Monday, December 30, 2013

Beautiful Barcelona

As my semester in France neared its end, a brief window of free time appeared. Right after my program ended, and right before I met up with my parents, I discovered I had a couple free days. And since my friends were planning on meeting up in the wonderful city of Barcelona I decided, on a whim, to join them. Of course, this whim was granted thanks to some great deals-- not only was my favorite hostel chain having a huge winter sale, the plane ticket was also very cheap.

So, with the stars aligned, my friend and I hopped on a plane and flew to Spain! Getting there was easy, not only was the plane ride a short one, but there were no customs to go through.

We took a bus from the airport and jumped off on the first stop to see this 'magic fountain' my friend had heard about.

These heavy-grained, high ISO pictures do little to capture the feel of the square at night. More than that, they're lacking the feel-- the 'I just landed in a foreign city I never even dreamed of visiting and look how cool it is'.

After a good deal of searching and walking, we finally found our hostel, threw our stuff down, and headed out to find dinner. After more searching and walking we ended up circling back to the first restaurant we saw, a Japanese restaurant. I know what you're thinking-- you're in Spain and eating Japanese food?? In my defense, I had just spent 3 1/2 months in a town that, while nice, lacked the Asian food options I was used to. The restaurant in Spain served delicious fried sea food rice for a good price.

The next morning we went on a free walking tour of Barcelona-- a guide met us at our hostel and then took us to the meeting point. The tour was 2ish hours long and amazing. Not only was our tour guide passionate about his job, but the city itself was covered in layers of history, stories that I would have never known about had we not taken the tour.

The tour was free, and at the end you tipped the guide whatever you felt like-- it was definitely worth it, and a cool way to see the city, given that I didn't have much time there.

The next day we headed out to see one of Barcelona's biggest attractions-- Sagrada Familia, a massive, impressively strange cathedral. Designed by Gaudi, our guide told us that it was originally designed to be a lot taller but looking at its ginormous shape that seems neigh impossible.

This picture doesn't even come close to depicting this bizarre cathedral. Gaudi thought straight lines were too man made and wanted his cathedral to have a more organic feel to it. You could stare at the front for an hour and still pick out new details, hidden in the many facets. The cathedral was undergoing heavy construction so we couldn't see all of the outside. The line to get in looked hours long so sadly we just walked around the cathedral.

After the cathedral we hopped on the metro and went to an overlook park area.

After getting off the metro we still had a huge climb ahead of us. Luckily, the lovely city of Barcelona had installed escalators for part of the trek up the hill.

The climb was well worth it-- the overlook gave impressive panoramic views on the city.

This is the Sagrada Familia-- from this distance you can see just how huge the cathedral is, and how much construction work is going on.

There was a cool mosaic area that you had to pay to go in, so we just hung out on the outside and snapped some pictures.

After 3 1/2 months of seeing nothing but pigeons, it was cool to spot these little critters in the trees.

We spent the rest of the day just walking around, enjoying the city.

This was a delicious coffee drink my friend has us all try. It's condensed milk at the bottom, with a shot of espresso on top. Mix them together and you have a tasty drink.

After two days, my quick trip was over, and I jumped on a plane to meet my parents in the south of France.

Thanks for reading!

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Le Fête des Lumières

A couple of weeks ago, I headed to Lyon with a group from my school to see the Le Fête des Lumières-- the festival of lights.

Of course, anytime anyone said 'festival of lights' I'd break out in Adam Sandler's Hanukkah song. Hanukkah iss.....a festival of lights....

 Anyway! The festival of lights in Lyon has nothing to do with the Jewish holiday. Rather, it's a really cool weekend where they set up fabulous light shows that play on buildings strewed throughout Lyon, France's third largest city. 

We started off in the main square in downtown Lyon-- they projected a cute animated movie on the Ferris wheel, complete with lights and fireworks.

I was told that Lyon saw 4 million extra tourists just during the festival of lights weekend and I believe that. There was an unbelievable amount of people at the festival. Everyone was wearing black and it was incredibly hard to keep up with people-- at some points we had to hold hands like kids in order to not lose each other in the crowd.

The streets of Lyon aren't terribly big to begin with, but the flux of people stretched from building to building in some parts-- pushing you shoulder to shoulder with the next person.

Not all of the shows were as grand as the first one. Some were more modest, just lights, no images for example.

It was rather cold so we all grabbed a cup of my new favorite drink-- vin chaud. Literally, hot wine, though it translates to mulled wine. I never knew what mulled wine was, but I love vin chaud. It's delicious, sweet, and it warms you up quickly on cold nights.

As the night wore on we started to nervously glance at our watches. Our school was taking us back in a bus-- if we missed the bus, it'd be too late to catch the last train home. The massive crowds made getting anywhere take five times longer than normal.

We had heard that the city hall put on the best light show so we tried to head in that direction to see if we could see it quickly enough to get back to our meeting spot on time. We literally got stuck in a street, surrounded on all sides by a huge crowd of people. The mass of bodies had the added benefit of warding off the cold so it wasn't as cold as it had been the whole night.

We couldn't move forward, we couldn't move backwards, and we weren't sure where we were even going. Every couple of minutes the crowd would inch forward a foot or so and then abruptly stop. Time was marching forward without us and we worried that we wouldn't be able to get out of the crowd with enough time to get to our meeting point.

One of the chicks who lived in the apartments lining the street we were stuck on looked out at the huge crowd of people stuck in the street and decided to spice it up. Opening her window she started blaring some upbeat French song that everyone knew the words to. We all started cheering; it made the wait more tolerable as the crowd turned into a small dance party-- even if there wasn't enough free space to do anything but kind of sway back and forth.

Eventually we reached the end of the street and saw that we were right at city hall in time for the light show. It was, by far, the best light show in the entire city. It spanned two grand buildings and was intricately beautiful.

After the light show ended, we linked hands, put my fastest friend in the front, and set about running our way through the dense crowd to get the our meeting point in time to catch the bus. My friend was amazing at finding the little spaces between people and had us through the seemingly impenetrable crowd in no time at all. Not only did we catch the bus, we also had time to grab some churros.

Stay tuned for more posts coming soon! We've been longing around the house so I've had time to sort and edit my photos and write those blog posts I'd been putting off for weeks.

Thanks for reading!

Thursday, December 19, 2013

10 Things I'll miss about France

Recently I came up with a list of things that I miss from the US. Now, as my stay in France draws to a close it's beginning to hit me all the things I'll miss from the wonderful country of cheese. Which, ironically, does not rank on my list. On the cheese front I'm woefully American and prefer milder cheese.

This semester has been a blast-- I will write a post eventually trying to put into words the craziness and the ups and downs of studying aboard. While it wasn't my first time in France it was my longest stay in France and my first time at a French university. Funny side note, whenever I try and tell someone that this is my fourth time in France I inevitably say fortieth and really impress them.

In no particular order, here are ten things that I'll miss about France:

1. Bakeries 

It should come as no surprise that France has amazing pastries and bread. But what's also cool about France is the abundance of boulangeries and pâtisseries. I love the fact I can just drop by for a quick snack, a warm croissant or a baguette for dinner, when I'm out and about. Sometimes in the States it seems so odd to me that there aren't any little bakeries to get a quick handmade snack. 

2. Travel 

Another obvious choice-- being in an European country has the marvelous advantage of making traveling to another country almost as easy as traveling to another state. I'm currently writing this bit on the short plane ride home from a really fun trip I took to Barcelona on a whim-- it cost me less than 100€ for both transportation AND lodging. It was a great deal. But more on that later! 

Even though my program wasn't quite conducive to traveling, as I had class every morning, I was still incredibly blessed and visited several amazing cities during my stay in Europe. 

3. Euros

This is something I didn't realize I would come to like so much. Euros are going to be hard to give up. For one, they are a heck of a lot prettier than our all-green bills. Secondly, I love the fact that they have .50, 1€, and 2€ coins. I've gotten used to being able to pay with just change, it's awfully convenient. It's going to be odd going back to a country where the biggest coin used is 25 cents. 

4. French language 

The French language and I have had an usual relation-- like that one time I tried to ask someone if they were mocking me but most likely ended up asking if they miss me, not very effective. However, I do like speaking French, so I'll miss being surrounded by French. It will be super weird to go to the supermarket and understand everything, all the labels, all the food, what everyone is saying. Weird. 

Luckily, on this point, I'll be staying in the French house next semester-- a house on my college campus where we speak French and eat meals together. 

5. Veggie/fruit stands 

Walking down the main drag in my city, St. Étienne, there is an abundance of fruit and vegetable stands/small shops. They only sell fruits/vegetables and they have a wonderfully homegrown feel about them. 

6. Walking

I have to say this with the caveat that this is heavily colored by my rapidly settling in nostalgia. If you had asked me a week ago I would have cursed the mountain of a hill that I had to hike up everyday to get to my room. I hated lugging my groceries up that hill and there have been a couple Sundays I just didn't leave my room because I knew if I did I would have to hike up that hill. 

However, looking at this issue from the standpoint of someone who never has to climb up that hill again, I really like the French culture of walking everywhere. In the States seeing people walking places, outside of big cities, is weird-- over here it's perfectly acceptable. I feel like Americans could benefit by walking places more. We drive everywhere-- it's kind of absurd, until you take into account how far away everything is in the States. 

7. Gaufres 

Waffles! Waffles are a popular sweet snack over here. Coated in sugar, Nutella or plain they are delicious. I would buy a bag of them at the supermarket and bring them in as a snack for my three hour class. 

8. Coffee vending machine 

There was a coffee vending machine in the foyer at my university. It sold little plastic cups full of espresso, cappuccinos, tea, ect. It was really convenient for a cheap shot of caffeine. 

9. People

I would be terribly remiss if I didn't say I would miss all the people I met during my stay in France. Studying abroad is bitter sweet, as it allows you to make friends from all around the world, but then forces you to say goodbye after just 3 1/2 months. I meet some great people that made saying goodbye to France that much harder.

10. Public Transportation

This semester I relied solely on public transportation to get around. And while I'm excited to have my car again, I'll miss the extensive public transportation they have over here. Getting from one end of the city to the other-- and from one city to the next-- is fairly easy and fairly cheap. For example, we've settled into our French house for the holidays (post to come! it's awesome!) and I've been hopping on the nearby train to get into St. Etienne to see friends. Not only is it cheap-- cheaper than the tolls when you drive I think-- it's also quick and easy.

There you have it! I've spent a wonderful 3 1/2 months in France and it'll be bittersweet to fly out on the 26th. I still haven't decided if it'll be more bitter or sweet.

Stay tuned to hear about: Le Fête des Lumières, my whirlwind trip to Barcelona, the good and bad of studying abroad, and our French country house.

Whew. I should go write those posts I suppose.

Thanks for reading!

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Gorgeous Annecy

Another post? So soon?

How is this possible? I've been, for no particular reason, putting off writing about all my adventures here, which leaves me with ton a pictures and stories I want to tell before I forget.

A couple weekends ago there was a holiday in France so we had a three-day weekend. On Monday Michelle and I got on a train headed to Annecy, a town an hour or two away from St. Etienne, nestled in the mountains near the Swiss border.

The ride to Annecy was in and of itself jaw-dropping. We curved around looming mountains, passing by small villages.

When we finally arrived in Annecy, it was bracingly cold as we followed the signs to get to the main attraction-- a huge lake surrounding by mountains.

You can't really see the lake in this picture.....but it's there!

It would've been cool to be here in the summer-- the water was crystal clear and a beautiful blue. However, the cooler weather meant a less crowds in this gorgeous area. We wandered around town-- le vieux ville  was gorgeous and almost reminiscent of Venice, with all the stone buildings crowded around a little canal.

Annecy was apparently a huge spot for boating-- there were hundreds of sail boats bobbing in the water. Michelle and I were surprised to see just how many people were eating lunch in their boats which were anchored near the shore.

Bride of Love :)

We only spent a day here but that was enough time to wander around the city and take the sites in. Two trains and two hours later we arrived back in home, sweet home of St. Etienne.

Stay tuned to hear about Le Fête des Lumières in Lyon!

Thanks for reading :)

Friday, December 6, 2013

The Home of Dr Who and Sherlock

Alternative Title: Fangirling in London

Last weekend my friend Michelle and I skipped school (for the first time, my professor asked if I was sick the next Monday seeing how I'm always the first one to class everyday) and jetted off to London to see a friend. It was Thanksgiving when we left-- we tortured ourselves by checking out everything that our family and friends were gorging on back home while we were stuck in a provisional terminal in the airport that lacked even a vending machine. Our dinner was some cookies I had squirreled away.

Lack of traditional food aside, it was a fairly short flight to London.Our tickets had been relatively cheap, but that was because we flew into the Gatwick airport which is about 30 miles outside of London. Getting into London wasn't difficult, they have a train that will take you right into the middle of the city, but it's a bit expensive.

None of the prices in London look that bad-- but that is due to the exchange rate, about $1.50 = 1 pound. Regardless, we made it into London late Thursday night and tried to met up with our friend in a busy train station without a phone or wifi.

Non-surprisingly, that didn't work out so we hopped on the metro and went to our hostel. We stayed in Generator Hostel, the same hostel company I stayed in Dublin with. In London they were crazy about the security-- to get near the hostel you had to show your room card. Though I suppose that's a good thing. Regardless, the hostel in London wasn't near as nice as the one in Dublin. We got stuck in the basement, which was undergoing a lot of construction, and didn't have any showers near us.

Luckily we didn't spend much time at the hostel. Friday morning we successfully met up with our friend and set off to see all the tourist sites.

The London eye! While we didn't actually go on the London eye-- it cost like 20 pounds and the line looked two hours long-- it was still cool to see.

Big Ben! I literally fangirled when I saw this. Maybe because I never thought I'd ever go to London, or because it previously had existed solely on my TV screen before commercials during the Olympics.

This picture has crappy quality because it's a zoomed in look at my iPhone picture taken while running across a bridge while a cold rain began to pelt us.

After a lunch of fish and chips (a necessity when visiting London) we headed to the Victoria and Albert art museum.

The museum was enormous-- I could've spent weeks wondering through it.

Sadly we didn't have weeks, so after a coffee and brownie break at their gorgeous cafe we headed off to dinner.

The next morning we met up and went to Buckingham palace to see the changing of the guards.

Or rather, we saw something, I think, I'm not sure what. The crowd was huge considering this is the off season and this happens every day. Some guards walked by, some rode horses, and a cold 30 min later it all appeared to be over.

After a quick lunch at a really cool Japanese place, we walked by the Tower of London and toured the Tower Bridge.

Part of the Tower

The Tower Bridge was like the second bridge constructed in London and gives panoramic views of the city.

After the Tower Bridge we headed over to see Westminster chapel, but when we arrived there was a service going on so the church was closed. Which makes sense-- often times in France the cathedral will be open to tourists even if a service is going on; it's a little awkward to try and take pictures while people are trying to worship.

That night, after enjoying a particular delicious cinnamon roll-- don't get me wrong, I adore French pastries but they do not have cinnamon rolls over here and after three months you just start to crave them-- Michelle and I went to see Phantom of the Opera! I've been obsessed with this musical for about as long as I remember. I know every word to every song and most of the speaking parts.

We showed up at the ticket office the day off trying to buy the cheap cancellation tickets. It was 20 pounds for the seats with 'partially obstructed views' and 50 pounds for the 'non-obstructed view'. The lady working assured us that the views weren't really obstructed-- just a small little pole that might only get in the way sometimes so we bought the cheap tickets. When we found our seats that night I laughed as I sat down. The pole, which wasn't too small ((probably a good thing since it held the low hanging ceiling up)) was directly in front of my seat, making it a little difficult to see things. I spent the first act dodging left and right to follow the action. Luckily for the second act I was able to find an empty seat next to Michelle which offered a miraculously unobstructed view of the stage.

The next morning we had an early flight to get back to Lyon. Long story short, the metro opens late, the trains sometimes don't come and when they do they have mechanical difficulties, the different terminals are really far away, but one mad dash-- and a lost scarf-- later, we made to our gate just as they began to board.

Thanks for reading! :)