Sunday, May 9, 2010

Athens Part 1

Sarah Elizabeth, Dan, and I all took different flights to Athens because we all had different plans for the 2nd week of break, so we would not be returning from the same place. My flight left from Paris 1:05 pm Friday.

I had scheduled to leave Montpellier on the first train out to Paris at 5:39 am, so I booked it to the station early in the am only to find out that my train had been cancelled due to the grève (strike). I booked the earliest train on the event of exactly this situation, so I told myself that I shouldn’t stress, because I had allotted enough time. I was still stressed, but I still had to GET ON THE NEXT TRAIN and the crowd in the station kept growing and growing. The great majority of these people were also trying to get to Paris. I ran into my friend Elyse who was freaking out because she was trying to catch her flight in Marseille, and her train was cancelled. As soon as they announced the platform for my train, I bolted to it. Each train has a certain # of assigned seats and then in the room with the luggage racks, there is also an unassigned 2 seater padded bench. I chucked my suitcase onto the shelf and claimed my spot. Eventually, the whole luggage room was packed with people with unassigned seats (they had PAID for seats, mind you). This means all the seats in the train are full, and I’m sure every train car’s luggage room was as packed as mine. There were about 20 of us packed into the luggage room! I shared the bench with a disheveled hippie Frenchwoman, but we were the only ones with seats. About 5-6 people stood and the rest sat crammed on the ground, or since it was an upper level car, sat on the stairs. I was feeling lucky to be on the way to Paris and to sort of have a seat for the 3-½ journey, but honestly, I’ve had it with French trains!

I was crankers upon arrival to Charles de Gaulle, due to lack of sleep, an uncomfortable train ride, and having to rush. My mood instantly improved at the realization that I was flying a legitimate airline and at legit airport (not one that’s an hour out of town). No more Ryan Air, the Chinatown bus of the sky for me! Economy class: what an upgrade! They didn’t even charge me to check a bag! Ho ho! My lucky day! I had an assigned seat and didn’t have to scramble onto the plane! (Ryanair doesn’t have assigned seats. It’s a big free for all.)

I swear Olympic Airlines must have some strict try-outs for their flight attendants. The 3 on my plane looked like they just walked off the stage at the Miss Greek Isles pageant. Their ancestors must have been the inspiration for the Greek statues, or even the Trois Grâces in Montpellier.

Flying over the Alps, and then some islands off the cost of Italy, Mamma Mia songs ran through my head. I could care less if that’s cheesy!

As soon as I made it to Athens, I realized just how much I am getting from my education at Penn State. Because Penn State has such a prominent Greek community, I’ve picked up a lot on the Greek alphabet. I was reading the signs in Greek on my way to the hostel and checking them in the Latin alphabet that’s also posted on every sign. I may not know what the sign says, but I can say it! Thanks Penn State frats and sororites!

After checking into the hostel, I went out to explore Athens for a bit. After exploring a shop that creates custom sandals and has designed leather footwear for the likes of Jackie O, Sophia Loren, and Bob Saget (which of these is not like the others), I turn my first corner and run into Sarah Elizabeth and Dan.

Dinner that night was exciting because we realized we’d be eating LOTS of Greek food for the next week. I had eggplant stuffed with beef, tomatoes, mushroom, and lots of cheese. The lovely weather made sitting outside the obvious option, however the street vendors selling flowers and people playing the accordion swarmed us.

After a LONG day of travelling, we were lucky that our hostel had a rooftop terrace bar. Our hostel was also in prime location, really close to the Acropolis, so the views of everything lit up at night were awesome.

The next day was our socks and sandals, camera around the neck, touristy day in Athens. First stop: of course, the Acropolis. Our walk to the entrance was a cobblestone pedestrian promenade lined with cafés and restaurants. A friendly, collar wearing dog started following us. We thought he belonged to the owner of one of the cafés, but he followed us the rest of the 5-10 minute walk to the entrance. As soon as we got to the entrance, a bunch of dogs started approaching our new friend, whom we named Nick. All of a sudden, all of those strays that live and roam the Acropolis started viciously attacking Nick until some Greek guy shooed them away. Nick, who already had a limp, limped off. I only hope that he made it away ok! Rough morning!

Anyway, the benefits of coming in the off-season and getting up early are that you pretty much get the place to yourself. Even though the Acropolis has been photographed 5 billion times, it’s nice to take your time taking pics without a bunch of people in the background.

All the restaurants by the Acropolis are gorgeous because they sit on pedestrian heavy streets (not a lot of cars). Perfect spot to eat feta baked in tomatoes and peppers. And lamb souvlaki with lots of paprika.

Athens contains a surprising amount of wilderness for being such a big city. We hiked up a path lined with olive trees, poppies, dandelions, and violets. Greece is full of poppies which really pop. We were at some more ruins on a hill right across from the Acropolis. We sat down to take in the view, but ended up accidentally taking a nap.

After that quick little siesta, SE’s wilderness adventure spirit kicked in and she led us on a hike around the rocky hills. We all later agreed that this was the best part of Athens.

The trail forged by SE plopped us onto the main souvenir shop road in Athens. Along that road, we stopped in a bakery where SE and I tried a sweet cream pastry. It’s all the flaky goodness of baklavas, but filled with a light cream instead of nuts. We made more than one return trip to that bakery.

As we scouted places for dinner, we spotted Siobhan, a girl on the Montpellier program who was vacationing with her mom. The world keeps getting smaller and smaller!

The next day, we had planned to take a day trip to Delphi or something, but everything we wanted was too far away. So, we stayed in Athens, saw more ruins, ate more gyros and pastries, and went to the beach for a bit. That night, we took an overnight ferry to Santorini. Not the most comfortable way to sleep, but still more comfortable than the train from Barça. Also, travelling + a night’s accommodation = check plus.

Easter in Paris

Even though I was going to Paris 2 weeks later for the second half of my spring break, I knew it’d worth it to go for Easter. There is so much to see in Paris, that it’s nice to know I don’t have to cram it all in to a short amount of time. That being said, we did catch one of the earliest trains possible out of Montpellier so that we could have a full day in Paris Friday. The prospect of getting up at 5 am to be at the train station before 6 am doesn’t seem like a ton of fun, but once I was out the door at 5:25, I remembered that I am a morning person. Montpellier becomes even more charming in the pre-dawn stillness. My footsteps almost echoed on the marble of the Comédie because there was no one there to absorb the sound. During the 3-½ hour train ride to Paris, the sun rose over the French countryside.

I went to Paris with my friends Sarah Elizabeth and Dan. These two were also my company for Greece. We travel well together because we can compromise and make decisions quickly. We’ve also all been to Paris before, so there was no pressure to see any one particular thing. 3 is also just a good number to travel with.

Our hotel was right off one of the étoile streets that radiate off the Arc de Triomphe, so we headed there first. I pass the Arc de Triomphe in Paris everyday, but the one is Paris doubles Montpellier’s in width and height. We decided not to go up, but we moseyed around underneath it. I got to see the tomb of the Unknown Soldier again, which is one of my favorite things in Paris. Maybe I’m a sap, but it always catches me off-guard how moving that flame is.

We went to the Musée D’Orsay next because a) Dan had never been b) Sarah Elizabeth loves Impressionist paintings and c) last time I went to Paris, it was my favorite museum. This was exactly when it started to get dark and rainy. Perfect museum going weather! Our long wait to get in to the museum was worth it because we only had to flash our Paul Val student IDs to get in fo’ free. Last time I went to the Musée D’Orsay, I absolutely adored it because it used to be a train station and therefore it is HUGE! The high ceiling is a metal and glasswork structure, so it lets in lots of natural light. The museum is so big that pushy crowds don’t jostle you around. This time, they were doing some renovations on it, so the works weren’t quite so spread out, making the experience less enjoyable. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it of course. I always enjoy Impressionist art and I may not be an art buff, but in the 7 years since I’ve been to the d’Orsay, I’ve picked up a few things and therefore could enjoy some pieces more.

We hit a sweet spot coming out of the d’Orsay. The sun was shining, so we pranced around the Tuileries Gardens (well, SLiz and I did anyway), which defined “April in Paris”: bright green grass, neatly kept flowers blooming, blossoming trees, and people sitting around a fountain that faces the Louvre.

Because the sky was an alarming shade of blue, it was the perfect time to head to the Eiffel tower.

The Eiffel Tower shouldn’t be pretty. It’s just a huge tower of criss-crossed steel. But, for whatever reason, it’s so pretty. I was every bit as excited to see it this time as I was the first time I saw it. As annoying as it is to wait in line, the line will ALWAYS be long to go up the tower. The time passed quickly, as street performers performed crazy dances to MJ songs. I also listened to other people’s convos. The last time I was in Paris, I thought I could speak French so well (ha). I didn’t know a word of Spanish or Italian, but now I can not only differentiate between the 2, but I can pick up what’s being said. Looking up at the Eiffel Tower, 7 years felt like nothing. I felt just as excited to be in Paris. But really, a lot happens in 7 years.

Finally, we began our ascent. Work out for the day. Lots of stairs! As we reached, the 2nd level the clouds were beginning to roll in again. Even though I’m afraid of heights, elevators freak me out, I can only take being bumped around in a crowd for so long, and an ominous cloud was rolling in, I had to go to the top. We did get a spectacular view for a few moments until the cloud engulfed the top of the Tower. It passed again for a minute to reveal a spectacular rainbow over the Seine, and then we were again covered.

We finally made it down to ground level again, just as the sparkling lights lit up the Eiffel Tower, marking 9pm. A break in the rain gave us the chance to take the typical Eiffel Tower pics at the Palais Chaillot. Although it was 10 pm at that point, we needed to go get dinner. Luckily, 10 pm is a perfectly normal time to eat dinner. I ate what Caroline calls typical Parisian sucré/salé, which is chicken in a vinegar/sweet sauce.

Saturday, we ventured just outside of Paris to Versailles. They say the Eiffel Tower has more visitors than Versailles, but it doesn’t feel that way. It’s for sure that Versailles has stricter rules. One important lesson learned in Paris: Ask forgiveness, not permission. This isn’t quite the expression that fits what I mean, but the general sentiment is the same. An announcement told us that European Union citizens under the age of 26 with ID and visitors with student visas for at least 6 mos would get in for free. You have to bring your effing passport with visa to get in for free at Versailles?!!!? Who would think to bring your passport? SLiz asked a guard if our Paul Val IDs would work, but he got all huffy with us and said NO. But once we got to the front of the line, we just flashed our Paul Val IDs and walked on by, not waiting to see if the ticket booth worker cared or not. On s’est débrouillé! (We managed in a round about way). Versailles may be huge, but you get swept along in the huge wave of tourists and it goes by quickly. You can’t be a salmon and swim against the current. Spanish, Italian, Asian, and US tourists are harder to push against than the current to get back to freshwater.

I may be the only person in the world to describe Versailles as the Palace of Rainbow Rooms, but that’s what it is. Versailles is a series of room after room full of ornate paintings, furniture, all in the same color. You walk from a sky blue room to a sunshine yellow room. It’s happiness and rainbows.

After the palace tour, the rain discouraged us from visiting the gardens. However, by the time we finished our huge pizza lunch, the rain had let up, so we trekked back to the palace grounds to visit the gardens. We were lucky because Saturday is a day that they turn the fountains on (They don’t do this everyday because it takes a lot to pump all that water!). They also blasted French classical music for our listening pleasure. The Versailles grounds are so expansive, it’s easy to meander for a long time. We passed many manicured bushes, and lots of statues. There was a couple getting their wedding pics taken there. Talk about being a princess for a day! Once you make it far enough back, you come across some sheep and horses fenced in. These animals are used to tourists, so they scamper up to the fence looking for you to give ‘em some food.

After strolling through the grounds, it was already early evening, so we got back to Paris. For dinner, I indulged in the typical Parisian foods: French onion soup and crème brûlée.

That Sunday was Easter, so we got up to go to Mass at Notre Dame. International Mass was scheduled at 11:30 am, but we got in line to get into the Church at 10:45 am. The lined moved pretty swiftly, so we made it into the Church and saw the last half of the 10:30 am Mass. We got center aisle seats for the packed International Mass. Easter Sunday Mass at Notre Dame was quite the experience. Notre Dame is huge and gorgeous, and even though the church was packed wall to wall with people, I didn’t feel claustrophobic, because just one glance up at the huge ceiling took that all away.

After Mass, we had wanted to have an Easter picnic of ham sammiches somewhere along the Seine, but the gloomy cold weather ruined our plans. Pas grave. We headed to a really cool vintage market on the edge of Paris. To get there, we had to walk through an outdoor market of immigrants selling knock-off everythings.

Knowing that the outdoor shit show could not possibly be the place we’d heard about, we pressed forward. We finally found what we had been looking for! It was a 2 story brick warehouse. Inside there was shop, after shop, after shop of antique furniture, books, maps, postcards, fashion ads, clothing, everything. I had fun looking at the vintage Hermès scarves and old knickknacks. We pent all day there, so we were super hungry by the time we left. Luckily, a bakery right by the metro stop was selling pastries that looked like birds nests, complete with candy eggs. As we were leaving, we were pelted by hail.

Before catching our evening train home, we enjoyed a real Easter dinner at a crazy place called Chez Clément. The furniture was all mismatched at the walls were decorated with clusters of spoons and forks. I had creamy pumpkin soup and ham wrapped artichoke au gratin. I GOT HAM ON EASTER!

Successful trip to Paris. Even though the weather didn’t cooperate, I did get to see a rainbow everyday I was there. (One was technically a hailbow).


I’ve wanted to go to Marseille since before I even started studying French. I love the movie The Count of Monte Cristo (not the book…the ending is different). Marseille didn’t seem to be on anyone else’s priority list, so when I found out that my friend Laura, who is studying abroad in Aix-en-Provence, was planning to go the 27th of March with a group of her friends, I jumped at the chance to go.

After an hour and a half train ride without any major problems (!), I met up with Laura. Her friends weren’t there yet because they had gone out to celebrate a 21st birthday the night before and decided to sleep in a little longer.

It was really great getting to talk to Laura for a while though because we’re both in the same place. We both studied abroad last summer and are back again. We are both enjoying our experiences, but we know we’ll be ready to go home when our programs end because we each had months gallivanting around Europe last summer.

We had a lovely chat during a lovely stroll through the Old Port, watching men and women selling all sorts of fresh seafood.

Marseille is full of churches and the first one Laura and I went to was full of women making palm crosses for Palm Sunday. The people in that church were ridiculously nice. When Laura asked if there was a bathroom, the man from the Rosary stand led us to the Sacristy bathroom.

When we climbed to the top of the hill where the Notre Dame de la Garde is (no exaggeration, CLIMBED), Laura’s friends were there. One of her friends, Anna had an even worse Barcelona Snow Storm story than I did. She had been in Spain that weekend and took a bus back to France. The bus got stuck at the border and they had to sit there for hours. The bus engine was off to conserve gas, which meant NO HEAT. Later, they had to leave the bus and walk through the snow for a half an hour. Other people from other buses slowly joined with their group as they were walking. It was a Spanish bus, and Anna doesn’t speak Spanish, so she had no idea what was going on. They were led to a random gymnasium in the middle of nowhere. Gypsies had gotten wind of the free shelter and so the gym was packed and there were not enough blankets to go around. The next morning, they trekked back through the snow to the bus and slowly made it back.

Luckily, both of us weren’t scared out of travelling anymore, because Marseille is gorgeous. Notre Dame de la Garde has a beautiful gold ceiling. It’s funny because there is a huge gold ceiling and then miniature sailboats hanging on the walls. Sailors and fishermen put boats there so that Mary will protect them. It’s a fun mix.

Once we found out boats weren’t going to the Chateau d’If because the winds were too strong that day (bummer), we strolled around Marseille. Marseille was poppin’ that day cause their soccer team had just won a big match. We went to the Palais Longchamps which looks a lot like the fountain I loved in Barcelona. There is a lovely park right behind the Palais and we enjoyed people watching and chatting.

I never ended up getting Bouillabaise, because what started as a poor fisherman’s dish has become an expensive local specialty. I did get a bagel with cream cheese and salmon, which, to me, is just as good.

May 8

Yesterday was Armistice Day and Minette's 12th Birthday!

The French celebrated by not having anything open, and running the tram/bus on a limited schedule. They also lined up some French soldiers along the Peyrou. They didn't do anything. They were just there.

Minette celebrated by meowing a lot and by ferociously grooming herself in front of everyone.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Foods the French Ef Up

Ok, So I've written a lot about how much I like food. I eat well here, obviously, but I eat well at home too. There are some foods that the frenchies try to make that just don't turn out well at all.
PIZZA- Pizza can only be SO bad, right? The French just don't get the concept. They love thin crust, which is fine by me, but they really screw up the toppings. Goat cheese does not belong on a pizza! Neither does kebab meat. I can't do it!
HOT DOGS- The frenchies don't really eat hot dogs, and I must say, I don't really either. They don't do buns here. Everything they make, they serve on a baguette. I love the bread here, but a hot dog in a hollowed out baguette is just awkward.
MEXICAN FOOD- They just plain don't have it. They have a small section of El Paso brand in the supermarkets and they call any attempt at Mexican food "tex-mex", but it just doesn't work out. Caroline didn't even know what a burrito was. I tried to explain by saying "un sandwich tex-mex." She looked at me a nodded, pretending to get it. Could you even imagine what would happen if they really tried though. Burrito Baguettes. Blech. What a sad sad world, without Mexican food!
MEAT- They don't like "well-done".
So as you can see, the list is short and all junk food. One American thing the French do better is Coke. At home I am a Diet Coke addict. Here, I switched to regular because it is SO good.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Going to the Movies in France

Seeing a French film is almost as hard to do in France as it is in the US. They love American movies, which are usually dubbed. (I HATE dubbing)
Well anyway, I went to the movies today. Some things, like going to the movies, you'd think would be the same, but then France comes along and surprises you. There are no previews and everyone sits and watches the credits. ALL of the credits. Good God.
I'm over it...