Thursday, March 25, 2010

Flavor Flav

I know I already wrote about food, but Julia Child did a whole book on food, and for good reason. So, another post on the topic wouldn't get old. A lot of my fellow American students here complain that French cuisine isn't what they thought it would be. They commonly express their surprise at how bland it is. I must say I disagree with this. I do not find the food bland at all! I would completely say the opposite: French food is full of flavor. I think in the States we are used to a lot of BAM! We eat a lot of processed, concentrated foods. Just because something is flavorful, doesn't mean it's good. Take Doritos for example, which are full of flavor that jumps all over your tastebuds. This doesn't mean it's quality. (Not going to lie, I love Doritos). I would say that the French cook with more spices than the average American. They don't make "spicy" food though. I do miss that. A piece of meat isn't bland just because it's cooked without a marinade and Mrs. Dash. Taste the meat! I think that French people concern themselves more over the quality of meat than we do in the States. You go to the grocery and you see the WHOLE chicken, beak and feet tucked into it. It's not chopped into little pieces and saran-wrapped. You see rabbits in their God-given form splayed out on their backs in the deli display. They still have their eyes so they even stare at you. When you order shrimp, the whole shrimpie comes, eyeballs, whiskers and all! Seeing the whole animal makes you pay more attention to which chicken you buy and the overall quality.
I've always had home-cookin', and not the kind of cookin' that involves Campbell's condensed soup and crispay onions. I wasn't raised on Velveeta and sody-pop (Thanks Ma and Pa). I do have my fav flavs at home though that are completely disgusting, like easy mac, hot dogs, mexican food (the cheap kind), loaded baked potatoes, so I get how flavor overload makes certain "simpler" dishes less sensational. But to call French food bland is just blasphemous. Ya gotta savor the flavor.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

French Fashion

France- the land of top name designers and haute couture.

People do dress here. At home, it’s a good day if I’m not wearing stretchy black pants and a hoodie.

I always dress here. Even just for dinner with the family. I do only go so far as to wear jeans, but I always wear blouses, cute sweaters, and flats instead of Ugg boots or flip-flops.

I may put on actual clothes here, but I don’t fit in. French women (with the exception of Caroline) only dress in black. Not even brown. Just black. Gray if they’re feeling feisty.

French women wear boots. They love boots. Any type of boot: leather, suede, ankle bootie, Julia Roberts “Pretty Woman” thigh high, plain boots, studded boots. They wear all types of boots, but typically with a heel. They currently sport a boot that I refer to as a “demi-cowboy boot”. It is a slouched, western style boot that comes just above the ankle. I really like ‘em and need to get a pair. The boots come in the basic shades of gray, black, tan, and browns. Yes, they do wear brown boots with their black outfits. It looks cute.

French girlies don’t have a tendency to go bare-legged. Even though the weather has just warmed up enough to do so, I don’t think they will because I get the sense that shorts and skirts without tights is a bit to caj. Yes, I did say shorts. The girlies here wear black tights all the time and with everything. The tights look darling with the boots, but then you realize they are wearing shorts. That’s a little odd. I love black tights with a skirt and the boots. I’ll leave the tights with shorts for the French women.

Also part of the French uniform for both men and women is the scarf. Everyone wears one for any pursuit outside of the house. If a French woman were to try and add some color to her wardrobe, this would be the only acceptable way to do so. That or jewelry.

I exaggerate when I say French women don’t wear any color. There is this wool coat that many women wear here, but it is this truly revolting Dr. Seuss inspired thing. The French have just repressed themselves by wearing black for so long that many are reacting in this ridiculous manner. If you all of a sudden gave an Amish child the opportunity to wear any color she wanted, it would result in this whimsical scribbly thing. The back of the coat really does have embroidered scribbles on it. The designer patchworked some fabric scraps together for the front and then didn’t bother to root all the way through the button box for matching buttons. I don’t know who designs it, but I’m pretty sure that designer also works on costuming in Tim Burton movies. Many women of all ages wear this coat. I just want to yell one of them - any one of them, “Girl, you look a mess!”

To top it all off, many lady frenchies wear a knitted hobo hat.

One thing that has surprised me about French fashion is how jerzed out it is. A lot of the girls here could walk the streets of the Garden State without anyone noticing anything different about them. The 2 things that make France jersey-like are: Longchamp bags and sectioning clips. Longchamp bags ARE French. It started out as a leather company in France. BUT pretty much every Jersey-girl who walks around PSU campus carries one, which is why I make the association. I like them though and probs will buy one. Longchamps are practical. They are made out of durable vinyl and they both zip shut and have a small flap closure. Très important in this land of petty theft.

The sectioning clips however are just straight up tacky jerz. For anyone who doesn’t know what I’m talking about, a sectioning clip is what you use to separate pieces of your hair when you are styling/blow drying it. Sally Hansen is the most popular brand, I believe. Maybe Vidal Sassoon. They are not intended to be worn as fashion clips and to do so is tacky and pins you as being from the Tri-State area. A good example of a woman who wears the sectioning clip is Snooki from the MTV show Jersey Shore. It’s the perfect accessory to her poof. Many lady frenchies rock the sectioning clip. While carrying a Longchamp. It’s like I never left Penn State.

We may jokingly refer to New Jersey as the Dirty Jerz, but I do believe people shower there. I’ve noticed a dip in my personal hygiene and grooming habits here. I do brush my teeth and wash my face, but I let my hair go a little bit. At home, I wash my hair every other day to avoid drying it out. Third day hair is unacceptable. The girls here have perpetual third day hair. I’ve been slipping a bit into the third day hair habit. Ok here, gross at home. It’s just harder to shower here in general. It’s not a hop in-hop out sort of set up. I have to hold the shower head; it’s not attached to the wall. There is no shower curtain so I have to clean up after my shower. It’s quite the ordeal, but c’est pas grave.

Another thing that I find gross that people do here is roll their own cigarettes. I only know one person who does this at home. It’s a common site here: People on the tram with their bag of tabacky rolling up a cig on their knee. This makes it hard to differentiate between a cig and a lil spliffy. I may not be a cannabis connoisseur, but sometimes I catch a whiff of something as someone passes me by that makes me think “hmmmm…” It may seem odd that I’d include cigarette trends in a fashion entry, but cigarettes are of course, the most common way to accessorize an outfit.

Men here don’t dress like men at home. Well, not like straight men anyways. The men here are well-coiffed and cologned. They have awful BO, but the cologne they try to mask it with is more varied than Axe and Abercrombie Fierce. They sort of spike their hair, and some of them even have short bangs along with the spike. Men wear scarves and carry satchels here without anyone thinking anything of them. The most popular brands for the boys here are DeeLuxe and G Star Raw. Obviously this makes it a little more difficult to determine which side their bread is buttered.

There is another population of frenchies that are hippie like. Lots of dreads and loose linen pants. Also popular are facial piercings. The stud in the center of the bottom lip is common, but so are nose piercings and eyebrow piercings. I don’t really like either.

French women can really pull themselves together. They are usually well-made up. They can also pull things off that would just look off on me, like fluffy scarves and very pointy boots.

Fashion here makes people watching even more fun.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Barcelona/The Apocalypse

I now understand why the French drink wine. Red wine helps lower your blood pressure. This is truly necessary in France. I am entirely sure that after this trip, I will be a raging alcoholic.

I’m not trying to be melodramatic. I apologize for the fact that I must come off this way. I must remind you that I still enjoy being in France and that I plan to return in the future.\ What happened two weekends ago was nothing short of miserable. I can’t imagine things going worse. Well, I can, but this image involves theft, violent crime, bodily harm, illness, or death.

The trip started with a bad omen. I went to the train station to buy my ticket to Barcelona. I approached the ticket booth and smiled as I said “Bonjour!” I started right into “I need a ticket…” (in French, of course.) The woman at the booth, Rachida, put her hand up and stopped me. She said curtly “We start by saying hello.” “But I did say hello,” I stammered, taken aback. She mumbled something in French. I took a deep breath and started again. “I need a ticket blah blah blah.”

Then, the price of the ticket she was selling me was 10 euros more expensive than the price I saw online. I asked if there was another ticket, but she brushed me off saying that was the only ticket.

She also forced me to show her my 12-25 card, which is my train price reduction card. This was after I had already purchased the ticket. The train conductors enforce the validity of these cards. If I lied about having a 12-25 card and the conductor asked me to produce it when he came around to check my ticket, I’d have to pay a fine. But as for buying a ticket, you just have to say that you have one. It’s not part of the ticket sellers’ deal to see the card. I’m sure Rachida was within her rights to ask me to see the card, but since it’s usually not done, I found her asking me to be a condescending gesture.

So, I took the ticket and before I left I said, “I DID say hello in the beginning.” Normally, I would let something like that go, but I am sick of people being rude. I don’t deserve to be talked down to and scolded when I am being polite.

Rachida replied, “I didn’t understand you.” Not, “I didn’t hear you,” but “I didn’t understand you.” My French accent may not be fine-tuned, but I can sure as hell communicate “Bonjour.”

This woman just acted in such a condescending manner. First of all, if I were her and the other person hadn’t said hello (which I did), I would never DARE be so impolite as to scold that person. That action itself is rude. Then to say, “I didn’t understand.” IGNORANT SOURPUSS.

Anyways, the train ride to Barcelona was beautiful. We passed through the countryside and then right alongside the little towns that line the Mediterranean. The day was gorgeous as well. Mid-fifties, clear skies, lots of sun.

After spending the night in a hostel with incredibly helpful reception, I met up with the ‘rents and the bro at their hotel, which also had incredibly helpful reception. We didn’t do too much on Saturday as the fam recovered from jet lag. We did eat some great food. My mom unknowingly ate paella colored black by squid ink. (Oh! So that’s why it’s black!)

While they took a nap, I took a walk around Plaça Tetuan and down to the building Torre Agbar in the Plaça de les Glòries Catalanes, which I refer to as the “odd-shaped building.” I found out later that Jean Nouvel designed it. Leave it to a Frenchman to design something like THAT. It’s a full on Monet It's like the paintings, see? From far away, it's OK, but up close, it's a big old mess. That’s not quite true, it just looks so much cooler from far away.

That night, we had a lovely dinner of tapas; mostly seafood, but also fried hot peppers, Spanish tortilla (basically a potato omelette), and crème brûlée.

The next day, rested and recovered, we had a full day or tourism in Barça. Andy headed off to rent a bike. The ‘rents and I went to the Sagrada Familia. The cathedral is like nothing I’ve ever seen before. It’s kind of surreal being inside the church. I saw the outside last summer, but experiencing the inside is crazy. At first the building looked totally bizarre to me, but then realizing the inspiration from nature and the way the Gaudi controlled the light in the building really made it come to life. I hope they can finish it in my lifetime. Any excuse is a good excuse to come to Barcelona!

After being Gaudi-ed out, I went for a walk by myself and my parents rode the tour bus. I saw the Palau de la Musica Catalana. The opera house has mosaic columns that have flower patterns on them. The patterns make the city so vibrant. That’s what I love about Barcelona. From the sea to the green in the parks, and the crazy architecture, everything is so colorful!

After that, I stumbled across the Parc de la Ciutadella, which was really a great find. It had the coolest and biggest fountain I’ve ever seen that depicted Aphrodite’s birth. I enjoyed walking around the massive park and watching all the cute dogs that were prancing about.

To end my day, I reunited with the family at a nice restaurant for some paella and wine.

Our time in Barcelona was well spent. Everyone saw a lot, but of course one weekend in Barcelona doesn’t cover everything. The only disappointments were not having more time and the weather being unseasonably cold (hint hint hint FORESHADOW). We left our hotel at 7:30 Monday morning to get to the train station and have a quick breakfast. Then we got on our train and headed off to Montpellier.

The train from that runs from Barcelona to Montpellier is the most run-down train I’ve ever been in. It’s one step up from a subway train. My friend Brittany put it best, “That train is one step away from being a bus in Mexico with chickens and goats running around.”

The train may not be the best, but I was looking forward to the view of the Mediterranean. Much to my dismay, it started snowing about a half hour into our trip. The snow got progressively worse as we rolled along. Snow. On the Mediterranean. In March. What. The. Hell. We get just past the border into France and stop in a little town called Cerbères. On the way to Barcelona, this town had looked so beautiful that I had written the name down as a place to come back to. This time, I looked out the window and saw the wind blowing snow around. We were sitting there and as the time crept by, I started getting more and more anxious. My family and I were seated in separate train cars, but my Dad came up to sit with me for a while at 1 o’clock (we had been at Cerbères since noon). I started griping to him that at that point we’d probably have made it to Montpellier at about 5 pm, 4 hours after we were scheduled to arrive. I was pissy because that’s a lot of time for them to lose on their trip.

It was at about that point that I wanted to know what was going on. We’d been in the same spot for over an hour and no announcement had been made. We were just sitting there. The train was a Renfe train, which means it was Spanish run. The “people in charge” (quotations are necessary) were wearing SNCF uniforms, which means they worked for the French line. I asked two men in SNCF uniforms, who had been walking around acting like they were in charge, what was happening. They said that we were stopped because of the snow and that we might try to make it to Perpignan, a bigger town, that night. I asked them when we would know if we could go to Perpignan. They didn’t know and got really frustrated that I was asking questions. It is my opinion that as a passenger, I have a right to know what is going on. Maybe not everything, but at least something. I think an announcement should have been made as to why we were stopped. I don’t think I should have had to ask those men what was happening and I certainly don’t feel that it is ok for them to be so testy with me when I wasn’t interrupting them. They were just sitting there and I asked what was going on.

At about 4 o’clock, the police came on board and handed out blankets. They said that they didn’t know when we’d be able to leave, so we had to prepare to spend the night. I couldn’t take it anymore. I’m not exactly known for my ability to stay calm, cool, and collected. I had reached my limit and I started crying. My Dad was with me and I started swearing up a storm about how I couldn’t take anymore of this Goddamn French bullshit (Pardon my French). To steal a line from a Christmas Story I “…wove a tapestry of obscenities that, as far as we know, still hangs in space over the Mediterranean.” What set me off crying was the fact that no one knew what was going on, least of all the “people in charge”. I tried to ask if anyone knew anything, but I was treated as a nuisance for asking. They looked at me like I was nuts for expecting them to have any sort of information regarding when we would be able to leave. They kept saying, “No one knows… No one knows!” The one guy repeated what he said to me in English because he thought I wasn’t getting what he was saying. I understood what he was saying, but the situation was too fucked up for me to believe. Why doesn’t anyone know what’s going on???!!!

That is what set me off crying, but the real reason I was crying was because my family was there. If they hadn’t been there, I would have been pissed and my nails still would have been bitten to pieces from the stress, but I wouldn’t have cried. Of course it’s not them who made me cry. I was crying because they only have one week in Europe and a day is a lot to lose. This is their first time in Europe and I want to make everything great. I know there was nothing I could have done about the situation, but still I felt responsible for the mess.

Pulling myself together, I read an entire book. It was getting really uncomfortable on the train. They moved everyone into the first 4 cars of the train to save heat, so we were smooshed in together. I am entirely sure that the toilets on the train just empty onto the tracks. I am also entirely sure that’s how disease is spread. Anyway, the toilets became full, so to speak. In order to go to the bathroom, we had to walk across the train tracks into the train station, which had no power and was under construction.

We couldn’t move anywhere. When no public announcement is made as to what is going on, rumors spread. There were rumors that the train was going back to Spain. Those were false. We were stuck. We couldn’t go back to Spain, we couldn’t move forward anymore into France. The town of Cerbères had a power outage. (Our train luckily still had power). The highways were closed down. There is a hotel in Cerbères, but it didn’t have power and it was too small for all of us. Since there was a power outage, the payphones didn’t work. There was no cell phone service. I swear to God it was the apocalypse. It might sound melodramatic to call a snowstorm the apocalypse, but the way it was dealt with certainly made it feel that way. And by dealt with, I mean the people in charge sitting around not knowing what to do.

Here is my deal. If they saw how bad the weather was, why did we end up at a point where we couldn’t move anymore. Why did they take us to the point of no return? If they saw how bad the weather was, we should have stopped in Spain and not in a podunk middle of nowhere town. Poor judgment. Cerbères in mythology was the dog that guarded the gates of hell. Well Cerbères, you didn’t do your job. We got past you and into hell.

We spent the night on the train. It was completely uncomfortable. There was a Spanish mother and daughter who moved to my train car next to me. The daughter was completely nuts and the mother just commented on how her daughter was crazy. The mother was pretty funny too though. She kept mumbling about how ridiculous it was that we were in this situation. This perky Spanish girl behind me told her to have patience and the mother responded “We aren’t like you, we can’t have patience for this.” I’m right there with you mama! The daughter, Pamela, provided some much needed comic relief though. When the police car came to deliver food and water, Pamela was really forward with the officer. She asked him “If the highways are blocked, how’d you get here?” He didn’t answer. She then persisted “When you leave, take me with you.” He asked her, “What about all these people here?” She replied, “Leave them.” Everyone in our train car laughed. Pamela wasn’t joking and I applaud her. After this police officer left our car and another one came in, Pamela approached him and pretended she was having a heart attack. She started panting and saying telling the officer that she needed to get to town immediately. The officer didn’t believe her for a minute. It didn’t help that Andy, Pamela’s mother, and I were laughing as we watched this unfold.

It is curious though. They told us the highways were blocked, but a news crew showed up and our train was on national TV…

After a dinner of ham, cheese, bread, and a can of tuna, we settled down for the night. It isn’t easy to sleep on a train. I curled up in a ball on the floor between the rows of seats. It was a fitful sleep to say the least.

I thought for sure they’d have something figured out by morning. Not quite. God, I hate feeling helpless. I understand that it rarely snows in the South of France. The last time Montpellier had a snowstorm before that weekend was 1991. The last time that there has been a snowstorm this late in the winter happened 33 years ago. I get that this is rare and people have a hard time dealing with it. BUT… It snows in other parts of France. A lot actually. 2 weeks ago there a massive snow storm occurred in the North of France. They have snow removal equipment in this country and people that know how to use it. It shouldn’t take 24 GODFORSAKEN hours to get it to us either. It’s not like it snowed in San Antonio and they’re trying to get snow blowers from Minneapolis. France isn’t even as big as Texas! (It is over 8,000 square miles smaller). Good God, it’s not rocket science to move snow! Give me a shovel and maybe we’ll get somewhere!!!! It hadn’t even snowed all night. The snow let up pretty early in the night, so it wasn’t like they had made any progress that was buried under fresh snow.

My nerves were getting the best of me and I hysterically explained to one of the French police to give me a shovel so I could dig. Things were grim.

At 9 am, a police officer announced that a train should be coming by 10:30 am. At about 10 am I realized by the congregation of police officers that this wasn’t happening. My Dad and I went for a walk to the town of Cerbères at that point because we couldn’t take it anymore. I was very vocal and vulgar in expressing how I couldn’t take it anymore. My Dad was a little more reticent.

Even with the snow and the horrible experience, Cerbères is gorgeous. The beach is in a little cove and it just looks like the perfect summer place. The sea was choppy because of the storm, but it still impresses me because of that perfect shade of Mediterranean turquoise.

Our train ran out of gas because it had been running all night to keep the electricity on. Finally, Perpignan sent us a new train. It was nicer than the train that we had spent the night on. Go figure. There were not enough seats for everyone though. Luckily, Mom and I secured 4 seats for the fam, but most people stood like sardines. It looked like a NYC subway at rush hour. We sat on that train for a half hour before it left. A tense half hour. This train was not the express train so it stopped at every little town along the way. After being stuck in one place for 24 hours, the last thing anyone wanted was to make all these little stops. We reached Narbonne, a bigger town. Originally, the plan was for anyone headed to Montpellier to get off at that stop and catch another train to Montpellier. However, because of the number of people, they decided to just take us on that train to Montpellier. Well, I mean, A DUH, our train’s original terminus was in fact Montpellier. GOOD GOD! That was good news that we didn’t have to change trains, right? Kind of. We still had to wait a half hour before the train left Narbonne. Patience is a virtue. Patience is a virtue.

We made it to Montpellier! Praise Jesus! Hallelujah! I know it’s Lent and I’m not supposed to say that word, but these are extenuating circumstances. We rolled in to Montpellier about 5 o’clock. Our train was supposed to have arrived at 1:22 pm. The previous day.

Our dilemma was not yet finished. My parents rented an apartment for the week, and the guy renting it to us was going to meet us at the train station. We didn’t have a phone number, just an email address. After all we had been through, the consensus was that we just needed to find beds for the 3 of them to sleep in that night. We took a taxi to a hotel in the center of town. They didn’t have space, but the woman directed us to another hotel in the Ibis chain that was super close. We booked it there as fast as we could with all of the luggage.

At the next Ibis, I see the same prices listed. They list the price for a room and then a separate price for a supplementary 3rd person. I go to the front desk and ask the receptionist for a room for 3 people. She says they don’t have any rooms for 3 people. This was the absolute last straw. I started getting hysterical and I said between tears and hyperventilation, “You don’t understand, “ I started to explain. “We were on a train for 36 hours. I don’t care if one person has to sleep on the floor, we need a room for the night.” She said “I am sorry but I am not authorized to put 3 people in a room, it is not allowed.”

At this point, I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. We had just been through hell and I knew of nowhere else to take my parents. By the response that this receptionist gave me, I thought that there were no rooms available at all. I asked if we could have 2 rooms and she said, that was ok. I was still freaking out and my Dad took over because this girl spoke English. I was off in the corner yelling to no one in particular about how I stayed in a Hotel Ibis with 3 people to a room and how if you can’t put 3 people in a room, it shouldn’t be advertised “supplementary 3rd person.” This receptionist answered my ranting by explaining to my father that the supplementary 3rd person is only if one of the customers is handicapped and needs assistance, blah blah blah. Bullshit in my opinion.

During this time, my Mom had gotten a hold of the Frederic, the guy who we were renting the apartment from. He would meet us at the train station, so we peaced out of the hotel. Frederic ended up being super nice. He drove us to the apartment. He told us that the day before, he had been at the train station waiting for our train when it all of a sudden it disappeared from the timetable. He asked someone about it and the worker replied, “Are you sure that train exists?” That sure is how we felt on the train.

Finally, everyone was settled. I went back to my homestay, kicked off my cold, wet shoes, took a hot shower, put on some warm, clean clothes, and stretched out my back.

My homestay felt bad for me. They saw our train on the TV, but didn’t realize I was on it. Claude said the French call the border “a mess”. Well, it was.

I have Grammar on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. I explained to my Grammar teacher on Wednesday why I hadn’t been there on Tuesday. She replied “Oh you were on the famous train destined for Narbonne! I heard about you on the radio.” Yup, that was us.

Françoise, the program director, told me that on the news they were calling us “the people on the sunken ship”. Sure were!

On Wednesday, I felt ashamed of myself for the way I had treated that poor receptionist. Unfortunately, I encountered her at a point where I couldn’t take anymore. I really felt awful that I unleashed on her when she was being perfectly polite. I was on my way to go buy her flowers and apologize when I changed my mind. She does deserve an apology. There was no excuse for my behavior. I just can’t do it though because the way she dealt with everything was so backwards. She saw a problem, but no solution. My meltdown started because I took what she said to mean she had no rooms available at all, not that there just weren’t rooms for 3 people. If I were her, I would have said, “I’m sorry ma’am, I can’t offer you one room for 3 people, but I can offer you 2 rooms.” I still wouldn’t have been happy, but I wouldn’t have gone hysterical. I know that she didn’t cause my hysterics and that my actions are my responsibility. It’s just so annoying that no one can offer solutions. A mediocre solution is better than nothing.

All this forced me to think- not something I do very often. Why God, did you make it snow in the South of France in March? What is the point? You took a day and a half out of my parents’ long-awaited, much anticipated voyage. I’m here for 4 months, what does a day and a half matter to me? But for them… !I came to this conclusion: It might be fluffy and stereotypical sounding, but studying abroad makes you grow and mature as a person. I’ve made a lot of mistakes, some really expensive, that I’ve learned from. I’ve met and dealt with a lot of people, some were awesome, some were much less than awesome. I may think that I’ve already grown a lot and learned a lot, but my nervous breakdown and inability to deal with this situation calmly and maturely is God’s way of telling me “Honey, you’ve got a long way to go.” Luckily, I still have some time.

Thursday, March 4, 2010


Dublin did not start out well. (Spoiler alert: it ends well.) We flew to Dublin with Ryan Air, so that immediately started things badly. Upon arrival at about midnight, I go to retrieve my checked bag only to find it at baggage claim with the front pocket unzipped and my headphones dangling out. My iPod was missing. I racked my brain for any possible explanation, but my iPod is too small to push open the pocket itself, and anything that would have been big enough to push open the pocket, would have fallen out. Also, the headphones do detach from the iPod, but it takes a little force. Really, given the situation and appearance of my suitcase, the only explanation is that my iPod was stolen from my checked bag. Dealing with Ryan Air employees about this situation sure was pleasant and fun.

A little theft could not break my spirit. A good night’s sleep made me ready for Dublin. I loved being in London, but there is something a little generic about all really big cities. Of course there is so much history and things very specific to London, but there is also a big city feel to London. This brought a lot of excitement to it, but Dublin really has it’s own personality.

The first thing in Dublin that I saw was Trinity College. The college campus is beautiful with big gray stone buildings, but the attraction is the library and the Book of Kells. The Book of Kells is a decorated old print of the New Testament. The illustrations and calligraphy work have surprisingly retained their color after all these years. The library at Trinity College contains row after row and shelf after shelf of old leather bound books. Each row end has a statue of a famous writer/philosopher. The shelves of books go up really high because the ceiling is a huge wooden arch.

Being in Dublin, it is necessary to make a trip to the Guinness Storehouse. Where would I run into a lot of people I know? Not at Trinity College, not at St. Patrick’s Cathedral…. No… a beer factory. We ended up doing the tour with a group of girls from our program who were also in Dublin at the same time. I also ran into a girl, Rachel, who lived in my dorm last semester and is now studying in London. Really, I am not surprised. I did have a lot of fun at the Guinness Storehouse. You learn about how it is made and the history of Arthur Guinness. He was so confident in his beer that he took a 9,000-year lease out on the property. There are all sorts of quotes written all over the place glorifying Guinness. They are so serious, but they made me laugh. Especially the one written on the inside of a huge barrel that said “There’s poetry in a pint of Guinness.” At the end of the tour, you get a pint of Guinness at the Sky Bar. The Sky Bar overlooks Dublin 365 degrees. It had just stopped raining, so we had a nice view of a rainbow while we sipped our Guinness. I was really tempted to go and find the leprechaun.

The next day, we headed out early for the Wild Wicklow Tour. Monica and her friends who were randomly in the same hostel as us were also on the tour. The tour was hysterical and my favorite part of Dublin. Our tour guide, Steve, made sure we got the WILD Wicklow Tour. He gave us a quick tour of Dublin. He explained that the Liffey River divides Dublin in 2. The North Side is the bad side; the South Side is the posh side. (A lovely old gentleman had explained this to me on the bus ride from the airport. He told me to keep to myself on the North Side). The bus picked us up on the North Side. We passed the Millennium Spire which is a huge metal tower made in 2002. The Irish refer to it as the Stiletto in the Ghetto, and a few other names. Shortly after, we saw a James Joyce statue, the Prat in the Hat. Across the river by Trinity College, there is a statue of Molly Malone, the Tart with the Cart, the Dish with the Fish, the Dolly with the Trolley. Molly was supposedly celibate, but according to Steve, there are other rumors that she was celibate here there and all over town. By the looks of the statue, I would believe the other rumors. The sculptor sure had fun when he made her bust. The next Dublin icon up for teasing: Oscar Wilde. We passed a statue of him sitting on a rock. Therefore, he is the Fag on the Craig. These Irish are feisty and good at rhyming. On our way to our first stop, Steve made us sing some Irish pub songs.

Our first stop was Forty Foot, which is near a tower that Joyce spent some time in. It has a beautiful view of the Irish Sea. People go there everyday to swim. Steve was saying that the men swim in there naked. I thought he was joking until we went down there for a photo op. He wasn’t joking. Old naked men were all over the place. I had to laugh. It was my only defense. Steve said that on Christmas morning, 300 men run into the water wearing nothing but a Santa hat. Well well well…

On the way to Wickow, Steve went around and around a traffic circle until we guessed the correct password. (Potatoes). Whenever he did something crazy, his excuse was “This is the Wild Wicklow Tour.”

We drove all around Wicklow and saw beautiful scenery. All of the hills had snow on them. Wicklow was the backdrop for a lot of films such as Braveheart, PS I Love You, and Leap Year. Wicklow is beautiful, but wet. There are 275 rainy days a year in Wicklow. But, that can not drown the Irish spirits because as Steve said “In order to have rainbows, you have to live with the rain.”

We stopped by a clearing to see the highest waterfall in Ireland. The road that we were driving on was a country road so we saw lots of farms and especially sheep. It is a popular bike route as well. Steve had a bottle of Jameson up front with him and when we passed a few bikers and he pulled over to them, shot glass in hand and shouted “Would you like a Whiskey?” He also offered a farmer in a tractor a whiskey. When the farmer replied that he only drinks beer, Steve wondered aloud ”What is this? Has Ireland gone dry?”

The next stop was a view of Guinness Lake from on top of a huge hill. That’s when the Jameson was brought out and everyone did a shot. When in Ireland….

After a late lunch (for me beer and Irish potato and leek soup) we made it to the final destination of the day was a walking tour of Glendalough. We saw the lakes and St. Kevin’s Monastery. There is a tower there where if a girl runs around it 3 times, she’ll get married in a year. Of course I did it.

After the Wild Wicklow Tour, we relaxed a little in preparation for the pub-crawl that night. Before starting the pub-crawl, I met these guys in my hostel room who were already a few sheets to the wind (It was about 7 o’clock). The conversation went a little like this:

Guy: Do I need to apologize to you?

Me: No, why?

Guy: Were you here last night?

Me: No, I was in a different room.

Guy: Oh ok, could you tell me where those Asian girls went?

Me: Ummm…..

The guy’s name was Martin and his friend’s name was Neil. I found out later that Martin had gotten really drunk the night before and was stumbling around the room naked. He had tried to pee on these 2 Asian girls, who were yelling, “Help me! Help me!” Obviously, I had to invite them to the pub-crawl. I honestly didn’t think they would come. I figured they would have something… better to do. But they came! While we were waiting for the tour guide to get to the hostel, this tall blonde joined our group out of nowhere. It turns out the girl, Jo, and Martin have a daughter together. They were great fun. The pub-crawl consisted of me, Kate, Monica and her London friends, and our friend Whale who was also in Dublin for the weekend with her friends. This redheaded ‘murican, Nick, led the tour which was not legitimate at all. I think I have pieced together the story of Nick. He is from St. Louis and moved to LA after high school to “make it”. After 7 years, he went on a tour of Europe and never left Dublin. The tour was a blast just because of the people I was with. It was so fun to be with the people I go out with at Penn State. A good time was had by all.

I woke up the next morning and saw Martin curled in the fetal position at the end of his bed. Jo was whisper-yelling at him “Martin… Where’s Neil?” No one knew were Neil ended up that night. They tried to call him, but Martin and Jo ended up leaving a message on his cell saying that they had to go, but they were leaving his stuff at reception. I wished them a good trip and hungover Martin said “God… why are you so happy???” We never did find out what happened to Neil.

That Sunday was a beautiful sunny Sunday. After some souvenir shopping, Kate and I made it to St. Patrick’s Cathedral. We had a really early morning the next day to catch our flight, so we decided to just chill and go to the movies to see Leap Year. I do love Amy Adams, but the movie itself was cheesy. It was just really really cool to see the places that we had visited just the previous day!

The next day we returned to France. Our flight landed in Carcassonne, which is only 1 ½ hours away from Montpellier, but more problematic than you would think. It was announced that our first train was 20 min late, and then it was cancelled, so we had to wait for a long long time to catch a train home. Welcome back!!!


A week break from school. It was time to peace out of France for awhile. I am lovin’ France, but I had places to go and things to do. Headed to London/Dublin for some sight-seeing, English, fish and chips, and beer. The plans were set; the t-s crossed and i-s dotted. Yeah, that never actually happens in travelling. We had to take a train to Marseilles because that is where we were flying out of. It’s only an hour and a half away and trains come all the time. We got to the train station only to find out that because of (another) strike, our train was 1 ½ hours late. AN HOUR AND A HALF! Je ne get it pas. Because we arrived so much later than expected to Marseilles, we decided to take a taxi instead of the train station to airport coach just to make sure we could save as much time as possible. I blame France. The French train employees owe me some euros. A lot of euros.

We did end up making it to London that night, but we got there too late to do anything. It worked out though cause we got a good night’s sleep and were ready to tear up London the next day.

Everything in London is exciting. Part of it is just because it’s a big city, but it’s mostly because of the double decker buses, the accents, the history, and the voice on the Underground that says “Mind the Gap” 23 times a minute.

Our first day, we, like 500 other tourists, decided to see the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace. Luckily, we got there early, so we got the best view right in front of the gate. Sounds fun right? Yeah, not always. Tourists are pushy people. I was being shoved up against the gate from all directions. I could not move my arms. An Italian woman shoved her camera in front of my view of the guards. The Guard was fun to watch though. They have some great choreography and they stop every once in awhile while one of the Guards yells something. The Guard band played a wide selection of songs from ABBA to Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. I’m not kidding. This experience was accompanied by “Dancing Queen” and “You’re Just Too Good to be True”. We couldn’t make it through the whole experience though. A) We are now used to the warm Mediterranean weather and the frigid London Arctic was biting at my toes. B) The crowd pushing up against me became overwhelming. I was essentially being sodomized by the Frenchman behind me. (I’m 5’3”… It’s not THAT hard to see over me.) He was pushing against my backside which rammed my front side against the gate. Not the most fun I’ve ever had. I guess it’s just one of those things where you have to close your eyes and think of England.

After having seen the Changing of the Guard, we warmed up in the Queen’s Shop where there are an assortment of porcelain sets and tea. So pretty, so British.

Since we were in London, it was of course, raining. Our next indoor pursuit was Westminster Abbey. Having travelled a lot through Europe, I’ve seen a lot of Cathedrals and Churches. As much as you don’t want to, it gets easy to become jaded about seeing another Church. Westminster still blew my mind. The painted ceiling compares to nothing I’ve ever seen before. The sides of the Church are filled with tomb after decorated, sculpted, marble, gold-gilded tomb.

Chilling with the dead makes you hungry. Kate and I went to get fish and chips. Luckily, food in London doesn’t break the bank (just the belt buckle). A plate of fish & chips and mushy peas costs £5. Pubs run a little differently. Even eating at the restaurant part, you order and pay at the bar and they bring it to you.

After hanging around the typical sites of London, I wanted to see something different. I read on a list of off-beat things to do in London about a popular burlesque theater. The show was called “Ivy Paige’s Wonderland” and the characters were based off Alice and Wonderland (even though there was no Alice). The show centered on Ivy Paige, the redheaded hostess who played the Queen of Hearts. Ivy sang songs throughout the show and walked around the audience making jokes and trying to get people involved. A big group of people had come to the show to celebrate this Russian girl’s birthday. Marina, the Russian girl, informed Ivy that it was also the day to celebrate the Russian Army (Feb 23). Ivy then made her take a shot of vodka. Three other girlies assisted Ivy during the show: the Cheshire cat, the white rabbit, and the door mouse. Fun little way to spend the evening.

Starting out the 2nd day was a rainy tour of the Tower of London. Actually, I don’t think anyone has managed to have a dry tour of the tower of London. I only had a few things I wanted to see there: the beefeaters, the site of the executions, and the jewels. The Tower of London is huge though and it is fun to get lost in that maze. I cannot take anything seriously and had fun playing with the weapons that were on display to handle. The birds that the beefeaters handle are much cooler seen on TV, because they don’t actually handle the birds during the open hours (I guess). The birds were in their cages.

After the Beefeaters informed me that most of the executions took place outside of the Tower walls so that the public could view (pardon my ignorance) I was a little disappointed by the small memorial within the walls. What is most certainly not disappointing at the Tower of London, is the view of the Crown Jewels. You get to see all of the utensils used in crowning, and let me tell you, they left nothing out. There is a gold spoon, a wine fountain, trays, rings, all sorts of anything and everything gold. The best bling of course are the crowns and scepters. You view the jewels on a moving walkway that takes you down one side and then back around on the other. During high tourist season in the summer, both move in the same direction and you can only go once, but since it was February, we could go on more than once. Kate and I treated this like our own personal merry-go-round and ogled the jewels a few times.

After the Tower, we hit a magical sweet spot in the day where the clouds cleared and the sun was shining. Perfect time to do the London Eye. The view was of course spectacular. Merry-go-round to Ferris Wheel… London is just a carnival!

London is full of literary wonders and sites to see. Shakespeare’s Globe Theater, Dickens House Museum, Sherlock Holmes Home on Baker Street just to name a few. Well, our choice out of all of the famous literary sites in London was Platform 9 3/4 at King’s Cross Station. They really do have it marked and a cart half in the wall. I just had to fight off a group of Asian tourists to snap a quick pic.

Anyway, it was time for some shopping. My mother recommended Marks and Sparks underwear and since it is true that you can never have enough underwear, I stocked up. Afterwards, we headed to the shopping mecca, Harrods. Really, it’s hard to describe. You have to go to the website and look at the pictures. There are separate wings of the place for everything. The perfurmerie, this designer, that designer. It’s overload. They have a whole room full of tea and chocolate. Even the fish and meats counter is beautiful. I found the best part of Harrod’s to be the Diana and Dodi Memorial. You find it at the base of a staircase that is decorated with Egyptian statues and hieroglyphics. If you were to question my decision to visit a department store while thereis some much to do in London, please be aware that Harrod’s is an experience in itself.

That night, I went to visit my friend Monica who is studying for the semester in London. We had planned to go out on the town with all of her London friends, but ended up deciding that the evening would be better spent skyping our friends back home. Being able to meet up with friends from home in all sorts of different countries makes the world feel small, but in a homey way.

We didn’t have a full day the next day because we had to be moving along to Dublin. We met up with Liz, another friend of mine studying in London. Liz had actual work to do, but she met us for coffee and talked to us about much she loves being there. We only had time for one big adventure, so we went a little outside central London to Highgate Cemetery. Highgate could be the Dracula cemetery. The graves are covered in vines and moss and there are crosses and angels that creepily loom over the muddy pathways. Of course since it’s London, it was overcast and gloomy, a perfect setting. Highgate ended up being a really good way to spend the day because we got to pass a different side of London, a side that looked like a traditional London suburb. To get to the cemetery, you have to pass through Waterlow Park, a park that resembles the one where Pongo met Perdita in 101 Dalmatians.

My trip to London was a success. I saw everything I wanted to see including my friends who are studying there. My only regret is not having more time.