Back to L.A.

By the time that you read this, I will be back in Los Angeles. It is the night before I make a sort-of-a-surprise trip down to L.A. to see my friends and see my campus who I haven’t seen for a very long time. And it’s more or less overwhelming. I spent much of my first semester dreaming about seeing UCLA again. I would take walks through south campus in my head during archaeology class. I would imagine tasting the first, hot bite of a Cafe 1919 pizette when I was hungry. If I was feeling especially fragile, I would look up UCLA’s campus on Google Maps and sit on street view, gazing at Royce Hall while my eyes got fuzzier and fuzzier.

But I haven’t felt like that in a long, long while. Sure, there was a time that going back was all I wished for. Food was better back home, memories were better, the earth was prettier. But second semester wasn’t like that. Walking around Lyon felt like walking in a giant house, everything was comfy like being indoors. I missed UCLA, sure, and my friends of course, but I was thriving without them. My mind had replaced the bricks of north campus with the intricate rooftops of France. My heart found the Red Bridge on the Soane and allowed it to take the botanical garden’s place, if only for those few months.

And so now it is the night before I get on a plane that will drop me in LAX in the hottest weather I will have experienced in over nine months. And I will hop onto the blue Flyaway bus and make my way to Westwood, which I’m sure will seem as strange to me as France did when I first arrived. I mean, of course I expect to be overcome by happiness the moment on walk on campus and see the neuroscience building towering proudly above me. And I know that I will swoon at my first stop by the south campus student center. I’ll be taking every one of my favorite walks, and I will, I know, be absolutely adoring it. But if the “reverse culture shock” that I encounter when I get down there is anything like what I experienced coming home to the Bay Area, I also have to be prepared for the inevitable alienation that will happen when I am about to face.

They always talked about coming back and being blown away by how the familiarity seems so foreign, but before you experience it firsthand, there is no way of knowing exactly what it feels like. I wait in a confusing and surreal anticipation for my reunion with the place that I have missed and loved and not been to for the past nine months. I hope everything turns out OK, even though I know it will. And it will, especially after my mind is able to grab hold of those lovely north campus bricks. It won’t be until I’m there that I know I am back.

Self-study Abroad

I am done with school. More or less. I am still working on a research project I’m doing through my program, but all the other classes are totally terminé. I have now spent eight months in France doing lots of eating, a solid bit of traveling, and next to no schoolwork. This is, of course, not to say that I did not have any “study” in my study abroad experience, but I think that the name generally leads people to believe that us study abroaders are doing most of our learning in the classroom (which is just absolutely not the case). Sure, there are people who do enjoy and benefit from their classes. I even use the knowledge I gained during my French linguistics class on a biweekly basis. But one’s time in a foreign country features quite a bit more self-study and reflection. Without the handy extracurriculars of home campus and the quarterly events like Spring Sing, study abroad students are allowed a lot of time to sit and ponder their humanity. I think that during the first semester, I averaged around three existential crises a day. Last October, I watched more TV than I have ever watched in a single month, and I began to worry my host mom with all of the conversations I had aloud with myself. By second semester, first semester’s long and often bizarre road to self-discovery led me to a sunny patch where I could thoroughly enjoy the country I was living in because I was so thoroughly enjoying being myself. Sure, I enjoyed me back in LA, but how could I not when I spent my days strolling through the botanical gardens? Spending a semester in France showed me who I was when I didn’t have the luxury of weekly treks through the palm court of Bunche or delicious lunches from Cafe 1919.

And like I said, second semester was really one giant, comfy, sunny patch. Never has there been a period of time where I have found so much pleasure in eating food or starting new fun habits. The doodling I was doing in my school notebooks became increasingly stunning. Larger scenes, more detail, feeling! With my friends, too, I had become so happy, so satisfied. Everyone I talked to had something to teach me. I was hardly in a classroom, and, in fact, my courses were anything but intellectual (remember my puppeteering class?), yet day by day I could feel myself becoming more and more in tune with my academic interests. I was living in a party, one that was filled with beautiful, yummy, informative things.

And I suppose that’s what study abroad is. It isn’t about learning a foreign language or taking classes in another university system. It isn’t about getting to know a foreign culture or meeting the locals. It’s about meeting you, getting to know your own culture. It’s about having talks in your head, becoming fluent in your own voice. And it took me a while to see that and understand that, but now I know that what I learned about myself this year abroad was something I could not have found in a classroom back at UCLA.

It took me leaving to know exactly why I am more excited than ever to go back. So here I come, senior year. I know I will love you as much as I love me.

Pizza Quotas

 

In the midst of furiously editing a paper I was writing yesterday, I decided to take a break from using my brain to go grab some dinner. My friend Josephine and I took a walk over to Lyon’s seventh arrondissement where we decided on eating at a pizza place where we had gone earlier in the semester. And even though the pizza was as delicious as it was the first time, leaving the restaurant I knew that I would never come back. I had reached my quota for “that pizza place in the seventh.”

But that isn’t to say that I have totally reached my quota on pizza. About a week ago, my friends and I were talking about how completely over pizza we were, just absolutely done. We could wait until California to get a slice of Hawaiian  and for now we needed to get our fix for melted cheese elsewhere. But two days later I found myself excitedly digging into a calzone at a restaurant that overlooks one of Lyon’s rivers. Apparently my palate was still accepting pizza.

Pizza has been a standard part of my weekly diet this semester. Josephine and I made a deal back in January that we would have weekly dinner dates that switched between eating pizza and  eating burgers and that we would carefully make our way through all of the establishments in Lyon that served these delicious (American) staples. Just as it was for certain pizzerias, I have reached my quota on several of the burger joints I’ve been to. One place I refuse to eat another burger at, and I will only return for their Thursday night deals (where you can buy a pound of french fries for three euros).

But I have to wonder why I run into these quotas. Is it because I want to try as many restaurants as possible? Is having delicious food or a cute ambience not enough? For some places, a limit for visits does not exist. There is a cupcake place here in the city that I’ve been to more times than I can count, and I have eaten Vietnamese food at Petit Grain on many occasions. There are also places I strive to go to often, even if I can’t always find a reason to. I walk past my favorite boulangerie on a weekly basis just to say hi even if I am not going in to buy a baguette. There is a cafe a couple streets over that I wish I had made my regular lunch spot, but I discovered it too late in the semester, so now I try to go as often as I can. There are, too, places for which my desired number of visits is “once.” There’s a bar that I spent a lovely night at, huddled outside under blankets sitting next to a tree that was growing up through the terrace, but as much as I adored the bar, going that one time was enough. Why do some places beckon me back while others outlive their allure? Why do I have my “favorite cafe” or “regular joint” when at the same time I am so interested in trying a new restaurant whenever I go out for lunch?

I’ve had a heck of a time walking the streets of the Lyonnais peninsula searching for new pubs and new restaurants  and for the most part I’ve been able to try the ones I want to try. But sometimes it is worth it to forgo testing that new kebab place and instead snuggling up in the familiar environment of the cupcake bakery?

I don’t know. But for now, I guess I will try not to worry too much about quotas and pizzas and novelty. That is until I get back to UCLA where Los Angeles has more bars and restaurants to try than there are days in the academic year. Here’s to hoping my experience in Lyon prepares me for the food uncertainty I face in the future.

Dreaming of a taco

Since the day I got here, I have been dreaming of eating a taco. A salty, beautiful carne asada soft taco with maybe some guacamole and a side of rice and beans. Even thinking about it now is making my heart swell in anticipation (I go home in about a month to be reunited with my long-lost love, Mexican food). Of course that is not to say that I haven’t tried to recreate my old favorites over here. I’ve used my blender to make horchata and have tirelessly searched the produce section for non-rock-like avocados. I even tracked down a decent Mexican restaurant in Paris when I went, but having a chorizo taco on a sad, imported tortilla is not quite like home.

In the absence of chilaquiles, I’ve been eating other food. Every so often I walk past one of my favorite boulangeries and pop in to grab a cookie. They aren’t quite like American cookies, the dough is made with almond paste and bitter chocolate, but it is very very tasty. Sometimes, instead of a cookie, maybe I grab a pain au chocolat. Or perhaps I stick to a classic baguette to make a sandwich with.

I now regularly eat crepes and quiches. I have developed quite a taste for biscottes and cheese. And while it is true that I still stare longingly at the dry, unfortunate flour tortillas in the supermarket’s international section, I have gotten quite good at passing them up and grabbing charcuterie instead.

This year I’ve fallen back in love with roast chicken, a relic of my childhood that I swore off after having eaten it so many times for family dinners. I eat duck regularly now, not just for special occasions. And the amount of goat cheese I consume has nearly tripled in recent months.

But what does this all mean? This new-found appreciation of all food that is rich, buttery, and completely devoid of spice? Will I have trouble readjusting to my quesadillas? Will even eating a pepperoni pizza trigger memories of the pounds of salami I’ve had since being here in France? Is it possible that upon my return I will crave a pear tart in the same way I now crave the hot first bite of a burrito?

I think so.

And now, with my last month ahead of me, I plan to relish in the glory that is French food in the hope that when I get back to the United States my palate will be programmed to always remember the love I have now for the yummy things I’m eating. I am still going to enjoy that first taco though.

Spring is here!

For the past several months I have been wearing long underwear beneath my jeans. My mom brought me two pairs when she visited in November, and I haven’t taken them off since.  This winter has been the coldest I’ve ever endured, especially coming from California where I am used to trips to the beach in the days following New Year’s. These longjohns have been my savior, staving off hypothermia, always giving my freezing legs a nice, warm, comforting hug. I’ve developed quite a relationship with these guys.

But last week, the strangest thing happened. I went outside, and I was hot. I walked through the streets confused, completely unable to run my errands like I planned. I looked into the reflections of storefront windows to see if I was accidentally wearing many more clothes than I thought. But it wasn’t the clothes, it was the sun. The sun had somehow actually managed to raise the surrounding temperature to a livable 53 degrees. I let out a deep sigh in disbelief (finally, a sigh I couldn’t see).

I immediately walked very quickly back to my house and up to my room where I ripped off all of my clothes, including my long underwear. I stared at their limp, hollow form for a good two minutes before looking into the mirror at my pale, naked legs. I was free. These underwear that had been a miracle for so long were suddenly totally obsolete. I started to put back on my clothes. I opted not to grab the extra jacket, I wore sandals, and my wrists were left exposed.

The walk downstairs out of my apartment building into the open air was full of apprehension. Had I imagined the sun? Were the sandals overly optimistic?

I stepped outside and was overcome with an intense happiness, one that only exists in the company of short sleeves. Without thinking, I skipped over to the bike lock-up station, took out a bike, hopped on and skidded off towards the river. I pulled my bike down the nearest set of stairs to get to the water. I rode north along the bank, passing brightly-dressed families, shirtless French men, kids with ice cream. Every seat along the water was suddenly filled with people, the warm weather having pulled us all out of our houses. Everyone was smiling, and as I biked I let out silly, giggly laughs. Giddiness was splashing about everywhere. It was spilling out of the cold drinks of the people sitting at the riverboat cafes. Romance was falling from the trees.

Suddenly, spring had sprung. Lyon was no longer trapped in the cold, keeping its people holed up in their bedrooms or hiding behind scarves. I made my way to park, my legs sore from biking for the first time in a long while and my cheeks sore from smiling. I had a little glass of sangria. I took a ride on a paddle boat. It was perfect.

Now, with a little over a month left here, I plan on participating fully in this French springtime. More ice cream! More walks! More smiles! And no more long underwear.

Potluck Culture

If this semester had a theme, it would most certainly be potluck. I’ve attended more potlucks in the last several weeks than in all college. I’ve toiled in the kitchen making dishes of massive proportions to feed my many different friends who for one reason or another decided independently that hosting a potluck would be a great idea. And great they have been.

It started with a potluck to celebrate Chinese New Year. The menu was set to be filled with many delicious Chinese dishes but instead consisted largely of guacamole. We are, after all, college students with limited cooking ability. Still, the year of the snake was kicked off right with many mouthfuls of guac. The other potlucks followed in similar fashion. I attended one that was hosted by a Canadian friend of mine where, in addition to goodies to eat, attendees were expected to bring along a piece of literature to share with the rest of the crowd. My friend Darlene from UCSB hosted a Mexican food potluck for which I made (what felt like) a bathtub-sized amount of horchata. Even my puppeteering class held a potluck on our last day, which, by the way, was one of the more fabulous potlucks I’ve attended. French students live up to their country’s stereotype. We had pork products and different types of cheeses abound, several bottles of wine, and of course baguettes.

Potlucks are a funny thing. Very often you end up with lots of food left over in bizarre combinations or too many people make dessert and you are have to eat sweet bread for dinner. For one potluck I went to, another attendee and I brought the only salads, both of which happened to feature beets and goat cheese, so guests had little choice when it came to grabbing a side for their pasta. But despite all the weird, mismatched food you are bound to encounter at a potluck, they are always very fun. And the best part of them – only having to make one thing in a large quantity as opposed to an entire meal for yourself – makes going to them very worth it.

I’m sure I’ll be heading off to a potluck pretty soon.

Marionettes

This year abroad, I’m tackling a French minor. It’s relatively short, just five classes to do over the course of two semesters, which means that I have lots of free space in an already lightly-loaded schedule to take some courses just for fun.

My fun for this semester (besides a class on the second wave of American feminism) is a class in the theater department about marionettes and puppeteering. The course mainly covers the history of different puppeteering forms across the world – last week we learned about life-sized marionettes in Japan and new-age human puppeteering in the Netherlands. But in addition to the history lessons, the class also came with a marionettes workshop. We learned, during six 7-hour days spread over three weekends, about controlling various kinds of puppets and participating in different kinds of manipulation theater.

It was a gas.

We learned how to use marionettes, how to make them dance or to recite a sad poem. We learned about object theater, making matchbooks come alive and hold conversations with sunglasses and paper doilies. We learned how to use dirt and plastic to illustrate falling in love. But what was better was that we all got to be very good friends after the three weekends.

I took the class with my friend Becca, a third-yeard from UC Santa Barbara. Being the sole Americans in the class, we were intimidated by the French theater students. There were so many huge, dramatic personalities that on the first day Becca and I rushed off to McDonald’s for lunch to avoid the intense, artistic conversations we knew were happening in the cafeteria. Slowly but surely, however, we started becoming closer with the French students. We sat with them at lunch, we walked with them to the coffee machines during break, we collaborated on puppet shows.

And it was all very exciting. Normally, attempting to make friends with other French students in class is nearly impossible. You get lucky to find one or two who are English majors and like practicing their English, maybe another who is nice enough to share notes, and then that’s generally it. Here we were, making heaps of French friends. I learned more French names over the course of three weeks than I had this past semester. And all the while we were doing all this friend-making in puppeteering class.

Not to say that I didn’t enjoy my classes last semester, but this class may be my favorite I’ve taken in France or even perhaps in college altogether. I’ve learned some very fun marionette tricks and also made many new friends. I’m already looking forward to class this week and for a soiree this weekend that the French students have planned. Hopefully my class on feminism will turn out to be this fun.

Feeling Frenchie

Finally, after spending a semester in France, I’m starting to feel very very French, and I am very, very happy about it. When I first got here in September I tried all kinds of things to make myself feel more French. I ate lots of pastries, I didn’t cringe when I inhaled second-hand smoke, I took long leisurely strolls through the park, I didn’t buy deodorant, I wore striped shirts, the list goes on. But all of it somehow didn’t quite make me feel French, more just like a smelly, stripey, well-fed boy.

But things have changed. Of course, I have still kept up my butter-based eating habits and sailor-like outfits, but now it’s less of a charade and more of a real-live life. This semester I moved out of my homestay in the the neighboring city of Villeurbanne and moved into an apartment in the middle of the Lyonnais peninsula. So now, instead of making a half-hour commute into town to meet my friends, everything fun is at my fingertips. Long park strolls are now just a bike ride away, and I have an endless supply of seriously cute boulangeries within three blocks of my house. I walk almost everywhere, even when it’s raining, and constantly say, “it’s so pretty here” in quick, short, labored bursts (something I haven’t done since walking around the UCLA campus).

I cook for myself now, for the first time in my life. Every dish has ham or blonde lentils, and when I eat I get to gaze out of my window (with shutters and a scalloped awning) to the moss-covered buildings across the courtyard. My shower doesn’t have a shower head holder, so every time I bathe I have to hold the sprayer above my head and soap up one-handedly. A tour through my neighborhood features a 12th century basilica, an old-timey pharmacy, a classic bouchon, and lots and lots of cobblestones. Essentially, every aspect of my life has just become hyper French. I hang my clothes up to dry, I have empty wine bottles in my room, I see the world in different shades of bleu, blanc, and rouge.

The director of the EAP program here in Lyon had told me that the second semester was always the better one. She said that there wasn’t any sort of adjustment period, that we would know how to go about choosing our classes and that our French would already be easy to use.

And while all of those things are true – the French comes easier, classes are better, friends are already made – the best thing about second semester abroad is finally feeling like you aren’t visiting but that you are actually living. I am still an extremely obvious (and proud) Californian, but my life looks and feels very, very French.

French Classes vs UCLA Classes

 

I’ve already talked about the class-choosing process as a study abroad student in France and how it is different from UCLA, but I haven’t yet discussed the differences between the actual classes at a French university and back home.

The largest difference is definitely the amount of time spent in class. At UCLA, most classes have at least two lectures per week and perhaps a discussion section. In Lyon, each class only meets once a week for an hour and forty-five minutes. This semester I’m taking four courses for a grand total of seven hours of class per week. It’s lovely. And if the minimal class time wasn’t enough, the French university system runs on semesters, but unlike the semesters that you would find at Berkeley or Merced, ours are only twelve weeks long with a finals week at the end.

Despite the shorter amount of time spent in the classroom, classes here can be pretty rigorous. Last semester, I took a class where I did more reading than I had ever done at class back home. And studying generally takes a little bit longer when you have to decipher the French you scribbled down in your notebook. Cramming a week’s worth of material into one two-hour lecture means lots of fast talking and not a lot of powerpoint slides, so the note-taking in France is generally very hurried, something the French students can do and I can’t (at least not without lots of spelling errors).

But the French students have had lots more practice than I’ve had at taking the kind of serious, super-fast notes that are required in a French classroom. At UCLA, we have lots of choice when it comes to figuring out what classes to take and when. Sure, we have requirements and timelines, but I was undeclared well into my sophomore year, something that the French students couldn’t dream of. You are what major you are in France, and you have to follow a very specific path. Choosing classes doesn’t really exist in the same way it does in California. I have friends at UCLA who will be taking GEs during their senior year. French students could never take a lower level course that late in the game.

Interacting with French professors is also rather different than it is back home. In France, there are no office hours. After class, professors are perfectly happy to take your questions, but if you can’t stick around for an extra five minutes your chance to ask a question is lost until next week. Emailing is totally acceptable but not as frequently used. There just isn’t as much emphasis on the teacher-student relationship, which makes chatting with French profs  so much fun. They are always tickled that a student wants to talk (and not just about when the exam is).

Things are very different over here. Teaching styles, student interaction, note-sharing culture, all of it is foreign to our way of life at UCLA. And it’s such a pleasure to experience.

International (and extremely long) winter break

Normally, winter break at UCLA is a very comfortable three weeks long. Last year, we got a fourth week on account of the new year falling on a Sunday, and the extra time nearly killed me because of the additional gluttony and TV watching. The French school system is set up to give you just a little two week break, which terrified me at the beginning of the semester, but through some freak accident (that I plan on recreating this semester) I took only courses with in-class finals, which all took place in December instead of the middle of January. My break got stretched from a high school-sized two-weeker to a demi-summer break of five weeks. I cannot remember a winter where I have had so much free mental space to think about things besides school and schoolwork and what outfit to wear tomorrow at school.

My break started with a visit from my dear friend Carly who braved two trans-Atlantic plane flights in less than a week and a half just to see me. We spent a few days in Lyon to catch me up on everything happening at UCLA and to let Carly get jealous of my beautiful city. We then sped off to Paris for a whirlwind adventure that included cups and cups of extremely rich hot cocoa, many walks, lots of ice cream, and several visits to Shakespeare and Company (Paris’s English bookshop). Seeing Carly was magical, partly because any amount of time spent in Paris is magic and mostly because Carly is magic. It was like being back at UCLA (and it felt good).

After sending Carly off to the airport, I headed to the Alps for a week of skiing and mountaineer food (think wild deer, boiled chestnuts, lots of melted cheese). If I wasn’t on the slopes getting severely wind-chapped, then I was spending my time reading a book or watching the Alien movies (of which there are four – I started seeing Sigourney Weaver on the ski lifts by the time I was done). The best part of the Alps was having my very first white Christmas, so so picturesque.

I then shot back over to Paris for New Year’s with my friend Sasha. Paris again involved more hot cocoa and more food and a sparkly Eiffel tower to welcome 2013.

To finish up, my friend Gina, who is spending the year studying in Egypt, came for a visit. We went over to London for a week to stay with friends and soak up some English-speaking culture. We got to go look at the Crown Jewels, bounce in and out of pubs, take a tour of Westminster Abbey, see Windsor Castle, and just generally enjoy each others’ company.

I feel completely spoiled by this break, not only because it was so so long or that I got to travel so much but because I got to spend time with some of my best UCLA buddies. But ahhh, now to return to school. I’ll be posting something soon about classes!