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Page 6 of 31

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.

A Tale of Three Languages

France has a worldwide reputation for its refined culture, so I have adopted the posh pastime of attending the opera. With a love for orchestral music and theater, I was eager to spend the equivalent of an entire week’s worth of meals (so, 15 Euro – thank you Crous for the cheap meals) to buy tickets to all three operas offered by Madame Serafin’s “On My Radar” program.

Despite my excitement for my first dip into the more cultured side of Metz (the On My Radar program is providing numerous other opportunities later in the semester), a surprise phone interview the night of the opera kept me from leaving on time. As is necessary for any starving college student, the prospect of a job won out over anything else, but didn’t stop me from trying to catch what I could. Navigating to the opera alone and in the cold, Metz at night provided a gorgeous sight I had yet to experience before. Built in 1752, the opera house is the oldest still running in France, and one of the oldest in Europe. Consequently, my walk from the bus stop (where my bus ended before it was supposed to) led through a beautiful old section of Metz.

After finally reaching the opera almost an hour late, I was met with yet another gorgeous building, but with no clear entrance. I guess there’s no red carpet laid out for late comers. After testing some doors, finding them locked, and getting yelled at for trespassing when entering what is apparently an adjacent, but different building, I began to question whether French culture even allows anyone to come late. While I respect the integrity of the opera and the need for quiet during each act, entering during intermission didn’t seem unreasonable. Success did eventually come after following a man back through a door after his smoke break, getting yelled at by security, escorted to the ushers, and finally plopped into a seat in the back.

Once I could actually settle in for the show, I remembered that I had never actually attended an opera before. Singing words inherently makes them more difficult to understand, as is often an issue in musicals. However, operas tend to be sung in the original Italian, making the effort considerably greater. Luckily, subtitles were provided on a handy screen above the stage. In French. While I have taken a few years of French, I am not particularly fluent and have forgotten most of it in the years since my instruction.

One can argue that the point of the Opera is not so literal. “The magic of the stage expresses emotion without the need for words!” I could imagine my orchestra conductor saying. This didn’t prevent the plot from being entirely lost on me, however. Intermission brought an opportunity to catch up from the Wikipedia synopsis, which is something that should be done in advance when time allows. From then on, I acted as a sleuth, piecing together the tale of Eugene Onegin from visual depictions, the plot overview in English, my sparse French, and at times a bit of Italian that was loosely comprehensible. The story is an interesting one that left me without a satisfying ending. In essence, Onegin spurns the love of a girl, gets into a fatal duel with his best friend, and later realizes that he loves the girl after she is already married. She then rejects him, and the story ends. No happy ending, but no dramatic fall from glory. Simply a rejection. A reasonable result, actually. This, in combination with the brilliant Tchaikovsky score, made for a glorious night.

Nancy and All of Her Libraries

Just as a head’s up, this week’s post is not the most exciting. However, I think it really provides a good look into some of the every-day things that happen in Lorraine as well as some fun traditions/cultural aspects. Also, this is the stuff that I enjoy the most, so this post is very long-winded.

This weekend, I decided to go visit my friends at Nancy. Nancy is a city that is in the Lorraine region, about an hour away from Metz. It is bigger than Metz, with 105,000 inhabitants or so. However, the most exciting part about Nancy is that it is full of university students. There are plenty of universities and “Ecoles Prépa,” so the town is always bustling with the excitement of an overworked and under-rested college student – it feels like home!

I took the quick train over to Nancy, where my friend Laura picked me up from the train station. I would be spending the weekend with Laura and Maxime, so we went home to drop off my stuff. Unfortunately, it was about 1:30pm, and Laura had already eaten, while I had not. So, I talked her into stopping for a kebab (I should really get bloodwork done to make sure these kebabs are not killing me), so we stopped. Then we dropped my stuff off at Laura’s house and headed out for the day.

Laura and Max are both in their first year of university studying to become doctors. In France, the path to becoming a doctor is extremely competitive. You don’t just have to get good grades, you have to get grades better than anyone else. For example, at Laura and Max’s faculté (sort of like a discipline – find an explanation of the concept here), in order to continue after your first year, you have to have scores in the top 300 students. That doesn’t sound so bad, until you hear that every year there are 1,500 students that sit for the exam. Needless to say, Max and Laura work practically all the time, and don’t really take the weekends off. So, I got to spend a weekend like a real French medical student: in the library. Friday, we got to the library at about 2 PM and we stayed there until 7 PM. Max finished classes and came to join us around 4 PM, and we all worked side-by-side. The library itself was very comparable to a library in the States; there were group-work areas, silent areas, and even a student-run café in the basement. (Café is a generous description, it was the reselling of some prepackaged snacks and baked goods at a table with a sign. I like the idea of a student run café in the building, especially compared to a Starbuck’s in the library, but the number of options and quality of products was not even on the same planet.)

Anyway, after our library grind, we got home and just spent time together. We watched TV, specifically the French version of House Hunters, with which I am totally obsessed. They put a fun little spin on it, in that they have 2 real-estate agents compete to best meet the needs of the client, and at the end the client chooses a winner. It is very formulaic, but I have still not once predicted the correct winner. Then, of course, we had dinner and went to bed.

The next morning, Saturday, we woke up at 7 AM to go to the library. Yes, three 20-year-old college students woke up at 7 AM on a Saturday morning to go to the library, and they do it every weekend. (For reference, they told me that the study habits are even more intense in the “Écoles Prépa.”)

“Écoles Prépa” are a crucial part of French education, and there is not a good American counterpart, so I am going to take the time to explain it. If you aren’t interested, there’s a TL;DR at the end of this paragraph! After high school, you can go to an “Ecole Prépa” which is two years of extremely intense education to prepare you for a series of exams. These exams grant you entrance to what are called, “les grands ecoles” (directly translated, “the big schools”) which are essentially the best institutions of higher learning in France. It’s similar to the medical school predicament, in that you are competing for a limited number of spaces – except there are fewer spaces, and everyone in these schools is practically a child prodigy. It is an intense process, but if you make it into one of the “grands écoles” your life is made. It is a track for a life of success and academic rigor.

TL;DR: Crazy-hard schools to prepare you for the best schools in France.

Saturday we had to go to a different library because the other one is closed on the weekends. This time, we went to a library downtown and worked from about 8:30 AM until the library closed at 5 PM. For lunch, we met up with two of Max and Laura’s other friends, and they chose to get kebabs. You might be thinking to yourself, “Oh no! Poor Robby had a kebab the day before; he isn’t going to want another one.” You would be horribly mistaken. I was thrilled for a socially justifiable reason to eat kebabs 2 days in a row. (Now you may be thinking to yourself, “Oh no, Robby is going to clog his arteries, gain weight, and experience negative health effects of eating so much red meat.” You may be right, but I only have 4 months left at Georgia Tech-Lorraine, so live and let live.)

That night, we went out to dinner at a delicious Italian restaurant, and just walked around Nancy. It is important for you to know that Metz and Nancy have a fierce rivalry, and I love any type of rivalry, justifiable or not, but for obvious reasons I am firmly planted on the Metz side. Because of this, I have a tendency to compare Nancy to Metz, especially in subjects where Metz has the upper hand. All that to say: Nancy was beautiful and stunning and a fun city to be in. But, VIVE LA METZ !

Anyway, after walking around and dinner, we went to a comedy theater to see a play. However, when we arrived we were promptly asked for our reservation confirmation. This was a comedy café that could seat maybe 45 people, so of course we didn’t make a reservation. The person working the ticket stand said to sit tight, and if there was any room she would sell us the tickets. Two other people in our situation came in, and we all waited together and cracked jokes about how we can watch it from the side of the stage.

The theatre itself was adorable. Brightly colored walls plastered with posters of plays that had been shown there. And on the lights, there were inflatable pool toys so that the naturally harsh lighting became a little softer.

In the end, we were able to get tickets. We watched one of the funniest plays I have seen. It was called “Tabernacle” and it was about a woman who managed a cabaret learning to interact with the Canadian niece of the cabaret owner. (They made fun of the Canadians as being loud, clumsy, too laid-back, and of course for having a different accent. I related so, so, so much to this Canadian character.) It was a two-woman show, and it was so funny. If you are ever in Nancy, I highly recommend this café, “La comédie de Nancy.”

After the play, we went home and went to sleep. The next day, we had a very authentic French Sunday where we lounged around, talked casually, and moved slowly in general. (Although Max and Laura did this while reviewing their notes from class.) Then, Sunday afternoon, I returned to Metz to get a good night of sleep.

Like I said at the beginning, this is not the most exotic location with the biggest buildings or the oldest cathedrals. However, these are the memories that I am going to cherish for the longest. This weekend is such an insight into so many parts of French life, and it was a really special time for me. Anyway that’s enough sappiness for one post.

I guess that brings us to everyone’s favorite section: The word of the week. This week’s word is “Pas de soucis, pas de problems.” It means “no worries, no problems.” This was important because my friends were always worried about me coming for the weekend just to sit in the library, but I kept reassuring them that there were no worries, no problems because I was happy to see their daily life (and I had plenty of homework to do myself)! This is also a useful phrase if you run into a problem somewhere. Hypothetically, let’s say a kebab restaurant is out of your favorite sauce. You could use this phrase to let them know that it is not a big deal, and you will still love the kebab. (This is the most Robby-ish example I have ever thought of. Also, I am sitting on the train right now and very hungry.)

Depth vs. Breadth Touring

Maybe it’s the looming exams, but the realization that my time at GTL is finite has hit with full force. I came with dreams of London, Vienna, and every quaint town between. Four months in Europe seems endless, but throw in the stress that is a Georgia Tech education and it becomes much more limiting.

Unable to avoid the tendencies instilled in me by my classes, I’ve been looking at the situation as an optimization problem. How does one have the ideal European trip? Like most problems in engineering, the system in overly complex without some simplification. Ignoring the fact that I have little idea what actually is available to do in most of the places I want to visit, not to mention those I haven’t even decided on yet, it is fairly easy to come up with two general approaches to being a tourist: depth and breadth.

GT students don’t like being conventional. Coming back from stellar weekend just to find out that everyone else planned the exact same itinerary as you dampens what felt like a personalized journey. So, in theory, I’d love to blend with the locals and eschew the tourist traps, but given that I have never been to the continent before, I can’t help but feeling like I am missing out if I don’t go to Paris and Rome. These approaches also apply to how to tour within a given destination. Do you skim and hop, exposing yourself to as much as possible, or slow down to discover the historical context and consequential significance of that statue in the corner?

There is no perfect strategy, but the cliché answer is that everyone needs to find their own approach. My best memories have been longer experiences, some of which I couldn’t plan if I wanted to. On the other hand, I feel like I can grasp the personality of a city better by hitting as many spots as possible. It’s best to do both. Even an individual trip can feel too rushed or as if I am missing out on the entire point of the city. To counteract this, I’ve adopted the strategy of moving quickly at first, to  calibrate to the new city. From there, I keep open to opportunities to stay if something grabs my attention, but try to learn to let go of the things I know are not as interesting to me.

Above all, I advise to put an emphasis on opportunity. The best stories can’t be planned. When in Paris, I missed out on almost everything the city has to offer, but I spent so long in the Louvre that I not only can navigate such a monstrous maze with ease (and my favorite part of these museums is always the building they are in) but I genuinely learned an insane amount about art and history in general. I’ve become a bit of a snob about the dynamics of subtly spiraling contrapposto sculpture. While in Germany, my mobility surprised me, and I ended up waking up
at 4 AM and walking so many miles as to cover the majority of Frankfurt in a day. This led to day trips in the area and a better understanding of Europe outside the major cities..

Journée Portes Ouvertes

The first weekend of February is an exciting time for the scientific high schoolers of Metz. It’s the opportunity for them to see all of the great engineering and technology schools that are present. Centrale Supélec, Arts et Métiers, and even Georgia Tech Lorraine all host their open houses over the course of the weekend. The students get to have tours of the campus, mingle with current students, and see all of the cool stuff going on in the laboratory.

For Georgia Tech Lorraine, it is an opportunity to share with the community exactly what GTL is. No, it is not a separate university from the one in Atlanta. Yes, graduates receive a degree from “the real Georgia Tech” in Atlanta. Yes, classes are taught in English. All of these questions may seem more obvious to us, but French people are extremely proud of their education system (rightfully so), so they are not familiar with other systems – much like we don’t know much about others ourselves.

As part of my French class, I was given the daunting task of explaining the American education system, with an emphasis on university, in under 15 minutes. Our class worked together, over the course of two weeks, to prepare a PowerPoint. We spent hours deciding whether to explain quality points on GPA’s, how to best explain the process of high-stakes testing, and how to give the cost of universities without completely scaring them away. (For a public university in Europe, the cost of attendance is usually between 250-500 euros per semester.) After the presentation was ready, I was volun-told to be at the open house to present it to visiting high-schoolers.

When Friday rolled around, I was definitely nervous. We crammed a TON of information into the presentation, and I was going to have to present it six times, to a total of 150-ish people. However, as soon as I got to the GTL building, I was eerily calm. The presentations went well, although we were running on a 7-minute delay, so I really had to hurry through all of the information. Nonetheless, I think I was able to give the students, at least an idea, of how education works in the states.

Saturday, there were no organized visits. People were able to come in at their own pace, ask questions, and look around. Most of the people that came were students interested in engineering, however, there were some people that came by just to see what was GTL.

Now that all of the logistics is explained, I can move on to what I learned and observed from this open house. Lesson 1: the world is so small. I met a student that did a year-long exchange in Roswell, 15 minutes away from where I grew up, and we even had mutual friends on Facebook. I also met a girl who does the exchange program with my high school, so she has a pen-pal that is a current high-school student at Campbell, and I have been to her school before. It is just a reminder that you never know who you know, and you never know who knows who you know, you know?

Lesson 2: French education is like a self-serve ice-cream machine with 4 flavors, and the American education system is a visit to Menchie’s. Every school in the US has their own spin on scheduling, grading, courses offered, etc. In France, you choose your path for the baccalauréat and the rest is pretty standard.

Lesson 3: The French master’s students that are doing dual degree through GTL are geniuses. In order to do GTL, most of them have to make it through an “Ecole Prepa” and place in the top 15% or so on the national exams, then make it through 2 years at a top engineering school in France, and then be selected by their school and pass admission criteria by Georgia Tech in Atlanta. These kids are so, so smart.

In the end, la journée portes ouvertes was a great opportunity for me to learn more about the French education system and promote Georgia Tech across the Atlantic!

 

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