Annecy and Au Revoir

Part Un: Annecy, France

My final trip with friends was to a quaint, peaceful little town in France, right outside Geneva, called Annecy. I went with Jessica, Colby, Nicole and Cameron. Everyone I knew who had been, described it as a “fairytale land”, which was reinforced by a BuzzFeed article I read entitled “17 Real Cities that Look Like Hogsmeade” which included Annecy.
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We mostly walked around and enjoyed the stunning scenery, as shown below, and in the middle of the day we rented a paddle boat and took it out on the lake.
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Part Deux: Au Revoir, Lyon (well basically)
This portion of my post will include a fair amount of lists, because that’s how I organize my thoughts/life usually. Note: none of the lists are in any particular order.
List of Reasons Why Saying “Au Revoir” to Lyon/France/Europe/My Friends Was Weird To Me
  1. I was sad, obviously, because (pardon my cliche) this was truly the experience of a lifetime. Even though I know I will return to Europe, it just won’t be the same without everyone in the IBP (International Business Program – the exchange I program I was enrolled in with about 120 other students from all over the world). It’s like visiting your summer camp during the winter.
  2. At the same time, I was also very ready to return to the US. As much as I love it in Europe, Dorothy was right: there’s no place like home.
  3. One of my best friends Isabella (one of my roommates at Elon) even came to visit me for a week (as I previously mentioned, during exam week), which was really exciting for me. She even flew straight from L.A., where she had been interning for the semester, and flew straight back to the U.S. afterwards. I really enjoyed experiencing Europe with her, especially because she grew up in Switzerland and she had always told me great things about Europe, but it also made me miss home even more. Especially because we will be living together in D.C. this summer.
Things I Will Miss About Lyon
  1. The view from my dorm (pic below)
  2. My daily walk to class
  3. The markets
  4. Cheap and local food/goods at the markets
  5. Cheap and local food at the grocery store
  6. Non-GMO foods, not to mention food without extra sodium, sugar, and whatever other crap is in American foods
  7. Cheap wine, baguettes and pastries
  8. Walks along the river, especially in the spring
  9. Conversing in French with French people
  10. The relaxed, laid back way of life
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View from my dorm
Things I Will Miss About My Semester Abroad
  1. Having 0 responsibilities and little to no homework – the complete opposite of my life at Elon
  2. Being able to hang out with your friends pretty much all the time, and whenever you feel like it, AKA not having to schedule a lunch with them every Tuesday at 11:30 between classes (again, not like Elon)
  3. Spontaneous activities after classes get out, i.e. going to someone’s apartment and making homemade fried chicken and waffles (yes this is a thing we did)
  4. “What country are we going to this weekend?”
  5. Getting out of class and gathering with the rest of IBP in the center of our university, just hanging out and not having any commitments except to stop at Carrefour, go home and make dinner
  6. Learning simply from comparing and contrasting cultures; not only between the U.S. and Europe, but also among other countries/cities/towns etc.
  7. Not always having internet and being “forced” to have actual conversations with people at meals etc. Except when there was a wi-fi hotspot. Which may or may not have actually worked. But honestly by April/May, I gave up on my need for constant internet and usually didn’t even try to connect to wi-fi, even if we were in a wi-fi zone, unless of course I needed to post a photo on Instagram (very important stuff).
Things I Will Not Miss, At All
  1. Inconveniences when trying to do pretty much anything. See blog post #3, paragraph 2.
  2. Ridiculous business hours, AKA non existent, usually when you need something
  3. Most stores being closed on Sundays
  4. The absence of iced filter coffee (Am I addicted? Probably. Will it get worse upon my return after being deprived of it for several months? Absolutely.)
  5. My dorm residence – while I enjoyed living in the same residence as a couple of my friends, I did not enjoy the following: extremely spotty wi-fi, an ant-infested kitchen that quickly became a pigsty over the weekend (maintenance off from work on weekends), showers that require you to press a button every 15 seconds for water, among other minor details that made me really appreciate life at home.
Highlights of the Semester
  1. Hanging out with approximately half of IBP at the top of the cathedral (which provides a beautiful view of Lyon) while drinking wine and singing along to an Argentinian guy playing guitar
  2. Spontaneously meeting up with my childhood best friend, Melina, in Geneva after thinking I would never see her again
  3. Dancing on tables with my friends in Brussels
  4. Meeting up with my roommate Caroline in Prague, as well as some other Elon friends
  5. Meeting up with my cousin Emily in Lyon and drinking wine by the river
  6. Waltzing at the Imperial Palace at a ball in Vienna
  7. Hiking a mountain in Grenoble and subsequently enjoying the view, then getting semi lost and  ending up taking the longest possible route back into the city, but not once stressing over being lost or having anywhere to be
  8. The view of the sunset from our hostel rooftop in Morocco
  9. Riding camels in Morocco with a perfect view of the Atlas Mountains
  10. Wine tasting in the Beaujolais region
  11. Any time I explored Lyon on my own and discovered new things/people watched
  12. Any time I mastered traveling alone
  13. Riding quads around Santorini
  14. Just being in Santorini in general
  15. Meeting up with my distant relatives in Athens
  16. Meeting up with Louis, who is a student at the French university I went to, who also was my “Phoenix Pal” (think: international buddy) when he spent a semester at Elon
  17. When Isabella visited me for a week
  18. When my Aunt Nancy took my parents and I to meet our distant relatives in rural Italy, and then eating a 3 hour long, 15+ course meal, which was not only the longest meal of my life, but also the best
Lastly, and Most Importantly, Things I Will Do Upon My Return to the US: 
  1. Order a sausage, egg, and cheese on a bagel from Manhattan Bagel
  2. Go to Dunkin Donuts (shocker, right?)
  3. Go to custard stand (for those of you who may not know, it is without a doubt the best soft-serve ice cream in existence)
  4. Go to Wawa
  5. See my friends…. all 2 that will actually be home
  6. Go to a diner, specifically Hathaway’s and enjoy a full breakfast – omelette with everything, toast with jam, unlimited coffee and home fries
  7. Consume copious amounts of fresh, farm market Jersey peaches
  8. Catch up on every missed episode of Shark Tank
  9. Finish the final season of Parks and Rec, then probably cry because it’s over
  10. Cry because my semester abroad is over
  11. Pack for my summer in WASHINGTON D.C.!

(Sidenote: I originally wrote this while I was still in Europe, but now that I’m home, I can confirm that I completed 9 of those 11 things on my list, so I think I did pretty well. And I may or may not have done #1 twice. No regrets of course.)

Donc Lyon, au revoir, et merci pour un semestre incroyable. À la prochaine !

Barcelona

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One of the best foods I ate in Europe – fried Mozzerella.

So my last big trip of the semester was to Barcelona, which I really liked (this may sound redundant but let’s be honest, it’s hard not to like every European city!). I traveled with Jessica (who I’m assuming you all know by now, considering we’ve basically traveled every where else together) and it was just us two since no one else could fit the trip into their schedules. I was a little hesitant to book the trip since it was right before my exam week, and my friend Isabella would be visiting me during that week, but I still had plenty of time to study before the bulk of my finals (Turns out I didn’t need as much time to study as I originally had thought).

photo 2This was more of a relaxing, “vacation” trip, so most of the trip consisted of tapas, churros, and walking along the beach. However some sightseeing components included a cathedral, which was by far the most colorful one yet. The stained glass windows were pretty much the height of the cathedral itself, and with a sunny day like the day we were there, you cphoto 3an only imagine how beautiful the inside looked.
Every Saturday night, there is a fountain show, where the fountains are all lit up with bright colors, with music playing the background. We climbed to the top of a large unknown building and just sat and relaxed while watching the (sight below) at night.
The “rampla”, or the main walkway through the center of the city was also really cool, even though it was tourist central. So many trees and colors, and we had beautiful weather every day, which made it so pleasant to walk through.
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I didn’t shop much in Europe, but mostly because I was trying to save my money for travel and food. But I couldn’t resist myself in Spain. The fashion there is right up my alley – casual and colorful. So I may or may not have splurged a bit on clothes there, but without regret.
And last but not least, Barcelona had something to offer that I have not encountered in any other city that I’ve traveled to. Now, if you know me at all, or if you recall from previous blog posts, coffee is a huge thing for me, and it is a part of my everyday life. As much as I’ve adapted to cafe au laits and espressos, and wasting all my money on Starbucks iced coffee (for the record, the ONLY place you can get an iced latte, and who wants a hot coffee when its already hot outside?!?), I still miss regular iced coffee from home more than anything, especially from Dunkin Donuts. So when I saw the familiar, hard-to-miss logo on the side of the Rampla, I went nuts. I dragged Jessica there, while she teased me for being so American that I nearly cried at the sight of DD. Yes it was that serious. However, as expected, the iced coffee didn’t exactly meet American standards, but it was decent enough that we went back every day of the trip (despite it costing FIVE euros for something slightly smaller and with significantly more ice and milk than back home).
Anyway, I’ll keep this one short and end it now since my last couple have been so long. Up next: Annecy and my departure from Lyon.

Spring Break

Disclaimer: This post is preeetty long, sorry! Feel free to skim through it, otherwise, prepare yourself for some entertaining stories regarding my stupid mistakes and overall horrible luck. 

So before I begin, I would like to address my most popular FAQ:  Do you ever go to class???

The answer is, of course, yes – however let me explain this illusion that I don’t go to class. First of all, my university has had 3 major breaks: Ski Week, Easter, and Spring Break. For ski week and spring break, we had an entire week off from classes. For Easter break, we only got Easter Monday off, but we also did not have French class the week before Easter. Also, I did not choose my class schedule – it is completely dependent on which classes I chose – none of which fell on Fridays. So I also had 3 day weekends every week. Lastly, our program is significantly longer than any other abroad program I know of – lasting from January 6 – May 22, leaving plenty of time for traveling (to be exact, approximately 20 weeks)!

That being said, I will continue with a run-down of how I spent my spring break (April 17-26). But first, I’d like to start with a quick backstory on my spring break: Remember previous my posts about how I’d been having the worst luck of my life since stepping foot in Europe? Missing layovers, laptop chargers breaking, cameras breaking, bank cards getting eaten – all in the first week? Well I thought I’d escaped the bad luck, until I tried to plan spring break. Which brings me to mistake #1: accidentally canceling my entire flight itinerary to and from Amsterdam from Lyon. How did I manage to do this, you ask? Well… originally I had booked a round trip flight to Amsterdam from Lyon, since I hadn’t finalized plans for the rest of my break yet. A couple weeks later, my friends and I decided to book Greece, so I cancelled my return flight (or so I thought…) to Lyon, and booked a new flight to Athens, directly from Amsterdam. However, another couple weeks later, I went to check on the info for my flight… and was told that it “cannot be found”. Heart racing, I attempted to actually pay my phone bill for the month so I could call AirFrance and figure everything out. But of course, no credit card in my or my family’s possession would work. The next day I tried to go to the store to pay it, but they told me my number was frozen, and that I should come back the next day – however I was leaving for Marseille at 7am the next day. Frustrated as much as a human can possibly be, I lost all hope. Until I got to Marseille the next day and walked by an AirFrance store – where I gained a bit of hope, just to find out that I had indeed cancelled my entire trip to Amsterdam (because apparently it’s not possible to just cancel one leg of a trip). So that was 150 euros down the toilet. Although I did manage to find a cheap-ish flight to Amsterdam out of Geneva, so it all worked out, despite the sunk costs that came along with my semi-stupid mistakes.

Destination 1: Amsterdam, The Netherlands

IMG_0125After needing Benadryl from eating a roast beef sandwich with unlabeled walnuts in it (still can’t figure this one out) and a long day of traveling, my friend Devan and I arrived safely in Amsterdam in the late afternoon. However, as we go to check into our hostel, we are told we need to be moved to another one, 20 minutes further outside the city. Why? Because mistake #2: I apparently booked the hostel for two females instead of a male and a female. Because of this, we had been put into a female-only room, and there were no other openings for him. While it was a nuisance, the new hostel wasn’t too bad, and actually wasn’t in a bad location. It was close to a good amount of things in the city, and luckily Amsterdam is pretty walkable itself anyway. We didn’t take the tram or metro once the entire trip.

IMG_0065We went to Rijksmuseum, a museum with works by various artists, most notably Rembrandt. It was pricey, but it was a pretty cool place. We got there a little after 4pm, walked around a little, only to find out that (mistake #3 perhaps) it closes precisely at 5 – at which point we got kicked out, before even getting to see the Rembrandt paintings. Later on that night, we did the Heineken Experience, which was basically a museum about Heineken: some history, how they built the company, how they make their beer, etc. Surprisingly it went smoothly, and I found it pretty interesting. The following day we went to the Anne Frank House, which had a ridiculously long line, that ended up being about a 90 minute wait (although I’d expected this), but totally worth it.  I learned a lot, and realized I actually had not previously known much about Anne Frank – which also made me question why her book was never required reading in high school.

Other than the tourist-y attractions, I thought Amsterdam was beautiful, especially this time of IMG_0039year. I love being near the water, and with the infinite amount of canals, I couldn’t help but take a moment to appreciate the view every time we crossed a bridge. The main park was pretty as well, and we ate lunch there on one of the days. I gotta say though, the Dutch pancakes we had for breakfast on our final morning there may or may not have been a highlight of the trip.

We departed on Tuesday morning (4/21) and since Devan returned to Lyon, I was left to fend for myself as I traveled to Athens. Although I was a bit nervous to travel alone for the first time since I arrived in Lyon (because that went so well), I surprisingly felt pretty comfortable with it, as I’ve basically mastered the art of navigating any type of transportation in any language at this point – which any student who spends a semester in Europe will similarly admit.

Destination 1.5: Athens, Greece

So I arrive in Athens with no problems, overly thrilled to finally be in the country I’d dreamed of traveling to for years. I buy a train ticket, find a spot on the train, and just sit and relax, knowing my friends will meet me when I get off the stop. The second the train took off, the ticket police got on the train and started checking tickets. I handed him my ticket confidently, only to have him hand it back to me with a concerned look on his face, followed by him speaking Greek to me. I told him I spoke English, and then he explained my mistake #4: I didn’t validate my ticket. A classic tourist mistake – which I should have known at this point, since I’ve had to validate every other ticket I’ve bought (granted, next to none of which have been actually checked by the ticket police). Anyway, the fee was 18 euros – not super outrageous, and I figured their economy could use some extra money anyway. So I hand the man my bank card, just to find out that they don’t accept cards (which we quickly discovered was a trend throughout Greece). I had 12 euros in cash, and scrounged up some change, which equated to a total of about 16.45 euros. The man wouldn’t accept it and wrote me a slip, which I would need to bring to downtown Athens to pay my fine in full. If my luck wasn’t already bad, I thought to myself, this was just a whole new level of bad luck. This was like, “A Series of Unfortunate Events” Lemony Snicket level. But something happened that turned all of that around. As I was trying to find change, 2 other passengers around me tried to chip in the last 2 euros that I needed to pay the ticket, but ticket man wouldn’t let them. Finally a third passenger insisted on paying the extra 2 euros, and the man accepted it and told me not to worry about the ticket. Luckily I had learned how to say thank you in Greek (thanks to the ‘teach yourself Greek’ book my parents mailed to me) and the man smiled. Even though it was a moment of bad luck for me, the fact that multiple passengers on the train tried to help me out – a mere stranger, let alone a foreigner/American – left a first impression on me of the Greeks that I will never forget, and even made me proud to have Greek blood in me.

After meeting my friends Nicole, Colby and Jason at the train stop, we headed to a cute place (coincidentally named ‘Alexandra’) for dinner. Obviously, I ordered moussaka, which was IMG_0133absolutely delicious, and yet again one of my favorite meals in Europe thus far. After our meals, the waiter served us all free dessert. Yes that’s right – free.  But – imagine this – it had nuts in it, so I could’t eat mine. I explained this to the waiter and he apologized and took it back. Five minutes later he came back out with chocolate mousse – one of my favorite desserts. This took me completely off guard, in the best way possible. It completed the meal perfectly, because it was hands down the best chocolate mousse I’ve ever had. So basically, it took me less than two hours to fall in love with Greece, despite their strict ticket fine policies (but hey, when your economy is as weak as theirs, I guess it’s understandable).

Destination 2: Island of Santorini, Greece

IMG_0175The next morning began at 4:45 am for us. We had to catch the ferry from Athens to Santorini, which was honestly more of a luxury cruise than a ferry, but hey, not complaining! It was an 8 hour ride, which we slept through the first part of, then gazed out the window at the breathtaking views for the remainder of the trip. Upon our arrival, an employee from our hostel met us and drove us up to our hostel closer to the top of the island. We headed to the main “city”, Fira, for dinner – which again, just had breath taking views. Like, the whole island (especially the coast) reminded me of pictures I’d re-pinned on Pinterest and re-tweeted on Twitter of it, but obviously much better in person. Needless to say, this place lived up to my expectations – even exceeded them.

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The next day we slept in a bit, and then rented ATVs (quads) in order to most efficiently navigate the island. I wasn’t crazy about the idea at first, but actually ended up loving it. Despite the bitter coldness of the wind while we drove, I was probably at one of the happiest points in my life while driving around this island on an ATV. The views continued to amaze me, and honestly, even just driving an ATV was pretty thrilling in itself. We took breaks to sip on coffee and eat some snacks by the Mediterranean Sea, taking time to relax and appreciate the beauty of our surroundings. Santorini was definitely the most relaxing place I’ve ever been to, and I loved every single minute of it.

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The next day we went to an archaeological museum, and took a ferry (that resembled a pirate ship more) to a smaller island off the coast of Santorini, which was the site of an active volcano. Pretty IMG_0477cool stuff. We spend the rest of the afternoon relaxing, because what else are you supposed to do in Santorini?!? Anyway, later that night, we all returned to the hostel to print our boarding passes, since RyanAir charges you 15 euros to print them at the airport (talk about a cheap airline… not actually cheap when you account for the added ridiculous costs). I go to print mine, and – whaddya know – it doesn’t work. I spent a fair amount of time refreshing and re-checking in until I realized mistake #6: I had booked my flight back to Athens for 3 days earlier. ???? At this point I just concluded that I had been possessed or something when I made all my travel plans. Luckily this flight was only about 40 euros down the toilet – however the new one I had to buy (luckily it was the last spot available on the plane) was about 80 euros. All of these stupid mistakes really burnt a hole through my wallet. Anyway, I bought my new ticket – only to find mistake #7: I had apparently accidentally listed my nationality as Estonian… not even close to USA. And of course, there was no way to fix this. So I printed it out in hopes that they wouldn’t notice at the airport (which, believe it or not, they didn’t… I guess good luck comes with the bad!).

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We spent all of Saturday exploring Athens, the Acropolis, and the shops. The food continued to be delicious, especially the gyros, tzatziki sauce, and feta cheese (one of the things I’d been looking forward to the most in Greece). Later that afternoon, two of my friends and I met up with one of my distant relatives, Harroula, and her two daughters in a suburb outside of Athens. It was a quaint little place, with a beautiful park hosting a flower/music festival, and a bunch of cute restaurants and shops in the main downtown area. We met Harroula at a coffee IMG_0547shop, where she treated us all to delicious frozen cappuccinos, over conversations of education in America, the Greek economy, and the business that she owns. It was such a great experience for me to meet her and her family, since it’d been a dream of mine for years to travel to Greece and meet the distant relatives. It was so surreal to me that I was living out this dream, and I loved it. Anyway, Harroula showed us around a bit, but since it was getting late, we parted ways. My friends and I got dinner (gyros and Greek salad, obviously) at a nice little restaurant in town before heading back to Athens.

Meals eaten in Greece (respectively, a gyro, Greek salad, and Greek omelette):

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Now, you’re probably thinking we made it back to Lyon with no issues, right? Wrong. To be honest, it probably could have been worse, but let’s just say the endless frustrations didn’t stop in Greece (If we’re being real technical, the frustrations don’t even stop in France, but that’s a blog post for another day). It was a generally smooth journey from Athens to Milan (to save money, we flew from Athens to Milan, then took a 7 hour bus from Milan to Lyon). However, thinking a cab would be our best bet to get to the bus station from the airport in Milan, we underestimated how far the bus station actually was from the airport – at least an hour away. So we took a bus to Milan’s city center, and 2 metros to the bus station. Mind you, all we had eaten at this point was one pastry each at around 9am at the airport, and had planned on getting lunch at the bus station. Sidenote: I bought a muffin, asked if there were nuts in it, and the cashier said no. I broke off one piece and found walnuts, so I threw it out immediately. Then I bought a chocolate croissant – type pastry, and realize that the center of it was most likely Nutella (still not sure because I never actually ate it), so I threw that one out too after only eating half of it. Sunk costs WILL be the death of me. Or nuts. One or the other…

Anyway, we get to the bus station, to find that it’s basically in the middle of nowhere. We tried to get internet, but of course the wi-fi wasn’t working, so we desperately turned on our cellular data to find a nearby restaurant. We found one, so we trekked the empty streets in the surrounding area (AKA what looked like abandoned high school grounds) for this restaurant, only to find that it was closed. Also keep in mind it’s pretty hot outside, and I’m carrying a 15 lb duffel bag and a 10 lb backpack on me. We return to the bus station to try to get food from their mini snack shack, but that was closed as well. We went inside to try the vending machine, only to find that it only accepts change, and had very limited options. My two friends scrounged up enough change to buy a pack of 2 croissants that were hyper-injected with sugar and preservatives, but hey, food is food when you’re starving.

Finally the bus came, and we planned on getting food at the first rest stop. By the time we reached the rest stop in Torino, it was about 5:30 – still with no substantial food in our stomachs. I like to think the phrase “you’re not you when you’re hungry” applies to me pretty well. So we get off in Torino and run to the nearest place with food (We only had 20 minutes there so we were in a rush). We walk into this cafe relieved, already eye-ing the sandwiches we would order. We asked the cashier if they took cards (none of us had cash at this point), to which he responded “no”. After exasperated sighs, we thanked him and sprinted to the next place that even looked semi-promising for food. Of course we ask if they took cards, and to our relief, they did – however there was an added charge of 2 euros for card-use… and the place didn’t even have real food, just chips and popcorn. Annoying, yes, but at this point we didn’t care, so we made our purchases, ran back to the bus, and scarfed down our snacks.

We made one more stop on the way back, at a gas station, where we bought actual meals (or at least, as close to an “actual meal” as you can get at a gas station), at which point it was 7:30pm. We were welcomed home to Lyon with a chilly rain around 10:30pm. At this point in the trip, we just laughed it off, along with all the other struggles we’d encountered throughout our trip. Needless to say, we sprinted home and hit the sheets immediately.

Well, that concludes my spring break of 2015… despite the minor and semi-minor obstacles along the way, the benefits significantly outweighed the costs, making it the week of a lifetime. It saddens me that I will never experience a spring break quite like that ever again (to be fair, I probably only really have one left… where did the time go?!) although there’s no doubt in my mind I will return to Greece someday. Sorry again for the super long post, but if you made it this far without skimming, thank you and I hope it didn’t bore you too much. Look out soon for my next post (which I PROMISE will be significantly shorter) about my last big trip to Barcelona!

Easter Break

Bonjour à tous !

I apologize (again… I know I’ve been really slacking lately!) for the delayed post, but better late than never, right? Anyway, here is a quick run-down of my unique combination of Easter break travels.

Destination 1: Marrakech, Morocco

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Morocco had been at the top of my list since before my arrival in Lyon. I’d been inspired by other Elon students who I saw had traveled there while abroad in Europe. So why not return to Africa while flights are 150 euros on EasyJet?

However, as expected, Morocco was completely different than Ghana. There was a significant difference in the atmosphere. Since it is an Islamic state, there were multiple mosques throughout the city, and a city-wide prayer five times a day, which could be heard throughout the whole city.  I would say Marrakech seemed more developed than Ghana, especially in the new part of town, which had some big-name American brands, including a really nice Starbucks. There was also some Spanish influence, in some of the architecture and designs in the city. Also, a good amount of Moroccans speak French. So there were a few different cultures all happening at once.

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I went with my friends Jessica and Devan (definitely not a place we would have traveled to without a guy). Our first adventure was camel riding, which I had also been really looking forward to. Then we explored the city for a bit, visited some of the mosques (although we could not go inside since we are not Muslim) and enjoyed some Moroccan food – couscous and chicken skewers. The following day we toured the major park, went shopping in the “souks” (markets) where I practiced my bargaining skills, and explored the new part of the city.

I even picked up some Arabic while I was there. My friend Jessica went to high school in Bahrain, so she spoke it with some of the waiters and hostel staff, teaching me some along the way. And despite the summer weather, we wore long sleeves and jeans every day, since we didn’t want to disrespect the more conservative dress code.

One of my favorite parts of the trip was when we went on the roof of the hostel and watched the sunset. The views up there were unforgettable, and once the sun set, the stars were just as beautiful, and bright. As always, the photos don’t do it justice… but here are some pictures of the sunset:

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Destination 2: Grotte de Choranche, France

DSCN0456This was a trip organized by our program. We traveled to rural France, to the inside of a mountain where there was a cave. I’d never been in a cave before, so it was a pretty cool excursion for me. We had lunch outside, on the side of the mountain, which had a pretty nice view… even though it was raining! Later, we took a tour of a place that makes Chartreuse – a type of green/yellow alcohol that is popular in Europe. Even though I was unaware that this was part of the trip, it was interesting to see. We also got to taste the alcohol at the end of the trip… and I can’t say I’m a huge fan, but hey, I tried it!

Destination 3: Marseille, France 

First of all, let me briefly explain the planning of this trip. I went with my friends Jessica and Cameron. We took the train to Marseille, spent a day there, then took another train to Nice. We stayed in a hostel in Nice for 3 nights, and took 2 day trips – Monaco and Cannes.

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So Marseille marked the beginning of our “South of France” tour. It was a cute little city, and easy to walk around. We didn’t need to take public transportation at all – despite the fact that I was lugging a 15+ pound overnight bag around the city – got in a good work out though!

Destination 4: Monaco, Monaco

IMG_9685Monaco was really cool, and not just because it’s one of the smallest countries in the world with a population of approximately 30,000. It had a beautiful “Old Port” with almost as many yachts as habitants, each with a net worth greater than any amount of money I will probably ever make in my lifetime. But they were nice to look at. Another exciting part of Monaco was the Monte Carlo Casino (pictured to the right and below), where I gambled for the first time, and most likely the last time. I stuck to what I knew – blackjack – yet still lost about 20 euros! Needless to say, I stopped while I was ahead. Although I wasn’t extremely prosperous in my first gambling experience, I guess it’s not so bad to have been in Monaco for it. And it doesn’t hurt that there’s a bit of history attached to it – when gambling was outlawed in France in 1857, the Monte Carlo was built one year later.

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Destination 5: Cannes, France

IMG_9838Cannes was one of my favorite trips so far, and I’m sad we only spend one day here. BUT thankfully I convinced my parents that they would like it, so no need to worry – we will return in a couple weeks! It was sort of similar to Nice, but had different tourist-y things to offer. My friends and I took a ferry to one of the islands off the coast, Île Sainte-Marguerite, which was cool. It had a small museum, sort of similar to Alcatraz, but not as big. However I got some pretty cool pictures there. There was also a lot of influence from the Cannes Film Festival (although that doesn’t start for another couple of weeks), as a lot of the gift shop items and cute market items had a film theme. And of course, the city itself was beautiful, and had a great atmosphere for walking around. I also had a croque madame for the first time in Cannes – basically a grilled cheese with ham, and a “fried” egg on top (not the same as a regular fried egg – I think more poached? Sorry, I’m no egg connoisseur). Now, if you don’t already know this, I don’t normally eat pig products (they used to be my favorite animal when I was younger so I stopped eating them and I just developed the habit) however I’ve decided to branch out gastronomically here, you know, for the experience and all. But let me just say that croque madame was one of the best meals I’ve had in all of Europe. So if you haven’t already gone to France and ordered one, I highly recommend it.

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Destination 6: Nice, France

Although we had been staying in Nice each night, we didn’t actually experience the city until the last day (Monday). We had a few frustrations (mostly obtaining snacks/coffee) since it was Easter,DSCN0503 and if you don’t already know, France basically shuts down every business in the country on religious and public holidays. But we finally found a little cafe that was open and got our obligatory pastries and cafe lattes. Much like the other cities, we mostly just walked around and enjoyed the aesthetic beauty of the city – buildings and homes of every color, against a clear blue sky, decorated with palm trees and colorful flowers dangling from every balcony. And when you look to your right? The crystal blue Mediterranean Sea. I was appalled at the shade of blue in the sea – it doesn’t quite compare to the Atlantic ocean! As we strolled along the “Promenade des Anglais”, I realized I needed to move here ASAP.

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Again, I’m sorry this is over a month late! It’s harder to write about these long trips so I never have enough time/good enough  wifi connection to finish them (plus in my defense, I got halfway through this one and it all got deleted, so I may have had it sooner otherwise!). Anyway, look out for my spring break post next! Then Barcelona…. And my final trip with friends: Annecy, France, which I will be waking up at the crack of dawn tomorrow to visit.

La Vie en France

As I walked home from my 8am class this morning, sporting a black leather jacket and black mini-boots, baguette in hand, I had a moment of realization: I’m slowly but surely beginning to adapt to the French culture.

IMG_9387     So far, all of my posts except the second one have been about my life outside of Lyon. Sure, days trips to Switzerland, waffles in Belgium and balls in Vienna are great, but I don’t actually live in any of those places. While frequent traveling is an obvious benefit of studying abroad in Europe, it’s easy to get caught up in experiencing every place that isn’t the place where you’re stationed.

Here’s an honest comment: I have mixed feelings about Lyon. I definitely don’t hate it, but I can’t say I’m totally in love with it either. The best part about it is that it is probably one of the least tourist-y cities you can study abroad in, and I definitely enjoy it more than I would have enjoyed Paris. Although I have not been to Paris yet, I know I would not have been pleased with all the hustle and bustle of the tourists in the city. That being said, I also love that being in a smaller city gives me more of a real feel of what French culture is like. I also don’t feel overwhelmed. And although it’s not the most picturesque European city, it still has enough charm and beauty to keep me satisfied.

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My walk to class ain’t so bad

The worst parts are probably that a.) everyone smokes and the air inside my university is essentially just a cloud of smoke, b.) in general, people/businesses/services etc are not super accommodating, and do not value customer service a whole lot (maybe a European thing? Or just a non-American thing? Who knows. and c.) There’s not a ton of nature. There are some distant mountains that I can see from my dorm room window, and a decently sized park a couple miles northeast of where I live, and the main city is nestled between two rivers, one of which I cross over every day to commute to class. However this is probably true for most cities… but I can’t help but compare it to Grenoble!

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Parc de la Tête d’Or

 I enjoy being here also because I feel like I’m learning and challenging myself every day. Mostly because whenever I go anywhere, I am constantly reading signs/menus/etc in French, or eavesdropping every conversation possible, from the passengers on the tram to the other students making dinner in my kitchen, trying to discern what people around me are talking about. From the day I got here, it felt rewarding to be able to communicate with people in French, and to be able to understand French when I read it. I was no longer doing “Page 50, Exercise 3” in a text book; I was experiencing real French. For years I’d wondered if what we learned in class was accurately representative of what France is really like, and if people really used the phrases we’d memorized for quizzes. For the most part, I can say what I’ve learned is pretty accurate.

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Some other things I’ve adapted to include:

  • Wearing darker clothes, mostly black (not sure if it’s because I own a lot of it, or it’s extremely easy to match, or simply because that’s what everyone here wears…Thanks Coco Chanel)
  • Wearing leather jackets, everyday.
  • Carrying a baguette home from the grocery store after class at least 3 times a week
  • Drinking wine (not too hard to adapt too though, especially when it costs less than 3 euros)
  • “Cafe au lait”s aka espresso with milk
  • When I need coffee or food to go, I go to Brioche Dorée instead of Starbucks for a baguette sandwich or a “pain au chocolat” (chocolate croissant)
  • Not having a heart attack when I get a 14/20 on a test (that’s a B+, not a 70%!)

Not to mention, despite my still terrible accent, people are beginning to stop speaking English back to me when I try to speak French with them. The last few times I went to Starbucks (hey, can’t just give that up cold turkey!), Brioche Dorée, or my friend’s apartment, I’ve had full conversations with the workers in French. Yesterday, I went for a walk/run (I mostly walked…still sore) along the Saone river (the aforementioned one near my residence) and it was so refreshing. The weather was perfect: sunny with a slight breeze and crisp air, and right before sunset. IMG_9332 The further I got down the river, the more groups of people I saw just hanging out by the river – on a Monday afternoon. This reminded me of the general stereotype that the French value the quality of life, and it is 100% true. I’m not even just saying this because of my walk along the river – there are so many little details I notice that support this. I see so many “après le travail” (after-work) parties/gatherings advertised, for every day of the week. Most businesses are closed for at least 2 hour lunch breaks, and/or afternoon breaks before dinner, and/or don’t open until after breakfast, and most just not at all on Sundays. This is because (at least, to my understanding/theories) they value time spent with family and enjoying meals with close ones more so than capitalizing on operating 24/7. People will also enjoy a coffee or glass of wine at any time of the day. Wine with breakfast or coffee after dinner is completely normal here; the complete opposite of what I’m used to.

And one last thing: during my adventure yesterday, I stumbled upon some interesting sights in the artsy district of the city….

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All of these are completely hand-painted murals on the buildings. None of the windows are real. Lyon’s street art is pretty remarkable if you ask me!

In conclusion, I’m finally starting to get used to “la vie en France”. Who knows, maybe you’ll mistake me for a native French person next time you see me…. although it might be a dead giveaway when I don’t have a cigarette between my lips.

Montpellier

Bonjour encore en fois!

Before I begin, I want to give a shoutout to my cousin Emily for visiting me last weekend! It was so nice to see a fellow Battaglia, and not to mention one who I don’t see very often. I was flattered when she told me that she almost didn’t recognize me as I waited in front of a cathedral for her, claiming I looked “too Italian/European to be Alex”. We walked around a little and split a bottle of Rosé by the river. Unfortunately it was a short visit, but still exciting, and our conversations about how great France and the French lifestyle is reminded me how lucky I am to spend a semester here.

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So this weekend, some of my friends and I took a short trip to Montpellier, a small city in the south of France on the beach. We went for my friend Jessica’s 22nd birthday and had a great time. I always love traveling to new places no matter where it is. The train ride was beautiful of course. Train commutes to Philly and D.C. just won’t be the same without seeing the French countryside, French Alps, and homes with Spanish-style roofs through the window. (Speaking of D.C. – if you don’t already know, I recently accepted a internship position at a non-profit called TechnoServe in D.C. this summer, so I will be there for most of the summer!)

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Anyway, Montpellier was pretty, and different from other cities since it is more of a “beachy” city. We didn’t actually go to the beach since it’s not that big, and apparently not super impressive. (Don’t worry, we already planned a trip to Marseille/Nice/Cannes/Monaco in a couple weeks, so we will definitely get to the beaches of southern France!) The architecture was great, which is always a plus for me, and it was definitely very stereotypical France. There were plenty of cute little alleyways, cafés, and specialty stores. We drank wine to celebrate Jessica’s birthday, because what else would you do for your birthday in France?? The following day it was super warm, so we enjoyed a nice lunch outside after exploring the city and the park, and sitting by the river.

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We arrived back home Saturday night. Again, unfortunately it was short, but still really enjoyable. We spent Sunday booking some more trips, which I will list below:

Future trips that I’ve planned:

March 29-April 1: Marrakech, Morocco (excited to get back to Africa!)

April 2: Grotte de Choranche, France (near Grenoble)

April 3-6: Marseille, Nice, Cannes (France), Monaco

April 18-21: Amsterdam, The Netherlands

April 21-26: (not booked yet, but 99% sure I’m going to Greece!!)

I still want to get to Paris, London, Munich and Barcelona, but I’m running out of time/money, so I might have to leave one or two of those out. I also just found out that my parents are coming at the end of my semester here, and we’re going to Paris, Normandy, Italy and the Vatican.

Prague/Vienna/Budapest

Bonjour!

I apologize for the delayed posts – it’s been crazy juggling midterms, classes, friends, and exploring France! Anyway, I decided to actually just make one post for this, so here is a brief update of my “Ski Week” trip (despite the misleading name, we did not go skiing – that is just the name of the break we got in February, as it is common in Europe for students to get a week off from school to go skiing) which consisted of Prague, Vienna, and Budapest.

Prague, Czech Republic 

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Prague was a really cool city, and it was really interesting to me as it was the first “Eastern/Central” European city that I visited. We walked along the Charles Bridge, visited the newly-decorated John Lennon Wall, went to the Museum of Communism, the Jewish Children’s Museum, as well as a synagogue. We saw one of the main attractions – the Astronomical Clock, which is really cool because it’s not just a clock that tells the time, but also the phase of the moon and the zodiac.

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Caroline and I at the Astronomical Clock!

When we weren’t soaking in knowledge of communism and Judaism, we were eating Goulash soup in a bread bowl, hot chips on a stick, and fried cheese sandwiches. Yes, fried cheese – basically a round mozzarella stick on a bun, and probably the best street I have experienced in Europe thus far.

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Goulash stew in a bread bowl…yum!

My roommate (from Elon) Caroline is currently studying abroad in Prague, so our group (myself and four other girls, 2 of which are from Elon as well) met up with her and her friends some of the nights. Our final night in Prague, we all went on a “Pub Crawl”, a tour that takes you to different popular bars in the city. It was a lot of fun and a great way to end our time in Prague.

Vienna, Austria

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In my prom dress at the ball. No idea who the guy behind me is.

All of us were really looking forward to Vienna prior to our trip – not only because it’s so great that Billy Joel wrote a song about it, but because our feminine instincts couldn’t help but be excited to go to a Viennese ball. Our friend who we met in Lyon, Michael, is from Vienna and just happened to be visiting home at the same time we planned to visit. He was generous enough to let us stay at his apartment right outside the city. As soon as we walked in the door, his mother (who was visiting) greeted all of us with a smile, wearing the most traditional Austrian dress I’ve ever seen. It was great. She and Michael’s father gave us all a brief “Ballroom Dancing 101” course, which made me reminiscent of my 6-8th grade days of Dance Assembly. After our lesson, I slipped on my high school prom dress (which my parents so kindly mailed to me), and quickly got ready. We then headed over to the ball, which was at the Hofburg Palace. We tried to roll up to the palace in style, AKA via horse carriages, but unfortunately we were too late for that, and they had stopped running. Regardless, the whole experience felt like Cinderella, or The Princess Diaries, or just about any chick flick that involves tuxedos and full-length gowns.

There was a performance portion of the ball as well. First, a man sang opera (beautifully, I might add) for everyone, followed by professional dancers. Picture Dancing With the Stars. As for myself, I got some ballroom dancing practice from Michael and his brothers at the start of the ball; however, the real dancing didn’t start until closer to the end. Not only do you ballroom dance at an Austrian ball, you line dance. So a couple of us joined in on the line dancing, which lasted at least a couple of hours total. Best part of the night, hands down.

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Aside from the glamour of the ball, we got to see the Schönbrunn Palace, yet another cathedral, and the university where Michael attends. We had some delicious authentic Austrian schnitzel – although I ordered a Cordon Bleu, which is schnitzel with cheese inside. Unfortunately we only had 2 days here, but it was definitely a great experience.

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Budapest, Hungary

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I’m going to be honest here: Budapest is my favorite city in Europe so far, apart from Grenoble. The street lighting in some areas isn’t great, so I was little questionable about it at first. However, the more we saw the city (especially during the day), the more I enjoyed it. We did two walking tours – a general city one and a Jewish one – and the guy who gave the city tour was hilarious, and really nice. At the end, we asked for a recommendation for food, and he took us to his regular place. It was cafeteria-style, but delicious nonetheless, and of course cheap: (1 dollar = ~290 Hungarian forints). The main Hungarian dishes are goulash and langosh – I’d had goulash in Prague, so I made sure to get some langosh, which is almost like funnel cake-style bread, but usually eaten with meat. The food there in general was great, although far from healthy. But 100% worth it.

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Other attractions included the Museum of Terror, another synagogue and cathedral, and the ruin bars. We went to two “ruin bars” – one called Instant which was a very strange experience as everyone was dressed in weird costumes dancing to folk music, and Szimpla, which was less strange and pretty fun. I did like the set up of the ruin bars though, because they were really creative. They’re called ruin bars because they’re constructed like they were built in ruins, with stone/concrete walls.  There were several mini-rooms in each of them, with lots of cool decor, plants, wall graffiti/art, and both with an interior balcony in the center where you could overlook the bottom floor. The second bar, Simpla, even had some old silent films projected on the walls which was really neat.

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On our last night, we went to the Szechenyi baths, which are basically indoor and outdoor jacuzzis/hot tubs. The outdoor “bath” was just a huge heated pool, which actually felt really nice since it was about 45/50 degrees outside. It was a lot of fun and a great way to end the trip.

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Next post: Montpellier!