Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Munich, Germany

When we crossed into Germany the day after Strasbourg, I knew that I had come to a place which I would thoroughly enjoy. On the outskirts of urban areas in Germany, one can find tiny, rectangularly-shaped plots of land with tiny tool sheds and rows of vegetables, which serve as short reprieves from city life and a little gardening recreation for the urbanites. In many of these spaces, a family and/or friends sit around a fire, enjoying a picnic and a few stories, and in others you will find a serious, lone gardener out on his or her knees, trying to make the most of their over-priced possession. The plots were the beginning of my interpretation of the German people as being a proper, disciplined and tidy lot.

At the train station in Stuttgart, there are smoking boxes dispersed along the platforms, and smokers must be within their perimeters to smoke legally. The smokers looked like inmates confined to their cells, the dregs of society whose stain must be limited to a 10 ft. x 5 ft. allotment. What a comical scene it made, especially when the smokers would come to the edge of their enclosure, peering out longingly at the smokeless freedom they left behind, or, even better, when they would pace the box’s boundaries either inspecting to make sure that they indeed did have as much space as surveyed previously, or perhaps to enjoy what little exercise their tobacco cloisters allow. I often wandered if the smokers felt some sort of culture shock upon liberating themselves from their receptacles and reintegrating themselves back into society. Do they feel suppressed? Although they may be detained and separated in temporary exile, do they not feel more freedom in their box, where they can smoke to their heart’s content and truly express who they are? While in captivity, do they speak of the outside world, the mass of society which places them in their seclusion, as being exterior from them, much the way someone in France speaks of the United States or vice versa? I could also see it as sort of a country, where the area around its boundary lines are of highest values because of their views and the space by the ashtray was the middle, heavily industrialized region of the state. By now, this subject has been exhausted, but I can't help exposing some of the hardships of our oppressed and banished co-humans.

Five hours after leaving Strasbourg, we had arrived in Munich, a city-state in the Bavarian region of Germany. The ride was pleasant. I love the six-seat compartments in trains, as I can stretch out my long legs and be as comfortable as I would be in my bed at home. The scenery was beautiful and different from what I had seen in France. Shortly after our arrival, we checked into our hostel and made our way to the center city. Immediately, I found an interesting mannerism of the German population. At each and every cross-walk, pedestrians wait for the sign allowing them to cross before crossing. Even if there is no traffic to be seen or the tramway has already passed, at a time when the only injury that could occur is a trip and a fall, they will wait for the sign to walk. The reason for this lawful fidelity is that there is a fine of forty euros for anyone who crosses before they are allowed. It is a small aspect of the German society, but I found it very interesting, especially when compared to France and the United States and their more liberal interpretations of pedestrian rules.

The city of Munich is new and massive. The streets are clean and packed with promenaders enjoying the sights, smells and shopping of Munich’s center. There is a massive market in this area, where you can find many different, regional products from cheese, sauerkraut and several types of meat to herbs, fragrances and steins. Beer was everywhere. The market was set up in several different kiosks, and flowers and herbs hung over their rooftops. The scene was a pungent mix of sweet, floral, funky (cheese) and smoky scents. Beer, hot dogs and bratwursts were always at an arm’s length away, a very comforting setup when you have an empty stomach. For lunch, we went to a beer garden at one end of the market. The food, mostly potato salad, sauerkraut and sausages, was in a hut at the front of this area, next to a similar building which served as the beer trough. We sat down with a “brat” and a liter of beer, and I could not help but draw parallels to a baseball game back home. The garden was around thirty yards wide and long, its massive interior being a dense conglomeration of long, wooden picnic tables. There were men in lederhosen carrying around five, one-liter steins to friends and family back at their drinking stations, a most impressive feat. The atmosphere was quite merry and relaxed, and people would sit for hours drinking beer and talking. With as much beer being consumed at one time by so many people, I would have thought that there would have been some insensible actions, but everyone was tame and fun-loving. Like the cafe in France, the beer garden is a place to come together, consume a spirit or two and enjoy the day. It was a far cry from the arm wrestling and keg lifting that I had expected to encounter, as it is a most accepting family environment.

After resting away a bratwurst and beer-filled stomach, we went back down to the center city for the evening. We shopped and walked and were lucky to have nice weather. After a few hours, our stomachs were once again depleted, so we made our way to a hofbrauhaus. The hofbrauhaus is much like a beer garden indoors. It was situated in a two-story building. On each floor, there were several halls of wooden picnic tables, where people ate and drank to their fill. In the center of the building was a courtyard of tables surrounded by the exterior walls of the different halls. We found a table on the second floor in a small alcove overlooking the courtyard, as the first floor was packed with patrons. The scene was a little more raucous, as every now and then a group of men in lederhosen would break out into song and dance, but many families were there with small children as well. The liters of beer, the sauerkraut and the bratwurst were very satisfying, and the cool, black sky and golden candlelight upon the walls and tables created a very agreeable ambiance. It was lightly drizzling outside and a strong gust of wind would penetrate an unclosed door from time to time, but all of these elements only served to lend to the coziness of our situation. I can’t explain it, but the setting was as I pictured Germany to be. Germany has a romantic roughness to it, in my opinion. The weather is harsh, and I still couple lederhosen with axes and chopping wood, but their homes are warm places of reinvigoration from the taxes of laborious toil. I have told my stereotype to my roommate often, who comes from Germany, and she knows exactly to which I refer. The “meat, potato, wood, axe, stein and lederhosen” stereotype of Germany was very real to me when I was there, but, as a tourist, I come into contact with these elements more often. They are the romanticized aspects of Germany not shown by all, but, nonetheless, characteristics which I admire and respect. Their upstanding, prudent and disciplined manner comes into the mix as well, and the whole of it creates a very pure, innocent and simple account of the population. I saw much of the U.S. in Germany and much of Germany in the U.S., a relation far stronger than that which I had previously recognized.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Nice, Monaco, Paris and Strasbourg

For my five followers, ever loyal as you are, I apologize that it's been so long since I wrote last. For me, it's bittersweet. The root cause of my distraction was that I did more in March than I had done in previous months. If I wasn't somewhere else, I was recuperating from being somewhere else, and laziness ruled the day. Yet, one of the greatest things about France is that I get to write about it. More than I had ever thought would occur, this blog has been an activity from which I have realized what I have experienced. So often things just happen, and their explanations and appreciations lag far behind, showing themselves the moment I start to write and analyze them. Therefore, I hate to have not done something that makes me feel so good, and yet am very thankful for a month I will never forget. I'll try to get it all out here and do justice to a time that I will remember forever.

During the past month, my visitors arrived, and it was my task to show them a good time, as well as keep them out of any unfortunate situations. My girlfriend arrived the last few days of February for ten days with me in the south of France. We had planned on going to a few cities in different countries other than France, but, when the time came, I thought it would be best to take her to a few places I had already been and loved. First, we went to Nice. When I was last in Nice, I thought it could not have gotten any better. But, shortly after arriving, while we sat at our breakfast on the Riviera, I realized yes, the colorful buildings, the sea, the hill, the flower market are wonderful, yet the face staring across the table at me beats them by a wide margin. The first night we were there was the last night of Carnival. In one section of Montpellier, the streets were blocked and two grand stands were put up overlooking a passageway where those with enough holiday fervor would dress up as clowns, or as whatever else they chose, stood to be admired. For anyone who is squeamish of clowns, Carnival is no place for you. We saw the floats, mostly massive clowns with jester hats and face paint, and the whole event had a sea world type of a feel to it, in the sense of mermaids, not the amusement park. After walking through the confetti and silly string lined streets filled with dressed up parents and children, we made our way to the Riviera, where we were lucky enough to catch the closing ceremony, a firework show over the sea. I am not a huge fan of fireworks, but the setting was surreal, something of which you dream yet never expect to come to reality. To this day, I think the firework show was in celebration of our arrival, and not of Carnival. What a magnificent night! The events we saw we stumbled upon, yet, nonetheless, they made an excellent introduction to the city.

Day two in Nice was spent going to many of the places I had been my first time. I was eager to see them again and show them off to another. We started the morning off at a cafe on the Riviera for breakfast and coffee, as well as enjoying a view of the aqua blue seas. After breakfast, we ascended the mountain to the chateau at it’s summit for a panoramic view of the bay, the snow-capped Alps to the south and the red-tiled jungle known as Nice. There is something sublime about this hill/mountainside park. It serves as a transport from the chaotic to the serene, the calm, and the beautiful. It’s one of my favorite places on earth. After our descent, we walked the streets of Old Nice, shopping, sight-seeing, and meeting a very friendly orange cat on our way. We repeated this that afternoon, walk a little, shop a little, and be happy.

The following day we went to Monaco, a short 20-minute ride by train from Nice. The track ran along the coast, so we were able to see several scenic coastal villages on our route. Monaco itself seemed too perfect to be real, a truly fascinating place to walk around, which is exactly what we did while there. The city is constructed into the side of a mountain, so to get from one street to another, you must often walk up steps or, if you know where to look, catch an escalator. I loved the underground walkways which connect different streets. The city is literally built into, not on top of, a mountain. The buildings and streets were extremely clean and colorful. Decadent stairs led you to the parallel street below you, and fountains and engravings serenaded the journey the entire way. While there, the image I equated with Monaco was that of a gingerbread village. Neat, tidy, decadent, colorful, much like Nice, but with a stronger hint of richesse, not that Nice is lacking in that regard. I felt as if I had leaned too strongly upon a building, the construction would fall over and collapse, much like the set of a play. After walking around the city of Monte Carlo, and seeing the much famed casino, the Monte Carlo, we ascended a large plateau, where at it’s peak lay the old city of Monaco. The top of the plateau offered a wonderful panorama of the city of Monte Carlo, the bay and its beautiful yachts, and the mountains that lurch to the city’s rear. The plateau is completely different than Monte Carlo and its more modern atmosphere. The tiny village at the top contains the prince’s palace and many other governmental buildings. I was stunned by the amount of cannonballs aligning the peripheral walls of the village. Call me crazy, but I don’t see, or could ever imagine, Monaco being or ever having been a belligerent nation. Nonetheless, everywhere one turns lies a pyramid of cannonballs at the side of an old cannon. We saw the church where the current Prince of Monaco had been ordained, and walked the narrow streets of this most scenic and quaint of hilltop hideaways, all the while taking in beautiful views of the many spectacular harbors and homes. At this point, we were tired and foot-worn, so we headed back to Nice for chinese food and a night’s rest. I’ve been to many cities, and Monaco struck me as the most surreal, a place too polished and decadent to be real. It seems to be a place where life is played by its inhabitants and not lived, a seclusion and a haven from many aspects of the outside world.

The day after our return to Nice from Monaco, we left to return to Montpellier. Over the next few days, we visited the attractions in Montpellier. The Jardin des Plantes, the Musee Fabre and others were as wonderful as the first time I discovered them, only made more special when one is able to show them off to another, much like a souvenir or photo from a past voyage. That weekend we took a quick trip to Avignon, which is one of the great, hidden jewels of Provence. Of course, people know of the town and its palaces, but the crowds are subdued and the atmosphere is calm, it's truly one of the most agreeable spots in the south of France. It’s hard to describe, but the pace is more mature than many other cities. Everyone is nice, and the beauty and history of the city inspires a respectful disposition in its admirers. We went to the Pope’s Palace, where we traversed its massive interior and climbed to the top of its tower for a peak at the surrounding mountains and rivers. Seeing the city from a great height brings a new perspective to the town, as one can see the composition of the city, which made the town such a valuable piece of property in the past. The bridges of Avignon are beautiful as well as famous, being the subject of many songs both in Europe and elsewhere. The oldest and the most famous bridge, serving as the central lane of commerce flowing into and out of the town for many centuries, was, to my surprise, only half the length of the river, but, nonetheless, a most beautiful piece of architecture. I guess it was necessary to boat across the first half of the river. The bridges are necessary because the town sits at the convergence of two wide rivers, which form something of a river peninsula. Upon entering the gates forming the perimeter of the city, I felt as though we had entered a secluded piece of property where the beauty and history of its contents are all one needs to be content and engaged. For a few hours, the town itself takes over and operates separately from its exterior, a fully self-sufficient element of civilization without any urge or need to conform to the trends of other cities, holding faithfully to its image as a living relic of the past and of harmony in the present.

A week after my girlfriend returned to Kentucky, I met a few friends in Paris for a few days of traveling. Paris is the first place that people ask about when I tell them I'm staying in France for a year. I had heard many great things about the city, and yet I had had no real ambition to travel there. Whatever anyone had told me, Paris met and exceeded all of my expectations. It needs no description, like New York or Hong Kong, we all know the world’s greatest and largest cities often better than our own hometowns. My favorite place was the Louvre. I did not expect its size to be as large as it was, and the expansive park just outside its gates was a lovely atmosphere to pass a few hours, even without the art. The night before we went to the Louvre, I went to my first “real” night club, where upon arrival I promised to ban myself from all such venues in the future. You have your club people and your non-club people, and I am content with residing in the latter category. We walked around the city for the rest of our visit, seeing most of the important sites and missing some as well. Overall, I loved Paris. Like New York, I was blown away by its size. The grandeur of the streets, monuments, museums, bridges and towers are beyond comparison. Standing amongst the history of the city is a very special feeling, and its romance is easily discovered. The size of the city is different than any other town in France, especially in the south, and the mixture of languages was impressive. I felt as though I had left France and entered an internationally homogenized territory with no single claim upon it, where a population of every shade, creed and tongue makes its niche.

Our next stop was Strasbourg en route to Germany. We spent an afternoon, evening and night there, enjoying what the city has to offer. Quaint and laid back, Strasbourg is a town of timber-framed dwellings of a decidedly germanic persuasion, and an elaborately constructed sandstone Gothic cathedral, which rises above the town at a towering height. I can remember how ghastly and emaciated the church itself looked to me, not out of any lack of maintenance but by the rigidity and sharpness of its ornamental outer layer, much like a skeleton. Inside the church, we found an astronomical clock which rotates several characters involved in various activities, such as playing an instrument or operating a tool, around a spool and, at each hour, landing and holding itself upon one specific character, which puts itself on display with a dance or serenades the church with a tune or two. According to legend, the creator of the clock was forced to gouge his eyes out afterward, to keep him from reproducing the work. I think we should make many of our modern artists do the same thing. I loved the canals of Strasbourg. We watched a white swan fish for his dinner for fifteen minutes. When you put the two together, swans and canals, they add to the fairy tale atmosphere of a given location. After walking and seeing the streets for a few hours, we settled down for dinner and a few belgian beers, which put to shame what we consume in the United States. The timing of our visit to Strasbourg was perfect. It served as a natural breakpoint between two large cities, Paris and Munich, and as a healthy respite and breath of fresh air from the chaos and clutter of a large city. It is a less ostentatious version of Europe, more quaint and quiet than grand and opulent, a natural haven for a long, slow walk gazing at the beautiful modesty of its structures.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

February 25, 2010

As I sit waiting for a certain redhead to arrive, I can't help but think of the first time I came to France many months ago. What comes to mind is a sad, pathetic image of a boy who was, and is, happy to be the sole member of his audience that somber day. I think I first realized what I had gotten myself into while waiting for my flight to Paris. I was sitting in the international terminal of the Atlanta airport, and, suddenly, everything changed. People, language, dress, and my comfortability began to shed its american skin. I can remember taking great strength from my biography of George Washington. Could there be a better model for strength and courage when you begin to doubt yourself than Washington? George was my cocoon, my shield from what was changing in front of me, as I moved further and further into a world I struggled so painfully not to enter. I always told myself I accepted everything, could adapt myself comfortably, and pleasantly, to what was different and unknown. But, I didn't know what I would come to feel. In truth, when put to the test, I became, and was for a long time, the exact opposite of what I had once thought I was capable of. When it came time to put up or shut up, I shut up and wondered why I had put myself in the position where choosing to put up was a necessity. Difference and the unknown are much easier to confront and experience when seen on a television screen or through the pages of a book. I wish I had known this at the time, it might have changed my pathetic appearance. But, how was I to know? Who, what would have prepared me properly? When the world shakes you up a little, I have noticed, it's not so bad.

The international terminal put me in the international world. The Air France flight to Paris put me in the world of the french. I can remember not being able to understand the flight attendants as they spoke french over the intercom. My incomprehension led to what I would consider my longest, most pathetic cram session of my life. I dove deeply into every french grammar book and learning CD I owned, in the vain and unrealistic hope of making myself fluent by the time I reached Montpellier. For once, french was spoken without an english word or phrase after it, and I realized how little I knew. The flight attendant, who seemed to be one of those intellectual types who fit the mold of an intellectual because they try to look and talk like one, made a joke I didn't get. The joke had to do with my studying, a "you are doing a so-and-so" type of joke. Whatever it was, it fell flat with me. I can remember his response. He patted me on the back, looked at me with sorrowful eyes for my lack of intellectuality and said "nevermind." It might seem trivial, but, when uncertain of your own capabilities to the point I was, any slight rebuke makes your whole world seem more ominous and ill-fitting. So, not only was the language problem first surfacing, but I also felt that someone such as myself was not fit for this experience. Whatever it took to be international, I didn't have it. I was a kid from Kentucky who had a dream once and should have left it at that. When it came down to it, I thought I was of the wrong mold, that the place for me was with the same people, in the same city, in a world of custom and the common.

Three things repetitively crossed my mind when I reached the airport in Paris. First, this place is depressing. I find it interesting, from coming and going to France a few times now, how ugly and depressing the terminals are when you arrive, and how beautiful, clean and pleasant the terminals are when you leave, at least that is the case in Paris. The only reason I can fathom is, once they have you in their country, there is no longer a need to mesmerize you with luxury and pageantry. Once you've arrived, you are stuck as a purchaser in a foreign land, and their work, getting you to that point, is done. When leaving, it's simple. They want your business to come back, and a nice memory of your last hour-and-a-half in France helps this cause. Now that that's over, my second thought was, "oh shiza (used different word, which is far less poetic, but
I don't want Mom to see me cuss)! What have I gotten myself into?" My world was spinning as I passed the morning work crews and bright advertisements, written in french, for french companies. I couldn't understand anything at the Customs' station and got lost looking for my terminal. In the plane, my introduction was blunted, but, when I reached Paris, it came at me in full volume. Before, despite the lack of confidence, I took comfort from the situation still being in the future. As far as I knew, miracles were possible, maybe I would receive one. However, as I tried to answer the customs officers' questions about what was in my bag, my situation was in my midst, there was no more time to ask myself if I would be alright. My third thought arose from the second. Once I cleared all official areas, I stopped caring. Whatever happened, happened. If I was to fail myself or surprise myself and do well, I no longer cared. Perhaps, it was the lack of sleep, but I stopped foreshadowing and worrying. I was there, I wasn't happy about it, yet the moment became more important and irrelevant to what I had once thought and predicted. My last memory of the flights was seeing the monuments as I flew above Paris. The crazy blank-mindedness was to only grow with time, but the serenity and beauty of the moment made me realize how lucky I was to be in such a special situation.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Monday, February 22, 2010

Sunday, we set out to see the french infantry museum in Montpellier. Two germans and two americans walked across town, befitted with a panoply of jokes and a thimble full of respect for the modern french infantry, or even the entire french military in general. We couldn't help ourselves to pry at some of the french blemishes of the past. Flanks and feints were far from our minds, and the way to a fashionable retreat was what we thought we stood to learn. Nevertheless, despite our jokes, we trekked a few kilometers only to find ourselves at a military base, sight of the museum, with closed gates and abandoned halls. At some point in the recent past, the museum had been closed and, as of now, is in the process of being relocated to a more prime piece of real estate in the area. Perhaps, we should have taken it as proper amends for our jokes and lack of respect during the walk. Or, maybe we were right. An infantry museum in France is similar to the bocci ball club at the ice rink in Louisville, destined for failure. Sometimes it's not the building, but what the building stands for. Of course, the french infantry and military are respectable, as well as warranting a museum, and we were genuinely excited to hopefully see it. But, I can't help strike at what squashed our hopes for a nice, Sunday afternoon. Add one more to the countless times I have walked far for a bona fide cause and walked back after realizing it was, in reality, not possible. At the same time, my frustrations coordinate with an admiration of mine. The french population seems to really relish the present moment. If you spend more time waiting than doing, you might as well enjoy it. Whether sad, mad or happy, the small stuff warrants concentration and effort, passion and interest. I see far fewer sales clerks ignored by busy-body citizens who find whatever errand they might be on as far more important, and warrants more attention, than human interaction and communication. In France, people seem to treat people more as people and less as a means to attain something. The ice cream vendor and/or waitress are people with opinions to be valued, not skills and a "know how" to be exploited. Perhaps, they hold the solution to your problem or confusion, and you hold the same for them. We, as americans, could improve in this matter, in my opinion. That is not to say we are all "scrooges," walking from place to place and spattering humbugs at those we meet, nevertheless, I think we forget, at times, that we are around people and not objects or objectives. If we give a chance and expend some energy, maybe we could have a little more fun.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

This past Sunday, football came to France. Throughout my stay, when asked which sports I prefer to play and watch, I have received cold replies, just as I bevy injustices towards soccer, to my life-long attachment to football. So, when I was informed of a Super Bowl party put on by the local, professional football team, I gravitated to it with excitement. Finally, I was to be around a handful of men and women who shared my hardiness for the game.

The game started shortly after half-past midnight Sunday night. Having to be up the next morning for class, I made it to shortly after the start of the third quarter, returning then for a few hours of rest before class the next morning. What did I find? Mostly, it was much as you would see and experience in millions of american homesteads the night of the big game. If one can imagine, or retrieve from memory, the sight of a large quantity of food, beer and stereotypical football fans equipped with a beard and a beer-belly, you have an exact mental image of my setting. The game was viewed on a large projection screen at the far end of a reception hall at the International Relations House, my office. From the screen, spanning more than two-thirds of this rather large hall, were seats for nearly one hundred football rowdies. Towards the back of the room sat the buffet tables, which, although far different from the nachos and hamburgers I am used to on the "Big Night," were filled with excellent, non-healthy, belt-severing appetizers and entrees. The buffet, or at least my abuse of the buffet, was what made my bed look awfully well by the start of halftime. It was interesting to watch the game broadcasted by a french television station. I am convinced that the only thing that sounds more beautiful, as far as languages go, than the french language, is english with a french accent. Needless to say, the names I know so well took on a sweeter tune that night. Other than french being shouted and not english, the fans cheered much the same. Big hits with arms and legs flailing, as well as a high probability of injury, drew the more fervent bursts of enthusiasm on display Sunday night. All in all, the setting and the inhabitants, coupled with the refreshments and the fare, made an excellent evening and a wonderful night's rest.

I understand I have not written in a while, so I will try to update certain things I have done and particular projects and routines I have going on at this moment. My schedule this semester could not be more perfect. Monday and Tuesday are long days, as I total thirteen hours of class between them. Other than that, I have school one other day, Thursday, to give me sixteen hours of classes per week, three days each week. I work Wednesday and Thursday at the same job, doing the same tasks. Recently, I received a new project from a local organization which hopes to promote and celebrate the 150th anniversary of the relationship between Louisville and Montpellier as sister cities. My job is to present Louisville, through photography, personal stories, advertisement, and personal presentation, to the best of my ability and, hopefully, generate some enthusiasm for french students doing the reverse of what I have done. Therefore, if one sees a sudden spike of french-born immigrants to the United States over the next few years, we all know who to thank for it, me. School and work have kept me busy and, overall, very happy for the action.

Socially and culturally, new events have surfaced in my station as well. As of this past weekend, I am the proud owner of a theatre pass which permits me to go to any four plays, concerts, and/or other spectacles, I would choose to choose at the beautiful Place de la Comedie. Last Wednesday, I went to a chinese party for the beginning of the new chinese year. Coming up is the year of the tiger. I'm not sure what this is supposed to symbolize, if anything, but will post any information I find of interest. I am sure I have left something out, but this is all I have for now.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Written 23 January 2010

The following happens often in France. One day, one moment, one series of events, or even a single event, lead to a fresh outlook or insight, which may perhaps be overturned tomorrow or the next day but, at least for now, becomes transparent, over-arching, and complete. Tonight, after eating with friends, a realization set in and it is as follows.

I enjoyed an american majority around the table this evening. Given our superior numbers, we pushed our preponderant agenda and established english as our language for communication. By the time we broke away for the evening, we had weaved a labyrinth of topics: politics, film, art, food, music, social and personal economics, college and our futures. The conversation was comedic, sympathetic, broad, particular and, at times, serious and austere. We would talk of the ridiculous style of fashion during the 80s, then switch to race relations in the United States or religious differences in France. I was at home, in a place I wished to settle as a repetitive part of my life, maintaing the same subjects, thinking abstractly and speaking in an exhibitive, intelligent manner. Yet, I noticed something unsettling about it all, something of a kick or a shiver which awakes one in the midst of a dream to a cold, dark reality. We live separate lives, one french, the other english, with correlating attitudes and personalities. That's not to say at one moment I love fast food and large cars and, the next moment, prefer small cars and foie gras. It's more of a definition of my means and abilities. In french, my world is what I can understand. What I can understand in french is a needle in a needle stack, when compared to my understanding of the english language. What does this mean? While in France, I stay on a fringe, in a mist of ignorance, naivete, and simplicity. Yet, when I have the ability to change to english, I hear what could not at one time be heard or understood. Suddenly, the mist clears and sight returns.

What do I see? Well, I see a darker side of life. I understand stories and experiences of the human appetite for vice, our weaknesses for prejudice and discrimination, our allurements to the debased, sordid sides of ourselves. In short, what I can see and, for once, understand are the problems I know from home. Montpellier is no longer a playground of education and new, fresh experience. Just like any other city, it has it’s cobwebs, it has what most want no part of and would feel completely content with pretending it wasn’t real. It is not that the enlightenment came as a huge surprise, but, for the first time, my cocoon of educational bliss was penetrated. For once, things aren’t so personal, they aren’t so defined by my own comprehension. It’s sobering, that in a place I found so intriguing, so enriching, can be a cesspool of pain, suffering, crime, greed, compulsion, and debauchery. In the end, I am thankful for the station I can claim away from all the madness, separated from severe pain, a situation in which I choose what to take away and what to leave, rather than being stuck in the mire of its woes. I can claim myself as what I make of myself and not what the city does. For this, I am lucky and forever thankful.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Each monday and friday I head southward from my apartment to the center city and my place of occupation, the International Relations House. Three stops and a seven minute tram ride, or nearly thirty minutes by foot and stride, I descend the tram at Le Corum, a tramway stop and major convention center in Montpellier, and begin my ascent of seven flights of stairs to the foot of l'Esplanade de Charles de Gaulle and the street level of downtown Montpellier. Facing the center city, and to the left and right of the staircase which snakes its middle passage up the modernized acropolis, lie Le Corum and La Maison des Relations Internationales, my building, each forming the final border of its respective side. Taking a right from the top step, I find three long, tree-strewn lanes leading through the park, l'Esplanade de Charles de Gaulle, to la Place de la Comedie and the center city and, to my right, a panoramic view of the north side of Montpellier, culminating in a mountain range, les Cevennes, at its far-off horizon. Continuing straight ahead, I pass through a gate and onto a path which leads me from my point of entry through a garden of palm and cypress trees, colorful flowers, and brown park benches, and eventually terminating at the arched entryway of the International Relations House. In the mid-section of each rectangular block of concrete making up the walkway lie marble plaques dedicated to each of Montpellier's sister cities. The building itself lies at the very edge of the right wing of the acropolis, offering the same panoramic view as listed above. Built in a colonial style of red brick, pale blue window boards, and creamy white cornices around each doorway and window, the two-story house is beautiful and picturesque.

Inside and up two flights of stairs, at one end of a narrow passageway, is my place of work. In the center of a large, rectangular room lies the table of my toils, flanked on both sides by two desks, one for the director of students such as myself and the other for a very hard-working, very over-worked secretary. On the opposite side of my position, separated by table and mine and her computer screens, is another office worker. To this day, I am not sure what all they do or if they do all they are there to do. The atmosphere is chatty and convivial, conversation is easy going and time never seems to be lost or squandered. At certain times, the boss of my bosses will come into the room to assign chores and ask for help on one of her seemingly endless projects. Overall the workplace is laid back and ritual. However, when a task duffs its ritual and seeks to be independent and unique, the place, as a result of its habitants, turns colorful, chaotic, and passionate. It's best at these moments to stand aside and keep to yourself lest you become the target or accidental victim of a flailing arm or an indecipherable, yet highly affective and hair raising, tirade my colleagues possessedly fall victim to.

As far as my tasks go, I run documents over to the hotel de ville, the sight of many government big timers, and research and/or suggest possible events or activities that link Louisville and Montpellier. I write articles on upcoming events and track down possible sources of coming-togetherness between the two cities. My research and writing has included the Derby, football, baseball, Kentucky bourbon, Joan Baez, writers from Louisville, Thanksgiving traditions, and, my personal favorite, Buffalo Bill. Today was a good day. To test the fluency of possible french exchange students to the United States, I had to make an english exam. I can proudly say I did not let the sudden power go to my head. I created a very thorough, but not extremely difficult or tricky exam made up of grammar, as well as, reading and writing comprehension segments. It was nice to be the warden for once and not the prisoner.