Au Revoir, Georgia Tech-Lorraine

Blanca is back on the blog with a final reflection on her bustling adventure of a semester.

Thursday, June 4th, 2020 | Written by Blanca

*Disclaimer: This story takes place in March before Spring 2020 students returned to the U.S. 

Believe it or not, it’s finally here, all too soon—actually, much sooner than originally planned: my final post as the Spring 2020 GTL blogger.  Studying abroad in Europe was a wild ride, even though my semester was unfortunately truncated due to the onset of a pandemic, but I’m so glad that I had the GTL Blog as a place to document all my journeys along the way.  

While many of my blogging predecessors have begun their final blog posts quantitatively, this wasn’t something I wanted to do.  I’d never been to Europe before this semester, and I don’t anticipate being able to do so again until at least after I graduate, so for me, studying abroad at GTL was a novel experience in every sense.  Encapsulating all the emotions, discoveries, and revelations I had over the past couple weeks is already hard to do with words, much less reduced down to numbers.  That being said, I get it now; it’s impossible not to think of my experience at least in part with numbers, just because of the sheer magnitude of it all.  In a mere ten weeks, I went from never having set foot on the continent of Europe before to having traveled in eight new countries and passed through several more. Crazy!  I still have trouble wrapping my head around that thought, but I feel super blessed to have had the opportunity to do so.

It’s funny that I visited so many new countries and cities, because I began the semester telling myself that I didn’t want to approach the Georgia Tech-Lorraine experience with the intent of simply seeing as many places as possible.  As weird as this sounds, I really like getting to know cities.  Like people, you discover that they all have such unique aspects that make them special, so I decided to make it my goal to see the places I visited, be they nearby Metz or faraway Vienna (where I unfortunately did not make it this semester) as fully as possible.  Then again, it had also been my plan to spend roughly the first half of the semester traveling around Europe with my Eurail pass and the second half staying relatively nearby, visiting the cities in France and gallivanting across the Loire Valley; I just never got the chance to do the latter. 

I loved Metz, with its charming winding streets and sunny yellow Jaumont limestone that comprised much of the old town.  Metz is a very small city, but on weekends when you just need to wind down, I found it to be the perfect balance between bustling metropolis and middle-of-nowhere (having lived in both), and I’d been looking forward to exploring more of it, trying new pâtisseries and local restaurants, when the weather was kinder.  Granted, I was still raring to do more when I left, but I don’t feel like I missed out on anything.  I feel incredibly lucky to have been able to do any of it at all; besides, I got to see from London in the west to as far east as Budapest, and several cities in between, so I’d consider the semester to be largely a success.  Life has a weird way of working out like that.

Brussels’ Grote Markt, or Grand Place, one of the many marvels I had the privilege of seeing this semester
Brussels’ Grote Markt, or Grand Place, one of the many marvels I had the privilege of seeing this semester

I don’t want to dwell too long on what could’ve been.  Bloggers of past semesters also offer excellent advice in their posts, so I’d recommend also checking those out if you’re a prospective Georgia Tech-Lorraine student!  Looking back, I’d have to add that the importance of planning really is the best advice I can contribute for those who want to make the most out of their experience.  The public transportation and trains of European countries are superb, so coupled in with some organization and coordination, you can see so much of the world and of ways of life in different places, all while staying on top of your coursework.  A habit extremely helpful for me and my travels was, after deciding which city I was to visit next and for how many days, compiling a list of destinations I wanted to visit and creating a Google Map on which to plot them all.  This way, I was able to map out, geographically, all my locations and plan my itinerary logistics accordingly.  Not only was I able to be as productive as possible with my time, but I was generally also able to walk between most of my destinations, allowing me to save money and experience the streets of different places. 

Hi Grand Canal!

Those euros you save also come in handy in case you ever need to use the restroom, as “water closets” in Europe charge for entry.  (Yes, I still feel cheated from that one time I paid €2.50 to use a public restroom in Venice.)

One of the most valuable opportunities I had was traveling solo, which I highly recommend (while taking all the necessary precautions, of course).  I personally love spending time alone and exploring new locations, but being able to do so in places so culturally different from the American cities to which I was accustomed was such an immersive, novel experience.  Traveling alone allowed me to see the details of a particular city and appreciate its history and way of life so much more, and I think that is something everyone should experience.  It’s humbling to be standing on the streets of European cities with decorated and celebrated histories, to realize that the stone on which you are standing was laid there hundreds of years before, under the rule of Habsburgs or Ottomans or Hohenzollerns.  

I know that the mentality of many Georgia Tech-Lorraine students is to keep moving, to keep seeing new things—as it was mine too—but I would also recommend revisiting places you’ve been before.  After spending a weekend in Prague with some friends, I returned for a brief day and a half during Spring Break, and what a reunion that was!  Revisiting allows for seeing sights you might’ve missed the first time around; for example, my second time in Prague entailed going to view the ethereal libraries of the Strahov Monastery.  As it would appear former GT-Lorraine blogger, Lindsay , also agrees that revisiting Prague to see a gorgeous library is the way to go.

The Theological Hall of the Strahov Library
The Philosophical Hall at the Strahov Library

Maybe I’ll even visit Prague for a third time, later on, and who knows which hidden gems I’ll see then?  The prospect of doing so is immensely exciting.  For now, though, I’m signing off for the last time.  I’ve thoroughly enjoyed regaling you all with accounts of the wonders I experienced this semester, details so special to me and ones that I didn’t think anyone else should miss.  I hope you’ve enjoyed coming along with me.

Thank you for reading!


A Train of Thought on GTL

As Blanca reflects on her semester at GT-Lorraine, she finds a metaphor for her experience in something familiar to every GT-Lorraine student. Join her as she details her thoughts in this blog.

Written by Blanca

*Disclaimer: This story takes place in March before Spring 2020 students returned to the U.S. 

My last full day in Europe was spent as it always was: taking a series of trains.  This time, though, was different, not only because I was on the final leg of my journey.  Sitting at the Lorraine TGV station, I waited for my penultimate train under the sun, which had come out for the first time since I came abroad (and on the day I was leaving, too; fate sure does have a twisted sense of humor).  

Interestingly, while I’m sure most Georgia Tech-Lorraine students are just as accustomed as I was to taking high-speed trains like France’s TGV while in Europe, on this day I witnessed a TGV pass by me as an observer, not a passenger, for the first time.  It zipped past the station, the thundering echo lingering in my ears the only indication that it had ever been there at all.  Meanwhile, the ride from inside a TGV is peaceful and relatively smooth; the landscapes and scenery that pass by seem tranquil as they fade in and out of view. Therefore, it was a bit shocking to witness just how fast and rumbling they are as a bystander.  

I suppose this is a testament to the strength of French engineering, but I realized that it also represents the 2 months I spent at Georgia Tech-Lorraine.  Like the TGVs, I’d been going around Europe, one place after the next, seeing more of the world faster than I’d ever dreamed.  Like the TGVs, I was truly zooming.  But, while living the experience, day-by-day going was easy, and I’d mastered as much of a graceful ease as one can possess while trekking across countries and simultaneously doing probability & statistics homework.  Each week, and all the sights I saw, seemed to fly by.  

Now, as I’ve become an outsider once more, I see my European experience like an onlooker observing a TGV.  Those ten weeks were a hectic, nonstop cycle of classes, then traveling to a place I’d always dreamed of seeing, and then back to classes and assignments again.  Now removed, I can see that they went by almost in the blink of an eye.  I took my study abroad experience by storm, swiftly blazing my way across cities and counties and countries, not unlike the thunderous TGVs.  Just as soon as I arrived, I was leaving again.  

And so, just like that, the high-speed train left the premises of the TGV station, as it was only passing through while heading to its destination.  I, too, soon departed Lorraine TGV, departed France, off to do whatever else I have planned to be doing.  To be sure, I have a lot of stops ahead of me, but so do TGVs, and they still always return to the same station on other days.  Some other day, maybe I’ll be back—whether that will be in a short while or after the span of many years is about as predictable as the SNCF timetables.  

La La Lost at the Louvre

Enveloped in art, join Blanca as she explores the world’s largest art museum. Dip into this story of Blanca’s visit to the home of the Mona Lisa, the French crown jewels, and many, many more priceless pieces at the Louvre.

Tuesday, May 19th, 2020 | Written by Blanca

*Disclaimer: This story takes place in February before the travel restrictions and shelter in place mandates.*

In 2018, Beyoncé and Jay-Z shocked the world by dropping a collaborative music video, a portion of which was filmed at the Louvre in Paris, in an extravagant, stunning visual experience lasting just over 6 minutes.  The music video follows the Carters in various locations in the museum; first they are seen leaning nonchalantly on the stanchion in front of da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, then they stand regally at the top of one of the Louvre’s many marble staircases, overseeing a battalion of writhing dancers on the steps. 

Artifacts in a Louvre exhibit
Artifacts in a Louvre exhibit

In actuality, neither of these actions are allowed for typical Louvre visitors; in fact, there’s usually an attendant who curtly reminds you to keep the line moving if you take too long in front of the Mona Lisa, much less if you dare place your weight on the barrier keeping her many admirers at bay, and group entry to the museum is stated to be capped at 25 people.  Then again, Beyoncé and Jay-Z, and the millions of dollars they share, are by no means typical, so it made sense to me at the time that they were granted the privilege to film all around the Louvre.  Now, after visiting, I, myself, am beginning to think that perhaps they just got lost.  I did, anyway.

Believe it or not, outside of arriving at/departing from the Charles de Gaulle airport, I was only in Paris once during all my time abroad (crazy, I know—but then again, I also thought I’d have so much more time than I actually did).  What’s more, I only had a few hours to spare on that day, so of course I decided to spend the bulk of the day at the Louvre Museum.  If it wasn’t pretty obvious by now, going to art museums is one of my favorite pastimes!  I have waxed lyrical about them in the past, I am bona fide gushing right now, and I will probably continue to sing their praises until the day I die—it’s what I do.  Naturally, I was excited to see the largest art museum in the world.  While I’ve been to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan, the largest art museum in America and the fourth largest in the world, and have gotten slightly disoriented there (which was by no means an unpleasant experience, as I was wandering around period rooms the entire time), I’ll admit I was a little unprepared for the vastness of the Louvre. 

Entryways into the museum are numerous, with the most prominent probably being that at the iconic I. M. Pei glass pyramid.  This entrance is also the most crowded, though, so I elected instead to enter directly off the metro, which meant weaving my way through the maze of stores of the Carrousel du Louvre shopping mall before finally seeing the refracted light (of the inverted glass pyramid) at the end of the tunnel.  After storing my coat in a locker in the museum’s cloakroom—the lock on the locker later malfunctioned, and I had to wait for it to be manually opened, which is apparently a common occurence—I entered the exhibition hall. 

Pro tip!  Entry to the Louvre (and many other museums) is actually free for International Student Identity Card (ISIC) holders, as long as you show security the ISIC card and perk that allows for free entry, so be sure to download the ISIC app if you plan to visit.

The existing remains of the Louvre Palace’s beginnings as a fortress
The existing remains of the Louvre Palace’s beginnings as a fortress

The Louvre museum itself is well over 700,000 square feet—it was a royal palace, after all, and you know how the French absolutists liked their castles—built rectangularly around the expansive Napoleon Courtyard in the center.  The close to 38,000 objects it houses are arranged in winding galleries that follow this odd shape.  In short, can you even blame me for getting lost multiple times?

Fortunately, as the adage goes, [museum-going] is a journey, not a destination.  In addition to seeing tons of amazing art during my meanderings, I learned a lot about the history of not only the pieces within the museum but the museum itself.  Initially, I spent a considerable amount of time on the museum’s basement level, which primarily showcases the actual remnants of the fortress that made up the origins of the Louvre Palace.  As I ascended to the ground floor, I gazed out of the windows across the Napoleon Courtyard.  Though the western end of the space remains unenclosed today, open to the Tuileries Garden beyond, it was almost easy to imagine the now demolished Tuileries Palace that once stood there.  What was harder to imagine was the significance the area held: the Tuileries Palace was the place to which Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were relegated during the French Revolution, but now, like the Place de la Concorde where they were executed a few years later, the square was simply filled with ambling tourists and plenty more pigeons.

Necklace and earrings of Empress Marie-Louise
Necklace and earrings of Empress Marie-Louise

The Louvre held more sculptures and stone masonry than I’d ever seen in one place, much to my delight, but my favorite pieces of my visit were the French crown jewels, on display in the Galerie d’Apollon, or Apollo Gallery.  While I will never get tired of looking at paintings, sculptures, and artifacts, I simply cannot resist sparkly things.  These jewels were on an entirely different level of grand, with geometrically pleasing arrangements of colorful gems that scintillated in the light.  Then again, the opulently decorated Apollo Gallery, with its vaulted, muraled ceilings and ornately gilded mouldings made for an immersively splendid experience.  I’d seen my fair share of impressively painted ceilings at this point (remember the Scuola Grande di San Rocco in Venice?), but the vivid colors and soft Rococo brushstrokes on this ceiling, coupled with the light streaming through the windows and glinting off the golden woodwork, created an airy splendor like no other.

The Galerie d'Apollon
The Galerie d’Apollon

After departing the Louvre (read: finding my way out of the Louvre), I had lunch in the area neighboring the famed Arc de Triomphe.  This area was surprisingly calm and quiet, perhaps because it was beginning to rain, but afterwards I walked off my meal with a stroll down the Champs-Élysées, where I met significantly more people.  I then decided to stop by the flagship Ladurée bakery, where, for the experience, I picked up half a dozen overpriced macarons.  Later, after ambling my way through Avenue Montaigne, home to iconic establishments like the flagship Dior store and Hotel Plaza Athénée, I sat down on a bench in the park near the base of the Eiffel Tower and munched on the macarons, which I found to be largely overrated.  Seriously—I do not recommend the Marie Antoinette-flavored macaron (frankly, I thought it tasted quite foul).

The phrase “let them eat cake” is commonly attributed to Marie Antoinette, however unreliably, but I do not recommend the Marie Antoinette macaron (second from right).

As you’d probably imagine, I didn’t get through the entirety of the Louvre, even though it was where I spent the bulk of my day.  While I’d thought at the time that I would be able to return in a few weeks to see the undiscovered gallery corners, even more art museums (come on, it’s Paris), and all the sights and eats that the City of Lights has to offer, this turned out not to be the case.  For now, though, I can hold on to the memory of being lost in the Louvre.