Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Return to the third world

Just landed back in the United States and it is somehow more unpleasant than I could have imagined. I thought I would feel some sense of "its good to be back" but so far nothing at all.

It all started going down hill before I even left France. At the Paris airport, I went to the bag check counter with American Airlines. I was just standing there waiting when all of a sudden some (American) employee pulls me out of line and asks me all these questions about my trip and where in the U.S. I live. He had all these specific questions that were clearly just to "test" if I was lying ("What was your university mascot?"). I didnt see them do this to anyone else, and I only had a tiny hand luggage that I wanted to check in. I'm almost sure it was just because I'm brown. Nothing like getting racially profiled to kick off my entry into the U.S!

On the plane, I was pleasantly surprised that I actually got wine! But of course the food reminded me about the intensity of American cooking. Its been a while since I've eaten something so salty that it irritated the skin in my mouth. I also have a major sweet tooth, but the apple crumble they had for desserts was a sugar crash waiting to happen. I really hope that my tastes havent changed completely to the point where everything will taste too salty or sweet. Or maybe I do, because I would be eating much healthier here.

The worst of the worst however was actually landing in the U.S. The Miami airport really is a perfect example of the crumbling American infrastructure. Of course the security check rules here are hyper thorough, but the infrastructure needed for these security checks are clearly not there. For example the Paris airport has a fairly simple system to distribute security buckets where passengers are convenyor-belted empty buckets from below so that they can use as many as they need without getting in the way of other passengers. This is complimented by green and red lights that indicate to passengers where on the conveyor belt they can stand to move along the process. This is a very fast and efficient way to get everyone thorough security. Meanwhile in the U.S., we are left to a one lane conveyor belt where passengers trip over each other's bags and fight for buckets. This leads to continuous yelling from the TSA employees and a very very slow system.

Then came the immigration station! Not as bad as I expected and i was allowed to officially enter the country. I followed the signs to the "US Passports" section and of course this lead me in several confusing circles around the airport. When I finally got to where the arrows pointed, I was asked 3-4 times if I was actually as U.S. passport holder! Hooray again for racial profiling.

Next stop in the horror of the Miami airport was bag transfer. Since I have another connecting flight in the US I apparently I have to pickup my bag in Miami and re-check it to my connecting flight. Fine, a fairly simple process if the Miami airport wasnt a completely failed state. First of all, this re-checking system was not indicated to me on any sign anywhere. It looked like a regular baggage claim for picking up bags right before you'd take a taxi home. But I remembered doing the re-check the last time I flew through Miami,  so I went to the luggage desk to confirm. Of course at the luggage desk, 3 different people gave me 3 different answers. But the 4th person was fairly certain I had to re-check so I waited for my bag at the Paris carousel. Sure enough my bag arrived, and I picked it up to re-check. Really, how hard is it to put up some signs to clarify the process?

With immigration and bags taken care of, all that was left was to figure out where my gate was and go there. But there was only signage on how to travel within the terminal, not between terminals. Any signs indicating travel between terminals would dead-end and suddenly stop directing you before you got there. I like that I was able to easily navigate planes, trains, and buses for 4 months in countries where the language was new or even unknown to me. But here I am completely lost in Miami. This airport really really is a disaster.

When I finally did find my gate, I found that the flight was delayed one hour! Then my 4 month long craving couldnt be satisfied because this airport doesnt have one. How can one place be so horrible? Add all this to the fact that everyone is shouting, theres no wifi, its dirty, and the power outlets dont work. I am really really not happy to be back.

Maybe Houston will be better?

Monday, January 16, 2017

Paris take II

Have not posted in a while, which is apparently a good sign. I’ve been keeping myself relatively busy since the last week. So I think I posted last right after my meditation class on Sunday. Afterwards I went to see Manchester by the Sea (in English) with one of my American friends. Not that movie really needs a dialogue to be understood. It’s mostyl just depressing images and crying. Anyway, I’ve hung out with her quite a bit since. It’s interesting to think how seemingly minor social norms are actually significant. FOr example when I make plans with her there’s a very familiar rythm to our conversation. Idea proposed, idea accepted, time decided, event commences. It’s not quite so direct with the Europeans I met. Especially when it comes to picking a time.

So on Sunday the movie ran a little bit longer than I expected so I was running late to the Erasmus meeting afterwards. I had been talking with the Erasmus student network here before I even arrived in France, so it was something I was really looking forward to. The meeting ended up being at the buildling where one of people who went to the movie with us lived. So even though I was late we all walked over together. Good thing too because it was quite hard to find!

Once we got there we met a lot of students who had just arrived in Aix. I guess I arrived in Aix one week before the university students returned. So now is when everyone is arriving and starting up again. It was a great opportunity to meet people who are also new to the city! Everyone was meeting for the first time, a lot of contact info was exchanged, and everyone was really friendly.

Then, the Monday afterwards, my French class got 3 new students! And 2 of them are my age!!  They are also super friendly and dont really know anyone around here. Right after class, we went to go get coffee and spent a few hours just talking.

So overall I met a ton of people in the span of a few days. And throughout this whole week, I have just been hanging out with them. I went to a French screening of The Godfather, explored several new coffeeshops, went to Museum Granet, and went out quite a few nights. There are a lot of nice bars and clubs here, but the Europeans like to stay out until 3 or 4 am!! It’s insane. So it’s hard to recover afterwards, but bread really helps.

The people I met are also just great solid people. I va bit a way from where most of the them lived, and the first night I didnt know how to get home and there were no Ubers around. So I was going to Google maps my way home, but they all instited on walking back with me so I wouldnt go alone. It was a 25 minute walk in the freezing cold and it was so sweet for them to come with me (and walk back 25 minutes after!). So I think I have found some great people. They also speak Engish, so that means that my French is suffering a bit.

Actually, right now I am on the TGV to visit a bike shop alum in Paris. And at the train station I noticed that I understood the announcements and could communicate here and there with the people at the ticket counter, etc. So there is some improvement to my French, and I think maybe after a little while longer I’ll conquer the learning curve.
This new group seems really up for adventure and going places so I’m excited to make some more plans with them. Its interesting how much more socially competent I am now than back during Oweek. At Oweek, even though I met people, I didnt know how to go about being proactive about making friends. I would go to events, but I didnt invite people to come with me, or go out of my way to see someone. Now I know how to do all that and I guess its fairly easy to make friends (atleast when traveling). I think alot of my social skills have improved after working in finance. Maybe because those people are so intimidating and I had to navigate 2 months with them, now I dont feel intimidated by any social situation with anyone.

So coming up to present times, as I mentioned im on the TGV currently. It will be interesting to see Paris with someone who actually lives there. My train ticket said 14:15, so I thought that meant the train would arrive at 14:15 and leave at 14:20. It actually meant that the train arrives at 14:14:30 and departs at 14:15:00. I had been at the station for about an hour at that point, but I was still surprised how everyone shuffled into the train and we took off before everyone was even seated. Europeans dont mess around with their trains.

My task at hand is to finalize plans for the winter recess in February. I also need to keep chugging along on my project, even though I did do a good amount of working and brainstorming this past week. Wow the train just left Provence I think because we crossed from very sunny skies to very cloudy skies. There was like a distinct row of clouds and now everything is couldy. I should catch up on sleep because I didnt sleep much last night.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Feeling great!

What an exciting 18 hours its been. I last left off where I said I would start making a schedule and committing to staying out of bed and not scrolling. Well, the plan is working amazingly right now, and so many wonderful things have come from it.

Yesterday I made a schedule like I said I would. I listed out all the available activities around town for the week. Then I went to the English speakers event as planned. While I was there, I met some very nice people including some Americans. Surprisingly, one of them knew a recent Rice alum who was living in the area and part of her English teaching program. They invited me to the movies today and invited me to go out with them later that night.

I said yes to them but couldnt go to the movies because I was planning to go the dinner that usually follows the English speakers event. The dinner was wonderful, we went to a Vietnamese restaurant. The Vietnamese food here is somewhat different from American Vietnamese food. So it was an interesting experience. We ordered wine there as well, at it was amazing!! Just a simple glass of Vietnamese restaurant white wine was probably the best wine I've ever had. I really need to start ordering wine when I go out because thats what this area is known for.

During and after dinner, we had wonderful (English) conversation about the economy and politics and capitalism. The people here seem to be very liberal and we had very interesting discussions about the direction the world is heading and the ethics of charity and taxes. All topics I did not expect to have on a first encounter with a group of people.

After the (3 hour) dinner, one of the women very kindly offered me a ride home. I went to bed very content after great food, wine, and conversation.

In the morning, I was startled awake by a dream about being back at Rice and playing soccer with my friends. It made me sad and nostalgic, so my first reaction was to scroll thorugh old pictures of good times at Rice. Instead, using my "no scroll rule" I decided to I talked to one of my friends back home who happened to be awake. I also sent some hellos to some friends I havent talked to in a while. This was much more effective than scrolling, and it helped me use social media actively to reach out to people instead of creeping from the background.

Then with the time I saved by not scrolling, I realized I had time to walk over to the meditation class that I had put on my weekly schedule. It was a chilly walk but not too far. The girls I met from the class were so nice! And we have a lot of similar interests. Best of all, the meditation was very very effective. One of the best meditations I have ever had. I felt amazing afterwards and felt like I could think so clearly. I also felt so happy. We exchanged contact info and I think we will keep in touch and do some outdoor meditations together in the future.

Feeling chipper from the meditation, I walked back home and passed by a little grocery store that was actually open (my usual store is closed on Sundays). I bought some milk which I had been deeply craving for my coffee all week. I also bought some carrots and potatoes to make soup.

When I got home, instead of scrolling again, I simply checked my messages and replied to them quickly. Then I proceeded to make coffee with milk. The milk here is amazing and has a very distinct flavor! I love it. The bottle says to finish the full liter in 4 days....that might be hard but not too hard.

Now my soup is almost ready, and my whole studio smells like delicious potatoes and herbs. My coffee is warming up my stomach and I feel very content to be here on this beautiful sunny day in Provence. I told the girls at meditation about my project, and they said I should commit to starting it today. So after this, I will sit down and give it ago. Afterwards I will go to the movies with my new American friends and then go to the Erasmus meeting to meet some international students!

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Avoiding my bed

The ups and downs of living in a new place continue. Since my last post, I have gone on a new hike and gotten to see a very nice view of Provence. It was near Zola Dam, and it was a spontaneous decision to go up there and look around. It was beautiful and I'm looking forward to more outdoor adventures here.

My class is also getting a lot better and I can tell my french is improving. I can communicate and understand a lot better than I used to. I've started listening to a podcasts to keep me listening to new conversations and subjects outside of day-to-day language. It's also nice to have something to listen to because it gets pretty quiet at my studio.

Which brings us to the downs of the post. Between the small adventures there has been a good amount of downtime in my week. I have to keep reminding myself that it's only been a week and I'll soon find more activities to occupy my time. My biggest problem is that is pretty cold in my apartment even with the heater at the max. So as soon as I get home I crawl into my bed to "warm up" but end up staying there the rest of the day.

My plans for this morning were also canceled, so that was kind of disappointing. But tonight I have another language exchange, so ill hopefully meet some new people and see some people I know again. Theres also an Erasmus meeting on Sunday, so I might meet some people again then.

I need to make a schedule so I definitely get out of my bed and do more things. I might start taking a lunch to school so I dont come back to my house after class. That will keep me in the city center a bit longer. One of my friends showed me a few coffee shops around the city, so I can be productive and do some work there.

When I came here I also had this big project in mind, so I need to start setting deadlines for it so it actually gets off the ground. I also need to stop my scrolling addiction!

Going back to the ups, the locals here have been very nice. They are very considerate of me being a French learner and I never feel discouraged even when I make mistakes. I went to try "calissons" yesterday, apparently a signature dessert of Aix. They sold them by the kilo, but I asked if I could just buy 2 individual ones. Maybe I looked cold and sad, but the lady gave them to me for free! It made me happy because I guess the locals like me!

In terms of food, I was afraid to buy too much because I thought it would go bad. But it looks like what I've bought already is keeping well. Next time I'll buy some meat and try some new recipes. I think I will also  to buy fresh croissants and baguettes from now (instead of bagged from the store), because, hey, we're in France!

Thursday, January 5, 2017

The ups and downs

Traveling of course has many ups and downs. Right after I wrote my last very happy post, I discovered that I had lost something: my brand new bus card. I put it in the little pocked on the back of my phone, so it must have slipped out. I retraced my steps throughout the town but couldn't find it on the ground. So I went to the tourist office to buy a new bus pass, but it turns out its 20 euros to replace just the plastic! I also misunderstood and thought I would have to repay the 27 euros I already paid to get 1-month of access. So I thought I would have to pay 47 euros for my mistake and was feeling pretty mopey about it. Also my plans for that day got cancelled so I had plenty of time to mope.

On the bright side I walked home again (some what in protest of the busline for wronging me) and I found a new route that is very nice. I also thought about the fact that I could've lost my wallet or credit cards or keys or passport. So I'm very lucky that I only lost something that can be very easily replaced. 

This morning I conceded my protest and went to the tourist office again to buy a new card. Turns out I only had to pay the 20 euros to replace the plastic. The monthly access I already paid is transferred through my account!! This morning I also got coffee with one of my friends I just met. Coffee ordering is still very complicated here, but I am learning. We made plans to go to Mt. St. Victorie on Saturday which is something I've been wanting to do for a few days now! Also my canceled plans from yesterday got rescheduled to Friday, so I have another thing to look forward to.

I also went grocery shopping last night to eat my feelings. I got some important household stuff (trash bags, sponges, etc) but also some exciting french snacks. I'm looking forward to trying them all in the coming days. Looks like we are on another upward swing! 

PS. I really need to start practicing my french after class because my friends seem to be english and spanish speakers. Main goal here is to learn french!!

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

First few days in Aix

I’m on the heels of my third day in Aix and it’s been amazing! I got here on the TGV on Monday (Update on the train sitution: someone came on the train during our ride and validated the ticket!). The first day I basically just moved in. I was surprised by how big the room is. There’s plenty of room to walk around and I don’t feel like I’m bumping into myself. The kitchen came fully stocked with everything I would need (from pans and knives, to even a cheese grater and cork screw).  I’m really excited that I dont have to buy all that stuff. After I moved in, I went to the Lidl which is right next door. It’s a small grocery store like Aldi. The prices there are pretty comparable to the US! I got plenty of food there, but the vegetable selection left much to be desired. I’m getting pretty good at looking around at what the locals are doing and copying them- I saw that everyone at Lidl was picking up old empty cartons and using those as grocery bags. So I managed to snag an empty carton of soup and put my groceries in there. It’s actually a lot easier to carry a box of groceries than 4-5 plastic bags- maybe because it doesnt sag and weigh itself down. I got back to the apartment, made myself a small dinner of spaghetti, eggplant, ham and cheese, and went to bed.

When I was in Paris, I had a nice Brazilian girl in my shared room. We talked a little and it was nice just having someone there. But now, for the first time, I was sleeping in an empty studio apartment by myself. I was getting a little anxious and nervous for the rest of my trip. I was startin to feel lonely. But I had high hopes to meet people at my class with Alliance Francaise the next morning.

I woke up pretty early the next day to have plenty of time to navigate the bus system. The bus stop is right outside the building. It arrived pretty quickly, and once again, using the important skill of copying locals, I learned that people always greet the driver and then say “merci, au revoir” when they leave. It seems to be very important here to ackowledge everyone around you. I’m realizing that in the US there are so many people we just ignore- bus drivers, sales people, grocery store clerks. Mostly people in the service industry. It’s very good that they don’t do that here.*

Anyway, the bus was pretty straightforward. I got to class 30 minutes early, so I went to a coffee shop to warm up and have a cafe (which is apparently an espresso shot here). Class was ok and everyone was nice, but my class only has 2 other people. I was hoping to use the class as a base to make friends, so I was feeling really disappointed that it was so small. One of the women is about 30 and has lived here a while with her boyfriend. The other is about 50 and has a son my age. So they’re both a little out of my usual friend group.

Feeling disappointed after class, I decided to look for other means to make friends. I went on Facebook and MeetUp and found some groups for multilingual people and international students in Aix. I was so excited to find out that they were actually having a meeting at a bar that night!! I also walked through the town square and found that you can buy a whole baguette for 0.8 euros!! What a steal. So this was really a upward turning point for my day. I also bought a bus pass that makes getting around town during the day super cheap.

By this time, it was only early afternoon. I didnt have anything planned until the MeetUp that night, so I decided to walk home. It was a really nice stroll through some gentle hills and some very quaint little houses and fenced yards. European drivers are so nice! Whenever I was at a crosswalk they would stop to let me cross. Sometimes I would get confused looks when I would hesitate to cross. Cars yielding is a totally foreign concept for Houstonians!!

When I got home, I got a message from the Erasmus Student Network! They finally got back to me and said they would be having a meeting sometime this week. ESN is a huge student-run association of international students and I think it will be another great place to make friends. So my day kept getting better!

I didnt do much the rest of the day, but I did reheat some canned cassoulet for dinner. It was actually good after I added a bit of spices. A little before 8, I took the bus back into town to where this MeetUp was. The event started off a little slow, but after a bit a bunch of people came and I made a lot of new friends!! I even met someone from Houston who has been living here about a year. Everyone spoke English and/or Spanish, so I mostly communicated in those languages. It wasnt a high point for my French learning, but I made friends! A bunch of contact info was exchanged, and now I have plans for the rest of the week. Very exciting! It was so much fun and I really started feeling comfortable in Aix.

Now it is Wednesday, and this morning I rushed into town to make it to class. But when I got there, the doors were locked because theres no class on Wednesdays. So I wandered around town for a bit to find a coffee shop with wifi. I ordered an “allonge” (the woman behind the counter endearingly corrected my pronunciation from “uh-longe” to “ah-lon-jay”- people in Aix are used to foreign students and very kind and helpful about French learners) which is a watered down espresso. I’m going to head back home because the wifi isnt very good. I also need to buy some more stuff for my apartment.

Overall I am really liking Aix. I was mistaken for a local this morning (someone asked me for directions!) The town is beautiful and everyone is really friendly. It seems very safe and the cost of living is very reasonable. I’m looking forward to mroe adventures here!

*Liberal rant: along with people in the service industry getting treated better, there seems to be a lot more people here who work in the service industry. For eample, there are like 5 servers in this very small cafe. I went to a small makeup store yesterday that also had 3-4 sales people. Compared to service sector people in the US, these people seem very chipper and happy to be at their jobs. Part of this must be the fact that they are always ackowledge and thanked. But I think another part of it could be that they are less stressed because there work is split up over more people (5 servers sharing the responsibilities instead of 2 people running around like crazy). But I wonder how the businesses remain profitable with this many employees. The service sector people seem to be making livable wages here (from brief talks with people I’ve met here...also Europe, so of course they are well paid). The argument in the US is that if we pay people more, the prices of the products will go up. But everything here is about the same price as it is in the US (not Walmart prices, but not River Oaks prices either). The service is also great quality- friendly, fast, efficient.  I will have to look into it more. But it seems like something is missing in the US economy...

Monday, January 2, 2017


I’m currently on a train to Aix en Provence. I thought I had budgeted enough time to get here, but I ended up basically running to my coach. The system is actually pretty confusing, and there was not a lot of help (French or English speaking). What happens is that the SNCF has screens throughout the train station that list the train destinations and their designated waiting “Hall.”

When I looked on the screen though, there was no Aix en Provence. But I did see that my train number was listed next to a city called “Hyere.” So I went looking for help from someone from SNCF and found some people wearing their logo. Turns out these people were there to help “Junior” passengers (packs of school children), but I think I am equally (or more) helpless at the moment. So with only minor shame, I found someone who spoke English. I tried to tell him that I’m going to Aix, not “Hyere”, but he kept thinking I was saying “My train’s not here.” It was a small ordeal, but he finally understood and told me that Hyere was just a stop on the way to Aix.

Anyway, with that cleared up out, I saw that my train was listed for Hall 3. I thought that meant the train would pull up right there, but I was wrong! About 3 minutes into waiting/charging my phone in Hall 3, everyone started shuffling about, to which I took a great concern. On a whim I decided to follow them. A few seconds later I realized that the screen listing my train number now had a “D” flashing next to it. So that meant the train was now arriving on the D platform (which is where everyone was going).

When I finally got to the platform, no one even checked my ticket! I could be on the wrong train right now for all we know. I justed walked on here and no one cared. If airports were like this, we’d all be going to the wrong cities all the time.

I have a seat that matches my coach and seat number, so I’m probably in the right place. The conductor also mumbled something about Aix en Provence over the speaker, so I’m pretty certain this is the right train. Actually because no one was checking tickets, I at first got on the wrong coach. A woman came to where I was sitting and said she had my seat reserved. A nice boy a few years younger than me helped me figure out that I was on the wrong coach. So I shuffled out and went 2 coaches down to where I was supposed to be.

I’m worried that I missed the ticket checking station and I’ll get in trouble once I arrive in Aix. My E-ticket does say “THIS DOES NOT HAVE TO BE STAMPED” so that’s a bit assuring. But no once checked my RailPass which is the more concernig matter (the pass gives me access to 10 days of service over 2 months, and this has to be marked off as 1 day). I thought trains in Europe were supposed to be fast and simple!

In addition to being kind of a logistical mess, the TGVs are a lot less modern and fancy than I expected. The coaches arent clearly marked, there isn’t a lot of luggage storage, the outside of the train is pretty roughed up. It also doesnt feel that high speed but I’m not sure. France is smaller than Texas, and going from Paris (far north) to Aix (far south) on the TGV takes 3 hours. It takes about 3 hours to drive from Houston to San Antonio by car. So if Houston and San Antonio are signficantly further apart than Aix and Paris, the train is faster than car. I’ll return with the answer next time.

The train is now going through some icy frosted trees. They look beautiful, but I hope the ice clears off by the time we get to Aix. Paris felt a lot less cold this morning-maybe because I tried a new scarf knot and a new pair of socks. But I think it’s more that I’m aclimating? Regardless, I definitely would appreciate a warmed temperature.