Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The best fall break EVER


Sooo I'm back again!

It's been a crazy past few weeks...Just got back from our fall break last Wednesday (we had to be back at school on Thursday, so got 2 weeks off!) and have just been getting settled in my new apartment-yay! I finally got to move in right before I took off for fall break, so that was good.

Fall break was AWESOME. I got off on a Thursday (I never have classes on Fridays anyway) and spent the weekend in Toulouse and moved into my apartment on Friday. Then on Sunday I left early in the morning to take the all-day train to Madrid (literally took 12 hours because I had to stop over at 2 places) and meet up with Micaela who had already been there since Thursday...I got in at 10pm at night, went to the hostel (awesome hostel!) and met all of Micaela's new Australian friends that she had made over the weekend!

And so begins the crazy Spanish nightlife...One of the great things about traveling in hostels is no matter what day of the week it is (in this case it was a Sunday), everyone is always up for going out! And of course since we're in Spain, the nightlife is going to be incredible no matter what day of the week it is.

So we all headed out around 1:30 am and when we got to the jazz bar that we wanted to go to, the bouncer told us that the place wasn't open for another half an hour! Seriously! On a Sunday night! So we headed to a karaoke bar (no, nobody sang anything) to kill some time and then went back to the jazz bar which was PACKED and had a band playing and everything. Again, this is like 2:30 am on a Sunday night and this place is hopping. I'm already loving Spain.

The next day we did some sightseeing but since it was a Monday, all of the museums were closed! Luckily the weather was BEAUTIFUL and sunny (we were wearing shorts!) so we walked around and snapped some photos. Madrid is HUGE which we realized by underestimating the map by a lot! So we did lots of walking and saw lots but still, barely saw a quarter of the city!


Me and Micaela sightseeing in Madrid

That night was everyone's last night in Madrid so four of us went to a tapas restaurant and then out, of course. We went out to eat around 10:30 at night and the place was packed-most people don't even start eating dinner in Spain until 10 or 11 at night...its crazy. And this is a Monday night! It was definitely worth the wait though! We then headed back to the hostel for some vino and socializing before heading out again around like 1:30 (which is actually early for Spaniards haha).
Out at an 11pm dinner with our Aussie friends from the hostel...

The next day Micaela and I headed to Salamanca but we didn't end up getting there till the evening. Both of us were low on cash so we decided to couchsurf with this Brazilian guy (who had really good references and seemed legit!)-He was really nice and met us as soon as we got there by Plaza Mayor. Let me just say that this city was drop-dead BEAUTIFUL. I seriously want to move there some day (yes, I know I want to live everywhere - but I loveddd Salamanca). It is a huge university town so pretty much all you see are students walking around, the architecture is STUNNING and it is all just lit up at night. Plus it's the perfect size-not too big (Madrid was nice but a bit overwhelming) and not too small. And I love the small, narrow cobblestone streets that took up the entire city center-I don't think I saw one car drive in the center of town-everything is pedestrian friendly!

Seriously fell in love with this city

Anyways, we dropped out stuff off at this guy's apartment and then he took us out to dinner with his friends (also all Brazilian) to this Brazilian restaurant (how original), all you can eat meat. Micaela and I were pretty exhausted from lack of sleep and excessive partying so we went home pretty much right after dinner. The next day we spent touring the entire city -fell more in love with this place by the second! Universidad de Salamanca has been around for over 800 years! I believe it's one of the oldest universities in Spain. So just to see those buildings and realize that people STILL go to school there is pretty amazing. Then we wanted to go to the tourist office but it was closed for 2 hours in the afternoon (from 2-4)-pretty prime hours...I love the laid-back culture here and I think it's great that everyone takes siestas in the afternoon, but it does get a bit annoying -I guess it takes some getting used to..

Later, we met up with another fellow couchsurfer who was going to be staying at his apartment. She was introduced as Sunshine (I guess that's her real name?), from Arizona and she had been backpacking around Europe for 7 months. Micaela and I's one request before we met this girl: "I just hope she's normal." Ironically, she was THE weirdest person I have ever met. I almost think she was putting on an act or something because there is no way this girl was for real. She was homeschooled (okay, fine) by her hippy-Christian parents (a bit of an oxymoron, but okay) with her thirteen brothers and sisters, in the woods (definitely getting weirder). She said that her mother was not even a good teacher but refused to let her go to a normal school-in fact, that was out of the question. Further, she had no idea that we were in a global economic criss and when we told her that our friends couldn't find jobs and were getting laid off, she proceeded to ask if she would have to live on the streets when she got home...She then claimed that this economic crisis might mean the end of the world and the second coming of Christ. Wow. She continued to shock us with more and more revelations-like the fact that she had never watched television (only had maybe seen the news if it was on at her Grandmother's house) and had no idea what reality television was...how you can live in America and NOT know what reality TV is (that's half of TV these days!), I don't even know...so we had to explain to her what it was. It was definitely interesting (to say the least) having her around...

That night, we all went out with Almir (our host) and his Brazilian friends-and I thought that European boys were flirtatious! Brazilian boys are like an entirely different species...haha.


Micaela and I at a CHEAP bar with some of the brazilian boys..


We did some more touring the next day and went out the next night again with Almir and his friends...I'm so glad we couchsurfed because it definitely made the trip a lot more interesting and fun having new people to hang out with (even if they turned out to be a truly unique kind of weirdness, like Sunshine).

On Friday I headed to Bordeaux to meet up with my friend Shauna, who's from Ireland and is also an assistant in the Toulouse region (but unfortunately doesn't live in Toulouse). Not much to say about Bordeaux-I really didn't like it very much, especially compared to Madrid and Salamanca. I thought that the architecture was beautiful and very French but I just didn't like it-perhaps it seemed a bit uptight for my taste (as opposed to more laid-back Salamanca) or perhaps it was the hostel we stayed in the first night (awful) or the guy we couchsurfed with the next night and went to a Halloween party with (so boring and superlame!). I was ready to move on after Bordeaux...Let me preface this by saying that Spaniards and French alike need a serious lesson on how to dress up for Halloween-if you are going to dress up, you might as well go all out-take a hint from our finely dressed and creative Americans. That was slightly frustrating because in Spain, everyone dressed exactly the same! They painted their faces white, put some red stuff on their lips and wore a white tshirt and pretended to be a ghost or something! Come on now..and Bordeaux was even worse! People would put on a hat or some type of accessory (wearing normal clothes) and claim to be someone. It was awful...I need to give these people a lesson on how to dress up for Halloween.

So after that experience, Shauna and I were definitely ready for the next destination-we were so ambivalent about it and debating between Biarritz (surfing capital of Europe), San Sebastian (a great beach town in Spain), Poitiers (a University town north of us in France) and wherever else was easy and accessible to get to. We finally decided on San Sebastian because there was an abundance of hostels and after our experience in Bordeaux, we wanted to meet some people our own age and have a good time in a fun city! I thought it would be fun, but I think I underestimated just how much fun it would be..let's just say that it was the PERFECT end to my (our) trip.

For starters, this city is beautiful. Unfortunately the weather was crappy and raining for a lot of the time (and super windy!) but we made the most of it and still got to see most of the city! I definitely want to go back when the weather is nicer in the spring because it has some crazy waves (great for surfing!) and the beaches are just beautiful. We stayed at an AWESOME hostel (thanks to Parker's recommendation and hostelbookers.com which rated it a 92%!)-The man who worked at the front desk didn't speak a word of English so I had to use my limited Spanish skills (which surprisingly, after 2 years of Spanish, is really awful) to locate the hostel (turns out it's RIGHT on the beach!). I was lacking a Spanish dictionary but luckily Spanish and French are pretty similar so that helped!

The people staying in our hostel were SO cool. Is it weird that I really like staying in hostels? (As long as it's a good one with a social atmosphere), you meet people from all over the world (or in our case, mostly from Australia), everyone also seems to be super friendly and outgoing (well most do) and everyone just makes friends with each other. I guess the one downside is that most of them you will probably never see again! This hostel (Olga's hostel!) had a common room and a terrace so we all ate dinner and drank wine in there before all going out together. I could rave about this hostel all night but I won't bore you-it was definitely awesome though and I will most definitely be going back...

You'd think that because it's a beach town San Sebastian is only hopping in the summertime...think again. This hostel was packed with people and when we went out at night, there were tons of people out and so many tourists visiting!

Anyways, I was excited to come back to Toulouse but I will definitely miss Spain. I love France but the culture in Spain is so different and I absolutely love it. I love how everyone takes siestas later in the afternoon (even if that does mean stores are closed for 2 hours!) and then goes out to eat late at night and then parties till after dawn (literally). Our host in Salamanca told us that he oftentimes won't go out till 3 in the morning..and then party till 9 am. I don't know if I could handle a schedule THAT intense, but since I'm a night owl, I definitely like their thinking...It's crazy-you would think that this whole nightlife scene this would just be limited to the huge cities like Madrid and Barcelona, but even the smaller cities like Salamanca and San Sebastian are always hopping!

Everything and everyone is just so laid-back over here and I love it. Compared to the States where everyone seems to be competing with each other and everyone always seems to be stressed about one thing or another, this is definitely a breath of fresh air! The lifestyle is just so different -people take their time doing things (la patience is definitely necessary for living in France!) and really know how to live (hence their normal 5 weeks of vacation time compared to our 2!). I really wish I could transport this lifestyle back home because it's pretty awesome...case in point, everyone out at a jazz bar at 3am on a Sunday night, not even thinking about work the next day! While many Americans may see that as irresponsible or impractical (and in some ways, maybe it is), I'm thinking, damn, these people sure know how to live their life...

Friday, October 16, 2009

Life as a teaching assistant

Bonjour! So i finally got a phone (with a 2 year contract ahh-this is definitely all becoming very real now!) and opened a bank account. Gradually am starting to get more and more settled, although I still haven't moved into my apartment yet and apparently can't until next weekend. Luckily, one of my friends here has let me stay at his apartment because he has 3 extra bedrooms (his housing is provided by the school which is nice) so I don't have to keep paying for a hotel which I definitely would not have been able to afford!

Teaching is going pretty well so far and the commute is really not bad, especially since I'm only working 3 days a week. It is starting to get really cold though, especially in the mornings so I'm a bit dreading that 20 minute walk from the train station each morning!

This week I was left alone for the first time with most of my classes which is a bit difficult at times. A lot of the students don't even seem to really care to improve their English and definitely take advantage of the fact that I'm just an assistant! And I'm pretty bad at disciplining people, especially high schoolers so NOT being a pushover is something I need to work on!

While some of the kids (I say kids but mean teenagers..) don't talk at all, most are really friendly and always say "Hello Mary!" when I see them in the halls/outside class (I figure it's easier to go by the first half of my name while at school...). The other day, I was getting lunch and one of the girls invited me to come sit with her and her friends which was really sweet...The boys are borderline flirtatious which is pretty funny considering most of them are like fifteen years old. One of the boys in my class was introducing his friend and goes "This is so and so, he likes girls with long, blonde hair..."-slightly awkward. I can't really imagine any of the boys from my high school saying something like that or being that forward with a teacher! But then again, I gues I'm not really a teacher..haha so for the most part the students are keeping me pretty entertained.

Last night we went to a soirée that one of my friend's friend was having and it was a lot of fun. My first real French party! It was good to mingle with some other French people my age and try to practice my French some ;). Then around like 1:30, we all headed to a club. Bars close at 2 here but clubs are open till like 7. Not having classes on Friday is pretty amazing and definitely makes Thursday nights a lot of fun.

Last week, a bunch of us were outside this bar by St Pierre (where all the young people hang out-sometimes a little too young! like high schoolers, haha) and this guy was telling us how he was going to the US for 2 weeks..Then he proceeded to say how he didn't like the United States (even though he had never been there!) because "there is no history...there are so many rules and it is so strict...in europe, everything is free.." I was the only American hearing this and got pretty defensive. Granted, things are a lot looser over here and there is much less regulation etc etc which is nice but don't talk smack on my country, especially if you've never even been there. My American pride definitely jumps in at that point, especially being the only American there.

Anyway, we have one more week of school and then fall break for 10 days! I'm going to Spain to meet up with Micaela and then we're going to do some traveling around San Sebastian before I meet up with Shauna, a friend from Ireland, and do some traveling around France. So I am super pumped! Hopefully we can find some warmer weather in Spain! A la prochaine..

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

My First Week in France

The streets of Toulouse-it's called La Ville Rose for a reason! All the buildings are rose-colored and its magnifique!


J'ai besoin de parler francais!

So I arrived in France (from Germany) a week ago this past Monday. I have been staying in a few hotels until I find housing. I love France but everything seems to be more complicated here...opening a bank account (you have to have a permanent address in order to get one), getting a cell phone contact (you have to have a bank account in order to get one) et toutes les autres choses. So it's been slightly frustrating dealing with that, but hopefully it will all be figured out soon...

Other than some slight difficulties along the way (further exacerbated by the fact that I'm not fluent in French..yet!), France has been amazing thus far. I have met some really great people, in and outside of my program and the French people I have met have been very welcoming and warm.

Most people don't seem to speak much (if any) English so it's pretty essential to know at least a little bit of French! When I studied abroad in Rome, most people spoke English to me because there are so many tourists that go there and let's be honest, I don't exactly look Italian. So I got annoyed because I never got to practice my Italian..here, I have the opposite problem! It's frustrating not knowing the word for something or forgetting the proper grammer structure and trying to say what you want to say to someone who doesn't speak a word of English. I definitely have stepped way out of my comfort zone since being here. But as easy as it is to revert back to comfortable English, I'm glad I am in a city where I can actually practice my French parce qu'il faut que je le parle touts le temps pour l'apprendre.

Last week, I met up with one French girl who introduced me to two of her friends - they are all SO nice and have made such an effort, knowing that I don't know many people here. Jennifer (the girl who I initially met up with) speaks English pretty well and her friend Gracia speaks a little but their other friend, Valentina, does not speak any English. So it really forces me to actually speak French around them, which is awesome and exactly what I need, exhausting as it may be sometimes.

I also met up with some other assistants for my birthday weekend which was a lot of fun - only problem is that we all speak English to each other, which doesn't exactly help with learning French! But everyone in the program that I have met so far is really nice and fun, so I'm really excited about the year!

The other day, Valentina texted me and told me about an available apartment (she was also looking for something)-we went to go look at it together and c'est parfait! It's located in the centre ville of Toulouse (basically in a perfect location) in a large building with only students (sort of like a dorm but much nicer). The building has a gym (!!! I have not seen a single gym in France since I've been here and then I find one in this building that I might live in..amazing!!), a movie theater (or a room with lots of chairs and a big screen tv-same difference), a lounge and a computer with internet. The only downside is that the apartment is super tiny, like basically just 2 bedrooms..but I can't really complain because everything else is perfect! And it's perfect because I always wanted to live with a French person so that I could really improve my French-and now I will be! It's definitely going to be difficult and frustrating at times, but hopefully it will help me reach my goal of fluency in the end!

L'enseignment d'anglais:

So other than learning French, the real reason I'm here is to teach English. I had my first day on Monday at the lycée (high school), but the collège (middle school) still has not told me about my schedule. I will be commuting to a small town called Lannemezan (like an hour and twenty minutes by train) to teach. Pain in the butt? Absolutely. Is it worth it? Most definitely. I wouldn't have it any other way-the town that I'm teaching in definitely has some charm but Toulouse has so much more to offer, with so many young people and students-that 3 days of commuting will definitely be worth it. Plus, we have nearly over 2 months vacation time (France has the least amount of actual school time as any other country-works for me!) so I will get some breaks from commuting here and there.

Anyways, teaching is definitely interesting so far. I haven't actually started teaching (that starts next week)-this week has just been introducing myself and having the students ask me questions. I had no idea that I would have to teach entire (well, half) classes all by myself! But the teacher will take half of the class and I will take the other half and then we will switch off each week. I definitely didn't know I would have so much responsibility as a teaching assistant! I'm not sure if the teachers know what they are getting themselves into..seeing as I have never even written a lesson plan...They said to just do "whatever you want" with the students-so if anyone has any ideas, feel free to pass them my way!

The students seem to be pretty well-behaved. Their English is terrible, but that almost makes my job easier since we are pretty much starting from the ground-up! They all have such thick French accents for the most part that I could barely even understand them when they were asking me questions. And they all had some pretty funny questions that I got over and over again in each class..."have you ever met any movie stars?" "what do you like more-France or USA" "how old are you?" "do you have a boyfriend?" etc etc. If they keep this up, I think it should be a pretty fun (or at least entertaining) year.

J'aime la France

La politesse. Everyone here is SO polite. Whenever you walk into a store, go to a checkout counter, even when students would pass by us in the student apartment building, people greet you with "Bonjour" ou "Bon soir" (good afternoon/evening). I think that it's actually rude to not say anything.

Et aussi...the double cheek kiss...gotta love it. I had always heard that people did that here but I guess I didn't really think people actually did it all the time. But they do! I love it. Whenever I meet a French person for the first time (no matter who it is), they give me a double cheek kiss. It's their version of the handshake. Except 10000 times better-so warm and welcoming! And whenever you say goodbye (even if you had just met the person), you do it then as well.

My first time truly witnessing this (before I experienced it firsthand) was when I was walking down the beautiful, oh-so-quant streets of Toulouse and saw a girl of no more than 13 years old say hello to two of her friends on the street and double kiss both of them-they seemed to mature!

Then, when I went to go check out the apartment with Valentina (who always greets me and says goodbye that way of course!), the person who showed us the apartment double cheek-kissed both of us before introducing us to her boyfriend upstairs who did the same. And then again when we said goodbye. I love it!

I fully intend to bring back the double-cheek kiss to the USA and hopefully start a new trend that definitely beats out the awkward hug or formal handshake. Note: In some regions of France, there is a triple or even QUADRUPLE cheek kiss..you better believe it. La politesse...ahh j'aime ca.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Oktoberfest!

My first blog post! And because the past three days have been pretty crazy, it's going to be long so prepare yourself...

So I left Newark airport on Wednesday night to head to Munich. But getting on the flight was not as easy as it sounds..both of my bags were overweight by a LOT. Not to mention insanely heavy. The airlines were trying to charge me $500 for the extra weight...they then said that I could buy a third bag for $40 and only pay $200 instead. Half the price but still. Definitely could not afford that...

Fortunately, I got lucky. I met these three really nice guys who had just graduated from Cornell and were headed to Oktoberfest for the weekend. They offered to help me take out the heavy stuff and carry it for me in plastic bags as their carry-on. A little sketchy that I let random strangers carry my stuff for me? Perhaps. Frowned upon by the bitchy airline lady? Most definitely. But my other option was far less appealing..So I finally checked all my bags (without paying a single dime!) and with boarding pass in hand, I headed to the gate. Meanwhile, these three nice guys each carried a plastic bag full of my stuff (mostly shoes) and definitely received several comments from security...Thank God for nice people!

The plane ride was especially long because we had to turn back around to Canada after some woman needed to be hospitalized-I've never seen something like that happen on a flight before and it was pretty scary. Fortunately she ended up being okay but it did delay us 3 hours. Luckily I was entertained by The Hangover and some free wine (gotta love transatlantic flights)!

After finally arriving in Munich, I somehow got my luggage to the central station with the help of the boys...only I didnt know where I was going (Clearly, I think ahead..).

During my stay in Munich, I opted to couchsurf (couchsurfing is an internet site where you stay with people who offer up their couches-free of charge obviously). Saves a lot of money and is not nearly as sketchy as it sounds! After this trip, I'm a huge fan-it's a great way to meet the locals and make a friend in a new city (while saving money on hostels/hotels of course!)

Only problem was that I didnt have Sebastian (my host's) address nor did I have his phone number on me. Fortunately I managed to find an internet cafe across the street from the central station where I got his number and some nice Germany boy let me use his phone to call Sebastian. He then helped me carry my luggage all the way down to the subway and directed me to the subway I was supposed to take. I love nice people :)

I finally got to the subway stop and managed to get all my luggage up the escalators one by one. From there, some very nice lady helped me get my luggage to where I was supposed to meet Sebastian (and finally did!). I'm really not sure what I would have done without the help of all these random strangers! But after meeting Sebastian, we went to his apartment where two other Swiss guys (Jonas and Thomas) were also staying with him. From there, we all headed to Oktoberfest...


Oktoberfest -outside the tents

And so the craziness began...One thing (among many) that I love about Oktoberfest is that everyone is in a really good mood, so friendly and making friends with everyone else around them. So we ended up squeezing in a table with a large group of British guys who definitely made it a fun afternoon/night!

With some new friends we made...inside the tents!

The next day we walked around the city a bit (so at least we could have done something other than drink beer for 3 days straight!) and met up with a Swedish guy (named Love-such a cool name!) that was ALSO going to stay with us tonight. While near some church in the center of town, I saw a few of my younger Kappa sisters riding a beer bike! I'll get to what that is in a minute...Very cool and just goes to show what a small world/city Munich is!

After some more wandering, we got a beer at Haubrahouse (no idea how to spell that-shows how good my German is..) because it's 2 euros cheaper and we wanted to stop in for a bit before encountering the masses at Oktoberfest. The beer garden that we sat in was adorable (and MUCH less hectic than the Oktoberfest tents of course). Then, we headed to the fest and went into the HB tent this time, where we saw the SAME British guys from the day before! Once again: small world. 6 million people come to Oktoberfest and we see the same group of people two days in a row! We were pretty excited. We sat down at another table and made some new friends and then joined the British lads a beer or two later. PS: If you've never been to Oktoberfest, a beer is not just a beer-they all come in pints...oh, how I love Germany :)

Later in the night things got crazier and so commenced people dancing on tables and getting rowdy. How can you not have fun at Oktoberfest? It's pretty much impossible. After we left (everyone gets kicked out of the tents at like 11pm) we headed to a club where my REAL drivers license got turned down because the bouncer claimed "this is a really bad fake ID." I showed him my other forms of ID but no dice..You only have to be 18 to get into clubs and I'm almost 23...seriously? Fortunately Oktoberfest had worn me out anyway so I wasn't really in the mood to go clubbing..but it was still slightly frustrating.

The next day I finally met up with 3 people from my program (Victoria, Allie and Geraldo) who had been staying with someone else on couchsurfing. But their host was not nearly as cool as mine because he didn't a) show them around the city or b) party with them...haha. We ended up going on a beer bike tour (told you I would bring it up again) which was basically one large bike (that fits like 15-20 people) with a bar in the middle. Then there was a big barrel of beer in the front and a tour guide who steered it in the front. Everyone pedaled (well, most people did) and drank beer whilst cranking some good ol' American tunes and also getting a tour of the city. It was the best tour I've ever been on, hands on.

And alsooooo on the tour were a bunch of Wake juniors that are studying abroad and here for the weekend. I repeat: small world! I only knew one of them but it was really good to see her and our group definitely made the bike tour more fun. When we were getting on the bike, there was a huge crowd just watching us and taking pictures. I think people were pretty fascinated by what we were doing, haha. And while we were riding around the city, many onlookers also seemed very amused and people continued to take pictures. I'm sure it helped that everyone on the tour was female (minus Geraldo). That was one of my favorite parts of the trip, for sure. Only complaint is that I wish it were longer!

We then wandered around the English gardens (where there were nudist men lying about-don't really get that in the States) and later, had a beer in the beer garden and practiced our French with 3 Parisian boys. C'est très excitant! Allie had to leave to catch a flight to London so Geraldo and Victoria brought their stuff to Sebastian's place because their host was leaving. It was late by the time we got to his place (like 8?) but we went to Oktoberfest anyway and managed to get into a tent.

Jonas and Thomas came to our tent and met up with us later on in the night. There was also a lady walking around with a breathalizer, where people (like Jonas and Thomas) would pay like 3 and a half euros to see what they blew. The girl would then yell "Blow, blow blow!" I thought it was pretty funny how they make a breathalizer test into a game/way to earn money at Oktoberfest. Somehow I can't see that happening in the States, where breathalizers only conjure up images of uniformed police officers, vehicles and handcuffs. So I thought it was interesting that something taken so seriously back home was all simply fun and games over here. More reasons to love Europe!

We ended the night at a chill restaurant/bar and sort of wandering around the city, hesitantly checking out clubs and such. Nothing quite as exciting or crazy as Oktoberfest!

Overall, it's been an awesome trip and I've had a great host who's helped me see the German way of life a bit more! Having a crazy time and making friends with random strangers has made it well worth the 8.30 euro for a pint of beer. But I do have to say that I am pretty excited about entering a NEW country where I speak more than three words in the native tongue. "Non sprekensei deutche"(spelling??!! exactly-I can't even write it) -will no longer be part of my vocabularly-for now at least!