Miming My Way Through Italy

Most of last week’s short trip to Italy is just a blur, quite honestly. Days softened into evenings and late nights as I traipsed through the streets with four of my fellow English assistants. Only stopping to tumble into a café or gelato shop when we were hungry, the hours melted into one unending day.

Each afternoon, we continued our unceasing stroll through the town called Salerno, about an hour from Naples. Confetti inexplicably filled the cracks of the cobblestones, like the beads that hang from New Orleanian phone lines year-round. Every night, we read books out loud to each other, one girl swiping through the pages of an e-reader while the others sipped from their wineglasses and snuggled together thoughtfully. We snacked on cookies and fruit in the afternoon, never minding the calorie content and whole-heartedly enjoying ourselves as we chatted and solved all of modern society’s problems. 

So there was obviously a lot of this.

So there was obviously a lot of this…almost every meal.

Southern Italians on the streets hollered, gesticulated, and stomped their feet to comment idly on the weather. I spent most of my time wondering why everyone was so angry with each other before I got used to the fact that we were just in Italy.

A fair amount of this.

A fair amount of this.

We trekked to the dark grey beach nearby, where the wind played notes on our beer bottles and whipped sand into every possible nook and cranny. It wasn’t exactly beautiful weather, but it was a heck of a lot better than what we’re used to in Normandy. We kicked off our boots and socks, and my tootsies saw sunlight for the first time since last September. 

Descending upon the port while our seagull drones complete recon.

The busses klaxon before going around each blind mountain corner, and there’s always a lady who makes the sign of the cross and kisses her crucifix necklace as all the other passengers lean into the turn. We spent quite a bit of time praying for our lives and our lunches on those wild bus rides.

When you see pack horses, you know you're in the country.

You know you’ve reached the countryside once you see pack horses.

A hike through the Sentiero Degli Dei  (literally the Path of the Gods) along the Amalfi coast provided some seriously gorgeous views. Italians have been farming and fishing against the steep, rocky mountainsides for thousands of years, and it shows from the moment you step outside. Modern graffiti painted on top of Medieval ruins stacked on top of Roman ruins-it’s everywhere. 

Becky and Stace are terrible people.

Becky and Stace are terrible people.

French civilization holds just as many claims to being “old” as Italy’s does (just look up the cave paintings of Chauvet and Lascaux), but this countryside seems so much more steeped in history than Normandy’s. These pictures absolutely do not do it justice, but I tried. 

We saw some nice views, or whatever.

We saw some nice views, or whatever.

There’s nothing like heading out of your comfort zone for a few days to get some fresh air, hear a new language, and eat obscene amounts of tomato sauce on carbs. Italy comes nowhere near France on my list, but you’ve gotta admit that it’s got style.

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The #1 Way to Ensure Eternal Damnation

So, I may not have told you everything that happened during my trip to Paris last week. I left out a crucial part of my time in Sacré Coeur, and now I realize this story just can’t not be told.

Basically, I’m going to hell.

I lied to a nun, and I’m pretty sure that grants me a fastpass through the line to eternal flame.

Sister Jeanne Marie was so kind and welcoming when I first arrived at the basilica. She took down my name and showed me to my room, and as she glided along the hallway she asked my reasons for coming to the night of adoration. I told her that it seemed like a beautiful opportunity for meditation, and as I started to say more she stopped me.

“But, you’re catholic, yes? You believe in la présence réelle?”

I panicked.

She was asking me if I believed in transubstantiation, the catholic doctrine whereby the bread and wine of the Eucharist literally transform into the body and blood of Christ. Well, no. I’m not, and I don’t.

Images of being escorted out by armed monks filled my mind. Sleeping on a bench under a Parisian bridge was not what I had expected for the night, especially since I’d already paid 4 euros for the pre-mass breakfast. So, with imaginary sirens of Vatican police cars whirring in my ears, I did what I had to do.

I lied to Sister Jeanne Marie.

“Well, I was raised protestant, but I’m thinking of converting.”

A giant walkie talkie appeared out of nowhere, and the next thing I know this nun is calling a priest on what I can only assume was a Code Blue: Imminent Conversion case. Grasping my hand in both of hers, she urged me to spend the evening in prayer, and then scurried off to organize the troops for my initiation.

The next morning, Sister Jeanne Marie met me downstairs for a long discussion about my “conversion”. She was so sweet and excited I could hardly stand it. I tried to do what I could to soften my earlier statement and to say that I was “questioning”, but it was useless. I felt terrible (even protestant-raised agnostics generally try not to lie to nuns), but at this point it was impossible to stop.

It was going to take every bit of my 10th grade AP European History knowledge to get me through this one. Dates and names started flying out of my mouth as we discussed the schism, bible translations, and the traditions of the catholic church. She asked me if I had begun to pray the rosary, if I had been to confession, if I prayed with the saints. Trying to translate what mediocre knowledge I have into French and making it sound like I had actually been personally researching the topic was terrifying. I was winging the interview of my life, and it was very nearly disastrous.

I was super pumped when she asked me what I thought of the Virgin Mary, but apparently saying “I love her! What a fascinating icon of women’s strength and the inner goddess within a patriarchal society!” was not the proper response. Naming Joan of Arc, who is basically the definition of aggressive feminism, as an on-the-spot potential confirmation saint, didn’t seem to win me any points, either, but I was in survival mode and literally naming any saints I could think of by then. I vaguely recall quoting Latin excerpts from choral pieces at one point. The B.S. got that real.

Rising from her seat with a smile from one edge of her habit to the other, Sister Jeanne Marie gave me the phone number for her direct line and urged me to call her the next time I was in Paris. We walked together through the church, and she gleefully told me that the next step would be for me to discuss all of these things again with a priest. She escorted me right up to the confessional booth, where I paused just long enough to see her turn the corner before I hightailed it out of there so fast I bet not even Jesus saw me moving.

So there’s my story, the new #1 most awkward conversation of my life. Hopefully, publishing this post and doing good deeds for the rest of my life will keep me from eternal damnation, but if anyone else has a good idea of what I should do, I’m certainly taking suggestions. Clearly, I need all the help I can get.

Great Expectations: Frequent Disappointments

For several weeks, I’ve been anxiously awaiting the arrival of the U.S. Consulate at my high school. Well, they came, they saw, and they rolled out before I even had time to pledge allegiance to the Consul’s flag pin.

Here’s the background: About 45 high schoolers from around the world are chosen each year to participate in a month-long conference in the U.S. that will remain unnamed on this blog. (Hey, I don’t want to get sued.) It’s a fascinating project that allows globally-minded leaders to get together to discuss current issues while getting a free summer trip to the states. Some kids at my school were tapped to take part in the application process, which includes a tête à tête interview with the regional American Consulate. These kids have to be not only engaged individuals with top grades and legitimate reasons to want to experience American culture, but they have to be able to express all of that in the program’s lingua franca: English.

So we’ve been practicing. I took some extra time the past few weeks to ensure that the seven candidates knew how to conduct themselves in an American-style interview (snappy business casual attire, shake hands instead of chest-bumping, etc.) and express their main points clearly (keep the main thing the main thing, don’t quote Breaking Bad unless absolutely relevant, etc.). By the day of the Consular visit, they were shaking like leaves on so many proverbial trees, and they were totally ready.

So the Consulate (which consisted of two people) showed up at about 9 AM and started meeting the candidates. I stood outside the interview space and acted as moral support the whole morning as each kid hyperventilated on his or her way through the door. As per usual with anything on a tight schedule, the interviews went waaaay over time and we were rushing to get the meetings over so the visitors could get to their next engagement- a conference on Franco-American relations with about a hundred of the high school’s seniors.

This “conference” ended up being a recitation of literally every single link between the US and France since 1776, facilitated by the worst Powerpoint presentation I’ve ever seen, followed by a blanket “thank you” by the Consul for everything France did to help make America da best kuntrie evarr. I was pretty disappointed. It was probably relatively interesting to the students, who hadn’t heard it all before and are likely less OCD than me about how images should be centered on slideshows, but for the cynics in the room, it was mostly disappointing, and felt more like an advertisement for the U.S. than a spontaneous exchange of ideas about international relations.

I was still hopeful, though, and incredibly psyched to be invited to a private lunch meeting with the consul, the school principal, and several other English teachers. I’d looked forward to it all day while I was standing outside waiting on other people and giggling through the American study abroad advertisement. Unfortunately, a bunch of other profs gatecrashed and basically made it almost impossible to speak to the consul or anyone else at the luncheon. I know I have some weird pet peeves, but it was beyond my intercultural abilities at that point in the day to empathize with the insane rudeness of inviting oneself to a private meal. Beyond that nonsense, we weren’t there just to nosh and chitchat, but to debrief on the students’ interviews and provide further details so that the consul could eventually make the decision for which kid will get to go on the trip of a lifetime.

I. Couldn’t. Even.

Meh. It was certainly an exciting day, and a very successful one for the students who worked tirelessly to prepare for it, but less than wonderful for the poor little English Assistant who had hoped to schmooze with the Consul so her pending State Department application would be well received. Let this be a lesson to us all. Or, at least, those of us who tend to get overly excited about events that have nothing to do with us.

Living the Life of a French Girl

Being on vacation has rendered me rather useless at writing; my apologies! I hope this long post will make up for it.

I’ve stayed busy this week, though, continuing to go on little excursions in the region. My fellow assistant and new BFF Daniela and I spent Wednesday afternoon at an English tea shop in Caen, blinking back true food lovers’ tears as we noshed down our scones and cream.

On Friday,  another assistant, Jonathan, joined Dani and me on a day trip to Bayeux. Long time readers will remember that I visited Bayeux and the surrounding area for a long weekend while studying in Tours; you can go back to those posts for more detail here.

Bayeux, a major tourist destination because of its proximity to the D-Day beaches, is just a half-hour train ride from here, and makes for a lovely afternoon out of town! We began our day with lunch at a cozy little restaurant about fifty paces from the cathedral, and it was glorious. A salad, galette, crepe with Nutella, and cider for 9 euros? Don’t mind if I do.

Does this meal look familiar? Traditional Normande meals don't change much!

Does this meal look familiar? Traditional Normande meals don’t change much from year to year!

We also spent some time wandering around the cathedral and the Bayeux Tapestry. I won’t bore you with the details of things I’ve already described, but I will state the obvious by saying that it was a far different experience to visit these places with friends than to go alone. In the dark recesses of the cathedral, the three of us discussed how creepy/cool crypts are, and Dani and I had mini medieval dance breaks to the music that played through our audio tour headphones while viewing the tapestry. Altogether quite different from passing the hours internally debating the morals of war and religion.

Stretching toward the light

Stretching toward the light

My two companions being British, I wanted to make sure that they saw the British Cemetery and War Memorial. I’d already been to these places, but I was anxious to see their reactions. Just as my tour companions last year were somewhat gentle with me as we entered the American Cemetery, I lingered behind Jonathan and Dani as they meandered through the rows of headstones. Again, a sobering experience for all.

NOS A GULIELMO VICTI VICTORIS PATRIAM LIBERAVIMUS: We who were once conquered by William have now liberated the Conquerer's homeland.

               “We who were once conquered by William have now liberated the Conquerer’s homeland”                                     One thing I didn’t notice on my last trip to Bayeux: this phrase at the British Memorial. I’m highly impressed by the Brits’ ability to lightly insult medieval France in Latin.

 

On Saturday, Dani and I met up with my friend V-A and his buddy Alex to check out some of their favorite spots in town. After some offroading in the guys’ massive firetruck of a car, we were able to step out onto a very Lion King-esque rock and see the fields below.

Getting a better view from the top of VA's truck with Dani

Getting a better view with Dani

VA took this one.

Looking out over miles of farmland. Not a bad view. Thanks to VA for these two photos!

I’ve been having unholy amounts of fun with everyone here; while I wasn’t initially too keen to have a break after having just arrived, I’ve been happy to have lots of time to forge relationships and do exciting things this week. Life is good; vacation is great; and France is wonderful.

Belle of Belfast City

wonderfully sketch.

Please excuse my delay in posting this; the past two days have been a mixture of equal parts unpacking at one home after a long vacation, and packing to go to another home after an even longer vacation.
See? That sentence was completely convoluted, but I don’t even feel like changing it. So, there.

Anyway, Marcus and I spent the last leg of our trip in Dublin, Ireland, and I felt quite at home there. Much less touristy than the other places we visited, Dublin is wonderfully rough around the edges. It still holds all of the history of a typical European city, but it also somewhat Americanized and isn’t quite so chic as certain other cities. I loved it.

We spent one morning taking a really neat historical walking tour of the city, in which we discussed the creation of early Ireland all the way up to the beginning of The Troubles. It was a good refresher of what I’ve learned in the past, but I would have loved to learn a bit more about the Unionist/Nationalist struggle from someone who actually lived through it. Alas, it was not to be, but I still really enjoyed walking all over the city center and having its major government and education buildings as the backdrop of our tour.

An example of modern Dublin’s issues. Preach.

Just 20 minutes outside of the city, the cliffs of Howth peer over the Irish Sea, and that’s where Marcus and I went that afternoon. The peninsula of cliffs is easy enough to walk alone, so we strolled through the hills at our own pace and took in the beautiful views. I sat in complete silence for quite some time, just marveling at nature. I’d never seen such quiet, humble beauty. It rained most of the time, but by the end of our day, the clouds parted and a true Irish rainbow appeared. I was all for running after it and finding a leprechaun, but we decided to leave it be and head back to town.

being a wee one.


Magical.


nature, people. nature.

at the end of the line.


Splashing in the cold Irish Sea!

The next morning, the rain was coming down in sheets and no umbrella could keep us dry as we scurried to the National Leprechaun Museum to (hopefully) catch a glimpse of the pot of gold from the day before. Unfortunately, we weren’t very successful, but we heard some fun stories and learned a lot about how the Irish have continued the legends of the wee folk into the present day.

That afternoon, we headed toward the business district of town to learn all about the porter production process (unintentional alliteration) at the Guinness Storehouse. What an experience! The original Guinness factory now includes a museum that shows all the steps of how the beer is made, as well as the story of how Arthur Guinness began such a company. It was fun to see, and even more fun to drink. We learned how to pour “The Perfect Pint” , which I will be happy to teach you for a small fee of five euro, and saw an amazing view of the city from the panoramic bar at the very top of the Guinness tower. We ended our journey on a literal high note! (sorry, couldn’t resist)

My perfect pint! I’m a pro.

Marcus and I parted ways at the Dublin Airport, and I made my way back to Tours for the last time.
I’ve spent the last two days in a bit of a trance, trying to soak up as much of my host family and France before I leave as I can. Yesterday, we rode our bikes to Château Villandry and made a last little cultural tour of the area. We’ve eaten all my favorite meals this weekend, from crêpes to l’eau de menthe. My host family even gave a goodbye present-a French cookbook for students. At this point, I haven’t fully processed anything yet and I don’t quite know what to say. I’m sure it’ll hit me tomorrow morning at 5:27, when I hop on the train to Paris.
For now, I must keep packing and keep moving. I’m excited to return home, but I’m also hesitant to be leaving Tours already. We’ll see how tomorrow goes.

Normandy [Day 1]

I’ve just returned from my three-day trip to Normandy, and I have so much to write about. This post will be the first of multiple (most likely 3) parts. Seatbelts everyone: we’re about to dive into some major history nerd territory.

First, a little background:
I consider myself to be a lover of stories and ancient peoples, but I wouldn’t call myself a history buff. I prefer personal memoirs and sociology to textbooks and battle plans . So, the majority of my World War II knowledge is focused on the Holocaust and the daily life of civilians during wartime. Both of my grandfathers served in the Pacific theatre, but neither has ever been too keen to discuss their time overseas, and I suppose I’ve never pushed them to do so.
All that changed when I learned last Fall that my great-uncle was one of the 156,000 men who landed on the Norman coast on June 6, 1944 to liberate France from the Nazi occupation. I couldn’t believe that no one in my family had ever bothered to tell me such an important story about one of the most famous days in modern history. Now, with a personal link to D-Day, I became much more interested in the events that took place on that fateful day, and decided to plan a trip to the north of France.

I booked a hotel in Bayeux, the first town that was liberated by the Allies after D-Day and a culturally rich area in its own right. It was a great place to be; I spent my first day exploring the tiny village’s ancient sites.
Most of the surrounding area was pretty much destroyed and rebuilt after the war. How strange to think of European villages without Roman ruins, Gothic cathedrals, and Renaissance plazas! Bayeux, though, was hardly touched by the multiple bombings, so the main cathedral and several other buildings are still standing. Lucky me!

I went to the Notre Dame cathedral to start my sightseeing. What a beautiful place. Even though it was freezing cold, windy, and cloudy outside (it hailed later that afternoon!), the inside was flooded with light. The architects in 1077 definitely understood Normandy weather and took advantage of what little natural light was available! Yes, you read that date correctly; the church was built in 1077 over an ancient Roman sanctuary, and prominently features both Roman and Gothic styles in different sections of the building. It will never cease to amaze me how ancient people were able to calculate how to erect such monuments without computers or even a reliable ruler.

The view from my hotel. Not too shabby.


Loved the rainbow effect from the stained glass windows.


Light from the top windows of the cathedral.


Colorful ice cream stand outside the cathedral!

I walked next door to see the Bayeux Tapestry, a massive embroidered wall hanging that also dates back to the 1070s. The Tapestry is basically a 230-foot long comic strip that tells the story of how William the Conquerer won the Battle of Hastings. It’s kept behind glass in a darkened room, and visitors can walk along it while listening to an audio recording that describes the action in each panel. I selected the French recording, and I’m proud to say I understood nearly all of it!

Just outside of the museum, I hopped on a little tourist train that rode through Bayeux and showed lots of neat monuments. I generally prefer to walk on my own to familiarize myself with a new place, but it was raining and windy, so I was willing to part with two euros for a mini tour. It really did give a good overview of the town, but that’s not hard to do, seeing as there are only 16,000 people and most of those seem to be Anglophone tourists. Honestly, I’ve seen more baseball caps and Northface windbreakers in the past three days than I’ve seen in the past four months-Normandy is still definitely a tourist destination even in the offseason.

The limited view from my little train car. I was so glad there were plastic screens to block the wind, even though they prevented me from taking pictures.


At the suggestion of the hotel concierge, I went to dinner at Pate à Pat, a cozy (read: tiny) galetterie right beside the cathedral. I nommed on a a salad and a galette complete-mushroom, ham, cheese, and egg wrapped in a buckwheat crêpe. Of course, I had to have dessert, too, which was a café gourmand with two tiny caramel crêpes, teurgoule (a sort of rice pudding) and a brownie with crème anglaise. Delish. My dinner came with a show in the form of a group of Englishmen beside me, whose laughs got louder and louder as they emptied their steins. I love eating alone and just listening to other diner’s conversations; it makes for great entertainment.

My classic galette, or savory crêpe.


Mini desserts and espresso rounded out the meal.


As the sun set, spotlights turned on, and the cathedral was bathed in a warm glow.


I left the restaurant in search of breakfast for the next day and passed by a small group of obvious tourists on the sidewalk. At that moment, I heard one of the women say the three most beautiful words in the English language: “bless his heart“.
Needless to day, I. Had. A. Moment.
I couldn’t help but stop her and ask where she and the rest of the group were from. The lady replied that they were all recent retirees from Texas, and I got a little teary as I explained that I hadn’t heard a southern accent in several months and it warmed my heart to hear one now. I got way too dramatic over such a silly thing but it was just really nice to hear a bit of home! The whole group asked me all about my experiences abroad, and we just stood there on the street for a few minutes talking. The lady even gave me a real hug-another thing I haven’t experienced in months. You never realize the things you miss until they suddenly pop up out of nowhere. It made my day.

I headed back to my hotel to hit the hay-I had a big day planned for Tuesday! Check back tomorrow to read about my tour of the D-Day beaches.