Gyro to Hero: Tales from the Grecian Isles

One 7-hour ferry ride later, we arrived on Santorini. After our first two days in Santorini, I was going to write a 5,000 word rave about its fairytaleness. Luckily for you all, I waited until my memory had done its thang and filtered through all the uninteresting (what!? never!) details and now I can’t come up with 5,000 words on it for you. Unless a picture is worth a thousand. LOOK AT THIS!

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Sorry, didn’t mean to go all capital-letters on you, but it is just as dreamy as it looks. That’s really all you need to know. But I’ll tell you more anyway.

Dana and I followed the recommendation of a friend of ours and stayed in Oìa, one of Santorini’s two major towns (the other one being Fira). Like true budget travelers, we found ourselves in a house-converted-into-hostel, run by a charming old Greek woman and her husband. She gave us the lowdown on what to do and see and how to find the rooms in broken English, which she had taught herself (“You can look the windmill here” “Coffee and tea is for every time”).

Oìa’s laid-back, whitewashed island atmosphere inspired us to take a true vacation. We saw some sights, but at a leisurely pace. Lots of rooftop wine bars were involved in our 4 days on the island. We made some new friends  — we happened to be on a rooftop with some American girls. They offered to take our photo, and we got to talking and discovered that all of us lived near Lille, and they were assistants too! We had mutual friends and everything. We spent some time eating and drinking with them until they left, a day before us. We also met a couple from Napa on their honeymoon (they screamed SoCal)  and a group of moms who were taking a consolation vacay to commiserate about having to send their sons off to college. They were the sweetest, funnest ladies, and we want to be them when we grow up.

We went on two little excursions which both involved volcanic beaches and swimming. The first was to the bottom of our cliff, in Ia, where there was a small port (as seen in The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants). The water was clear blue and cold.

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Another excursion was to the active crater on the volcanic island in the middle of Santorini’s caldera, and some hot springs. We had to take a boat from the capital city, Fira, for this one. We encountered yet another aspect of Greek culture: reluctance to reveal all the information about an excursion before embarking. We were on the boat when they informed us that there would be a 2-euro entrance fee for the attraction we had already paid to see! Nice one, tour company, nice one. The view from the top may have been worth the price, though.

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The hot springs weren’t hot, but they were warm. But they also neglected to mention the nice little 50-meter swim through the ocean to get to them. We braved the cold anyhow, craving a swim after the long, hot hike and boat ride.

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After Santorini, we moved on to Crete. It had been my dream to go to Crete ever since I’d learned about it, in 4th grade, as the birthplace of Greek civilization and where Theses slew the minotaur! We didn’t make it to the Palace of Knossos, but we were close enough. Crete was very different from Santorini. It’s HUGE. We stayed in Rethymno, a small town between the two big cities, and it took over an hour on the bus to get there. The beaches were much more familiar looking, and we decided that it was more representative of real Grecian island life.

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The water was warmer, too. That guy had the right idea.

It was also cool because it has some of everything: sun, beach, fortress, and snow! Here’s the view from the old Venetian fortress:

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In short, it was a beautiful, much-needed vacation. Dana was the best travel buddy, all the people we met were fantastic, and I’ll never forget the views! We made it home from Athens after an overnight boat, one more day of touring, and a flight which we caught at 6:15 AM (so we woke up at 2:30 AM…). Needless to say, I slept most of yesterday.

Next up? Toulouse! TBC

Gyro to Hero: Tales from the Grecian Isles

Journey to the Netherlands

Every time I said “I’m going to Amsterdam this weekend,” I was met with a knowing “ohhh, Amsterdam?” I think there was an implied “capital of sex and drugs?” on the end of that sentence almost every time. I promise, that isn’t what we went for!

This trip was originally my friend from Whitman’s idea, and she invited me to tag along, and then my housemate Laura joined us. These ladies were lovely travel company! I arrived a little earlier than both of them, checked into my hostel, and set out to explore the city. Here are my first views, one by night and one by daylight.

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My biggest fears while walking were getting crushed by a tram or hit by a bicycle. Everything is fast and furious on the streets there, and the big groups of sauntering (and often stoned) tourists made it hard for everyone to get around. That said, walking was my favorite thing to do.

It was on my walk that I had the most magnificent pastry I’ve ever encountered: the kwartzbollen. It’s essentially a large donut hole covered in vanilla sugar.

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My Whitman friend had decided to couchsurf, so we met her lovely host for dinner when she got in. It was great to have a Dutch perspective on the city. He taught us some Dutch and fed us pasta. Then, I picked up Laura and we all went to bed.

Saturday was the walking tour, a three-hour excursion with Kor, of Sandeman’s New Europe tours. Sandeman’s is a new-ish company which gives “free” tours. Their business principle is to have people pay, at the end, the value that they place on the tour. It makes the tour guides work harder to entertain the crowd and it puts the burden on the tourists to decide how much they’d like to pay! And it worked just like the theory said it should; Kor was fabulously entertaining, and the tour was incredibly informative. We walked all over Amsterdam: through the Red Light district, through Dam Square (where the original Amster-Dam was built to dam up the river Amstel), past the shopping quarter, Anne Frank’s House, the museums, the cute quirky neighborhoods…I felt like we saw everything we needed to.

This is the narrowest house in Amsterdam. Anyone who is taller than 5’9″ cannot lie widthwise on the floor in this house. People built narrow houses so as not to pay as much tax, as they were taxed for canal front space! Width is proportional to wealth.

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Another option in Amsterdam: houseboat life! Houseboats cost around 100,000 euros, and the permits cost 500,000 euros. Maybe if I win the lottery one day, I’ll retire to a Dutch houseboat. Life on the water sounds ideal!

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Other fun facts that stuck with me:

Every house on a canal in Amsterdam has a little hook that juts out of the roof with a rope attached. Because their houses are so narrow, these pulleys are used to lift things that don’t fit through the door to the upper levels of the house. This is also why most of the houses lean forward slightly, so goods are less likely to hit the windows!

In old Amsterdam, the last names of its citizens were simply their profession, or location within the city. When Louis Bonaparte, Napoleon’s brother, came to take over the city, he made all the citizens pick their own last names. That’s why, if you ever meet a Dutch person, they may have a last name which translates to something funny (like “of the trout”).

Prostitutes and freelance tour guides have the same paperwork from the Chamber of Commerce.

Despite its reputation, Amsterdam’s marijuana consumption is less than the global average! First in the world, per capita? Canada. Second and third? France and Italy.

Schiphol Airport’s name literally translates to “Ship Hole” because it’s actually a dried-up lake. As such, it’s way below sea level and thus one day could become a lake again…

I found Amsterdam to be a breath of fresh air. There’s a free-spirit vibe everywhere; people dress how they want, whizz around on bicycles, help you if you look lost on the street. They’re used to tourists, but it also seems like tolerance and creativity are deeply rooted cultural values. I was fascinated by something which fascinates me everywhere I visit: how people respond to the conditions of their environment, and how that forms their cultural and linguistic identity. Innovation in house-building to deal with the swamp life, and innovation in trade, which made the Dutch East India Company one of the most lucrative in the old world, gave way to inventiveness in the arts and sciences and an open-minded cultural mentality. If I could learn about one thing for the rest of my life, it would be this interaction between culture, language and environment. Maybe I should have been an anthropology major after all…

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Journey to the Netherlands

Touring France for the Holidays: Part 1

I’m back!

Honestly I thought I’d have a lot more time to write on the road…silly me. I don’t think I got my computer out for more than ten minutes the whole time. That is FINE by me, though! Now I’ve got a lot of adventure stories so I’ll try to spread them out.

Part 1 : Enquête Exclusif à Rennes

My journey began on Saturday morning at 5 AM, when I woke up to catch my train from Valenciennes to Lille. In Lille, I caught my train to Rennes, for my first cross-France journey. Here’s an estimated map (because I took a train instead of a car!).

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Rennes is the capital of the Bretagne region of France, and a notorious student city. Roughly one fourth of the population is students, actually. It makes for a great night out — or so I’ve heard, but unfortunately I arrived the day all the students left for the holidays. Lise said that there was a marked difference between Rennes with students and Rennes without.

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The city wasn’t destroyed in the war like most of the North and some of the West…so there are still buildings from the 14th and 15th centuries everywhere! Historical charm: check! It was also misty and rainy and mild most of the time, which fit my image of Bretagne (I figured the west coast is the west coast everywhere…I felt right at home).

On my first full day, we did one of Lise’s favorite things — the Planetarium! There’s a science center in Rennes with a fully functional planetarium, and we watched a 3D tour of the galaxy. It was so unexpectedly meditative. I almost fell asleep, and when I got out I felt incredibly calm and peaceful inside. When you see the galaxy like that….it’s impossible not to feel like the smallest thing in the universe, and that’s a really relaxing thought. If we are small, all our problems are even smaller. Perspective!

We emerged from the pitch black peace machine to find ourselves in the Foire d’Hiver — the winter fairground. French fairs are much like American ones: total overstimulation. To go from drastic understimulation to drastic overstimulation so suddenly made us laugh. All we could do at the fair was people watch and stare at all the terrifying-looking rides…

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Later, we went to another of Lise’s favorite places… A Vos Mousses, a self-serve beer bar. Stick your card on the sensor, and you can fill your glass with as much beer as there are euros of credit (and as it will hold, obviously). What a genius idea for a bar, was my thought — you can imagine the money to be made when a bunch of intoxicated people get their hands on a self-serve beer card. We only had one, this time ;).

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We stumbled across a light show on the way home. This is one of the things France does during the holiday season: they have light shows projected onto buildings, usually the city hall, that are strikingly realistic. Lyon has a famous Fête des Lumières which I eventually hope to see, but apparently Rennes has one as well! They’re quite a spectacle.

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The next day, we went to the park! I love French parks. This one has been around for ages, and used to be the leisure activity scene for the bourgeois elite of Rennes. Its elegantly groomed grass and gardens and fancy fountains betray its high-class past. It was a lovely escape from the city!

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Now for the Enquête Exclusif  reference: one of the nights, Lise and I watched a TV program that was discussing American universities and the hazing, alcohol, and prostitution which characterize them. It went on for almost an hour on the seedy sides of university life, interviewing an idiot kid on spring break and numerous women who’d chosen to become escorts to pay for school. At the very end, it said “the university system has some positive aspects as well,” talked for 15 minutes about research, and ended.

I have two conflicting reactions to things like this: “wow, some things that happen in my country really make us look bad,” and “how dare they only look at the negative.” News is biased, but that doesn’t mean that these things don’t happen. It’s one of the challenges of being in a foreign country: you see your own with brand new eyes. My goal is to never become too critical of one or the other. All countries are extremely diverse and have good and bad aspects…and I don’t ever want to dislike the U.S. or dislike France. They’re just different.

I had a BLAST catching up with Lise! It’s been about a year since I’d seen her, but for foreign friends…we’ve seen each other once a year since we’ve met, which is pretty great. Sending our love to the former French house and friends, we missed you! And a big THANKS from me to Lise for being such a great hostess!

Next up is Part 2, concerning two friends and three Christmases in my new favorite region.

Touring France for the Holidays: Part 1

Kebaby and Dragons: 4 Days in Krakow

As seen on Facebook, I’ve been spending my Toussaint vacation with friends in Valenciennes and Poland. Yes, we did only work for 2 weeks before getting a 2 week vacation. There is some evidence that suggests French workers are more productive when they do work because they get a lot more vacation time than American culture permits; we’ll see if that applies to me ;).

Last week, I arrived home after an outing with friends to find that the water in my building had flooded the halls, and in the process had leaked into the electrical box for the common areas. So I was without electricity and water, all at once. A kind friend offered to host me while it was repaired, so I bounced around houses until it was time to leave for week 2 in Poland. When I left, there was still no electricity, but thankfully the water got fixed super fast — it just wasn’t hot!

This situation could have been a million times worse…as it was, it was much fun spending time with friends in their houses AND it made me appreciate our hostel showers so much more.

Speaking of which, I’m in Krakow! one of my lovely new friends Dana planned herself a trip to Krakow, Poland, and invited anyone who wanted to to join her. Four of us hopped on board, and have been kickin’ it together like the best of friends for DAYS. Not even tired of them yet ;). In other exciting news, my travel buddy/best friend/twin Caro showed up to join us on our Polish adventure.

Here’s some stuff we did:

1) Lots of walking.

We began our trip with a walking tour of Old Town, in the middle of Krakow.

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We hit up the Main Square, the city walls, the moat-turned-park with walking paths, and the Wawel Castle. We also saw the oldest building in Krakow, a church built in the 1200s. We did another walking tour later in the week with a “macabre” theme, and heard some cool Polish ghost stories. Krakow is one of the cleanest cities I’ve been in. It’s also COLD! We walked many more places too — around the lake, through the Jewish Quarter, to and from the hostel, from bar to bar on the hostel pub crawls — good thing we also…

2) …ate lots of Polish food. 

Look, here’s my new favorite food. It’s called a pierogi, and it’s a meat and potato and many other thing – filled dumpling. We found many pierogi shops, including a 24-hour one by our hostel and a 50-flavor one across the street from that. I ate a lot of them, especially considering that you eat 10-12 at a time. 

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We also stopped at a Polish restaurant and ordered a bunch of food to split — Kebab, schnitzel, pickles and sauerkraut, blood sausage, etc. I still can’t stomach blood sausage but the rest of it was delicious! And they gave us free shots of cherry liqueur at the end.

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Our hostel offered free breakfast every morning, and a free home-cooked meal every night. Here’s where you should stay in Krakow:

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We made friends and had fun going on the hostel-organized pub crawls and outings. It’s also really clean and homey, and we were in agreement that we had an all-around lovely experience!

3) We took some day trips.  

On a more sobering note, part of the reason we came to Poland was to see Auschwitz, one of the most famous death camps of the Holocaust. This was a hugely important experience. I came away feeling absolutely gutted. I’m not going to talk about it at length here, because this is a too lighthearted platform for an incredibly heavy subject. I just wanted to say that I went, and will never forget how it felt.

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We also went to see the salt mines near Krakow. The salt mines used to produce a hefty percentage of Poland’s salt, but they used up all the pure salt a while ago. They still make salt, but using a filtration system and in much smaller quantities than before. We spent two hours in the mine, and saw a chapel made of salt, salt lakes that you literally cannot submerge yourself in (the salt makes you too buoyant), and I licked a wall. It was pretty salty.

4) We heard some legends.

Here’s my favorite legend:

Once upon a time, there was a dragon that guarded the castle gates to Wawel. Nobody wanted the dragon around, but nobody could kill it…until the town shoemaker had a brilliant idea. He decided to make a fake sheep stuffed with the spiciest spice of the village. He put this spicy sheep outside the dragon’s lair, and the dragon was fooled, so he ate the spicy sheep. He was already fire-breathing, so you can imagine how fire-y his stomach was after eating this spicy sheep. He decided to drink from the nearby river, but the sheep was so spicy that he drank and drank. His stomach capacity gave out before the river did, and he drank so much water that he EXPLODED!! That was the end of him.

We had an enjoyable hour in the ex-dragon’s cave. The dragon’s statue still guards the entrance (and breathes real fire).

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RIP, Cracovian Dragon.

I’ll leave you with one more tidbit about Poland (Polish, really) —

Kebab = kebaby

Chips = chipsy

Burger = burgery

Toilet = toalety

Saying these out loud made us giggle much of the time. It did also remind me of my love for languages, and maybe someday I’ll learn Polish…

Dziekuje (pronounced jin-koo-ya) means thank you. That was the word I retained from the trip.

A great big dziekuje for the adventures, Krakow and friends!

Kebaby and Dragons: 4 Days in Krakow

En Train

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Valenciennes, my home, is three train stops (a ~20 minute ride) from Somain, where I work. When I first arrived, I told my temporary hosts how miraculous I think the SNCF (France’s train transportation network) is, and they laughed at me — “Wait ’til there’s a strike,” they said. It’s a terrifying prospect, because if there ever is a strike I’ll be basically done for, unless I can find a teacher to give me a ride; the train is my only way of getting to work.

There’s also the newly discovered inconvenience which is: there are no trains between 2:09 PM and 4:45 PM. This means that if I get off work at 2 or 3, I’ve got quite the wait until the next train home. Waiting is one of my very least favorite activities. I’m an incredibly patient person, except when I’ve had a long day and can’t wait to eat and crawl into bed and Netflix before sleeping. I need a commute book.

I’ve started to measure distance in trains, also. I am 42 minutes by train from Lille. I’m 1h45 by train from Paris. I’m a few hours away from London. I’m about an hour from Brussels. (My location is like, !!!!)

The title of this post is part of a French expression used to communicate being in the middle of doing something; Je suis en train de lire  = I am in the middle of reading, Je suis en train de voyager = I am in the middle of traveling, etc. It’s basically another version of present tense; it’s the idea of continuous movement, an activity that’s still going on. In French, the idea of this expression and the idea of being physically in a train would be distinguished from one another via prepositions — “in the train” is not en train but dans le train.

However, I like thinking about the intersection point between trains and this expression: the idea of continuous movement, and of being perfectly positioned to head off toward an adventure of my choice. My life goal right now is to put myself in a place that enables me to go where I want to. If I’m at the appropriate station, I can choose the train that’s hurtling toward somewhere I want to go.

So far, I think I’ve been pretty successful at that. I’ve picked things to do that engage me while I’m in the middle of doing them, taking me a station closer to finding my eventual route through life. I went to a fabulous school which my gut said would make me into someone I wanted to be (thanks, Whitman). And now in France I’m positioned to learn more about things I know I love — education, people, and French — and discover more things I didn’t know I’d love. New experiences are in close proximity.

There’s a lot of post-college nonsense about having a concrete plan for the rest of life, as if that is going to magically be handed to you with a degree in whatever happened to be your undergrad passion. But after surviving these first few post-grad months, and after talking to more seasoned post-grad friends, I think it’s much more about the present than the future. Yes, have goals. But have goals in order to inform your present, not predict the future. Have goals like “go here,” “learn more about _____ that I’ve always been interested in.” Be self-aware and reflect. Engage with new communities. I am a die-hard optimist (and a believer in people) who thinks that everyone finds their niche, but not without putting themselves in the ideal position to find it.

In whatever you are en train de faire (in the middle of doing), make sure you’ve boarded a train heading somewhere. And if you realize it’s not, hop off at the next stop and find a new one.

Sometimes, there will be a strike, and you might be stopped in your tracks. But the world (and especially Commuter Anne) needs you!!

En Train

Anne Turns 22!

I don’t know ’bout you…but I’m feelin’ 22!

If you don’t know where that’s from, clearly you have not yet turned 22 in America. If you ask me, we really need a new anthem. Too bad I’ll never turn 22 again to enjoy one if it happens…

I LOVE birthdays because I get to say to my friends: “hey, thanks for being BORN!” It’s the most unconditional celebration of a human that I can think of. People didn’t have to do anything to deserve a birthday — they didn’t work for it ; they didn’t have to be pretty, or smart, or exceptional ; they didn’t have to “fit in” or live up to anyone’s expectations — nobody even knew how they would turn out on their day of birth. And we get to throw a party to thank them simply for being in the world. I think we forget that everyone was a baby miracle to someone, at some point, when we get bogged down in the expectations (/insecurities) of Life After Birth.

In foreign countries, birthdays are bittersweet. The ingredients of my perfect birthday in America are as follows: Baskin-Robbins ice cream cake, lots of friends and family love, maybe a present or two, a lot of nice cards, and some celebratory dancing + tunes + friends to dance to them with. I’ve had a lot of fantastic birthdays, thanks to some amazing loved ones.

But when you’re far from home, all expectations must be thrown out the window. Nothing will be as expected. Three weeks ago, I had no idea if I’d even have any friends to celebrate with!

But I do. GREAT ones!!

First, I made some food for them. I love cooking for people, and I’ve discovered that people really like eating. [Left: Tartiflette, Right: Falafel night!]

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I also discovered the loveliest Queen of Cakes there ever was, my friend Natalie. She surprised me with a beautiful strawberry tart in the morning, and a chocolate tart + marzipan penguin at night.

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And candles too. And a traditional birthday song! (You may have heard of it)

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I also got a card + candy and my own DVD copy of Bienvenue Chez les Ch’tis! I can FINALLY become hip to the Ch’ti cultural lingo that everyone has said I must learn about. (THANK YOU FRIENDS!)

Then we went bowling! Yes, there is a bowling alley in Val! Complete with American diner. I’m going back for milkshakes someday. The selfie queen made an appearance.

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And tonight, it’s party time!! I am fortunate enough to share a birth month with a lovely British gentleman named Josh (pictured above), and we have joined celebration forces! It’ll be great. The bête de fête from Paris has returned.

To all who sent me bday messages, mail, FB posts, texts, etc…they really, actually mean a lot to me! Thank you!

Love & bisous,

Anne

Anne Turns 22!

I Speak French

Being in a foreign country has a way of making my brain sloshy with new thought projects.

In this brand new place (which will soon feel old hat), I have re-become a sponge. I am soaking up everything around me like it’s my only purpose in life: a porous repository thrown out into the torrential Northern rains, just to see what happens. Actually, I am a porous repository who threw myself intentionally into the torrential Northern rains, just to see what would happen. And I do see it as my only purpose in life.

I just ascended from the dining area of the house I’m staying in to my temporary room on the third floor (in American floors… it’s the 2ème étage, here) after eating the most perfect homemade crêpes I have ever encountered (although ours were a close second and third, Marisa and La Maison 😉 ) with some Northern beet sugar and my host teacher, her two daughters, and her oldest daughter’s friend. They had what I’m sure, to them, was a completely ordinary conversation about people at school, clubs, extracurricular activities, etc. It’s the kind of conversation my mom, sister, and I would have around the dinner table every day, or with one of our friends, with two notable differences: it was in French, and in France.

The sponge analogy came to me because, even though I didn’t interject in their conversation nearly as often or as fluidly as they could, I was a spongy participant: I was soaking up how they construct sentences, how they shaped their mouths, how they pronounced words and what expressions they chose for each situation. And more deeply, I was listening to what they find bizarre and what they think is cool, what they notice about people and how they think about their lives. My impression, overall, is that there is so much that is familiar in a country/language halfway around the world.

Being a human sponge comes with certain responsibilities, I think, and among the most important is the ability to compare without evaluation. There is a this is better than that approach, and there is a this is here, that is there approach in which the evaluation to be made is how intriguing is this difference, or how revealing is this similarity. There is no value judgment, there is only noticing. 

And in my eyes, one of the ultimate purposes of cultural immersion (and learning other languages, for that matter), is developing empathy. In stepping outside and being a sponge, letting this new place fill me with new things, I am learning how to understand them — not understanding them, but learning how to understand them. Even more complex-ly, it feels like I’m learning how to understand them without ever fully “understanding” them; rather, I’m learning how to accept and integrate what I do not understand into what I think I do (or thought I did). I am being a point of intersection. And this experience of being a point of intersection, of developing intercultural empathy, will in some (unknown at this point in time) way enable me to be of service to the world. I am learning to be a global citizen, part of a larger community.

And I am acutely aware of one thing, one skill that is indispensable to my Important Mission: I speak French.

To be fair, I think that we all do this kind of work, intentionally or not, every day in every aspect of our lives, in English. We are perpetually encountering new things and people and situations that we hadn’t previously known how to understand, and LIFE is a process of learning how to do it.

The only thing that makes me feel it more acutely in this situation than at home or at Whitman is the degree of difference — I have been thrown into the deep end, into this town where only English teachers speak English. Maybe there are deeper ends that I have yet to experience, cultures and languages that are even more disparate than this one. But for the moment, I am trying to intensely engage with where I am. I am spongy but not passive. I am an observer-participant. And all this is made possible by viewers like you.

Just kidding. It is really made possible by having learned French.

If in some terrible black-hole-of-despair alternate future there is no use for French in my life, I have justified my 8 years of study with how much I am LEARNING from being able to communicate with French people.

And we all know how much I am a nerd about learning.

I Speak French