Sur le Pont d’Avignon (7/15/2011)

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Upon exiting the TGV in Avignon, I saw Serge (host dad) from a distance. With a big smile on his face, he waved and then greeted me with a strong hug, which is a bit odd for French people considering they “bises” instead of hug. (But I definitely prefer hugs.) Nicole (host mom) greeted me in the same way when I arrived at her house 20 minutes later. I was so excited to see them and spend time with them, considering I hadn’t seen them in more than a year. IMG_0531During my time in Avignon, the annual Festival d’Avignon was just getting started. This festival lasts for three weeks each July, and during this time, thousands of performances occur, including street performers, and “spectacles” (shows) in one of the 70 theaters in and around the walls of the city. The shows in theaters begin at 11:00 a.m. and continue until 2:00 a.m, and these cost money. But performs also align the main streets and squares of the city, near the Palais des Papes and Rue de la République. You’ll find carnival acts, jugglers, painters, singers, and musicians, and even performers who read plays.

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During the festival, I was able to see two shows, a wonderful rendition of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” and “Imagine-toi” a mime show. “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” was quite difficult to understand because it was in French and the actors spoke quickly. But the great part about the show was that only two people performed all the characters, and with different, intricate costumes for each character. (The actors were Kim’s host sister and her host sister’s boyfriend.)

And the mime show… I expected something similar to what you’re probably imaging right now, I’m sure. Black costume, white gloves, white face paint, and a black beret. Well, I was totally wrong. There was no make-up, no black beret, and no creepiness. The mime, who was staying in Nicole’s apartment downstairs, won the Moliere award in 2007. The show was incredible. He did his own sounds effects for each scene, and he involved the audience on multiple occasions. If you’ve ever watched “Whose Line is it Anyway?” and the game they play called “Sound Effects,” that was what the show was like, except that he created his own. In fact, he did so much physical activity, that he was dripping in sweat by the end of the one-hour performance. The show made Serge, Nicole, and me laugh out loud many times, which means it had to be funny.

To help you imagine it a bit, the mime stepped in gum, chewed it violently (smacking his lips), stretched it out, and then proceeded to play the bass with it. I’m sure you’re wondering how he could make it funny. Well, just trust me, he did.

And finally, the best part of the few days in Avignon, besides seeing familiar faces and sites, was going to the Mediterranean Sea with Florian, Christelle, and Natalie. The beach was filled with sunbathers and children building castles, and all the while, ice cream vendors carried their carts up and down the beach repeatedly shouting, “A la glace, à la glace, chou chou, boissons.”

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And the perfect end to a great day à la plage, stopping along the highway to take pictures in a sunflower field, which cover southern France. (In order to get to the field, we had to run through a field of wheat and climb through a giant ditch, no big deal.) We survived, and Kim has great pictures to show for it.

Une Nouvelle Aventure: Nice, Cannes Film Festival, Monaco Grand Prix (5/16/2010)

Thunder clacked in the distance as the blue-gray clouds glided in overhead. Cameras clicked and lights flashed as glamorous stars posed in front of hundreds of screaming fans. The sound of whirling engines echoed off the mountain slope as crowds watched in anticipation.

That was my weekend.

Before the sun began rising on the Avignon horizon, Sammi and I started our 30-minute trek to the Gare Avignon Centre to catch the 4:52 train to Nice. The city had a certain tranquility that one normally doesn’t see during the day.

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        We arrived at the station at 4:30, when it looked like a ghost town. After finding our friends, who happened to be on the same train, we discovered that the display board read, “Train to Nice, 40 minutes late.”

Then, “50 minutes late.”

Then, “ One hour late.”

Then, “One hour, 15 minutes late.”

Finally, at 6:15, our train rolled into the station. We quickly found out that Avignon was not the starting point of the train, which explains why the lights were off and everyone inside was sleeping. The air was humid and smelled of body odor and morning breath. Two very pleasant smells.

The train didn’t get to Nice until 11:45, and because of that, we didn’t have to wait to check into our hotel. (Side note: it was a legitimate hotel. They provided towels and hairdryers.)

Sammi, Alex and I spent the rest of the day wandering through the side streets of Nice, walking along the pebble beach, photographing the picturesque landscape and witnessing a thunderstorm from atop a mountain.

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Although the day was relaxing, we were exhausted from our lack of sleep and long morning of travels. So we turned in at 8 p.m. Yes, 8 p.m. I don’t think I’ve gone to bed that early since I was a baby. That’s a new record for me.

We also went to bed at that time, because we planned on getting up at 5:00 the next morning (Friday) to catch the 6:35 autocar (bus) to the Cannes Film Festival, which is what happened. We were advised to take the train to Cannes to avoid traffic, but we figured that not many cars would be on the road at 6:35 in the morning. Because of all the stops, the ride took nearly two hours. And at 8:30 in the morning, not much was happening in Cannes, except for people setting up for the festival later that day. We snapped pictures in front of the red carpet (as they were laying out a fresh and clean carpet) and on the sandy beaches.

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By noon, the crowds starting pouring into the city, and we found ourselves fighting through the streams of people that flooded the narrow sidewalks. After finding the part of the festival that was open to the public (La Malmaison), we bought one book of six student tickets, which cost only 18 euros, valid for any of the public films being screened. So, for a large chunk of our day, we viewed two, world-premiere screenings of independent films: Un Poison Violent (Love Like Poison) and La Mirada Invisible (The Invisible Eye).

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Waiting for the movie to start in the large theater (not a movie theater, an actual theater), an old French man sat next to me. Since he was alone, I started speaking to him in French. As we talked, he told me that it was his 39th time attending the festival. Incredible.

The first film, Un Poison Violent, was a French film, but had English subtitles. The second film, La Mirada Invisible, was an Argentinean film with French and English subtitles. Both films had realistic plotlines, and they presented darker subjects that are commonly avoided in mainstream movies.

After the movies, we took an early dinner at a café, where we met an Irish woman who works with directors from the film industry. At first, she told us that she researched haunted buildings and her work appeared on the Discovery Channel and Scariest Places on Earth. She later told us that she actually exorcises ghosts for a living. Let’s just say that that was an extremely bizarre twist to the conversation, and frankly, I was a bit, for lack of a better word, creeped out after that. Nonetheless, she was a friendly lady, who even shared some of her pizza with us.

The final stop of the day: the Red Carpet. The biggest Red Carpet in the world. I could not believe we were actually there. Though the public was separated from the press, which was separated from the carpet, we were able to push our way through the crowd, and we got some pretty great photos of Kate Beckinsale, Tim Burton and Diego Luna. Sadly, due to bus schedules, we had to leave before Shia LaBeouf walked the carpet. But, I’d say the day was quite a success! Oh, and after we returned to Nice, I got myself some Rocher flavored ice cream. The perfect end to a great day.

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Saturday, we left the hotel at a later time, thankfully. We took the bus and traveled to Monaco for the afternoon. I think I would be correct in comparing Monaco to Orange County, Calif. The hotels, cars and buildings are extravagant. To give you an idea of the extravagance, I saw a toddler carrying a Juicy Couture handbag.

As it turns out, the Grand Prix was there is weekend, so we got to see two of the biggest world events in one weekend. Although we didn’t get to see much of the city because the Grand Prix course was blocking major portions of the town, we managed to get pictures of the track and parts of the race. The sound of the engines echoed around us for over an hour. It felt like we were standing next to the track.

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Since most of the city was shut down, we returned to Nice only after a few hours. After enjoying a late lunch and a walk through an antique market, we left early for the train station for our 8:00 train. While waiting for the train, I saw my first legitimate burning building, which was across the street from the station. Alex and I were walking around trying to find a pastry shop, when we spotted a restaurant with clouds of smoke billowing from inside. As we got closer, I saw the flames, so I grabbed my camera and went as close to the building as the police would allow. I was close enough for the smoke to get into my clothes and make me smell like a campfire. Sammi found out, after talking to witnesses of the start of the blaze, that the fire was a grease fire. That was an interesting experience.

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Later, on the return train, Sammi and I started a conversation with a South African man, who works for the South African government and is on assignment in France. By the end of the conversation, we were giving him relationship advice.

Oh, what a weekend.

 

Ma vie est très occupée (4/16/2010)

I had a busy week, and each day was jam-packed with something, particularly during the day. Thankfully, I have all of my evenings free. I’m definitely not used to that. In Ohio, I had activities Sunday through Thursday nights, but now I have nothing. It’s weird. The good news is that I’m not really stressed. Unbelievable, I know. I have work to do, but I’m not worried. This is a good feeling. Very good.

Anyway, Monday, Nicole had her daughter, her son-in-law and her grandson over for une petite fête for her son-in-law. It was his birthday, so we celebrated with a fantastic dinner. The dinner was excellent, and Nicole is a wonderful cook. We had crevettes (shrimp still in the shells) and moules (mussels). The crevettes were an experience in themselves. By the end, I was an expert at shelling shrimp, though my hands were covered in butter and garlic. Crevettes are the French equivalent to chicken wings in America. (Below is the only picture I have of crevettes and mussels. I took the picture at La Grande Motte on Sunday.)

Then for dessert, we had gâteau (cake). The dough of the cake, which comprised two thin layers (each was about an inch thick), had a doughnut-like texture and a vanilla flavor. In between the layers of dough was a thin layer of fluffy vanilla crème. Large sugar crystals covered the top layer. Not only was the cake delicious, but it is a finger-food. You’re supposed to eat it with your hands! Finger-foods pretty much don’t exist in France, unless you eat at McDo (McDonald’s).

In other news, I had two rendez-vous (meetings) on Skype Wednesday with Madame Stewart (my high school French teacher) and her senior French classes. It was great conversing in French with her and her classes about my life in France. The best part is that Madame Stewart is taking a group of students to France and Switzerland, and we will be in Paris at the same time (Friday, June 10). They’re coming, and I’m going, but at least we have one day in common.

Oh, and two more little things. First, I discovered generic brands of French food (shown below). All of the food shown in the picture was a total of 2.60 Euros (about $3.25), and that’s extremely cheap. Second, I was able to stream Glee online last night. It gave me a taste of home, and the episode was quirky and wonderful.

J’ai passé un bon week-end (4/12/10)

Well, my friends, it has been another busy few days. This weekend, I decided to stay in Avignon, which was a very smart idea on my part. Because I stayed here, I was able to explore the city like I’ve been wanting to do. I think the best way to tell you is by separating into days. I know it’s a lot, but please stick with me. Here goes…

Jeudi / Thursday

I had five hours of class, and by the end, my head was about to explode. It’s hard enough concentration for that long in a class in English, but this was obviously in French. In these classes, there is no much thing as “zoning out,” not even for a few seconds. If you miss one thing, you get completely lost. It’s also a bit difficult when the professors speak quickly, because when you’re brain is translating the first they say, they’ve already moved on to the next topic. Needless to say, I have to stay on my toes. All the time.

I had my Culture and Société class and my Histoire class on Thursday. My CS professor is bit eccentric, but she knows what she’s talking about. The class is interesting because it’s basically French sociologie (sociology). We learned about the origin of different French salutations, specifically the bises, when the French greet each other with kisses on each cheek. Well, they’re almost kisses; you don’t actually kiss, but you do make the kissing noise. As it turns out, the number of kisses is different depending on where you live in France. The number ranges from two to four. For example, people in Avignon bises three times, while Parisians bises twice. The bises is the equivalent to the American hug.

For history class, our professor took us on a tour of the city. He explained the architecture and the history of particular buildings and churches. Though we walked for two hours, it was much more enjoyable than sitting in the classroom. And the best part, I can actually understand my professor. His accent took me some time to get used to.

Vendredi / Friday

First, let me start by saying that I love not having class on Fridays. After eight full hours of sleep, I awoke to the brilliant sunshine. I started my day with quiet time then homework, and I wrote one of my papers sitting on the terrace in the sun. Instead of cooping myself up in the house all day, I decided to venture on my own Avignon tour, which included me visiting little shops such as Shakespeare, the English used-bookstore down the street. The shop owner is an adorable old fellow. I believe he is from Poland, but his primary language is English. Anyway, I couldn’t have imagined a better shop owner; he fits the store quite well. He is thin and hunches a bit. He speaks slowly and with gentleness. His hair is snow-white, and he wears tiny glasses that rest on the end of his nose. I’m planning to return soon, drink some tea and read a good book. That sounds wonderful to me.

I continued on my way, and I ran into Sammi and Kierstin. Earlier, I had passed a discount shoe shop with a sign in the window saying, “Troisième Gratuit,” meaning buy two, get one free! Sadly, I didn’t find any shoes that I was “head over heels for.” Gasp! I used a cliché. Anyway, the rest of my afternoon was spent shopping for petits cadeaux (little gifts). Shopping for these gifts gave me an opportunity to visit the various candy and chocolate shops of Avignon. It was difficult not to buy anything for myself.

While shopping, we made plans for the evening — have a pique-nique (picnic) at the Palais des Papes. We (Sammi, Kierstin and I) all returned to our respective maisons (houses) for dinner and then met at the Palais at 22h (10:00 p.m.).

Samedi / Saturday

Saturday was a busy day for me as well. I woke up early to go to a cooking demonstration at Les Halles, which is the Avignon equivalent to Pittsburgh’s Strip District. It is a giant marketplace with fresh produce, meat, bread and sweets.

The demonstration consisted of a French chef walking us through the process of salmon tartare, which is raw salmon mixed with cucumbers, tomatoes and onions, and a dollop of avocado cream on top. I was nervous to taste it because the salmon was raw, but I faced my fear of raw meat, and it was delicious. We also received tiny samples of white wine with it. After tasting the wine, I gave mine to Alex.

After the demonstration, we had two hours to kill before the dégustation du vin (wine-tasting). So, Kierstin, Alex and I bought little French pastries for lunch. I bought pain au chocolat amande (chocolate in the center of a croissant-like pastry crust, topped with powered sugar and slivered almonds). We enjoyed the pastries in the Place L’Horloge, a little square near the Palais.

Now, as you have probably already seen in other posts, I don’t like alcohol and I don’t drink; however, I decided to attend the wine-tasting for three reasons. It was free. I’m in France. And, it’s at the most famous place in Avignon, the seat of the old papacy. I figured, why not? This is part of “taking it all in.”

At the tasting, which was only for my group from OU, we tried five different types of wine and also learned how to properly taste wine. First, the wine is poured. Make sure you hold the wine glass at the top of the handle, but underneath the actual glass. Second, swirl the wine around in the glass. Smell it. Examine the color. Then take a tiny sip. Once you sip it, you are supposed to make a swooshing motion with your mouth so the wine spread around in your mouth. Then, drink the wine, or spit it out in special buckets they provide. You aren’t supposed to drink all of the wine you receive.

After the wine-tasting, Sammi and I went shopping with Christelle. Later we met Florian for ice cream. At the last minute, Christelle and Florian invited us to the beach with them Sunday.

   

 

 

 

 

Dimanche / Sunday

We left for the beach around 11:30 a.m., and the trip took about one hour and a half. They took us the scenic route, full of mountains, meadows and rustic houses with orange shingles. After arriving at La Grande Motte, like the French version of Myrtle Beach, we immediately went to eat some seafood at their favorite restaurant, L’Oasis, where I tried my first mussel and my first slice raw beef. Loved the mussel, didn’t like the beef. After a leisurely lunch in the sun, Florian, Christelle and I played sand volleyball, while Sam sunbathed. The sun was hot, but the wind was cool. The Mediterranean is blue and sparkling, and is just beautiful. On the beach, we met two of Christelle’s friends, Nicholas and Christophe.

Although the weekend was incredibly packed, it couldn’t have been much better.