Weekend in the Loire Valley

This beautiful weekend saw a couple of things: the resultats of the premier tour of the French presidential elections (!), and an utterly gorgeous weekend in the Loire Valley. The Loire Valley spans 280 kilometres in central France and is referred to as the Garden of France or the Cradle of France thanks to the abundance of vineyards, châteaux, and orchards. Our tour was composed of four châteaux (Blois, Chaumont-sur-Loire, Chenonceau, and Chambord), a wine-tasting, a fabulous lunch on a farm, and a stay at a renovated-farm-turned-auberge. It was 60 degrees, sunny, and a great way to make some last memories as a group before the (daunting) reality of finals and the true end of the semester kicks in.

Chenonceau, pictured in a lot of the photos below, was a crowd favorite. The beautiful fresh flowers, arranged in nearly every room, and the roaring fires in the fireplaces lent a lived-in (albeit fairy-tale) atmosphere to the château. The other MVPs of the weekend? Chèvre, a thing called wine jam (it’s real), and a scenic bike ride around Chambord. Formidable!

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Travel Tip Round-Up: Spring 2017

It’s spring break (vacances de printemps) here in Paris – which means that a lot of APA students are enjoying their time-off with well-earned travel! Having been on the European continent for about three and a half months at this point, with plenty of travel to boot, many of us feel like seasoned travelers. Some of us have been trying pizza in Naples, gelato in Rome, and funny cinnamon sugar pastries in Prague; others have visited the Anne Frank museum in Amsterdam, and sunned themselves on the beaches of southern France. Here’s how we get from point A to point B – and the tools that help us do that:

Skyscanner or Kayak (in incognito-tab): The jury’s out on whether or not this actually works, but it’s worth giving it a shot! The idea is that the prices will go up if you don’t browse without cookies (internet terminology, whatever that means). Regardless, use the Skyscanner or Kayak “explore” tools in a private window to figure out where to go in the first place. You plug in your home airport, dates, and the websites will do all the work for you. Gotta love 30 euro flights to Milan!

Hostelworld.com: Find lodging easily; search using reviews, ratings, and price tools. Hostelworld even has its favorite hostels for different cities – leaving more time for the fun part of travel (which definitely isn’t staying in a hostel, is it?).

SNCF’s “carte jeune”: Save tons if you know you’re going to be taking the train a lot. The initial cost (50 euros) quickly pays for itself. For France-only travel, you can save up to 30% on ticket costs. A word on trains: take them when you can. You see more of the country, there’s usually outlets, and they can be a great place to get some work done between weekend trips.

BlaBlaCar: Train, flight too expensive? Check out this website, which helps travelers find empty seats in cars/buses for cheap.

TimeOut: There’s a TimeOut market in Lisbon (one of our favorites!) but both the website and app are really wonderful for figuring where to eat and where to drink, and what to do with your time when you’re not doing either of the afore-mentioned activities. The app for Paris is actually divided by arrondisement, which can be super useful when you’re trying to stay local. Perfect for finding restaurants and bars.

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Google Trips: This little-known app from Google helps you map out your travel. Create itineraries in different layers, divided by city or day. Add pins for landmarks, restaurants, or create walking paths.

Mint: You have to pay for all of this, don’t you? Track spending and set budgets.

Some final words to the wise: Leave the rollerboard suitcase at home. Bring a backpack (try 40-55L, do your research) and learn how to stuff it correctly. Buy an even smaller backpack and use that for day-trips – stuff that smaller backpack in your big backpack and you’ve got backpack inception. Microfiber towels are your best bet (they dry quickly, soak up a ton of water, and usually are anti-bacterial). Lush makes great solid shampoo, which is perfect if you don’t want to deal with a toiletry bag. Finally, as fun as the dual-wattage converters are, if you’re traveling with an iPhone and a laptop you don’t need it. They’re also heavy, take up a ton of space, and fall out of the sockets themselves.

Happy travel!

Liv

A Host Family Experience

I met my host-mom Solène (mère d’accueil) over macarons and champagne a few days after I arrived in Paris. Solène’s a nurse, and she has a habit of wearing two pairs of glasses at the same time. I met her husband, Thierry, about an hour later over dinner. Thierry owns a bookstore, and the small kitchen in the corner of the apartment is his favorite place to be. They were high-school sweethearts and have three children – thanks to them, I know the word for affectionately crazy (dingue) and how to describe ragging on someone (taquiner).

The day after I arrived, Thierry walked me through his neighbourhood, noting the changes that he’s witnessed in the 30 years that he’s lived there. He’s watched bookstores and publishers transition into niche, expensive boutiques. Regardless, he kindly pointed out his favorite bars and cafés, and introduced me to his cheese-monger. For the past three months, he’s taken to calling me a gourmand, probably because I never refuse cheese or olives… or food in general.

With APA, you don’t meet your host family until a few days after you arrive in Paris. I’ll admit, it’s crazy to pack your bags without knowing where exactly you’ll be living, but APA uses that time to ensure that each student is well-matched with her host family. Over meals, plenty of conversation, and a questionnaire sent out before the semester begins, the APA directors make their selections; it’s a delicate science, but they do it well.

I can confidently say that my host family has been one of my favorite – and most important – parts of my study abroad experience. Eating with them every night is my favorite part of the day, and it’s not just because the food is wonderful. Thierry and Solène recommend expositions and concerts; Clementine, my host sister, will ask me about politics and daily life. Benoît and I discuss the twists and turns of his favorite TV show (Friends). I’ve fallen in love with raclette and fondue, what Thierry affectionately calls his “kitchen-sink pasta” and the secret to Solène’s béchamel sauce. I’ve learned the French words for inane vegetables, and how to kindly turn away more food (‘j’ai bien dîné’ is a bit more genteel than ‘j’ai bien mangé’).

Thierry and Solène were even kind enough to host both sets of my parents when they visited last month, breaking out their English along with the good china. Ultimately, with a great host-family match, you get more than room and board for a few months: you get a lifetime relationship with a family. I can’t wait to keep in touch with my family when I return to the States, and I’d love to offer the same hospitality that they’ve shown me.

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My host dad’s camera collection.

The French Problématique: A French University Experience

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With just over two months of classes at French university under my belt, I’ve had enough time to note the differences between the French and American school systems. During our orientation, the APA directors explained the differences in full, but practice can often be different than execution. Here are some things I’ve noticed:

  • American systems prefer meeting more often for shorter periods of time. (In high school, my classes were 40 minutes, and the lab of 75 minutes once a week felt like an eternity.) Meanwhile, I have four classes here that are 3 hours long with a 10 minute “pause” in the middle. Students use the pause here to grab an espresso or a bite to eat, or more often than not, smoke outside and gab with friends. The longer periods of time can feel incredibly challenging, as it’s hard enough to concentrate for 3 hours in your native language, much less in a language that requires rock-solid focus.
  • As long as it’s kind of clear-ish, your hand-writing doesn’t really make a difference… in the States, that is. The French love good penmanship, and if you cross out and correct too much in an essay, they’ll ask you to write it over again. No kidding, this happened during one of my in-class essays!
  • French students love to take notes that are in full paragraphs. Gone are your bullet points! Weird.
  • The paper is different. In the US, we love our simple college-ruled notebook paper. In France, it’s gridded – all of it. Some of the notebooks also have paper that has multiple thin lines, and I made the mistake of writing very very tinily the first time I used it. The professor refused it because it was too “difficult” to read, but at least she thought my excuse was funny. (?)
  • Don’t even think about writing in pencil during an exam. (This makes it difficult for foreign students, because we’re always making grammatical errors that require careful proof-reading… and if you can’t cross it out without having to re-write, you see the issue!)
  • Some courses will have only one assignment. ONE. For the entire course.
  • When a professor says that a paper is 3 pages long, they mean single-spaced. I kid you not.
  • We had an entire methodology class about writing in a specific way. Instead of making a direct claim, for example, in an essay, you have to distance yourself and use quizzical language. Instead of saying “the French love baguettes” you’d say, “One could claim that the French enjoy eating baguettes because of their chewy texture and crunchy crust.” Not kidding. (Everything you learned about omitting superfluous language in school is apparently wrong in France.)
  • Look up a “problématique”, “thèse”, “antithèse”, and “car en réalité” and you’ll understand everything. (French dissertations and commentaires have a completely different structure than normal American essays. You literally ask a question in the introduction. Intriguing.)
  • Some American universities love to create an intimate rapport between students and faculty. Some cool French professors are like this, but more often than not, you’ll never refer to your professor by their first name or ask for one-on-one help. (This is where the APA help plays in, with language assistants and additional classes.)

While these differences can definitely be challenging, I’m grateful to have the experience of university in a different country and in a different language. Learning in French all the time (and in the French system) can be tiring and frustrating, but ultimately don’t think I would have understood the differences between the American and French systems had I not been immersed in it.

Happy studies!

Liv

Playing Tourguide

When my family and friends found out that I was officially going to be studying abroad in Paris, their first reaction was: We’re coming to visit!

Oftentimes, your semester abroad gives the people who love you a perfect excuse to come to Paris (though really, do you need an excuse?) Though as fun as it can be having everyone visit – for example, my dad and step mom, my mom, my aunt, and my good friend from high school are all visiting me during the month of March – it can feel overwhelming. The city has so much to offer in general, and mixed with school work and language immersion, it can be a more stressful experience than it should be. How do you show your family your Paris, and how can you guarantee that they fall in love with the city during their stay in the same way that you have?

I’ve come to realise that while things like the Eiffel Tower, the Arche de Triumph, the Louvre, the Champs-Elysées are fun and definitely worthwhile for a first-time visit to the city, the people who come to visit me want to see my Paris. My Paris self has only been up-close to the Eiffel Tower twice in the past two and a half months, and heavily frequents neighbourhoods like the Marais, the Latin Quarter, and Ile-de-la-Cité.

Stressed about where to bring your visitors? Here’s where to start:

  1. Your favorite neighbourhood café for an espresso – and the conversation that ensues about why the coffee is so small.
  2. The restaurant(s) you’ve been circling for the past two months but haven’t had the time to try yet. Show off your French when you order, and insist that you have a French menu! (It sounds impressive. Look up the fancy food words.)
  3. If your host parents are game, bring them over for dinner! Have them bring flowers so you can finally visit that neighbourhood florist you love to pass by on the way to the metro.
  4. That one bakery you always go to. Treat them to a smorgasbord of butter and bread.
  5. If you’re feeling adventurous, your favorite happy hour!
  6. Even better, if they manage to hang-on until the jetlag takes over, take them to your favorite late-night food place. Show mom and dad the magic of kebab.
  7. Show them your favorite piece of art in the city. (If you don’t have one yet, go to a museum together and decide which art you really don’t like. Oftentimes a little easier.)
  8. Take them to a neighbourhood you love and wander around there. Share anecdotes. Laugh a lot. Drink lots of wine together.

Happy visiting!

Liv

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My dad and step-mom during their (very rainy) visit to Paris.

First Weekend of Spring

Paris truly showed off this past weekend. It seemed like the first sunny days in months, though in reality it had only been a few weeks of gray skies and rain, and everybody was out and about enjoying the weather.

This weekend served as a big hint of what the spring to come would be like. The Jardin du Luxembourg, just a quick walk from my homestay in the 6th arrondissement, was teeming with Parisians and tourists alike. The fight for chairs gets a little intense, I have to say! It was one of those weekends that I was glad to have a little reading to do – it gave me a reason to sit outside on a bench all day.

On Saturday, my host sister and I went for a run in the garden. Apparently we ran past a famous French actor… looked like a regular Parisian to me! On Sunday, me and my host family took a picnic to the garden and feasted on cornichons, cheese, wine, and bread.

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There’s a garden on the corner of the Notre Dame; I sat here for a few hours today with a (rare) to-go coffee and my reading for my French lit class.

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Le Jardin du Luxembourg is starting to show off!

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I stole the host-sis for a selfie after our run.

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The garden outside of the Musée de Cluny.

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A very busy Saturday at the Jardin du Luxembourg.

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First gelato of the season! Mango and lemon-mint.

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After such a beautiful weekend, I feel rejuvenated and ready to tackle the rest of the semester!

Where to Study (Abroad)

Once in a while, there’s an aspect of being abroad that mirrors being back at our home universities. Sometimes it’s greasy food at 2am, sometimes it’s oversleeping after working late at night. These days, at the beginning of March, it’s the heavier-than-usual workload aka (drumroll) midterms

With the heavy workload, APA students have been flocking to the city’s libraries and cafés to get some work done. Here are a few of those beloved places.

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One of my favourite places to get work done in Paris is the Bibliothèque Saint-Geneviève, above, in the 5th arrondissement. BSG neighbours the Pantheon, and the sense of history inside the building is palpable. Registering online is easy and quick, and once you’ve gotten your library card (and figured out the daunting system), you can join the hordes of other university students in a place that inspired the library in Hogwarts.

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The library in the Centre Georges-Pompidou is a favourite of art history students and seemingly, all other university students in Paris. Research materials are plenty; while the Bibliothèque Saint-Geneviève is historical and beautiful with its wrought-iron and vast open space, the Pompidou’s modern design and natural light is equally as inspiring.

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Cafe Loustic (Marais) is a great place to meet a friend – and it’s a great place to sit and work. The funky decor and quality music (sometimes electronic, sometimes classical and jazz), and heavy pours make it worth a visit.

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Anticafé Beaubourg (there are also locations near the Louvre) takes café studying to a whole new level. You pay fewer than 5 euros per hour for students, and in turn you get unlimited barista-style coffee drinks, fresh fruit and veggies, and salty snacks. The wifi is plenty, and as are the plugs. What’s not to love?

Happy studying!

Weekend in Bruxelles

The French political science class – French name is “Les Enjeux Politiques de la France” – spent last weekend in Bruxelles, Belgium. We were lucky to visit the actual European Union institutions that we had studied in class with our professor, Hugo… and seriously, how often is it that you get to visit the center of the European Union?

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We kicked off the visit with a visit to the European Parlement, speaking with a parliamentary assistant before touring the L’Hémicycle – the big room below with all of the chairs! We learned about the immense translating system (and a few of us realised we had to learn a few more languages before we could ever work for the EU as most speak around four or five).

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After lunch, we visited Oxfam International; after a truly interesting presentation with Aurore Chardonnet, the EU policy advisor, we felt we had truly completed our understanding of different lobbying groups and the pressure that they put on the neighbouring European Union. We settled into our lodgings, and then explored Bruxelles à pied. 

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(Emma, an APA student from Brandeis, had fun imitating the dinosaur painting behind her during our tour.)

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(Director Claire Suraqui and greeter Martine during our tour.)

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The facades from the central square in Bruxelles reflected in a pavé puddle.

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We finished our visit with a tour of Le Parlementarium, an interactive museum that offered a virtual voyage around Europe.

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On the TGV back – which may be new my favorite way to travel around Europe! – we munched on Belgian chocolate and discussed how incredible it is to be a short (75 minute) train ride away from the center of the UN. You can’t beat the ability to visit, in-person, the institutions we had spoken about in class a few short weeks ago.

 

Paris Café Culture (and Tips)

PARIS — Paris does a lot of things right. Glimmering Haussmann architecture, satisfying wine, oozing cheese like jewels behind glass counters… and perfectly adequate street cleaning. Sadly, coffee (and the matter of public urination, among other things) doesn’t make the list of Paris’s attraits. Between the disinterested waiters and overpriced shots of espresso, it’s no mystery that cafés can serve as a place of anxiety rather than pleasure for the unprepared Anglo-Saxon visitor. Here’s how to turn that frown into a flawless French pout – the closest you’ll get to a smile in the streets of Paris – and perfect your café visit.

 

Find your café.

A few general rules: Paris’s best kept secrets will not be found on sweeping, wide avenues. Paris’s best kept secrets will not be easy to find. Thus, Paris’s best cafés will not be adjacent to metro stops. Like a mantra, repeat this to yourself. Paris is divided by these wide avenues; if you’re lucky (and dorky enough) to be holding a map, move inwards until the streets resemble scribbles rather than definitive, thick lines. If you feel a little lost, you’re doing it right.
Know your value.

Ask a native Parisian for a benchmark. There is no reason, in my opinion, to spend more than fives euros on a café crème and even that’s pushing it. Paris does not by any means have to be expensive. That being said, there are some neighborhoods that draw tourists to overpriced cafés like gays to Gaga with Champs-Elysées and Saint-Germain des Près being two of them. Sometimes, though, you’ll trade a more expensive glass of wine in for a better view. Decide for yourself what kind of premium you place on high-quality of people watching.

50 cl of wine – half bottles, if you will – are perfect for a wine date with a friend and tend to be more economical. Were you really only going to have just one glass? Further, take a glimpse and see if any tables have small ramekins of olives or nuts, because the only thing better than drinking wine with a friend in Paris is drinking wine with a friend in Paris with snacks.

 

Lower your expectations – in a good way.

Expect everything to be smaller. Hug your French press or your drip coffee machine goodbye if you’d like, because you definitely will not be seeing anything like it during your stay.

Expect to sit and enjoy. Coffee is meant to be enjoyed with the company of others and is not to be taken away.

Expect to eliminate all of the banal pleasantries of food service. Your server is not to be tipped anything more than rounding the price up a euro because you don’t have change – no, seriously, they’re paid hourly – and as such they won’t try to be your best friend. Though a little off-putting at first, it’s ultimately an effective way to cut through the small-talk.

 

Finally, know your boissons chaudes.

Are you a single espresso or double espresso kind of tired? If you’re short on time and want to throw one back, keep it simple and stick with an espresso. If you like to sip on something for a longer period of time, order a café allongée (espresso with a bit of water added).

Though putting “café noisette” into your iPhone’s translator will give you something about hazelnut coffee, a noisette is actually a shot of espresso with a tiny bit of steamed milk, and great for those who are still peeved by the idea of drinking coffee black. Another tip? Get over the milk thing – it costs extra, which ultimately means less money for wine!

Packing for your semester abroad

It’s hard to believe, but it’s been a full seven weeks (!) since I arrived in Paris. Many students from my home university are just departing on their study abroad adventures, and I feel incredibly lucky that I’ve already gotten to spend so much time in Paris.

I can safely get myself home from the airport without a cell phone or Citymapper, the handy iPhone app with maps and real-time transit; I know the best crêpe places in my neighborhood, and I’ve already pointed a few visiting friends in the right direction for sightseeing and shopping. I never thought I’d be able to give Paris advice after just shy of two months of being here!

With a little time to reflect on my travels and sejour in Paris in general, I can safely say I’ve done one thing almost completely right: packing my bags.

There’s plenty of advice out there, and I think we’ve all heard it (though many of us didn’t quite obey it). Lay out everything and divide by half. Pack in the same color family for easy matching, etc.

The challenging thing about packing for a semester is the same thing that’s challenging about the semester itself: the mystery of it. How can you be prepared for the unknown? So, before I started packing, I thought about what I did know. I looked up the weather in Paris for each month, with highs and lows and historical precipitation. I also knew that I had the tendency to over-pack, and that most things I needed could be purchased in France.

I won’t itemize my list, but here are some major points and how they worked for me:

  • I brought just one checked duffel (20 kilos) and a 40L backpack. In the checked duffel, I laid my school backpack flat and just packed on top of it. In retrospect, probably could have gotten a 50L backpack, but I was afraid of airplane regulations – definitely something to consider! Also, for five months, I really, really don’t think you need more than one checked bag. I brought a small cross-body that I put inside my backpack, and carried my backpack and a larger tote on-board.
  • I only brought clothing that I love(d). If it sat in my drawer at school or at home, odds are it would sit in the bottom of my drawer abroad too – and this idea was definitely the move.
  • I brought stuff in the same color family and it’s definitely worked thus far. It doesn’t hurt that Paris loves the gray/black/navy neutral situation; it also doesn’t hurt that the French love scarves – which can definitely change an entire outfit!
  • I thought about who would be visiting me later in the semester, and worked out a system of exchanging items for others. For example, I didn’t bring my sandals or shorts with me as I’m lucky enough to have a family member bring them to me in late March!
  • Layer, layer, layer! Enough said. One season’s base layer is another season’s going out shirt!
  • If you think about something and think you really may not need it, leave it at home! You’ll be happier you left it, I promise.

Happy packing and even happier travels!

Liv