Marseilles during the Heat Wave

Thanks to the heat wave currently sweeping through France, we all suffered last night and got minimal sleep. I blame either my sleep deprivation or short attention span for getting bored 20 minutes into our first activity in Marseille, the MUCEM (Musée des civilisations de l’Europe et de la Méditerranée). It took all of my self-control not to wander off from the group and the tour guide. But I am weak, so I failed. For me, the only interesting part of the museum’s interior was a way-too brief section on Algers amidst a sea of white, masculine history. At least the rooftop views were nice?

 

After the beautiful air-conditioned museum, several of us followed the program’s director to Les Terrasses, a beautiful air-conditioned shopping mall. We made a brief pit stop at L’Espérantine de Marseille, an artisanal chocolate store where I ingested the most delicious chocolate I’ve ever eaten, made especially rich and smooth thanks to olive oil (which you thankfully could not taste in the chocolate). Tragically, I did not buy any because I didn’t want to end up with a puddle of melted chocolate in my tote bag. I did, however, buy a tin of loose-leaf strawberry tea after lunch because I couldn’t resist the smell.

Thirteen of us then participated in a guided visit of Nice, which I actually paid attention to but now can’t remember anything other than tidbits about Marseillais soap. This time, I blame the heat. I do, however, vaguely remember the port and the colorful streets that reminded me of my year abroad in Nice. Oh, I also remember the Cathédrale La Major, a stunning cathedral, because we spent a good amount of time seated in its wonderfully cool interior before the director treated us to free ice cream or cold drinks at L’Espérantine de Marseille for being the brave few who tackled the heat.

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I think a good portion of us passed out on the air-conditioned bus on the ride back, given that it was still 90 degrees in Avignon last night and no one has AC here. This year has had too many weather extremes for me (-10°F in Ithaca in January and now 113°F/44°C in Avignon). If I ever get rich, I’m moving to some magical land where the weather never dips below 40°F and never rises above 80°F. It’s way past my old lady bedtime, but the idea of moving both myself and my fan is just too much effort.

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Roving through Roussillon

We left bright and early as usual to explore more sights outside of Avignon. Our first stop today was the colorful, charming Provençal village of Roussillon, which is perched upon a mountaintop and gazes out over the countryside. A sign hanging over the streets proclaimed that it’s the French people’s third most liked village, with no information as to how they reached that conclusion.

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Before meandering through the village, however, we explored le Sentier des Ocres (Ochre Path), which reminded me a lot of the Grand Canyon—at least, from what I can remember when I was about 11—but with more color variations in the clay, ranging from yellow to orange to reddish-brown. Most of the gorgeous views I’ve seen in France involve rolling green hills or expansive blue sea, so the change of scenery was, as the French would say, impressionnant.

After admiring the sights of Roussillon and the panoramic views it offered, along with indulging in some well-deserved ice cream, we set off again in the bus. Frankly, I found the second part of the trip the least interesting and the most boring: wine tasting. Alcohol and I do not go well together. I’m tiny. The last time I had a “full” glass of wine was when a French professor took our class out and treated us to a bottle, and I may or may not have shown up to my next class slightly drunk and very hyperactive. (That’s in the past now, I was of legal age and I’ve secured my degree from that school, so there will be no blackmailing here.) At least I got a macaron, a frozen radish, and a frozen tomato out of the wine tasting in which I did not participate.

We descended briefly from the bus to admire Gordes from afar, another striking mountaintop village that I would refuse to ever explore by car. (A car driven by me, at least.)

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Our final destination, the L’Abbaye de Sénanque, was a point of great contention for me. We’d essentially been ordered to wear “respectful clothing,” or clothes that didn’t reveal cleavage or too much leg, in order not to offend the monks who still live in the abbey. Yay, I love victim-blaming behavior that never holds men accountable! Woe be us if women want to dress however they want. And lo and behold, we didn’t see a single monk. I should have dressed more scandalously. (Not that I have anything scandalous to begin with besides legs that look really long because I’m so thin.) At least I got to see some lavender fields, which were, hilariously enough, also a lie—technically they were lavandin, or hybrid lavender, because they produce more flowers than pure lavender.

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City and Canoe Adventures

We began our second excursion in Uzès, a town famous for its open-air Saturday market. Someone looking to spend large amounts of money could have easily stocked up on clothes, vegetables, fruit, charcuterie, cheese, olives, books, soap, jewelry, lavender, and anything else inanimate you could imagine buying. T and I eschewed the map and chose to explore the village, admiring its medieval buildings and doing our best to avoid the market and its masses of people. Eventually, we took shelter in a café before returning to the bus for the most exciting part of the trip.

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My spirits were slightly dampened because I managed to find a duck sandwich (duck is probably the reason I’ll never be able to go vegetarian), but it turned out to be the biggest disappointment of the day. It had nothing on Peking duck and is the first time French food has ever betrayed me. Then, as we munched on our lunches on the bank of the Gardon River, it began to rain and nobody had any desire to go canoeing.

But the sun emerged from the clouds and soon we were on our way, outfitted with oars and life jackets, and all of our doubts and skepticism were swept away by the river. An 8 kilometer (4.97 mile), 2+ hour journey just to pass by the Pont du Gard, a Roman aqueduct bridge constructed in the 1st century CE, sounded daunting and impossible but the journey along the Gardon River was mostly uneventful. I embarked in a canoe with two fellow grad student friends, T and C (amusingly, the two who know fellow students at Cornell), and we made a pretty good team. The only major scares we had were nearly crashing into a riverbank and my mom’s hat flying off my head, but luckily C saved it. I would not have wanted to tell my mom, “Sorry, your hat is now floating in a river in France, never to be seen again.”

Surrounded by open sky and lush vegetation and soaring cliffs, with the occasional castle and turtle and beaver dam, the aquatic journey was peaceful despite all the rowing we had to do and our increasingly wet shoes, socks, and shorts. The water was tranquil and clear-—to the point that you could see rocks in the riverbed, fallen trees and branches, plants, and fish—and we admired the sights and scenery around us, the stunned silence broken only by the sound of our oars scraping against the sides of the canoe and our “un, deux” and other verbal directions to make sure we rowed in unison and avoided colliding with rocks, other canoes, or the riverbank. I even managed to forget about my 12 mosquito bites.

At some point we stopped just in front of the Pont du Gard to enjoy the view, the sun, and the river. We rested our tired arms and also took photos of ourselves and the aqueduct. I caught some tadpoles and released them, and soon we were on our way again. Right before we reached the end point, T, C, and I saw a seagull perched on a fallen tree in the river. T remarked that it was majestic, and it chose that exact moment to poop into the river. Not so majestic after all. That’s okay, none of us were either, we were all tired and slightly damp, with soaked socks and squelching shoes. The Pont du Gard won the majesty card.

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Les Baux-de-Provence

A mere 40 minutes by bus from Avignon, the site of our first excursion was a charming little hilltop village, Les Baux-de-Provence. According to Google, it’s now more of a tourist site; only 22 people live in the village itself with another 450 in the commune, or the village proper. Outside the village, a sign proclaimed that it’s among France’s most beautiful villages.

We began our field trip with a Van Gogh exhibition in Les Carrières de Lumières, or an ancient quarry that is dedicated today to art. Floor-to-ceiling projections of Van Gogh’s art covered the quarry walls, which was equal parts gorgeous and mystifying. Being immersed in giant replicas of Van Gogh’s artwork meant that we could see all the intricate details of his paintings up close and magnified, but navigating the quarry was like wandering through a maze with no beginning or end—especially since the paintings were projected onto the floor, making it look deceptively smooth when in fact it was full of random bumps and dips.

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After the Van Gogh immersion, we walked about ten minutes and climbed a few sets of steps up to Baux-de-Provence, where we were released into the wild to explore. The village truly has become a tourist stop, full of shops and restaurants and cafés, lavender and sandwiches and crêpes, but the panoramic views are breathtaking.

When a friend and I drank our fill of the landscape, we then decided to fill our stomachs. The guy manning the stall asked where we were from, so I replied (in French), “The United States,” and he immediately responded, “I know, but what city?” Whoops. Somehow our American was showing.

This would have been the perfect excursion, but now I’m locked out of my room when I was locked inside of it this morning. Avignon apparently has a bone to pick with me, even though I’ve never been here and done nothing but curse its cobblestoned streets as I dragged my wheeled suitcase behind me on Friday. Maybe that brought the curse upon me? Let’s hope that I can make it to my 8:30am class tomorrow, it would be highly embarrassing if I had to tell the professor, “Sorry, I’m locked inside my room like Rapunzel.”

At Long Last

My journey to Avignon decided that it wanted to reenact A Series of Unfortunate Events. First, my plane from Richmond to Detroit was delayed for an hour, and even though I sprinted to the gate in Detroit, I missed the 9:51PM plane to Paris because the lady at the desk refused to let 5 of us board even though the plane was still at the gate and one woman was crying. I then bonded with 3 French people as we bemoaned our shared suffering—the next earliest flight to Paris was at 4:04PM.

At least Delta gave me a hotel voucher, but it was the sketchiest place I’d ever stayed in (and I’ve traveled a lot), reminiscent of motels in TV shows where people get murdered or where they find corpses. That, along with the loud, drunk men outside my room and the paper-thin walls that graciously allowed me to hear every single plane take off, meant that I got no sleep. When I returned to the airport, my credit cared was declined because apparently buying a second French train ticket signaled fraud. Never mind that I’d already bought an Avignon to Paris ticket on Sunday. The misfortune continued in the form of turbulence so severe, several flight attendants exclaimed in surprise and my stomach protested violently. I just wanted to finish watching On the Basis of Sex. 

Things turned around after I escaped my personal hell of Detroit. I arrived half-an-hour early in Paris, and was able to catch a 6:57AM train and gaze out peacefully at the passing French countryside, all white clouds and blue skies layered over verdant hills and valleys and hilltop villages that reminded me of my time in Nice. After arriving in Avignon, I was whisked off to a picnic, which was an introvert’s nightmare because everyone else had arrived yesterday and sleep-deprived me had no desire to mingle with strangers. (It didn’t help that some unnamed adult decided to make racist and sexist comments. Ahem.) Then we had a tour of Avignon, but I don’t remember a single thing the tour guide told us. Oops. Afterwards, the ten grad students in the program had drinks with the director and his assistant, but I was so tired that I dozed off several times at the table after drinking my orange juice and the assistant finally took pity on me.

Today, as a functioning, only somewhat sleep-deprived zombie, I got to know some of the grad students. I thought the world was small before, but the French academic world is tiny. Upon learning that I go to Cornell, several people have already asked if I know other grad students there. Avignon is lovely and walkable (unlike Ithaca), and full of sun (also unlike Ithaca)—my watch tan has returned to its former glory. Unlike my vitamin-D happy skin, my wallet is weeping tears: I spent 76 euros on books for my two classes. Despite my deep love for books, I’ve never spent that much money at once on books in my life. I always buy secondhand or use the library. Okay, I’m too jet-lagged to keep writing coherently. We have a field trip/excursion Monday before classes start on Tuesday, so stay tuned! In the meantime, enjoy these photos.

 

France, Take 3: Avignon

This is a post I never thought I’d write. When I left France two years ago, circumstances were…complicated, to say the least. (If you don’t know what happened in my life back then, I will not be explaining it here. Long story short, let’s just say I lost little pieces of my heart all over France.) I didn’t know if I’d come back some day.

But after two years of not using French on a regular basis—especially having little opportunity to listen to and speak it—my French has rusted and I have vocabulary gaps everywhere. Not particularly ideal for someone in grad school for French literature, or for someone who’s going to start teaching college kids in the fall. Luckily, my advisor suggested I apply to the Institut d’Avignon, an intensive six-week summer program run by Bryn Mawr College, and here we are. Avignon! Another 47 days in France!

I flung my entire summer stipend across the Atlantic and into France, but hopefully the experience will be worth it. I’ll be in Avignon from June 6 to July 21, then in Paris visiting L from July 21-23. In Avignon, I’m taking two classes, Mémoire(s) francophone(s) and Deus ex Machina : Métamorphoses des mythes antiques sur la scène française. The former course will complement my interest in Francophone literature and questions of women’s resistance, while the latter course includes performances at the famed Avignon Theater Festival and archival work, which I’ll need to learn eventually as a PhD student. (Also, call me a nerd, okay, but Percy Jackson was my middle school childhood and I have a soft spot for classical mythology.) The program also includes excursions to nearby villages, and I’ve dearly missed traveling. It’s just not the same in America. Everything tends to be…so shiny and new.

I never got the experience of studying abroad through a program—when I studied abroad in Nice, I was dropped off and left to my own devices. It’ll be interesting to see how this compares to my first study abroad experience; I’ll be here a shorter time but with more fluent French. Junior year of college, I barely had literature classes, and the only one I took required regurgitation and trying to guess the professor’s interpretation of the texts, which is not the proper way to teach literature. This time, I get American academia. I’ve also never been in France during the summer before—both of the previous times, I arrived in September and left in May. But this time, I’m lucky to have met someone who did TAPIF in Avignon, and she gave me plenty of recommendations. Whether this will be my last time in France remains a question that currently has no answer, seeing as I’m more interested in Francophone than in French literature and would like to travel to the Caribbean, Southeast Asia, and/or Africa one day. We’ll see.