Saturday, November 30, 2013

It's Beginning to Look a Lot like Christmas

Samedi, 30 novembre.

First off, I have to admit that the title of this post is slightly misleading: it's not just now beginning to look like Christmas. It's looked like Christmas for a while. The mall has been lit up and decorated for weeks and I swear they started hanging Christmas lights before Halloween! I hadn't anticipated this level of intense holiday decoration in France, but it's actually not surprising. Christmas lacks a truly religious significance for most of the population; rather, the marchés de Noël are touted as an economic as much as traditional celebration. And since there's no Thanksgiving to serve as the official debut of the holiday season, why not start profiting early?

I made my official tour of Polygone, Montpellier's big indoor shopping mall, last weekend. I took the chance to stock up on winter supplies -- gloves and a warm new scarf -- and even to try a Brioche Saint-Nicolas. (Yum!) Because photos of all the over-the-top decorations just wouldn't do them justice, I made a little video.

In addition to the mall, there are signs of Christmas all over the city -- and some have been less expected than others! To mark the final day of blocages, I headed to the zoo on Wednesday morning with Kait, Brooke, and Molly. The cold had scared most of the animals inside and we were starting to feel a little silly for having trekked out to the zoo for nothing, when suddenly ... IT STARTED SNOWING. We all started freaking out -- jumping up and down and laughing and acting very not French. But can you blame us? Snow is rare in Montpellier in the first place and to have even a few flurries in November is downright impossible! Still, the snow flurries came. They came just the same!

Friday, November 29, 2013


Vendredi, 29 novembre.

It's generally considered more popular for American college students studying abroad to choose to spend their spring semester away. At first glance, it doesn't make a lot of sense. The fall semester is easier (you can apply for your visa and pack during summer vacation). The fall semester has better weather (several months of warm before winter finally arrives in December). And the fall semester has Christmas markets. But there is one reason that explains it all:  THANKSGIVING. (Or, as it's pronounced over here: "Zanksgeeveeng.")

Of course! No even semi-patriotic American wants to spend this most important of national holidays on foreign soil. Unlike Christmas and Easter, whose universal importance mean that they could be successfully celebrated in any number of study abroad destinations, Thanksgiving is a New World specialty. Such a uniquely American holiday can only truly be celebrated in the land of the free, where cranberry sauce and canned pumpkin (both impossible to find in France) litter grocery store shelves.

But you've got to do what you've got to do. And when what you've got to do is study abroad during the fall, you just have to accept that a traditional Thanksgiving meal might fall by the wayside.

Don't worry, we didn't eat jelly beans and popcorn! (If only because jelly beans are actually IMPOSSIBLE to find here.) In fact, we W&M students decided to throw our own ""Zanksgeeveeng" dinner! With a little organizational help from our housing coordinator, we split up the dishes and planned grocery store trips. We planned in advance to find all the necessities -- I even had Mommy bring a can of pumpkin when she came to visit in November!

Like all good holiday cooks, we began our preparations in earnest the day before. Brooke made all of her dishes in advance and I spent Wednesday evening  making pies (tartes, in French) at Molly's host mom's house. Our final results definitely weren't anything stellar -- my pumpkin pie (tarte au potiron) cracked right down the middle and Molly's potentially-overcooked apple pie (tarte aux pommes) sunk in as it cooled -- but we were proud of them! (And hey, it's not like a majority of our guests knew any better...)

My other assignment, mashed potatoes (purée de pommes de terre), was slightly less of a group effort. Earlier that week, I had bought as many potatoes as I could carry at the grocery store, knowing that at Thanksgiving, it's always better to have too much than not enough! So after classes on Thursday, I came downstairs to the kitchen and got started. I had been a little worried about the peeling and mashing of dozens of potatoes in the limited post-class/pre-dinner time frame -- but host mom to the rescue! She helped me peel the potatoes and even fished out a nifty hand mixer she'd bought years ago but never used. It worked like a charm and in no time flat, I was mashing away!

In between boiling and mashing and seasoning, I spent an embarrassingly long amount of time taking selfies with my potatoes. But hey, what else is a girl gonna do? (Besides, there was no one else in the kitchen so it was a totally safe judgment-free zone.)


Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Putting the STUDY in Study Abroad: An Academic Update

Mardi, 26 novembre.

The craziness has officially begun. I can't believe it -- it's not even Thanksgiving yet and already, they're everywhere! No, not Christmas decorations. (Although those are all over the place.) I'm talking about the countdown Facebook statuses from friends studying abroad.
"Less than a month till I'll be back in the USA!" 
"Can't believe I only have three weeks left in France." 
"Can't wait to be back in America!"
And, weirder still are the updates from other friends who are already done with their semester abroad! There's still just under a month until I'll be heading home, so it doesn't feel like I'm quite at the end yet. I still have things I want to do and places I want to see. And, unfortunately, classes to go to and exams to take. It's not that I don't enjoy school: in fact, all the cancellations caused by the recent grèves have made me realize how much I do appreciate having something to occupy my weekdays!

Actually, it's been a while since my last academic post, so I figured I'd give you a little update on the STUDY aspect of this whole study abroad thing.

First up... Culture Générale en Histoire de l'ArtFirst off, let me remind you that Molly dropped this class at the beginning of the semester because she couldn't deal with the professor's disorganized method of teaching. To Molly: YOU WERE SO RIGHT. The professor is very friendly and I'm still interested by the information, but the whole affair is just so painfully poorly organized. We learn in bursts -- ten minutes of rapid-fire notetaking and jotting down of important vocabulary words, followed by half an hour of repetitive rambling. Additionally, the class has been cancelled a few times -- not by the grèves, but by our professor. Now, William & Mary professors have been known to cancel class from time to time. Sometimes, they've decided to cut their losses and get a jump on a holiday weekend. Sometimes, in the case of one poor professor, they've fallen down the stairs and quite literally cannot come to class. But the number of classes I have had cancelled in the last TWO YEARS at William & Mary pales in comparison to the number cancelled in the last two months at the Université Paul-Valéry.

The first time she cancelled class, I was elated. It was one of those cruel Monday mornings at the beginning of fall (you know, when you're not quite used to the shorter days and your alarm clock suddenly goes off before sunrise?) and I was not feeling like getting out of bed for my 8h15. So getting a personalized email from my professor, letting me know that class had been cancelled, was incredible. Until I realized why the email was personalized: I had emailed my professor a few days previously with a question and, apparently, my email address was the only one she had. So after letting me know that class was cancelled -- and, in other words, that there would be no reason on earth for me to get to school before noon that day -- she asked if I wouldn't mind swinging by campus to inform the other students. And let me tell you: the only thing worse than getting up and walking twenty minutes to school at eight o'clock in the morning to go to class is getting up and walking twenty minutes to school at eight o'clock in the morning NOT to go to class. Class was cancelled for the second time last week. Again, I woke up to an early morning email: class would PROBABLY be cancelled, my professor wanted to let me know, and that if she didn't show up at 8h15, I should tell the other students that she was sick and go home. So I walked (in the rain) to class. And I wanted (in the rain) outside the door. And half an hour later, I walked back (still in the rain) to my house. Because -- guess what? No class. (Hey, at least it's a good story.)

Next up? Histoire régionalea history course on the medieval history of the Languedoc region. The class is divided into two sections: a cours magistral and a travail dirigé. The CM usually goes pretty well. Our professor's lectures are well-structured and informative and, even better, there's usually a powerpoint to help us pick up on key names! As for the TD ... well, suffice it to say that it's given me a few ideas to pass onto the US government for interrogating prisoners. It. Is. Torture. Each class, a handful of students are called up in front of the class to present (or, rather, to mumble through) their commentaires du texte -- oral analyses of documents that we've been assigned to read and study. I thank God every day that we anglophones were allowed to turn in a written version, because after each student presents, the professor TEARS THEM APART. It's vicious. But however miserable the projects and critiques are to listen to, the class has a tendency to provide some unintentional entertainment. Whether it's the boy who showed up to class yesterday without his project because "... my partner never contacted me to work on it" or the duo that explained away their presentation's lack of cohesion by pointing out that they "live far away from each other" and "would have had to drive to work together." Or, my personal favorite, the inexplicably sassy girl who -- after being told by the professor a dozen times not to read from her notes -- indignantly responded, "But this is the introduction. You have to read the introduction!"

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Mommy in Montpellier -- The Final Leg

Mardi, 19 novembre.

On Monday morning, after a fabulous weekend in Lyon, we headed back to the sunshine and warmth of the South of France. As you can see, I was a little tuckered out on the train back!

Mommy loves public transportation. Me? Not quite so convinced.

Still, after a few days spent exploring in the Alps, it was nice to be back in the land of constant sunshine. We did a little bit of walking around before checking into our third and final apartment of the trip.

The view from our third and final apartment. Wow!
After dropping our bags off, we decided to make one last little trip. After all, thanks to all of our train travelling, Mommy had already seen the Alps, the hillsides in the east, and the countryside in South (or, as we like to call it, Texas). But there was still a major geographical area missing -- the ocean. So we hopped on a quick local train to Sète, a port town on the Mediterrean Sea that's only a couple of kilometres away from Montpellier. It's a huge resort town during the summer, but -- as we quickly discovered -- is beautiful to visit year-round!

Mommy in Montpellier: Day Trip to Pérouges

Mardi, 19 novembre.

In addition to our day trip to Annecy, we also left Lyon on Sunday afternoon to explore another nearby attraction -- the medieval walled town of Pérouges. I had stumbled across the quaint little village while scouring travel blogs in search of potential day trips from Lyon. It seemed cute enough. And then I found out it was a PBVF.

And as you might have noticed, I have a slight obsession with what are called "Les Plus Beaux Villages de France." (Note: the name PBVF is almost certainly used only by me). These villages, formally recognized as among France's most beautiful and charming, tend to be small, well-preserved towns that -- for me, at least -- fulfill every expectation that you could possibly have of an ideal picturesque French village.

Before coming to Pérouges, I had visited three of these PBVFs: the village of Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert (which you can read about here) and the towns of Gordes and Beaux-de-Provence (both of which you can read about in this post). I'd had just the best time each and every one of these little towns and loved the idea of exploring yet another with my mom! Besides, neither of us are big "city folks" -- although exploring Lyon was fun, the idea of exploring the Lac d'Annecy or a little village in the countryside was MUCH more appealing.

So after a little bit of Sunday morning exploration in Lyon, we took a regional train to the town of Meximieux. I have yet to find an explanation for the name of this town, which seems to me to combine Mexique and mieux ("better") and have decided it must be inhabited solely by extremely proud Mexican expats. Meximieux was cute, but became decidedly less so as we trudged around it in the rain. After a failed attempt to take what the Pérouges tourism office had deemed a "scenic route" (and what was actually just a really muddy field), we finally got ourselves on track.

It was a relief to finally see signs pointing us in the right direction!

A few more minutes of walking and we were there -- bienvenue à Pérouges! Like I explained before, the town is officially one of France's most beautiful villages. Although the region was first inhabited WAY long ago (we're talking two thousand years before Jesus), the oldest parts of the current village date back to the 12th century. The town was most active between the 15th and 18th centuries, at which time it had up to 1500 inhabitants -- more than it has now! In the 1900s, some of the town's families decided to restore it to its original medieval appearance. If you're interested, you can read more about the town here. For those of you thinking "absolutely no way am I reading more about this place" ... here's a video instead! It's not long and gives a pretty good insight into what it feels like to walk through the village (albeit it on a sunny day in summer, which we most certainly did not experience). Even cooler? This very nifty aeriel tour of the town.

Here we are just inside the city's lower gate, happy to finally have reached our destination! Even though it was still preeeetty damp. (Notice the umbrellas. Also the water coursing down the street.)


Mommy in Montpellier: Day Trip to Annecy

Mardi, 19 novembre.

After having spent Friday afternoon exploring the old Renaissance quarter of Lyon, Mommy and I decided on Saturday to take a day trip to the city of Annecy. Like Lyon, the city is located in the Rhône-Alpes region of France. However, while Lyon has a slightly more central location, Annecy is quite literally nestled in the French Alps and is located closer to Switzerland and Italy than to most other French cities! In fact, the Haute-Savoie department to which the city belongs actually used to be a part of  the Comté de Genève. Although it's been a part of France for centuries, the Swiss influence in the region is still very evident. (Can you say cheese fondu?)

I had first heard of the region thanks to my KD big, Emily, who spent last fall studying abroad in Lyon and took a day trip to Annecy. Her pictures made it seem too beautiful for us not to check out! (And I mean, when you see the words "French Alps" and "lake" in the description, can you really go wrong?) I didn't really know what to expect, but we boarded the train from Lyon bright and early on Saturday morning, figuring that we would see what we could see.

AND THIS IS WHAT WE SAW. (Well, some of it. Along with our other day trip to Pérouges and our weekend in Lyon, this adventure had to have its own post ... if only because of the insane number of beautiful photos we took!)

I honestly didn't know it was possible for a single place to be that gorgeous and actually haven't stopped talking about it since we got back. Even the train ride to Annecy was beautiful -- two hours of countryside and fog-covered mountains. Although I'm pretty sure I fell asleep, Mommy had a blast looking out the window!

Arriving in Annecy was a little confusing: like most cities, its train station isn't located in the best or most beautiful part of town. And although the city is definitely much smaller than Lyon, it's still pretty big -- over fifty thousand residents -- and definitely has the feel of a real city in parts. But we wandered a little bit in search of the office of tourism (a surefire first stop in any unfamiliar city) and then suddenly -- "MOMMY! LOOK! THE ALPS!" -- we arrived at the edge of Lac d'Annecy. The view was stunning.

Mommy in Montpellier: Weekend in Lyon

Mardi, 19 novembre.

Like I said in my first post, I'm going to divide Mommy's visit into a couple of posts ... we took too many great pictures to fit everything in one! You can read about our first day in Montpellier here. On Friday morning, we took the train a few hours northeast, to the city of Lyon.

We stayed in a charming little apartment in Vieux-Lyon, the city's old Renaissance quarter and the heart of its historic district. The apartment was incredibly convenient -- right above the metro station, around the corner from the Lyon cathedral, and just across the river from some of Lyon's most famous squares! We were picked up at the train station by our host's parents -- an adorable and incredibly welcoming couple who were clearly very happy that their daughter has found a way to make some money with the apartment they bought her. They left us with fresh fruit, milk and orange juice, homemade jam, and even a bottle of wine!

After a quick cup of coffee/hot cocoa to wake and warm us up, we headed out to explore Lyon! Well ... almost. The building's old door was a little tricky! (Also, confession: I am absolutely terrible at opening doors. We stayed in three separate apartments over the course of the week and I couldn't open a one of them.)

For whatever crazy reason, given the fact that it was raining and we only had one umbrella, we decided to walk up the hill to Fourvière! Hey, it didn't look that far ... right? Wrong. What seemed like a straight shot from the apartment window was actually a series of winding roads that led sloooowly up the hill.


Luckily, we were able to take a few pauses and admire the view as we got higher and higher! In this picture, you can see the Saône River, which runs parallel to the Rhône through the city, just below us and the Eglise Saint-Georges in the right-hand corner. (Fun fact: the church was designed by the same architect as the basilica at the top of the hill. He referred to it as a "youthful mistake." Poor Saint-Georges.)

Our first stop, once we made it to the top of the hill? The ancient Roman theatre of Fourvière, which has been around since before the birth of Christ. At its most popular, during the reign of Emperor Hadrien in the second century AD, it held up to 10,000 spectators. Bottom line: this sucker is very big, very old, and very cool. And because of the rainy weather, we had the entire thing almost entirely to ourselves!


Leslie Takes Europe -- Mommy in Montpellier!

Mardi, 19 novembre.

Wow. It's now been exactly two weeks since Mommy arrived in Montpellier ... but it feels like yesterday that she pulled up in front of the university and gave me a big hug! (I guess time flies when students are striking?) I'm finally getting around to uploading all our pictures and writing about our adventures, but have decided to divide the trip up into several posts: there's no way I could fit everything all on one page! Everything will be accessible from the main page of the blog, but you can also find all the posts on the blog under the label "Leslie takes Europe."

So ... from the beginning. Mommy arrived at the airport last Thursday afternoon. Unfortunately, I was in the middle of taking a test and couldn't come meet her at the airport. I didn't want her to have to deal with the slightly confusing bus/tram system on her own, so I asked our housing coordinator, Sue Watson, for some advice. She ended up offering to pick Mommy up and bring her to the school!

We met up right after I finished my exam and headed to our "hotel" for the night -- a little studio on the top floor of an ancient building in historic Montpellier. At the apartment, she was greeted by the essentials: coffee, chocolate, and cookies!

I think we really struck gold with the apartment itself. (Thanks, AirBNB.) The little studio was located right in the center of historic Montpellier, with all the old touches still intact -- wooden beams, hardwood floors, stone walls. I loved the quirky decorations, from the mismatched chairs to the steamer trunks! And you really couldn't beat the view.

Monday, November 18, 2013

A Word on the French University

Lundi, 18 novembre.

This morning, I woke up to an email from my art history professor. We probably weren't going to be having class, the email (which was sent just to me) explained, because she was sick: if she didn't show up at 8:15, I should tell the other students that class had been cancelled. She also gave me her phone number and told me not to hesitate to text and ask about the status of class. So I did. She responded, telling me class had been cancelled. Except she didn't respond until three hours later -- after I had already walked to campus in the rain, waited outside for half an hour, and walked back home. In the meantime, I had learned that my other integrated course, my regional medieval history TD, had been cancelled for the day by the professor. But of course, I hadn't received the email.

Now that I'm sitting in my nice cozy bed and listening to the rain outside my window (as opposed to on my umbrella), I'm inspired to say a few words about the French university system. Fair warning: they're not going to be particularly charitable ones.

Ever since the very first week of school, when I waited for a 90 minutes for a professor who never showed and sat in on my first lecture class, I've had a relatively negative opinion of the student body at Université de Montpellier III. Students don't have a whole lot of initiative: if the professor doesn't seem to be showing up, they just stand outside the door and wait. And wait. And wait. Inside the classroom, they just don't really seem to care. Sure, they take notes in lecture -- for the most part. But they don't respond to professors' questions and rarely ask any of their own. Even in the few classes that require participation, nobody volunteers. I don't really get it. They're getting a college education, practically for free. (Total cost of attending UPV? Maybe a couple hundred Euros a year. That's right: a couple HUNDRED.) And yet, they always seem to have something to complain about.

Which brings me to my next point of discussion ... the grèves.

As the droit de manifester is apparently the primary right in the French Constitution, it's not particularly surprising that there have been small protests all semester. It hasn't been too extreme: just groups of students passing out flyers and marching around with megaphones. There were even some half-hearted signs posted on the buildings, like this one that I pass every day...

Sorry, French students. I would take you seriously but your appropriation and subsequent conjugation of the verb "stop" is too ridiculous to accept. Also, do you really want to compare your movement to those in SPAIN and GREECE? Like ... please. Maybe try picking a country whose economy isn't completely in the toilet.

But things started to get serious a few weeks ago. With the university in some serious financial trouble, the administration announced that they would have to make some cutbacks -- including, as I understand it, closing a satellite campus in a nearby town and requiring applications for admission to the overcrowded university. Applications?! For admission?! To a university?! The idea seems pretty obvious. In America, students spend years building up an academic resume and work for countless hours to find the right college and craft the perfect admission essays.

In France ... not so much.

Needless to say ... I did not take this picture. I'm staying far away from the protests!
Although some schools require applications for admissions, the average university is much less selective. As long as students have taken and passed the bac (a standardized exam taken at the end of high school), they can enroll in university courses. This system has its positives: namely, everyone who passes high school gets to go to college. And traditionally, that's not easy to do -- the bac is a notoriously difficult exam. At least, it was. According to my French civilization professor, the exam's passing rate is now over 85% nationally. And that's not because the students suddenly got smarter; rather, it's a conscious effort by a government trying to reduce unemployment among young adults by encouraging them to stay in school.

Unfortunately, they DON'T stay in school. They come to university, spend a year taking classes, and then quit. For some, university is too hard. (Public universities like UPV aren't bringing in the sharpest knives in the drawer. I'm sure there are some smart cookies. Just not a whole ton.) For others, it's a poor choice of major: since students are not even required to study the subjects in which they took their high school exams, a student could pass a bac in science and then enroll at Paul-Valéry to major in literature! As a result, apparently around two-thirds of students at Paul-Valery drop out after their first year of college. TWO THIRDS. That's over SIXTY percent. Do you know what percentage of students drop out of William and Mary after their first year? FIVE.

So the idea of requiring applications to go to Paul-Valéry? Well, you might as well tell the French population that the country has run out of baguettes.

The actual timeline of events is a little blurred in my head and I'm afraid that I don't care enough to get it all straightened out. But basically, ever since returning from fall break, the students have spent the past few weeks on strike. Some days, they go to class. Some days, they have giant assembly meetings to air their grievances and vote about what to do next. And some days, they do this:

That's right. In what they call un blocage total de la fac, they blockade the entrances to academic buildings, the mindset being to physically prevent professors and students from having class. Some of the blockades are a litttle on the pathetic side -- a few chairs stacked on top of a desk is hardly a concrete barrier -- but they've been getting a little more creative as of late.

This is what I arrived to last Thursday morning, when I came to campus for my German class:

Looks like nobody's going to German class today... (Not even a surprise, to be honest: I've been to exactly THREE German classes all semester. The rest have been cancelled, thanks to three weeks of teacher absence and two weeks of blockaded doors. Only in France...)

At first, it was exciting. The very first blockade happened right after we came back from fall break: students blocked the doors to my history class and our RI course was forced to relocate to the campus of Université de Montpellier II (where the math and science kids are too smart to strike). That day, the students paraded around waving a giant red flag and it was pretty much a real-life version of Les Misérables. We received "IMPORTANT" emails from university faculty, including our program coordinators -- who enthusiastically assured us that these sorts of demonstrations were exceedingly rare. (However, the last time one occured, it lasted three months. Students had to take their final exams at home and send them in their professors.)

Unfortunately, the reality of the grève has since sunk in and it's all become a lot less exciting. There's nothing fun about walking to campus, only to find out your classroom is blocked and your professor is gone, or having to make up missed classes on the weekends. Additionally, because the study abroad program directors are never sure when the classrooms on campus will be blocked, we're currently meeting for our RI classes at another building, about a 15 minute walk from the main campus. I didn't think anything could be less glamorous than UPV, but this little compound has proved me wrong.

The rooms don't have chalkboards or projectors, which is proving a little difficult in classes that require a lot of writing on the board and giving exposés, but at least they're not blocked by furniture! (Well, at least not yet.) Also the bathroom is mega sketch: I've been in once and it was one time too many.

Will the grèves continue? Will the French students ever be satisfied? Stay tuned to hear more.