Wednesday, May 6, 2009


Pisa was gray and wet. It had neither the charm of Florence nor the size of Rome and it gave off, ultimately, a sad sense of neglect. It was as if the entire city thrived on this single tourist attraction (which, when you think about it, is itself slowly decaying) at the expense of other municipal developments. But perhaps we only felt this because it was a rainy (fewer tourists) Monday and many of the shops were closed (it's a European thing).

Despite the weather, Pisa made for a rather nice day trip. We stopped at a local market and were given free samples at nearly every booth--cheese, beans, saucisses, and the best olive I have ever tasted. It wasn't easy, but we finally decided on some exceptional pastries and dried apricots.

The tower itself is...well, leaning. While this fact is quite commonly known, I was surprised at how urban its location was. The sight of one of the most famous buildings in history looming up from behind power lines and apartment buildings is rather strange--un peu surréal, if you will.

When we learned that it cost €15 to actually climb the tower, we groaned our poor student groans (to which I have long grown accustomed) and decided just to sit and look at it instead. And so we ate some conciliatory pastries.

Mine is on the right, covered in powdered sugar and sliced almonds. Inside were hundreds of fine, doughy layers which gave it almost a custard-y taste. Thus the disappointment passed rather quickly.

As we headed over to take our obligatory Leaning Tower of Pisa photos (see below) we were stopped by two highly questionable Italian boys, Jimmy and Enrico, who attempted, in their very broken English, to talk to us. We fled after the initial necessary politesse and took refuge, like so many others throughout history, in the church.

While it may seem that the tower stands largely isolated from other buildings, it is actually part of a large complex of shops, museums, and an incredible church. I must have been in hundreds of churches since arriving in Europe but I never cease to be amazed by the breathtaking intricacies that each one has to offer. It is often physically overwhelming to enter some of these buildings, as one is instantly enveloped in a mass of gold, marble, paint, and stone in every possible combination. While the chapels and altars and relics are all impressive, I personally have a weakness for the ceilings. As you can see, I was not disappointed.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009


Where to even begin...ten days in Italy, countless gelatos later, nearly an entire bank account's worth of traveling, bus, foot, train, plane and I have finally returned to Aix. A girl from my program and I just spent the past week and a half traveling through Italy for our spring vacation, stopping in Florence, Pisa, and Rome. I am unable to find the words or the time to describe everything I've experienced, and so this feeble sketch will have to suffice.

Florence is one of the more beautiful places I have ever been. The light there has a most particular cast, giving everything it grazes a warm tint of gold. As the sun sets over the Arno River each night, the city's multiple bridges are silhouetted against the fading spectrum. It's remarkable. And it makes all the more sense to think that this was once the center of Western art.

But this appreciation of art has not disappeared with time, as the city is still home to a multitude of statues, fountains, palaces, museums, and cathedrals. I was able to see, most notably, Michaelangelo's David and Botticelli's The Birth of Venus and La Primavera. I always find these moments somewhat surreal (like seeing the pyramids and King Tut's treasure in Egypt) to see with my own eyes what has previously been confined to glossy textbook pages. We wandered through countless galleries of early Christian art as well--something for which I have developed a strange fondness. I only wish I was better adept at interpreting all the religious symbols utilized in the paintings.

Perhaps one of the best recognized symbols of Florence is its large domed cathedral known as the Duomo, dominating the rest of the clay-tiled horizon. The church itself is magnificently done--intricate frescos, carved doors, layered stone--but my favorite part was its nearby tower. It is well worth the six euros and four hundred something steps it takes to reach the top. Indeed, the view is breathtaking from such a height.

But in spite of all that we experienced there, I have to say that my favorite place were the Boboli gardens at the Pitti Palace. The morning's rain had turned into fog by the time we arrived, and the myriad of gravel walkways were edged by this fine mist. Branch-lined archways, moss-covered statues, fountains, endlessly-splitting paths--all possessed the slight sense of neglect that makes a garden mysterious and compelling. I could have spent hours there, lost in the immensity of dozen different gardens.

Sunset over the river

A piazza and carousel by night

A view of the city from the Boboli gardens

A floating citrus orchard in the Boboli gardens

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Escargot, anyone?

Walking home last night in the rain, it occurred to me how ridiculous I must have looked weaving sporadically across the side-walk, attempting to dodge the snails in my path. Large, taut-bodied, juicy snails that always feel the need to ebb themselves underfoot. Whose, really WHOSE, brilliant idea was it to eat these most disgusting of creatures?

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Le Printemps

I had initially planned to spend these few days before Italy at the beach and exploring local sights, but the lack of money and desire to make more travel plans has rather quenched it. And so, I've stayed in town catching up on movies and spending time with friends.

Today, my friend Xaviera and I decided to walk around the outskirts of our neighborhood. I've always meant to explore the unknown part of "farther up the hill" but it's usually too exhausting just to make it to my own apartment after a long day of class. The weather was the warmest it has been in weeks. Sunny, clear--the perfect epitome of spring.

We traipsed down long gravel roads, through tall fields of grass and wildflowers, past well-hidden houses covered in vines and colored shutters. We bemoaned the lack of accessible nature in Aix (she's from Sweden, so she understands) as we searched for somewhere soft, grassy, or dry. We finally found a charming field with olive trees, wild flowers, and an exquisite view of Mont St. Victoire.

And so we frolicked.

And made flower chains.

It was lovely.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Tout est Bien Encore

Tail between my legs, heart pounding, I slumped into the living room today to make up with a rather irritated host mother. "Umm, Michèle, can I talk to you for a minute? I know you're not very happy with me and I just wanted to apologize for whatever I did..."

After an entire week of avoiding a frightening 5' woman, everything is finally resolved. Turns out, it was a problem of laziness and a culmination of letting too many little things slide. Go figure.

1-I put my laundry in the hallway on Sunday morning (because I was going to be gone until very, very late) instead of in the bathroom on Sunday night.

2-I left my shutters open for several nights in a row, despite the absence of violent, winter winds.

3-My desk was covered in papers when she tried to clean it.

4-I leave the closet doors open when I go to school.

5-My clothes in the closet are thrown in rather haphazardly.

And so, after 20 minutes of discussion, of hearing how many times I had forgotten these petites choses, I finally told her that while there was no way to undo my past mistakes, I would recommit to doing everything better.

"It's all I can say to you. I'm sorry and I won't let it happen again."

And then, as if an entire week of short comments and critical looks had never existed, "Apology accepted. You know, my brother-in-law has a vascular problem and I'm very worried about him. I was at their house the other day and all of the sudden he stopped hearing, but fortunately I was there so we called the firemen and..."

Looks like things are back to normal.

Friday, April 17, 2009

The Return

Sorry it's taken me this long to post another entry. I've been shamed long enough by my friend Katie's regularly updated, always entertaining entries and thus I'm recommitting myself to being more diligent at writing--that is, at least until next Thursday when I depart for a week in Italy.

So, what have you been up to? Here's a rather brief summary of some of the things that have happened recently (or rather, not-so-recently due to my erratic posting):

1. Camargue:
This is a region in Southern France known for its white horses, black bulls, flamingos, and salt marshes. We were lucky enough to go with a fellow study abroad program who had already organized the whole trip--a two hour horseback ride through the salt marshes to the beach, a stop at a local town for lunch and a quick rest on the beach, and a traditional Course Camarguaise bullfight. These are what I like to call "nice bull fights" where the animals are not slaughtered like their unfortunate counterparts. In fact, the only goal of the game is to remove several small pieces of string that are attached to the bulls horns. As you can see, it's a little easier said than done.

2. Bordeaux:
I spent the weekend of Pâques (Easter weekend) in the French city of Bordeaux with several other kids from my church. Although the weather was far from pleasant (rain, puddles, wind, more rain) it was an absolutely wonderful weekend. We toured the old downtown area of Bordeaux, had a "P" themed party (I went as Le Penseur [The Thinker]), met a lot of neat people, and spent an otherwise perfect time together. I spoke French for three days straight and I only wish I could have that opportunity more often!

3. Chocolate:
Candy is as much a part of Easter tradition here as it is in the US. But in France it is the church bells and not a rabbit that delivers the treats--which, when you think about, is just as nonsensical. My favorite part about Easter in France though is the display windows of the local bakeries and artisan candy shops. Instead of the highly processed, over packaged products you'd find elsewhere, these windows are filled with the delicate chocolate shells of a whole menagerie of creatures: white chocolate lambs with little bows, hens with slightly tinted feathers, fish with bulbous lips, clowns, chicks, rabbits, and any other slightly springish creation. They're beautiful, these bonbons, but you pay a hefty price--some of the bigger ones ranged up to 45€. Although I was in Bordeaux over the week-end de Pâques, my host mom still bought me Easter chocolate which she gave me when I returned. It is a two sided shell (very traditional, I was told) filled with the tiny figures of ducks and hens and fish and flowers. I am proud to say that, after almost a week, it is still less than half-way finished.

4. Losing my Mind:
I'm entering that transitional point between French and English where I'm beginning to lack a precision in both languages. While my vocabulary is not as strong in French as I would like, I'm also beginning to forget basic English words. This week I forgot the words inside joke, alumni, fastidious, and recommitted. Soon I'm just going to have to resort to hand gestures and cross-cultural grunts.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Just Bear With Me

This week, I am tired of France. Of this impossibly gendered, over-tensed, non-accented language. Of the millions of vocabulary words I have yet to learn.

Of the lack of grass. Or rather, the lack of grass not covered in cigarette butts and dog poop.

Of my host mom's various rules that she can break but I can't. Of not being able to slam doors and play loud music and eat whenever I please. Of having to listen to the perpetual health problems that afflict the people around me.

Of being stupid. Of giving up mid-sentence. Of being constantly corrected.

I miss generosity, even side-walks, and having a car.

I miss wearing pajama pants and t-shirts and flip flops to the store.

I miss having a dryer. With nature scented dryer sheets and not the air itself. Where jeans are never stiff.

I miss understanding background conversation on the bus. A list of ingredients on a food package. A mumbled comment from a television character.

Yes, this week I am tired of France. Vraiment trop fatiguée.