Vive la France

It’s obviously that point in the semester: the point when cheese or Nutella — dare I say it? — begin to look unappetizing (I never thought this was possible!); when my body starts craving sleep; and, of course, when my blog becomes neglected.

I put a disclaimer at the top of the blog page: “No promises [that I will keep up my blog]. Sometimes it’s more important just to live your life.” And indeed, I feel like I have been living my life pretty fully. In this catch-up post, I’ll explain some of the things I’ve been doing these last three weeks in hopes that you’ll agree.

1. Appreciating French wine

Step 1: Examine the color of the wine

Vineyards are as common in Provence as cornfields are in Illinois. Wine practically flows through the pipes – in fact, at cafes, wine is usually cheaper than water. So I decided it was my duty as an American student to immerse myself in the culture, aka learn how to drink wine properly. So I attended an educational wine tasting, during which I learned, among other things, that the proper way to hold your glass of rosé is always, always by the stem, lest you destroy its suble flavors with the heat of your hand. (Also, did you know that rosé is made only from red grapes, not from a mixture of red and white? And that French wines, like Bordeaux, are classified by the region rather than the kind of grape? These are important life lessons I’m learning!)

A few weeks later, I went to a small Provence vineyard with a class, where we learned about the delicate process of wine production and tried some of its selection. I believe I can now successfully appreciate fine wine — or, at least, pretend I know something about what I’m drinking and make a few remarks about its “subtle flavors of oak,” or something.

2. Listening to Gregorian chants

After the vineyard, my class took a trip to l’Abbaye de Thoronet, an old abbey where Cistercian monks lived lives of purity and harmony. The chapel inside looked plain. It wasn’t built to impress churchgoers with visual stimulation, the way many European cathedrals were. Rather, it was built for auditory stimulation — for singing. The room has a crazy echo that’s perfect for the modal Gregorian chants. He sang us one, creating chords with his voice. Absolutely, mesmerizingly beautiful. At that moment, I would have given anything to be there with my best friends from choir, to sing the music we sang in echoing churches three years ago.

3. Seeing Provence: Lourmarin, Lacoste, Roussillon and Avignon

The view from a hill in Luberon

In one busy weekend, I traveled to all four of these cities. The first three are the kinds of tiny hill-top villages that make you sigh and pull out your camera. The last, Avignon, is the old home of the Pope, when he left Rome for about 100 years in the 14th century. In fact, it was owned by the papacy until the French revolution in 1791. At this point, the revolutionaries seized the Palace and cut off the heads of the sculptures of apostles, as the French were prone to do around this time period.

Mother-daughter bonding time in Aix

4. Wandering around Paris

My mom came to visit me (her first time in Europe since 1977!), and after a few days in Aix, we spent the weekend in Paris, just two Feldman-Siner gals out on the town. We saw the classic sights, mastered all methods of public transportation, stumbled upon the Moulin Rouge, and ate the most delicious banana-sugar crepes from a street vendor somewhere between the Grand Palais and the Arc de Triomphe. Ah, Paris! It felt so iconic and yet so familiar. I can’t wait to go back.

5. Visiting the Mediterranean

The small seaside town of Cassis, about an hour by bus from Aix, is a breathtaking sight. It’s nestled in the Calanques, cliffs lining the Mediterranean Sea. My mom and I spent a few hours here, but it started raining as soon as we got there, so after exploring it for a while, we split another banana crepe (not as good as the one in Paris) and caught the bus back. However, it was still a beautiful town, and I can only imagine how beautiful it must be during the summer.

6. Learning about the environment

This past weekend, I traveled to Strasbourg, a city in northeast France with a charming mix of French and German influences. I didn’t get a chance to see much of the city because I was in a conference all weekend, but fortunately, it was worth it. The conference was on the international responses to environment destruction. I learned about world politics and the environment and felt constantly stimulated and challenged by the people around me. Though we were a small group of about 30 students — about half American and half European — we had two major players in the environmental-political world with us all weekend: Polly Higgins, an activist trying to criminalize ecosystem destruction with the United Nations, and Julia Marton-Lefèvre, the director general of the largest environmental organization in the world. Both were inspiring women to meet.

And more to come…

In the next month, I will be traveling to Prague, Frankfurt, and Budapest; celebrating my birthday; and eating as many pastries as I can manage. The time to profit from living in France is dwindling, and I plan to live every minute of it to the fullest.

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