Coastal Touring

One of the coolest things about traveling is the rare experience of meeting people who are both wonderfully proud of their region and interested in welcoming outsiders. These odd breeds act as the best sort of travel guides for people like me, and I’ve had the luck of meeting quite a few here in Normandy.

A few weeks ago, one of my favorite such tour guides invited several members of the crew to spend the weekend at his parents’ cabin in Portbail. Rather than drive directly to the village just 45 minutes away, he took us on a six-hour road trip hugging the coast of Northwestern France. 

Tucked into one of those go-carts that the French have the gall to call “cars”, we puttered to Cherbourg for a midmorning coffee, then continued on, singing along to 70’s funk and unfolding ourselves out of the car every few kilometers to line up on a different beach and stare off into the distance. 

A fellow traveler

A fellow traveler

I collected shells beside the tiniest port in Europe and stood at a safe distance from cliffs with names like “The End of The World” and “The Nose of Jobourg” (no word on who Jobourg was or whether his schnoz really was the size of a small peninsula). My tour guides force-fed me steamed mussels after they were collected steps away from us on the Omonville beach (not really worth breaking my vegetarian lifestyle for it, but an interesting cultural experience, nonetheless) and we washed them down with peach liquor.

The Portbail sunset.

The Portbail sunset.

By the time we finally reached our destination, we had just enough time to go on one of the bigger grocery-shopping trips of my life and start cooking before the sun went down. Half a dozen of us sat outside and passed around guitars while the more culinary-inclined barbecued up a feast. We noshed and sang for hours upon hours. Around 5 in the morning, as the sky lightened and everyone else was still jamming along to French classics of the 1960s, I finally waved my white flag and crawled into the cabin loft for a few hours of rest before we started it all again the next day.

Across the magical frontier of lower Normandy, where all the inhabitants seem to be on permanent vacation time, I had a ball. It’s wonderful to have friends who have taken it upon themselves to show me their wonderful country. They are proud of where they come from and happy to show it off, and I’m tickled to be able to see this world through their expert eyes.

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There’s No Place Like It

Sometimes, going back home is harder than just staying where you are.

(For that matter, simply going anywhere can be difficult for this homebody. As much as I love traveling, I really hate getting out of bed.)

Besides the physical act of taking three trains and two planes about thirty hours to reach my hometown, visiting family is tough. Not because my mother and I don’t get along or because I have a bum for a dad, but because of the exact opposite. My parents are fantastic, loving, and always there for me. So why do homecomings sort of suck?

In between the cheerful family dinners and reunions with old friends, I go home and I cry. My parents make me cry. It’s not because they do their best to upset me, but because they ask the serious questions and push the buttons that no one else knows exist. An innocent conversation about the future suddenly produces uncontrollable waves of tears and BAM I’m crying in the middle of a Cracker Barrel, blubbering out incoherent fears and the particulars of a mid-life crisis at the ripe old age of 23.

In a WASP-y family where everyone is surprisingly stoic the majority of the time, I gasp out my worst nightmares until I feel cleansed of the emotions that have lain dormant since my last visit home. During those short weeks we have together, I ritualistically lay down all my troubles in front of my mom and dad, and they see the part of me that no one else is allowed to see. The worst. The ugliest. The rudest and most hateful. It’s not fair to any of us, but that’s the way family is. Family doesn’t necessarily bring the worst out in us, but, in the comfort of our own homes, we are convinced to let down our last defenses. The basic social graces that keep us from bursting into emotional flame in public fall away, and we become our simplest, most childlike selves.

Why do we act the cruelest to the people we love the most?

I guess it’s because they’ve known us the longest. If you’re as lucky as I am, your parents have seen you through thousands of diaper changes, puberty, broken hearts, and much more. They’ve seen everything, so we allow them to continue to see it all without fear of judgement or rejection. I won’t comment on whether this is a healthy or kind way to act, but merely state that it seems to be the case for me.

Still, one thing that’s worse than going home is having to leave again.

The Best (and Worst!) Days of Foreign Language Learning

Every study abroader and expat knows the struggle: You work for years in school studying the language. You get to your “host” country and no one understands a word you’re saying. You study harder. You watch films and practice your new gestures in front of the mirror. You fail at a lot of conversations. You occasionally resort to miming. If you live in a larger city, people try to speak English to help you out. (pro tip: just keep responding in your language of choice until they get the hint.)

Then, the big day comes.

The day when you step on the bus, walk up to that shop counter, or encounter someone on the street, and they understand you. They’ll start out by asking where you’re from, or commenting on your “cute” accent, but then, one day, they’ll stop that, too. You can finally have a conversation with a stranger without mentioning your visa status.

Sweet, sweet victory.

For me, that day was when I asked for my usual Wednesday afternoon crêpe from the Touraine street vendor back in March of 2012, and he didn’t have to ask me to repeat my order. I still remember so many little moments in Tours like that one; fantastic encounters that lifted my spirits and made all of the exhausting work while studying abroad worth it.

That’s why we-the study abroad kids and the expats and the rest of this crazy group of world citizens-do it. We work and study and translate for hours on end and spend months not understanding the dinner table conversation for that one day when we can finally have a basic conversation with a stranger in a foreign language.

 

 

And then there’s that day when the jerk at the post office tells you your French sucks.

 

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.

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.

30 Days of Happiness: A Happy Gift for You!

Last night, I decided that simply telling you “thank you” for reading Kaycee En Route was nice, but not nice enough. You’re all wonderful people and I’m very grateful, so to thank you all for your support of my baby blog, I’ve decided to give you a present. Yes, a tangible object delivered to your door. How exciting!

Here’s how the present goes:

I wanted to make this contest as fair as possible for all of you to win, so I’ve entered each and every one of your email addresses (by hand, because I love you and I didn’t know how else to do it) into a random generator. Each address basically counts as one “entry” into my giveaway. Next, because I believe in the power of ambition, I’m going to give you the opportunity to comment below and earn yourself a second entry into the hat.

I’ll draw a name tonight, email the winner to find out his or her mailing address, and then send the prize!

I’m off to the train station to meander around Paris for a few days, so I’ll be sure to pick you up something très chic!

Bonnes vacances et à bientôt!

30 Days of Happiness: Week 1!

Thanks so much for your input on the 30 Days of Happiness plan I proposed last week! Several of you seemed keen on reading about this gratitude challenge, so I’ve been taking daily notes and reflecting on the most meaningful parts of each happy moment all week long.

Without further ado, here’s a quick list of some of the things that made me smile in the past week:

Sunday, February 23: first time visiting the public pool with Virginie and Cristy. For a few euros, we had the distinct pleasure of trying out the lane pool, the kiddie slide, and even a delicious sauna and steam room for a couple hours. More importantly, we got to count how many males were wearing smaller bikini bottoms than me.

Monday, February 24: Cristy and I went on a walk along the river, and for the first time since forever, I was able to shrug off my jacket and enjoy the beautiful weather sans manteau! Spring is fighting hard to reach Normandy.

Wednesday, February 26: In an improvisation exercise with my secondes, I reached a personal goal of making the students think their English teacher might actually be insane. Teaching is great; classrooms make the perfect captive audience for this theatre-loving lady.

Friday, February 28: Last school day before the two-week winter break! One of the English teachers and I have become such brain twins that we are able to conduct an entire class, complete with songs, jokes, and choreography, without any preparation at all. Basically, we just goof off and the students respond with blank stares.

Monday, March 3: I ate the most delicious pain au chocolat aux amandes (chocolate croissant with roasted almonds) while walking in town this afternoon. There’s nothing like running errands with powdered sugar down your shirt.

 

Thanks again for your comments on this idea. Taking a few moments every night to scribble down the day’s highlights has made me immediately aware of my own tendency to dwell on the negative and my need to think positive! Feel free to take the 30 Day challenge with me, and tell me about your own happy moments in the comments!