Due to our friends the APs, I haven’t blogged since that time I told you all I was going to eventually blog. So, after 10,000 final quizzes, tests, and a sprinkle of standardized testing, I make my triumphant and bittersweet return to this blog.
Not to alarm anyone, but it’s one of the last times I’ll be writing here– there will be a post when I get home, of course, but with only four days left to my year abroad, which this blog was meant to document, there won’t be a ton left to recount. Except, of course, all of my disgusting emotions which might not interest you all as much as, say, the French Riviera and the beaches of Normandy.
So, let’s start there instead.
The South of France: One week in Nice independent traveling, one week next to Marseille with the school.
The main thing you should know about this two week vacation was that it was an actual vacation.
Istanbul and Budapest were amazing adventures where we went far away from France and packed each day with action.
In Nice, we ate ice cream and read on the beach. And it was just what I needed.
this is next to Nice’s giant boulevard, the Promenade des Anglais. Tragically, the beach was rock, not sand, but the sun was still shining. FUN FACT: The Mediterranean’s incredible clear turquoise color is a result of a lack of plankton!
On our first night, we climbed up a hill where there used to be a chateau and there is now a fantastic panorama view of the city. Naturally, someone was having their wedding party up there. We quietly gushed about the bride’s dress while we strolled…
The south of France is known for its cosmetics: the perfume capital of France (and the world? I don’t know about that, but maybe…?) is Grasse, and the soap from Marseille is very well known.
We visited the MAMAC, The museum of modern and contemporary art of Nice. One of the heavily featured artists was Ben, who uses words in his art, and his art can actually be seen all over the city– on bus stops, for instance, you can see little plaques done by him.
My traveling buddy, Rachel, and I agreed we needed some rest. And so, Nice was relaxed. We slept in, walked around a kilometer to the main square to get diablos (sort of like shirley temples) and hot chocolates, before traversing the antique store quarter of town to get to the spectacular Promenade des Anglais (that would be the turquoise-y coast lined with palm trees). We would get Italian food in the old town, and wander around and window shop.
In addition to the MAMAC, we also saw the Marc Chagall and Matisse museums while there. However, we didn’t spend too much time arting– more time exploring and sleeping.
We even took a day trip to Monaco (like France’s Las Vegas.) It was beautiful, but sort of artificial and certainly over priced. But hey, check out this cool car we found!
Monaco Day 2014 also included an aquarium visit, because we just couldn’t help ourselves.
Week two was spent with the school, doing all sorts of super fun activities and day trips: we visited the town of Arles, known for its incredibly preserved sites from the antiquity as well as base for Van Gogh; we took a beautiful hike in the Calanques before visiting Aix-En-Provence (a super nice city, essentially), we visited the Museum of the History of Marseille as well as the Museum of Mediterranean Cultures (the MUCEM- Built last year! Marseille was put on a list of “cultural capitals” in Europe, as it’s the doorway from North Africa into France, as well a hub for workers and immigrants coming from all over– a real melting pot. thus, they made a museum dedicated to culture, and it’s a fantastic building.), we visited the hospital where Van Gogh spent some time as well as a traditional Provencal market, and finally, we spent a day at our resort just doing activities.
We stayed a gorgeous sea-side hotel, called Vacanciel, located in the scenic little town of Carry-le-Rouet, next to Marseille. It was literally right on the Mediterranean- we could fall asleep listening to waves and everything. I shared a room with two of my best friends, Ruth and Sophie, and a good time was had by all. Their food was excellent, and the resort offered a whole plethora of activities–swimming in the ocean or the pool, tennis, rock climbing, a ropes course (!!!!!!!), archery, kayaking, hiking, and volleyball. There was dancing every night in an amphitheater, too. So, we stayed active (sort of?)!
I think what I appreciated the most about this particular school trip was the fact that it wasn’t too packed–when I list all the stuff we did, it sounds like we were crazy active for 5 days, but in reality it was quite laid back. We always came back early in the evening so we could have time to relax at the hotel; we didn’t have to get up too screamingly early, and all of our visits were libre–we didn’t have to stay as a group, and we could wander as we pleased as long as we were back at the buses on time. Also, the fact that we took our independent travel before seeing the school was nice because we could come back together as a whole again and feel more united as a grade coming back to Rennes. Everyone was starting to get sentimental: with only 2 weeks left, how could we not?
(most of these photos, with the exception of the top two, were taken my beautiful and fabulous friend from North Carolina, Ilona. She’s a fantastic photographer and I’m infinitely grateful to her for capturing some of these moments!)
Well, we came back to Rennes just in time to meet the French AP (je ne l’aimais pas trop). Then, after a rather light 3 days, we took a weekend trip to Normandy. The weather was beautiful, and it proved to be a much more reflective trip than the south of France. Yes, it was our last trip with the school, but the nature of the visit was very somber– we walked along beaches where 70 years ago (exactly 70 years, actually), thousands of soldiers died in some of the bloodiest battles in recent history. We visited the Pointe du Hoc, where rangers had to scale a sheer cliff face to destroy German artillery guns–the whole place is covered in giant holes, that, after a few seconds, you realize were made by bombs. The squadron went in with 225 rangers, and after 3 days, came out with 90.
We visited the Memorial de Caen, the Pointe du Hoc, Courseulles-Sur-Mer (one of the beaches where the invasion took place), the Tapisserie de Bayeux and the Cathedral of Bayeux, and finally, the American and German cemeteries, which were without a doubt the most moving part of our visit. The American cemetery is built above Omaha Beach, where some of the worst fighting took place; there are approximately 9100 soldiers there. The German cemetery was half the size of the American cemetery, but with twice as many people–more like 21500 soldiers. It was also much simpler, more discrete, and more somber; the dates of birth were also on the head stones, so you could see the age of the soldiers.
I’ll stop describing and let you compare the two for yourself from the pictures. The white crosses are the American cemetery, the black ones are the German cemetery.
Pointe du Hoc
Cathedral de Bayeux
(last three photos taken by Ilona S.)
American Cemetery at Colleville (Omaha Beach)
(last two photos taken by Ilona S.)
Surprise! We’ve jumped forward one week and I’m currently home in Washington D.C. The above post is what I managed to salvage from when my computer deleted the draft I had intended to publish. I know it’s sort of lame, but it’s all I’ve got…
Before I launch into an emotional reflection on my year, I feel I should finally post the long awaited photos I took at the market on my last Saturday in Rennes.
This market was probably my favorite aspect about Rennes as a city. Open from 7 AM to 1 PM every Saturday rain or shine, it is interwoven into the daily life of most of its inhabitants; instead of safeway, people come here to buy local and to buy fresh. My favorite thing to buy there was always the olives.
After going to the market for the last time, I picknicked in town with Abby and Ruth before heading home to start packing (booooooooo). APs and classes being over, there were only a few things left to do- pack, attend a barbecue, and say goodbye. On Sunday, my host family took me for one last day out in Morbihan, where we spent the morning and afternoon playing water sports together– catamaran sailing, water skiing (not my strong point…), kayaking, tubing, and paddle boarding were enjoyed by the four of us.
Monday, we had our final assembly. The chorus sang, and emotional poems were recited. Around 65% of the student body and teachers were crying. We then received our diplomas at our final lunch at a local high school.
That evening, there was a barbecue for all the host families and students at school. All the students were assigned tasks-set up, cooking, clean up, greeting, etc. It poured all day, but in true Bretagne style, the sun came out just before the barbecue was to begin– Quelle chance.
Then came Tuesday–our final day. I spent it frantically packing, shoving papers in French into folders, and making a clothesline filled with photos for my host family. I took a final run along the river that’s just next to my house–the water was completely placid, like a mirror, and little dust particles were suspended in the hazy evening light.
At our final dinner together, my host family toasted me. When we arrived at dessert they made me close my eyes; they had bought a beautiful heart shaped chocolate cake. They also gave me a few little presents- a shirt, some Breton magnets and cookies, and a lovely card. I spent some time staring at the light fixture above the dining room table in the least conspicuous way possible, and then went to get their presents. I had framed a small photo of Manon and myself, and I’d printed out a bunch of photos of us together during the year and hung them up on a cord with little laundry clips. My family had also ordered them wind chimes for their garden, as they adore gardening, and that way every time they heard the chimes they could think of me.
The buses to Paris left from school at 1 AM, so my host family took me down around midnight so we could have time to say goodbye. We drove through Rennes for the last time, over the river, passing by République (the metro/bus center of town) one last time. Its lights twinkled as late night wanderers boarded the final buses of the night to head home.
Once I arrived at school, what was probably one of the most emotionally traumatizing experiences I had ever witnessed unfolded during a simple hour long period. 350 French men, women, and children, all crying together with a bunch of baggage-laden American teenagers, could be spotted huddling together by two giant buses by the side of the road. I think we thoroughly bewildered the neighbors. My host family and I bisous’d about 50 times, but neither of us could budge, until at last I had to stop torturing us both so I told them to go get some shut eye, and then I turned and got on the bus. It was pretty horrible.
The first half hour of the bus ride was spent in darkness and silence, before, tears all spent, in our true style, we cheered ourselves up. In our final hours together, we sang Ingrid Michaelson songs and told stories and laughed and made jokes and carried on like we weren’t all going to have to suffer a second wave of terrible au revoirs.
Getting to Charles de Gaulle airport caused major déjà vu for everyone—from our sleep deprived arrival to the terminal in the rain back in September to this disheveled appearance at 6 AM in late May.
“Hey, this is where Taken began!”
“Is there a plaque?”
A grueling, yet blurred four hours then ensued—we paid the price of the English Royalty’s Jewels in overweight bag fees, we hugged our American teachers goodbye, and then, before heading off to security, we said goodbye to our Resident Director. And with that final goodbye, the program had ended. We were no longer students at School Year Abroad. We were just 65 rag tag teenagers traveling together. I felt like I’d been thrust into a weird limbo, caught in between two homes and two families and two schools, a feeling only increased by the giant line at security and the fog of fatigue that seemed to make my eye lids feel like lead.
I remember feeling very odd at takeoff on the plane. We had spent 264 days (that’s 6336 hours, if you do the math) in France, culminating in that one moment, the moment when we were to return home. As the wheels went up and France fell away behind me, I struggled to grasp the magnitude of it all—that we had started at hour 0, and one by one, hour by hour, day by day, and month by month, we had slowly built up and up and up. I remember when it felt like the days were just swelling, tumbling and crashing one over the other, a rush of new knowledge and sights and sounds and tastes overwhelming all of us until we were practically beaten down…but somehow, bizarrely and miraculously, there was a change, a moment when it felt more like the days were slipping through our fingers like sand and we just couldn’t stop the flow. Once that feeling set it, even before, we had squeezed the days of everything they had to offer. The sounds of the jet engines rumbling and the feeling of the pits of our stomachs dropping away was the feeling of 264 shriveled, absorbed, juiced days being sealed shut. The page turned on a 9 month chapter in our lives.
The flight itself, naturally, was a blur of music, laughter, sleep, and weird airplane food. I had a four hour layover at JFK airport in New York, which I spent dashing around saying goodbyes to everyone, with not enough time to explain how each individual had made my year there and that we WOULD see each other again; there was just enough time for a tight hug goodbye and the firm command to keep in touch. I feel there should have been a movie made out of that afternoon—65 underage travelers, unchaperoned in one of America’s most frequented airports, sprinting around like mad people to try and give final bisoux to new friends. It’s a testament to our newfound maturity that we all made it to our flights on time.
Naturally, saying goodbye to my friends was a reminder that we all still had some tears left after all, but once I had two feet in the United States all I really wanted to do was to get home to my family in Washington. I kept thinking about the feeling of my bed when I would first lie down in it after 9 months, freshly showered, with crisp white sheets and fluffy pillows. I’m actually sitting here now. It’s pretty great. I thought about how my house would smell—it has a different smell than usual in the summer, something faint and musty that I have never been able to put my finger on. And with all the summer insects in DC, I could almost hear my neighborhood humming and buzzing from the plane, welcoming me home. And, to my immense satisfaction, all of those things that I hadn’t experienced in so long had stayed true. My bed is fantastic and my house feels alive, and it’s the warmest welcome possible when your family and even your home greets you after 9 months.
Despite the fact that my suitcases remain unpacked even six days since my arrival, that time used to catch up on missed episodes of House of Cards and Sherlock, I am starting to emerge out of my denial that this experience is over. Although saying goodbye hurt, my year has come full circle. I have had the blessing of seeing 65 teenagers transform together; I’ve even transformed a bit myself.
I think that, ultimately, anybody our age can take a year abroad. Is it not true that in the young lives of most humans, there comes a time to “fly the coop” and gain a bit of independence? For most people I suppose that’s leaving for college, or getting a first job or apartment, but for me I think it was the decision to come here. Of course, I was still sheltered logistically, it’s not like we all had to fend for ourselves on the streets of Rennes, but I think thrusting yourself into such a new situation for such a long period of time brings a lot of ‘emotional independence,’ if you will. I see that there is an average of only about 60 kids at each SYA school; proportional to the amount of juniors and seniors who know about it, there are not a lot of kids who choose to do this program. I know I almost didn’t come because it felt ridiculous to leave my school for a year when I was only 15, because next to no one does that, right? I couldn’t wrap my head around the idea of leaving home for 9 months at that point in my high school career, of choosing now to make my initial flight from the coop, and then the awkward moment when I would return to it for another year before college. I think a lot of kids are put off by that same fear. But every student found here, I think, that there is that bit of instinct in every person that kicks in once they actually get off the plane, the little part that was prepared to fly the coop in a few years time is already present and it does come out. The first couple of weeks are pretty tough, it’s all new faces and places and there’s that small little issue of communication and self expression in a language that is not your own, but that’s where instinct kicks in. That’s where every student forces him or herself to recenter, to find or create a network of support, and above all, to be self supporting. I had a lot of “feelings talks” with friends, I drank a lot of tea and ate a lot of dark chocolate, and I wrote a lot in my journal. Other kids sang or ran or painted; everyone had their own little comfort bubble that they fell back on. But as the weeks progressed, I noticed there was a little less reliance on these comforts. There were less people having break downs in the girls’ bathroom and there were less late night phone calls. As the days went by, old insecurities seemed to be left behind; mine were buried under boxing gloves and plane tickets to Istanbul. We began to laugh at jokes made in increasingly flowery and fluid French, and we explored Europe freely and with ease.
And as we grew as individuals, we grew closer and closer to each other. I came to France leaving behind my family, but somehow upon my return I left behind two—My wonderful French family of 4, and my spirited American family of 64. I start to feel empty after a while, doing these overarching reflections on my year abroad, because there is just too much to say, but to these two families, for the laughter, knowledge, and love, merci mille fois.
Of course, with all this talk of instinct I’ve sort of created an image of myself with a spear in a jungle, fighting for my life, all on my own. Obviously, this is not the case. I came into this year with the strongest support base anyone could have, and that is my family. I can go on and on about emotional independence, but that doesn’t change the feeling of joy upon receiving a much anticipated letter in my mailbox, a funny email after a long day, or much awaited advice on a long skype call. Despite that tiny gap created by the Atlantic Ocean, they helped me every step of the way—and that too deserves a merci mille fois.
And finally, to all of you who took the time to read about my adventures, to look at my grainy pictures and excuse my unbelievably late posts, merci mille fois. If ever you have any questions or comments about SYA or Bretagne or the name of my old boxing club, PLEASE do not hesitate to shoot me an email—as you can see, I enjoy talking about my time abroad….
As for what I’ll do with this blog, I think I’ll just leave it here on the internet. Maybe some day a whimsical highschooler will see it and decide that they want to gallivant around Europe and converse in French, and they’ll hop on a plane, and they’ll see that SYA is more than just an exploration of Rennes and Bretagne and France. It’s an exploration of yourself, an exploration of how to make new friends while living outside of your comfort zone, and an exploration of how to express yourself without all the right words. It has been the adventure of my life time, but given that I am only 16, that doesn’t say much. But if I’ve loved my year in France this much, I guess it means that this will not be the last adventure I’ll take.
Merci pour avoir lu mes lettres, et pour être resté avec moi pendant cette expérience. Même si je suis chez moi maintenant, ce n’est pas ma dernière aventure…donc, à la prochaine !
Gros bisous à tous et à toutes,
“How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.” ~A.A. Milne