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Wow, what an amazing week-long trip to Kerala! It was our last group excursion (sad!) but it was a relaxing vacation in such beautiful places with great people! This excursion took us all around the state of Kerala, which is one of the southern-most states to the west. It was a whirlwind trip of 6 nights in 6 different places through “God’s Own Country” – Kerala’s nickname for its beautiful scenery.

We didn’t do too many tourist things around Kerala, and spent most of the time enjoying the beautiful scenery and relaxing. We stayed in really luxurious hotels – luxury being comparable to a nice hotel in the United States. Clean rooms and soft beds are complete luxuries to us, and our bus was also amazing! In the beginning of the trip, we had buses that were dirty, moldy, smelly, cold, and bumpy…and this bus was impeccably clean with comfortable seats. I’m glad we had such a nice bus since we spent so much time there traveling 4-hour drives for 3 days straight. Every place we stayed also had great buffets of all kinds of food – one morning we even had pancakes!

One of the great parts of the trip was spending a night on a houseboat. Kerala is known for its beautiful backwaters and the houseboats that live on them. I didn’t know what to expect for a houseboat, but definitely not what we had – dining area, bedrooms with separate twin beds, clean bathrooms, and an upper deck for relaxing. We were joking that we were on the Titanic! Luckily it wasn’t too hot, though I think I have adapted well to the climate here. (I am glad I’m missing all the snow back home! Snow at the end of April – yuck!)

Our houseboat!

I also enjoyed seeing the mountainous area of Kerala, where the rolling foothills were covered in tea plants. It was beautiful. We stopped at a tea plantation one day, and had the chance to see how tea is made. The leaves are plucked and then dried, then crushed into various grades depending on how fine you want your tea to be which affects the flavor, aroma and color. The black tea is oxidized, and the green is not. I’ve really come to love tea here, and I was sure to buy some to bring back home with me! We also stopped at a spice garden one day, since Kerala is known for its coffee and spices. It was crazy to see so many different spices in such a small area: coffee, tea, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, pepper, allspice, ginger, cocoa, chilis, and more. There were some I had never heard of that eliminates your ability to taste sugar. You chew it into a paste and then spit it out and for the next 20 minutes or so, you can’t taste anything sweet! Danny and Kathryn also tried a bite of the hottest chili in the world. Judging from their expressions, I was glad I didn’t try it.

The last night was spent on the beach. It was a great beach, and now I can say I’ve swum in the Arabian Sea :)

4 months ago today I arrived in India…and now I have only 10 days left here in India! :( There is so much that needs to happen in the next 10 days – finishing final papers, shopping, spending time with friends and host family, and just taking in this city that has been my home for the past 4 months. There are too many emotions to describe right now – so many things running through my head! I will enjoy these last few days to the fullest!!

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Last weekend was our weekend group trip to the Sundarbans. The Sundarbans is a conservation area famous for its mangrove forests and its tigers! The tiger is an endangered species, and this Sundarbans tiger is amazing that it has adapted so much to its environment – it can swim miles to reach food and can drink salt water! We left on Saturday morning really early (6:30am) and had a 2.5 hour bus ride before we hopped on a ferry that would take us into the Sundarbans and the island where our camp was. It was definitely warmer there, but not unbearable. It was pretty peaceful there, just chugging along out on the boat, looking at the mangrove forests. The tide changes like crazy in the Sundarbans – it rises and lowers several meters multiple times a day. Trees will either be drowning in water up to their upper branches, or all the roots will be exposed. We spent the whole afternoon on the boat on Saturday, and got off at a watch tower to see tigers, but didn’t see any. We were out there til sunset, then came back for dinner and an early bedtime. The next day we were on the boat at 5am for a better chance to see wildlife, so we watched the sunrise on the boat. It was lovely, but we didn’t see much wildlife – some deer, a few monkeys, and far away birds. We were on the boat until about 1pm – 8 hours on the boat! But it was really nice – it reminded me of weekends on the lake in the summer. We all just dozed, listened to music, and talked while relaxing on the boat. After lunch back at camp, I just stayed indoors and relaxed by reading my book (I’ve now finished The Omnivore’s Dilemma – I loved it and highly recommend it!). Elizabeth and I took a bike ride into the village, which was really nice! Sunday we had a village tour – met some really adorable kids who loved having their picture taken and we also had a sip of some fresh coconut water. They climbed up the tree, got a bunch of coconuts down, hacked away the top and stuck a straw in! It has an interesting flavor – like water with grass in it. It was nice to try once, but I don’t think I’ll ask for it again. So overall, it was a pretty good weekend even though we didn’t do a lot. I got a lot of reading and relaxing in, enjoyed cruising around on the boat even though we didn’t see any tigers or much wildlife at all for that matter.

Since we returned on Monday, it’s been a pretty short week but that somehow managed to feel like much longer than a few days. Classes are incredibly boring and unfulfilling, as usual. We have a big mid-semester exam next week, which I am not looking forward to because you essentially just have to memorize your notebook and write down your notes exactly for the answer. I’m just not a fan of the system here and I can’t wait to get back to classes that I actually enjoy!

We went to an AWESOME craft fair yesterday in Salt Lake. The fair has been going on for a while now, but we’ve finally just made it there. It was incredible – everything is handmade and unique, with the artist sitting right there. It’s great you know the money is going directly to them and often artists were working right alongside their finished products! I bought some great gifts – tons of paintings and artwork. I LOVED it. We went to Danny and Michael’s afterward for a bit and some people played poker while others (myself included) watched a movie – My Name is Khan. We only watched the first half, since it’s a 3 hour movie, but it’s really good – about an Indian man who has Aspergers Syndrome and is Muslim and he moves to America. Then 9/11 happens and it’s all about the treatment of Muslims after 9/11 and a love story – can’t wait to see how it ends! This weekend I’m planning on going to the rural villages with Loreto to do some tutoring, which should be a good experience :) and this weekend is also the end of Vinayak’s exams (FINALLY!) so our family will finally be more free to hang out with us. Sujoy and Vinayak are supposed to give us cricket orientation this weekend, since the Cricket World Cup is going on right now and we are all going to a cricket match on Tuesday next week! We’ll see South Africa vs. Ireland – too bad we couldn’t get tickets to see India play, but it will still be fun :)

Cute village kids

Tonight some of us went to go see the movie Black Swan – it is a great movie. It’s brilliant and so well done, but it is a very freaky movie. I’m still very tense from watching it – there’s not much release from the intensity and no concrete explanations. It’s about a dancer in a ballet company that’s doing a production of Swan Lake. She’s a perfectionist and the director isn’t sure if she will be able to fulfill both roles of the pure frail White Swan and the sexy dangerous Black Swan. The movie is a psychological thriller – you see her character unraveling under the pressure as the movie progresses and there are many times where you are unsure what is reality and what is not. It’s a fascinating movie that I want to dissect and analyze – I have such a greater understanding and appreciation for films after taking a cinema class in France! One very interesting thing though was that the theater here censored parts of the movie. There were many sexual elements to this movie and some graphic scenes. A few crude sexual words were bleeped out, and an entire lesbian sex scene was cut (which we only knew because Kathryn had already seen the movie in the USA). That is India – sex is implied on screen, but rarely ever displayed and certainly not in the graphic sense it is in the USA. It wasn’t until recently that mainstream Indian movies would show kissing – between a heterosexual couple, of course. Interesting side note – it wasn’t until 2010, just last year, that gay sex was decriminalized in India!! WOW. It’s so interesting to note the gender imbalance, gender inequality, and general attitude toward sexuality here. There is so much gender inequality in every sphere here – and there is so much sexual repression every day public life, and yet it seems like that would not be the case since there are so many sexual references in the Hindu religion and in popular media. Oh the contradictions of India – Bollywood actresses can be dancing suggestively in skimpy clothing but the woman on the street dare not show any more leg than her ankle. It’s so interesting to learn about, and I’m only skimming the surface with what I know!

more cute village kids

One of the things I’ve been reflecting on a lot lately is how much I’ve been learning since arriving here 2 months ago. One of the things I think has been a very frustrating yet also a great learning experience is the fact that I am a minority here. This is the first time in my life I’m experiencing being a minority, since I’ve grown up in largely homogeneous communities. I’m a minority in just about every way here – white, female, foreign, Catholic – but also other things that make me a minority here like educated, wealthy (relative to here), English-speaking. There are many frustrations that come along with this – like being targeted for certain things or being treated in certain ways and having to be suspicious of people’s intentions in how they treat you. I certainly have a greater appreciation and empathy for the minorities in the USA – I can now better understand their struggles even though my understanding is still very limited. However, the crucial difference is that I’m a privileged minority. All the labels I just listed above entitle me to many privileges and special treatments. Since coming here, I’ve really realized how incredibly fortunate I am – and that I really am a part of a minuscule percentage of the world that has those privileges of being educated, wealthy, English-speaking, and so so so much more – even that I just don’t have to worry about fulfilling basic human needs like food, water, shelter, and more. There is such a sharp divide here between the “haves” and the “have nots” and most of this country of 1.1 billion people is made up of “have nots.” And this is just in one country – and thinking about all the other countries around the world made up of “have nots” makes me realize how truly fortunate I am and how I really should be grateful for what I have. It’s not that I feel guilty that I’m privileged and others are not – I certainly didn’t do anything to deserve these privileges more than someone else, just as someone didn’t do anything to not deserve the privileges that I enjoy. It was just the chance circumstance of me being born this way. This doesn’t mean that allows me to be dismissive or ignorant of the inequalities that result from this privilege imbalance, but there are specific constructed boundaries that may prevent me from doing certain things to try and remedy this imbalance. For example, sometimes I feel like I’m not getting a really “authentic” experience of India because we are so sheltered from a number of things and that because I’m a foreign white woman I’m not allowed to do certain things. I’m not allowed to go certain places because of risk to my safety, I can’t communicate with the average non-English-speaking Indian, I’m constantly in the company of educated elite Indians who have a lot of money – which is a very small percentage of the Indian population – and I often attract attention or special treatment because I’m a foreigner and they think my standards are higher than what they have to offer. I won’t be able to walk away from this trip without realizing how privileged I actually am, but the question from here on out is what do I do now with this awareness and how far can I push those limitations?

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What a weekend! Last weekend was our 5-day group excursion to North Bengal and the Himalayas (here it’s pronounced him-ALL-yas) – and it was just what I needed. I wish we could have stayed longer.

We left Friday morning for the excursion – which started off with an hour and a half long taxi ride to the airport (Kolkata traffic…). We had a short flight from Kolkata to Bagdogra, just less than an hour-long flight. Once in Bagdogra, we were off to Chilapata Jungle Camp and we were originally told it would take about 3 hours to get there….try doubling that. Oh, India. It was about a 5-6 hour drive, but it was nice that we were not in a big tourist van but instead in 3 Jeep-like vehicles. The roads were pretty comfortable, only the usual bumps from poorly paved roads. We arrived at the jungle camp around dinner time – and it was a very nice camp, in the middle of rural villages full of rice paddies and surrounded by dense jungle forests. We stayed in individual hut-like cabins on stilts, which were very nice (but cold at night without heat! I slept in all my layers). Since we arrived so late that first night, we didn’t do much more than have a leisurely dinner and go to bed. I caught up on some reading for class before going to bed early, since we had an early morning ahead of us for our excursion into the jungle!

6am came quickly the next morning, when the doorbell rang for bed tea. Hot masala chai (which I am quickly becoming addicted to) was wonderful when it was so cold in the morning, but at the same time we could have stayed longer in the warm bed! We bundled up since it was so cold out and started off on the safari. We were looking for wild elephants, and any other interesting wildlife. We were driving for a little bit before Haley spotted two elephants! Our driver was driving too fast at the time (how are we supposed to spot the wildlife then?? his fast driving quickly became annoying), so we had to reverse and didn’t have the best view of the elephants. Wild elephants are not like at the zoo, where you can see the whole elephant. These elephants hid back in the forest, so we were quite a distance away and not at a good vantage point for taking pictures. All the pictures I tried to take ended up looking like leaves and kind of a gray blob in the middle of the leaves. It was incredible to be in the presence of truly wild elephants though! As we drove along the rest of the morning, we spotted a rhino in some tall grass – but the grass was so tall we could only see the top of its back. It was so wonderful to be out in nature, away from the noise and the crowds of the city. This weekend confirmed my belief that I need to live somewhere with some nature – I don’t necessarily have to live in the wilderness, but I don’t want to live in a huge city. We were out for about 3 hours before returning to camp for breakfast of toast and eggs. Madhu then gave us some options for the rest of the morning – to go birdwatching, to visit the villages, or to bike ride.

I chose to go bike riding, along with Elizabeth, Brynn, Kia, Abbey, Jennifer, and a guide from the jungle camp. It was WONDERFUL – one of my favorite parts of the whole weekend. It was so nice to be on a bike in the sunny weather, and we biked through many of the villages. It was amazing to see that rural rustic lifestyle as we biked through rice paddies, tea gardens, mustard flowers, and all sorts of vegetable plots. As we biked through the villages, I had kind of an eye-opening revelation to see people actually living like this. I realized that these people have to work so hard for literally everything they have. They have no machines to help them grow their food and build their houses – it’s all hard manual labor. As we were biking through the rice paddies, I realized that I don’t even know or understand how rice grows and the process of harvesting it. To me, rice comes in a bag in the store. When I thought about it more, I realized that I don’t really know how most of my food gets to my table – I can just go to the grocery store and get whatever I want, even if it’s not in season. I think it’s pretty sad that I don’t know where my food comes from or the work it takes to produce it. So now, I’ve taken a new interesting in learning about where my food comes from and sustainable eating. I’ve already started on my food education by buying a book called The Omnivore’s Dilemma, by Michael Pollan. Anyway – in addition to realizing all how hard people work here (not just in the villages) in India, I also realized how resourceful and resilient these people are. They find solutions with so little to work with. On a similar note, most everything here first fulfills a functional or practical purpose. Most things are in a constant state of slight disrepair here, but as long as it still works and fulfills its original function, all is well.

Our bike ride lasted about 2 hours, and it was so wonderful to be outside and getting some exercise. After lunch, we had a short rest before heading out for our second excursion. The second excursion was about the same as the first, but we saw more elephants! It was also nice just to stop and listen to the silence. We had afternoon tea with pokoras afterward (my 3rd cup of tea that day!) and relaxed with everyone through dinner and caught up on some more class reading before calling it an early night. We got up early to leave the next morning for another long journey to Neora Valley in the Himalayas. It was another 5-6 hour car ride on bumpy roads – but the scenery was beautiful. The tea gardens are very picturesque, as are the mountains. The actual climb up the mountain (over 6,000 ft) took well over an hour, and I was glad I had taken my motion sickness medication. You know you’re in the mountains when you’re on one-lane winding roads and if you don’t feel like throwing up, you feel like you’ll fall over the edge at every teetering turn. The best and worst part of the drive was the last part, going on the road to the Neora Valley Jungle Camp. It was a road in the widest sense possible – not even gravel, but jagged rocks that literally bounced you out of your seat without anything to hold you down (no seat belts, of course). The driver couldn’t drive very quickly then, and one of the tires on the other car popped! We walked the rest of the way to the camp – which was great! We stayed in individual cabins that slept four – one big bed, a loft with another bed, a bathroom, and two balconies! They were wonderful – except for the fact that there was no heat and only a few lights. The views were spectacular, but it was a weird combination of evergreen trees kind of like home and giant jungle plants, like ferns that were bigger than me. We all went out for a short hike right away while we still had daylight, hiking through the jungle until night fell. We had a great dinner (all the dinners there were amazing!) and spent most of the night in one of the rooms having some group bonding :) What happens in the Himalayas…stays in the Himalayas…

Next day was our last full day of the trip that wasn’t full of travel – and we spent most of the morning on a long hike. We set off down the mountain on the road to go to a waterfall. Walking on the roads was challenging enough, since you can’t take your eyes off of where you are placing your feet. It was beautiful – and once again, so nice to be out in nature. It took a long time to get to the waterfall – a few hours, and the last part was a really steep concrete path – but it was worth the long hike! We took tons of pictures and relaxed a little before hiking back up the path, which was so difficult – I was definitely sore for a few days afterward. Luckily, we didn’t have to hike all the way back up to the camp, which would have taken several more hours. We took the cars instead so we could get back for lunch before we headed off to Lava, a nearby town.

In Lava, we went to see a Buddhist monastery. It was beautiful, though we didn’t have a very extensive tour. It also made me want to learn more about Buddhism, since I only know the very basics. Buddhism was started in India and used to be very popular, but now it’s a minority religion. We had the opportunity to see some of the monks saying some prayers – it was so different and interesting since I come from a very different religious background with little to compare this to. We spent a little time in town before heading back – but on our way back, we stopped in one of the small villages to taste a local beer. It was great – this family took us into their home to have this local millet beer – they soak the millet all day, put it in these bamboo mugs with a bamboo straw, and you add hot water. It was actually really good! It taste like beer, just without the carbonation. It’s a common drink there in the winter and even kids drink it to warm up (it’s not very alcoholic). We went back to camp for an amazing Chinese food dinner and spent the night having a great talk with Kia! She has an amazing story to her life.

We left the next morning, and everyone was sad to leave. The weekend was the getaway I really needed – to get out of the city and into fresh air, silence, and open spaces. It seems like we didn’t do a lot when I describe it, and in some ways we didn’t but that’s not what we needed. It was a long day of travel back to Kolkata, and I was crabby to be back in the crowded and noisy city. Wednesday was back to class – though this study abroad has not really required much of the “study” part. We had our first class of the sociology course we signed up for, since the teacher was finally back from being gone at professional training for the past month. The teacher seems nice, and it’s nice to finally be in the right class – but I don’t know if I’ll ever get used to the teaching style here! All the classes seem to be the same – straight lecture, no discussion, and the material is the most general and broad possible. The teacher repeats him/her self all the time – they will literally repeat the same thing 5 times. There is no critical thinking, and I’m not sure how homework works here. So far, no teacher has assigned reading…so I’m not sure if the students are given a reading list to read outside of class on their own time? It’s rare that anyone asks questions. It’s hard to shake this high school kind of atmosphere – and it looks like it will be up to us to ask question to make the courses more interesting. It’s just a challenge to adapt to this different method of teacher, when our classes at CSBSJU are all about discussion, interaction and critical thinking. After class, we went to Kolkata’s famous annual book fair. We took a city bus to get there, and were pleasantly surprised that it wasn’t too crowded or dirty. Buses are hard to figure out here – they don’t really have official stops like at home. The buses kind of stop in the middle of the road, and you literally have to jump on. A man comes around and you pay the fare to him to get the ticket. The book fair was a bit overwhelming – like MN’s State Fair, but all books. It was very crowded, but I enjoyed it after I realized that you just have to shove your way into the store and firmly plant your feet where you want to browse. I ended up buying 3 books – The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Being Indian, and a handbook to Hindu mythology. It’s funny – the book fair has a theme every year (though I didn’t see the theme played out very much), and this year’s theme is the U.S.A! They had a replica Capitol building and some American flags, which was funny to see.

Yesterday was a great day – we found out late that we only had one class! Turns out our sociology classes were canceled, and Madhu was canceling her class to take us to the book fair, which was optional. Seems like we may never have a reliable schedule here! Next week, we have Tuesday and Wednesday off for Saraswati Puja, and Hindu festival that celebrates learning. Our only class was one hour of Bengali, where we learned some words for body parts. Bengali is so different from any other language I’ve learned! It’s very difficult to make the sounds, and most of their letters of the alphabet are difficult for my ears to distinguish the subtle differences. After our class, we had the rest of the day ahead of us, so we decided we would try to make chocolate chip cookies! Arundhati said she wants to learn how to make foods that we eat at home, and chocolate chip cookies were at the top of the list. Vinayak, our host brother (whose birthday is today! he’s 13), went shopping for ingredients with us. He’s just adorable and we love spending time with him. He’s very proper and polite, and every once in a while we get him to break out of his shell a bit more. He makes us laugh all the time and we just think he’s adorable. It was interesting shopping for ingredients – it was difficult to find white flour, there are no chocolate chips, no brown sugar, and no baking soda. We bought chocolate bars and broke them up into small pieces, substituted honey for brown sugar, and instead of baking soda they use a combination of baking powder and khabar soda. They also don’t have/use measuring cups, so we had to eyeball the amounts, and the little toaster oven is in Celsius! We could only bake 6-9 cookies at a time since the oven is so small, but…they turned out AMAZING!! We were so happy! They turned out really close to what we make at home, and they are delicious. It was so nice to have that taste of home, and continued by making brownies, which also turned out well. The family was so appreciative of the treats, and gave us so many compliments! Our host family is so wonderful.

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Only Lyon

Bonjour, tout le monde!

I’m back in Cannes after a long weekend in Lyon – the last group trip! We left on Thursday morning and stayed until Sunday morning. Lyon is the 3rd biggest city in France, but it’s not so touristy – it’s the place to go and eat! It’s the gastronomic capital of France – chefs are more famous than athletes. Needless to say, I had a great weekend full of eating.

Thursday morning, we left pretty early to catch our 8am train. The ride lasted 4 hours – which was pretty uneventful. It’s kind of annoying that we had to go through Marseille and Avignon first, because that’s heading in the opposite direction! The longest part of the ride (3 hours of it) is just getting to Avignon since it’s slower and we stop more – and only an hour from Avignon to Lyon. Silly. We went straight to our hostel – up a giant hill! I didn’t realize Lyon was so hilly.  This was my first time in a hostel, and it was pretty nice – we had our own rooms that locked, so it was a bit more secure. I don’t know how I’d feel about sharing a room with strangers. After settling in, we had a walking tour through Vieux Lyon (old Lyon). The tour was okay – our guide showed us a ton of old buildings from the 15th and 16th century…most of the buildings in Vieux Lyon are from that time period. Amazing that people still live in them today! Vieux Lyon also has something called traboules – passageways through the buildings from one street to the other – that are only in Lyon! If you were to go to Paris or anywhere else and say you went through the traboules, they wouldn’t know what your were talking about. Our guide also showed us an astronomical clock inside the church there – it’s a very precise clock that tells you the day and month as well as the time. When it chimes, the mechanical beings come to life – a rooster on top crows and flaps its wings, the angel Gabriel appears to Mary for the annunciation, God begins to wave his arms, angels ring bells, and a smaller angel conducts all of it – all in a span of about 30 seconds! I like the tour, but I was feeling really tired, like I could just collapse asleep right then. Luckily, it wasn’t too long and I got a nap in before we went to dinner.

Dinner was great! We ate at one of the traditional Lyon bouchons – kind of between a cafe and a restaurant, more family run, limited seating, and a really nice atmosphere. We went to one that was supposed to have really traditional Lyonnaise food – and there was tons on the menu that we wouldn’t necessarily eat. There were some more “normal” plates like beef bourginion, soupe a l’oignion…and there there was tripe and liver cake. I had a salade lyonnaise (poached egg on top, and tons of bacon on it, a meal in itself!) and a kind of pork stew for dinner – it was pretty good, and so nice that the food was really hearty and filling. And I had moelleux au chocolate (warm chocolate cake) for dessert – mmmmmm :)

On Friday morning, we went as a group to the Centre d’Histoire de la Resistance et de la Deportation – Historical Center of the Resistance and the Deportation. Lyon was a huge center of the Resistance in WWII – it was an okay museum, but not the best well laid out, in my opinion. There were lots of documents and some videos, and it was very sobering. There were a lot of pictures and videos of prisoners in the concentration/death camps – so sad! The visit definitely left me in a somber mood – how do things like this happen? How does anyone allow them to happen? How did no one step in and say – this cannot happen? I don’t know. It’s just disgusting.

Afterward, we went and had a really great lunch at a restaurant in Vieux Lyon. It was another great meal – and red wine was included! Sweet. I got the pâté for my entrée – which wasn’t the best idea, but I wanted to try it. Pâté is ground and pressed meat and fat served in slices, cold. Often, it’s liver…and I am not a fan of liver, even though I’ve tried it several times. So that was a bit disappointing, since the other option was these fritter fish things that were really good. But my plat was delicious – some of the best steak I have ever had, and I had île flottant for dessert – floating islands of meringue in a cream sauce – yum!
Afterward, we had some free time, and I really wanted to see the miniatures and cinema museum. The cinema part was first, and  it was really cool! There were some sets from the movie The Perfume, which I haven’t seen, so it was cool but would have been cooler if I had seen the movie. There was a bunch of other stuff – all originals, not copies! – including the mask from V for Vendetta, Indiana Jones’ hat and whip (!), a couple things from Star Wars, some of the masks used in The Mummy – it was cool! And they had a good video of how miniatures are used in movies, like a miniature of the white house used in Independence Day for the explosion, miniatures of the Titanic for various parts of the filming – it was neat, and I guess I never realized how often they are used in movies.
The miniatures part of the museum was also really cool to see – all the work is so detailed, it’s amazing! Tiny cafes, sitting rooms, theaters, a paleontology museum, a jail – so cool! And at the end, you could see the artist’s workshop (look through the window at it) and the artist, Dan Ohlmann, was there! Cool that he was actually there – he’s one of the best miniature artists in the world. I thought it was a great museum, and it was nice to mix it up a little bit – not another history museum, ya know?
Afterward, we just went back to the hotel to rest for a while, and I spent about 2 hours updating my journal. You never think that journaling will take that long, but it totally does! And I was just a week behind – lesson learned:  if you’re going to journal while you’re abroad, make sure you keep up on it. Or be prepared to spend a lot of time catching it up! Dinner was on our own that night – I went with Leah and Laura, just walked down Vieux Lyon and found a place that wasn’t all liver and intestines and pigs feet. I had another salade lyonnaise (tons of bacon and a poached egg on top), some chicken, and mousse au chocolat – all good! This was the first time though that a waiter brought our check to us without having us ask first – and I was mildly offended. We were ready to go by then, and were going to ask for the check anyway, but still! Leah and Laura decided to go out after, but I really wasn’t in the mood for going out, and I kind of needed to save my money anyway, since I have 2 more trips coming up.
Saturday was pretty good – we got up to go see some Roman ruins and the basilica at the top of the hill. Andrew was feeling sick, so he stayed in bed, and Alejandra, Liz and Shawn had gone out the night before and were sleeping in. So, it was a slightly smaller group – but we had a lot of fun taking pictures at the ruins! Jumping pictures, prom pictures, and other weird ones. It was a good time :) and the basilica was really pretty! It was super ornate and

Y-M-C-A-exclamation point

decorated (as always) with statues and gold and paintings – very pretty! We spent very little time there though because a Mass was just about to start. After that, we just walked back to the hotel to see how the others were doing. Leah wasn’t feeling all that well because she had some horrid cramps –  like migraines, vomiting, can’t move they hurt so bad. Geez – mine are a breeze in comparison! At the hostel, Beth was showing me how to get to a museum on the map when we hear Evans yelling for Beth – Leah had fainted in the hallway! Poor thing – fainted from a combination of pain, being tired, not having enough water, etc. She had to lie on the floor a while before she would let us move her. Beth went out and got her a hot water bottle and some one had some more intense pain meds, and that helped her. I hung out with Leah until she was feeling relatively okay before we headed out to find some lunch. I ended up going to lunch with Beth – she was going to this market thing where they have restaurants right there. I thought it sounded pretty cool – and it was! It wasn’t an outdoor market, but a permanent market with

Successful jumping picture! 5 attempts later...

restaurants right alongside the market stalls. I like Beth, and it was nice to spend a little time with her and get a break from everyone else in the group. Besides, I’m sure she likes to have some company since she spends a lot of time on her own on our group trips. We found a place that was soup and quenelles (fried little deliciousness – usually have meat in them, but taste more like potatoes or dough), and we sat and talked about France and India. And it was really nice! We split up then, and I headed to the Lumière museum since I was already halfway there – it’s a museum about the 2 brothers who invented Cinema. It was in the house they used to live in – gorgeous Victorian mansion – and it was a pretty good exhibit. All the explanations were in French, which isn’t a problem, but it takes more effort then. I just passed through and spent a little time in the park/garden there (and some lady asked me for directions – I love when people do that! Means they think I’m not a clueless tourist and that I actually speak good enough French!) and then metro-ed it back to the hostel to rest before dinner. Leah was feeling a bit better then, which was encouraging, and found the movie He’s Just Not That Into You online so we watched that and I got to doze a little.

The whole group!

We actually got to dress up for dinner – Beth was taking us out to a nice dinner! We each get 35 euros from our student activity fee to spend, but we all have to do the same thing, so we voted to have a nice dinner out. We went to L’Ouest, one of 4 brasseries of Paul Bocuse, one of the most famous chefs in France. It was all really good food – I had cesar salade, (which was like a meal in itself – but i had worked up my appetite so i wouldn’t waste any food!), salmon, and fruit salad for dinner – all sooo good! We spent 3.5 hours at dinner and didn’t feel rushed or that it was going to slowly – one of the many things I love about France! We took the bus back, but the bus we wanted didn’t come…we thought it might be late but it didn’t come at all! We had to wait for 40 minutes for the next one, and didn’t get back until after midnight.
Sunday was basically just traveling – our train left at 11:07 so we had to be there around 10. I had a little panic attack when I couldn’t find my tickets, so I was really relieved when I found them! The train ride back was uneventful – I always hate traveling back, I just want to skip over the traveling and be back already. We got back around 3:30, and I had a lot to do. I sat down and wrote my next LG story right away (about dining out in France) and then started some other hw before dinner. After dinner, I got to talk to Karl for 2 hours!! It was fabulous.

And now, back to the grind – lots of class and theater. I was glad that Lyon didn’t have as much to see there – I really needed to relax a bit. I’ve been on the go nonstop for the past 5-6 weeks; busy traveling and covering as much ground as possible on the weekends and lots of class and theater during the days I’m back at the Collège. The last few trips I only had 3 days to prepare – basicaly just enough time to do laundry and repack! So, I was okay with taking some down time in Lyon. I’ll be back in Paris this weekend and I’m super excited! I LOVE PARIS. It’s sad that this will be my last time there for a really long time – who knows when I’ll be back…but I’ll be meeting Kate Lutz there! It will be great to catch up with her, and show her a little part of France!

 

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Ahhhhh Paris….what an amazing weekend!! I LOVE PARIS.

Because of the grève, we had to leave Wednesday instead of Thursday, which was completely okay with me – that meant a whole extra day for sightseeing! We left Wednesday shortly after lunch – and got onto our train without problem. The train ride lasted about 5 hours – pretty nice that you can get from Cannes to Paris in 5 hours or less. We arrived in the evening, and just checked into our hotel and called it an early night so we would be ready for the next day full of touring.

We woke up for breakfast at 8am so we could start our tour at 9am – and the breakfast was included in the hotel. Each morning, we would have a half a baguette (perfect – crunchy on the outside, light and fluffy on the inside) with butter, jam, cheese and nutella…along with some fruit, orange juice, and your choice of tea, coffee or hot chocolate. It was delicious and a great way to start the day. Next, we started our Revolutionary tour – for our class on the French Revolution, we played a game in class where we each assumed a historical figure. For our tour of Paris, we had to choose a site that was significant to the French Revolution and also to our historical character, and then present the site and explain the significance. We had about 10 sites to get to, all spread throughout Paris, and Beth had budgeted this tour to take 3 hours. Some of the places included the astille, the Champ-de-Mars, the Tuileries, Place de la Concord, the Palais Royal, and more. Some sights don’t exist today (like the Bastille and Tuileries), but the important thing is to be at the spot. Instead of 3 hours…it took 6! I don’t think Beth took into account the actual distance between sights and how long it takes to walk that far…in addition to moving along a group of 10 people, some of whom walk very slowly. It took us 1.5 hours to cover the first 2-3 sights! Beth outlawed stopping to take pictures and made us keep walking at a good clip. By noon, we had to stop and get lunch and then Beth conceded to taking a bus a few times. By the second half of the tour, everyone was really sick of it and was getting really annoyed and ready to be done. It would have been a good tour if it would have been more condensed. It ended at Notre Dame, and I wanted to just stay there but we had to return to the hotel room quickly – luckily it wasn’t too far from Notre Dame.

Leah, Laura and I headed back to Notre Dame right away so we could tour that before we were going to meet some others at the Eiffel Tower. Notre Dame was great! Luckily, there wasn’t much of a line so we got in right away. It was so cool to be there – I grabbed their claendar in case we would be able to come back for Mass or vespers sometime over the weekend. We took pictures outside at point zero – all distances in Paris are measured from there and it’s right outside Notre Dame. Also, if you touch point zero, you will return to Paris :) I thought it was funny that in front of this super famous old church there are a ton of dancers, jugglers, musicians, flame throwers – all sorts of stuff! Touring Notre Dame didn’t take as long as we thought, and we still had quite a bit of time before we had to be at the Eiffel Tower, so we decided to try to get into Sainte-Chapelle, which was close by.

 

 

Point Zero! I guess that means I'll be coming back to Paris - thank goodness!

It was getting close to closing time, and Sainte-Chapelle is known for having long lines, especially on sunny days, because it is famous for its unrivaled stained glass. We hopped in line and only waited about 15 minutes! Sweet. We got in and immediately went to the Chapelle Haute – which is where the amazing stained glass is – and it is so beautiful! The altar area is undergoing restoration, so we didn’t get the full effect, but it was still amazing. The whole chapel was built in only 6 years (while it took 200 years to build Notre Dame). It was built to hold the supposed Crown of Thorns – the King Louis IX paid 3 times as much for the Crown than for the building of Sainte-Chapelle! There are 15 windows of stained glass that tell over 1,000 stories from the Bible – from Genesis to Jesus’ crucifixion. Today, Notre Dame has the Crown of Thorns (and it’s only shown on Good Friday and the first Friday of the month). I made sure to buy some postcards on the way out that show the full effect of all the windows.

Then it was time to go to the Tour Eiffel! We decided to walk – not the best idea! We definitely should have taken the metro, but we hadn’t taken it before and decided we would see more by walking (which we did) but the soreness was starting to set in, as we had been walking for about 10 hours straight at this point). We made it to the tower a little after 7pm – just as the sun was setting. As we walked up to it, it lit up! It was so pretty. La Tour Eiffel is just massive, and it seems to take forever to actually get to it – becoming monstruously kind of scary big the closer you get. We didn’t find our friends there, and didn’t want to spend too much time looking since we were so excited to go up the tower. We figured they might have gone up already since we were late, and we hopped in the line for the stairs. Taking the stairs is much faster and cheaper – though it was a lot of work, the views were gorgeous!!! You can see the whole city, and it was amazing to see La Ville Lumière all lit up. What an experience. Pictures didn’t turn out well – so I took videos instead. We went all the way to the top (900 feet in the air!) and it was really windy and cold, so I was glad I was wearing my winter coat. Leah was only wearing a sweater, so we just snapped a few pics and took a quick tour around the top before hopping in the long line to go back down the elevator. We were so exhausted at this point – 12 hours of walking catches up to you. We got off the tower and headed to the closest intersection and hobbled into a pizza/pasta place. I had some great spaghetti carbonara and then we metro-ed it back to the hotel, where I feel asleep before my head even hit the pillow.

The next morning, I woke up and was definitely feeling the soreness from the day before. My knees felt really sore (and just started to recover today). Pretty much everyone was going to Montmarte/Sacre Coeur, which was not on my list of must-see’s, so I originally wasn’t going to go, but I didn’t want to spend all day by myself, and Leah and I had some common sights to see afterward. So, after breakfast we set off in a big group toward the metro. We reached Montmarte and first saw the Moulin Rouge! We took a few pics and walked to Sacre Coeur. That area of town was quieter – I prefer the area close to the Seine; more touristy, but the Seine is so pretty and everything is lively there. Sacre Coeur was huge – and had some great views of the city from there on the hill. We couldn’t take pictures inside, so I bought a postcard instead. It was a pretty quick walk through.

Des billets gratuits! Free tickets!

After Sacre Coeur, Leah, Laura and I headed to the Musée de l’Armée, a military museum and has Napoleon’s tomb. We actually got in for free! Museums have a student rate and a student of the E.U. rate. Since we have long-term visas and now live in France, we are technically students of the E.U. – and we got in for free at every museum we visited!

 

The area that holds Napoleon’s tomb is very elaborate and ornate – 26 lbs of gold on the ceiling! His tomb is surrounded by French war heroes, and he is inside 6 coffins! A little excessive. His tomb is surrounded by statues – each representing one of his military victories. What an ego. We also passed through some of the exhibits – including the Revolution through Napoleon, WWI, and WWII. We saw some of the uniforms of the National Guard which was really cool to see because that actually means something to me now that I have been studying the French Revolution. There was so much information in each of the exhibits – too much information for us exhausted tourists to take in, so we just wandered through looking at stuff. At the end of the exhibit, I said Bonjour to the guard as he was saying Au Revoir to me, and we had a little conversation. He asked if I was Canadian – which is cool because that means he thought I actually speak French! (well I do…but not fluently yet!) What a good compliment – I love being complimented on my French, it means I’m making progress!

Napoleon's tomb

We decided to go to the Musée Rodin next since it was right next to the Musée de l’Armée. Rodin is a really famous sculptor – right up there after Michelangelo. I loved this museum – when it comes to art, I much prefer sculpture or photography. There was also a lovely garden there, even with lounge chairs so we got to put up our feet and rest a little while – which was fabulous and very necessary! We relaxed in the garden and looked at some more sculptures before heading off to meet the group at the Louvre. We were a little late because we walked and were still really sore, but it was all fine. I had no idea that the giant glass pyramid is actually the main entrance to the museum – cool! The Louvre is MASSIVE – and really overwhelming. I was surprised by the diversity of their exhibits – there is just SO MUCH STUFF there. I headed up to see the Mona Lisa right away – and it’s true what I’ve heard. It’s a bit underwhelming. It’s small, behind a pane of glass, and surrounded by huge crowds. I also went to see the Venus de Milo, and then wandered through the Egyptian and Oriental exhibits, since I found those much more interesting. I even stopped at the café there for a little while because I was so hungry I was not going to make it til dinner. We went to dinner back in the Latin Quarter, nearby our hotel and I had a great dinner of salmon with crème brulée for dessert – delicious! And again, fell asleep immediately.

The next day we had all day free and we split up for the day because we each had different things we wanted to see. Laura decided to come along with me for the morning – and we started at the Deportation Memorial. It’s a memorial to the 200,000 French people deported to work/death camps, who did not return. The memorial is very well done – it was created to somewhat represent the environment the deportees were in with really tall walls, small spaces, and dim lighting. The memorial has 200,000 crystals to represent each deportee who did not return (overall, less than 3% did). There were a lot of good quotes there, the eternal flame of hope, and the Holocaust reminder: Pardonne, n’oublie pas. Forgive, but do not forget.

From there, we walked to the Musée d’Orsay – Laura really wanted to go. I was indifferent, but wanted to go more to say I’ve been there, and to see some of the really famous paintings. We waited in line for 30-45 mins, but got in free! Laura went nuts flitting from exhibit to exhibit. I saw some of the more famous paintings, and then sat down for about 40 minutes because I was already feeling exhausted. After the Orsay, we walked to the Arc de Triomphe. The Champs-Élysées was really crowded, and the Arc de Triomphe was huge! It’s really detailed and decorated. It took a while to figure out how to actually get to it, since there are no crosswalks to cross the giant roundabout circling it. We realized there’s an underpass to get there. We paid our respects to the unknown soldier and took some pictures. Then we split up – Laura wanted to see another Monet exhibit, and I wanted to see the Musée Carnavalet – a museum of Paris’ history. I took the hotel room key with me and metro-ed it to Carnavalet. It’s housed in an old hotel – really pretty with the ivy climbing the walls. I walked through the exhibit until I reached the Revolution period. Some of the Revolutionary stuff was cool – it was mostly knick knack-y stuff but it’s cool that it all means something to me now. I saw stuff like a replica Bastille made from real stones from the Bastille, Robespierre’s membership card to the Jacobin club, some of Robespierre’s hair that was cut off his decapitated head, a child’s guillotine toy, etc.

I decided to walk back to the hotel to lie down before our Bateaux Mouches river boat tour down the Seine – I was so tired. I got back to the room and thought, I should get my alarm clock….but it was so far away and I was so comfortable…I conked out. And startled awake at 6:40pm – and we were supposed to meet at 6:45pm! AGH! I grabbed my stuff and ran off to the metro – but unfortunately the stop I needed did not connect well at all. I just decided to get off at Assemblée Nationale and walk – and I didn’t make it to the Bateaux Mouches until 7:15pm. They would all be on the boat by then, so I went there just in case, but didn’t see anyone. I checked with the ticket counter to see when they would return – 8:10pm – and I could go to dinner with all of them. I was a little upset at first about being late and missing it, but I got over it quickly by telling myself – hey, I’m still in Paris and I’ll have a good night. And if I don’t find them, I’ll have dinner on my own just fine. So, to wait until 8:10, I crossed the street and bout a Nouvel Obs (a magazine) and looked for a cafe to get some tea. I stopped at a place and told them I would sit outside and wanted some tea. I read some of my magazine, but 15-20 minutes later, I was still waiting for my tea. Seriously? It’s just some hot water and a tea bag. It was about 8:05 by then, so I just got up and left. I didn’t see anyone getting off the boat that pulled up, so it was time to continue on my own. I took the metro back to the Latin Quarter and to find some dinner there – there are tons of restaurants to choose from. I found a cute little hole-in-the-wall traditional French cuisine place. I got some good people watching in eating by myself and spoke French with the staff. I had onion soup, lamb with fries, and apple pie with ice cream for dessert – all for 12.5 euros! Gotta love the menus – the fixed formula where you choose your 3 course meal between a set of entrées, a set of plats, and a set of desserts – all for a fixed price. From there I just walked back to the hotel, and after talking with Leah discovered that I had just missed them at the Bateaux Mouches! Turns out they didn’t make it onto the 7pm boat, but the 7:30 one instead. But it was still a really good night – the part that made it so good was knowing that I can navigate Paris totally on my own – I love having that kind of independence.

The next day, we accidentally got to breakfast an hour early. Daylight savings time happened and we forgot to set back our clocks! The hotel even had put up a sign reminding us which I saw, but forgot about it by the time I got upstairs. We got to sleep a little more before we all had to leave for Versailles though. We took a train to Versailles – took about 30 minutes. We got to the Chateau, and the lines were ridiculous. We had to wait in line for tickets first, and then in a different longer line to get into the Palace. 2 hours of waiting – UGH. We finally got inside – and it was beautiful in the fact that everything was so elaborate and over the top gaudy that it was actually pretty. I liked Versailles, but also hated it – it was ruined by wall-to-wall crowds, long lines, and a really out of place art exhibit. I have no idea why they agreed to show plastic bright colored cartoonish Japanese art in a French palace – why would you do that to Versailles?? It ruined the ambiance. We also had to wait in line to get into the garden, since we happend to come on a day they were playing music in the gardens. It was a pain, but the music was nice, and the gardens were beautiful! We were more than ready to leave by 2pm – so we took the train back, and had a late lunch/early dinner at an Indian restaurant. It was really good – and made me really excited for India. 2 months from now, I will be there! YAY!

Just a small part of the long line to get into the palace

One of the Japanese art pieces...see what I mean?

Hall of Mirrors

le jardin

Leah and I had decided we wanted to go to vespers at Notre Dame, and Laura decided to come along. We perused souvenir shops until it was time. We made it to vespers just in time. We were a little worried because they were using incense, and Leah’s allergic to it! Luckily, Notre Dame is so big it just dispersed. The organ was amazing and we all definitely wanted to stay for Mass afterward. The whole time I just couldn’t believe I was actually in Notre Dame for Mass – it was awesome. Mass was said by a cardinal too – I think that’s the highest “ranking” officiant I’ve had Mass with. Mass was in French – and I understood it all. It was an incredible experience. We walked around the outside taking pictures, and were going to go see the Arc de Triomphe and Champs-Élysées all lit up at night, but Leah was kind of high from the incense, so we just got a crêpe (pour moi, avec confiture – with jam) and called it an early night.

And Monday, our last day in Paris, was my birthday! How many times in my life can I say I woke up in Paris on my birthday? Awesome. I’m 21 – and now legal to drink everywhere! After some breakfast, Leah and I headed to the Jardin du Luxembourg. It was SO BEAUTIFUL  there – one of my favorite things in Paris. It was so fall-like, which I’ve been missing since Cannes is not fall weather at all. It was great for people watching: we saw little kids feeding ducks, tons of joggers and people doing tai chi, people playing tennis and chess – it was great! We went across the street and bought some birthday beignets (kind of like a bismark donut, but better…) and they were delicious. Raspberry…mmmmmm. It was so peaceful there. I just wanted to stay there all day – not go back to Canes! We stayed as long as we could…then mosied over to some souvenir shops. I bought a mug for myself :)

can't we just stay here?

After that we had to leave Paris :( Cannes is so lame compared to Paris! We made it to the train without problem and made it back just fine – save for the fact that the train ahead of us hit a wild pig! I didn’t know there were wild pigs in France. We had to re-route and were delayed about 45 mins.

What an incredible weekend – I saw SO MUCH for 4.5 days: Notre Dame, Sainte-Chapelle, Tour Eiffel, Louvre, Musée Rodin, Musée d’Orsay, Musée de l’Armée, Musée Carnavalet, Deportation Memorial, Sacre Coeur, Arc de Triomphe, Champs-Élysées, Versailles, Jardin du Luxemboug…oofta! I also learned I took 675 pictures! I loved Paris – and I am so glad I’ll be back there in a few weeks – Nov 20 – to show around my friend Kate, who is studying abroad in London. And now…only a few days until ROME! I’ll leave for Rome on Friday and will come back on Sunday. WOO!

Loving life – I am so blessed.

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Life has settled down back to normal after my haphazard trip to the Cinque Terre.

Classes are still going well and keeping me busy, theater is getting a little more intense, and tutoring is still wonderful! I’m really happy that tonight, I’ll be having dinner with my tutoring family :) really looking forward to it!

This past weekend, our CSB/SJU group took a day trip to Aix-en-Provence. It was really nice to get out of the College for a day, and it was nice to be someplace that felt a little more like fall. It’s a 2 hour drive to Aix from Cannes, so it passed by pretty quickly. Once we got there, we had a quick tour of the city and then were allowed free time for 3 hours. Aix is very pretty, and feels very collegiate – it’s a big university town. There aren’t a lot of tourist sights, so Mickey and I just wandered the streets and did some window shopping. Afterward, we all left to go to l’atelier de Cezanne – Cezanne’s studio. It was the last studio he used before he died. I was a little surprised that it was so small! It’s a very small cottage house, and the actual tour is just one room upstairs. I’ve realized that I’m not really into art, so the tour didn’t interest me as much. Afterward, we just came back to the College.

This weekend, Mickey and I watched some of the movies we had borrowed from the mediathèque, the library, down the street. On Friday, we watched the movie Persepolis – and I loved it! It’s a great movie, and very artistic. It’s about the revolution in Iran and the radicalisation of Islam through the eyes of a young girl. Later, her parents send her to Austria to escape the war. The movie is about her coping with her identity, feeling like a stranger, and feeling like a stranger in her own country. And, it’s all animated! I was very proud that we watched the whole thing (in French, bien sûr) and I understood all of it! We had to watch with subtitles (in French), and that helps enormously. It’s still too difficult to watch movies without subtitles – it’s much easier when I can read what they are saying. On Saturday, we watched La Môme, or La Vie en Rose. It’s a movie about the life of Edith Piaf, a very famous French singer. It’s very well done, but a depressing story.

Tomorrow…we leave for PARIS!! I am so excited! Originally, we were going to leave for Paris on Thursday, but there is going to be a big strike then and we will have to leave a day earlier to get there. I don’t mind though – now we have an extra full day in Paris! We will be there until Monday afternoon (my birthday!)- so we’ll have 4 full days there! EXCELLENT. I think it’s really cool that I get to wake up in Paris on my birthday. The trip is not very structured – we will have a ton of free time. Beth will give us suggestions of things to do each day, but it’s up to us what we want to do. There are only a few required things: Friday morning, we will give our Revolutionary tour of Paris. Each of us has to present a site in Paris that has significance to our historical character (the character we played in the game for our class). Friday night, we will go to the Louvre as a group. Then Beth also has some optional things, like a boat tour down the Seine river at night, and a trip to Versailles on Sunday. I am so excited!

So, I won’t be updating again until after we return from Paris…about a week from today. When we return to Cannes, I will only have a couple days before I head off to Rome! Life is good.  In the meantime, check out the Lost Girls website on Thursday: www.lostgirlsworld.com I’m going to have a new piece up on Thursday, another re-telling of my weekend in the Cinque Terre.

Love to all at home!

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Well. I’m not quite sure where to begin to try and describe my recent weekend in Cinque Terre, Italy.

Let’s start at the beginning.

Many of my friends have been to this wonderful place before – the Cinque Terre – and after hearing their stories and googling pictures, I decided I just had to go. The Cinque Terre is 5 towns along the Italian Riviera, and it is just absolutely gorgeous – you hike between the 5 towns: Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza, and Monterosso al Mare. It’s not a place you go to see museums and monuments, but instead to be in nature and appreciate the natural beauty. And when better to go than when I’m already here in France with some open weekends? I started looking into it,  and Leah and Alejandra said they would come with me. I went last Tuesday to ask about train tickets from Cannes to the Cinque Terre – and it looked like it would work, especially since it only cost about 50 euro for there AND back! Things were looking good.

We started to get a little worried if we would even be able to go…because there is an ongoing strike (la grève) throughout France because the government wants to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62. France loves la bonne vie, and la grève is a national pastime. They strike for everything. And, more than 2/3 of the French agree with la grève – they do not want to work for 2 more years! It’s not just that it is 2 years, they believe it is a slippery slope…if it is 2 years this time, how much will it be next time? Younger generations and highschoolers are protesting as well. There are tons of protests every day and transportation has been on strike. It has not yet been a full strike where there are no buses or trains, but instead there may be one train for every three normally, so it is a little difficult to figure out which trains or buses are available when. Everything is very organized though – you can go online and see what is available when, and the strikes are planned in advance. The National Assembly has already voted on the reform and it has passed, so now it goes to the Senate which will vote (tomorrow night!) – if it passes, then it becomes law.So, I had checked on Tuesday with the train station but they told us to come back later because they weren’t sure if there was going to be a strike on Saturday, the day we wanted to go. Alejandra checked in again on Thursday, and they said they never know if they will be on strike until the day before, so we would have to come back tomorrow. So…Friday we all headed to the station, ready to buy our tickets if they said yes, but completely expecting a no. And we were pleasantly surprised! The trains we wanted would not be affected, and within minutes we had tickets to Italy!!! We were so excited – our first trip to Italy!

We got up bright and early Saturday morning for our long trip of train transfers – our first train left Cannes at 7:10am, so we had to leave the Collège at about 6:30am. We got there with about 10 minutes to spare, but Alejandra needed to use the ATM first to get some cash. For some reason, it didn’t work – and we figured the machine was broken, and didn’t have time to mess with it since our train was leaving in about 4 minutes. We made it just fine, and we were on our way! Our first layover was an hour in Monaco – so we headed out of la gare for a little petit dejeuner at a café – some tea and croissants :) Then we were back on the train, headed to Ventimiglia, one of the first stops over the France/Italy border. We noticed some differences right away once we crossed the border – the buildings are similar but have enough differences, and everything is in Italian! None of us speak any Italian, but between the 3 of us, we had three languages to work with – we all speak English and French, and Alejandra speaks Spanish as well. We were really excited when we got off in Ventimiglia for a 45-minute wait before our next train – we were in ITALY! We stepped off the train and heard all this Italian around us and thought, “this is definitely not French…and I have no idea what they are saying.” We headed down the stairs to use the toilet and were shoved down the stairs by a pack of nuns. Welcome to Italy. I was waiting in the excessively long line for the toilet, since there were only 3 stalls and no one was using the second one because there was poop on the floor…and then the woman ahead of me got stuck in the stall! The door wouldn’t open! She started banging on the door and yelling, I couldn’t understand a word she was saying, and everyone was looking around with a look of I’m not sure what to do in this situation. Some guys arrived and started to try to ram down the door…it was my turn to use the bathroom then, so I didn’t see the victorious liberation from the bathroom stall, but I heard everyone cheering once she was released.

We're in ITALY! In Ventimiglia

We headed out into the town to explore a little bit, and Alejandra tried another ATM. The ATM said the transaction was terminated and returned her card. Crap. We tried again at another ATM…and realized that her card had been deactivated. Luckily, Leah and I had enough cash and money on our cards to pay for her throughout the weekend – no problem, but an inconvenience. We wandered through a market with some of the biggest mushrooms I have ever seen, stands selling just pasta, and a huge flower market (though later we realized all the flowers were fake!). We headed back to the station and got on the next train headed for Genova, which was fine, but a long ride – about 2 hours. We arrived in Genova and needed to buy a regional ticket to one of the towns in Cinque Terre – we had decided on Corniglia because it is the third town, and that way we could hike in either direction to 2 towns as we wished. We got to the counter and asked English? Français? Espangol? and the woman replied, “english…poquito.” The story of our trip – no one spoke French or Spanish, and the Italians we encountered spoke broken English. We managed to get our tickets for Corniglia, but the train didn’t leave for another hour and we would have to change trains yet again in Monterosso. But at that point – qu’est-ce qu’on peut faire? We took the tickets and grabbed a quick kebab before hopping on the train. We accidentally sat in first class to Monterosso (luckily didn’t get caught) but in our defense, it was not marked well at all (we saw as we were leaving that it was a piece of notebook paper taped to the side of the door that said first class).

The 5th and final train!!

We arrived in Monterosso….and it was raining. Damn. We were not prepared for this – I had quickly looked online for the weather and it had said 60 and mostly sunny for Saturday with only 20% chance of rain. None of us had rain jackets or umbrellas, and we had packed mostly shorts and t-shirts since we figured we would be hiking and would get hot. Alas. On the last train, (train #5 of the day) the 10 minute train to Corniglia…one of the workers came around to check tickets. He checked Alejandra’s, frowned, then started talking to her and pulled out his write-a-ticket book. Turns out we didn’t stamp our tickets – you’re supposed to stamp those tickets because you buy them without a specific date/time on them, so you have to stamp them so they know you’ve used it just for this one trip – but we didn’t see any stamp machines anywhere! Besides, on the French tickets it says quite clearly at the top of the ticket that you have to validate your ticket before you get on the train – and it said it no where on the Italian ticket! Even it was on there somewhere, we wouldn’t have been able to read it in Italian! In France, the stamp machines are right in front of you…turns out in Italy they are tiny and hidden in the corner. Ugh. So he said, “this time you pay 5…next time you pay 50!” Whatever…but we weren’t in a position to argue, especially with a language barrier, so we just paid the 15 euro. And after, he just left! Didn’t check any other tickets, and if he would have started at the other end of the car, we would have gotten away without the stupid fine. But, we were finally in Corniglia!! We stepped out into the rain and headed for the information booth. There was no one there…so we just started to walk up the hill figuring we would run into the town. We were right – and luckily it let up raining about halfway up the hill.

uhh...where is she taking us?

It was already about 5pm by then (the trains took way longer than I expected with all the time inbetween), so the first order of business was to get a hotel room. Since we had just gotten our tickets the night before, we hadn’t had time to book someplace to stay, and figured we could find some place once we arrived, especially since it’s the off-season. We started to look for rooms, and saw on the door next to us that it said “rooms”…and this old lady in the window above us who had been watching us called down to us and presumably told us to stay there. She met us – sweet old plump lady with glasses and thinning hair who didn’t speak a word of English. She asked us how many nights…we said one, and she smiled and started to walk in the other direction. We were expecting the rooms to be right there in that same building, so we were a bit surprised and unsure…but started to follow her anyway. Hmmm. She kept walking. And walking. And walking. Alejandra and I exchanged some bemused glances…thinking, “is she actually leading us to a room? where are we going? is she just crazy or something? She looks too sweet and old to try and harm us…?” After what seems like forever, she finally stopped and lead us inside a building, up some stairs, and into a room. The first thing I noticed is a big double bed and thought, but there are three of us…eh, we can all fit. I was so tired and we just needed a place to stay. She pointed to the closet in the corner and said something in Italian…we just exchanged unsure glances, and she pulled down a bed from inside the closet. Sweet. It took a little while to figure out the price – Alejandra was better at deciphering the Italian than Leah and I – but it was only 25 euros each, so we paid her and managed Si and Grazie until she smiled and hobbled away. Well, at least we had a place to stay – with a huge bathroom!

We dropped our stuff and headed out to explore the town – it was really cold out and it didn’t take very long since it’s a pretty small place. We stopped at an internet café so we could email our director our hotel information and for Alejandra to try and figure out why her card wasn’t working. This one balding and toothless man kept coming in to talk to us, and left with “Ciao. Good night. Sleep well. Think of me.” We stopped at a nearby open restaurant for dinner – I had some spaghetti with paprika, and we discovered that the couple at the table next to us was from New Brighton, MN!! It’s a small world after all. We headed back to the room, exhausted, and freezing – there didn’t seem to be any heat in the room despite the storm outside, and the covers were very thin! Leah and I took the double bed and agreed that it would be understood if we woke up spooning. We set an alarm for 7am so we could wake up early and get a full day of hiking in, hoping that the storm would blow over during the night.

Our alarm went off at 7am, but we could hear the howling wind and pouring rain outside. UGH. Leah actually went downstairs and looked outside and reported back that it was pretty ugly out…so we promptly went back to sleep and woke up again at 9:30am, since we had to be out of the room by 10am. Luckily by then, it was still really windy but not raining! Nothing was going to stop us from hiking, but we would prefer not to hike in the rain. We pulled out all the long sleeved layers we brought (which wasn’t much) and passed them around so everyone had at least something! I layered 4 shirts under my track jacket and was very happy I had brought a scarf. Poor Alejandra hadn’t even brought pants – she only had shorts and leggings. We headed out and met the old lady along the way, who was coming to collect the keys from us. We managed some more Buongiorno, Si, and Grazie before we continued to a little cafe for breakfast of bread and jam and yogurt – yum!

Leah!

We didn’t get on the trail until about 11am at this point, and had to buy a ticket before hiking…but we were on our way to Vernazza! The views made all the struggle worth it – it was absolutely gorgeous, despite the wind and rain. The path was a bit strenuous, mostly because all the stones were slippery from the rain, but nothing too bad. It  was so great to be out in nature and hiking, and we reachered Vernazza in about 90 minutes. We even managed to fool a couple people that we didn’t speak English, since we were speaking French at the time! I felt as if I needed to get credit that I speak another language…it just happened to not be the language of the country we were in! We took tons of pictures, and once we had reached Vernazza, we decided to just continue along to Monterosso to catch a train back to Genova.

Corniglia in the background

Looking back at Corniglia

Leah, me, Alejandra at Vernazza!

Vernazza

with Monterosso al Mare in the distance

The second hike was a bit more difficult, mostly because there were so.many.stairs. We probably climbed over a thousand stairs that day! Many times, the path was only wide enough for one person, and a substantial fall would be just on the other side over the ledge. Some people still insisted there was enough room to pass on a clearly one-person trail…and we came close to falling a couple times. We were tired by the time we reached Monterosso al Mare, about 1.5-2 hours later. We went straight to the station to check for tickets, and it’s a good thing we did because the teller first offered us tickets to Genova that arrived at 4:58pm…and our train left from Genova at 4:55pm. Not good – little panic moment there, until she said, “oh, a fast train…” and we got tickets for a train leaving in 15 minutes that would get us to Genova by 4:15pm. Sweet. We had just enough time to grab a sandwich and eat quickly, and we made it onto the train just fine.

We had a little problem once we got on the train though…Alejandra and I went to our seats and saw that our compartment had the curtains drawn. I opened the door and fumbled open the curtains to find 6 people about our age in there already seated, half of them asleep. We just stared at them for a minute and began to explain that they were in our seats, and one guy tried to tell us (in Italian, of course) to take their seats elsewhere…we were about to argue more, but then Leah called to us that there were open seats in her compartment. We threw them some annoyed looks before taking a seat in Leah’s compartment. This was fine until about 45 minutes into the ride, when other people came to tell us that we were in their seats. So Alejandra and I headed back to the other compartment, ready to get our seats back, and they were being really stupid and uncooperative, trying to make it seem like we were in the wrong. I was about to call the attendant over when they let us in – they put 4 people in a 3 person spot…so Alejandra and I had spots…but really?? Why can’t they just go sit where they are assigned? They are causing a chain of problems for everyone else. We sat in an awkward/annoyed silence for a little while, until luckily some more people came along and told them they were in the wrong seats, so they all got up and left. Did they not have a ticket? Probably – but it’s annoying that they tried to make it look like it was us who made the mistake and caused problems for everyone else.

The rest of the journey passed without problem. Our train from Genova to Ventimiglia left about 20 minutes late, but that ride was uneventful. So, we reached Ventimiglia at 7:35pm and according to our itinerary, the next train to Monaco should be at 7:43pm. The woman in the compartment with us asked if we were heading to France, and warned us that there was a grève going on and we might not be able to get trains. We smiled and said thank you, mentally blowing her off and thinking thanks lady, but that was yesterday. Since we only had 8 minutes before our train left, we hurried inside to find the platform number. We looked up on the screen and saw all the trains to Monaco are “sopresso.” Shit. No no no no no. We need to get back to France – we can’t be stuck in Italy! This was just the icing on the cake of our less than well planned weekend. We verified with the ticket counter…no more trains until 6am the next day! It was time to call Beth, our program director, to let her know we were stranded and to see if she could somehow help us. We had to go to the station café/store to buy a phone card first – all the while analyzing our options. Option 1 – find a place to stay and stay here until 6am for the next train. Option 2 – maybe someone from the Collège can somehow come get us? Option 3 – some guy nearby tells us there is a bus headed toward Nice/Cannes that leaves at 11:30pm.We liked option 2 the best. The guy, fairly young guy from Romania named John, tried to help us figure out the phone – and after about 300 tries, we got through to Beth. Apparently we had been dialing the phone number incorrectly since we didn’t put in the right international code first. We are so lucky we were stranded on a weekend that Beth had rented a car for sightseeing! She and her partner Ross said they would look up directions and leave right away to come get us – we were saved!! John made some small talk with us, and gave me his number “in case you want to have a drink or something some time” which I couldn’t refuse since he had just helped us, but really not wanting to be hit on as we had just been contemplating our strategy of surviving a night in the Ventimiglia train station.

no chairs...thanks Italy.

We still had some time to kill, and we were really hungry. We headed out into the town to find a restaurant, but everything was closed up (which is surprising since at least restaurants are open on Sundays in France), but we didn’t want to wander too far from the station late at night. We returned to the station and decided to eat in the café there – they had a decent selection, but it was so confusing trying to figure out how to select what you want and then pay for it. We first saw some tables, and sat down expecting a waiter to come, as it said on the nearby sign. A waitress did appear, but just spoke to us in Italian and left. Apparently we didn’t understand the system. We decided the tables were too confusing and there looked to be an easier “a la carte” section. We tried telling the guy we just wanted some pizza, but apparently you don’t just tell them what you want and they give it to you and you pay. No, it has to be much less efficient and more confusing – you have to go to the separate cashier away from the food, tell them exactly what you want, pay, and then you show your receipt to the guy serving food.

We hung out on the station floor next to a hobo-looking guy playing Sodoku until Beth arrived! We were saved!! It was a great trip, despite the problems, and a great story now! I think I’ve decided I prefer traveling with a little more planning, but would I do it again? ABSOLUTELY.

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