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Paris by Theme

Oh, Paris. Largest city in France, the city of lights, and often times used (incorrectly) interchangeably with France. Paris is often described as the city that can change lives, or at least perspectives. It is also described as a touristy crap-hole devoid of authenticity and culture. I would definitely put it somewhere in the middle but leaning toward life-changing.

I have already been to Paris once-ish, so I was thankful to have all of the touristy must-sees and must-dos out of the way: Notre Dame, la Tour Eiffel, le Champs-Elysées. I decided that this weekend would have two goals in mind: to see as much art as possible and to visit the outer/less-touristy arrondissements (the French way to say neighborhood).

Does art mimic life or does life mimic art?

As for the art, I succeeded. I spent an entire day in the Louvre, which, is only one one bajillionth of the time that I could have spent there. I managed to get in free by simply flashing my student ID. (If you speak French well enough and proceed with confidence, you can find many little perks along the way.) I had heard the stories of how big the museum is and how impressive all of the works were, so I thought I was ready. I was not. After an hour had passed, I realized that I had seen approximately one fifteenth of the museum.

Highlights: artifacts from the Roman period (shout-out to my 8th grade Latin teacher for making this experience even more valuable), countless paintings of aristocrats in stuffy clothes from Italy, an awesome exhibit on Islamic art with gorgeous calligraphy, and finally, as much as I tried to be to cool to enjoy it, La Joconde (a.k.a. the Mona Lisa).

Lowlights: The section on African and Mexican art is closed on Fridays, so I did not get to see it.

I also got to see the Palais de Tokyo which had a lot of impressionist artwork – my favorite. Highlights include some amazing work by Matisse and paintings by Robert Delaunay (I still have not decided how I feel about all of his pieces).

La Grande Mosquée

As for the other half of my visit, I decided to take the metro to an unknown stop in a not-so-touristy part of town and see what I could find. I ended up getting off at Stalingrad. It was a diverse neighborhood, close to the train station, that was full of movement and life on every corner. There were at least two shops per block offering “Exotic African goods.” With my experience in Senegal, I set out to find my favorite soft drink ever, a pineapple flavored nectar of the gods called “Gazelle Ananas.” Although I did not get to find my soda, I did get to practice my Wolof and meet some amazing African immigrants living in Paris. For lunch, I opted for a hole-in-the-wall Turkish restaurant and had a delicious meal. I wish I could tell you what it was, but honestly, I do not really remember the name, nor do I know what it consisted of!

Starry night – more like snowy afternoon!

This seems like a pretty fun-filled and standard weekend trip to Paris, right? Well, here is the best part: the whole time Paris was covered with a thin blanket of snow. As someone who grew up in the south with parents from the north, I have that fondness of snow that only exists in those who have experienced it enough to know how to amuse oneself, but have not had to deal with the negative aspects: the shoveling, the monotony, etc. So, for this entire experience, Paris was in a rare form of beauty and I was walking around with my jaw on the floor the entire time.

Now, for the part of the week that I do not know if you enjoy or despise, but I am going to keep doing it anyway: the phrase of the week! Although, this week is not really as much a phrase as a general grammatical rule. In French, there is a hip type of slang called verlan. It is when you switch the syllables of a word to form a new word with the same meaning. For example, the word “famille” (pronounced fahmee), becomes mille-fa à “mifa.” However, the most frustrating part of this system is that you cannot use it on any word. For example, if you tried to take the word “baguette” and turn it in to “guetteba” you would be met with confusion and ridicule. The socially acceptable versions of verlan emerge from seemingly nowhere, but it is a cool thing to know. It is kind of like pig-latin but it is actually used by young French people. With all of this written, to you I say, “voi-rau.”

Crêpes and Karaoke

Despite being the most popular study-abroad program for undergraduates from Tech’s Atlanta campus, GTL is also filled with international students. The booming graduate program draws in students from nearby French, German, Italian (and more!) universities – and some international undergraduates as well. This adds to the cultural immersion and legitimacy as a study abroad program, given that we are taught in English by Georgia Tech professors. The small population of students means ample mingling in after-school events such as the “Crêpes and Karaoke” night hosted by the Bureau des Etudiants (BDE).

The BDE is a student board that hosts a plethora of exciting events, but I can’t help but be thrilled at this new level of entertainment. Music, food, and alliteration? Sounds like the ideal evening. Apparently, also the perfect time to schedule an exam. While the only alternative was a Thursday evening when I had already planned to be in another country, it was a particular tragedy that my exam fell exactly during the allotted time span of an event involving crêpes. Fortunately, my procrastination and BDE’s initiative meant that the student chefs’ crêpe technique was already being perfected to the beat of some sick tunes while I was studying for my exam the hour before. Considering the size of my class, I was evidently not the only disgruntled and starving pupil, and a new policy was enacted allowing anyone who was going to be taking the exam to have a crêpe early. I believe this boost of morale augmented the exam average by at least 5 percent.

While perhaps unwise, my stomach advised that I devise a competition with myself to see how quickly I could finish the test in order to maximize crêpe-to-stomach flow rate as opposed to academic achievement. Luckily, student love for BDE events tends to cause them to run past their intended ending time, and I arrived with plenty of time to partake. While neither I nor my peers have perfected the crêpe technique exemplified by the French vendors, a healthy slathering of Nutella masks any inconsistency in texture and keeps flavor at a maximum. Unfortunately, it seems BDE needs to increase their dedicated Nutella budget, as I could eat two large containers myself.

Years of study under an orchestra conductor that did not understand that we were not in the chorus for a reason has allowed me to cultivate a relatively decent singing voice. It should never be heard solo, but is acceptable in the impromptu group numbers that musicals convinced young Aria were a fact of life. I never quite got up the guts to go up to perform in karaoke myself, but happily joined in when a favorite song of mine was being performed. The international American hold on music soon was overtaken by a French revival, leaving me with a new game of attempting to predict the melody and sing along regardless. I believe my attempt was admirable, but the main enjoyment was experiencing French songs other than those intended for children that my French teacher in high school favored.

In true GTL style, the night couldn’t be complete without a bit of ping pong. This time, a little less serious. I arrived in the middle of an interesting game involving about 10 people, that seemed to follow the general rules that players on opposing sides of the table would each hit the ball once before moving on to let the player behind them take the next one. This circular pattern followed, with each person dropping out of the game once they made a mistake, eventually resulting in a few players sprinting around the now much too large path in an attempt to make it to the other side in time. Creative, competitive, and a cultural mish-mash, the night epitomized GTL student camaraderie.

A Real Meal? With a Real French Family!

By now, I hope you all realize that I love French. The food, the language, the people – no matter what it is, I am sure to be a fan. So, I was thrilled to find out that GTL was going to offer a cultural exchange, where students taking a French class could be hosted by a French family for dinner.

Now, I have had my fair share of interactions as a house guest in France, so I prepped myself for the do’s and don’ts. Do: come with some sort of housewarming gift. I went to the bakery and picked up fancy croissants and some choco+Nutella filled beignets. Do: compliment everything. I brushed up on my positive adjectives expressions of gratitude. Don’t: refuse dishes if you can help it. I’m an extremely adventurous eater, so no worries on this one. Don’t: be worried. French people can seem really mean, especially on a societal level, but they’re actually very welcoming and inviting (especially on an individual level).

I got ready for the evening, making sure to even shower before going (I know, my parents raised a classy young man), and I headed over to GTL to meet my new family. While waiting to get introduced, I played some ping-pong and helped the other students brush up on their French expressions, and just got more and more excited. As with any event, plenty of people were running late or had to cancel last-minute, so my family got switched, and I ended up being matched with a junior in high school and her family. She and her dad were very nice, and we hit it off by making jokes about the fact that I did not look like a Reema, the girl they were originally matched with. Obviously, this was an opportunity for Rebecca, my host-sister, to practice her English, so I couldn’t speak only French, but I definitely used it a lot.

The family was amazing. Consisting of a dad who worked in banking in Luxembourg, a mom who is a high-school Spanish/Portuguese Teacher, and a daughter who is wicked smart and wants to do engineering after high-school. And how could I forget, two cats with personalities immediately evident and totally opposite. They also had a turtle and an axolotl super cool type of amphibian. Before the meal, they gave me a small tour of the house and we had endless conversations about politics, Pokemon Go, languages, engineering, basically everything.

Then, the best part of the evening started, THE FOOD. Like any French meal, we started out with some cheese that was so delicious. (I’m a little bit lactose-intolerant, but I tend to just ignore it while I am here because oh my goodness the cheese is so, so, so good.) Then, we had some homemade juice that was half apple juice, half Mirabelle juice – very regional and very delicious. Then for dinner, crepes with ham, cheese, cheese, cheese, and other delicious additions. Then for dessert, CRÊPES AGAIN!!!! It was amazing, and there wasn’t a moment without conversation.

At the end of the night, I realized that I totally forgot about the baked goods that I bought, and I must have left them at GTL, so I asked them to swing by the GTL building on the way home. Unfortunately, they weren’t there either, so I definitely owe them some baked goods.

I bet that you thought this was the end of the post—I did too, but then the next day, their family invited me out to lunch! They told me they were going to stop by the Open House at Georgia Tech Lorraine, and they would love to see me before. I was so excited, so we made the plans, and then I had the most French meal that I have ever eaten—an all you can eat Chinese buffet. (Okay, not the most authentic, but it was delicious, and I wasn’t complaining.) I got to meet Rebecca’s best friend, who was also incredibly smart and quick on her feet, and we had a wonderful meal together. Then, they all came by GTL and heard all about the opportunities that were offered and it was sweet. As of now, we are still in contact, and I think it has turned into a nice friendship! I am so lucky to have had this opportunity, and lucky that I got paired with a family as fun as Rebecca’s.

Affording Opportunity

Growing up the daughter of an Economics major, weighing opportunity cost was a daily habit. In high school, I often turned down proposals of exotic trips. I worked, and though I could pay for gas for my car and some luxuries while still saving a few thousand dollars for emergency, the cost of a single one of these would take out an astronomical percentage of my savings. My orchestra traveled to Austria in my junior year in high school. For a European spring break trip that included missing a few extra days of school, competing as an orchestra, and eating chocolate with Mozart’s face on it, the price was downright reasonable. For people who consider traveling to Austria on spring break in the first place. Despite persuasive claims that an opportunity like this will never be so affordable, I turned it down.

I now find myself in Vienna, eating Mozart chocolates and rubbing out the aches of a 12-hour train ride. I have already been traveling extensively for months at this point, but this is the city that drives it home for me. The city that was my original opportunity at Europe now represents my furthest distance traveled. GTL is genuinely an outstanding opportunity that this time I couldn’t turn down.

College students are generally understood to be poor, but this comes with the perk of universal pity. From scholarships to Spotify discounts, it’s nice in this instance to be reminded of how much debt you are in when it means you can live above your means while still making self-deprecating Ramen jokes. I’ve personally come to experience a form of income in which the Financial Aid office gives me enough loans to cover the overpriced food and housing of a freshman, but I have since reduced my costs while getting to keep the leftover as “savings” – to be spent on Austrian chocolate, of course. With all this support, European travel has never been so unintuitively affordable.

If you’re an out of state student, like so many are, studying at GTL allows you to pay in-state tuition, effectively saving money by moving to France. This spare cash can then be allocated to your daily pastry budget instead of the debts that you can ignore since you go to a top school and are just waiting for your offer from Google to come any day now. If you are in-state, like me, you get to complain about how you now have to pay for traveling every weekend and there’s no loan for that while your out of state friends loudly remind you of how the sandwich they’re eating costs more than your tuition.

While the only cure for disgruntled non-Georgia residents is to bow your head to their superior debts, there are solutions to your travel woes. Despite my fears that I would technically be able to afford to attend GTL but would end up sitting in my dorm every weekend with no money for a place to stay, I have traveled every weekend while staying hundreds of dollars under my (quite overestimated) budget.

  • Scholarships:

The best advice I can give is to fill out the OIE study abroad scholarship application. It is the easiest application I have ever filled out, and it got me an extra $3,000 unexpectedly. There are so many scholarships tied to this application and every dollar can make a difference. Of course, there are tons of other outside scholarships, but they take considerably more effort to find.

  • Jobs:

Working part time during school or full time in off semesters is an obvious way to get some money, and savings from these earning periods can make affording GTL travel much less stressful. Finding a job while at GTL is less likely, but still possible. Some people write for the GTL blog to get a free Eurail pass. Others are RA’s, but that’s a bit too much interaction with people for me. My years working in the tourist industry have worn through my cheery persona to my cynical core.

  • Financial Scams:

Credit cards are gambling for adults who want to be perceived as financially responsible as they give in to their addictions. I was initially hesitant to get a credit card, but now it is going well, and my credit has been rising steadily. After getting this system down, I wanted more. Higher cash back, better revolving categories, the works. Since I needed to get a new card for GTL without foreign transaction fees, this was the perfect opportunity to spend hours researching. I eventually settled on the Barclay card Arrival Plus, which gave me 40,000 miles as a sign on bonus if I spent $3,000 in the first 90 days. This led to another plot, where I opened a savings account with my bank backed by $1,000 paid from my card, earning me a new account to help with budgeting – and the sign on bonus that has paid for most of my weekend Airbnbs.

The experience at GTL is different for everyone, but can also be affordable for anyone. This really is the most opportune time to drop everything and live in Europe for four months. Vienna lived up to all expectations as the city that is the pinnacle of so many of my long-standing interests. The Spanish Riding School (named for the Spanish roots of their Lipizzaner horses) was the highlight of my trip, despite a hindered ability to breathe given that a decade of daily allergy pills was apparently not enough for me to remember that I’m allergic to horses. My one regret: not following suit after wondering why both people in front of me at Manner chocolate spent 50 EUR on this exclusive treat.

Redefining Celebration

Moving to Europe is accompanied by an unavoidable culture shock. That’s kind of the point, though, so the shock really isn’t that…shocking. As the time goes by, it’s not the everyday that gets to me. It’s when I realize that my 20th birthday is this week. I’m not with family. I’m not with most of my friends. I’m not a teenager anymore. Most importantly, I can’t get the homemade pound cake my mom makes every year from an old family recipe. (It’s seriously to die for.)

Normally, under any resistance, I would be inclined to forgo celebrating my birthday at all. However, the week started off with an unexpected package arriving – my mom’s pound cake, shipped all the way from home and accompanied by candles. While the shipping costs were outrageous, the gesture was so touching and exactly the reminder of home I needed at this point in the program. But as for the rest of my traditions, this year I needed to redefine what it means to celebrate, through a trip to Amsterdam.

It began as usual: cities and museums. The Van Gogh museum provides a refreshing take on an art museum. Instead of oddly modern or historically classical like most art I have been viewing, Van Gogh sits comfortably in the middle. The museum focuses on him as a person, his development, and his techniques. This narrative structure makes every piece more substantial, as you understand his influences and attempts to incorporate new ideas into his work. A favorite of mine was his experimentation with color. Upon learning of complementary colors and their contrasts, he thought to mix them. This resulted in a drab brown that he painted with in various tones. Later, he learned not to mix them, but to place them next to each other in bands of pure color. This creates a fascinating texture up close, but a vividness and overall hue from further away, reminiscent of LCD screens.

Saturday, my actual birthday, was an effort I had been planning for months but only actually became possible at 2 am the day of. For most of my life, before coming to Tech and forgetting what it means to have hobbies, I have ridden horses. For my birthday, I found a place that would allow me to ride one of my favorite breeds of horses on the beach of the island Tershelling. There was one catch: I had to be at the ferry at 8:00am, and the only way that was possible via train was to leave at midnight from Amsterdam, and experience a 3-hour layover with the high likelihood of being kicked out of the train station when it closed. In deadly cold weather.

At the unfortunately early time of 11:58pm, I was abruptly woken and informed that we needed to leave immediately. Until we realized that it was actually 12:58am, and we had actually missed the train entirely. There was absolutely no way to make it on time. Tired, cold, and devastated, we alternated between searching for any remaining option, and just feeling the weight of the lost money, time, sleep, and opportunity. Then, at 2:00am in the morning, we found a car rental open at 6:30am, and at $70, it was worth it to save the money already invested in reservations. To top it off, the drastically shortened commute allowed for a few more hours of sleep.

After that lowest point, the day only improved. We slept. The car we wanted was accidentally rented, so they upgraded us for free to a Jaguar. The drive, though incredibly stressful (the threats concerning damaging the car were numerous) was gorgeous, and gave us a chance to appreciate the open country for once. We made it on the ferry 5 minutes before it left, and then to the barn just in time for the first ride.

I rode for a total of four hours. On my second trip out, I was the only person not fluent in Dutch. While my first guide translated for us, this guide did not seem to have been told that I only spoke English. It’s amazing how much is still comprehensible, as I happily nodded when she asked if I wanted to “draf” or “galop” or laughed along with everyone at the large gestures of one girl as she told her stories. I never expected to feel like such fast friends with a group of complete strangers, not even aware that the quiet girl doesn’t speak their language, while flying down the beach on uniformly enormous black horses. The ride wasn’t without its difficulty, however, leading to one woman falling off at our fastest speed.

My birthday weekend was hectic and fun, like I strive for my life to be. It wouldn’t be complete without sleeping through the Metz stop on the train and accidentally ending up in Nancy. After managing to be on time to everything that weekend, we had to wait for a bus leaving at 11:30 pm to take us back to Metz, and then walk home for 40 minutes in the cold. Above all, I learned that there is always another way to get anywhere and do anything if you’re willing to put in the effort to research.

In Someone Else’s Shoes

Not often do you get to live in another country. Even weirder is living in someone else’s house. Through my weekend travels, I have experienced a range of accommodations, with most found on Airbnb. Each trip feels like a trial run in someone’s life. I eat their food, stay in their bed, and in the case of Amsterdam, experience their near vertical stairs. One even let me borrow clothes, so for fun I tried on a pair of pink velvet boots as I happened to be the same size as the owner. From a hostel room with 8 people to an apartment so nice I couldn’t leave, my weekend housing has largely shaped my experiences.

The attitude for most GTL students is that we simply can’t afford to stay somewhere nice. Travelling every weekend, with no income, means the time to try out that fancy resort is after we have gotten that engineer’s salary we keep hearing about. However, speaking as someone who has been tired my entire life, my sleep is important to me, and it’s not hard to find something cheap and nice. So here, I present my best tips for optimizing your weekend stay:

  1. Book Early

This is obvious. For any sane person going on a trip to Europe, they would book all their major reservations months ahead of time. The thing is, GTL students aren’t exactly sane. We plan new trips to new countries with new people every weekend. When the professor turns his back, we whisper airline confirmation codes. The best way to find a cheap place to stay is to check early and check often. Find a place with a flexible cancellation policy, and you can get your money back if you decide to change your travel plans later. Airbnb prices fluctuate much more than a hostel, so checking as frequently as you can will sometimes allow you to grab a new listing that is cheaper than it should be.

  1. Location, Location, Location

While price is king, location matters. Staying within walking distance of a train station, especially the main one, is insanely convenient and can save money on public transportation. Also, the station is usually a bit removed from the most popular real estate, making it more affordable. I now always check where the station I’m arriving in is located, and look there first. After hurting my ankle in Paris and having to walk up and down the metro stairs continuously, to me it is essential to ensure I have easy transportation. If not the train station, check for other accessible but cheaper locations. In Amsterdam, we stayed just outside the city lines in Zaandam. A train travels into the center often, and we got a ridiculously cheap stay in a gorgeous neighborhood while the rest of the city trended around $70/night minimum.


  1. Don’t Discount Perks

While I don’t travel for the housing accommodations, they can be significant. In Berlin, I stayed in an 8-person hostel room. This was the most affordable option, and I’d do it again, but it was incredibly hard having no privacy and essentially no room to spend time in, due to attempting to respect the wide variety of sleeping schedules. In contrast, we had an entire apartment 5 minutes from the train station in Antwerp for 2 people, for about $60 per night. This apartment was the nicest apartment I have ever been in, to the point I could barely get myself to leave, and we cancelled our place in Brussels so we could stay in another night. With its own espresso machine, free food, a giant TV and luxurious sleeping accommodations, I was planning how I could recreate this in my own apartment. The space was huge, and could easily have room for at least two more people on the L-shaped couch. I don’t know the legality of it, but fitting four people in an advertised two-person apartment would make this an absurdly good deal. With the free food, the savings were even greater.

My weekend in Amsterdam was largely chosen for the availability of a new Airbnb significantly under market price. This was the most wholesome ad I had seen, titled simply “My Home” and full of cute suggestions of accommodations the host was contemplating. As we were his first guests, the place was not in perfect shape, but he enthusiastically messaged me frequently as the day got closer. He made us soup upon arrival, later cooked an extensive Mexican dinner (hard to find in Europe), and allowed us to borrow his bicycles for free. We even saw improvements throughout the day, as our room on the upper level was still being built. Notably, a door miraculously appeared after he excitedly told us to expect a surprise upon our return. With all his little details, it really felt like home.

Like with most things at GTL, everyone has a different style in their travels. My personal recommendation is to not immediately base your decision on price, but to weigh the value of other benefits. Beyond just touring in a city, I have gotten the opportunity to live with locals, hear their recommendations, imagine their lives, and have a nice cup of tea on top of it all.

Parties, Shindigs, and Fêtes – An Analysis

By now, you all probably know Maxime as well as I do. However, that is not going to keep me from writing another post about him because this past weekend I celebrated his birthday!!!

This also happened to be the weekend of the Open House (a.k.a. Portes Ouvertes!), so I couldn’t travel very far anyway, but right after I took the train back to St. Avold. My friend Laura and her friend picked me up, and we headed back to her house to get ready.

Laura’s mom is one of the sweetest people that I have ever met (the first time I came she gave me a headband with two French flags that stick out of it), so I was very excited to see her again! Then we just hung out while Laura did her make-up, hair, and put on a dress. Then we met up with two other students, and headed over to the party.

The party was in a room attached to the soccer field in the town. It was like a recreation room and was equipped with tables and a sound system. It was so nice to see Maxime’s family, especially the kids, and it was nice to see Maxime’s friends that had become my friends. I could keep going about the catching up I did and the personal family stories that were shared, but I think it would be more interesting for all of you if I write about differences and similarities that I noticed between parties in the US and parties here.

One major similarity was that people were very hesitant to dance. There was thumping music and a great vibe for the evening, but very few people danced. At one point, Max wanted to encourage everyone to dance, so he and Laura “asked” (here read as guilt-tripped) me to dance passionately and aggressively when they played Single Ladies. I was a little hesitant at first, I didn’t want to be the one to break the tension, but Max reminded me it was his birthday, and asked me how Beyoncé would feel if I refused to dance to her music. That did the trick. It was horrifying and embarrassing and everyone started filming, but it was still really fun. Also, the dancing that French people do is very similar to the awkward bouncing with some moves sprinkled throughout that happens at many American parties.

One thing that was a little different was that all of Maxime’s close friends grouped together to get him a really nice present, tickets to a music festival. I don’t know about your friends, but my I have never been a part of a friend group organized enough to pull this off in the States. (Also, I have since been invited to 3 other birthday parties and all of them have similar concepts of a group present.)

The food: a delicious homemade mix of German and French cuisine that was all prepared by Maxime’s grandmother. I snacked throughout the entire evening.

At the end of the party, after only those who were spending the night were left, we all worked together to clean everything up. I am not opposed to cleaning things up; however, I was shocked that we did it that night as opposed to the next morning. We even mopped the floors! I was thrilled. Cleaning is so methodical and relaxing for me, so it was a lot of fun for me. (I know what you’re thinking: Robby, calm down you party animal. This is a school-sponsored blog.)

Other than these minor differences, the party was very similar to a party in the States, and the most important part was that we had fun and Maxime felt special!

The next day, we had a lovely dinner with his family where I got to try rabbit for the first time. It was gamier than I expected and was used to, but it was still absolutely delicious.

Now, for the phrase of the week! I hope you don’t feel cheated, but this weeks phrase is “lol.” I know, I know, I am incredibly in touch with French culture to come up with something so radically different from anything we know in English. But, the big difference is that French teenagers will say it, as if it was a word. It sounds like the beginning of lullaby, and it is mostly used in a sarcastic way. Try putting this to use in your friend group and see how it goes! See ya next week!

Valentine’s Day

On a personal note, by virtue of opinion and objective analysis, I am concretely opposed to the idea of Valentine’s Day. Capitalizing on romantic love, the inherent insinuation that romance needs to be a part of everyone’s life and the associated negative feelings that come to those who do not have this idealized love to celebrate on this day, and the general heteronormativity of the day are the reasons that I am opposed to Valentine’s Day. However, as a human, I am prone to irrationally contradict my beliefs, so I love Valentine’s Day. I always imagine these fantastical situations where I meet the man of my dreams and spend an unforgettable day with him – and am constantly disappointed when this is not the case.

This year for Valentine’s Day, I controlled myself. I said, “Self, you are not in a position to find love, and you should just live this day like any other.” So, I decided to treat myself and go see the new film Black Panther. (On a side-note, this film was absolutely amazing. I am not a fan of action movies nor superhero movies, but this film was so much better than I anticipated, and I recommend it to anyone and everyone.)

I did some research and decided that on this Wednesday night I would go to Strasbourg, watch the movie and come home. Fast-forward two days where I meet not exactly the man of my dreams, but an interesting and fun guy. I decide to invite him to see the film with me and he accepts. I am, for the first time in my life, going to have a date on Valentine’s Day. Also, he is French, so this also provides an opportunity for me to practice my French and see what dating is like in France.

On Valentine’s Day, I wake up, go to class, rush home to primp, and then head to the train station. My unnamed companion said he would meet me at the train station after his dentist appointment. (I know! Just like in the movies.) So, I put on my best outfit head to the train station. Because I was ridiculously nervous, I got to the station an hour early—a full 2 hours after his dentist appointment. When I get there, I send him a message to let him now I am there and that I am excited. (At this point, I feel compelled to tell you that I am generally needy and stress out over radio silence. Friends, family, no matter who it is, I cannot stand being ignored.)  I sit in the Metz train station, pedaling the bike powered charger, trying to read, and anxiously checking my phone. 5, 10, 15, 20 minutes drag by without a response. I tell myself at the 37-minute mark I will follow-up, just to make sure that he has received the message. Of course, I cave and send a follow up message at the 28-minute mark. Time slowly passes without a response.

Now counting time from my message turns into counting time before the train leaves. At the 15-minute mark, I tell myself he is going to stand me up. At the 13-minute mark, I invent an elaborate plan on his part that includes showing up with flowers. At the 10-minute mark, I board the train. At the 5-minute mark, I send a last message asking if he is coming. As the train takes off, I realize that I finally had a Valentine’s Day straight out of the movies. However, instead of the romantic gesture and unforgettable evening I imagines, I realized I am in the middle of the romantic comedy, where the couple faces an obstacle that causes heartbreak. (Not really heartbreak, but it sounds better.)

I get to Strasbourg, eat a quick kebab (nothing has changed), go see the film, which, it bears repeating, was absolutely amazing, and head back to the train station. But, as if the evening could get worse, I realize I grossly miscalculated the time of the movie and the necessary time to return to the train station and I have missed the last train to Metz. I end up getting a room in a youth hostel, spend a quiet evening reading, and head back to Metz the next day.

This story, while it is fun to laugh at (no worries, I am able to laugh at it, so you can too), also opens the door for some more emotional or meaningful thoughts that I can share with you.

The first one I want to talk about is being gay in a foreign country. I am so fortunate to have an amazing support system and unending, unconditional (albeit suffocating) love from my family. But, that doesn’t mean that being gay is easy. I worry about being open with my sexuality in the States, despite this amazing support system, so traveling abroad can be especially daunting when it is coupled with being gay. (It shouldn’t be ignored that this abroad experience is still an incredibly privileged situation. I am a United States citizen, traveling with a university program, in countries where being gay is relatively well accepted.)

Being gay in France is definitely different than in the States. France legalized gay marriage in 2012 and French people are often known for their open and accepting attitude toward love. However, there are definitely other barriers in France. One of those is that French people guard their private life (la vie privée) sacredly. Whether it is religion or sexual orientation, French culture has a self-imposed “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. There certainly are not student organizations that create spaces for gay students (or students of color, etc.). It’s not as harsh or strict as I have made it seem, but it is there nonetheless and incredibly difficult to explain or describe. Transitioning from my community in the States, where I am very open with my sexuality, to French circles makes me feel as though I am hiding a part of myself.

However, these are largely theoretical and internal barriers. The community of students at GTL are extremely accepting, and I have not run into a single problem! Also, all of my French friends that I have met are accepting and welcoming, although surprised by the casualness with which I reference my sexuality and how it influences my life.

All this to say: Valentine’s Day is a scam.

I know I usually don’t add a phrase of the week for the mid-week posts, but there is a phrase that goes so well with this post that I have to add it! Lucky you! “Ça ne tombera pas plus bas.” Literally meaning “it will not fall any lower,” is used to mean that the situation cannot get worse, you can only go up from here. This is what I said to myself as I got stood-up, only to find that “Ca tombera plus bas encore.” And I would miss the train home!


Berlin – Hidden History

I’m often struck by how casually historic Europe is, but it has never felt so present as in Berlin. This may be due to the fact that the only historic tour I have taken was in this city, though I am sure I could not be so easily biased. Berlin is ancient, with a long history now entirely overlooked in favor of that of the last century. The negative nature of the history results in an odd attitude of “give it no memorial” yet “never forget so as to never repeat.” For me at least, there was also an eerie sense of how recent this history really is, when a textbook makes it seem so removed.

The ravages of war as well as efforts to obliterate evil leave few visible traces of the 20th century. Brandenburg Tor remains one of the most famous relics of Berlin’s more distant past. The hotel opposite it also survived over 300 bombings during WWII, yet could not make it through one Russian party where the celebration of victory resulted in accidentally burning down the building. The rebuilt hotel now has a bulletproof penthouse that costs €26,000 per night (no breakfast included) and is the famous site of such events as Michael Jackson dangling his child out the window. A more somber example of this trend of demolition can be found in front of a nearby apartment complex. Here, a parking lot where dogs are often brought to pee covers the location of Hitler’s bunker. This, as well as the destruction of other reminders represents Berlin’s efforts to leave no memorial to wrongdoers and instead rebuild anew.

In contrast, tributes to the victims are readily visible and frequent. The memorial for the Jews killed in the Holocaust was the most striking experience for me. This cannot be adequately experienced in any way other than in person. Pictures make it impossible to see its magnitude or depth. These unassuming cement blocks transform into a momentous weight when in their presence. It looks like a cemetery, yet unmarked and uniform, recalling the dehumanization of this population. As you enter, the ground waves up and down, disorienting, but trends downwards as the blocks do so upwards. By the middle, the blocks double or triple human height. They are simply so massive as to force consideration of the weighty events they represent.

Later years in Berlin’s history are marked by the division into east and west Berlin. We happened to be in the city on the weekend after the celebration of the wall having been down for as long as it was up: 28 years, two months and 27 days. Again, the immediacy of this history is startling. I look around and see one united city, yet can still find segments of the wall and people telling stories of their time when it was up.

The last century in Berlin was marked by destruction. A beautiful church, simply blocking the view of a guard tower along the wall, was torn down. Historic monuments and buildings were obliterated in two world wars. Even what remains, such as the beautiful columns of the buildings of museum island, are scorched black and riddled with bullet holes. Statues are decapitated and maimed. Yet the spirit of the city is strong. Now, instead of crumbling under the weight of its history, Berlin chooses to find a new identity.

Berlin is a city of growth. Though the wall was torn down only a few decades ago, the only way you can tell which side you are on now is by a brick path marking the wall’s location. Buildings are being reconstructed, some using original stones and restoring the previous grandeur. Others take a modern spin. Currently, the front of a palace is being rebuilt, but the rear of the building will be modern. In this manner, Berlin is pulling itself up. This city is so valuable that it inspires the efforts of a multitude pour their hearts (and wallets) into bringing back what they have lost, while creating a vibrant new personality.

Lyon On The Fly

So, this weekend I was supposed to go to Colmar, a beautiful little town on the side of a river in Alsace, France in order to visit the cousin of my grandfather. Her name is Monique. I met her one time when I was 3 years old when she came to visit my grandparents in Atlanta. However, in the past couple of years, she has started writing letters to my grandparents again, but she doesn’t speak very much English, and my grandparents do not speak French. And so I was dubbed as the family translator. Through that, I started writing letters with Monique to learn more about her and to practice my French. All of this to say, she has a disease that disrupts the communication between her eyes and the neurons, and it sometimes flares up to the point that she cannot leave the house. So, on Thursday she called saying it was flaring up and asked if it was okay to cancel.

While it was pretty stinky that I couldn’t see her, it presented me with an amazing opportunity. A weekend of spontaneity: no planning, no itineraries – just go and explore. So, I looked all over Europe for an AirBnB under $25, that were available the next day, and that were in a fun city. I found one that was perfect in Lyon. So I booked my train and went.

I got to Lyon at about 5 PM, and I was so so excited to be out of Lorraine, so I could escape the daily rain that haunts the region in the wintertime. I get to the Lyon train station, and it is bustling with life. So many people going in so many directions, no matter where I went I felt like a salmon swimming downstream. (Get it? Because salmon usually swim upstream, so if a salmon was swimming downstream, it would be going the opposite direction of all the other salmon, so this salmon would feel like an American in the Lyon train station.)

I walk out of the train station for my first taste of Lyon, and of course, it is overcast and raining! I go to take the tram to get to my AirBnB so I can drop of my bag, and because it’s rush hour, the tram is packed. I can’t even fit on the first one that comes, and on the second one, I am smashed against the door the entire time while simultaneously having body contact with 5 different people. Of course, I love big cities and huge crowds, so I am thrilled and look like a total weirdo on this crowded bus because everyone is bothered by the crowd, and I am just smiling from ear-to-ear.

I get to my AirBnB and get all checked in, and it is exactly what you would expect for a $22 room. Clean, easy to find, but not much more than a mattress on the floor. (Albeit, a mattress that is 30 times more comfortable than I expected and 50 times more comfortable than the mattress in my residence.)

So, I leave my AirBnB, find the metro, and hop on. Like this entire trip, I have planned nothing, so I decide to get off at “Hôtel de Ville,” which I now know is in the center of “Vieux Lyon” (historic Lyon, literally “Old Lyon”). I walk around and find directions to a theatre because I bought a ticket for a play. I get to the place, called “Théâtre le nombril du monde,” and check in. There is a bar part that is separate from the theatre, where you can wait until the show starts. So, I waited around and made small talk with the other people there.

The show was amazing. It was another small café, even smaller than the one in Nancy, and so personal. It was about two people that get stuck in an elevator, so the stage was very simple, and it made the play more intense and intimate. The play was so good, and it was a lot more serious and heavy than the one in Nancy.

After the play, I was soaked and tired from having walked around, so I went home and went to sleep.

On Saturday morning I woke up with 0 plans for the day. I decided to start off by walking around the Hotêl de Ville area, this time in the daylight. It was beautiful again. I looked inside the courtyard of the Musée des Beaux Arts but didn’t have time for a full visit. For lunch, I found a cute little bagel shop, that turned out to be an American-themed restaurant. Everything was in wood: the walls, the tables, the plates. The walls were covered with old-school American advertisements for milkshakes and bubble gum. It was a quaint lunch, and I got a turkey bagel with a side of nachos with guacamole. (It was the worst guacamole I had ever had, but the rest of the meal was pretty good.)

After lunch, I just walked around all over the city. Lyon is beautiful: much bigger than Metz with many different architectural styles. Some of the highlights of my exploring include: accidentally stumbling across a zoo in the “Tete en or,” getting churros and coffee on the side of the road, a 90-minute walk along the Rhône, and an impromptu break in a small park.

Now, I am going to warn you, the next part of this blog post is going to sound super hippy-dippy but bear with me. At one point on my walking journey, I stopped in a little park covered in pebbles nudged between two buildings. I sat down to just enjoy the scenery and closed my eyes and just listened. At first all I heard were the cars on the road nearby. Then, slowly, new sounds started showing up. Peoples feet crunching the pebbles, a woman spraying her hairspray with an open window, and the last sound to come was birds chirping. It was a really beautiful moment to sit there, do nothing, and just enjoy the hustle and bustle of the city around me. I know that it sounded super wanna-be artsy, but you should all try it whenever you visit somewhere new.

Anyway, Lyon was super amazing, much larger than Metz, and very welcoming. But now, it’s time for the best part of every week: PHRASE OF THE WEEK, woohoo, wow, amazing. This week’s phase is going to be “J’en ai marre” which means I am fed up or I have had enough. I thought about this as the phrase of the week because of all of the kebab’s I have eaten, however, it doesn’t apply.

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