Monday, November 3, 2014

Hola from Espagne!

So much excitement for a week in Spain!
Last week I put my conquistador panties on and headed to Spain for another dip in the Mediterranean...and some adventuring too. My friend Kate and I quickly settled into the tapas hopping, sangria sipping and siesta taking routine of the Spanish, but we didn't loose our sight seeing ambitions in all the culture soaking. With our handy friend Rick Steve we ventured out to experience the ins and outs of both Sevilla and Barcelona. Though we only had one week, it was amazing and an experience I will never forget. 

Our first stop was Sevilla! After a good nights rest following a busy week of exams we headed for the sunny and warm (actually, a little toasty!) city in the south of Spain. Once our plane landed we were
greeted by Palm trees like those you see in pictures of Hollywood. They lined the streets as we entered Seville and accompanied any large plaza within the city limits, adding lots of glamour to our stay.  Though our hostel was lacking the glamorous identity of the trees and surrounding views, it still kept with the tropical feel by providing a daily flooded bathroom (and I forgot shower shoes! Quick improvisation with my sneakers ensued.)  Still, despite the Amazon that was our room, all in all, our stay turned out well and we made some new friends from France, England and Austria. 

As we preferred the sunny outdoors, we left our tropical homeland and soaked up the beauty that is Sevilla. On our first night we grabbed some gourmet tapas for a great 2 euros each, and a little bit of Sangria for 1.50 euros (which means a glass as big as my head!) and explored the local plazas outside the city limits. However, the next day we marched into town and began to explore our new favorite small city in Spain! Oh my goodness, it was BEAUTIFUL! As we stepped outside on our first full day, the sun hit the golden yellow, orange and white washed buildings in dazzling angles which brought the city to life.
Young runners littered the street competing in some 3K being hosted by the city and we listened to vibrant Spanish echo through the many small squares and plazas which we encountered on our approach.  Once we arrived in the city, we followed the wise footsteps of Rick Steve and wandered around, discovering the small nooks and intricate histories of the town. The following day we continued our exploration but took it a step further, venturing inside the Cathedral in Seville where we not only found the remains (or relics) of St. Peter but also the actual tomb of Christopher Columbus! Adorned with orbs and carried by detailed statues of four pallbearers, the tomb rests in a large section of the Cathedral
(which, as it turns out, was the largest Cathedral in the 14th century before it was eclipsed by St. Paul's in London and St. Peter's Basilica in Rome).  Later, we followed the towns great history a few blocks over to the palace of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, known as the Alcazar. Filled with beautiful tiles and decorated in the colorful Moorish style it was breath taking, but its beauty was completely eclipsed by the vast gardens behind its walls.  Joining the epic palm trees there were hundreds of rose bushes, too many magnolia trees to count, fountains every few feet and some of the prettiest tropical flowers I'd ever seen. If that were not enough, it held within its boundaries different tiled buildings, gates and benches which added to its vivid, colorful expanse. As our time in Seville came to a close, we were sad to leave our little paradise, but excited for what Barcelona had in store.

SO Barcelona! Well I thought it would be a great idea to "save money" and buy a plane ticket for 6AM (when no buses or metros are running by the way! Did I mention Taxis to the airport are super pricey?) from Sevilla to Barcelona. Boy was I mistaken! We arrived in Barcelona without delay at a lovely 8AM and headed straight to our next hostel/apartment where we quickly hit the sack and recovered from that wayyyy too early morning. However, after the recovery, with new found energy and excitement we hit the streets below us and began to get acclimated. We may or may not have taken advantage of the slightly discounted Zara (compared to France) before grabbing a delicious, and surprisingly inexpensive, meal in the mind-blowing La Boqueria Market on the Ramblas of Barcelona. Fruit juices you've never imagined, fishes with their heads and eyes attached and every piece of a cow you never actually wanted to identify populated the very cramped, tiny aisles of the evolved, ancient Roman market. (For those of you who are wondering, yes Kate and I did try cow
blood one day, and I must say, I think my heart is better for it :p) After that delicious meal and introduction to La Boqueria (followed by many subsequent trips) we set out to explore some incredible sights including la Sagrada Familia. La Sagrada Familia was, without a doubt, one of the most amazing churches I have ever seen. While not plated in gold like the Vatican, its beauty lies within the symbolism which adorns all parts of  the cathedral and the descriptive scenes, statues and architecture originating from Gaudi's vision in the late 1800s. Despite all of its detail and richness, the church still isn't finished. There rest so many more symbols and representations to be added and it is not projected to be finished before 2026. Yes, I will be coming back after its completion. 

Our later adventures included the Picasso Museum (a must see when you make your way to this fabulous city!) more trips wandering the streets of Barcelona, a visit to the Mediterranean, and my all time favorite, a train ride and climb up Montserat! While every trip was filled with adventure and lots of exercise, Montserat climbed to the top of our list. On our last full day in Barcelona Kate and I headed out of the city limits to a small Monastery in the cliffs of Catalunya referred to as Montserat. Though no longer housed in its ancient buildings due to the highly despised Franco, the location is quite picturesque and contains a history older than the walls which surround it. There, housed in the basilica, rests a statue of the Virgin Mary, claimed to have been created by St. Luke, although in actuality carbon dating traces it back only 800 years. Even older than the statute are the cliffs which shelter this quaint spot.
While Rick Steve did recommend we take the tram up the rest of the cliff to the vast lookout points above our original resting point, Kate and I braved the mountains, climbing inclines steeper than I ever experienced in my mountain fairing days in Sewanee. They definitely put my heart to the test as there was no downhill until you reached the top.  Two miles uphill later and without any lack of beauty, Kate and I finally reached one of the many high peaks to take in the lush, green valleys and rolling hills below us.  As we caught our breath in the afternoon sunlight  atop the stone, finger like cliffs, we were able to see for miles in almost every to Spain. It was the perfect way to sum up our journey, climbing through history and natural beauty to get a glance at the larger country around us. After a hike back down the mountain, a return trip and a last night on the town with some tasty pasta and good wine, we packed our bags and prepared ourselves for our return to France, sufficiently renewed, restored and enlightened by all we had seen and experienced in our week  From our glamorous entry into the country, our diversified pallets, our broadened minds and our two very sore feet, we decided such growth shouldn't end after a one week trip, and are looking forward to more explorations in the coming weeks, months and years ahead. Our next stop? Paris, Avignon, Lyon, just to name a few!

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Joining the French Culture and Appreciating Underlying Values

I love to travel. Growing up in a family who valued exposure to other cultures and ways-of-life, any chance to travel in or out of the country fills me to the brim with excitement. Whether it be Belize or Greece, Costa Rica or France, the chance to get out of my backyard and explore the incredible community that is our world fuels my fire. I value the chance to observe our differences by way of exchanges, day to day habits, methods of connection, religious convictions, the list goes on and on.  But more than that, I value the opportunity to observe and participate in the most basic commonalities that unite us as a human race. 

During my time in Greece I had the chance to experience both the differences and similarities between my culture and that of an older Greek woman. At the end of our first week in Naxos my father noticed this beautiful chapel next to a small hotel and home.  Since my dad is a priest and the week we were visiting the Island was the week of Pentecost, my father thought it would be special to see if the family who owned the chapel would be willing to let us use their worship space for a small service to celebrate the feast day. With these intentions, he approached the family and they said yes. So Saturday (the day before Pentecost) we went to their home expecting them to show us the chapel, perhaps participate in our service, and continue with their day.  But no. The family invited us into their home, provided us with ice cream, water and some delicious cookies and proceeded to share about themselves and invite us to do the same. Since only the nephew spoke English, at first meeting and sharing with everyone was a challenge. But soon the matriarch of the family, Madame Helen, revealed to me that she spoke French. Well, VOILA! I could speak French as well! Together, we chatted and shared a bit about ourselves and the lives we led. Initially, I was simply fascinated by our exchange of pleasantries and the level of hospitality this Greek woman, Madame Helen, and her family showed us.  But as the afternoon turned to evening and our conversations progressed, I began to observe more than just the differences between our lives and the values we held.  As we finished the Eucharist by the chapel and headed back for a few more cookies (desert before dinner is always a winner!)  not only did the true parallels between our Pentecost celebration and that of the biblical times become overwhelmingly evident, but also the cross cultural connections we all shared and celebrated as the evening wore on.  Here we were celebrating Eucharist and our faith in multiple languages. Though from different cultures and backgrounds, through Greek, English and French, we understood each other and shared our love of Christ together. After the service, I spoke with the matriarch, Madame Helen. She reminded me, and asked me to share with the family, to always appreciate the blessings God gives us in this life. No matter how difficult or sad things may become, she said, each moment is a blessing from God. Yes, it was very evident from our interactions that there were different social norms and values we each held. But transcending those were our similarities, our common threads: our shared religion, our love for life and our appreciation for the gifts we receive daily.
So fast-forward to France.  After all of the special trips to Belize, Costa Rica, Greece and Italy I am so fortunate to get the chance to live in France for an entire semester! My goal: to not only observe, but integrate myself into the culture.  I am here to appreciate both the differences and commonalities we share and to build on my knowledge of the French culture and way of life so that I may be able to better understand, appreciate and relate to "la communauté française." Starting off with this goal in mind was a little bit overwhelming. I was excited to be here, but nervous that the french might misunderstand my gestures and perceive me as rude or offensive. Coming from South Carolina, it took some time to adjust to not smiling at everyone who is walking in a five mile radius. I quickly learned that smiling at everyone you meet meant that you were "easy" or perhaps, a little absent in the head, if you catch my drift.  Through the curriculum of my program I began, and am continuing, to learn about the social norms in France.  These include the basics on how not to offend others, but also the deeper roots to behaviors and values of the French culture which originate in their long and complex history as a country.  Beyond studying, I have been connected to a school for French students of immigrant families and given the chance to tutor the children. Through this activity not only do I get to improve my French abilities and play fun games to expose them to English, but I get the chance to observe and participate in the French ways of interacting with children and learn more about the roles society plays in the development of the French child. My school has also introduced me to some very driven and kind French young women with whom I've had the chance to foster a relationship and learn a bit more about my generation of the French community.  Better yet, I have some new knowledgeable friends to hang out with on Fridays or when schoolwork gets me down! 
But today I took time to participate in another facet of the French lifestyle, Yoga (more generally, exercise).  Looking to understand more fully the differences between French and American social settings I joined this class.  I expected to really find the things which make American exercise/yoga different from that of the French, but I was surprised when what significantly stuck out to me were not the differences between us, but our similarities. 
At the end of the course today our instructor asked each person present to share what they experienced from the day and how today's exercises would impact them as they went back into their normal, everyday lives.  As she went around the room a theme began to appear: most of us were there for peace, to find ourselves again after a long day, to take time to gain balance in ourselves once more. After everyone had shared, our instructor bade us farewell saying Namaste and bowing, inviting us to do the same. When she finished, she explained the purpose of her farewell, "the heart in me recognizes the heart in you" (a French translation). With her words, I was struck, once more, by our similarities more so than our differences.  Side by side, each person in our class had shared in an activity for personal peace and balance. We did this not in the form of a French custom or an American one, but derived our activity from an aspect of a Hindu tradition (though adapted and changed a bit). Together, we shared our passion for our personal betterment and health through an activity of yet another culture, thereby celebrating our world culture and the underlying values which unite us. In ending the course with a Namaste, we all acknowledged and appreciated our common goal and demonstrated our respect for those around us, independent of cultural backgrounds. 
In my Namaste, I was reminded once more of my experience this summer with Madame Helen and the valuable words she had shared with me. Again, in the form of Yoga, I was able to experience the same commonality on a similar set of values: appreciation of our lives and the value each holds.  Taking time for ourselves to do an activity like yoga, and then honoring each other before returning to our lives, I again had been given the opportunity to share with others in a common thread of our humanity. During my time in France I will continue to search out the differences between our cultures, observe them and join in, but I will begin to actively seek out our similarities as well. To draw upon our common goals as a human race and to integrate myself not only in the French culture, but also into my common humanity with the people of America, France and the rest of the world. 

Monday, September 29, 2014

Bonjour y'all!

Three weeks ago today I woke up groggy and overjoyed to a beautiful view of the south of France.  Ever since that early morning (thank you Jet Lag) it has been a whirlwind of adventure! As a junior French Major at Wofford College I have been given the incredible opportunity to travel abroad for a semester in almost any French speaking location of my choosing.  What better place to experience that gift than in Aix-en-Provence, a small but vibrant city in the south of France. Here I am a student at American University Center of Provence, a rigorous French exchange program which exposes students to the French culture, lifestyle and language through intense immersion. Needless to say, its been a busy past few weeks after that initial night of rest. Since my arrival I have had a chance to settle into this amazing location and get adjusted to some of the many layers of culture shock. Now, with three weeks of orientation and class behind me, I am rooted in the routine of learning, speaking, breathing, eating and living French!

As you can imagine, after three weeks in a completely new foreign country there are a lot of stories. They range from quite funny miscommunications and the basic adjustment skills we've studied in class, to outlandish adventure defined by an obscene number of photos and two very, very sore legs. Since to record every moment of my three weeks would be quite exhaustive and extensive, putting the length of Victor Hugo's Les Miserables to shame, I will let Victor Hugo keep his record (for now) and focus primarily on this past weekend and my trip to Les Calanques.  Don't worry, future blog posts will be filled with many, many details of about every other facet of life here in Aix!

Photo by Helen Jiang 
So, Les Calanques are absolutely AMAZING! As I began the hike through the park and towards the beautiful sea  the only thought running through my mind was "Oh mon Dieu! La grandeur, c'est magnifique! C'est incroyable!" (translation: Oh my goodness! The grandeur, its magnificent! Its incredible!)  Since I have yet to see the Grand Canyon I have never had a chance to experience such a vast landscape of cliffs and stone. Still, the image of the Grand Canyon fails to compare to this scene since this collection of cliffs borders the Mediterranean and is filled with a diverse collection of plant life and dominated by a strong breeze filled with the mist of the salty sea.  

Photo by Helen Jiang
Our group approached Les Calanques  and prepared for our descent into the cliffs towards the beautiful sea below. When we finally arrived at the Mediterranean we set up our picnic on the rocks and quickly unpacked all the french bread, cheese, chocolate and refreshing salads, filling our hungry stomachs with some simple french favorites. After our lovely picnic our crew headed into the lush blue water for a refreshing cool off.  It sure was cool, at least for a Carolina Girl, but my body quickly adjusted as we waded out deeper into the sea. The rest of the day consisted of climbing the cliffs which protruded from the water and basking in the warm sun of September. 

Photo by Helen Jiang
By the end of the day our feet were aching, our arms were sore and our skin a little burned, but our hearts and minds were overjoyed with the beauty of our day and the incredible opportunity we were all given to explore this unique part of France.  While the weekend has since ended (though the soreness still persists along with the great memories) I am so looking forward to many more adventures ahead.  In the meantime I've got some pretty interesting classes to fill my time!  Speaking of which... they still give Homework here in France, who'd have thought that!?  My studies are calling for now, but I cannot wait to get back to the blog and put up a few more updates on the daily lifestyle here in Aix, the classes I am taking, the French companions who are now a part of my life and so much more!  À Bientôt!  (So long for now! Until later...)