July 17, 2012

But wait... there's more!

Sadly I must bring this blog to an end as my travels abroad in France are over... for now. But I have decided to start a new blog for those who might be a lil' curious. It's a more liberal type of blog where I muse about life, my discoveries, and other random adventures. There's no particular subject. It's just a place for me to think out loud and get my thoughts out on the cyber web. If you are interested, here is the link to the passageway into my mind ;)

http://ajalikethesong.blogspot.com/

Please feel free to follow me, ask me questions, and comment. No... Please please please do follow me, ask me questions, and comment! But most of all, please just check it out. Thank you all. I love you all who have followed this blog (and even those who are reading this for the first time). Now its your turn to get a plane ticket, book it to some exotic place, have some of the best times of your life, and write about it all. The world is open. It's up to you to discover your own road. Maybe someday our paths will cross. You never know in this big, beautiful world. Anything is possible.

June 30, 2012

The Afterthoughts

It's over.

I'm back in America. This incredible journey has come to an end, back to the beginning on American soil. I don't really know where I should begin... first of all, I hate endings. I never liked goodbyes. I never liked leaving places. I never liked the end of stories. It's like there's a Peter Pan inside of me. I never want to let things move on. I just have a constant desire for things to stay the way they are; to never grow up; to never let things go... And yet things would never be the way there are if there wasn't an element of change. I can't express it enough about how my year in France has changed me. Sometimes there are things too beautiful and true and genuine to be tainted by explaining them all. It's something inside of me. It's sort of like a metamorphosis (not to sound all Gothic and psychological now)... but being back home is like living in a dream– one of those Inception kind of dreams. I don't feel like I'm a part of myself. I don't feel like being here is right. A part of me is still in France. A part of me was left behind in the Paris airport with some of my best friends who had come to say goodbye to me. The sad part is that I don't know if I can get that part back because it's not just left in France... it's left in my year. Maybe I'll go back to France someday. Maybe I'll see my friends again. But it will never be the same experience as being with them this year. My exchange year. But such is life. Peter Pan doesn't exist. It's impossible to freeze time and pretend like new change doesn't have to come and take over the previous. I guess I should say that it's a good thing. I should smile that this year happened, that I made some of the best friends in the world, that I can see the world a little clearer now. I should smile at all the good that this year has given me... but it's hard when I'm so far away from the source of this goodness. This "goodness"... that was my home. That was my life. For ten months I lived in this bubble, this tiny utopia of mine (things weren't always perfect, but in a way that just made all the good balance out and mean more). It's just hard to realize that it was always a bubble. It was never going to be permanent. I knew I had to come home eventually, but I just didn't imagine what it would feel like.

So what do I feel like?

I don't know. I don't know how to explain myself nowadays. At first I was happy to see my family and friends again. But that passed like lightning. I cried myself to sleep my first night home because I knew I wouldn't wake up and have my host sister there downstairs in the morning. I wouldn't get to see my friends at school. I wouldn't have my best friend to start texting immediately. All the communication is there online, but a cyber relationship doesn't even start to compare to having real relationships with everyone. It's hard with all my summer activities that I have lined up to fit in all the set hours that correspond with the other side of the world to speak with people. I heard that the first month home is the hardest to adjust to. I've heard a lot of things about these exchanges. I had soaked up all the advice that I could before I left and now I can say that I wish I hadn't gotten any of it... because it doesn't mean the same thing for everyone. I asked people how it's going to feel returning home. I asked people to prepare me, to tell me answers, to create a mental image of my future. Well, that was pointless. Because what I'm feeling isn't the same as everyone else. It has pieces of this person's experience, pieces of that person's experience, but as a whole it can't be compared to. Everyone has their own life back in their home country. We all shared a year together abroad. But now it's time to touch back home to reality. It's like Dorothy returning back from Oz. I saw the world in color and now everything is in black and white. I'm not saying that I don't like home. I love home. But home has a different meaning for me now. It just feels wrong, misplaced, a little empty without my home in France. I have realized that home isn't a place. It's a feeling inside of you. It's the place where you feel happy and safe. It's the place that you can always return to and run into open arms. My home used to be in a small town in the state of Washington. But now I have homes all over the world, and especially one big home in France. I'm feeling homesick to be honest. It'll pass, like all things, but for the meantime I'm still trying to keep my head above the water. My family and friends and American places that I've missed are helping me get along, but I still drown every night when I get lost in memories. I think about France and my friends all the time. I am printing out hundreds of pictures to put on my walls. I don't want the memories to go away. I don't want to push them away. But at the same time I need to make them hide for the time being. If I let myself get lost in nostalgia, I'll never move on... I'll never make the transition. I have college coming up. I am going to be an adult soon. These are things that I'm really looking forward to. I'm excited for this new chapter coming up. But in this moment, I'm in a ditch. I was on a high and now I'm in the ditch and I need some time before I can climb out and resume life. I can't stay here forever. My list of priorities is screaming at me everyday, it is banging on the walls of my skull begging for some attention. I know. I know what I have to do. I know that I am home. I know the facts, but I can't feel the reality. Everything is so familiar. I know how to live my life here in America, in my house, with my family, with my friends. And at the same time... I don't know how to live life here as who I used to be. I feel like things that I do and say just don't fit in with the daily life pattern here like they used to. The expectations of everyone are so different. I feel so different. It's like living in a parallel universe. It's like looking at myself and my life through a looking glass. Things are the same, but backwards and a little distorted. I know my way around in the dark. I know the inside jokes between my friends. I know the sounds of my parents walking up and down the stairs... So why do I feel so completely comfortable here and yet not at all in place. I'm still torn, but this world here is forcing me to move on. It's just ripping me farther and farther away from that "goodness" that I left behind. All I have are the pieces spilled out in pictures, in letters, in faces, in words, in memories. One day the pieces will come back together and again I will change and find a new me. One day things will make sense again and one day I'll go back home... home to you all who have changed my life.

All right. Enough moping and sad stories. It's not at all fluff that I was obligated to put in there to make my exchange sound "incredible" and "aaaamazing" because it was genuinely the best thing that has ever happened to me. But now that I'm home, I'm a little freer in terms of what I publish. Yeah, I had some little issues in France that created a loooong pause in my flow of writing. I don't know if any of you have been following this blog since the beginning but at one moment I stopped telling you everything. I stopped all the weird, quirky details. I stopped spilling out all the anecdotes of my life. I was sort of forced to stop. But now the days of censorship are over and hiding the truth seems irrelevant.

Honestly. Not only was this year the best of my life, it was probably one of my hardest.

I've had some really tough times. I've broken down, shattered, melted, cried my heart out, and then had to force on a smile and keep on living. I didn't write about any of that. I didn't even write about the good stuff. I told you the surface things. I told you things that every eye could look over and not be offended or hurt or happy or scared or sad about. Why did I do that? Because not everyone in France liked what they were reading before. I wasn't mean. I wasn't exaggerating. I was perhaps... just exposing too much about people that didn't want anyone to know anything about them. I like to tell the truth. I like to be honest, but I don't like to just be half-way honest. When I tell the truth, I want to tell everything– from every wondrous thing to every brutal harsh fact. And now I'm going to tell you all some pieces of the truth that I left out.

I had some issues with my host families. I am still very sensitive about what I write because I don't want to offend certain persons that may be concerned. I do not write to be mean or to be hurtful. I write only because I love it and because I think that leaving certain details out would hurt the story. Excuse me to anyone who feels like I am criticizing or offending you, I am not making a deliberate effort. This is my story and my journey. There were some bumps along the road but in the end I got the most beautiful reward of pride and joy that I lived through everything and became a stronger, happier person because of it.

So the main cause of the shadow cast over my utopia were my host families. I can't say that we have the best relationship right now. It's not because I was the crazy, insane, uncontrollable foreign child destined to wreck the family and the town. No. I was never that child and will never be like that. I'm just not like that. If I do hurt people, it's quite unintentional. I think I was just so excited at being in France, I wanted to do everything at once. I wanted to see everything. I wanted to go everywhere. I was like a little child in a new playground. And I didn't really respect the rules of the big kids running the place. I have this little issue in knowing where limits are. I tend to argue for my cause more than I should. I can't take the word "no" lightly. I sort of pushed over the limits multiple times... but it was all for simple things, really. I didn't ask to take a plane to Italy by myself. I didn't ask to stay out all night. I didn't ask to do anything above and beyond. I asked for little things like to see my friends, to see a movie, to go into town. But I simply asked too much. I asked too much of my families... and yet, they were very restrictive.

I'm having a hard time writing this out without being bias or too polite. The truth is hard to get out sometimes.

Well, first of all Cambrai is a small town. I was the first exchange student that had ever lived there. It was my first time living abroad. It was all three of my host families first time hosting an exchange student. We all had our expectations, our doubts, our fears, and our hopes. But reality was nothing of the likes. There were good moments and horrible moments. There were moments that I will treasure forever and there are moments that I am eager to forget. But I don't have regrets. Regrets are futile. In the end I really believe that things worked out just the way that the stars had destined them to be. You fall to get stronger. After the rain, the sky clears. After the pain, you heal. Honestly, I am happy that I was the only exchange student in my city. I made so many friends. But honestly, I was a bit miserable for awhile that I was the only exchange student in the city and that my Rotary was extremely new to the whole exchange process. They were very concerned about my safety. They wanted me very protected and within very strict guidelines. I was inside a frame. I was inside their organization. They gave me the best of experiences so I needed to be in their boundaries. And later I found that seeing my friends wasn't the simplest request. It was hard to see them..

I liked my families. I didn't want to get out of the house just to get away from them. The problem, I think, was that they didn't understood the importance of my friendships that year. Seeing them once or twice wasn't enough, especially for the exchange student kids who I didn't get to see that much. In their eyes it was "yeah it was enough, I needed to spend time with the family in the house." But in a teenage girl's eyes, out on her own in the world surrounded by new friends and new discoveries to be made, staying in the house just seemed ridiculous. Especially when the whole family seemed busy with their own affairs. I know they wanted me to be involved in their lives and their family culture... but I also wanted to be involved in the world and with my friends. I lived with the family. I spent most of my exchange with them. I made a ton of effort to get close to them. But when I kept asking to see my friends, they took those requests like stabs in our relationship. They got angry. They got upset. We all got upset. So as a result for awhile, I didn't have anything. I didn't have friends that I could see. I didn't have families that I could love. I didn't have a sense of self that I could rely on. I didn't know who I was. I thought I was a monster at times after listening to my host families' side of things... and then I thought I was doing what anyone else in my position would do. To be bref it was tough. But I got through it, not without a lot of scars and dented relationships, but I'm here still smiling and appreciating life.

Things got better after Annecy. Things were better with my third host family. Those were two hectic months with them, but they were the best. There were messes but mostly because I started freaking about the end coming near. My last couple weeks in France were extremely messy, complicated, and extremely intense. And yet, a ton of fun. I cried every single day and night. Maybe it was because of the stress or maybe it was because my built-up dam of emotion that just had to flood over. My last few days were... how to say this... INSANE. I had to manage packing up my whole life into two suitcases. I had to manage a million goodbyes to people that I would maybe never see again. I had to manage my host family that was going crazy under the stress. I had to manage schoolwork that was coming in just until the last minute. And most of all I had to manage my tears and stress every second because I had been scared of everything ending. I didn't know where things would go from then.

I had some awful moments in those last hours before France. I had to say goodbye to my host sister (of my last family) who I love with all my heart. She had been there for me since my very first week in France. I told her everything. It's not everyday that I open up my soul to someone. But she wasn't just a normal friend to me. She was genuinely my sister. We laughed, we cried. We lived through everything together. I just never imagined that a day would come where she wouldn't be with me... Now we're on opposite sides of the planet but she will always be my sister. Saying goodbye was like ripping the moon away from the tides. It was painful. We cried for an eternity together, both of us not realizing that this was the end. We will see each other again, that's certain. I won't live to never see my sister again. But it was horrible because I had to spend my last night with my first host family that had to drive me to the Paris airport the next morning at five. I wasn't comforted by the family. They told me to calm down, take a shower, and get some sleep. Yeah that's just one of the many examples that show how our relationship went a little downhill... another example happened ten minutes later. My old neighbor, one of my best French friends, wanted to come and say goodbye. Just for five minutes. But my host mom wouldn't allow it. She wouldn't allow us to say one last final goodbye for five minutes. She had wanted me to go to bed to get some sleep before the long flight (12 hours, which notably is a perfect time to sleep.) I get angry when I think about things like that. I get angry at the family and at myself for getting this as punishment. It was horrible. But my neighbor came to the house anyways and we said goodbye through the bathroom window. It was sort of funny, but rather horrible that we had to sneak around like that. Plus I didn't get to give her a hug :( I was leaving the country and all those people in less that 24 hours. All I had wanted was a proper goodbye. I guess that some people just don't understand the importance of a goodbye. It means so much. It isn't just seeing them one more time, it's having the chance to seal a friendship, to seal a moment. It means au revoir. It means that I'll see you again. My families said that I had already spent so much time with my friends at school and everything that it wasn't necessary to make a mess with plans and organization and everything just to say goodbye.

I'm sorry for any hassle that I may have caused. But I like to figure things out on my own. I like to be independent and find my own direction. I like to figure things out on my own. I need to be free in my life. It was just hard in my circumstances. It was a little bit impossible. But still I succeeded in saying goodbye to mostly everyone in a proper fashion. I would have liked to have seen all my exchange buddies that were in my district in Paris at an amusement park but my host mom made a bank appointment on that day. I know these details seem stupid and redundant to ramble on about, but they really left an impression on me. It just showed me that one really can't have it all. There are consequences to everything. My host mom could have changed the appointment to a different day. It only lasted five minutes anyways. But she wouldn't. She refused to do that because it was something that would make me really happy and make her life a little more inconvenient. She had had enough. And such is life. Sometimes things just don't turn out the way that we want or expect. This life lesson, along with many others, came to me this year like meteorites. It was like an asteroid shower of realizations and hard core truths about this world that we live in.

But despite the pain and hardships, I still cried the whole flight to Amsterdam. Not because I was frustrated and stressed like I had been for the last few weeks, but because I was genuinely depressed to leave. The tears started falling the minute after I said goodbye to Angie (my best friend) and Peter and Kirana in the airport. Security gave me an easier time. I don't think terrorists with bombs are bawling like babies while putting their 500 pounds of carry on luggage through the scanner. I had been wearing all the clothes and coats that couldn't fit into my suitcase. I looked like a hobo, especially with my puffy red eyes. When the plane started to pull away I broke down. I was shattered in pieces. Physically I was leaving, but my heart and soul were still in the airport. The lady next to me was probably worried for my state of mind. I just cried and cried and cried in a wild fit of hysteria for two hours. I couldn't take it. I was leaving. The goodbye was real. No more in between dreams. No more false realities. No more "see you tomorrows." It was done. I had still been angry at my first host family but all of that melted when I had to leave. I would have done anything to stop the plane and run back to them. I was just a mess.

I guess my waterfalls of tears were a good sign. It was a sign that my year was something really extraordinary. Through the ups and downs, through all the extremes and craziness, through every smile and teardrop– I really changed. Someone once said that you don't find yourself, you create yourself. Well this year, I started to truly create myself as a person. I started to build up my ideas and my personality. I started the beginning of my future. This was the end of something amazing, but it's really just the start of something incredible. Thank you everyone who has been with me since the very start. An enormous thank you to Rotary because without them none of this would have been possible. Another enormous thank you to all my host families (despite everything). Thank you to my real family. And the biggest thank you of them all to my friends– the people who I truly love and care about more than this entire world. You are brilliant. (I'm having a hard time not repeating all my praising adjectives) And of course, you reading this blog. You are brilliant and I love you for reading and following me. This isn't the end of my journey. It's just the beginning of a brand new chapter. A bientôt. Je vous aime fort.

"Ce n'est qu'un au revoir... ce n'est pas un adieu."

One day I'll see you all again. One day we will reunite our family of friendship.
I promise that one day I'll see you again.
I promise.

An exchange isn't a year in a life. It's a life in a year.

June 2, 2012

International Love

So yes, I am still alive. My lack of blogs is mainly due to procrastination and the overflow of things that I have to say. There's way too much to spill out all in one blog. I'm sorry for those who have been keeping track of this humble blog of an exchange student. Where to start? Well. I think I'll just try to sort through my jumbled box of tucked-away thoughts. I feel like all my adventures and journeying can be described by pictures, but feelings can only be described by words– and even then, it's not enough to capture the emotions into concrete reality.

Honestly the definition of an "exchange student" has really changed for me. These last two months have been the best of my life. I feel like the last seven/eight months before of falling, discovering, learning, laughing, crying, dreaming, and exploring has built me up into a better person– someone more in control of her life. And not only were these last months absolutely explosively incredibly fun, but they were also eye-opening.

There were two things that really highlighted this year. I call the first event "The massive Rotary International Youth Exchange Student Get-Together Party of the Year." It was amazing. It was ridiculous how much fun I had. Imagine this: 430 exchange students of 31 different nationalities coming together under the title of "Exchange Students of the Entire World" for a long weekend. Imagine this taking place in the beautiful city of Annecy. Imagine the mixture of English, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, Portuguese, and tons of other languages being spoken with every beautiful unique accent in the world. Imagine making friends from all over the planet from Australia to Japan to Brazil. Imagine having the most patriotic moments of your life, waving your country's flag over your head. Imagine the international love in our exchange student family. Imagine that.


Our family.
International Love. 31 nationalities.
So yeah. Annecy was crazy. It all started with "Where are you from?" And then our Rotary jackets got heavier with new pins. We all exchanged our 400 cards with our home addresses, phone numbers, and emails written on it, while we were all practically strangers. So many names... so many flags... so many languages... I remember my jaw dropping when I entered the room that merged together all 430 of us crazy foreigners. It's just amazing how easily we all get along. I met one of my best friends there. She's an Aussie. It's crazy and yet very possible to meet and call someone your best friend after only knowing them for a couple days. Anything is possible on exchange, and yet... it's you who has to make it possible.

The second highlight was my bus trip around Europe. That might have very well been the best thing that's ever happened to me. The best 12 days of my time. All I know is that I will never ever forget the places we visited, the people I met, the experiences I had, and so much more. In 12 days we visited 6 countries: Germany, Austria, the Czech Republic, ITALY, Switzerland, and more of France. It was absolutely exhausting but I met some of the most amazing people from all over the world and visited some of the most beautiful cities. It was mostly the friendships that made this trip so unforgettable. Us exchange students share something special that doesn't compare to any other kind of friendship. It's the kind of friendship that is so strong and powerful, no matter the language, no matter the nationality, no matter the distance– it lasts. We exchange students are a family. We are each others' best friends, even if we only see each other a couple times during the year. We know what it's like to live abroad and be far away from everything. We know what it's like to be scared and lost and lonely. We've all had the times of our lives and we've all lived the miseries from our nightmares. Just being around each other feels surreal, something special and different. In between our two lives of home and in France, there is the family of exchange students that takes up most of the love that we have for the world. We learn from each other. We laugh with each other. We have fun with each other. We do stupid stuff with each other. We will never forget each other. At the end of the bus trip, everyone cried. I said to myself that I wouldn't, but I did. It was probably the hardest that I cried since I left America. After nine months away from everything that I knew, the most of my tears fell for people that I met over two weeks... that I wouldn't be sure if I would ever see again. It hurt so bad to say goodbye. We say we will all see each other again. We say we will never forget. We say we will stay in touch. But those words were just mixed in with the tears that kept falling. It's hard to say the truth. No one wanted to hear it, but we all knew it. We all pretended that our goodbyes meant "See you soon". But the truth was there. It was "Goodbye, thank you for the time of my life."


On the beach of Italy
 I miss you all.

This bus trip showed me a glimpse of how hard it's going to be returning to America. Those 12 days will always have a special place in my heart, but this year has taken up more than just my heart. It's impacted everything in my life, everything that makes me who I am. Going back to my life before will be like putting a circle into a square. It just won't fit right. It'll be hard, but I knew this had to come. I just didn't realize how much a year could change me.

Change comes in many different ways. In different forms. In different moods. In different sizes. It comes to you by people, by places, by words, by tears, by scars, by laughter, by dreams. I am different now. I guess between America and France, change somehow slipped in during the nine months of distance. There's nothing specific that has changed me. It's like a subtle wave. Sometimes I knew it was going over me, other times it came in rapid tides, and sometimes I didn't notice at all. But I would wake up feeling different. I keep learning things about myself. I keep discovering. Sometimes I don't like what I find and sometimes I never want to go back to how it was before. I can't figure out what it is exactly. But going on an exchange pushes you to a limit, it carves your soul out, it rips apart your knowledge, then builds you up again from scratch leaving only your roots. I spent this time discovering those roots– those roots that make me who I really am. Those roots that will carry me along in the future. And then I spent this time letting the pieces of myself come together. I can't say that I found myself. Whatever that really means. I think it's impossible to fully discover one's self when there is still so much to discover in the world. The world has changed me. It will continue to change me. I'm not stopping my adventures and traveling and exploring after this year. Traveling is an addiction. Once you start, you can't go back. It's a chance to rip yourself away from comfort and familiarity and toss yourself into a horrifyingly beautiful, ugly, wonderful, catastrophic, utopia world. It's a chance to create your own path. It's a chance to mess up and learn to laugh at yourself. It's a chance to open your eyes to everything hidden behind distance. Distance is beautiful and cruel. It brings together the most wonderful things and then destroys it again and again. There's always a fight against distance, and then a joy to discover it again. I love the idea of getting to the other side of distance. I love being there. Like the other side of the rainbow. You find wonders and treasures beyond words... and then you have to say goodbye to it all when the rain comes– like when the goodbye makes the tears fall.

It's depressing, isn't it?

It's hard for others to really understand. It's impossible. Some things you just can't relate to and understand if you haven't lived it. If you haven't gone through the turmoil of emotions and change living abroad, you can't nod your head and say "Yeah I know what you mean." You have to live it to know it.

I love this quote:

"Don't cry because it's over, smile because it happened." 

Two of my best friends that I will love forever <3

March 19, 2012

It's Tea Time!

I have always wanted to go to England. It has always been in the back of my mind as one of the places that I had to visit one day. I don’t know what the appeal of it is exactly... maybe it’s Harry Potter or the British peoples' fabulous accent, but I’ve always been curious and fascinated to discover it for myself. And so when my class was proposed a three day voyage with the sophomores, I immediately jumped on board. And that’s where I was last weekend. ENGLAND. The country of red telephones and buses in a sea of vintage black and white photos; the country of manners and tea drinkers; the country of bad food and a wonderful accent; the country of monuments and shopping; the country with London as its capital. It was absolutely amazing. I had a blast. I miss it so much already. I mean I love Cambrai and France and all... but a city like London is quite unforgettable. I felt so incredibly happy and free over there. Of course it was only three days so I can’t really judge everything off of that. I’ve heard that the English people are really uptight and don’t like to show their emotions so making friends would probably be much harder over there than in France. But at least the language barrier doesn’t exist for me :P

So only me and two other girls (Manon and Diane) in my class ended up going with the sophomore class. We boarded the bus on Thursday at 5:30am headed for the British Chanel. Cambrai is not that far away from England so we didn’t need to take a plane. The bus ride lasted about two hours. I had a hard time grasping the fact that just two hours on the road could bring me to a completely new country. Two hours from my house back home would take me to one of those big super malls in the middle of some plateau. That's kind of one of the big differences between America and Europe right there. We had to go through a passport check before getting on the boat. The kids on the bus were fascinated by my American passport. They said it was so "beautiful" compared to theirs... which I sort of agreed with. We Americans don’t really pay attention, but we really do have pretty fancy passports in comparison to other countries. We’re just so patriotic, we have to show our pride everywhere.

Then when we were all checked off, we boarded the boat! It was a really nice fancy boat. It reminded me of the ferries back home (I don’t think ferries exist here... unless that boat was actually a ferry) It had some stores, restaurants, food courts, bars, chairs, money exchange booths, balconies, etc. The first thing they did was assign host families. I ended up in a family of six. The host families in England are used to receiving students all the time because they only do it for money. It’s normal for French people to go on these types of trips to England because we’re so close by. For a lot of people, this wasn’t their first time. Also on the boat I exchanged 100 dollars and only got around 50 pounds! I was really disappointed. Wouldn’t it be nice if we all had the same currency around the world? But I love the English bills and coins. They are super pretty with pictures of the Queen everywhere. I find that only America is different in terms of the money system. All the European countries, England, and even Canada have coins for one dollar or two dollars. It’s a lot more practical than having tons of bills all the time. And not to mention America’s wacky metric system! We just like to stand out.

I'm on a boat!

Anyways, when we arrived the first thing we saw were enormous foggy white cliffs that plunged into the sea. The Cliffs of Dover. Honestly, I had only heard of them before from a Madonna song... I had no idea that they were located in England. My geography is horrible– match that up with cultural/monumental/famous places and you get a very confused sense of the world.
The Cliffs of Dover!

We started our activities right away so that meant another two hours on the bus on our way towards the Windsor Castle. The first thing I noticed were the infamous left-hand side drivers! They really do exist! It was so weird. I freaked out when I first saw a person in the normal driver’s seat without a wheel. I even creeped and took pictures of this new cultural discovery.

Whaaaaat?!
My second cultural discovery was when we arrived at the castle and I saw that the boy’s bathroom was labeled «Gents». How distinguished ;) My third discovery was a British tart that I ate before we went into the castle. I thought of Alice in Wonderland and all of the stereotypes that I was fulfilling...


I am not the biggest fan of historical tours, especially the ones with audio guides so I hadn’t really been looking forward to the castle visit. But it turned out to be really good! I really enjoyed myself and actually learned a lot. Diane and I stuck together and we had a lot of fun. The castle itself was gorgeous, magnificent, and enormous (like all castles in Europe).
Diane and I with our sexy audo guides...
We wandered around and toured about outside for the first part and saw one of those Buckingham Palace kind of guards with the enormous bearskin hats! It was quite funny. He really doesn’t move. I tried talking to him, to make him laugh, to make him smile. I even danced in front of him because I was feeling silly. He didn’t even blink. The only way that we only knew he was alive was when he yawned. What a fascinating job... but it is an honor, serving the queen and all.

But really, he's secretly a dancer at heart ;)
We weren’t allowed to take pictures inside of the castle, which was a bummer. The thing that I really liked about the castle was that it was still in use. The queen often lodges there, has her tea parties there, and strolls about the place. It’s weird thinking that it’s her home. I couldn’t imagine living in such a place with luxury, chandeliers, and gold in every corner on every wall in every room. It was oozing with the presence of wealth and royalty. To think that it is still somebody’s home is incredible.

(In the Queen's throne room) Okay, just don't tell the Royal Guard about this picture...

How did I get in on this royal dish?

Haha funny story. Well, I made some new friends. Royal Guard friends to be specific. I was really happy to be speaking English again (with an attempt to speak with a British accent) so I tried talking to as many people as I could in my native tongue... which meant asking a lot of questions. I didn’t think the guards inside the castle would be so talkative! It was great. At first I just asked them why the guys outside with the big furry hats didn’t move (a very intellectual question, I know) and then we just got talking. I learned some very interesting things that I would have never learned from those ridiculous audio guides! For example, did you know that the queen wears the exact same earrings every single day?? (Except for royal functions where in that case she puts on her fancy diamond loopies) They are usually just a single pearl with a tiny diamond on top. Apparently she was given them when she was a little child by her parents so they hold a personal value. I think it’s very sweet and modest. I googled it and sure enough you’ll see her with the same earrings in every single pictures (except for the royal function pictures in which she'll be wearing her big diamond ones). Would have never known that if it weren’t for those bored guards! They have already met the Queen many times. She’s almost like their friend. Wow. I’d like to be friends with a queen :P

After our visit, we checked out the pricy gift stores and then left the castle ground for some free time in the city! It was great. The shopping in England is fantastic. All my favorite stores were there. We looked forever for a Starbucks, but ended up getting shakes at one of those places with 100000000 shake options. Then I bought a new pair of jeans at Zara and some necessary tourist things. Diane and I amused ourselves by trying on some super tall high heels and some of the completely ridiculous hats that are à la mode in England (thanks to Kate Middleton). Yeah we definitely know were to find the hot spots in England...


Grr... ;)
Then we headed back on the bus to go to our host families for the first night. Our family was really nice, but they didn't get very close to us. They didn’t really even talk to us. They just get paid to feed us and give us a place to sleep... not to become friends with us. It’s a common thing in England to host students for money (like in the popular French film LOL). They lived in a small house with two dogs, one cat, three chameleons, five people, two semi-permanent guests, and then with us five French students plus one American. So you can imagine our spacious lodging. But it was really fun and we were quite lucky with our family compared to others. One family didn’t even electricity or hot water! We were just a bit squished in our room with six beds and all... and the food wasn’t so great. We had pasta that night but were still starving afterwards. Luckily we had all prepared for the infamous English cuisine and had each brought tons of stuff to snack on. ;) We didn’t eat with the family. It was a little awkward.

Snack party!
Day 2: Destination– LONDON!!! I fell in love with London like I had fallen in love with Barcelona. I’m easily enchanted by beautiful foreign cities. Windsor was an hour away from London. We started off with a tour on the bus, passing by hundreds of fantastic stores, monuments, stores, monuments, and more stores. Have I mentioned how amazing London is for shopping? Our first stop was at the Buckingham palace. We didn’t get to go inside but it was still gorgeous to look at! Very big. Too bad England’s hottest couple wasn’t around... :\ We also saw the famous red guard guys come by on horses! So English.


Me with the Polish exchange student whose at my school
Then we seemed to go on a long detour through a park that had TONS of birds and ponds and eggs (giant painted Easter egg sculptures were scattered throughout London for a giant scavenger hunt). We ended up in front of Big Ben. It’s quite a practical monument if you’re someone that always forgets to wear a watch. It was incredibly well-made and very beautiful.. like all monuments.



Diane and I in front of.. something famous.
And then finally we had some free time in London!! But not much... Diane and I ate at Starbucks (Love!!) It was her first time ever and I had insisted that she try it. She loved it. Point for America... and especially one for Seattle. Starbucks is kind of a part of American culture. People go there to hang out, do their work, go online, chat with old friends... not just to eat and drink. But I guess French cafés are sort of the same thing. Then we discovered the classic red telephone booths of London. They are everywhere! I thought it was a thing of the past, but people still actually use them!


Next stop: Madame Tussauds! Best. Museum. EVER. I have never loved another museum as much as I loved that one. I’m not a huge museum fan so I was really happy to discover that this one was not at all like the ones that I’ve visited before. I admit that if you don’t like celebrities or the movies or famous people then you probably shouldn’t go to Madame Tussauds. But on the other hand, if you like seeing your favorite stars... you would love it. It’s a museum full of incredibly incredibly incredibly incredibly realistic statues of stars! It was amazing. There were times when I honestly thought that we were walking through an A-list party.

Colin Firth :)
Orlando Bloom <3
We all know this lady ;)
ALL YOU NEED IS LOVE
Represent.
Then there was a scary haunted house kind of thing with people that leap out at you. Usually those things are lame, but this one was traumatizing. There were horrible creepy guys that just wouldn’t leave us alone. I was screaming like crazy and embarrassed myself by hiding behind some lady only to find out later that is was my English teacher :P Then there was a «Tour through English history» in little English taxi cars. I couldn’t help but think of how expensive it must have cost to build that museum. They even had a 4D movie presentation about superheros. 4D means that your surrounding environment comes to life as well– the chairs moved, water fell from the ceiling, wind blew, and we saw everything in wicked 3D. Pretty awesome.

And for the last day, we went to The British Museum. It wasn't as cool as Madame Tussaud, but I think it's just a matter of taste. The Egyptian section was really cool with giant pharaohs and ancient artifacts. And I discovered that the museum had the real Rosetta Stone! The legit Rosetta Stone!



Afterwards we spent the afternoon in Covent Garden. We had a lot of free time just to explore. It was fantastic. The ambiance was the kind that I really like– with lots of music, people, food, art, shopping, etc. There were street performers everywhere and tons of fantastic boutiques. We watched a guy fit his whole body through a tennis racket (you wouldn't believe how disgusting that was... and how much money he got afterwards from the crowd!) There was another guy who tried to break out of a straightjacket, metal chain, and thick ropes. We also saw an opera performance and a charming classical music group... all while eating fresh-made paella in the center of the marketplace. Diane had her first cupcake ever. It was quite the grand experience for her. And then we went shopping :D I could have spent a whole week just going up and down those streets of wonder. I don't what it was about London, but I just loved everything about it. I just loved being there in the thick of it all.

Paella in the center!
So gross. So disturbing... So interesting.
Our buddy :) He was just, you know... wandering around.
Those three days in England were incredible. This experience as an exchange student has opened so many doors for me– to new countries, to new cities, to new friends, to new adventures. I'm so thankful for this experience and am so happy that I got to set foot on English soil! It won't be my last voyage there, that's for sure ;)
The Tower Bridge!

Sorry for the lack of blogging... I really am sorry... I just... well... if you were an exchange student, you would understand our problem of thinking that we have lots of time and then realizing how little of it we actually end up having. I will try to write more frequently! A bientôt, bisous.

March 10, 2012

Arrrrrrrrriba!

"Olé olé !" says the girl who just got back from her incredible trip to Barcelona. The bus trip was amazing, fantastic, wonderful, mucho bueno, etc. I went to so many places, met so many people, discovered so many things... and hardly slept. It was a bit overwhelming! And fantastic. I have so much to say and not enough time right now in my school library to write it all! Bear with me folks... my memory is a little scattered.

So since this bus trip was called the "Paris-Barcelona" bus trip, we weren't in Barcelona the whole time even though it felt like that. We were in Paris for three days, on the bus for two days, and then in Barcelona for the last three days. We were a group of fifty exchange students, coming from all over this planet. There were people from Brazil, Argentina, Japan, Taiwan, Korea, Canada, Mexico, Chile, Australia, Tazmania, Colombia, India, and of course America. One of the best parts about the trip was getting to meet all the incredible new friends of every nationality. I learned a lot about their cultures in the process and had the best time being with them. Rembering all of them as I write this makes me want to go back there so badly. Exchange students instantly click with other exchange students. It's impossible to be a loner if you're hanging around one of your kind. We all share similar experiences and hardships so it's natural that we all want to be together. Even on a bus for 18 hours...

Anyways, so I slept over at an exchange student's house the night before we left for Paris. We had to get up super early to catch our train and arrived at the Paris train station at six in the morning like walking zombies on Red Bull. We met up with everyone and helplessly tried to remember peoples' names. The general order of first meet-and-greet questions went like this: "Where are you from?" "What's your name?" "Where do you live in France?" "So, uh, how's life going for you?" That's how it started almost every single time. After we loaded onto the bus, we set off right away on a guided tour of Paris, checking off all the things on the tourist must-see list: The Eiffel Towel, Notre Dame, the Seine River, the Louvre, the bridge with all the locks of lovers, etc.

Looks like someone stole the show... I swear that this wasn't planned. (BIRD)
Group photo :)
Inside the Notre Dame
By the Seine
So the Bridge of Lovers is a bridge that goes over the Seine with a long fencing that's covered in locks. You are supposed to go there with your lover, put a lock on the bridge, and then throw the key into the river. Preeeetty romantic. So the big shocker was that I found a lock with my name on it! There were at least a million locks there and personally I don't know any other Aja's in this world so... one could say I was surprised.
Whooaaa
The tour was kind of rushed so it was hard to really enjoy Paris, especially when the guide was blabbering on and on with no one listening and the Rotarians were always telling people to move faster. But the weather was really nice and the people were really nice and the city was really nice so.... the day was really nice.


Whoo! Taiwan!
And then we went to our lodgement: A youth hostel. When I heard the word "youth hostel", I definitely pictured concrete floors and straw beds. But the place was actually pretty spiffy! I bunked with Julia, my New York bud. I would have said that the place was a hotel if not for the absence of soap and a shower curtain in the bathroom. Everyone got to bed pretty late that night after a bit of dancing, talking, and silliness... but it was earlier than the nights that were yet to follow. ;)

Day 2: The second day in Paris was ten times better than the first. So the morning game plan was to climb up the Eiffel Tower. Everyone took patriotical pictures in front of the Tower with their country's flag. Ha. I hadn't brought an American flag so in all the pictures, I'm holding some other country's flag. International love?

Yep, I'm with the Canadian flag..
It was still cold and foggy at this time so when we got to the top, we really couldn't see that much. I had already been up the Eiffel Tower when I was in Paris with my parents when I was eight, but it was still very thrilling and fun to be up there again. That's where I started hanging around my Tazmanian buddy Evie. We were bus trip besties. For lunch, we had croque monsieurs on top of the Eiffel Tower. I thought food would be super expensive up there, but it was cheaper than a lot of cafés that we had eaten at. It was quite the location ;)

My Aussie :)

Afterwards we took the bus to Versailles. I had already been there once with my parents, but I had forgotten how beautiful it is. It's the essence of wealth, royalty, and refinity. Everything is painted in real gold. The place is enormous. We got pretty lost wandering about, checking out the elaborate bedrooms, ancient statues, and enormous wall paintings. It seemed to me that Louis must have been really into painted ceilings because almost every ceiling was a giant mural with angels and Jesus and all. I found them quite impressive. I, for one, could not paint something like that at that awkward angle. Evie and I took pictures of everything that seemed famous. We amused ourselves by trying to get into the background of as many tourist pictures as possible. Obviously, we make for great Rotray ambassadors.

After our tour, we went out into the famous gardens. It was more like a maze with really high walls and lots of turns. It reminded me a lot of Harry Potter and Alice in Wonderland.

Day 3 : Last day in Paris. We visited the Louvre. I really liked the Louvre visit this time because I got to see way more of the museum than I had with my class back in December. Evie and I tagged along with some Asians who really wanted to see the Napolean exhibit. Since the place is absolutely immense, we ending up visiting tons of rooms in the process of getting lost. Someone told us that it would take three months to look at everything in the museum if you were to look at each masterpiece for one minute, eight hours a day. Wow. Yeah, we had about two hours to look at everything. That time frame didn't quite cut it. We felt kind of guilty bypassing hundreds of exquistic works that probably took years to complete. We just wanted to find the famous stuff. Of course we took some pictures with the Mona Lisa... it's sort of obligatory.

Yeah I don't know what I'm doing in this picture...
And then we found the famous painting that's on the Coldplay album cover « Viva la Vida ». But just like at Versailles, Evie and I just took pictures of what we thought was famous. Which meant a lot of stuff...
Viva la vida


The legit Venus statue
In Napolean's quarters

Artful...

This time around for lunch, we ate at the Louvre's international food court. They had themed restaurants from all around the world : Chinese, Italien, Spanish, Moroccan, Japanese, American, etc. We went for Chinese.

There was one really super hilarious moment at the Louvre that made my day. As Evie and I were walking back from the food court, some old hairy guy came right up to Evie's ear and growled! He actually growled! Then he just walked away like nothing had happened. For a minutre we had just stood there, stunned. And then we broke out laughing. It was rather creepy, but rather wonderful at the same time. Oh gotta love those people that growl at you in world famous museums...

After the Louvre, we were on the bus for a good seven hours en route to Barcelona! Arrrrriba. The bus wasn't very comfortable and the movies that they played were really lame, but it actually wasn't that bad. I could have almost considered it to be fun. I never really realized the emphasis on the bus part of bus trip. We had a loooooot of hours on that bus. We passed the time by talking, singing, playing bus games, having a talent show, and of course sleeping. I learned how to rap. The funny thing about being around Australians is that I tend to pick up their accent! It's weird. So during the trip I started talking like Evie. I tried to stop, but I only went back to speaking like an American when I hung around other Americans.
Evie braided my hair... <3

For the night we stopped at a little town in the south of France. It was kind of in the middle of nowhere with cabins and a cafeteria. I roomed with Evie. Everyone stayed up late talking, dancing, and playing midnight beach volleyball (I'm not quite sure why there was a beach volleyball court there...) It was fun.

Day 4 : All day on the bus. All day sitting on those uncomfortable seats squished in between people speaking Chinese and Spanish. But it wasn't that difficult. Time passed fast enough, but it definitely felt longer than the first traveling day. For lunch, we stopped in an adorable little town that was within castle walls. That was super fun. The town was so cute with all the little stores, tiny alleys, and castle features. It was much better than stopping at Flunch.

We arrived in Spain that evening. I instantly fell in love with that country when we stepped out into the warm air in front of our 4 star hotel! They really lodged us in good places. This was a super nice hotel. I stayed in a room with the two Indians from my district. There was a dance floor, a really yummy buffet, a pool (that we couldn't swim in) and tons of people in that hotel. Each night there was quite fun ;) But as a result... we were all sleepless zombies the following day. 


Day 4: Mornings that start with a museum are rough after four hours of sleep. But it was an interesting museum all the same. Someone said that it was Barcelona's National Museum (I don't know, it was all in Spanish). Too bad we were too tired to register what we were looking at.

Tired...

The museum's ceiling
One of the many sources of the constant music that floats around in the streets of Barcelona
Barcelona <3

Then we went over to every soccer fan's dream place: Barcelona's famous soccer stadium. I'm not a soccer player. I don't really care about soccer, honestly (but I better not say that in front of those crazy Barcelona fans.) But the stadium visit was pretty cool, even for the neutral passer-bys like myself. There was a historical section with tons of trophies and all. It was funny seeing the boys getting into it, taking pictures of themselves next to the trophies like girls in front of their favorite designer stores ;)


The stadium itself was enormous and colorful. One can imagine how crazy it must get when all those seats are full. I never understood how people can get so into sports, but it sure is fun to be around them even when you don't know what's happening on the field.

Famous trophies...

Translation: More Than A Club.
Have to agree with that one...

Sparsh, Jo, Evie, Me :)

Yeah it's kind of big...

And then finally for lunch, we had some time to explore the wonderful world of Barcelona shopping. There was a fantastic option of stores. We had loads of time. The only thing was... it was Sunday. Which meant that nothing was open! We were pretty bummed– extremely bummed. But it was still a great afternoon. We managed to find some open tourist booths to satisfy our shopping needs.
Olé! We know how to work those hats...
We also saw the famous Sagrada Familia cathderal. I swear that every single religious monument in Europe is under construction... The Sagrada Familia is never finished. It never will be finished. If you see a Sagrada Familia in a post card without some type of crane or building material in the background, it has been photo shopped. No matter what year it was taken in. It has an interesting architecture, one could say that the outside ressembles cottage cheese or mushy clay. Near the roof, there are vegetable statues, snakes, and slugs. There's probably a deep, religious, philosophical reason for those unique decorative appeals... but to the common eye, it doesn't make much sense.



Day 5: A beautiful day in Barcelona. The sun was shining and it was warm. It's been so long since I've had the sun on my face. The North of France is great... but not for suntans. That day we went on a thorough tour of the Sagrada Familia. I personally prefer the inside of Cambrai's cathedral.

Cottage cheese...
But this one had a little outside courtyard which was pretty with a little healing "magical water" foutain and some wandering ducks in the corridor. I drank the magical water. So far, I have found no new superpowers or unnatural side effects. I was disappointed.

Holy ducks


Following our saintly morning, we went out to have an amazing lunch. By the beach! I felt like I was in California again. There were palm trees everywhere, the sun was shining, we could hear seagulls, and we could see the ocean.

We found a great lunch place with a view of the water. Between the six of us, we got an incredible large special/family style meal to share: Three ginormous pans of classic Spanish food (Paella, black rice, Spanish noodles), plus salads, plus mini appetizers, plus drinks... all for 10€ a person. Score! But there was no way that we could have finished all that. We spent all our time eating so unfortunately we couldn't go down to the beach... I could have stayed there for so long. Long live Barcelona. I will go back to you one day.

FOOD



That afternoon, we visited a typical tourist attraction in Barcelona. It was a series of white caves and tunnels with pretty decorated ceilings, but the most famous part was the mosaic lizard statue that dominates all the classic Barcelona postcards. But there were just too many tourists there for the visit to be super enjoyable, but I agree that our 50 person group didn't make the crowd control get any better.

Since everyone (well mostly the chicas) really really wanted to go shopping since we didn't get the chance to go the other day, the supervisors let us go shop in the town where our hotel was located. It wasn't that great... but I still found some clothes and a purse. Shopping in those little rustic alleyways is quite amusing because you can bargain. I've never really bargained before so when I simply told the man that I didn't want to pay for a shirt, he instantly lowered the price. I got it for 75 percent off. :)

Day 6: Our last day in paradise :( The last thing we did before leaving that incredible country was visit a musuem. Everyone was bummed... but the museum turned out to be incredibly interesting. Well, I was captivated. It was the official Salvador Dali museum. I am a huge fan of his work so I really enjoyed it. The whole museum is dedicated to him. Even his corpse was buried there in a wall...

RIP
 Here were some of my favorite works:

An enormous 3D masterpiece. This was taken from the stairs through a magnifying glass that puts the face into perspective. I have the lips on a necklace :)



The famous bread painting...

Based off of this 3D bread...

So close, so far

I LOVE THIS PAINTING. There are so many different abstract elements, you really have to search. For example, did you notice that the green thing is a man's tie?? Whoaaa

Abraham Lincoln illusion/ mosaic painting.

The original is in New York, but still...

The outside of the building was covered in fake bread rolls to represent his famous bread masterpiece. The Dali symbols that I've noticed: Bread, lips, clocks, mustache. How interesting it is to be remembered by those four ordinary things that have created such incredible art. I know he wasn't all that normal in the head, but sometimes our world's crazy folks turn out to be our world's geniuses.

For lunch afterwards, we discovered the extent of our Spanish speaking capacity. It was pathetic. I managed to order a Kebob with hand gestures. Most of us had never taken a lesson in Spanish before. But people there speak pretty good English. Except this one man in a hat store that we managed to have a whole conversation with using a whole lot of hand signals, grunting, "Si si", "gracias", smiles, and not a word of Spanish. My Asian friends even took a picture with him, they were so enchanted. So cute. I love how excited Asian people can get over little things.

Aaaaaaaand then.... the bus. 18 hours straight. We slept through the night on that bus. So uncomfortable but we were all too tired to not fall asleep, except for poor Evie who had an energy boost in the middle of the night and couldn't get to sleep. I can't count how many gas stations and rest stops they made us get off at. Usually those breaks were refreshing... just not the one at two in the morning. :P

Everyone got dropped off at their right train station for the return home. I took the train from Paris to Lille. It was so sad to say goodbye to everyone. It was like we had formed a family over the last week. But the good news was that we're all going to see each other again in a couple weeks at Annecy!... which is a huge event where all the exchange students (more than 400) are going to get together in a town called Annecy for a long weekend. It's going to be one fun meet and greet, I can sense it. So my adventures with my exchange student besties isn't over. After Annecy we still have the bus trip around Europe. Bref. Thank youuuuu Rotary!

Sorry AGAIN for the huge delay and shortage of blog posts. My reasons: having too much to talk about, procrastination, and a very busy life. Mix those three together and you get an instant reduction in lengthy blogs. Sorry. I'll try harder. A bientôt, bisous.