Time is literally disappearing in front of me. It doesn’t feel like I have been in France for very long; but at the same time, it feels like home. I have an apartment, daily routines/habits, and friends here. I love going to the boulangerie each day to purchase some sort of pastry or the usual baguette. I love trying various French cheeses, many unavailable in the States due the lack of pasteurization. I love drinking French wine, and I love wandering through the city, looking at the old buildings, and thinking to myself that this is the place I call home for now. School is neither too hard or too easy, with minimal homework but a lot of class time. My professors are great and really care about their students.
One of my goals while studying here (besides improving my French) has been to understand the French culture–what it means to be French. I can’t say that I have a definite answer, but I’ve noticed a few things about the people here in Angers. In my opinion, the French value their time and spend it how they want to spend it. They invest hours into their hobbies over work many times–traveling, sports, art. Culture literacy is a vital aspect of education here. In France, full-time work is considered 35 hours a week, and these workers are required to receive a minimum of 5 weeks vacation each year. Compare this to the United States, which has no law requiring a single paid holiday. The French choose pleasure over profit; life is about more than money. I really admire this philosophy; although as an American, I am annoyed at times with the long lunch breaks, short hours, and closed businesses on Mondays and Sundays.
Friendships and relationships are highly regarded here. People invest a lot of time and effort in maintaining these relationships, and most friendships I’ve observed were formed in elementary school. I think this is great, but I also imagine that it can be hard to break into these circles and can be limiting at times. In Paris for example, it is all about what arrondissement you live in, and this can determine where you’re able to go to school in Paris and to what social circles you belong. The French are significantly more intimate than Americans. It’s apparent by the customary greeting bisous–a friendly kiss on each cheek. Concepts of personal space are significantly different here, and this greeting has taken me some time to get adjusted to it. I’m still trying to understand the French mindset surrounding monogamy and intimate relationships.
Two weekends ago, I traveled to Amsterdam with a group of 8 friends. I was completely blown away by the city. First, it was strange to me that I was never required to show any identification to fly from Paris to Amsterdam and walked through customs without a single word; I guess there is free movement within the EU. We rented an apartement a little bit outside of the city center and hit your typical tourist attractions: taking a 3 hour walking tour of the city, touring the Anne Frank House, visiting the Van Gogh Museum, and casually strolling through the Red Light District. I was impressed with how clean the city was and strikingly beautiful. The sidewalks were well maintained–minimal litter and no traces of animals like in Paris. Amsterdam is built for bikes and people, not necessarily cars! The city is built around canals with trees that hang over to create a quiet, relaxed environment. Luckily, our apartment overlooked a canal, and I enjoyed sitting on the balcony, drinking wine and soaking up the view.
The Dutch people are very practical (or at least that is how they promote themselves). Most of the city has cleverly been reclaimed from the sea, with the highest point in the city about a meter above sea level. Our tour guide stressed three rules or guidelines that describe Amsterdam: 1) Don’t do anything harmful (to yourself or others) 2) Be discreet and 3) Amsterdam is about making money/whatever is good for business. The last point reflects the Netherlands time as the merchant capital of the world (Dutch East India Company) at the height of its empire. It can also be seen through its relaxed drug laws and legalized prostitution. When I say that the Dutch are practical, I mean that they recognize things like prostitution and drug/alcohol consumption are going to happen…so why not bring them to the surface, make them safe, and tax them? Only in Amsterdam can you find an old church, a coffeeshop, and a brothel next to each other. In fact, many of the churches in Amsterdam have been converted for other purposes such as cafes, clubs, or civic buildings. Amsterdam has so much to offer, and I’m glad I’ll have the chance to go back at least one more time before I return home.
Today marks the beginning of my spring break! We have about two weeks off, and I will be taking a night train to Nice and traveling with 4 other Ole Miss students. We spent about 2-3 weeks planning this trip–booking flights, trains, and hostels–and I’m ready to see our hard work pay off! From Nice, we will travel through Monaco to Cinque Terre in Italy to spend a few days. From Cinque Terre to Venice by train, another short train to Trieste, and a long bus ride to Zagreb, Croatia. I am most excited about visiting Croatia, because 1) it’s stunning and still developing and 2) it’s cheap. We will spend time hiking in Plitvice Lakes National Park (UNESCO site) and exploring Split. To wrap up the trip, we will travel to Mykonos and Athens. I am hoping for good weather on the beach and maybe a nice sailing trip.