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Samantha in Cergy

My study abroad experience at ESSEC in Cergy, France

Dead Week

At Iowa State, the week before finals is known as dead week, but it really means very little. Technically, Wednesday of this past week was the first day of finals, but other than a very short part 1 of my French final, I had the whole week off–so I really did get a “dead week.”

For the last month or so, I have been mentally compiling a list of things that I miss in the United States (family, friends, 24-hour stores, etc.), and things that I will miss when I get home (fresh baguettes for less than 1€, being able to just casually go into Paris, traveling, etc.), but naturally I was also making sure that I had actually done everything I wanted to do in Paris itself because my time here is running out. The only thing I came up with was visiting the Palais Garnier (the Paris Opera House). Originally Ariel and I were planning to go and visit on the same day that we went to see “Le Fantôme de l’Opera” (The Phantom of the Opera) which was coming to Paris for the first time ever. This didn’t happen, however, because the theater where the play was actually going to be performed had a fire mere weeks before the play was scheduled to open.

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The Phantom’s box at the Palais Garnier

Monday morning, bright and early, I went to campus so that I could take the first part of my French final. This first part was entirely listening; just 5 multiple-choice questions about a short video. It was over in around half an hour. The plan afterwards was for me to head back to my apartment so that I could drop off my backpack, then Ariel and I would stop by the ATM so that we had cash for our next trip, and then we would head into the city and tour the Palais Gernier.

The problem was the lovely RER A. After the final, I stopped for some hot chocolate before heading to the train station. When I got there– at least 10 minutes later than everyone else– all of my classmates were still there. The train was “delayed” due to “suspicious baggage” left at the La Defense station. Whenever this happens, the whole line is stopped, and the trains take literally hours to get back on track. You might think that it wouldn’t be that bad, except that it seems to happen at least every other day. Long story short, I waited at the train station for over 2 full hours before a train actually arrive to take us the whole two stops to get home. I really wish it wouldn’t take an hour to get home, or I would’ve just walked.

After the delay, I didn’t even actually go back to my room before heading into Paris. The Palais Garnier is gorgeous! And (fun fact) Monsieur Garnier designed the whole place, but especially the Grand Staircase, to “make women look their best.”wp-image-1789697491jpg.jpegwp-image-393791896jpg.jpeg

At first, we were disappointed because the actual theater area itself was completely dark except for a few lights on the stage where employees were setting up for a show, so we couldn’t even see the famous chandelier, and the Phantom’s Box was locked so we couldn’t see that either. Fortunately, we kept coming back to check whether or not they had turned the lights on, because eventually they did. Personally, I don’t like the painting around the chandelier. I know that it’s famous, but I just don’t think it fits with the grandeur of the rest of the Opera House. {These 2 are pictures my friend Ariel took because my phone battery died and I hadn’t had a chance to go back to my apartment and grab my camera}

We have discovered (through much experience) that European airport security doesn’t take even half as long as American airport security, so we have been slowly cutting the amount of time we leave for security, but we ALWAYS leave at least half an hour for the inevitable RER A problems. In our experience, the RER B (the one that goes to Charles De Gaulle and Orly airports) never has any problems, it is just the RER A. But the French public transportation system just loves proving us wrong.

Tuesday morning, Ariel and I left bright and early for the airport, but evidently we didn’t leave early enough. We knew something was wrong when the train’s driver came on the announcements and said that we were going to stop at Houilles Carrières-sur-Seine, a stop that we were not supposed to make. After sitting there for 10 minutes, we moved on, only to stop in the middle of a tunnel because the train in front of us was stopped at the station. We waited there for almost an hour before we actually got to the stop. Then, we had to wait at the stop for another 10 or 15 minutes. By this point, Ariel and I are getting very worried that we are going to miss our flight, but the train moved on and we were just reminding ourselves that the RER B never has issues. How very wrong we were. We got on the RER B, and the schedule said that it was going all the way to the airport, but then they made an announcement that due to electrical problems on the track, we would be stopping at Gare du Nord. In fact, when we got there, the screen said that ZERO trains would be going further north than Gare du Nord until 3pm. This meant that we were just one of literally hundreds of panicked people, attempting to a) get a hold of their various airlines, and b) figure out how to actually get to the airport because Gare du Nord is nowhere near the actual airport. We were told that there would be a bus going straight to the airport, but, as far as I could tell, that bus was not running any more often than it normally would, meaning once every hour. Well, the bus came, but it when it was stuffed as full as possible, there were still quite a few people between me and Ariel and the doors. Instead, we ended up taking a taxi with 2 random strangers. The flight had just started boarding when we got there, but we thought we had made it. Then, we ran into another problem. Ariel had checked us in online the night before, and she thought that they had emailed her our boarding passes, but they didn’t. Now we were really panicking. We tried to go to the information desk, but told us that we had not checked in, and they kept trying to send us to the Aer Lingus check-in desk. No one was at the Aer Lingus check-in desk.

Pro tip: there are only people manning the check-in desks at airports in Europe from around 2-3 hours before the flight, until check in closes (usually 30 minutes or 1 hour before the flight is scheduled to leave). 

Eventually, we found an Aer Lingus person that we could talk to, but they told us that we had not checked in, and that now it was much too late. At this point, our flight was leaving in less than 10 minutes, and we couldn’t even get to security (let alone through it), so we accepted that we were going to miss our flight. So, naturally, we got tickets for the next flight, which, thankfully was in only 3 hours. Unfortunately, changing our tickets cost us around $85 each. That meant that EACH OF US had to pay TWICE as much as BOTH of our original tickets cost TOGETHER! Naturally, we were both thrilled about this new development. Ariel even said that if we weren’t going from Dublin to Amsterdam, and from Amsterdam home, she probably would have just gone home instead of paying for the new ticket. We also had to call our hostel and let them know that we would be arriving much later than expected.

Pro tip: if you are going to be staying at a hostel and your flight is delayed, you miss your flight, or are going to be significantly later than you originally told them for some other reason (most hostel make you give them an approximate arrival time when you book), you need to call or email them and let them know, or they may assume that you are just a no-show, charge you for at least the first night, and give up your reservation.

Dublin was the first time since arriving nearly four months ago that I had to go through customs and got a passport stamp! (Darn you, Schengen Area!)

As per usual, to get from the airport to the city itself required public transportation, in this case, a bus. Unfortunately the buses only come about every 7-10 minutes, and the first one didn’t show up at all. Then we couldn’t get on the second one because, despite being the first ones there, we had apparently been waiting in slightly the wrong place, so we had to go to the back of a huge crowd of people. But third time’s the charm as they say, and we finally made it to our hostel. Of course because we had been stuck at the airport, and once we had gone through security, there was almost no food, we hadn’t had lunch, so once we checked into our room and dropped off our bags, we went out in search of food.

Pro tip: During the winter, in Europe, the sun rises later and sets earlier than in the US. Sunset is between 4 and 5 o’clock, depending upon how far north or south you are.

By the time that we had eaten, it was already fully dark. But, naturally, this did not prevent us from going exploring. We didn’t really have a destination in mind, but we ended up in the Temple Bar area, and found Christ Church Cathedral by accident. Exploring during Christmas season is the best because you can always find the touristy areas, shopping areas, and other good spots by following the lights! We also learned that a store called “Carrolls” practically has a monopoly on souvenir shops in Dublin– their stores are everywhere and the merchandise varies slightly from store to store.

We kept exploring until we decided to get dinner (naturally we went to a pub). After dinner we planned out all of the places we wanted to visit the next day, and talked with a man we met who was from the South (Ariel was very excited) who gave us some very good advice…

Pro tip: Never go into somewhere that calls itself an “Irish pub” in Ireland. It’s a tourist trap. Any pub in Ireland is an Irish pub.

The next day our first stop was the National Leprechaun Museum (yes, it’s a real thing). It was super corny, but everyone got really into it, so it was super fun. We also learned a lot about Irish folk lore. They had a room with giant furniture, so you can feel like you’re small like a leprechaun, which was my favorite.

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Me on top of a table. Photo courtesy of Ariel.

Afterward we had lunch, and then headed to Guinness for our tour and tasting. You cannot go to Dublin without doing the Guinness tour, it’s pretty much a requirement. It was actually very cool, even if you don’t like beer.20161207_134522.jpg

Afterwards, we went to Christ Church Cathedral and St. Patrick’s. We couldn’t go inside them though, because by the time we got there, they we closed to tourists. Our last official (i.e. planned) stop was at the records office. Ariel, unlike me, is very Irish and wanted to find her great grandmother in the records. Unfortunately, the entire place was closed from Dec. 5-9 because of an even, so there was no way we could have gone. At least the guy at the desk seemed genuinely sorry. People in Dublin are so nice– when we took out our map there were always people who stopped and asked if we were lost or needed directions! I highly recommend going to Ireland and I wish that we had more time there, but the next day we left for Amsterdam.

We got to the airport very early because we were not going to repeat our experience getting to Dublin. When we got to our hostel, we very quickly discovered exactly what they meant when they said steep staircases and no elevator. Naturally we were on the top floor, so we had to climb up 5 levels of steep, spiral staircases with our bags before getting to the room. Unfortunately, we had not had dinner yet, so we had to climb back down (and eventually back up) so that we could eat.

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The End is Near

It’s that time of year again, all you want to do is get ready for the holidays, but first you have to make it through the last (and hardest) weeks of school. The last week before finals always comes with lots of work– papers, group projects, and last-minute exams/quizzes. Being in abroad does not change this at all. The difference here is that finals are not confined to one week.

Technically, “finals week” for ESSEC begins December 7 this year, and continues through December 20th. However, my first final (Communications) was this past Monday.

Pro tip: check the train schedule before booking a plane ticket! I had to spend the night at Orly Airport because the trains didn’t start running early enough for me to make my flight (the OrlyVal starts runs from 6am until 11pm)

It was difficult to pay attention in French on Monday, because I kept thinking about my Communications finals which would start just a few hours later. Thankfully, we spent the first half of class reviewing, and the final was in the same format as the group work we had done in every class session, except (obviously) without the group.

After my final, I went back to my room, packed, and headed to the airport. My flight to Porto, Portugal was at 6:40 Tuesday morning, but the RER doesn’t start running until 5 or so, and the OrlyVal  (which is the train that goes in between the RER B and Orly airport) only starts running at 6am.

Pro tips: 1) it should take around 2 hours to get from Cergy to either Charles De Gaulle or Orly, but the RER A almost always gets stopped somewhere and delayed, 2) budget airlines FINISH boarding 30 minutes before departure, 3) the OrlyVal costs 9,30€ for 1 ticket, and takes about 11 minutes, so if a flight out of or into CDG is only 10€ more (one way), pick that flight, 3.5) Navigo passes for Zones 1-5 (Cergy is in Zone 5) are good for getting to CDG

Due to delays on the RER A–which are almost expected at this point– I made it to Antony (where you get off the RER B and onto the OrlyVal) at 10:34, just in time to catch the last train to Orly before the OrlyVal shut down for the night. Being from the Chicago suburbs, I’m used to airports having flights arriving and departing at all hours; this is not the case in Europe. the last flight to leave from Orly for the night was at around 10 o’clock, so when I arrived, the airport was already pretty much shut down. Have you even been to an airport that has been shut down for the night? Almost all of the lights were off and the only employees there were a few janitors and some security wandering around. I was not the only one spending the night at the airport. there were a few dozen of us scattered around. The people who would need to check luggage were mostly staying on the first floor, while the rest of us went upstairs. The most annoying thing– besides the recorded security announcements that played every half hour or so– was that I didn’t have time to have dinner, and all of the food places at the airport (even McDonald’s) were closed when I arrived, and wouldn’t open again until I would be boarding my flight.

Pro tip: European airports, especially Paris Orly, DO NOT have many power outlets

I was surprised to find out that my flight was not the first flight in the morning, I was third. Nevertheless, I made it through security easily and waited to board. I was unpleantly surprised by the fact that I would have to go outside to board. I had put my coat away in my bag and didn’t know I was going outside until I was in line and it was too late. Anykne who knows me, knows that I love the cold, but being outside in Paris at the end of November without a coat on for 10-15 minutes waiting to get on a plane is not my idea of fun.

Pro tip: almost every flight at Orly boards outside

We had chosen to go to Porto because we went on Skyscanner when Ariel discovered that her Tuesday class was canceled, and it was the cheapest flight. We only realized 2 weeks ago that this was a horrible week to travel (at least in the middle if the week), but oh well. Porto (and Portugal in general) is the only place I have ever been where I didn’t have any expectations.

The city is all steep hills. The only place that I’ve been that was worse was Valparaiso, Chile. Portugal is famous for cork and tile, and a lot of buildings’ facades are covered in tiles. Because we were staying in an Airbnb, we didn’t have any information about free walking tours, so we had to just explore on our own. We found the bookstore where JK Rowling started writing Harry Potter, a gorgeous tiled train station and a few other things.

It was very strange to be there in the middle of the week, so it felt like everyone was just going about their daily lives, and we were two of a very small number of visitors to the city.

We headed back to France on Wednesday in the late afternoon because I had class Thursday morning, and Ariel had the first part of her French final in the afternoon. In my People and Organizations class, my group had to do a presentation on “Stress Management” which is something that all students need at this point in the semester. I also had a group “long-term project” due on Thursday night, so yes, my week was just as stressful as everyone at home’s week.

I’m sure almost all students would agree that nobody should ever have class, let alone a final, on a Saturday, but that’s what I had. This was the first weekend since early October that I spent in Cergy/Paris, but not by choice. Saturday morning was my People and Organizations final exam.

Pro tip: final exams here are worth around 60% of your final grade in most cases, so STUDY!!!! Professors here do not give study guides, and in some cases don’t even tell you in what format the exam will be.

In this case, my teacher gave us the case that would be the focus of the final a week in advance so that we could read it, and, if we so desired, make notes on the pages. 

Sunday was a much more fun day! Ariel and I went into Paris early so that we could get tickets to the Eiffel Tower without waiting in an outrageous line– online tickets were sold out until February. This was Ariel’s first time going to (or up) the Eiffel Tower, despite the fact that we’ve both been here since mid August. For my part, I had made a promise that if the Cubs won the World Series, I would climb up the Eiffel Tower using the stairs. This was me making good on my promise.

Pro tip: despite what you may have heard, the stairs for the Eiffel Tower are not free. It costs 5€, and you can only climb to the second level. If you want to go up to the top, you have to but a supplemental (elevator) ticket for 6€.


Afterwards, I went to Sunday mass at Note Dame for the second to last time, then we headed to the Marché de Noël on the Champs-Elysées. It was great fun, and exactly what you want in a Christmas market. The food area was the best part, though! 😉

Giving Thanks for Venice

With classes occurring so infrequently, the end of the semester (particularly finals) has rather crept up on me. I now have less than a month left here in France, and this upcoming week is the last full week of classes. None of this really hit me until, on Monday, my International Contract Law professor reminded us that it was our final class session before the final, though the final itself is not for another 2 weeks. This shock was further reinforced by my Marketing: Communications class, which was also the last session before the final. However, in that class, the final is tomorrow.

Thankfully, I had 2 things to look forward to before the inevitable stress of finals really took hold: Thanksgiving and Venice.

Ariel and I decided that we were going to do our absolute best to make a full Thanksgiving feast to celebrate. There were 3 flaws in this brilliant plan: we both had class on Thanksgiving (for the first–and probably only–time in my life), it is very difficult to find many of the trappings of Thanksgiving dinner over here (like stuffing, cranberry sauce, and pie), and our kitchens consist of hotplates and refrigerators (which I have lamented many times).

Although of course we could not do anything about going to class [yes, we both attended our classes], we did discover a store that sold many of the food items we needed. In Paris, there is a store called “Thanksgiving” which sells many American foods that you just can’t find elsewhere, like Pop-tarts.

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The closest metro stop is St. Paul, on Metro line 1

Pro tip: The Thanksgiving store is a bit expensive, but if you really need some American foods, Thanksgiving is your best bet.

We bought stuffing mix, gravy mix, and cranberry sauce from there. Everything else came we made ourselves from ingredients at the grocery store, or bought from the local bakery. All told, we only spent about 30 euros, and around 2 hours to make our feast.

wp-image-1647934914jpg.jpegWe had turkey (breasts), stuffing, mashed potatoes, green beans, corn, rolls, cranberry sauce, gravy, hollandaise, apple tart, chocolate cake, ice cream, and wine. Not bad for 2 people working with 2 hotplates!

Both of us were full of anticipation on Friday because after class we were headed to Venice! Truth be told, I was a little worried that Venice would not live up to my expectations because I’ve seen it in movies, on Pinterest, and heard about it so many times. Fortunately, it lived up to the hype.

Because we couldn’t leave until after class, we didn’t get into Venice until late on Friday, so we couldn’t really explore, but we did take full advantage of Saturday and Sunday! On Saturday we spent most of the day on the islands of Burano, and Murano.

Burano is about a 2 hour boatride from the main part of the city, but I highly recommend visiting. The island is known for its lace, and of course there are shops everywhere selling it. You can buy it in various patterns by the meter, or you can buy it in the form of shirts, doilies, table clothes, or all sorts of other things. Burano is also full of very colorful houses, so around every corner is a good picture spot.

20161126_103228.jpgPro tip: 1) wander away from the most touristy areas (yes, even this little island has tourist areas), and the prices will go down significantly. 2) you can buy Murano glass jewelry on Burano and it will be much cheaper; you only need to buy glass on Murano if you are looking for figurines, vases, or other larger items.

After lunch, we headed to Murano, the island justly famous for its glass. Although the island itself is less picturesque, the glass work is spectacular, beautiful, and simply amazing! Unfortunately, but understandably, you cannot take any pictures in the shops. I could have easily spent my entire bank account between the two islands. Thankfully, I was terrified that I wouldn’t be able to get it home without breaking it, so I didn’t buy much.

wp-image-814802728jpg.jpegPro tip: if you are buying Murano glass, make sure it is stamped or, if not, that it comes with a certificate. A few years ago Murano glass was trademarked because Chinese manufacturers have started making cheap glass and claiming that it is Murano glass, so all real Murano glass is stamped and/or should come with a little certificate that specifies the maker and proves that what you are buying really is Murano glass.

In the evening, we went back to our hostel to drop off our purchases, and then went wandering around the city proper and eat dinner. Everyone will tell you that the best way to explore Venice is to “get lost,” but what they mean is to wander around without any particular destination in mind. That’s how we found our dinner, and one of the many gelato places we stopped at in Venice. After dinner and gelato, we headed to St. Mark’s Square so that we could get some pictures of St. Mark’s Basilica, the Campanile, Doge’s Palace, and the Bridge of Sighs before heading back to our hostel.

Pro tip: Google maps does not work very well in Venice. So, if you really do get lost, or just need to find your way back, ask a local for “la Piazza.” They will point you in the direction of St. Mark’s Square.

We headed back to our hostel fairly early because Ariel wanted to get up to get sunrise pictures of the Doge’s Palace. Anyone who knows me knows that I am not a morning person by any stretch of the imagination, but I did get up and go with Ariel to take pictures. Unfortunately, it was cloudy and foggy, so there we didn’t really get any “sunrise” pictures, but, amazingly, we got pictures without any tourists in them! Unfortunately, most of those pictures are on my camera, so I cannot post them on here.

Pro tip: if you want pictures of these sites without tourists, you need to get them extremely early in the morning, and not during tourist season.

In my experience, churches in Europe don’t do early masses. However, St. Mark’s Basilica was an exception, so I went to mass there right after we finished taking our pictures. The inside of the Basilica was gorgeous, especially the gold ceiling, but you could not take any pictures inside. The only other thing that we had planned for Sunday was to go up to the top of the Campanile, but as mass ended at 9 and it did not open until 10, we wandered away in search of breakfast. While we were looking for food, we stumbled upon the Rialto Bridge. That is why you go wandering. We also walked past some gondolas. Ariel was also adamant that she was not going to go on a gondola ride because she couldn’t see the point, and, unsurprisingly, gondola rides in Venice are expensive (80€ per ride). However, the gondola driver told us that they give a student discount, so it would only be 60€, meaning 30€ each, and Ariel relented.

On our ride, the gondola drive pointed out a few famous places, like the oldest house. It is 900 years old, and the same family has lived in it for all of that time. He also pointed out a theater which was once the home of Marco Polo. It didn’t take long for Ariel to admit that taking a ride was a good idea.

After the gondola ride was over, we headed back in the direction of St. Mark’s so that we could go up the campanile. On the way, we found a shop that was having a “Black Weekend” sale, and we each ended up buying a Venetian Carnivale mask.

Going up St. Mark’s Campanile was the last thing we did (besides eating more gelato) before we had to head to the airport and back home. The campanile is huge, and so it offers amazing views of the city!

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Iowa State Campanile (left), and St. Mark’s Campanile (right)

FUN FACT: St. Mark’s Campanile was the inspiration for Iowa State’s, however since the Venetian one collapsed in 1902, and was rebuilt in 1912, the one at Iowa State is actually older (built in 1897-8).

Waffles make everything better

Fair warning: this post talks about food a lot, and may make you hungry.

This week has been all about projects. Especially Monday. In French, we were assigned a 10-minute video speaking project, and a paper. In International Contract Law, my group had to write and turn in the ‘dissertation’ for our presentation on the World Trade Organization and anti-dumping laws. In Communications, my group had to present half of our mid-term project on AirBnB. On Thursday, I discovered that my People and Organizations class was canceled… but not until I had gotten up, dress, taken the train to the school, and the classroom was empty. Figures. My International Marketing professor also assigned us a group project, but at least that one isn’t due for a few weeks.

Friday was exciting because after class Ariel and I headed to the Gare du Nord so we could catch our train to Brussels! The ride from Paris is only an hour and a half, so you could make it a day trip if you are short on time.

Belgium is known for 4 (or 5) food things: waffles, chocolate, beer, fries (and moules-frites). Naturally, I ate all of them.

We arrived in Brussels and checked into our hostel around dinner time, so as soon as we had put down our things and charged our phones (hey, we’re college students), we headed toward the Grand Place in search of food. The Grand Place is the main square in Brussels, and it was all lit up when we got there!

Naturally, it was also full of tourists, but where there are tourists, there is food. We ended up eating at a place where we got an appetizer, entree, and dessert for around 12 euros. I had a very French/Belgian meal: escargots, moules-frites, and a liege waffle. Afterwards we made our first of many forays into the many chocolate shops.

Pro tip: 1) “entré(e)” means ‘enter’ or ‘start’ in French, so when you see it on a menu in a French-speaking country it is referring to an appetizer, not a main course. 2) There are 2 different kinds of ‘Belgian’ waffles– liege and Brussels. A liege waffle is made from a dough (as opposed to a batter) and has little pockets of sugar in it. A Brussels waffle is what most people think of as a Belgian waffle– soft and fluffy.

On Saturday, Ariel and I started out by searching for a brunch place we had found on Pinterest. Peck 47 was great. I had ‘greens’ waffles with smoked salmon and poached eggs, which was not only delicious, but also filling.

20161119_0957391After breakfast we followed our usual pattern when visiting a new city– we went on a free walking tour. This is easily the best way to learn about a city (especially if you aren’t already very familiar with it), make sure you see all of the main attractions, and get advice on where to visit, not visit, or eat. Our guide, Adrienne, was a French expat who has lived in Brussels for the last 20 years; he gave us all sorts of information on Belgian history that I had never heard before. My favorite story was about how the Belgian Revolution began at the Opera.

At the time, Belgium was under the rule of the Netherlands. Up to this point the Belgians were very unhappy, but there wasn’t any real violence. The king of the Netherlands and his officials banned an opera (about Siscily’s sucession from Spain) that was going to be performed in Brussels. The Belgians decided to perform the opera anyway, and the show was sold out because how often “do you get to be gangster by going to an opera?” During one of the songs, all of the people in the building got really into the song, and were standing up on their seats and singing. Soon it spilled out into the streets like a riot, and they took over government buildings, and that was the beginning of the Belgian Revolution.20161119_1639261

On the tour, we saw the Manneken Pis (one of the 3 most disappointingly small icons of Europe), murals of comic book characters like Tin Tin (because comics are considered an art form in Belgium, and Brussels is the #1 place for comics in the world), the Grand Place (the main square which had just finished being renovated and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site), the Opera (where the Belgian Revolution started), the Cathedral of Saints Michael and Gudule (where I ended up attending mass), and the Royal Palace (which the King only visits once or twice a year).

 

After our tour, Ariel and I decided that since we had a) not had lunch, and b) not had fries, that we should have fries for lunch, so that’s what we did.  At the end of our tour we had asked our guide for recommendations of places to go for food, so we went to the fries place that he recommended. Even though neither of us are particular fans of beer, we also went on the beer tasting that evening. During our walking tour, our guide had told us that, in Belgium, if you love beer, he can find one you would hate, and if you hate beer, he can find one that you’ll like. On the beer tasting we tried 4 different beers (from several different bars). The last place we went to was Delirium, which has the World Record with over 2,000 different beers. Ariel was disappointed because even with so many varieties, they did not have an orange beer, but they did have a chocolate beer which was pretty good (I tried it).

Pro tip: 1) when you go on a tasting in Europe, they will give you full glasses, not just a taste. I recommend not drinking the whole thing. 2) Belgian beers have a much higher alcohol content than in other places– averaging 8-10%.

On Sunday, because the trip home was so much shorter than normal, we had a lot of time in Brussels before we had to head back to Cergy. There is no better way to start your day with waffles, especially in Belgium! We went to a place called the Waffle Factory which is about halfway in between the Grand Place and the Manneken Pis.  Since neither of us had eaten a Brussels waffle yet, so we each had one of those– I had two. First, I tried a plain one (just powdered sugar); I highly recommend it, but, fair warning, the waffles you make at home will never stack up. Then, I had to have one with chocolate, so I got another one with bananas and Belgian chocolate. Yum!

After by far the best breakfast I have had in Europe– yes, I know, I said that Saturday’s breakfast was great, and it was, but I’m a sucker for waffles– we made our last trip to a chocolate shop before I had to go to mass. I went to mass at the Cathedral of Saints Michael and Gudule, who are the Patron Saints of Brussels. On the outside the cathedral looks pretty similar to Notre Dame de Paris, but the inside is much simpler. Unlike Notre Dame, you can’t tour the church while masses are going on, which was actually a relief. After mass, Ariel wanted to have Chinese food for lunch because you can’t find it in Paris, so that’s what we did. Before we headed to the train station to go back to Paris, we did a little bit more wandering around, looking at all of the Christmas decorations and looking for the Peeing Dog. (No, I don’t know what it is with Brussels and peeing things.)

Election Week

The best was to get back into your normal routine after a break is to have a short week, and that was exactly what I got.

This week was weird. On Sunday night, after I got back from Iceland, I had to reset my alarms to get up for class, and I actually could not remember what time class started. Thank goodness I only turned off the alarms on my phone, rather than deleting them, or I probably would have been late to French. Once I was awake, though, it was like any other Monday here: I went to French, bought myself lunch, went to International Contract Law (where my group had to present the project we had been assigned before break, on worked on haphazardly from different counties– thank God for shared documents!), and then worked with my Communications group on our group project because that class was canceled.

Yes, I know Dad, my classes always seem to be canceled, but I don’t decide when my classes do and do not meet.

After class, as is our Monday routing, Ariel and I went to the grocery store (Auchan, which is kind of like Walmart, but located inside a shopping mall) to get all of our food for the week. Most French people go grocery shopping much every day or every other day, but it’s easier for us to just go once a week.

Tuesday, of course, was Election Day in the United States, and for anyone who thought that not being in the United States for the election meant that I didn’t have to see news and talk about it semi-constantly:sorry, you’re wrong. The only election hype that I did not get was the political commercials. Yes, I did vote from over here, but I did not get an “I voted” sticker, since I had to send in my ballot by mail.

Fun fact: For Illinois, where I vote, absentee ballots from overseas only need to be sent in by election day, and be received by 14 days afterwards, so Illinois was decided– and claimed to have counted 100% of votes cast– before ballots like mine needed to be in. So if anyone is still claiming that their vote didn’t count, my vote literally had not been counted before the election was officially decided. It was probably still in the mail.

Here in France, the polls in the US closed in the wee hours of the morning, so only a dedicated few stayed awake to watch the election results roll in. I was not one of those people. I woke up Wednesday morning to more notifications on my phone than I’ve had on any other day since I arrived here, telling me what had happened. For the rest of the week, all of the Americans did their best to have nobody know that they were American because the election– and especially Trump– was the only topic of conversation, especially if anybody knew that you were an American. The topic of Trump and the election even came up in class. I also had to do a lot of explaining about how the American election system works, because although Europeans may follow foreign politics, they don’t necessarily understand it.

Thankfully we did not have class on Friday because it was Armistice Day (also known in the US as Veterans Day). To celebrate the long weekend, Ariel and I took what is widely known as one of the most beautiful train rides in the world! We took the train from Paris to Turin, Italy, although the train itself goes from Paris to Lyon to Turin to Milan, with several minor stops on the way. The train ride is around 6 hours long, and the first hour or so is as scenic as a train ride through the Midwest. Once you get to the foothills, and start to see and go through the French and Italian Alps, the views get 1000 times better. When we got to the French-Italian border, it was even snowing! Just imagine, we didn’t see a single flake in Iceland, but we rode through a blizzard in Italy!

Turin itself is very much like Paris, or, what Paris would be if it wasn’t a major city and the most popular tourist destination in the world. In short, it was the best parts of Paris (style, good food, beautiful language and architecture), combined with all of the charm Italy (pizza, pasta, gelato, piazzas with street markets), and surrounded by mountains.

We started off our day visiting the Mole Antonelliana, which is actually the world’s tallest museum. It is a museum for film and cinema, but you can go up to the top and it has amazing 360° views of the city and surrounding mountains. Once we had both taken enough pictures– Ariel’s motto is “do it for Instagram”– we headed to the Egyptian museum. Yes, we did visit Italy (partially) for a museum about Egypt. For those of you that don’t know, Turin’s Museo Egizo has the best collection of Ancient Egyptian artifacts outside of Cairo. But on the way to the museum we wander past, and looked around at a whole bunch of street markets. I don’t know if it was just because it was Saturday, but in every piazza we passed, and on many of the streets there were street market stalls filled with everything from collectible stamps to jewelry to furniture to nativity pieces.

After the Egyptian museum, we went to have lunch. In Italy they eat very much the same way they do in lunch– taking a very long time. Naturally we had pasta, and then went for gelato. After our gelato we headed towards the Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist, which is the church where the Shroud of Turin is kept. The Shroud is believed to be the cloth that Jesus was wrapped in when they took his body down from the Cross. It certainly has the image of a man who was crucified, and is easily the most studied artifact in human history. However, it only goes on display once every 5 to 10 years, so the fact that it was not on display was not a surprise, as it went on display in 2015.

The last thing we saw before heading back to our hostel for the night was the Porta Palatina, which, although I don’t actually know why it is well-known, was right next to the Cathedral. On Sunday, I went to mass (in Italian) at the Cathedral of Saint John the Baprist before we had to head to the train station, so we could make the 6.5 hour journey back to Paris.

 

Fall Break, part 2

Part of the reason that I came back to Paris in the middle of my fall break was to change out my clothing because ‘part 1’ was spent in Southern Europe, and was quite warm, but ‘part 2’ was much colder and further north.

Halloween

Monday was Halloween, and Ariel and I were determined to do something Halloween related to celebrate, even though Halloween is not really celebrated here. Originally, we had intended to visit the Paris Catacombs, but they are closed on Mondays. Instead, we discovered the “Salon du Chocolat” was going to be held that weekend. The “Salon du Chocolat” is an exposition in Paris dedicated to chocolate. It is held every fall, and 500 of the world’s best chocolatiers come to show their wares, in addition to the lectures on various beans and chocolate making, and chocolate fashion. Nothing is more in the Halloween spirit than gorging ourselves on chocolate!

After spending the day sampling chocolates and foods made with chocolate from all around the world, we headed back to Cergy to figure out what we were going to wear for a Halloween party. For Parisians, Halloween is just an excuse to throw a party, so there were dozens going on in Paris on Monday night. Ariel and I went to a free one, but neither of us enjoyed ourselves so we left fairly quickly. The problem was that even though we left early, it was still late enough that we had to take the night bus back to Cergy because the RER had stopped running for the night. This was our first experience with the night bus, but luckily we met two other girls who were going back to Cergy Le Haut as well.

Pro tip: never trust the bus schedule for Paris public transit, and always dress for the weather, even if you are not planning on spending much time outside.

As you may have just guessed based on the above advice, we all spent a lot more time outside in the barely-above-freezing weather. Ariel and I both have the ViaNavigo app, which tells us all about Paris public transit, including routes and schedules. In this case, we had to take 2 buses to get back to Cergy from Paris. First, we had to wait outside for the first bus which was slightly late. This should not have been a problem because we were supposed to have 13 minutes in between getting dropped off by the first bus, and being picked up by the second one. Naturally, as soon as we were dropped off, the other bus pulled away. The problem was that the next bus wouldn’t be for another hour and nothing (especially nothing outside of Paris) is open that late, so all four of us got to wait outside in the cold. Fortunately, I am from the Midwest and know how to deal with cold, but Ariel is from the South and the other 2 girls were from India, so they did not deal very well with the cold.

Getting back late would not have been a problem if a) we weren’t leaving for ‘fall break, part 2’that afternoon, b) I had already packed, and c) it wasn’t a holy day of obligation. Of course, we were leaving for break, I always procrastinate on packing, and I did have to go to mass for All Saints Day (or Toussaint as it is apparently called in french). Unlike me, Ariel got to sleep in and met me at Charles De Gaulle after I went to mass and we flew to Berlin, Germany.

Berlin, Germany

To add to the list of things I didn’t think about when I was planning this trip: at the beginning of November, the sun sets in Belin just after 4pm, so by the time our plane landed, the sun had already set, and it was starting to rain. Fortunately, the public transportation in Berlin was not difficult to figure out, but it certainly helped that I remembered some basic German from the 2 years of it I took in high school. Once we got to our hostel, we decided to just figure out dinner and then stay in for the rest of the night. Naturally, we got schnitzel and I had a beer because when in Germany… I was also preparing myself for another night of little or no sleep because it was game 6 of the World Series!

My philosophy when getting to a new city is to start out by taking a walking tour, so that’s exactly what we did. Naturally, most of the history of Berlin comes back to the World Wars, and the post-war decisions that split the country and city in two. The tour was fascinating, and the guide showed us all sorts of places that I wish we had time to visit. Unfortunately, by the time the tour was over, the sun was setting and it was beginning to rain again. We did go find “Rosenthaler strasse” (aka Rosenthal street) before heading back to the hostel. On the way, though, we picked up pretzels and brotwurst because I couldn’t leave Germany without having each of those, and we needed snacks to keep us awake for the Cubs game!

 

Fall Break, part 1

Last Friday was the exact midpoint of my time studying abroad, and it was also the first time I left France since I arrived in August.

Madrid, Spain

I have never taken a Spanish class in my life. The entire extent of my Spanish is “si,” “gracias,” and counting to 39. However, this was not the first time I’ve been to a country where I don’t speak the language. In March, I went to Chile with the SCM live case study, and Chileans speak as much English as I do Spanish.

By far the hardest part about Madrid was getting to my hostel. I arrived in Madrid just after 8pm and had to take the metro to my hostel. My philosophy is that if you can figure out public transportation in a foreign language, you can do anything. it took me 10 minutes of looking at a map to figure out how to get where I needed to go, and both times I had to change trains, I spent another minute or so looking at the map to make sure I was going the right way. Once I got to my stop, actually finding my hostel was harder than I expected. The hostel I was staying at was 2 floors of a fairly nondescript building, and I walked right past it at first because I didn’t see the small sign labeling it as a hostel. Fortunately, I was in Spain, so when I left in search of dinner at 10 o’clock, everything was still open. Naturally, I had tapas and sangria, then went to bed.
The best thing to do on your first day in a new city is to take a tour. Luckily, I found a free walking tour to go on. Unluckily, it was raining and I didn’t bring my rain boots because they didn’t fit in my bag. I thought that one of the pairs I brought was waterproof. It wasn’t. It was only water resistant, and by the end of the tour, my feet were soaked. I wasn’t thrilled about that, but it didn’t stop me from learning a lot about the city, and continuing to explore even after the tour was over.

Pro tip: check the forecast before you leave, and if it says rain, bring shoes that are actually waterproof. You will regret it if you don’t.

On Sunday I got to go to mass at the Almudena Cathedral, which was very cool, but also difficult to understand. Afterwards I went back to some of the stops from the tour to get more pictures, and to the oldest chocolate and churros place in the world. There’s nothing better to cheer you up on a cold, rainy day than fried food and chocolate! 

Once I had finished, I walked the rest of the way to the art museums– the churro place was about half way in between the Almdena Cathedral and the Museo del Prado. I am not a big ‘art person,’ but both the Museo del Prado and the Riena Sofia are very famous, and (as a bonus) are indoors! My favorite painting was “Guernica” by Picasso. I am not a great Picasso fan, but I have taken an art class and we studied that painting, so it was very cool to see it in person.

Barcelona, Spain

My flight tof Barcelona was very early in the morning (I rode on of the very first trains after the metro started for the day to get to the airport), so I got there before I could actually check into my new hostel. I was staying at the Black Swan, which is my favorite hostel so far. I only had 2 days in Barcelona, so as soon as I had put my stuff away, I left to go see La Sagrada Familia. When I got there I learned 2 things: 1) you need to buy a ticket to actually go in, 2) tickets needed to be bought at least a day in advance. Thankfully, I was able to get tickets to go the next day, so I went back to my hostel for the free dinner and the bar crawl.

The next day it was raining again– as it had done every single day that I had spent in Spain– but this did not stop me from going to the beach. Barcelona has some famous beaches, and I was determined to at least put my feet in the Mediterranean. I didn’t stay at the beach very long because it went from dripping to a downpour almost as soon as I got to the water. I spent the next couple of hours hiding inside the hostel until the rain stopped and I had to go back to LA Sagrada Familia.

La Sagrada Familia is really cool because it doesn’t look anything at all like other basilicas or cathedrals. It also isn’t finished yet, but is set to be completed in 2026. According to my audio guide, the basilica is designed using a lot of natural themes and scenes from the Bible.

I had to pull an all-nighter that night because I am a huge Cubs fan and the Cubs were playing in the first game of the World Series. Baseball games, especially playoff (and World Series) games start at 2am in Europe.

Nice, France

Nice is nice! It has everything you could want out of the French Riviera. Just like in Barcelona, I got to Nice too early to check in. This time, though, I spent most of the wait laying on the beach. The beaches in Nice are great because they are pebble beaches, so you don’t have to worry about sand getting everywhere.

Once I had gotten my room, I found lunch and then took a nap in preparation for another 2am Cubs game!

Every day of the week except Monday, Nice holds the Marché aux Fleurs (market of flowers). It is really cool because local people and business owners are not just selling flowers– though here are plenty of people selling those– there are people selling fresh vegetables and breads, candied and dried fruits, soaps, and all kinds of other souvenirs.

After wandering through the market, I climbed up to l’ancien château which has great panoramic views of Nice and the Mediterranean Sea. It was afternoon and quite warm by the time I took the (free) elevator back down, so I decided to spend the rest of my day at the beach! The Mediterranean Sea is not nearly as cold as the Pacific Ocean, but it’s not warm either. Besides the minor drawback of walking into the water with bare feet, the Med is great for swimming– it gets deep very quickly and the water is very clear.

Pro tip: shoes that can be worn in the water (like rafting shoes) would have been great because walking around on rocks, especially into and out of the water, is not very comfortable with bare feet.

Monaco

Monaco is just a 40 minute bus ride from Nice, so that’s where I spent my last full day before heading back to Cergy. A bus ticket only costs 1.50€ each way, but you can stop in Eze, France on the way. Eze is about halfway in between Nice and Monaco, and has wonderful, 360° panoramic views. The bad news is that you have to pay to get up to the garden with the views (2.50€ for students, 10€ for adults), and the busses don’t come very frequently. I had taken all of the pictures I wanted and was ready to go in around 30 minutes, but there was 3 hours between the bus we got off of, and the next one. This meant that I got to take a very leisurely lunch before continuing on to Monaco. It also meant that my ticket (which was good for one journey, up to 74 minutes) had expired and I needed a new one.

Happily, when you get to Monaco, the bus drops you off right near the Monte-Carlo. Out front is a continuous parade of super-cars; it was the obly place I’ve ever been where the one Audi that went by looked cheap and out of place. Parked out front were a handful of Bentleys, several Rolls-Royce, a Moserati, and nearly every color of Ferrari.

After admiring the nice cars (and picking out our favorites), we went inside.

Pro tips: 1) There is a dress code to go inside, especially at night– so dress nicely. 2) You will need your Passport to go in as well, both into the building, and especially to go into the room where you can actually gamble. 3) to get into said room you will need to buy a 10€ ticket, which just gets you onto the floor– no chips. 4) if you are planning on gambling, you buy chips at the table, and the lowest minimum was 5€ at one of the roulette tables.

Naturally we figured what was the point of going in unless you actually went onto the casino floor, so we did. It was a lot smaller than I thought it would be, bUT I’m sure they have separate rooms where they host poker tournaments.

Behind the casino is the port, which is full of yachts, sailing ships, and boats from the World Rowing championship. we walked through the port picking out our favorite yachts, and identifying the flags on them, before wandering down the roads (which are used in the Grand Prix) toward our bus stop. Sadly, the last bus back was at 8pm, so we couldn’t stay to watch all of the super rich people show up to gamble.

Halfway There

Today marks the halfway point in my time here– 2 months over, 2 months left. But it’s hard to think about going home when this weekend marks the beginning of our two-week fall break!

This past week was full of anticipation, especially because every teacher was reminding us that they wouldn’t see us again for 2 or 3 weeks. My excitement was slightly dampened when my International Contract Law professor assigned us a group project, and my group will be presenting the day we get back.

On Wednesday, Ariel and I went into Paris as usual. Per our usual luck, the trains were delayed and we got into Paris later than we expected. We started off our day waiting in line for about 2 hours to visit the Paris catacombs. It wasn’t cold, but the wind was not pleasant. Once we made it inside, we had to go down a several story spiral staircase. Once at the bottom, there were several info sheets on the walls with the history of the mines and the catacombs. You have to walk quite a ways in between the stairs where you go down, and where you actually get to the catacombs.

It’s very hard to think of all of the bones as real, human bones. It’s surreal, like when you finally get to visit somewhere in person that you’ve been dreaming about for years. Most of the bones were moved from deconsecrated cemeteries, and nothing has been added for 200 years. The bones are all in what llok like alcoves, and each pile is around 2 meters high, and 15-20 meters deep. For the most part, there is nothing holding the bones in place– even the decorative designs– but in the last 5 years, they’ve started adding concrete to the tops to stop people from stealing the bones. Who would want to steal some 200+ year old human bones, I have no idea.

After the catacombs, we went to McDonald’s for lunch because it was too late for anywhere else– their lunch services had closed. However, McCafé sells macarons, so I tried one. It wasn’t bad, and much better than I would have though McDonald’s would have.

We had plans for that night to meet up with someone Ariel knew, but since we still had a few hours, we decided to go back and visit our favorite macaroni shop. However, we accidentally went down the wrong road when we came up from the RER under the Arc de Triomphe, so it took us much longer to get there than it should have, but we found another macaron shop on the way, and between the 2 shops (and the 1 from McDonald’s) I have officially met the minimum requirement of Nicole’s Macaron Challenge!

Friday starts fall break, and I can’t wait!

A Very French Weekend

What is more French than bring late, visiting châteaus and castles, and doing a wine and cheese tastings?

Last week was midterms for a lot of my classes, but unlike at home where that means every class is having an exam, here it just meant that we are officially halfway through the semester. Only 2 of my classes even mentioned it. In my International Contract Law class, we didn’t have class this week, but we took our midterm exam the week before. I also had a quiz in French, but that was just a regular quiz, rather than a midterm. I knew that midterms were not a big deal here, but I didn’t realize before now exactly how little they meant.

Over the weekend, though, MELT and Polo Marco organized a trip the Loire Valley which has several famous and beautiful châteaus. This weekend was one of the “reserved” weekends, which meant that you couldn’t plan trips for those weekends (in advance) because if a class gets canceled, that’s when they get made up. I decided to go on the Loire Valley trip because it meant that I got to go somewhere without doing any planning. Sounds great, right? Turns out French people are not very good at organization.

The itinerary said we were supposed to depart from the ESSEC parking lot at 9am on Saturday. There were 22 people going on the trip, and at 9:15, 18 of us were still standing in the parking lot with no sign of either the bus we were supposed to be taking, or the people that actually organized the trip. At 9:20 the organizers showed up with other people going, and the bus. The bus ride was about the same length, and the same amount of interesting as a bus from the Twin Cities to Ames, or Chicago to Urbana-Champaign. In other words, a 3.5 hour ride through farmland.

The first thing we did when we got to the Loire Valley was head to the castle that supposedly inspired the one in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast: the Château de Chambord. Personally, I don’t think it looks anything like the one in Beauty and the Beast, but judge for yourself.

The first thing we did when we got there was eat our lunches picnic-style, sitting on the lawn. One of the people who came with us was from the area and had been to the château many times, so he gave us our own private tour. Château de Chambord was where most of the French kings lived before Versailles was built. Château de Chambord was made for King Francis I, but, unusually, nobody really knows who designed it. Other than the views from the balconies, the best part of the Château de Chambord is the central staircase. It is actually 2 spiral staircases, but they never intersect, which is why many people think that the Château was designed by Leonardo da Vinci.

After a few hours wandering the castle, we got back in the bus and headed to Domaine du Croc du Merle for our wine and cheese tasting. It was a lovely, local place where we got a explination and demonstration of how they make their cheese and wines. Then we went into their warehouse, where they had bread, blackcurrant jam, cheese, and several kinds of wine. Before we left, almost everyone bought a bottle or two, and most of those people bought the first white wine we tasted.

It was almost dinner time by the time we left, so we took our bus to our hotel in Blois. The hotel was interesting because we didn’t have a set number of rooms for us, and each of the rooms, regardless of how many people were staying in them, had 3 beds. On bed was a queen, one was a twin, and one was a day bed. Once we had all dropped our stuff off in our rooms, we headed out to get dinner. It was already 8 o’clock before we left the hotel, but we spent a long time wandering around the city. I’m not sure what happened, but there was a specific restaurant on the itinerary and we ended up eating somewhere else. I don’t know if the problem was that we couldn’t find the restaurant we were supposed to go to, or if they just didn’t have room for us. All I know is that we ended up eating somewhere else, and we had to eat outside because we were such a big group. I ended up getting a classic French dish: moules-frites (aka mussels and fries). They were quite good, but they got cold pretty fast because we were outside in 40° weather. After dinner we split up into 2 groups. One group went straight back to the hotel, the other (my group) went out to a bar. We only stayed until shortly after midnight because we had to get up early the next day. 

I got up much earlier than everyone else on Sunday because I wanted to catch the second half of the Cubs game. I couldn’t stay up for the whole thing because the games run from 2am to 6am my time, and I needed to get some sleep. After breakfast we headed to Château Royal de Blois. Right near the entrance was an overlook area with a great view of the city of Blois, and the Loire River.

I was not impressed by the Château itself. It was much more like a large house that was being used as a museum than a castle, in my opinion. However it did have a throne that you could sit on, and we had lots of fun posing on it.

 

Afterwards, we headed to Chenonceau. This was easily my favorite château of the weekend, and probably my favorite one in France. If you want to see a beautiful, classic, French château, go to Chenonceau! There were absolutely no bad views! The grounds are beautiful, the river is beautiful, the building itself is beautiful. You really can’t go wrong. I was not the only one who thought we could’ve used more time. Having never seen it at any other time of the year, this is probably biased, but I think that autumn is the best time to see it because there were trees changing color all around the Château.

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