Tuesday, March 29, 2011

a little bit of heaven on earth.

i have this theory – that heaven is made up of all the people and places that inspired you in some way during your life on earth. while most of the time, we don’t realize we’ve found a small bit of paradise – occasionally, that overwhelming sensation of peace and wonder is just too strong to go unnoticed. last saturday, i found a piece of heaven.
my journey started on friday night, when my friend claire came over to my floor to hang out for a while. her mom and sister had been visiting for the past week, so she was a little sad that they were gone. in a spur-of-the-moment decision on friday afternoon, she bought a train ticket for a day trip on saturday to ward off the inevitable homesickness brought on by the departure of her family. she was telling me and my friend shane about how her aunt and uncle had visited this little town called ‘amboise’, which is about an hour and a half away, and absolutely loved it. shane had actually been there as well, and he confirmed their appraisal. so claire was talking about how excited she was to see the town, and i thought to myself – “jill, this is an opportunity that will not walk by you again.” so i asked if i could join her, and bought a ticket! hooray!
saturday morning i woke up around 8 and met claire at the bus stop at 8:40. we got to the train station in pleeeenty of time for our 9:30 train, so i got a little snacky snack at the café – pain au chocolat (which is a roundish croissant with chocolate in the middle), a hot chocolate, and a little bottle of orange juice. for 4 euro! not bad at all. we got on our train and made our way east towards amboise. we arrived around 10:45, got off the train, and made our way across the river to the town center. the station was pretty much on the opposite side of the whole city (which isn’t big at all, but still), so we walked through one part of town, across a bridge to a mini-island in the middle of the maine river, across ANOTHER bridge, and arrived pretty much right into the main drag of town. which is the street alongside the chateau-fortress. this sounds like a long process, but really it was like 15 minutes – including all of the stops for photos. which were many. we walked down a little street so claire could find something to nibble on, and ended up walking by some really awesome shops and people. there was one place called the ‘dentellierie’ – lace shop – that had AMAZING, hand-made lace concoctions.. the delicacy and detail was mind-boggling! we also saw like 15 people dressed up in renaissance-period clothing, walking through the streets of a town that was in its prime during the renaissance. talk about a mind trip – it was just a testament to how cool a renaissance festival would be in europe. because i think that stuff is cool when it’s on a farm in middle tennessee. anyway, i digress..
claire found her snack (quiche lorraine.. yum) and we headed for the main attraction of amboise – the chateau. now, i’ve visited a few chateaux at this point, ranging from ornately palatial to your average looking fortress. this one was definitely up on the scale of prettiness! we walked in and were immediately impressed by the beautiful gardens, lawns, and towers. it’s so cool, because the chateau is built up onto these cliffs, so you feel like you’re walking around in a garden in the sky. we sat down at a little table to reflect and regroup, and then began our tour. the first stop was the st. hubert chapel, which is perched on the very edge of the cliffs.. actually, it hangs off a bit. but the chapel itself is in the ‘flamboyant gothic’ style – lots of frilly carvings and stained glass. the architecture was nothing compared to what was inside the chapel though.. that being LEONARDO DA VINCI’S EARTHLY REMAINS. yes, leo is enterred in amboise. he was invited there to be a part of the french court, and spent the last three years of his life living in a cool place called the ‘clos lucé’ (more about that later), drawing and designing and inventing and being awesome. so yeah – i stood within a metre of leonardo da vinci on saturday. no big. after marveling at that fact for a few minutes, claire and i walked around the outer walls, taking in the views of the river and small town sprawled out below us. we took a few pictures and then went into the actual chateau for a look around. the amboise chateau is actually a castle-looking place – not a fort like the one in angers. it has white walls and that classic slate roof, with lots of italian-renaissance-inspired frilly work blending in with the french gothic styles. my favourite room in the castle was the council chamber – it had a row of carved columns running down the center, holding up these beautiful vaulted ceilings. the fireplaces at each end were actually lit, which made me feel like i had been transported back to the 16th century and was waiting for the monarch to enter and hold his council. we walked through the rest of the chateau, checking out a legitimately “king-sized” bed (har har har), some royal portraits, and a sweet view from the top of the tower. the best part of the visit was walking around the gardens, though. the sun came out in full force by the time we finished our interior tour, so we just walked around and soaked up all the warm, sunny goodness. the grounds were beautifully manicured.. my favourite bit was the ‘porcupine’s gate’ – an entrance to the grounds that was flanked by two slopes dotted with little, perfectly rounded bushes – i said that they looked like hedgehogs before i knew it was called the porcupine’s gate! so awesome. after some more garden exploring, we sat down in a sunny patch underneath the ‘cedar of lebanon’ and i took a little cat nap while claire wrote in her journal. it was absolutely divine. we had to tear ourselves away, just to make sure we’d have time to see the rest of the town before our 3:45 train.
so around 12:30, we left the chateau and just wandered around for about an hour. we stumbled upon the town church, ‘l’église st. denis’. we were seriously the one people inside for like 80% of our visit. the alter was this little alcove absolutely covered floor-to-ceiling with paintings and sculptures and frilly decorations. it sounds like it would be gaudy, but it was actually really beautiful. the rest of the church was lovely too, but we only had so much time! the only other thing on our list was the ‘clos lucé’- where da vinci lived. we didn’t have a map, but we figured the town was small enough that we’d find it before too long. so we just kept walking around until we saw a sign with ‘clos lucé --->’. handy! we followed that direction, stopping to get a ‘take-out’ pizza for a picnic lunch. at one point, we thought we’d found it – the arrows were pointing up this verrrry long, steep staircase. we started up but soon realized that it was in fact the staircase to the ‘lookout point’ – also worth seeing. so we kept going. these stairs took us by some amazing sights – houses that were literally carved into the cliffs! they were the homes of servants in the chateau back in the old days, and now most of them are empty. but it was so cool to see the little colorful shutters dotting the cliff face. we finally made it to the top, out of breath and quite warm. i ended up spending the rest of the afternoon in just a tanktop! at the lookout point, we sat and ate our little pizza in near silence, gazing out over the lovely little town. i was starving, too, so i was pretty focused on eating. once we finished, it was time to head for the next stop – and luckily for us, there was a ‘clos lucé --->’ sign pointing us down a hill (not the crazy stairs!) so we didn’t even have to back track. we walked down the street, passing more of the cave-houses, and ended up right at the front door of the clos lucé. now that i’ve mentioned this place like ten times, let me explain what a ‘clos’ is – it’s essentially an enclosed field or green space. there is a big gate, and then you walk in to the courtyard of a beautiful old orangy-brick house overlooking this huge park. unfortunately for visitors, the admissions people thought it was decent to charge an arm and a leg to visit the house and grounds. but unfortunately for the admissions people.. they made the fence SERIOUSLY easy to stoop under. and since we didn’t feel any desire to see the inside of the house, we just followed the lead of some (adult) spanish tourists and popped under the gate into the garden. :) so we got to walk around the park that leonardo da vinci walked around while he dreamed up the designs for a machine gun, a rotating tank (which we saw in real life and which i actually got inside and spun around), double-decker bridge (which we ALSO saw in real life), and SO MUCH MORE. the man was serious about his inventions and designs. oh yeah, and art. honestly, it was surreal. i kept having the sensation of standing somewhere that he probably stood about 495 years ago. crazy. it was MUCH cooler than the mona lisa. we meandered through the gardens, checking out the working models of things that da vinci designed that were placed along the trails. around 3pm, we finally had to leave.. the walk back through town, across the river, and to the train station took about 30 minutes, because we were walking slowly, trying to soak up the last few minutes of awesomeness. but finally, we got the the station, and a few minutes later, the train came to take us back to angers.
sigh.. i don’t know exactly what it was about amboise that i loved so much. certainly, there is the obvious – beautiful architecture, amazing historical significance, wonderful sights. and the weather was great to us – hot and sunny and happy. but it was so much more.. the peaceful ruggedness of the tiny cobblestone streets, winding through town. the pleasant surprise of seeing little doorways that lead to a rooftop garden tucked into a cliff. the chateau, perched above it all, overlooking the daily life of the 12,000 people who live there. whatever it was, it wooed me – amboise is definitely a little bit of heaven.
***for pictures of this daytrip (and of last week's trip to brest), check my facebook album march in france!*** 

and for a brief update in regards to school – it’s almost over! this whole 12 week semester thing is pretty rad. but this week, i have more work than every other week of the semester combined. and by that, i mean i have two pretty big presentations and two minor ones. it’s a rough life. but i’m still stressed about the presentations, because i really dislike speaking in front of people. even speaking in english, in front of english speakers. but having to talk in french in front of a classroom of french students.. horror.
at this point, i have gotten through one of the two big presentations.. it went well! the next one is tomorrow. thankfully, it’s a group presentation. i just have to keep telling myself that tomorrow night, it will be over, regardless of how it goes. and then i just have two classes on thursday, and then i’m headed to bordeaux for the weekend! hoorayyy. :)
so, that’s life for now. somehow, it is already march 29th.. i’m not sure how that happened, but time is passing SO QUICKLY. i feel like i’m coming home next week.. but i still have 3 and a half months of awesome travels ahead of me!
stay tuned... :)

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

my weekend getaway to brest!

ok team – my apologies for the week-long silence!! i spent last week attending classes and preparing for my weekend getaway to brest. thursday was st. paddy’s day, and my irish had a wonderful day of drunken patriotism (except shane, he was just patriotic). i didn’t go out with them, however, because i had to get up SUPER early on friday! and that is where this blog post begins.....
friday, 18 march 2011
i woke up at 5am, having gotten a good 6 hours of sleep (huzzah!). i was meeting andrea at the bus stop at 5:55am, because she had an early morning train to catch as well! the first bus runs at 6:03, and our trains were at 6:43. i packed up my little backpack with a change of clothes and my toiletries and closed down my room for the weekend. it’s a strangely nice feeling, being so productive and active that early in the morning. andi came out to the stop and we got on the first bus – which had several people on it! surprising. thanks to the absense of traffic, we made it to the train station in record time – around 6:18am. i had gone to the station on thursday to print my tickets out, so all we had to do was get our tickets stamped in the little machine and head out to the platform! andrea was headed to paris, to meet her boyfriend at the airport! he came all the way from seattle to visit her for a week.. precious. as it turned out, we were on the same train!! because i had to switch trains several times, my first leg was in the paris direction. so that was nice, we got to chill on the train together for a while. i had to get off at the first stop, though, so we parted ways around 7:30. i had two more legs of my journey, and nagivated both changes without problems. as i was speeding through the french region called “bretagne” (also known as ‘brittany’), the beautiful landscape really struck me. i kept having the sensation that the ground had lights underneath it – the fields were honestly glowing green. very pretty.
i arrived in brest around 11:30am, and asked the information desk where the nearest tourism centre was. the guy pointed me in the right direction, and i set off. after a little round-a-bout way of getting there, i finally arrived and procured the map/bus plan i was searching for. once i had those in hand, i called my hosts for the weekend. i had found a couple who lives just outside of the city centre – their names are trifine and jean-fred. it was jean-fred’s number that i had, so i called him and he told me to come over whenever! so i hopped on a bus (for the only time during the whole weekend) and went to the stop where he was going to meet me. sure enough, i got off the bus and there he was! he drove us back to their little flat, where i put down my bag and we chatted for a while. i was SUPER tired, so i actually ended up taking a nap for a little while. haha! around 3pm, trifine came home for her break, so i finally got to meet her. she works in a fish-n-chips place down by the port, and the poor girl works doubles nearly every day. 9am-3pm and 6pm-midnight. yeeeesh. so she was exhausted, but we did get to chat for a while before jean-fred and i went in to town to check out the art museum. it was very small, but had some pretty decent works! after the museum, we walked around the town for a long time, just so i could see and admire all the new architecture. i also noticed that all of the signs had information in french, and then another language that i honestly could not identify. it looked like a combination of german, old english, and gaelic. i asked jean-fred, and he told me that it is a language called 'breton' - spoken in olden times in the region (bretagne, if you'd forgotten). as it turns out, until 1960, it was ILLEGAL for breton to be spoken or taught! talk about the french sense of pride in their language.. but there has been a revival in the last few decades, and now at least all the signs are in french AND breton. anyway, there is a small fort, sort of like the one in angers.. but the big difference is that brest is a port town. so there is a huge harbor, with tons of boats and shipping docks and all manners of maritime madness. we even saw a circus (literally, i saw camels and an elephant). he gave me a tour of the docks, which are famous for the insane amount of very detailed and artistic graffiti. it was super cool. around 7pm, we went to a local creperie for dinner.. you can’t go wrong with a good creperie. except i gave up meat for lent, so i just had an omelette. :)
at 8:30, we went back up into the town to meet claire, another couchsurfer i had found during my hunt for a host. she couldn’t house me, but she did invite us to go to this little concert in a local bar! it was really fun, and i had a great time getting to know her and her friends. plus, the band was decent, which is a plus. we stayed until about 11:30, and then headed home. trifine got home around 12:15, and we talked very briefly before i excused myself and went to bed.
saturday, 19 march 2011
they had a spare room, with a futon and a desk/computer, etc, so i had lots of privacy for the weekend. the futon was better than sleeping on the floor, but only marginally. the mattress was pretty non-existant, and it was laid out on top of wooden slats. but, i did have this huge duvet comforter and some big pillows, so it was grand. :) i slept well (and for a long time) and woke up feeling ready for another long, touristy day! except jean-fred slept in (because he thought i was still asleep, since i’d shut my door when i left the room), so i had a lovely morning sitting on the sunny spot on the couch, reading the tales of beedle the bard in french. around noon, he woke up and was surprised to see me. that was funny. but he rebounded and ran out to the local bakery to get some breakfast. he came back with a baguette and two pains au chocolat – good man. we had lots of various jams and butters and whatnot to put on the bread, and the pain au chocolat was one of the best ones i’ve eaten. i love french breakfasts. after we finished, i went and got dressed and we headed out for the day.
saturday was a gorgeous day – clear skies and about 60 degrees. our first stop was a 25 minute drive due west, to the pointe st. mathieu. it’s this gorgeous old abbey that now has a big lighthouse attached to it, perched on the top of these steep cliffs that fall right into the atlantic. it is the most western point of france (excluding little islands off the coast)! i really loved walking along the cliff-paths and looking down to the water. it was so clear, you could seriously see straight to the oceanfloor. i learned lots of new vocabulary from jean-fred, and took some awesome pictures (which will be on facebook soon!). we walked through the abbey as well, and then took our time getting back to brest. we made some stops along the way to check out other lookout points, and i took some pretty pictures of the landscape.
once we made it back to town, i popped by an ATM and then we continued on our little tour. he drove me by the stadium where we would be seeing the football match later on, and then took me to this gorgeous botanical garden. thanks to the lovely weather, there were loads of people walking around with their kids or their dogs, just soaking up the sunshine. we walked around for an hour, and then made our way back to the centre of town. we stopped by a bakery and i got the very last tarte aux frambroises (score!) – it was hidden from the shop attendant’s view, so when she said “we have no more.” i said “but there’s one that’s hiding!” and she looked, laughed, and got it for me. it was worth it, because those things are so delicious. anyway, after my snack, it was time to head to the stadium for the match. we had to park kind of far away and then walk back up to the stadium. we got in and chose our seats, underneath the cover in the “avid supporters” section. i had just picked the cheapest seats available, but it turns out they were the best!! the fans of the brest team are CRAZY and hilarious, so i had just as much fun watching them as i did watching the match! it was surreal to finally see a football match in person – after all the times i’ve watched them on tv, actually being there was a dream come true! i didn’t have much emotional investment in the teams, so i was really just happy to be there at all. the brest squad was facing the team from lille, all the way from the north of france, right next to belgium. lille are actually on the top of the bracket in the french league right now, so it was a fun match. brest lost, but i still saw some good goals and learned some awesome fan chants. i left very satisfied! jean-fred and i walked back to the car, drove home, and made some pasta for dinner. trifine got home early (at 11:30) and everyone was in bed by midnight. long but awesome day!!
sunday, 20 march 2011
i woke up around 9am to say thanks and goodbye to trifine before she headed off to work, and then sat reading on the couch for a few minutes before jean-fred emerged. we had a small breakfast, and then i packed up my stuff. at 10am, we got in the car and went to this really neat area of brest called ‘rue st. malo’. it is the only street in the whole city that has been preserved in its pre-war state. in world war 2, the city of brest was pretty much demolished by bombings. but the rue st. malo is tucked down into a little gorge, so it escaped the worst of the attacks. it is completely cobblestoned, with this huge stone wall and these beautiful old stone houses lining the little street. it’s only about 200 feet long but it’s quite charming. jean-fred said that there was an association that raised money to preserve the little street, and now there is a little party every sunday afternoon with food and music.. so cute. after that, we went back to the port to check out this big music/comic book fair that jean-fred had heard about on the radio. it was a one euro entrance fee to browse through probably 20,000 records and nearly as many comic books. i had a fun time looking through all the vinyl, jean-fred found some good deals. around 11:30, we went to meet claire at one of the open-air markets downtown. she had some friends with her, and we ended up sitting outside a café sipping on drinks and talking for about an hour. well.. the talked. i just did my best to listen and keep up! once we all finished our drinks, we walked around the market for a few minutes before i had to head to the train station. i said goodbye to claire and then jean-fred drove me over to the station. he even walked me inside and made sure i made it on the train! such a great host.. :)
the train ride home was awesome. i stayed on the train for about 2/3 of the journey, and then my ticket said i was to transfer to an “autocar”. which is a fancy word for bus. so i took a regional bus for the last hour and twenty minutes, which was actually fantastic. i got to see the back roads of my loire valley region, which is stunning. plus, the bus practically dropped me off at my door! win!
all in all, my trip was lovely. i was proud of myself for going all alone, and even prouder of the fact that i spoke english for probably 6 minutes total the whole weekend. plus, it was lovely to see a part of france i would have otherwise missed. i was definitely happy to get back to school and see all my friends, though!! i can’t even think about what it’s going to be like when we all move back to our corners of the world.. ugh. depression.
this week of school is going to be the week of preparation, because i have two big presentations next week. lots of stuff to do! but there are only like 4 weeks of school left, so i’m almost done. CRAZY.
we have two groups of visitors this week – andrea’s boyfriend and claire’s mom/sister! yay visitors. :)
ok, back to the homework that i’m avoiding... :)
xxx jill

Monday, March 14, 2011

status report - two months!

today is march 14th. the whole ‘pi day’ thing doesnt really work here, because the date is written 14.3.. but oh well. i have officially been out of the united states for 2 months.. and there are many feelings floating around inside of me.. i feel;

excited. wide-eyed. living in europe is exhilirating. i love the history and beauty that is so apparent everywhere you look.. the buildings (the old ones, obviously, but even the new architecture is beautiful), the landscape that is so different to what i know in the states, but becoming so familiar – even the people have an air of history and meaning about them.
the most exciting part about my time here is the potential travel. i could spend hours and hours and hours planning different weekend getaways, week long trips, or even my two month summer excursion. actually, i HAVE spent hours and hours and hours doing that. the fact that i love (read: LOVE) to plan just makes all these options that much more exciting.. travel-planning is quickly becoming one of my favourite pastimes!

empowered. strong. i am learning that i can indeed live on my own. it’s been tough – and there are certainly times when i falter – but as a whole (and this should come as no surprise), living on my own has made me more responsible and self-sufficient. i have a monthly budget, broken down into weeks, that covers food, travel, and fun. i do my own grocery shopping, and since there is basically no cafeteria, i cook for myself. i have learned to cook! and it is amazing. i know this sounds so basic and lame, but i have never had to cook for myself on a daily basis. i have always loved to cook, but it was a dinner here and there. now i’m accumulating the recipes and the know-how that will be a part of how i feed myself and my future family for the rest of my life. that knowledge is so empowering!
on a completely different (and probably more relevant to my semester abroad) note, my ability to effectively communicate in a language that is not my own every day makes me feel fantastic. until two months ago, the vast majority of my experience with the french language was in a classroom. 8 years of it gave me a great foundation, but there is nothing that can compare to living in france when it comes to learning french. my foreign language brain is constantly alert, picking up new vocabulary or phrases that i would have never learned otherwise. what a blessing to have this opportunity!!

transformed. already! just two months of living abroad has given me an opportunity to come into my own, as a student, friend, girlfriend, family member, linguist, traveler, believer.. my whole self has been stretched and tested, and i can feel myself changing almost every day. it is true that, in order to love others, we must first love ourselves. and we cannot truly know ourselves as individuals if we have never spent time alone. i do not pretend that i am “all alone” here in france.. i have great friends. but being separated from my family and friends and way of life back home has given me more insight into my heart that i could have dreamed.
one specific example comes to mind; amazingly, despite being so far away from my church and in a country famed for its agnosticism, my faith has grown here. i can’t even explain it, really, but i feel so much closer to God, myself, the universe.. everything. it’s like the whole theory of absence making the heart grow fonder is applying itself to my spirituality, except nothing is absent. it’s just distance from normalcy that has given me the motivation and desire to seek God more ardently than before. if nothing else comes from this trip – if i never met any o f my friends, or set foot in a different region or country other than this one, or learned a single word of french – this trip has been more than amazing, just for that reason. even before i left, i knew that i would return as a different person.. changed. transformed.
so, that’s my 2-month report. feelin’ good, feelin’ great! this week has started off well – i only have 5 more weeks of classes (lol) and then i’ll be off on a whirlwind, 3 month excursion of europe before flying home in 4 months. time is passing so quickly.. and there is so much to do! this weekend, i am taking a trip to the western-most point of france – a little town called brest, at the end of a peninsula that sticks out into the atlantic. i’ll tour around the city for a day and then hopefully attend a football match saturday night! super excited.
that’s all for now!

Friday, March 11, 2011

london; the end.

well, it wasn’t exactly the next day, but here is the final installment of london 2011.

friday, 4 march, 2011
since thursday was a stay-at-home day, friday had to pick up some slack. instead of going back to nottingham in the morning for a full day there, we opted to go see the last few museums/sights in london that we’d missed. we woke up around 8am to say goodbye to our hosts before they left for work – it was actually quite sad. they were so amazing to us..i’ll miss them very much! we ate a small breakfast and packed up all our stuff/cleaned the room a bit. around 10am, we left the flat for the last time (sad!) and headed to the tube stop with our bags in tow. we were joined my friend caleb (from earlier in the week) because he wanted to do the same touristy things we were doing! perfect. we met him in front of the national gallery and headed in to drop our bags at the coatcheck. we spent nearly two hours inside the national gallery, my personal favourite museum in london. there are works from the 13th through the early 20th century – a HUGE array of artistic style and era. i even saw a painting that we had studied in art history class two weeks before the trip! that was cool. my favourite rooms were the impressionist rooms (surprise) – they had about 15 monets! and many other greats – cezanne, van gogh, morisot.. the list goes on. i absolutely loved it. and took lots of illegal pictures. there were so many school groups visiting the museum on friday – it was adorable. they were all so smartly dressed in their little uniforms.. precious. and they were super intelligent, too, knowing all the answers to these obscure mythology references and questions. crazy.
after the national gallery, we headed over to primark so that rachel could exchange the pants she had purchased on monday. the hanger had said they were a size 6-8, but in reality, they were a 16-18. oops. we were in line with the new pair when i had her check the new tag too, just so the same thing didn’t happen. they were 16-18 too. we just returned the originals and left. haha. on the way back to the tube, we stopped in a souvenir store and i got a few trinkets for a couple friends back home. we also split a 12 postcards for 1 pound deal. we had intended to go to abbey road before lunch, but time was running out and we passed. i was seriously in need of some food, and a sit-down. so we headed back closer to the train stations via our last tube ride. good ol’ tube. or chube, as the brits say. we stood in line return our oyster cards at the train station and get our 5 pound deposit back, and then i went in search of platform 9 3/4. unfortunately, it is beyond the ‘you must have a ticket’ line, so i counldn’t go. :( but next time i’m in london, i’ll be sure to take a train out of king’s cross so i can see it. :) we grabbed a quick lunch at a café in the station and then ran across the street to see the british library before we left. IT WAS AWESOME. it’s a good thing (for rachel) that i didn’t make us come to the library before we only had 30 minutes until our train. because i could have spent SO much more time there. haha! they have an amazing collection of old books – the king’s library – displayed in a huge, 360 degree visibility glass case. sooo cool. the best part, though, was the “treasures of the library” exhibit, where they had shakespeare manuscripts, a handwritten copy of jane eyre, a manuscript of the canterbury tales, biblical scripts from the 3rd century ad.. so much. it was HEAVENLY. since our train was leaving at 3:30, we left at 3:20 and scurried back across the street. we said goodbye to caleb, snapped a shot of the huge olympic rings in the station, and hopped right onto our train. perfect.
the train ride was PACKED. we ended up sitting in the little antechamber at the front of the train. but at least we had seats! some people had to stand the whole way. brutal. we arrived at the nottingham station at 5:30, with directions on how to get to our hosts’ flat. unfortunately, it was a really confusing journey, as there are no streetsigns anywhere, and we didn’t quite make it alone. we ended up calling mike (sara’s husband) and he came to meet us. so no harm, but i felt silly for not being able to navigate our way there! once we got to the (beautiful) flat, right in the city centre, we met sara. who is LOVELY. she had dinner pretty much prepared for us – a homemade, authentic italian lasagna, bruscetta, and salad. awesomeee. two of their other friends, a couple from california and fellow couchsurfers, came to eat as well. we had a great meal and rachel and i really enjoyed getting to talk to such awesome people! after dinner, we chilled out for a little bit before heading across the town to see the robin hood statue and nottingham castle. it was pretty sweet. :) we went to a pub called ‘ye olde trip to jerusalem’, which claims to be the oldest pub in england. considering it was established in 1189, i’ll buy it. the pub was actually carved into the bedrock underneath the castle, with all these little cave rooms. it was SO NEAT! plus, i had my favourite kopparberg mixed fruits cidre. yummy. :) a bunch of sara and mike’s friends from school and church came to join us – they were all between 19 and 24 years old. three of them were doctors. whaaaat! they were all great fun, though, and we had a wonderful time. around midnight, we headed back to the flat and talked for a little while before collapsing into bed. what a day!

saturday, 5 march 2011
for the sake of time, i’m not going to get too into saturday. we basically just traveled back from england to angers. BUT, sara did make us delicious pancakes in the morning before we left! she is such a doll. and she had real syrup. yummm! we packed up, hopped on the shuttle to the airport, flew back to nantes, and got on the train back home. we arrived at our dorms around 6:30pm. i ate dinner early because i was huuuungry, showered, and got caught up on computer things for a while before crawling into bed.
so! there’s our trip. it was a fantastic whirlwind of culture and travel experience. i loved london (and england!) and can’t wait to go back one day.
the past week has been pretty uneventful. sunday, i spent the whole day in my room, catching up on homework and skyping. i had two tests this week – art history on monday and translation on thursday. i feel pretty good about both of them! tuesday night, natalie organized a ‘pancake party’ for mardi gras. she ended up making pancakes for nearly 30 people! it was a great night, and i’m so impressed by and proud of her. :) i’ve learned this week that i am a professional omelette maker, and that i love goat cheese. my french transformation is coming along.. :)
until next time!

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

adventures in london; part 2.

ok guys, you’ve had a few days to digest the first post. here’s london, part 2!
tuesday, 1 march 2011
first off, i can’t believe it’s march. where has this year gone?! anyway..
we woke up around 10am on tuesday and i got on the computer for a while to do some research on the day’s tourist goals. we got ready, and took the tube to the british museum. it.. is.. HUGE. i walked in the building and was immediately blown away by the size of the place – it promised to house a massively extensive array of history and art. and sure enough, it lived up to my expectations. we had a map, so we tried to find the ‘100 steps of world history’ items, marked by yellow dots. these items included the rosetta stone, the hinton st mary mosaic (first known mosaic of christ), the sutton hoo helmet,a sculpture of shiva and parvati,hokusai’s the great wave... so much! i loved it, because i saw several pieces that i’d studied in school.. it’s always awesome when i can make real-life connections to my studies. we finally left, and found a little italian café for a snack. we then walked all the way down tottenham court road, finally hopping on the tube out to buckingham palace. it was cool to see, but honestly, it was a little underwhelming. it’s no versailles, that’s for sure! rachel and i got a kick out of the cars parked in the sidelot though.. apparently, the royal family drives range rovers and ford fiestas. lol. after the palace, we walked a bit more and then found another tube stop.
since i wasn’t able to actually attend a match, i kind of dragged rachel all the way out to west brom so that i could go to the chelsea football club’s home stadium, stamford bridge. it was about 20 minutes on the train.. not too bad, but definitely out of the way. for me, though, it was SO worth it. the bridge is awesome, and they have these fantastic murals with all the players life-size. rachel took one photo of me sitting against the wall, and it looks like i’m cuddling with didier drogba (star forward) next to the championship trophy. there’s another picture where i’m high-fiving drogba and holding up the cup with frank lampard (another star). i love those pictures. we walked around the outside of the bridge, and even went inside the megastore giftshop.. awesome. after i got my fill, we headed back into london and made a stop at harrod’s for tea and some window shopping. that place is EXPENSIVE, i tell you what. it’s amazing. we had a fun time guessing prices of various designer’s pieces, and i realized that i will never in my life be able to afford  designer clothing. oh well. at 6:30, we went to meet rachel’s best friend michelle, who is doing her semester in london! they’d been planning on meeting up, and were excited to finally see each other. we found a little italian place for dinner, and my friend caleb (also doing a semester in london from belmont) came to eat with us. the food was good, but the waiter was pretty snotty. after dinner, i really wanted to find a pub to watch the chelsea/manchester united match that was happening at stamford bridge (where i, unfortantely, was not). we squeezed into a pub around the corner for the last few minutes of the first half, and then left to find another pub nearer to home during the halftime. except there was seriously not one place playing it! we walked around for 40 minutes looking and looking. finally, i just gave up because rachel, michelle, and caleb were being so sweet trying to help me find one but i felt bad for making them walk all over creation. eventually, we headed down a street to go walk to brick lane (an area nearby), and lo and behold, there was a pub with the match playing! i ran across the street, and ended up catching the last 10 minutes of what had been a pretty fantastic game. and then afterwards, we ordered drinks and i watched the highlights. i would have LOVED to go to that game.. but oh well. next time. :)
after that, caleb headed back to his dorm, and michelle walked with me and rachel back to our flat, which wasn’t too far. we took a stroll down brick lane and headed towards home. we had intended to get on the tube, but we took a wrong turn and ended up walking all the way back! oh well, good exercise. :) once we got back, i did some contemplating and decided to forget about the daytrip to oxford. i’d been trying to work that into our week, but it was just not worth spending four hours on a bus when there was so much to do in london. again, next time. we were exhausted from all that walking, so we went to bed earlyish.
wednesday, 2 march 2011
with oxford out of the picture, wednesday ended up being a great day. we ate breakfast and then went into the city with several goals. since the tower of london is so expensive to actually tour, we decided to just go see it and take pictures. so we did that, and saw the tower bridge at the same time! that’s the one that most people call the london bridge. but in reality, the london bridge is the next one down the river, and isn’t nearly as impressive. after we got our fill of the scenery, we walked down the river and across the millenium bridge to see shakespeare’s globe theatre. it was SO COOL. we really (really) wanted to see the show, which was macbeth!, but it was only for school groups. stupid school children, i bet they don’t even appreciate what they got to do that day. haha. we stayed and tried to peek in the doors until the ushers finally closed them. sigh. put that one on my “next time” list.
we walked literally 100 yards down the riverbank to the tate museum of modern art, also known as the tate modern. it was pretty fun – we had a great time guessing the meaning of various pieces. my favourite was a large white octagon pasted to the wall. the top floor of the tate modern has a café and restaurant, and an amazing view of london. st paul’s cathedral is directly across the river from the museum, and the huge dome towers over the surrounding buildings. it’s a fabulous cityscape. we headed back across the bridge and found a (cheaper) café with some great treats for teatime. best cupcake of my life, hands down. rachel got a loaf of bread to go and we headed to st. paul’s for an evensong service (which is like a mass, but sung). i got to check yet another item off of my bucket list by sitting and “feeding the birds on the steps of st. paul’s”.. just like the little old bird woman in mary poppins. it was awesome. there are pictures. the evensong service was cool, but really hard to hear (we sat at the pack for easy leaving), and SUPER LONG. we only stayed for 30 minutes, but the whole thing was about an hour and a half. the inside of st. paul’s is gorgeous, and seriously impressive. it’s the masterpiece of the architect christopher wren, who actually designed over 50 churches and chapels in london.
around 5:30, we headed back to the flat because we decided to have a fajita night! tristan came with us to sainsbury’s and we loaded up on all the necessities. a few more friends came over, and we had a great time cooking and eating and laughing.. yet another great couchsurfing meal. i even found an alcoholic beverage that i can tolerate! it’s called kopparberg mixed fruits cider. yummy. unfortunately, rachel must have gotten the one bad piece of chicken in the whole batch, and her body absolutely rejected the meal. and everything else she tried to eat or drink for the next 10 hours. she was sick all night. :(
thursday, 3 march 2011
poor baby rachel was still sick at 7am on thursday. which was 10 hours after she first got sick.. and that’s about as long as anyone can go with no fluids. she was SUPER dehydrated, and still couldn’t hold down even water. i figured enough was enough, so tristan walked us over to the ER, conveniently located a short way down the street. we walked into the empty waiting room, and the receptionist asked rachel her name, birthdate, and ethnicity. after those three questions, we walked through the double doors and they set her up in a little curtained-off room. the nurse took some blood, and put rachel on an IV to get some fluids back in her body. after about 2 hours, the doctor came back and said everything was fine – just drink lots of water and rest. and then she said we were free to go. like, walk out. without signing even a single paper! socialized healthcare is amazing. rachel literally never picked up a pen, or gave them a cent. word. we came back to the flat and she ended up sleeping from about 11am to 7pm, because she hadn’t slept one bit during the night. i woke her up around 2:30 to eat a piece of bread and take a tylenol. while she slept, i took a nap, worked on the computer, and cleaned up from the previous night’s fajita-fest. i did a massive clean in the kitchen, which was therapeutic. we had a light dinner that night, and then watched two movies! :) chicago (awesome, still) and 10 things i hate about you. both classics. michelle came over for a while to say goodbye, and we cleaned up/organized before hitting the hay.

ok, enough for now. final post tomorrow!
ps- happy mardi gras (and international women’s day!)

Sunday, March 6, 2011

london calling!

heyyyy everyone.

first off, sorry for the ridiculous delay. i had a complete blast in london, with little time to stop and blog! but, i'm back home to franceland now. so.. buckle up. here's part 1 of my week in london town. :)

the few days before departure were normal. i did laundry, pre-packed, did homework, hung out with people.. the usual. a bunch of us went to a student party on campus thursday night -- the best part was when the dj put on 'cotton eyed joe', which made jessie and me FREAK out. hilarious. we stayed out too late though. friday, the night before we left, i had shane check out my backpack to make sure it would clear the luggage restrictions on ryanair. clear for takeoff!

saturday, 26 february.

i woke up and did some final preparations before meeting rachel at the bus stop. we headed to the train station around 10am, and arrived at 10:30 for our 11:30 train. she got a snack, and we waited for our train to nantes. once we got on the train, it was a quick jaunt southward, and we arrived at the station before we even realized it. we got off the train to a beautiful, sunny day. it made for a pleasant start to the trip! the shuttle to the airport was just outside, so we only had to wait for a few minutes. the ride was quick, and soon we were at the nantes airport. it wasn't anything special, but still pretty big! we found our gate and checked in. no problems! we got lunch at the cafe past the check in counter, because we had a bunch of time to kill before our 3:30 flight. at 2:30, we headed to security. i got through without a problem, but rachel got patted down AND her bag was searched! weird. we got through eventually, and headed to customs. i got my passport stamped (yay!) and talked to the guy in french for a bit. we only had to sit at the gate for a few minutes before they started boarding procedures. the weird thing was that everyone lined up and had boarding passes/passports checked just to go sit on the skybridge and wait for the plane to arrive. whatevs. it finally got there, and we walked out to the little jet. as we boarded, there was classical music playing! neat. i was expecting a total crap airline, because everyone has always told me "you get what you pay for" with ryanair (the tickets are pretty cheap). but it was actually quite nice! and the flight was crazy short. by the time the flight attendants finished going up and down the aisle selling their various wares (food, drinks, smokeless cigarettes ((what??)), phone cards, magazines...), we were beginning our descent to east midlands airport in nottingham. yeesh! the east midlands airport was nice.. the customs man stamped my passport and gave us lots of good transportation advice in his think accent. rachel couldn't understand him.. haha. we made our way to the taxi stand and got a cab to the train station. the cabbie was very nice! i love cabs. anyway, we got to the train station just a fewwww minutes too late to catch the early train, so we waited for about 45 minutes and hopped on the train to LONDONNN. rachel napped while i pored over our big map for the 1.5 hour trip. we arrived around 7pm local time at st. pancras station, in central london. wow. i had directions to our hosts' flat, so we got on the tube and made our way to bethnal green in east london. it's always nice to be able to navigate a completely new place. we arrived at the flat and met our incredibly wonderful and lovely hosts.

let me explain what i'm talking about for a second. last december, i joined the couchsurfing community. i spent hours looking through profiles of people all over the world, getting more and more excited to start my travels. this past month, i sent out several couch requests to potential hosts in london. a week before we left, i finally got a 'yes'! we are staying with 3 people - one guy and two girls. tristan, the guy, is the couchsurfer who confirmed our stay. alex is also a surfer (who i had actually requested before tristan!), and then there's susie. they are some of the nicest human beings on the planet. tristan immediately calmed my nerves about staying with next-to-strangers when he sent the following at the end of a CS message: 

"Ok, don't worry about anything short of finding my flat. We can take care of every thing else once you're here. We do open our house fully to surfers - you're a part of the family while you're staying... don't forget that. Treating my fellow man with respect, kindness and dignity is very important to me. We evolved as social creatures and over the past 100,000 years have learnt to thrive in communities... While we've kinda lost our way in recent Millennia, I still believe in human nature."

yeah, couchsurfing is awesome. the place is amazing, too! the flat is huge, with 3 bedrooms downstairs, and a big living room upstairs. rachel and i shared the living room with two other surfers from poland for the first two nights - adam and ola. they were awesome. once they left, we had the whole room to ourselves! i've been sleeping on a double mattress with two big duvets, and rachel has this big, wide couch with duvets as well. we received a set of keys upon our arrival, and we've shared several great meals with our new friends. there is a computer in the room, and they even have a CS sim card for cell phones! i've never felt so at home while traveling.. it's the best. :)

anyway - we arrived at the flat around 8pm with no problem. they immediately welcomed us inside and sat us down with some tea and chicken sandwiches. as the hours passed, more friends came to join the party. by 10, there was a group of about 9 or 10 people.. and such an array of nationalities, personalities, etc! we had american, polish, british, swiss, canadian, new zealander, welsh.. it was amazing. again, i love couchsurfing! we had a blast and didn't get to bed until 3 or 4 in the morning. 

sunday, 27 february.
thanks to a late night, we slept in a bit. tristan made us tea for breakfast, and we headed out to start our day around noon. i have a friend who is studying in york this semester, in northern england. he was down in london for the weekend, so we met up on sunday to hang out! it was great to see him and hear about his study-abroad experience. we met up around 1pm at picadilly circus, which is like an older, smaller times square. lots of traffic and theatres and big flashing billboards. there was this awesome street performer doing soccer ball juggling tricks near the fountain.. so entertaining. cameron showed up just as it stared raining, so we hurried down the street to leicester square to find a place for lunch. we decided on a beautiful pub called the brewmaster. rachel and i split a burger, which was DELICIOUS. after lunch, we headed to an indoors attraction, as it was still raining a bit. we took a small detour to find diagon alley (yep!) and then made our way to the national portrait gallery. it's a big museum filled with portraits of loads of famous people from british history. we walked around and saw portraits of the bronte sisters, loads of british politicians and cardinals, and some more recent celebs (princess di). there was even a warhol print of the queen! awesome. photography wasn't allowed, but i snuck a few good shots. ;) once we'd toured all of the galleries, we headed back outside for a bit of a walking tour. the rain had gone, leaving a tentative sun peeking out from the clouds. it was really quite pleasant. we walked from the national gallery through trafalger square, down whitehall ave (the main drag, where the calvary museum and the prime minister's house are), and down to the houses of parliament / westminster abbey. it was such a british moment! we took pictures in the red phonebooths, with big ben in the background -- win! our plan had been to go to the free organ concert at westminster abbey at 5:45. otherwise, the admission fees are crazy! due to a small clock-reading confusion (my phone was still on france time), we found ourselves with an extra hour. so we walked across the westminster and hungerford bridges, took lots more pictures, and stopped for tea/cake in a little brasserie. yum. :) we made it back to westminster with plenty of time, and walked straight in. the abbey was founded in 960 AD, over 1,000 years ago. snap. the inside of the abbey is AMAZING.. and indescribable. i snuck some more illegal pictures. :) i'm so glad we got to go. the organ concert was epic, too. the first number was a high, trilly number.. but the second one loud and filled the whole nave with the deep, resounding tones of the organ. a great experience, to say the least. we left the abbey and took some fun night-time pictures of big ben before hopping on the tube back home. we said bye to cameron at his stop, and continued back to ours. our hosts had ordered pizza, so we ate that. i had the brilliant idea to get ice cream, so we walked down the street to the store to get some. yum. we spent the rest of the night talking, and i did some more research on tourist-y things. after a long day, we fell into bed.

monday, 28 february.

our main goal on monday was go to see a ‘west end’ show – london’s equivalent of nyc’s broadway. after considering a few options, we settled on ‘chicago’.  we went into the center of town around 11 to find a half-price ticket booth. the first few places told us that tickets for monday night were between 30 and 40 pounds. pretty steep, considering the pound is almost two dollars. we kept looking, and finally found a place that had tickets for 19.50. definitely do-able! we purchased three – two for us, and one for alex (one of our hosts). then we walked down to covent garden market and looked at an incredible amount of flea market fare. it was pretty awesome. we took a (red, double decker) bus to oxford circus and found a pub for lunch. i had hearty vegetable soup, and it was AMAZING. it rained for a while after lunch, so we spent the afternoon running from store to store on oxford street.. h&m, zara, primark, etc. it was fun! primark is HUGE and very stressful, though. it’s like if walmart and forever21 had a giant baby. cheap clothes, TONS of people, long lines, crowded.. we ended up trying on skirts over our clothes in the shoe department, as the line for the fitting rooms was like 70 people long. it was good though, i got a skirt and some cute oxfords for like 18 pounds. yay! after primark, we took a bus back to covent garden area, because we were supposed to meet alex outside her tube stop around 5:30. rachel and i ended up sitting in a café and drinking tea for like an hour and a half. we had a great conversation about loads of different subjects, from family history to my wardrobe. it was lovely. :) around 5:15, we walked up to the holburn stop to meet alex. she showed up, and we hopped on the tube back to the flat to get ready for the show.
 we were only home for a short while – enough time to change clothes and clean up – before we had to leave again. we left the flat at 7:20.. and the show started at 8. it takes a while to get into london on the tube (it’s a busy place!), so we were a little pressed. once we got off the tube, we scurried down the street to the theatre, rushing in at about 7:58. the man at the door saw me holding all three of our tickets, and asked “are you three together? stop by the box office and they’ll give you an upgrade.” ..what? awesome. i handed the lady behind the counter our tickets and sure enough, she scratched out the “upper tier, row J” and wrote “o/s, row g”. we walked past the ticket taker, and he directed us down the aisle. when we got to our seats, i couldn’t believe it. we went from the back row of the upper tier to the 7th row from the stage! talk about lucky!! i ended up chatting with the woman beside me (a fashion-industry buyer who had just arrived from singapore earlier in the evening), and she said they paid 80 pounds for their seats. soooo.. WIN. and on top of all that, the show was amazing!! we had a wonderful time. it was funny to hear british people doing american accents.. from the 20’s chicago accent to a southern girl. they were pretty good – there were just a few times where i heard a phrase and thought to myself, “where do they think they’re from again?” all in all, it was an incredible experience. we took a few pictures outside the theatre and then headed home. after such an exhausting day, we were in bed pretty quickly.

ok, this entry is long enough. stay tuned for parts 2 and 3! :)