Faith and Doubt and France

I (finally) sat down to write a blog post with the intention of it being a sort of goodbye post. I’ve been out of ideas for awhile (sorry!) and I’m facing the home stretch of my semester here with all the mixed feelings you expect to have leaving an adventure to head home.

This semester I have grown and changed in so many ways. With this blog, I’ve tried to keep an entertaining record of some of my experiences and the feelings and emotions that have come with. I’ve tried to show what is changing me. But what came out this time is a bit different from my last posts, and I think it shows one aspect of how I have grown.

I still plan to make at least final update to this blog, but I think it will be written some time this summer, after I’ve left France, to tell you all how it goes once everything is over. Classes just ended yesterday, and I’ll be heading back to the States on June 2nd, but first I have to get through the rest of my final exams! I’m looking forward to being in the same time zone as most of you. Until then—peace be with you and au revoir!


My most recent bout with doubt took place here in France, a place where I already feel a bit out of step. I was attending a Bible study led by French college students for their peers and the community, and the topic du jour was belief and doubt.

I’ve been a Christian my whole life. Some of my earliest memories are of playing with Sunday School friends outside of the sanctuary at St. Thomas after church while my parents talked with the other adults. I can still describe to you my “church outfits” that hung in the closet I shared with my sister. It took me awhile to understand that some people actually did other things on Sunday mornings, because to me Sunday was a wholly (pun intended) different day than Saturday.

Of course, that didn’t mean that I always wanted to go to church, or that I understood exactly what the Church was offering. In fact, it was when I tried to get out of going to church that I started to ask questions, and in fact I had so many questions I decided to study religion when I went to college. So doubt isn’t something that’s new to me; it’s something I’ve had to make peace with again and again.

This specific evening, at the Bible study, the speaker for the night was full of “proof” for those of us listening. (Personally I thought it was a bit overkill, since as far as I could tell the audience was largely already Christian and there by choice to learn more about the Bible, but no doubt I was likely missing a lot of the nuance of the arguments being made since this was all in French, a language in which I am by no means entirely proficient—yet.) However, I did grasp one argument the speaker made, one I’ve heard before: the idea that this world we live in is so amazing and unlikely as to point to the presence of a Creator.

I work as a Bible camp counselor during summers, and when I am looking up at a clear night sky, when my paddle breaks clear water ahead of my canoe, when I am drifting off to sleep to the sound of crickets and frogs and mosquitos…I thank God with all my heart for the world around me, and I feel the presence of the Holy Spirit. For me, nature absolutely points to my God. This is one of the pillars of my faith. I take comfort in this refuge, this one sure place I can find clarity, and in this way I was able to agree wholeheartedly with the speaker that evening.

However, as a camp counselor, I’ve met kids and adults alike for which nature is no refuge at all. For them, there isn’t any inherent beauty in canoeing during a cold, damp, all-day drizzle, or in the thought of discovering creepy-crawlies in their shoes, or in having to make do with ranger boxes instead of indoor plumbing when nature calls. Plus, I completely understand the awe for intellectual and physical accomplishments in our world that are attributed to us as a modern society. And that is where I got stuck. Maybe it’s because I haven’t had my nature fix in a while, but I put myself in a doubter’s pair of shoes and I couldn’t take them off.

Anyway, I went home that night mad and wishing I could talk to somebody. And I did reach out, but I wasn’t able to put into words what I was feeling and the questions I’ve been asking (in any language) until now, when I feel like I’ve come to some sort of conclusion—I’ve found the kind-of answer I didn’t know I was looking for.

Unfortunately, this “kind-of answer” still isn’t the proof I and everybody else is looking for. This incredible, awe-inspiring world we live in is not irrefutable evidence that there is an omnipotent Deity who is looking over us—unless, unless, like me, that is where you discover the Creator God. And this realization is where I found relief in many aspects of my relationship with God.

I, like so many of my generation, struggle with what seems like sometimes arbitrary and occasionally outdated rules and restrictions that come with the idea of the “traditional Church.” Many of my peers that I interact with on a daily basis are atheist, agnostic, “spiritual” (but not religious), or undecided floaters for reasons similar to this. However, I, unlike many of my peers, have found God in the church congregations I’ve been involved with. “Traditional” worship on a regular basis with a home community is another place I can count on finding my God. But just because a Christ-oriented community proves to me the presence of God doesn’t mean that it does for other people, or that any such community has all the answers. And just because the scale and beauty of nature also proves to me the presence of God, doesn’t mean it’s any proof for others, either. It’s not.

It doesn’t have to be, and I don’t have to justify that to myself or to anybody else.

There isn’t any “perfect” or “only” source that will answer all your questions or get rid of your doubt. I can’t ask for proof from anybody else—in fact, that might lead me in the opposite direction that I want to go. Instead, I have to find God in my own life (and trust me, God is in a lot of places, if you’re looking) and ask this God, be it Creator God or God of Community, or whatever other aspect of God I find, for the answers to my questions.

What comes after France?

Okay, so it’s the beginning of April, and next week I’ll be registering for my fall semester courses at Luther. This kind of kick-started a whole long list of questions about my future I have to think about, both small (do I really want that 8 a.m. course three days a week next semester? Answer: it’s a must, unfortunately) and not-so-small (what am I going to do with my life after I graduate? Answer: hahaha, ha, ha…I would totally tell you if I knew).

So of course, I know these decisions aren’t really specifically a part of my Study Abroad Experience, but these Big Decisions just happened to have arrived at a time when I finally feel like I’ve found a sort of home here in Grenoble. I’m over the honeymoon phase, where everything was so cool and so awesome. Then I made it through the mid-semester slump, where I was homesick and frustrated and all I wanted to do was go someplace where everything was normal again. I’ve finally found a middle ground, where I feel comfortable and the routines have become familiar.

Here’s a list of some parts of life here that I’ve come to really appreciate:

  • the weather and the really big window I have in my bedroom that lets me enjoy it (sorry, Minnesota, but I wasn’t sad to miss that whole winter thing you had going on for so long),
  • the church communities I’ve visited (the anglophone ones because I enjoy the familiarity of a church service like I go to at home, the francophone ones especially for the music, because I love singing hymns in French),
  • Eating dinner with my host family each night, because I get to learn and talk about all these interesting things I wouldn’t otherwise get to about: the educational system, regional history, family, philosophy, religion, theatre…really, so much,
  • Trésor breakfast cereal (it has good chocolate in it, come on America, get with the program!), Comté cheese, and chocolate yaourt,
  • my politics class (I’m finally beginning to understand the political system here, and it’s interesting to see how some of the basic political tenets in the U.S., such as religious freedom, are interpreted in slightly different ways here in France. Even though I wrote a research paper last semester about laïcité in France, now I feel embarrassed by how little I knew!),
  • the public transportation (okay, that’s not just a French thing, but this is the first time I’ve lived on my own in a big city for any length of time, and I’m loving it!),
  • the Celsius system for temperature (because it just makes sense),
  • and of course, français, the beautiful language. (I’m finally getting the hang of the French “r.” Confession: in all my years of French classes, including my phonetics class, I’ve managed to slide by with rolling my “r’s,” which is what I learned when I was a kid for Indonesian, but what you’re really supposed to do is hack that sound up out of the back of your throat. It’s about as pretty as it sounds—but somehow it manages to fit in with the rest of the language if you do it right, which I can now do occasionally.)

And here are some things I actually really miss:

  • the comfort of being able to communicate in my own language without having to think twice (I’m a lot more quiet here than I am when I’m with my American friends),
  • hugs (seriously, hugs are not a thing here, and the bises/kisses just aren’t the same),
  • the ability to just pop over to my advisor’s office on the Luther campus to ask a quick question (arg, it is so frustrating to be so far away sometimes!),
  • basic cheddar cheese that you can find at any grocery store in the U.S.,
  • fast internet access practically wherever I go (this is the 21st century, France, get with the program!),
  • stores that are open 24/7 (everything closes down for lunch, and in the evenings, and don’t even bother trying to find a place to get shampoo on a Sunday),
  • and of course, being able to see my friends and family face-to-face.

See, I think I finally have a stable relationship with life in France. I look around myself and I’m not just seeing the amazing opportunities and relationships I have here, but immersing myself and taking advantage of the chance to be here, in Grenoble. The list of things I appreciate here was a lot easier to write than the second list, of things I don’t like very much.

But now, I have to think about what comes next, and I’m feeling a lot of different emotions again. I’m already starting to feel nostalgic, and a little bit sad, because I realize I’ll be leaving soon.

But of course with the nostalgia comes the excitement to go home and see my family, then spend another summer as a counselor at Camp Amnicon. And I’m feeling the butterflies in my stomach that comes around every year during class registration, because now I’m pumped for the new classes I’ll get to take next fall—plus I’ve found a new roommate that I’ll be living with then, and we’ve already been in touch about that. (Her name’s Amelia!) And just in the past couple of weeks, I’ve decided that I’m going to finish my time at Luther a year early, and with that has come a lot of nervousness, in addition to more excitement. (What? I have to be a real adult soon? Has anybody even figured out what being a real adult means yet?) Finally, the reason I’ve decided to graduate early is because there’s a gap-year program decided I want to get involved with called ALT Year.

(ALT Year is designed as a sort of “continuing education” through community living and service, in addition to providing resources for individual exploration. I believe it will give me an opportunity to think deeply my goals for my future, in addition to presenting me with opportunities for the next stage of my life.)

Audrey-with-piece-of-original-BastilleBut even while I think about the future, I’m trying to fully enjoy the time I have left here! Today I went to the Chateau de Vizille, which is less than an hour away from Grenoble, to see where the French Revolution officially started. My friend Amanda and I took an audio tour through the museum in the castle, then ate a picnic lunch and walked around the grounds, where we got to see swans and peacocks, in addition to ducks, joggers, and other wildlife. I also snapped a selfie with a piece of the original Bastille (the one from Paris, not the one I enjoy hiking up to here in Grenoble) just to say I did! The frame on it is a map of the Bastille before it was destroyed by the revolutionaries.

Grounds-of-Chateau-de-VizilleTomorrow afternoon I’m heading to the Caves de Chartreuse. This is the monastery where the local chartreuse liquor is made—only two monks know the entire recipe. It includes more than a hundred of the plants found in this region. After the tour of the monastery and the distillery, we’ll get a chance to try a little of the chartreuse ourselves. Because it’s so strong, it’s usually taken after dinner as the degustation. 

Then, for the second half of this week (which is my spring break), I’ll be heading to the south of France with a friend to enjoy the wonderful weather we’re having on the beach! I heard the water’s going to be pretty cold, but I plan on going in anyway. Ciao, friends!

Caves, midterms, and other (as it turns out) not-so-scary stuff

First things first: thank you to all of you for the love you sent me after my last post! It was definitely needed, and it definitely helped. I mean, I still miss all y’all of course, but friends, midterms and a couple weekend excursions to the caves of Choranche and to Dijon have distracted me and reminded me again how exciting it is to be here in France! I’m back to my usual (I think) cheerful self, and I’ve realized that I have less than three months left here. What?? Where did the time go? I don’t have time to be homesick, I’m too busy learning the finer points of the French language and culture, thank you. 🙂

Doing-French-homework

Plugging away at “expressions of consequence” for my grammar class (la conséquence est que j’oublie anglais!)

Speaking of the French language, here’s a fun fact that took me this long to figure out. You know that thing that you put under a hot pan on the table? (I honestly can’t think of the word in English, uh oh!) It’s called a “sous-plat” in French. I just had this revelation today at dinner: it’s called a sous-plat because it literally goes under (“sous”) the plate! So the lesson of the day: French does actually make sense. Sometimes. 🙂 And as you can see, I’m slowly losing some of my English while my French improves. It’s normal, I know, but still a bit disconcerting. The other day, talking in English with a couple friends, I had to stop and mentally walk through the steps to figure out what tense I needed to use for what I wanted to say. (I needed the past subjunctive, in case you wondered, and I’ve never had to think about how to form the past subjunctive in English before; I doubt many of you have had to either. Also, I just had to use spell check to figure out how to spell subjunctive in English. Ack!)

Anyway, so midterms happened this past week…needless to say they weren’t the most fun part of the week. (Are exams ever?) But, well, okay, they actually weren’t that bad. And the good news is that the grades don’t count! Thank goodness.

API (along with most other programs, from what I’ve seen) offers “les examens blancs,” or “white exams,” partway through the semester, meaning that they’re just for practice. Our professors write and grade the exams so that we know better what to expect at the end of the semester, since our final grades for the semester will be based entirely on our final exams. Yeah, everybody always says in high school to be ready for that in college, but this is actually the first time I’ll have a grade that’s based on only a single test.

Anyway, I had no idea what to expect on the midterms, since I know that the French school system is pretty different from the U.S. I didn’t study very much because I just didn’t know what to study. (I know, it’s a lame excuse, but it’s also really hard to get motivated when you know it doesn’t count for anything.) The exams were actually easier than I expected, so I feel a lot less nervous for the finals at the end of the semester. And yes, they were definitely different than the exams I have at home: there are no “freebie” points. The exams are graded out of twenty points, and a perfect twenty out of twenty is basically impossible. Anything over fourteen points out of twenty is considered an “A” (and you have to work for those points!) while anything under ten points is a failing grade.

Stalactites-at-caves-of-ChorancheThe weekend before midterms, we spent an afternoon at the caves of Choranche, which turned out to be absolutely beautiful! Seriously, gorgeous—and not dank, dark, or creepy at all. (Okay, maybe a little dark.) These photos don’t do it justice, because of course the lighting wasn’t the best, but with the lights that were placed throughout the caves and in the water, I can tell you that it looked a lot like a Caves-of-Choranche-beachtropical beach minus the sun: clear blue water and perfectly smooth, tan “sand” (with, you know, a few stalactites and stalagmites to spice things up). At the end, in the biggest cave, there was even a little lights/sound show. Sure, maybe it was a little tourist-y, but hey, that’s what we were! And it was pretty cool. For part of the show, they turned off all the lights and we got ot just stand in this immense, echo-y chamber in the pitch dark.

Outside-caves-of-ChorancheAfter the walk through the caves, we went for a short hike further up the mountain. We were already pretty high up and the view was amazing! I went rock climbing. Photo cred (left) to my friend Erin (her thumb and a few spelunkers in wet suits after their expedition in the caves also cameo).

This view reminds me of one thing was was actually a little scary: so we were brought to the entrance of the caves in this huge coach bus, and the last ten minutes of the drive was on this narrow, winding path up a mountain. From my window seat, it seemed like we were about to fall off the side of the mountain! And when we came across a car going the other way, we had to watch them back up until they got to a place where we could pass them. Anyway, of course we were fine, and the view with waterfalls, mountaintops, and the tiny village in the valley was so worth it. Unfortunately I was so enamored that I have no photos, I’m sorry! But you can see what sort of landscape we were dealing with in the background of this photo of my incredible rock-climbing feat.

Hike-at-caves-of-ChoranceReally, everywhere we looked had an amazing view. How awesome would it be to live in the valley below, and get to see this all the time?! I really wanted to go wading in the stream that’s underneath us in this picture (I think it’s the same one that runs through the caves), but I resisted the temptation; the fear of losing a toe to frostbite won out. (Erin again there in the background—she seems to have a talent for photo-bombing. If you can’t tell, she’s wearing a devious smile. If you’re reading this Erin, you’re the best!) 🙂

Lucky-owl-in-Dijon

That’s my hand. I consider myself a professional photographer by now so I’ve been getting fancy with the angles.

And then this past weekend, we went to Dijon and Beaune to…well, to be tourists. 🙂 We stopped in the Dijon Museum of Fine Arts and took a tour of the old part of town. Did you know that the city mascot is the “chouette,” or owl? At least in the old town, they were all over, and all the tourist shops had “chouette” themed stuff (although, fun fact, all the “chouettes” that they show are technically “hibous,” which are the kind of owls with ears). On the outside of the Notre Dame cathedral in Dijon there’s a “chouette” carved in the stone, and it’s said that if you put your left hand on it (because it’s the hand most closely connected to your heart), it will bring you good luck where you wish for it in your life. The stone is smooth from so many people touching it. I decided I’m going to need some luck when my professors grade my midterms…

Hotel-Dieu-fou-poster-bedIn Beaune we visited the Hôtel Dieu, which was a hospital built by a charitably-inclined noble couple in the 1400s in order to serve the poor. It was supposed to be a “palace” for the poor, and it was huge: it looked like a church sanctuary inside (part of it was a church, and the nurses were the nuns), except for the four-poster beds all around the edges. I thought they looked pretty comfy until I learned that they put two patients in each bed at a time. They were definitely single beds. Imagine having to share with a sick stranger!

A quick edit: here’s a photo of one of the beds. Thank goodness for friends who think to take pictures even when you don’t!

And finally, right before we headed home, we had a wine-tasting session, to taste some of the regional wines. What I think is really cool about a lot of the buildings here in France is how well the old is integrated with the new, and this wine place did an amazing job. The basement (cellar, I guess you call it, but it was big) where we were had lots of wine casks, of course, and these ancient stone walls, and we were walking under cool crumbling arches. It seriously felt like it should have been a museum, not just the basement of a store. And when you walked upstairs, there you were again, in the middle of the city with cars driving by!

Hanging-out-with-Mom-and-DadTo my friends, family, and to these awesome parents here, thank you for love, prayers, support (since I’ve realized I do actually need it)…basically, thank you for being great. À la prochaine fois!

There’s no place like home…except for maybe a French vineyard!

It’s already been a week and half since I got home from my travels around France and I haven’t  posted on my blog until now for a couple of reasons: I’ve been sick, and I’ve been homesick.

The last thing I want you guys to think is that I’m not enjoying my time here in France, because I am enjoying it. Like, a lot. But to be honest, coming “home” from vacation to a place without my family was really hard.

It was the moment when it finally sunk in that I’m here, in a different country and culture, for an entire semester without anybody: without my parents or my brother or sister, without any of my friends from Luther who have become like family, and without a chance of seeing them for the next several months. (It was wonderful to get to see my dad in Paris, but it was hard because it was for such a short time, just two nights together.) I was physically and mentally exhausted because of the demands of travel and because of the cold/cough that hit me pretty hard the last few days in Paris. Plus, being tired and sick, all I wanted to do was lose myself in a book for awhile, but I couldn’t even do that (I’m still looking for a source of leisure reading in English—I’m sure many of you who know how much I love to read will understand how hard it’s been for me not to have a good book to fall into sometimes!)  And then, I arrived back in Grenoble, and my subconscious expectations for a homecoming were disappointed. It just wasn’t quite right.

All of this was magnified by the guilt I felt for not being able to fully enjoy the time I have here in France, in the place I’ve wanted to visit for so long. I was kicking myself for just wanting to lay in bed all day and watch movies instead of immersing myself in the French culture that’s all around me. If I wanted to read a book, why couldn’t I read a book in French? If I was bored, why wouldn’t I go out and sightsee, or visit a museum?

Tirer-les-boisSo anyway, I’ve been in a funk since I got home from vacation—until this weekend, when I got to go help prune some vineyards. I know, who’d think that pruning vineyards would cheer me up? But really, it was awesome! It felt really good to get out and do some hard work with good friends. (Most of us API students went together, along with the local Rotary Club, which meant we got to practice our French.)

The vines in the vineyard had already been cut, but it was our job to pull the vines off of the supporting wire and burn them in these modified oil barrels that were on wheels so that we could push them alongside us as we worked our way down the rows.Tirer-les-bois-barrel

To reward us for our hard work, we got to have an incredible lunch right next to the vineyards that included quiche, bread, many varieties of cheeses, fruit, pȃté, fresh veggies, and of course several different local wines! Plus the API director had been in Texas the previous week and brought us some Reeses Peanut Butter Cups, which I hadn’t even realized I’d missed until I had one or two (or four).

I’ve got some other photos I’d like to share, too, from my vacation! Because, I mean, I am in France, no big deal, and I can get on a train to go basically wherever I want! The trains here are actually pretty cool. First, I got myself a “carte de jeune,” which anybody under 24 years old can buy for about 50 euros. It pays for itself, because it gets me a discount anytime I buy a train ticket while I’m here. Then I went to the SNCF office with the itinerary for my vacation (SNCF stands for “Société nationale des chemins de fer,” literally translated as “National society for paths of iron,” i.e. the railroads in France). It only took about 15 minutes, and I walked out with all of my seats booked to get me from Grenoble to Taizé, to Dijon, to Paris, and then back to Grenoble for about 150 euros. It still boggles my mind that I had to fly to Chicago just to get my visa for this—and now that I’m here, all the places I want to go are just a few hours away by train!

Audrey-and-Dad-at-Eiffel-TowerFirst, me in Paris with my dad! Since he was only here for one full day, we could only hit the highlights, and of course the Eiffel Tower was a priority. You can see that the weather was very sunny! It’s already feeling like spring here some days, not to rub it in or anything to my friends in the Midwest… 🙂

My dad and I also went to an orchid exhibition at the Paris Museum of Natural History. We found out about it from a poster in the window of a shop. Afterwards, my dad wrote a poem about it (I know, this is a blog about my studying abroad—but come on! This is a poem about Paris. Plus, I’m in it!) 🙂 It’s called “Tale of a Thousand and One.”

Orchids-landscape-uprightOn our way to the Museum of Natural History in Paris,
We pass a tent city bunched under the train bridge.
We are going to an orchid exhibit titled “A Thousand and One”.
Brightly colored against the morning overcast,
They are gorgeous, elaborate in shape and color,
These are would be immigrants,
Each one a visitor here, an import on display,
Living between there and not yet here.

“What evolutionary purpose,” my daughter asks, “do they serve?”
Do these wild shapes and colors make any sense?
Orchid-horizontal-backgroundThey are looking to fit in, to find meaning in this place.
Classified by how they feed and where they attach.
“Parasites,” some say, judging hunger by how it is fed.
“Refugees,” some say, “fleeing scarce resources.”
How do they live? Drawing nourishment, it seems, from the air.
Living off what but the abundance of the productive world?

Audrey-and-orchids-close-upThat evening I look up the exhibition website.
We don’t know what to call them, these strangers,
‘Mille et une” in French, of course, in Paris.
Huddled by the bright colors, waiting for something to happen,
Google translates it for me­­—’Arabian Nights’,
No escaping our confusion about who they are,
Confusing the name with the story of a thousand and one tales
Of what to call them, of what their story is.

TaizeI also took a photo of the sanctuary at Taizé. Unfortunately, this picture isn’t it (although it’s very similar)—I lost some of the photos I took during vacation, so I took this picture from the Taizé community’s website. It’s better than mine was anyway, since I wasn’t allowed to take photos during the service. Here you get to see the brothers in their places in the center of the sanctuary. This photo also shows the immense scale of the place—and this is only the front half of the sanctuary! The weekend that I was there, Taizé was hosting a thousand high school students from Toulouse, and it was considered a “small” week.

Again, unfortunately I don’t have any photos from my time in Dijon. I was only there for two days, and I took the opportunity to explore the many awesome, crazy-old churches it has! I’m going back in two weeks with my program, so this first time I avoided the more mainstream tourist things that will be on the API itinerary, like the museum and a tour of the old town.

It’s been a crazy ride these past few weeks, with its ups and downs. Thanks for all the loving support of family and friends. I appreciate the response I get from posts—thinking about what to write this blog for you guys helps me recognize what I’ve got going for me!

Life in Grenoble

As I write this, I’m looking down at the city of Grenoble from the Bastille (shown above), a fortress that was built before 1850 to defend Grenoble in case of attack from the Duchy of Savoy from the other side of the mountain. It was never actually needed, but it’s still an impressive historical site, and the various paths leading up to it are great for hiking, which is what I wanted to do today. The view is especially beautiful because of the little bit of snow we got this past week. (Snow is pretty rare in the city, but it’s been abnormally cold for Grenoble since I arrived—I’m afraid I brought the Minnesota winter with me!) The first larger image above is a picture of the Bastille I took the first time I climbed it a couple weeks ago, when it was sunnier and a bit warmer. Below is the view of Grenoble I have now, covered in a slight mist.

View-of-Grenoble-from-Bastille

These past couple weeks have been full of many fun adventures including my hikes up to the Bastille. I’ve gone to a French play, Molière’s Tartuffe, or The Imposter. (The acting was lovely, but I’m afraid I couldn’t tell you much about what it was about. The actors spoke very fast, and it was very fancy French, so I’m told.) I’ve played Lazer Tag (I know, not very French, but it was lots of fun!) I went to a cooking class to learn how to make (and eat!) a delicious traditional French dinner that included apératifs, beet soup, quiche Lorraine, crêpes, and a “tarte à la praline” for dessert. And just yesterday, I spent the day sightseeing in Lyon.

All of this has been possible because my class schedule leaves me with lots of free time to explore life in France. I’m taking four classes in addition to my 10 hours of grammar and 2 hours of translation each week, but for these classes we only meet once a week for 1.5 hours. I’m done with classes for the week every Thursday at 12:30, since there are no classes on Fridays.

We meet for grammar every morning, then the “culture electives” are throughout the afternoon. I’ve chosen to take a class on French society, one on contemporary French history, one on Francophone language and literature, and one on contemporary French politics. My grammar class is small, only about 15 people, but the afternoon classes are lecture style and much bigger. All of my classes are with international students from around the world, since I’m taking classes through the CUEF, which is the part of the university that caters specifically to international students. There are lots of Americans, of course, but there’s also a large number of students from China and South Korea, in addition to students from South America, and countries that are a little bit closer to France, such as Ireland. I think it’s really cool to have conversations with Asian students especially, because many of them know little or no English and we have to rely totally on French in order to communicate.

However, I still have opportunities to meet regular French students, in addition to international students: the CUEF organizes events and outings for all students specifically for that reason.

CUEF students may independently register for regular classes, too, if they wish, and it’s a lot cheaper than it would be to take individual classes at an American university, but I decided not to try any outside classes—I already had trouble narrowing down what elective classes I want to take at the CUEF! Plus all the CUEF professors are trained to work specifically with students who are learning French. This is nice because all of my classes are entirely in French, since that’s the only language that all the students have in common. Sometimes it’s frustrating not to be able to use English to help explain a certain word or concept, but it’s also been a huge confidence booster to realize that it’s possible for me to understand and participate in class without relying on English when I get stuck!

I often have several open hours throughout the day, so that gives me time to get lunch at one of the campus cafeterias or at a grocery store downtown. I only live about twenty minutes away from campus using public transportation (bus and tram), and the “centre-ville,” or downtown area, of Grenoble is about the same distance away from home, but in a slightly different direction. The earlier picture of Grenoble, is the amazing view of the centre-ville I have where I’m sitting now.

I absolutely love being able to take the bus and the tram (an above-ground subway system). I feel like I can go wherever I want to quickly and easily (my program pays each month for me to get a pass that allows me unlimited rides), plus the buses and trams are clean and comfortable. Especially in the mornings when the weather is nice, I’ll also walk part of the way. Later this semester, when it’s warmer out, I might rent a bike for a month or two. It’s very cheap, and Grenoble, despite being surrounded by the Alps, is the flattest city in France.

On the weekends I’ve been attending youth activities and worship with my host family. The church they are members of is just a few minutes walk down the street. In addition, I’ve also been to some events hosted by the Foyer Évangélique Universitaire (le FEU), a student organization that’s active at the university.

After church on Sunday morning, we follow the tradition of a big Sunday afternoon dinner, then it’s a day spent relaxing or going on a family excursion. (Almost everything is closed on Sundays here.) My first Sunday here, the family took me to the gardens of an old monastery that they enjoy visiting.

I’ve finally feel like I’ve really settled in and that I have a good routine, so it’s hard for me to believe that next week is already our winter break! We get an entire week off from classes, and of course there aren’t any classes on Friday, so I have 10 days that I will be spending traveling around France. I bought the train tickets just a few days ago—I’m going to spend the weekend at the Taizé community which is just a short trip north of Grenoble, then a couple days in Dijon before I head to Paris to meet my dad, who is laying over in Paris for two nights to see me on his way to India. I’m excited to get to see more of France outside of Grenoble, and of course I’ll tell you all about my travels in my next post!

Introducing…ma famille d’accueil!

Bonjour, tout le monde! I’ve been in Grenoble for more than a week now, and since classes started on Tuesday, my life has finally settled down into a regular rhythm. I think I’ve actually caught up on my sleep, and I have this thing called homework again. (Weird, I know, right?)

Some milestones so far: on Thursday I started speaking with another American exchange student outside of class—and I accidentally used French! Then yesterday I had a (short) conversation with somebody in a “boulangerie” (a bakery) who didn’t automatically switch to English when they heard me trying to speak French. Yay, progress!

I give lots of credit for this progress to my “famille d’accueil,” or host family, here in Grenoble, who are all incredibly patient with me as I practice my French (which, by the way, is not said as “pratiquer francais,” but “s’entraîner à parler francais,” as they explained to me yesterday, because the verb “pratiquer” is used for athletes training for a sport. I’ve been saying it wrong for years—oops!) They are all fluent in both French and English, so when I’m stuck, they can help me figure out how to say what I want in French.

The father, Matthew, is actually American, originally from Washington D.C. He got out his old yearbooks a few days ago to show us that he didn’t do very well in his French classes during high school—several of his friends who signed his yearbooks commented on their time together in French class. If he was trying to reassure me about my language skills, it definitely made me feel a little better. Thanks Matthew! 🙂 He is a missionary/pastor, and currently leads several service and outreach missions here in Grenoble.

Sylvie, his wife, is French. Previously an art teacher for middle and high school students, she now teaches French as a second language and watches elementary school children in the afternoons after school gets out. She’s still very artsy; she helped some of the kids paint masks for themselves once this past week which were pretty awesome, and I’m know that she’s a big part of the reason the apartment is as beautiful and hospitable as is it. And she’s an amazing cook! Thanks for all the delicious dinners and the warm welcome for me, Sylvie. 🙂

Anastasia's-artAnastasia is the oldest child. She’s 20 and going to school for art design here in Grenoble while living at home. Yesterday she showed me what she had worked on that day; she practiced drawing her hand from different angles.

When I’m struggling to figure out what’s going on because everyone is speaking French, Anastasia always takes the time to make sure that I understand. In conversation with international friends here, and with a lot of the people I interact with day-to-day, like at stores or events, people usually just switch to English when I tell them I didn’t understand something and ask them to repeat themselves. However, Anastasia will usually first try speaking more slowly or simply, in order to give me a chance to figure out the French on my own, which I really appreciate.

Pascal is the middle child. He’s my age—his 19th birthday was the day I arrived—but he’s in Toulouse, studying music and literature, so I haven’t met him yet. He forgot I was with his family, though, and sent his love to ”everybody in the house” yesterday over the speaker phone while talking to his dad, which was kind of him. Thanks Pascal! 🙂

Juliet is the youngest child. She’s 16 and she reminds me so much of Halla, in all the best ways. She’s dramatic and friendly, energetic, and unafraid to try things out. (I know you don’t know my sister, Juliet, but I definitely mean the comparison as a compliment!) Juliet plays the piano and has been involved in theatre. She uses her hands to talk, in addition to sound effects, so when she’s telling a story about her day around the dinner table and I can’t quite catch what’s going on, I always watch for cues from her gestures or how she’s talking. Someday I’m going to be able to speak French as fast as you can, Juliet! 🙂

Both Anastasia and Juliet have had to ask a couple times how to say a word in French that they only know in English, or vice versa, which makes me feel a little bit better about always having to ask “How do you say this in French?” all the time.

Les ponts de Paris: NOT the cliché tourist post about the Eiffel Tower

It’s Thursday afternoon and I’m writing this on the TGV (the “train de grande vitesse,” or high speed train) we’re taking to Grenoble leaving Paris. I arrived Monday morning, sleepy after almost 24 hours straight of travel, and met the rest of my API group at the airport…and then, we were off! In just two and half days in Paris we managed to see the sights⏤well, a lot of them at least. I’ve visited the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre (only a tiny part, but that part included the Mona Lisa!), Champs Élysées, the Musée d’Orsay, Notre Dame, and the Château de Versailles, in addition to lots of little cafés and “restos” and the inside of many métro stations.

Our first evening, just as the sun was setting, we got to take a boat tour on the Seine River. It seems like every block in the city is full of history, and I saw a lot more than I thought I could just by going down the river.

Side note: And again, this morning, on the second level of the Eiffel Tower, I realized that I could see almost every single sight we had visited from the vantage point I had, and most of them were within walking distance. I guess this explains why everything seems so small and tight: this city has an enormous amount of history crammed into a relatively small space. The streets are narrow, the sidewalks tiny, the stairs are steep and curved, there’s a café or shop tucked into every nook and cranny of the city, and every place has its own story. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard about how this site is the oldest, or the biggest, or the first ever thing to be built.

The highlight of the boat tour though, in my opinion, was the bridges. There’s a bridge connecting the Île-de-France with the rest of the city every couple blocks, and every one is completely different. So the next day, when we were given a few free hours to wander the city on our own, I took a walk to get a closer look at the bridges between along the Seine between Notre Dame and the Eiffel Tower. (I chose to quit there because that’s about when my feet couldn’t take anymore. #touristproblems)

Also, when you’re looking through these photos, take a moment to look around the bridges, too. Several times my main subjects were photo-bombed by other rather famous parts of the Paris skyline.

This first bridge was my personal favorite, because I thought it looked very elegant from underneath and reminded me of the Eiffel Tower. (Sorry for potato image quality throughout this post, the camera on my phone is super handy but not very good.)

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This bridge, “Le Pont des Arts,” was built in the beginning of the 1800s and is one of the better know bridges in Paris because it’s where many lovers go to put a lock on the fence along the river and to throw the key into the river, symbolizing their commitment to each other. (Incidentally, placing a lock on the bridge and surrounding area is strictly illegal.)

Image101In this next picture, you can see one of the sections of the fence (a ways down the bridge) has been boarded over. Actually, several parts of the fence have fallen into the river from the weight of the metal locks and have had to be replaced (thus the whole “illegal” thing). See how the side seems to glitter? That’s the effect of hundreds of locks, most inscribed with initials or a short sentence.

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Image110In contrast, this bridge right next to it, “Le Pont-Neuf” (or literally the New Bridge), was built in the late 1500s by Henry III and Henry IV in a much different style: it’s very block-y and heavy. It’s called the “new” bridge even though it’s very old because it was the first stone bridge that crossed the river in Paris.

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The faces that line both sides are all unique and our tour guide told us that they were modeled on one of the king’s advisors (although other sources I’ve found say that no one is quite sure who the people were supposed to be). If they were the king’s advisors, you can tell which ones were probably liked least of all by him; it would be kind of cool to be important enough that your face gets put on a bridge, but who wants to be remember forever as one of the few grimacing gargoyles like the ones on the far right and the far left amongst the more handsome and kindly faces?

Image73A post about the bridges of Paris wouldn’t be complete without the bridge of Alexandre III. According to Wikipedia, it’s built in the “Beaux-Arts” style, which I call “très fancy.”

In the center of the side of the bridge that I took a picture of is the Russian coat of arms, surround by the nymphs of the Neva cast in bronze (the Neva is a Russian river). On the Image90other side is the France coat of arms, surrounded by the nymphs of the Seine. The bridge was built as a symbol of the alliance between France and Russia at the very end of the 1800s.

The coat of arms are covered with gold, in addition to the statues set at the entrance to the bridge, which depict Fames, the Roman goddess of starvation, holding back Pegasus. I’m sure there’s some symbolism there, but I can’t find anything that explains it. If one of you knows, tell me about it! I’m very curious.

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This is “Le Pont au Change,” and the N’s are for Napoléon III (it was built during his reign). I thought it was interesting because you’d have to be pretty confident to build a bridge where basically the only decorations are your initials—excuse me, your “imperial insignia.” For you Les Misérables fans out there (spoiler alert!), this is the bridge that Inspector Javert jumps off of at the end of the story.

Image10Here’s the view off one of the bridges, looking straight down into the water. It’s definitely not as far down as the Les Mis film makes it out to be, just so you know. On the right, coming out from under the bridge, is one of the “Bateaux-Mouches,” which cater to tourists looking to dine while floating down the Seine. You can see the little tables set up inside the boat, since the roof is made of glass.

And speaking of jumping off bridges reminds me of my second favorite French joke I know (I’m sure you’ll eventually get to hear the other one, just wait). Here goes: what would you have to be to jump off a bridge in Paris?

You would have to be in-Seine!

(The name of the river is actually pronounced more like “sen” than “sane,” but it’s funny because if you say “insane” with a heavy French accent it actually sounds like “in-sen.”)

And a final bridge I wanted to mention is “Le Pont de Bir Hakeim.” I didn’t get a picture of it, unfortunately, because it was the one right after I decided to turn back, but this morning I took the métro line that goes across it, and I remembered our tour guide telling us about it. It’s unique because it has two levels⏤underneath the métro there’s a level for cars.

When we arrive in Grenoble, my host family will be there to bring me to my home for the semester. I’ll introduce them in my next post!