Thursday, August 8, 2013

an apology & some reflection

First of all: boy have I failed in keeping you all up-to-date on what I've been doing. I am truly sorry. The good news is, I've still got lots of stories that I'm going to be sharing with you! I have photos and words, and I'm working on getting caught up, but it may take the next 8-10 days to completely catch up.

But in the meantime, here's a very quick summary of what's been going on the past...month...or so...(again, yikes, I'm terrible at this apparently), and what you can look forward to:

- saw the end of Stage 14 of le Tour de France in Lyon
- Avignon, France, in the land of lavander
- goodbyes
- hellos --> Max arrives!
- Max's and my adventures through five countries of Europe over the past two weeks: Grenoble, Paris, Amsterdam, Munich, Salzburg (where I write to you from right now) & Zurich (tomorrow)

And now, some reflection. I figure I'd better go ahead and write this now while leaving Grenoble is still (somewhat) fresh on my mind.

I knew this summer would be life-changing, exciting, and memorable, but I had honestly no idea what I was getting myself into. This summer was the most challenging, wonderful, terrifying and 'pushing' experience of my life thus far. I say 'pushing' because I felt pushed to my limits on a daily basis - pushed in my ability to communicate in French, pushed to conform to cultural norms that I only sort-of understood, pushed to my limits to navigate life sans my usual support system. And I can honestly say that all that pushing, however painful and difficult it was at (many) times, has pushed me into becoming a stronger version of myself. I feel more comfortable with conversing in French than I ever have in 7 years study of it; I feel more sure of myself and my ability to be truly independent than I ever have, as well. And with all of that growth, I feel that so much of it is woven into the hot, busy streets of Grenoble. I love this town, and I love its people even more. The French have a reputation for being extremely rude and cold, but let me tell you, I found that to be nothing short of completely false. There may be some people, Parisiens in particular, who tire of ignorant, rude tourists, but what I have found is that French are some of the kindest, warmest people; they may be much more guarded than a girl raised in Texas is used to, but they are more than willing to help if you need directions, don't understand a word, or see a completely foreign food. They appreciate familiarity, and the closeness of their quartiers (neighborhoods). And this social infrastructure is one of the many things I will (and do already) miss about Grenoble, France, and the French people. Speaking of which, I'm coping Abby and giving you three lists, each which have been forming in my mind the entire summer, to sum up things "going back to normal" (whatever that means).

Things I will miss:
- French everywhere. This absolutely goes to the top of my list because having grown up in the States, and Texas in particular, it is a rare thing to run into a francophone on the street, much less see it on a sign. My first, very sleep-deprived and delirious evening in Grenoble with my host family, I was surrounded by 5 native French speakers, and even in my horrendously-sleepy state, I remember being in awe that french is just their language. what they think and speak and dream in, all the time. That idea blew my mind - I knew people like that existed but I had never met any and so it was kind of like seeing a unicorn, on that first night, something I'd always dreamt of but never witnessed. I already miss conversing in French on a daily basis. I love the way it sounds like a song, how it feels in my throat and on my lips. If I was in love with French before I left, I'm head-over-heels, never-going-back with it now.
- The boulangeries. Fresh bread every morning, afternoon, and night. Fresh pastries that cost next to nothing but taste so expensive. The fact that there is one on nearly every other street (and in Grenoble I can tell you where most are, when they close each night and which days they're each closed).
- French children, speaking French. They're precious and I'm obsessed.
- Outdoor cafés.
- Bisous aka kissing on the cheek as a salutation. The French do it once on each cheek and I think its absolutely lovely. I apologize in advance if I forget that's not normal in the US at any point.
- Cheap, delicious sandwiches. Cheap, delicious wine.
- Long, tranquille dinners. No rush. No shoving food in mouths then running away. Lots of talk, laughter and food.
- Grenoble water, straight from the mountains.
- Mountains. Thunderstorms rolling in over the mountains. Looking at the mountains. Hiking in the mountains.
- Parc Minstral. 'our' park. Playing soccer. Running. Having picnics.
- pain au chocolat. succès. tarte de framboises. réligieuses. éclairs. crêpes.

Things I will not miss:
- Dog poop on sidewalks.
- Only being 55-70% sure of what's going on/people are saying to me at all times.
- Everything, everything being closed on Sundays and by 8pm on weekdays and between 12-2/whenever-people-feel-like-coming-back-to-work-after-lunch.
- Having to rely on public transportation 100% of the time. I have been late more times this summer than probably the rest of my driving-age career combined.
- Being foreign in general.
- Having exactly zero air conditioning.
- Not being allowed to shower after 10pm because the pipes are too loud in the apartment.
- Horrible service at restaurants. No really, I don't actually want to order within 30 minutes of sitting down. And please, take an hour after I eat to bring the bill.

Things I cannot wait to have back in my life:

- Barbecue, sweet tea and things that are spicy.
- Chips and salsa
- Having Ethel there at my beck and call, just waiting for me to drive straight to where I want to go, leaving as soon as I'm ready, and not having to pick up a single other person on the way if I don't want to.
- Understanding the words coming from people's mouths without intense concentration, five repetitions or having to say "Desolée, je suis une étudiante américaine. Lentement, s'il vous plaît."
- Being able to go to the store in the tshirt and nike shorts I slept in and have that be completely socially acceptable
- My phone being useful 100% of the time. Need to call my mom at the store? No problem! Need to know the name of a movie I saw 10 years ago while walking across a parking lot? Go ahead! Want to check the weather on the bus? Go for it!
- Living in the same time zone as 95% of the people I talk to on a daily basis.
- All of my electronics being compatible with all of the electrical sockets at all times, sans adapters.
- Family & friends. Near me, with me, all of it. I was blessed with an incredible group of people in Grenoble, many of which will return to Aggieland with me, but the rest of you - and you know who you are - I have missed you so much, have missed your presence in my daily life. I can't wait for all the catching up we have to do.

Well, I'm off now to go hiking in the Austrian Alps (I'm going to miss that, as well, saying ridiculous things like that so casually) with Max. We head to Zurich for the day tomorrow and then head back home to greatest country on earth on Saturday! That being said though, part of me will always remain in Grenoble, and in the beautiful country of France. I don't know when I will get to return, but mark my words, I will. I will return and I will also explore so many new places - that's one thing this summer definitely succeeded in, reigniting my deep desire to travel, explore and experience the world. And in the coming years, I plan to do just that.

à bientôt, Grenoble, mon cœur.
je reviendrai.

& to my loves in the states: I will see you all very, very soon!
all my love,

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Les Vercors

On Sunday, June 23, the weekend after Paris, some of our group took a day trip van-tour of the Vercors mountains, one of the three mountain ranges surrounding Grenoble. It was beautiful.

Grenoble from the mountains
Village cemetery
Our first stop was just outside Grenoble, at a prime spot for looking over our city. Up at the panoramic spot was a cemetery of the local village - cemeteries are always so interesting. This one wasn't too big, or very old, but it was still worth looking at.
The whole group for the day!
Lauren, Nate, Doug
Me, Holly, Hannah
 Also on our way up into the mountains we got to see the Olympic ski jump that was used in the 1968 Winter Olympics! That's something that's really interesting about the Olympics in general that I always forget about - just because a certain city (ie: Grenoble) is hosting the Olympics doesn't mean all the events are confined to that one city. Many of the events were held up in the mountain villages, where the major ski lodges are. That was definitely fun to see.

That wooden structure was the ski jump!
Pretty church in the mountains.
After stopping to look at the ski jump we drove for awhile up to another mountain village to look around a bit and then eat lunch at a hotel-restaurant. The town was so picturesque (though I feel like all European mountain villages are). I wish I had more time here, I would take so many weekends to go hiking through the mountains - there was so much I wanted to explore up in the Vercors that we just weren't able to. Although, there's just so much in the world I want to explore that I won't be able to - even if I travel as much as possible, I'll never see everything. Which is kind of depressing, but at the same time, really incredible. Its a testament to how big the world really is, that no one person could ever actually discover all of it in a lifetime. But I digress.

The hotel-restaurant we ate lunch at.
We had such a good lunch - a true French meal, there were 3 courses, each beautifully put together. I had a salad for lunch, with toasts with local bleu cheese - that region is known for its bleu cheese. It was really good, but the cheese was a little too strong and too rich for me to eat all of it. The salad was wonderful though. French salads are actually quite simple usually - just a vinaigrette, nuts and maybe a veggie or two with the greens. I don't remember what else was in this one, but I know it was delicious. Also, whoever told me that the portions were going to be radically smaller in France was painstakingly wrong. Maybe at the super expensive, super fancy restaurants that's true, but otherwise, it is not the case. The French seem to love giving you way more food that you could finish - the difference is just that its all usually fresh, natural foods, unlike all the processed stuff in the States. But again, I digress. Several of my friends got salad with fois gras - that's duck fat for those of you who don't speak french (or french cuisine) - but I wasn't brave enough to try it. Its basically just like spreading bacon fat all over your bread, but much richer, and I just didn't have the guts to give it a go.

After the salad course we had our main course, which sadly, I did not like one single bit. We had a choice between trout (no way) and lamb (okay, I'll try it). And as pretty as it was, I just couldn't take the texture - it was very fatty and chewy, which are my two least favorite textures, especially as far as meat is concerned. Thankfully my salad was big enough to fill me up enough, and even more luckily, my friends finished it for me so the restaurant didn't know that they almost wasted a whole serving of (probably somewhat expensive) lamb. However, luckily for me, the dessert more than made up for the lack of edible main courses. Because if there is one thing I don't think the french could ever screw up, that thing would be desserts. Its actually quite amazing we haven't all gained 20 pounds this summer, because patisseries are everywhere and everything is incredible. And the restaurants are even above and beyond that.

So what you see here is ice cream cake with an in-house-made merengue bottom, three layers of ice cream (raspberry, blackberry and vanilla) and the best not-disgustingly-sweet frosting I've ever had. Nate got a Chartreuse ice-cream thing that was also really good, but Chartreuse is still not my favorite so I wasn't sad about my choice at all. But I am sad about my apparent decision to not take a photo of the other dessert, cause it was super pretty too! Ah, well, c'est la vie.

Another view of the town we ate lunch in. And yes, those are Christmas decorations hanging above the street.
That's apparently a thing in France - we have them all through Grenoble, as well, but they don't light them up
since, you know, its July and all.

Panorama of the view at the overlook we stopped at
The ruins of the village, along with the still-standing church.
After lunch, we drove for quite awhile through the mountains to get to this really awesome cave. The drive was gorgeous - I kept trying to get pictures but I was always two seconds too slow in getting out my camera. We made one more quick stop on our way to the cave that tugged at all the right strings of my heart, for a multitude of reasons. The point at which we stopped was at the same time majestic, beautiful and haunting. The view itself was breathtaking - as all mountain views are (I will take the mountains over the beach 99 days out of 100) - but there was one area down below us that made gave me chills. It was the ruins of a village that stood in that spot until the Germans bombed it to pieces during WWII. What's interesting to note is that the Germans destroyed everything, everything, except the church, which they left standing due to its sacred significance (that idea, in the minds of the Nazis, is such a strange paradox to contemplate). Many of the villages in France that were destroyed during the war were rebuilt after, but for some reason no one ever came back for this one, and today it stands as a memorial in honor of all those who were killed. This overlook was one of my favorite things I've seen here, in France, because of the historical significance (anyone who knows me at all knows I'm completely fascinated by the Nazis and the Holocaust) thrown together with the natural beauty and majesty of the mountains. It was just breathtaking.
smiling extra big cause we're the best friends forever (& cause the mountains are so pretty)
(Nate and me)
After an hour or so of driving (and everyone falling asleep in the backseat of the van) we finally made it to the cave! This cave is famous because the stalactites are so fine and numerous that they look like thousands of crystals hanging from the ceilings. And all the water in the cave was the clearest water I have ever seen - it honestly looks like glass, like liquid, moving glass. Sadly I can't tell you too much else about the cave because a) the tour was in French and contrary to popular belief (including my own) I'm not yet fluent (and so echoes in caves of quick-French with tons of vocab I don't know is really difficult to decipher) and b) I'm three weeks late writing this so I just flat out don't remember much of what I did decipher. BUT I have tons of pretty pictures for you! Basically, just know that it was cold (hallelujah), damp and beautiful. And large. Very, very large. Now for pictures!

Cave entrance!

First large cavern. Huge beautiful pool of water.

Yeah, you're looking straight through the water at the bottom of the pool. Like I said: the water was like glass. Amazing.

More crazy-clear water. I still can't get over it.

I loved this part - the rocks look like people are carved there! But its all just the natural eroding and building of the cave all on its own. Nature is so cool, y'all.
So yeah, the cave was beautiful. It made me want to go to caves in the States, partly because I want to get to know my own country better, and partly because it would be really nice to understand everything being said about them! Cause you know, I like learning and stuff. But I still so enjoyed this one - the stalactites truly looked like crystals, it was just stunning.

After the cave, we drove through a few other mountain villages on our way back towards Grenoble. One that we stopped in, Pont-en-Rayons, I know you would have never left, Mom! It was just this tiny little thing all situated around the river. The scenery was lovely and the temperature was even better. Not a whole lot to say because we didn't do much but look around, but the pictures are more than worth sharing:

Look, Mom, I saw an apartment for sale! :)

View at the chateau ruins; you can see what remains of the fortress wall on the right.

Wall still standing of the private chapel.
That darker grey base is over 3ft high,
to give you a point of reference for
the sheer size of the thing.
It is believed that was the alter.
To end our Vercors tour, we stopped at the site of now-gone chateau of the last Prince of Dauphinois (the ancient name of the region Grenoble is in). All that is left standing now is a wall of the private chapel and parts of the fortress-walls. The sheer size of the chapel wall is incredible - its obvious how large that chapel must have been, and to think, it was just for the Prince's own personal use. The French nobles were such an elaborate bunch (though I guess most nobles are). There was also a wonderful view from up there - so peaceful. I think that's what I love most about mountains: while they are majestic, they are quietly so. I much prefer the beauty and grandeur of mountains to that of the gaudy, man-made beauty of palaces and castles. The buildings are beautiful, but they can be so in-your-face. Mountains have a humble quality about them that I just adore.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Paris: partie finale: Versailles

So let me just start off with the most important bit of information regarding our trip to Versailles on Sunday: we forgot to plan at all. We did zero research on visiting Versailles other than looking up train times/ticket prices. If any of you would ever want to see Versailles, I strongly suggest you plan ahead...because it will probably go a lot better than our visit did.

Basically, there are the longest lines ever. Lines to buy tickets, and then lines to wait in to be admitted into the palace. It took us about 30 minutes to figure out that we didn't care enough to wait to go inside, so we figured we'd just walk around the gardens, cause they're free, and that would work out fine.

Yeah, no.

We tried for about an hour to figure out how to get into the gardens without having to pay - all the signs were extremely contradictory, didn't make sense, or just were flat out wrong. We finally figured out where the free entrance to the gardens was...but it meant about a mile walk on a fairly hot day. So we finally just capitulated and paid the 8€ fee to get in where we could see the "dancing fountains" show (even though we had to leave before the next show even started). I'm pretty sure that's their strategy - get all the tourists confused, hot and frustrated enough and they'll just go ahead and pay you to get in the easy way. Well, it worked, and in we went.

The gardens were so expansive, oh my goodness. They went on forever. The grandeur of Versailles is definitely something that isn't lost even if you just see the outside. Its not difficult to see how the rest of the country starved while Louis and Marie built and maintained it. Parts of it are pretty, absolutely, but honestly it was too much - too grand, too elaborate, too much. Versailles, in my opinion, is the definition of gaudy. Worth looking at, but I would never want to look at it everyday, and I definitely wouldn't want to live in anything modeled after it.

That being said, the gardens were beautiful. Its insane to realize that where you were standing, Louis and Marie both walked there, entertained other nobles there, lived there. The history behind everything in France gives me chills constantly. I love that about this country. So we walked around the gardens and just soaked it all up for a few hours, before returning to Paris just in time for Hannah and I to catch our train back to Grenoble. I am so glad I get to spend a few more days in Paris at the end of this month, because two days is definitely not near enough.

(the blog site is being difficult and I can't get my photos to be integrated into text right now, so here is yet another long list of photos for you!)

Front of the palace. So. Much. Gold.

And this is only half of it. I couldn't get one panorama of the entire facade.

Yeah, that's all gold. All of it. Again, pretty easy to see why the rest of the country was starving to death.

Part of the gardens directly behind the palace.

On of quite literally hundreds of statues in the gardens.
This one was made ~1685-1688.

View from the steps behind the palace.