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Category: Robby (Page 1 of 2)

Senegal: JAMM REKK!

So, this spring break I had the opportunity to return to one of my favorite places in the entire world, Senegal. Last summer, through Georgia Tech’s LBAT (Language in Business and Technology) program, I was able to spend three months in Senegal doing an internship and taking French classes. These three months definitely had their challenges, but overall it was one of the best experiences of my life, and I was so grateful to be able to go back for Spring Break.

That being said, I am trying to not double-dip with my blog posts, so if you want to read about my previous trip to Senegal you can find out all about it at www.robbytakesdakar.weebly.com !

I flew into Senegal very, very, very early Friday morning (most of their flights land and take off around 2 am). I rented an AirBNB from a wonderful family in a fun neighborhood (Sacre-Coeur 3), so I had the address. It was about a 20-minute drive from the airport and taxis in Senegal are very safe, so I was just planning on getting one after I made it through customs. That is, until I land in Senegal and realize that the new airport is open and I am now about 50km outside of the city at 2 am. Not exactly an ideal situation. However, I thought back to a Senegalese proverb, “ndank ndank muy japp golo ci nay.” Which literally translates to, “little by little you will catch the monkey in the forest,” but is used to mean have patience and everything will work out.

So, I do some quick research and find that the average fare for a taxi is around 40 euros, or there is a shuttle that runs directly downtown for 10 euros. I was definitely a little nervous about taking an unknown shuttle 50 km at 2 in the morning, but since I had been to the country before and knew how patient and accepting Senegalese people are, I decided to go for it!

Took the shuttle no problem, got off near the largest soccer stadium, and got a taxi to take me to the location of my AirBNB that I had marked on my map. Now, the tricky thing about taxis in Senegal is that Google/Apple Maps/Waze are not used. The way it works is that you give the neighborhood of your destination, a little tricky if you’re a toubab (wolof word for white foreigner, not usually used hatefully), with nothing more than a street address. I got through this part with no problem. Then, they will ask you what part of the neighborhood you want to go to. The tricky thing is that you still can’t use street names, you have to use landmarks. The harder thing is knowing which landmarks are acceptable. For example, one time I tried to use this huge shopping center, “Central Park” as a landmark, and the driver had no idea what I was talking about. However, other times I have successfully used a deformed tree to direct a driver. Usually, when it gets to this point, I direct the driver close enough and walk the difference. However, this time, the location that I marked was right near the interstate and I was able to direct him exactly there. 3:30 am and I finally made it to my AirBNB, right? WRONG. I had saved the wrong GPS location and had absolutely no idea where to go. So here I am, 4am, a 6’2” red headed toubab lost with a giant suitcase. That is how you get to know the character of a city.

I find someone sleeping in the street, and I gently wake him to ask him for directions. This in turn starts a chain reaction where he wakes someone else who has to go buy credit for their phone so I can call my host and then the host talks to my two new companions and explains to them where to go, so we set off. We get there, and the two men that helped me turn to leave, not even expecting any compensation. That is such a typical experience in Senegal. People are so ready to help you and are so willing to go out of their way to guide you. It was an amazing start to the trip.

For the rest of this post, I am going to break-out of a chronological narrative and just talk about the highlights of the trip because I would otherwise write an entire novel.

The Family:

My AirBNB family was composed of a man from the Ivory Coast that married a woman from Senegal and were raising their two children: Momo (about 2 years old) and a 10 month-old infant whose name I do not know. Momo was so shocked that a toubab was able to dingue oulof (speak wolof), so every time he saw me after the first day, he would SCREAM “Na nga def?” (how are you?) over and over and over. He was so sweet and we ended up spending a decent amount of time together. One day, when I was leaving, he grabbed on to my leg and cried and didn’t want me to go. We even watched Mickey Mouse and Peppa Pig together on Netflix. The family also invited me to eat with them every single day. Unfortunately, I was only available to eat with them once. We all sat around one bowl and had ceebu jen (rice and fish) and it was absolutely delicious. There is a special type of community that is formed when the entire table shares one dish. Often times, the women will cut off pieces of fish and vegetables and pass it to the others around the table. I like to do this gesture as well because it shows that you are thinking of the others. On my last day, I had some fruit left over that I would not be able to take on the plane, so I gave it to the mom of the family. By the afternoon, she had taken it and turned it into a delicious orange-grapefruit juice that she shared with everyone. This was the absolute best experience that I could have hoped for.

The Weather:

Hear me out, I love Metz, France so much. But, it was very nice to see the sun. Throughout the week, it was between 17 and 23 celsius, with dips in the temperature at night. It was also sunny with pretty strong winds throughout my stay. I was so happy to see the sun, so I spent a lot of my time outdoors and even went to the beach. The Senegalese people, who were mostly wearing jackets (and even winter coats at night), looked at me like I was crazy.

The food:

The food in Senegal is the best I have ever eaten. Everything is so fresh, natural, and flavorful. Meat nad fruits are the highlight, but food in general tastes better. Combine that with the delicious recipes that comprise a Senegalese diet, and I was well-fed and happy the whole time. Highlights include: Mafe (peanutbutter meat sauce), Cebu yapp (kind of like Jollof rice with meat), Yassa (a sauce made with a ton of onions that can be served with fish or chicken), and soupou kanja (some type of sauce with okra (I think)). Dibi, which is roasted goat served with onions and spicy mustard is also amazing. It can sometimes be hard to pass the next day, but suffice it to say, that I have had dreams about Dibi when I returned to the States.

Seeing old friends:

I was able to see my friend Ndeye two times. Once, I went to visit her where she works, and another time we went out to get Dibi together. She and I have stayed in contact since my trip to Senegal, and she was easily my best friend while I was there. I was also able to go back and visit my host mother, tata Aby, and her nephew Alasane. (There is also a cat in the house named mous (the wolof word for cat), who remembered me and gave me lots of hugs.) Finally, I got to see Tata Charlotte, my self-titled Senegalese mother. Tata Charlotte runs a stand selling fruit and snacks at a moving market in Senegal. We met on my first week in Senegal when we were both in line to buy phone credit. She offered me the girl next to her in line as my wife. I laughed it off and said I need to graduate first, but the weirdest part was that Tata Charlotte did not know the girl in line. She has an infectious personality that makes everyone in the room feel like family. I was able to stop by Tata Charlotte’s stand and catch up with her for a couple of hours. As always, she gave me gifts of various snacks and cooking ingredients, and refused to accept my payment. Tata Charlotte is another perfect example of the endless hospitality that can be found in Senegal. Unfortunately, my friend Thiat was not able to hang out.

Football

About 2-minutes away from my AirBNB home there was a football field. It was always full of various local teams playing games, and it was such an amazing place to just hang out. I would go to the side of the field, enjoy the sun, watch the game, and do some light reading. It became a really peaceful part of my daily routine.

In the end, a week in Senegal was exactly what I needed. The openness of Senegalese people, demonstrated by the fact that I got phone numbers from 5 people that I just met in the street, is a little bit different from the daily life in France. The weather was absolutely beautiful, and it was a very slow-paced week. The only problem is, that after a week I was definitely not anxious to go home.

Although I have already given some wolof phrases, I am going to include one more as the phrase of the week. Jamm rekk (literally “peace only”), is such a great way to sum up my time in Senegal. It is commonly used in response to how are you, or how is the family, and it is a super useful phrase to know. So, here, I am going to use it like peace out: Jamm rekk!  

My Grandfather’s Cousin and Colmar

Prepare yourself, because this week’s post is full of wild parties, endless nights, and general craziness. This weekend, I finally had the chance to meet my grandfather’s cousin, Monique. My great-grandfather was born in Europe and moved to the States when he was quite young. I never knew that I even had family in Europe, but apparently I do! Monique and I met once, 17 or so years ago, but I really do not remember it at all, so it was basically our first time meeting. I was definitely nervous to spend an entire weekend with an 84-year-old French woman that I had never met before, but it was a relatively welcome change of pace from the non-stop busyness that is GTL. So off I went, to the cutest little town of Colmar.

When I got to the train station, Monique and I did not recognize each other, so we definitely passed each other about 7 times in the span of 15 minutes (and Colmar’s train station is not exactly huge). Finally, after seeing her for the 8th time, I said Monique and gently touched her elbow. At least that’s what I thought, but the elderly French woman I was touching did not appreciate the gesture. However, the real Monique did hear her name and was able to find me. Finally, reunited at last.

We went back to her house for dinner. Dinner consisted of a picnic of traditional Alsatian food. Some delicious bread, some charcuterie, a salad, and of course—cheese! (It was even better than a kebab.) Thankfully, I had nothing to be worried about. Monique and I hit it off immediately. We talked about French culture, American politics, and art. After dinner, she shared stories about her time in Alsace during the German occupation in WWII, including a story about a classmate who got sent to a concentration camp for 6 weeks because she asked a question in French. (At the time it was illegal to speak French.)

The next day, we spent the morning and most of the afternoon in the Musée Unterlinden which had an amazing mix of modern art, ancient artifacts, and pre-Renaissance religious paintings. It was an amazing museum, especially considering how small Colmar is. Then, we went driving all through Alsace to see some Cathedrals. We even got to see the Cathedral where Monique’s sister, Betty, was married.

The next day, we drove along “la Route des vins” to get some amazing views and have lunch. Then, we spent the afternoon indoors playing scrabble and sharing stories.

Let me tell you, scrabble in a foreign language is much harder than expected. That being said, I did a lot better than I thought I would and only lost by 30 points.

This week, I feel like I did not have much to write about because so much of the experience could not be put into words. It was surreal to connect with such a distant relative, and I was shocked by how well we got along, despite our differences. There were certainly periods of silence, but none of those silences felt heavy or uncomfortable. It was just such a special opportunity and I am so lucky that I had it.

Now, for the phrase of the week. This week’s special comes from Alsace: “Il ne vient pas de Guebwiller.” Guebwiller is a small town in Alsace that is loosely based on the German word for generous. So the phrase literally translates to, “he does not come from Guebwiller,” but it is used to mean that someone is not generous. So, at the end of the weekend I tried to tell Monique that she IS from Gueberwiller, but the joke did not translate well. In the end, it was an amazing weekend, and I am just blown away by the connections that life throws to me.

A Very French Lunch, Round II.

(Please read this title in a French accent for full comedic effect.)

The Very French Lunch was absolutely amazing. I am sure you guys can tell by now, I am a little bit of a snob about authentic cultural experiences: I am always looking to get in the daily life of people, I don’t enjoy sightseeing very much, and I love just walking around places. So, at first glance, I was not too excited about the French lunch. For me, it was just a bunch of GTL students eating a fancy lunch together. However, I was able to invite my mom, my best friend, and my best friend’s mom, so it seemed like a great opportunity.

Of course, I woke up late and SPRINTED over to GTL where I was just able to catch the group of students leaving. I found my mom and my best friend’s mom, Susan, in the back of the group talking to Dr. Birchfield, one of the coolest GT Faculty members that I have ever met. We had a great conversation on the walk over.

The event was hosted at a hospitality school, so it was an opportunity for French students to practice serving a fancy meal. The students were really cool and very proper, always serving from the left, the perfect tone when saying “Je vous en prie” (you’re welcome), and making the perfect level of eye-contact: not too much, but not too little.

Additionally, it was a free class on etiquette. I had a general understanding of etiquette rules, but Madame Serafin, one of the French professors at GTL, was there to guide us through each step. Madame Serafin is a super blunt, quick-witted, and dry person, all the while being incredibly warm and loving. She made jokes about American students not knowing the rules and explained each dish as it was served.

The food was so so so so so amazing. Oh my goodness. It was a full 5 course meal, which was a nice change of pace from the spaghetti and meat sauce that has become my go-to meal. The main course was chicken served with three sauces, and each of them was more delicious than the last. The entire meal was great.

As far as cultural differences between fancy dining in France and in the States, I am sad to report that I didn’t find any. That being said, I am a 20-year-old college student that doesn’t have the most experience with fancy dining, so I am not the best person to pick up on these differences. I will say, it was a more authentic cultural experience than I expected. (This is beside the point that not everything you do in a foreign country needs to be “an authentic cultural experiences.” In the end, I am here for 5 months and if everything I do is an authentic cultural experience, I would not be able to live my daily life.) However, I was able to interact with the servers and ask them about their program, had some delicious French food at a traditional French table setting, and had a wonderful espresso after the meal. (One difference is that French people call it expresso, with an x, which is a big pet-peeve of mine in the States.)

For the word of the week, I want to give you all a phrase that goes with the post and is probably not very well known. I am sure that you don’t know this, but before a meal, French people say, “Bon appetit.” Doesn’t that sound so weird and unfamiliar?

Hopefully that sarcasm was received via blog post. (Conveying sarcasm is hard via writing.) However, I would like to give you a phrase that is not so well-known, so this week’s actually phrase of the week is: “Je suis rassasié.” This is an extremely formal way to say that I am full or satisfied. Look up how it is pronounced in French, because for me it is one of those words that sounds exactly like what it means.

Verdun, dun dun dun dududuhhhhh

This weekend, I took a different approach to planning my weekend trip. I, the forward-thinking, avant-garde hipster that I am, decided to point to a city on a map, go there, and then find things to do. The city that I ended up choosing was Verdun. Verdun is a small little city, somewhere between a city and a town, that is about an hour east of Metz and has amazing WWI history, as well as some WWII history, but the WWI history is what puts the town on the map. I got to Verdun just after 9PM on Saturday, and like most small towns in France, it was dead. I saw one other person throughout my walk to my AirBnB and not a single store was open.

I got checked in and settled to my AirBnB, which was absolutely amazing, and the  history of the city showed itself immediately. My hosts had, on display in my room, gas masks and food canisters from WWI that were found in the walls of the building when they purchased the unit. These artifacts even had the family’s name and year written on the bottom. It was such a great start to my stay.

After unpacking my bags, I decided to go on a walk and explore the city a little bit. I walked from my apartment to the downtown area and it was just breathtaking. The cutest town with a river through the middle, statues and memorials scattered throughout, and a healthy mix of storefronts, restaurants, and bars.

I stopped and read every statue that I came across, some for ancient Polish leaders before the 19th century and many for the lost lives, known and unknown, during WWI. There were also a lot of sculptures, especially near the river. The town was so incredibly picturesque, and I just had the best time walking around.

The next day, I woke up and went to tour the cathedral. It was about 73 steps from the front door of where I was staying, so it was an ideal place to start. Although there were not any guided tours, I was able to go into the cathedral and look around. That was the end of my luck of a last-minute trip. Everything else that I wanted to see or do was closed, thanks to the fact that it was a Sunday during the off-season.

So, with nothing concrete to explore, I just walked around the city. I re-explored the downtown area in the daylight, found new monuments, and walked through the residential part of the town to get a good feel for it. I even found this one sculpture down by the river that I really enjoyed, so I grabbed lunch and sat there and enjoyed the town, the river, the sculpture, and my kebab. (What else is there to eat in France?) However, the freezing nature made this quintessential touristy moment short lived so I went to get a coffee and catch the train home. Of course, the train from Verdun to Metz was cancelled so I had to train to Nancy then from Nancy to Metz. It was just such a great reminder of how the entire trip had gone.

Now, today’s, phrase of the weeeeeeeeeeeek, eeeeeeeeeeek, eeeeeeeeeeek. (Those of you who grew up listening the Rickey Smiley’s Morning show will get that joke; the rest of you can do some research. Hint: Joke of the day introduction.) This week’s phrase of the week is: chouette. Chouette is a fun French word that means fancy, cool, high fashion, and awesome all in one. The word itself sounds fun. (It’s pronounced like sweat but with an sh sound instead of just s.) Say it 10 times, and you’ll understand why it means what it means!

The French and Maps

Growing up as a quasi-millennial, I took a lot of things for granted. The internet was mostly what I take as an essential part of life but that my parents grew up without. I didn’t (and honestly still don’t) understand how life functioned without the internet. How did you find new places to eat? How did people answer life’s everyday questions? However, most importantly, how in the heck did people find where they were going? Especially if it is in a new city, and all you have is a street address.

I pride myself on having a good sense of direction and good intuition when it comes to travel, but I still can barely make it from my bathroom to my kitchen without Google Maps. Most people in the States have caught on: Google Maps and other GPS mapping software make life easier. However, in France, the memo has yet to be received. I am not sure if it is the stubbornness, pride, and overly-nostalgic appreciation of tradition that drives French people to swear off mapping software, but whatever it is, it makes for an interesting blog post.

To do a case study, we will look at my interactions with my exchange student and fan-favorite, Maxime. One time, we were going to visit his sister, who had just moved into a new house in a town nearby. Max had never been to this house, not even the town itself, so I offered to put it in his Maps. Not only did he refuse, but he didn’t even have the application downloaded! Instead his sister sent him a text (more like a novel) explaining where the house is and how to get there from the main road. In the end, it worked out and we only made one wrong turn, but I was shocked that he didn’t just use a mapping application.

From my experience with French people, about 2 out of every 5 young people regularly use Google Maps, as compared to 1 out of every 7 not-young people. (This is an incredibly formal and well-researched survey and definitely not a guess. I plan to publish my results in Le Monde later on this month.)

One influencing factor that makes this independence from mapping software possible is the clearly marked road-signs in France. At almost every round-about, there is a plethora of signs describing how to get to nearby cities, how to get the interstate, and how to get to popular destinations within the city.

Now, how does this affect life in France?

One major impact is that people have a better general sense of where they are. Max, who has never lived in Metz, but has visited a couple of times, has a general sense of Metz that took me 2 months to develop. This is extremely helpful for tourists because if you ask someone in a French city how to get somewhere, they will usually know what to tell you. (But just because they know what to tell you, does not mean that what they say will help you.) Lastly, it gives French people a sense of pride and accomplishment that they “really know their city.”

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.”

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.

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!

 

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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