Monday, December 26, 2011
There are many aspects of life in France that differ from life here in the US. For example, I wasn't used to how everything was closed on Sundays (& even Mondays in many instances), I felt there were many examples of bureaucracy and inefficiency, and I didn't particularly enjoy the handful of times I was affected by the public strikes. As time went on, however, I discovered that these experiences were a part of a style of living that was in some ways worse than in the US but also in many ways much, much better. Towards the end of the semester, I really learned to enjoy the slower pace of life in the suburbs of Paris, spent more time with hall mates instead of in meetings, gained more patience, and learned so much about the rest of the world. Those are lessons and experiences that I am so thankful for, and will never forget.
I think the greatest takeaway I have from my semester abroad is that before this semester, I feel like I had been living in a bubble of college applications, then joining clubs & enjoying college life, then the stress of finding internships and jobs. I paid attention to American politics and current events, but I really didn't keep up to date about what was going on in other countries. From countless conversations with my exchange classmates who came from all over the world (literally), I've learned so much about their respective countries and cultures and I hope to bring this expanded worldview back to Penn. After all, there is a whole world out there, beyond club meetings, OCR, Penn, the US...
It has been truly an amazing semester abroad, from traveling all over Europe, to trying all sorts of foods, to meeting wonderful people from all over the world. I arrived in France in August not really knowing what to expect from the entire thing, but I'm so grateful to have had this experience. I am glad to say that I have missed Penn & I can't wait to be back on campus in a couple of weeks! :)
Hope everyone has a fabulous rest of break and a Happy New Year!
Tuesday, October 25, 2011
Days 1 & 2: Nice (pronounced like "Niece")
We stayed the week in a hostel called Saint-Exupery (apparently the best hostel in France), right next to the beach in Old Nice. Although I don't feel entirely comfortable with the hostel culture here, I'm starting to get used to it and even went out with some people we met that first night. At Penn, I feel like people are going along more or less similar tracks of life - we're all getting our Bachelor's degrees, have aspirations for graduate school or some career path afterwards - but in hostels it's really cool to meet a wide variety of people with whom I'd never cross paths with otherwise. For example, that first night I met a guy from Ireland who just finished a season DJ-ing in Ibiza and now is on the hunt for his next gig and a girl from Canada who just decided to up and leave her job to travel all over Europe for a few months.
The next morning, we got up extra early to see the Cours Selaya, which is the biggest fruit and flower market in France. There were so many tables for handmade soaps (someone should introduce The Body Shop to these!), spices, candies, and of course fruits and flowers. Afterwards, we took a stroll along the beach and I realized just why the area is called the Cote d'Azur - the color of the water is so beautiful! We went up to the ancient Chateau of Nice that the French destroyed when conquering the city, had a beautiful lunch of mussels and crepes, got lost around the windy alleyways (getting lost is truly the best way to explore), and explored the Contemporary Art Museum.
(Some sweets at Cours Selaya)
Day 3: Grasse
Only about an hour north of Nice, Grasse is the perfume capital of the world and produces about 2/3 of France's perfume. We toured one of the largest perfumeries called Fragonard, learned about how much the perfume industry took root in Grasse and prospered, and smelled hundreds of different extracts and perfumes. This is the real stuff - I sprayed my scarf with one scent, and it lasted the entire week!
Day 4: Villefranche-sur-Mer & Cannes
Villefrance-sur-Mer literally translates to "French town on the water" which is precisely correct. We lounged at the beach and swam in the Mediterranean Sea for a good part of the day in 30 degree (Celsius) weather, unheard of during this time of the year at Penn, and then had lunch literally inches from the water. That night, we went out in Cannes, home of the famous film festival, did some window shopping, and had the best pasta I've ever had in my life, seriously.
(View from the gardens at Villefranche)
Day 5: Eze & Monaco
This was kind of bad planning on our part, because we had to dress up mildly for Monaco and the Monte Carlo Casino in the evening, but first had to hike down the famous Nietzche path in the daytime. We were five girls in skirts and flats trying to hike through a mountain, it was definitely a sight to see. Eze was a beautiful little village and the hike was quite nice, especially the view from the top.
(Us about halfway through the hike)
Monaco, on the other hand, was entirely opposite from the peaceful and natural setting of Eze. Everywhere were just expensive apartments, expensive yachts, expensive cars, expensive stores...well, you get the point. The famous Monte Carlo casino was beautiful on the outside, but on the inside it seemed that honestly, no one was really having any fun. Other than that, we enjoyed touring the Palace and walking around the ports.
(There it is, THE Monte Carlo Casino)
Day 6: St. Tropez
(@ St. Tropez, we plan to return in 10 years together no longer as college students)
We completely lucked out with our trip to St. Tropez because it happened to be the weekend of the Jumble Sale 2011, which is a HUGE annual event at the end of October where pretty much all the stores have huge discounts on the streets. MAC makeup at 50% off, Gucci sunglasses for 120 euro (~160 USD), Havianas at 50% off...Unfortunately, we had not planned for this and none of us had any space left in our luggage for the flight back, so our purchases were kept at a minimum. Still, it was a great day just shopping and wandering around the beautiful city.
Day 7: Home!
After that week of sharing a shower with so many girls and doing nothing but eating and sightseeing, it feel refreshing to be back on campus. I hadn't anticipated missing the campus and the people here, but I guess my dorm does feel a bit like home now :)
Wednesday, October 19, 2011
All the exchange students at Peking University are allowed to take "cultural immersion" classes: calligraphy, Chinese painting, Chinese seal-making, or my pick--martial arts. Unfortunately, we didn't get to learn Shaolin Kungfu (though that would have been really cool), we did learn one entire set of taichi.
Every day at 5pm, I would join my friends in a small park on campus to learn taichi. We had two teachers, both of whom did taichi very differently. We learned a couple steps every day and reviewed them with the Chinese method of teaching: constant repetition.
We were terrible.
At the beginning of every class, our teachers were appalled at how much we had forgotten. One of them was so concerned he hurriedly ran us through reviews until the other teacher stopped him and told him we had to move on (we still didn't know it). Of course, there were the few exceptional students who caught on quickly and were able to remember. The rest of us, however, definitely were doing our own improvisations until we remembered.
Towards the end of the session, one teacher tried to show us how taichi applied in terms of self-defense. Our teachers "fought" to show us which of the moves we learned could be used in what context. Having always thought of taichi as a peaceful morning exercise in the park, I had a lot of fun watching our teachers in action.
It was this "taichi experience" that made my trip to Henan this past weekend even more interesting. CIEE took us on a weekend trip, complete with stays at a 4-star hotel (of course, this was all in the program fee). Our trip included the famous kungfu shrine, Shaolin Temple, and the Longman Grottoes.
At Shaolin Temple, we couldn't go into the mountains, but we did see the temple and watch a show. To get into the show, we had to shove our way into the small auditorium and watch from wherever we got stuck (anyone who's been to China before knows that to get anywhere, you have to push and shove). It was worth it. We watched Chinese teenage boys perform their various kungfu tricks. They had grown up in kungfu schools around the shrine and were impeccable in their performance. There was even a child who could not have been over ten years old! He did a trick called the "monkey" and was the crowd favorite.
After the show, we saw some of the performers sitting around outside the auditorium. The oldest boy was sitting, with the others crowded around him. The youngest one crawled into the oldest boy's lap, smiling. It was such a wonderful sight: to them, they were family.
Later, at the Longmen Grottoes, we were able to see the Yellow River. The view was beautiful (I had learned a while ago that looking into the water in Chinese scenery was not a good idea). The Grottoes are a massive set of Buddha statues set in limestone caves. They were all made at different periods of time--some dated all the way back to the Wei period, 500AD! It was amazing. What made it bittersweet, however, was that most of the buddhas were missing their heads. There were some caves with hundreds of tiny Buddhas carved into the walls, but each one of their heads had been meticulously carved out during the Cultural Revolution.
We had a great time in Henan, finishing it off with an amazing meal at a hundred-year-old restaurant. CIEE planned it really well. Now that I know taichi, maybe I can try Shaolin Kungfu?
The first weekend of October, I stayed in Milan for the first weekend of the semester. I went to one of the most famous markets in Milan, hosted every Saturday. Although most European markets consist of regional food, drink , and spice specialties, Milan's consists of clothes, shoes, and accessories! (There were a few produce and meat booths set up off to the side that I enjoyed, too.) This focus reminds its visitors and residents that Milan really is one of the fashion capitals of the world. Men and women of all ages, shapes, and financial standing arrive for the cheaper knockoffs and discounted labels, although I don't know how they sell Lacoste sweaters for about 45 euro. Shoes run from 5-65 euro. Cheap perfumes are available too. As a side note for those of you planning to visit Western Europe, I encourage you to stop at your local Abercrombie & Fitch to pick up a few items to wear here if you really want to fit in with the fashionable. A&F is hard to find in Italy and is a way of bragging that you have been to the United States; it took a while to get used to seeing 30-year-old men in tight-fitting A&F shirts.
I spent the evening with my Italian friends, one of whom made his favorite Spaghetti alla Carbonnara and then we walked to a local gelateria that fills your cone with liquid white, milk, or dark chocolate 1/2 way before loading it with gelato- genius!
The following weekend I went to Prague and stayed with fellow Penn students who are studying there. The city is stunning. It's culture is contagious and the presence of old buildings, cathedrals, a castle, and Jewish Quarter has afforded this city to stay true to its roots, more-so than Milan. I was surprised by how safe the city was at night, even on some more dimly lit streets (although I do not encourage you to walk in a small group at 3am in a foreign city!) There were many tourists, but the locals often were not perturbed by this. Like many countries, a simple "hello" in the native language is always welcomed. Then you can switch to English. There also is a strong youth nightlife, which contrasted the historical sites I visited by day. Prague was the first time I wore my winter coat this semester and I can't imagine being there in December. The residents prepare themselves for this through their delicious cuisine, which focuses on roasted ham/pork, kielbasa, potatoes, cheeses, and heavy stews. They also have strong influences of foreign cuisine such as Italian, Indian, Middle-Eastern, and some Chinese. I was surprised how popular these restaurants were, and how good they smelled.
When I returned to Milan, I celebrated my 21st birthday in the middle of the week with my Italian hall-mates. This experience was quite enjoyable and probably the biggest difference of being in the US and being in Italy this semester. I know my celebration at Penn would have been much different, but here, the Italian students don't get as carried away as American students. They find our college party-style rambunctious and nonsensical. I settled for a night of homemade pesto sauce with gnocchi and caprese salad. They did "toast" me after dinner with some champagne and a chorus of "Tanti Aguri" (the Happy Birthday song in Italian). We celebrated like a big family, very appropriate for my semester abroad in Italy.
I left the next night for Budapest, Hungary by bus. I was joined by 50 other exchange students from Bocconi University. The trip was organized by 3 Hungarian students who attended Bocconi's exchange program last fall. They have now graduated and 1 works in Milan while the other two have found jobs in Budapest. The group was given a more "local's" perspective while still seeing the major tourist spots. The highlights included a river boat dinner tour at sunset down the Danube River, a 3-course Hungarian buffet dinner with Hungarian Folk Dancers and lessons, and spending an afternoon in the famous Budapest thermal baths. The more famous buildings: the Castle, Parliament Building, St. Stephen's Cathedral, Hero's Square, and St. Matthias Church reminded visitors that the city has experienced quite an impressive and perhaps glamorous history at times. My impression though was that the city and country is still recovering from a harsh and long period of communist rule. They did not seem to benefit from many of the luxuries that so many western countries take for granted. However, I am hopeful that they are determined to improve their quality of life and the next 10 years will bring about as much change as the last 10 have (as long as they keep their entertaining Folk Dancing!).
There are no classes the next 2 weeks at Bocconi due to the midterm exam period. However, none of my classes offer me the opportunity to take a midterm. I am pleased to have this time off but my grades are essentially 100% based on the final exam, which is going to make for a stressful December. I hope to learn more about the Italian culture here in Milan and visit other "local" cities in the coming weeks! I'll do my best to keep you informed with my unique experiences. Thanks for reading. Ciao, bella!
Friday, October 14, 2011
At Penn, doing a sport is pretty exclusive. It's like, either you're really good at a sport and you play for a varsity or club team all the time, or you're left with a perpetually guilty feeling about not going to Pottruck. I was of the latter group.
Here at HEC, however, doing a sport is pretty much mandatory. Not that everyone is super athletic or you have to sign up for athletics like you do for classes, but just because there is absolutely nothing else productive to do on campus. As I mentioned in my last post, we're about 14 km south of Paris in actual farmlands, fenced in by 200-year old stone walls around the entirety of the campus. We don't get half as much work as we do at Penn, so what's one to do after class (I only have 9 hours a week) aside from running around the expansive grasslands of the campus?
To date, I have joined the rowing team and the aerobics class. During the first week when you can try all these different options without obligation, I also tried salsa dancing and zumba, but there are enough other options to fill up your entire week. I don't even compare with the local French students, who seem to be constantly going from sport to sport. This is why, I have deduced, they can eat massive amounts of pain au chocolat and baguette and whatever else they wish without gaining an ounce.
If only we could have such leisure at Penn!
My thesis is incomplete thus far as I haven't had the chance to observe Parisians in depth, but I'll keep you guys updated! :)
Friday, October 7, 2011
October 1st is Independence Day in the PRC, or the day that the monarch fell and communism began. To us international students, that means a 10-day break from school (and the only break in the fall semester). My friends and I took advantage of this opportunity and decided that we would go on a 5-day tour of Inner Mongolia.
We went with a Chinese travel agency that organizes tours for foreign students. Our tour included students from Peking University, Tsinghua University, Renmin University, and a few other colleges in Beijing. The tour included train tickets, room accommodations, and 3 meals a day. With all that we spent on the trip itself, the total came out to be about $280 for three days of fun (2 nights on the train). The tour was very disorganized, the food was pretty bad, and we spent a good half of the trip on the bus… but all in all, it was great.
Day 1: The Gobi Desert
Having slept on the (not-so-sanitary) train the night before, we arrived in Huhot, the capital of Inner Mongolia, a bit disheveled. We met up with the tour group and were herded onto a bus. We actually stayed on that bus until around 2pm that afternoon when we stopped for lunch. Then, finally, at about 4pm, we parked outside the expansive Gobi Desert.
It was gorgeous. I had never been to a desert before and was immediately impressed. We took a chairlift from the parking lot into the desert and changed into cloth boots so as not to get sand in our shoes. There were three attractions and there was a different method of transportation from one attraction to the next. From where we landed, we took a boat-shaped jeep ride down to the second attraction site. The ride was like a grounded roller coaster–we had a lot of fun standing up when the jeep was speeding downhill, holding tightly onto our hats and sunglasses.
The second attraction site had two “rides.” One was riding on a motorcycle or driving your own jeep and the other was a mix between ziplining and hang-gliding. They hooked you up to two lines and you shot across the desert. I was scared to death.
From there we rode camels to the third attraction, where we rode a train back to the cable car. Unfortunately, they were closing so we didn’t get to desert board but riding camels was a lot of fun!
Day 2: Temples , Lamb, Yurt
We spent Day 2 roaming around the outskirts of Huhot, first at the Genghis Khan Mausoleum and then at the Wudang Temple. Both were beautiful and so different from each other. Genghis Khan was more like a museum: beautiful frescos, gold-painted ceilings, and places to pray and sacrifice for Genghis Khan. The Wudang Temple was in the mountains. It also had beautiful frescos but also a library, prayer dolls, and endless prayer flags.
What was more interesting, though, was what we did that night. We spent the night in the Mongolian grasslands. Driving another 4 hours from the temple site down a bumpy mountain road, we ended up in the grasslands at around 11pm for dinner. Starving, we huddled in a large dining yurt and had the best meal yet. With Mongolian women singing and waiters bringing us celebratory alcohol, we had a true Mongolian dinner of various dishes, including the famous lamb. Amidst the chaotic dinner, a couple of our friends took part in an Erdos wedding ceremony. They put on wedding clothes and drank cup after cup of baijiu, or Chinese alcohol. With the wedding came an entire whole roasted lamb, which my friend said was absolutely delicious.
After the dinner we went to our personal yurts, where we were staying for the night. It was hard to move in the dark because of the clumps of horse dung that decorated the entire field. Our yurts were of great quality. They looked like igloos and had beds and a toilet. Unfortunately the heat was solar so we could not shower that night. Going outside, though, we were able to see so many stars that they made up for the lack of heat. We stood outside, shivering, looking up searching for various constellations and shooting stars. Later that night, we pushed our beds together and snuggled together to keep warm.
Day 3: Mongolian Grasslands
We spent the last day in the grasslands. It was not as scenic as hoped but we were each thrown on a horse, who took us to each of the 5 scenic spots. The horses were gorgeous! We were able to switch from time to time. They walked, trotted, and galloped. My last horse was a beautiful white horse that went crazy. He or she galloped and shook his/her mane around fervently. I was honestly pretty scared but it was fun. When the horses trotted, however, we just didn’t know how to ride them well so we bumped up and down on the saddle (and went for massages right when we got home!).
After the ride, we watched Mongolian horse-racing and wrestling. Then we headed on a bus back to Huhot for a bit of shopping and the train ride home.
Like I said, the trip was disorganized, the food was bad, and we spent a good amount of the trip on the bus. But we kept telling ourselves “it could be worse”– and it really was a great trip after all.
Wednesday, October 5, 2011
However, aside from all that, my past 6 weeks here have been amazing. Trinity offers a program for abroad students called the Semester Start-Up Program (SSP) in order to introduce us to Irish history, literature, and art & architecture before the semester starts, so my first 3 weeks here were spent learning about Ireland and taking field trips to places like Trim Castle (c. 1000 AD), the Hill of Tara (where the high kings of Ireland used to reside), Croke Park (Ireland's national sports stadium), Kilmainham Gaol (jail), the Abbey Theater, and the Guinness Storehouse. An interesting fact about the Guinness Storehouse: in 1759 Arthur Guinness signed a 9,000-year lease to the storehouse land for £45 per year. While it probably seemed pretty ridiculous at the time, he's looking like a genius now...only £45 per year!
Aside from the SSP trips, I've also been travelling around Ireland as much as I can. I've taken day trips around Dublin, to county Wicklow (where parts of the movie P.S. I Love You were filmed), the city of Howth, and the town of Dun Laoghaire (Dunleary), all of which have been beautiful. So far I've seen a lot of the exact things you'd expect from Ireland: rolling green hills, heather, ocean, crumbling rock, and old castles. Quite majestic. This weekend I'm heading to Galway, on the west coast of Ireland, to visit the Cliffs of Moher and the Aran Islands, so more majestic scenery is ahead!