single Canadian I have encountered. Canada and America, I am learning, are like two brothers that pick on each other and pretend to hate each other at times, but would really take a bullet for one another if need be. (And since Canadians are just Americans without guns, and Americans are just Canadians with guns, that proverbial bullet would come from south of the Northern border.) Julia, another Ontarian to add to my Ontarian friends Paul and Erica from Hamilton, has yet to say "Aye" once. Though she does have kind of a funky accent when she says things like "Sorry." the Canadian accent reminds me of a Maryland accent, sometimes. I think after this year, I might meet every Canadian from Ontario in France.

Vicky, my lovely Californian friend and fellow gourmand, is a theater geek. Even though I am not
Vicki from CA
exactly into the theater, I have a little sister that adores theatrical productions, and so I know a fair amount of Broadway shows. This morning she and I did a rousing rendition of "Take Me or Leave Me" from Rent, much to the dismay of anyone with ears. (I have a horrible voice.) We then proceeded to discuss good shows and terrible, always bursting into the chorus of a show we both know pretty well.

California and New Jersey both have problems, but quietly we discussed something that had recently presented itself to us. We are not racist in the slightest, but we tend to group Mexicans with the landscapers that whistle at us when we walk by. We both knew quite a few Mexican jokes of offense and admitted that we had no Mexican friends other than the uncomfortable interactions we have had on the street. But things have changed. Alina from Veracruz, the coolest Mexican I have ever met, has disproved our theory. Together, Vicky and I have decided to work on changing our false impression on Mexicans. This is the kind of stuff you talk about and try to change when you are an exchange student.

Today, it is Channelle’s birthday. At first, I feel bad for her for having to spend her birthday on the bus and not with her host family, after all, my host family gave me a excellent 18th birthday. But then a chorus of Joyeaux Anniversaire burst out, followed by Feliz Compleanos, Happy Birthday, and the other songs from 7 other nationalities. I think that would be a great birthday present to be sung to in all these different languages by actual people from these different land.

Friends, is probably a better word for it though.

Pins and business cards are thrown around my all the kids who still have pins and cards to give away. My pin collection has grown quite substantially and I can not wait to add all my new pins to the blazer. I had planned on losing weight on this Bus Tour, but people keep passing around Mochi from Taiwan, Haichus from Japan, Spread from Brazil, Peanut Butter from America, something curious from Thailand. We are all just a little moving United
Favorite European goodies.
Nations bus, chugging along through Austria and into Italy.

I know so very little about the world around me that it scares me.

I have so many questions, and when I get my questions answered I realize I have so many more questions to pose.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Time To Go Explore

Get out and explore.

I think no matter who you are, what you have done, how old you are, and where you have been, there are some things that still touch you deeply and you remember for the rest of your life. And I also think that no matter what you think you know, the world is full of mysterious and the only way to find them and discover that they even exist is to go, get out there, travel, interact, fall in love, see, discover, and dream

For all that I have done and seen in life, some things do not excite me as much as they probably should, while others are absolute dream come true experiences. I write about my first experience in seeing the Eiffel Tower back in October. I described it as having an "Eiffelgasm," which in retrospect is a horribly crude attempt to describe the sheer excitement I felt at seeing the structure for the first time. I can remember feeling that, for my entire life, I had seen the Eiffel Tower in movies, cartoons, dream, and books. Even though I can not pinpoint the exact moment when I felt the need to see the Eiffel Tower, I must have been a high priority on my list.

Then, suddenly, there I was.

Standing at the Trocadero point beside the Museum of the Armee and surrounded my Africans trying to hassle me into buying cheap mini Eiffel Towers. I am are peering out at the great metal lamp looming gracefully in the distance. I could not breath because I had waited your entire life to see it, to feel it, to live it. It is a dream come true and you feel a sort of high that I can not imagine any drugs can give you.

No matter where I go in life, there are the types of moments that happen that remind me just how much I love life, how much it is really worth living, and little I know of this incredible world. And as I am sitting here in a bus full of exchange students, kids like me coming from Canada, Ecuador,
Japan, Mexico, Taiwan, Thailand, the US of A, and many others, all communicating in a second or third language, and teaching each other about our home cultures, it reminds me that life is beautiful.

La vie est beau.

Right now we are driving along the Motorode through the German Alpes and on our way to Innsbruck, Switzerland. It hurts when I look out the window, scanning the luscious green Bavarian mountains, too beautiful for words. My entire life I have seen movies and shows that depict yodelers in the great hills, Julie Andrews and tall Mountains alive with the sound of music, and theme parks with Bavarian-type lands.

My experience is different. I am sitting on a bus, stopping occasionally to pee on the side of the rode and breathing the cleanest freshest Mountain area, laughing with Hinata, a Japanese girl from Tokyo,
fighting off car sickness to type a blog, thinking about the new pins I have bought to decorate my blazer, feeling slightly hungry but not worrying about it, passing business cards along from kids from Finland, Brazil, and California.

I think I could live here. I love the mountains the fresh air. My only problem is that I tend to fall in love with places easily. In October, I said I could live in London, in February I was convinced I should have gone on exchange to Germany (Cologne area, which was where I was staying) and now I have once again fallen in love with Bavaria.

I suppose marrying a Von Trapp is more glorious, but this is not their story. This is mine.

This is my story to write, my mystery to uncover, my world to explore.

We have just entered Austria, I am informed by my little cell phone, which writes me a text message every time I enter a new country.

“Wilkommen Austriche!”

Time to go explore.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Brittany and Julie's Paris Adventure

Taking the castle!

After my intensive afternoon of train catching with Leonie Robert, I sat nicely on the TGV train heading to Gare de Lyon. When I arrived, I followed Brittany’s direction to get to Fontainebleau, her host city, and the place I would be staying for the next few days. I have never actually been to Fontainebleau because the last time I had been planning to come was just after New year’s, and by that point I had reached me limit of traveling and parting and needed to go home to Fixin.

Reunions seem to define that better part of my year in France. Reunions of friends from the faraway
past, like meeting Judii in Germany, or reunions like seeing Brittany again. It has been less than a month since I have seen her in Toulouse, but it is still nonetheless bittersweet to see a good friend. I cannot stress this enough but Brittany and I are two extraordinarily different people. Brittany is exudes the "bad-to-the-bone" vibe, while as I embrace the "goody-two-shoes" troupe. She loves to participate in many things that I just could never let myself get invested in: partying, drinking, etc. Yet, she and I are ver close, telling each other almost everything and listening closely about each others exchanges, worries, and triumphs.

But I want to be perfectly truthful. I was worried about Britanny. She had moved into a host family
Tower of Terror
that was proving to be psychotic. It is not my place to pass too much judgment, because no family is perfect, not my biological family, or any of my host families scattered throughout the world. The entire weekend I was there, I could not help but notice that the host Mom hated Brittany, the host sister was a major druggie, and things in the house were not healthy for anyone. That fact that Brittany has to clean her room 4 times a day does not seem bad, but when her host mom makes rude remarks about everything, then there is a problem. The host mom was less than pleased to have me in their home. Another dirty American was all that I represented in her eyes. In addition, there was some curious incidents regarding the host father’s job and a few life threats. It was just a weird situation for all parties involved.

Still our first night was spent catching up, raiding the family Nutella jar out of spite, and planning our upcoming weekend together. I listened as Brittany fretted about college, her upcoming exchange to Taiwan, and her life in general. I offered some advice, mostly concerning her nutty current host family. That night we both slept as well as we could, given the situation.

The next morning, along with a Colombian exchange student in Fontainebleau, she and I parted
bright and early for Disneyland Paris. The three of us were ridiculous little kids on the train to the park, freaking out and screaming with excitement. When we arrived in front of Mickey’s Palace, we shouted with excitement as we paid for our tickets and headed into the park. I may be 18 years-old, but I am and always will be a Disney kid. We visited Sleeping Beauty’s Castle and then headed onto the Buzz Lightyear ride. After that, we got Fast Passes for Space Mountain and then rode Pirates of the Caribbean. Then we did Big Thunder Mountain and Indiana Jone's Coaster. After we headed to the other Disney Park for Tower of Terror, Rock n Roller coaster, and Crush’s Coaster. Then Brittany and I fulfilled our exchange student obligation and rode "It’s A Small World" after all, Star Tours, and finally, another ride on Space Mountain.

This is my first time in Disneyland Paris, but I have been to Disney World 4 times, and Tokyo Disneyland once. I was actually really impressed with the Paris park. Sure, nothing holds a candle to Disneyworld Florida. But still the park was clean and well-organized. There are two parks, Disneyland and Disney Studios. Studios is about the size of a tiny park, while Disneyland is huge, Studios is full of Roller Coasters and fun stuff, while Disneyland is more focused on families and family fun. We bought the tickets that got us unto both, so we first went to Disneyland.
All in all, there really are not a lot of differences in all the Disney’s I have been too. Though, it is so weird to hear a Disney character speak to you in a different language. I thought it was weird to hear Pooh speak Japanese, but then you have Goofy speaking French and everything goes out the window. I am a little older and wiser since the last time I rode It’s A Small World, so I was sort of a show off on the boat with my ability to point out each country and culture. Brittany did not seem to mind in the slightest, although I think she was mad when there was no Taiwan representation. In addition, the park was completely bilingual. When something was written in France, the English was right below it, and often the movies and props spoke only English.
We spent a wonderful day in the park and we were all grateful for the opportunity. But by the end of the day, tired does not even begin to describe how we all felt. Back in Fontainebleau we went to an expensive Chinese Buffet where we all feasted having not eaten much during the day. After our meal, it was time to head back to our homes, so we said goodbye to the Colombian and went back home and slept better than I have slept in a long time.

The next morning, with nothing on our agenda, I went on Facebook and informed Brittany that Franck was in Paris. Franck and Brittany had a little fling back in New Jersey just before we all went to France. He was the exchange student in New Jersey from Nantes and he was visiting Susanne, the exchange student from Paris that also lived in New Jersey last year. Within minutes it was arranged that we would all meet up in Paris for a reunion. Taking the train, Brittany and I met up with the two French kids in front of the Lourve and then boarded a double decker Tourist bus. It was very odd for us to do something so touristy, but none of us had ever seen Paris so blue. I have been to Paris quite a few times, but never under these cloudless blue conditions, perfect temperature, and all around lovely day. We all caught up on our lives in France, and we were all shocked at why we had never met up before this point.

After the bus tour, we had a quick meal at McDo’s and then headed to Sacre Coeur and the artist district. Brittany and the other two were heading to parties that evening, so we could not stay long. As for me, even though I was invited to the party, I was told it was going to be just like New Year’s. I do not think I can handle another party like that, so I was planning on pulling an all-nighter in Paris with some friends. When Brittany left, I snagged her pass that got me free rides on all the subways and I did a night tour of Paris. Then at 2, I went and saw a night time movie on the Champs-Elysees. At 5 in the morning, I took the train back to Fontainebleau but fell asleep and missed my stop. I ended up close to Dijon when I woke up, which Brittany found hilarious.

And for Brittany?

Since the party was hosted by another exchange student through Rotary, and he got caught, the district seems to be in a lot of trouble.

Easter with Brittany’s host family was only made possible by my lack of sleep. The family was
Easter noms.
critical of everything we did, so that fact that I drifted to sleep at the dinner table was wonderful. The only good thing that can be said about the whole experience was that her host father is a major wine connoisseur. I was able to taste a bottle of wine that cost 2,000 Euros. I almost cannot wait to brag to my host family about that! After our terrible and awkward meal, Brittany decided to take me around Fontainebleau. There is a grand Chateau, almost as elegant as Versailles but certainly not as well known. It is surrounded by a park, where teens lounge out in the sun and enjoy life. It was so beautiful and chill that it was sad we had to head back to her host family, who clearly did not want us in the house, even though they gave us a time limit. All in all, Fontainebleau is a great place, and Brittany is incredibly lucky to be living there.

That evening our lack of sleep got the better of us and we snoozed through the night, even though we were definitely excited about the coming days Eurotour…

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Ode To L R

Train stations.
Being on the Eurotour and listening to all of the my fellow Rotary exchange students talk about their experiences and host families has made me realize one thing:

I have the best host family in the entire world.

I have said this before, and I am sure I will say this again. But my host family, the Robert’s of lovely Fixin, France, are incredible. But this post is not so much about my family than my host mom, L, who is the world’s greatest host mom. Without her, my current excursion throughout Europe and my last week in Paris might not have been possible. Well, it would have been possible, but it might not have worked out the perfect way that it did.

My Spring Vacation began a week early. Alex and I had planned to miss a week of school to do our Eurotour, so we signed up for an earlier tour, coinciding with school. (Devious, much?) However, Alex dropped out of the tour for money reasons, and I was left with no one that I knew. Luckily, however, Brittany took Alex’s place. Even though Brittany and I are opposite in every way possible, we are really good friends.

The plan was that I would come up 3 days before our grand excursion around Europe to hang out with Brittany. She had just changed host families and was having a really tough time. The last family was extremely liberal, and essentially let Brittany do anything she pleased. The new family makes her vacuum 4 times a day and even I noticed they seemed to make cutting comments that get offensive after a while. I was worried about Brittany, and I wanted to make sure things were okay for her.

The day before I left, Danielle from Iowa came to Fixin and we did a wonderful tour of Fixin and Dijon with Andrew. It was so exciting and I had a great time, but on the morning that I was supposed to leave for Paris and Brittany, I received a troublesome email from Brittany. She had arrived home at 7:30PM, too late for her host family. She was grounded, forbidden to do anything, and not allowed to wear makeup for one month. I was unsure of how to think about this, so I talked to Leonie during our early morning run and she said that I probably should not go. But after I talked to Brittany, who seemed heartbroken at the fact that I would not come, I decided to continue going. But it was a situation of "proceed with caution."

My train was set to leave at 5:58PM.

Leonie had to drop Danielle off at the Dijon station, 20 minutes away from our house at 4:30PM, and then pick up her son just after that. I had planned on taking the bus just a few minutes after she left, so when she suggested I just get in the van with her and save money, I could not say no. Of course, we had to leave in 30 seconds or we would miss Danielle’s train, and I was not nearly finished packing.

“Julie! Let’s GO!”

I ended up just throwing everything I could find in a bag and hoped it would work out on the Eurotour. I never considered the fact that I might forget something, because in the entire Robert household, I am by far the most well-organized. (Read: uptight and anal-retentive.)

Saying goodbye to Danielle was sad, but I know for a fact I would see her again. She is trying to stay in France longer, and if so I will definitely go to macon to visit. If not, I guess I have to go to Iowa. After we dropped Danielle off, I decided to go with Leonie to Antoine's school to pick him up and pass the time. Plus Leonie told me she would buy my a chocolate croissant from my favorite Boulangerie, and I could not resist. The problem is that I reached into my bag for my wallet to at least try and pay her back. My hand felt around for a few minutes, until fear clinched my essence. Before saying anything I climbed in the back seat, where my main back was and ripped it open. I threw my
Leonie and I. Love this lady.
underwear and my personal effects all over in search of my wallet.

I forgot it.

I looked at the clock and realized just exactly how grave the situation was. It was 5. My train was to leave in 58 minutes. We had to drive 20 minutes back to Fixin, grab the wallet, get back to the city, and all during rush hour. It might have worked out if we could only find Antoine right at 5, but he decided to get lost and we did not find him until 5:10.

The situation was dire because I had bought the ticket to Paris for only 19 Euros, and it was refundable. But what was worse is that my host mom was in shock, “Julie, this is something my kids would do. But you? You have a freaking a calendar with all your days activities and you are the most organized person I know. What is going on?” She was not mad, and in fact, I think she was rather amused. Especially when I tried to lighten the situation by joking that the Robert family had finally worn off on me.

At 5:20, Antoine came up with an idea. Call Charlotte and have her meet up halfway with my wallet on her scooter. Leonie called Charlotte, to which she was informed that the scooter had no gas. Leonie was pissed and yelled at Charlotte to do something. At this point, after finding out that the scooter did not work, I had no hope of making that train. But I think I might have been the only one. Leonie was determined, and even Antoine decided to make it his mission to get me there on time.

“Mom, take the other route there are too many people!”

“Mom! The other lane! Oh, who cares about the red light?”

When we got to Fixin, it was 5:35PM. The chances of making the train were to slim to none, but Charlotte came to the border of Fixin to meet up with my wallet. Antoine got out of the car and Charlotte chucked the wallet at me and yelled, “Good Luck!”

I did not even get to a chance to say "Thank You", because Leonie went into full rocket speed back to station at Dijon. I think I have said this before, but French drivers are absolutely mad. Yet, they could not hold a candle to Leonie in those moments. She was so determined to get me there, that I had to believe in her.

At 5:53, we pulled into the station. Leonie had planned to get out with me and get me to the platform, but there was no parking spot whatsoever. She looked at me for a moment and said, “Get out and run!” She got to back of the car before me, opened the trunk threw me my bag, gave me a quick kiss on the check, and said “Run.”

I am a Cross Country runner, but I do not think I have run so hard in my life. Of course I had a heavy bag as well and it was somewhat weighing me down, but I did not care. I sprinted into that station, adrenaline pumping, although still feeling sad that I could not give me host mom a hug and big "THANK YOU." At 5:58, the conductor blew the whistle for the take off of my train.


I made my train.

Of course, on the train, after I caught my breath, realized what exactly had happened and how wonderful Leonie Robert really is, I opened my bag.

I forget my Camera and all of my Toiletries.

The Robert’s really are rubbing off on me.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Postcards from Western Europe

On Thursday evening, at 5:58 PM, my TGV high speed train leaves the city of Dijon to the Gare de Lyon in Paris. It is the start of my grand tour of Western Europe. During that time, I am going to try my very hardest to update this blog, but I do not think it will be very possible. I am, however, going to bring my laptop along with me, so that on those bus rides, I can type up journal entries and witty columns from the road. Be sure to check the Blog with the start of May.
The start of May?!?!?

I know it sounds crazy, right? I'm leaving on April 9th, and will not be back till May.

I think an itenarary is in order.

April 9th: Arrival in Fountainebleu
April 10th: Disneyland Paris
April 11th: Hopefully.... Chartres (although Brittany is threatening my life if I drag her to another church, "Church? Haven't you seen enough of those things this year?")
April 12th: Easter with Brittany's hosties and exploring Fountainebleu
April 13th: Eurotour! Paris
April 14th: Strasbourg
April 15th: Munich, Deutschland
April 16th: Linderhof, Innsbruck, Austria
April 17th: Verona, Lido de Jesolo
April 18th: Venice
April 19th: Lac de Garda
April 20th: Milan
April 21st: Monaco
April 22nd: Avignon/ Annecy
April 23rd: Geneva
April 24th: Dijon- Finish Eurotour

April 25th- May something: Bormes les Mimosa in the lovely beatiful south of France with Leonie and Coline!

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

The Three Month Mark

On April 2, 2009, Andrew Ludwig quietly whispered to me that he and I had reached the three-month mark of our departure from France. I can vividly hear his deep Bob Dylan-sound voice, speak those words, "we only have three more months." After all, July 2, 2009 is the official day my plane leaves from Charles de Gaulle International Airport in Paris, France and arrives back les Etats-Unis. More specifically, Washington DC, where I have to sit for a layover and then board a plane back Newark, New Jersey.

I have done this before. I have had a three month mark before in faraway Japan, but it was different. I was having so much fun in Japan, that I did not even acknowledge May 13th, 2007, the 3-Month Mark of my departure from Japan. I did not acknowledge that I was even leaving Japan until the day actually left. But this time is different. I have a lot more time on my hands to actually sit and think about these sort of things. Yet, as soon as Andrew's words sunk in, as soon as the concept of three months until the end actually reached my heart and core, I began to feel a vivid sense of dread.

I come on this blog and I also reflect upon the past few months of my life in France, and I begin to wonder how I could possibly feel dread for going home. This exchange has not been as easy as my year in Japan. I reached a slump so low that I was a pinch away from throwing in the towel and going home in February. I had a French language plateau, an uncomfortable weight gain, a life definied by doing nothing, and a problem with my beloved host family. In addition, my experience as a student in a French lycee, has been everything but enjoyable. Sometimes I think that it is really all just me. That being placed in France is difficult for me, because everything about France seems to contrast with my pesonality and my morals.
Three months until it is time for me to return home.

But in the scheme of things, that feeling of dread I felt when I realized I just had three more months, proved something else. Even with the problems, I am still having the time of my life. I am living in one of the most beautiful places in France and in the world. I am residing with the kindest and nicest host family I could have imagined. Even though I do not always get along with them, they put up with me and like me for all my annoying quirks. The weather is becoming beautiful, and life is returning to vineyards. In these past 7 months, I have done more traveling than most people have done in their lives, and it is nowhere near finished with the upcoming trips I have planned. But it is even more than that.

I left a piece of myself in Kochi, Japan, that will remain there for the rest of my life. I know when I go back to Japan, things will not be the same, but I will still be able to find that piece I left behind in the people I have cared about and the places I have seen. In those dark moments of February here in France, I never thought I would make a mark here in France, and that as soon as I left, I would forget about this place and it about me. But I was wrong. A little piece of myself, and I do not know how big or small, will be left here in Fixin. I have made a mark here, probably smaller than the burn mark I left in Kochi, but a mark all the same, and a place i can come back to one day far down the road.

I have three more months.
It is time to start living.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Living and Dormant

In France, I live in the region known to Anglophones as Burgundy, to Francophones, Bourgogne. I have lived here for over 7 months, and am through and through a Burgundy girl. Of course, I would probably say that if had been placed with Rotary in Normandy or Alsace or Bordeaux or wherever. But I am the kind of person that is happy anywhere, except that I really am a Burgundy girl through and through. And in the scheme of things, I thank my lucky stars to have been placed exactly where I am, in small town Fixin, surrounded by the breathtaking beauty of the Cote de Nuits vineyards.

Within in Burgundy, there are 4 'state' type of things. My state is called the Cote d'Or, which is truly an intriguing name for the region. There is a state in the south called the Cote d'Azur, or Blue Coast. This makes sense the state is just on the coast of the sparkling Meditteranean Sea. But then why, might one wonder, might the landlocked state of Bourgogne, have a state called, Cote d'Or, or Gold Coast? Spend an autumn in the region, and one will have the answer. The vivbrant green leaves of the Vines bursting with the life of the grapes, suddenly changes after the Vendages, or grape picking. The distinctive autumn smoky smell surrounds the area as the leaves change into brillant bright red and soothing waves of gold for rows and rows throughout the vines. It really is an ocean of bursting color, whereby you stand on the coast or edge of the vines and watch the rays from the sun illuminate the lands into the most mystical colors you could have thought possible. Even though it is a sign that vines and falling into their dormant stage for the winter, the majestic color makes you forget about the approaching season.
But, alas, life is fading.

But it comes. November fades away and gives way to a chilling December breeze and a brief snowfall. The seasons, they go round and round, and no matter how much you will the weather to stop, it does not. The golden majesty of the vines finally dies, and the earth becomes a graveyard of brown fallen leaves. One can tolerate December, however. Everyone is in a festive holiday mood, even though in France, the radio is in not blasting with jolly tunes. Still, the dormant vines give an impression to the area, since they surround all the villages. After the first snowfall and frozen evening, when one peers out into the brown vineyard, one is touched my the frozen winter wonder land that the Cote d'Or has become.

Sometimes the frozen vines give the eerie appearance of the true beauty of this region in France. A walk through Fixin will have you wondering whether time has stopped and the future has yet to descendedescend upon this region. Then, of course, a car will drive by and a helicopter will fly over head, and one will be brought back into modern time. But then a walk through the frozen vineyards, may leave you with the chilling impression, that everything has frozen and time has stopped moving in the Cote d'Or. When the wind blows fiercely, a slight howl can be heard sliding through the rows and rows of the lines, but now causing any movement. The land is dormant.
December is tolerable, January, February, and March are not. The icy weather that freezes the vines also freezes hope and the memory of a warm day. The vines become brown and give a horribly sad tone to the area, a tone of dormant death of inescapable brown sticks that lack the vibrant colors we all know and love. The tiny villages are all closed up, as people are hidding in their homes, perhaps from the weather or perhaps from the views of the landscape around them. A walk through the Cote d'Or in the winter is bitter, a chilling wind whips you and you are surrounded by brown trees that lack color and life. To top it off, the European gray skies, which are welcome in the hot summer, accepted in the bright spring, and tolerated in the golden autumn, are loathed in the dark winter. Everyday is gray skies above a field of frozen brown death. It takes a toll on you no matter who you are. The only thing that keeps you going is the knowledge that the vines are not dead, just dormant. That Spring will come and so will the green buds on the trees and vines. Slowly life will return, and overcome the cold dead brown winter that has descended upon the region.
Life will return.
It is April. A walk through the vineyards still shows dormant brown branches. Yet, the ground is covered in flowers, purple, yellow, orange, and red. The grass is regrowing, a brilliant shade of the greenest green one could hope for. Life is awakening slowly, but surely. There are small green buds on the vines.
Life has returned.