Posted by: theblorgblog | March 27, 2012

Lyon and St. Patrick

Another month and another holiday to celebrate in the European style. This time: St. Patrick’s Day.

A ticket to Dublin was too expensive, and I didn’t have the time for a longer trip because of my internship, so instead, I decided to keep St. Patty’s Day in France. A group of four friends and I got up early on the 17th of March, making our way to the train station for a 7am departure. 2 hours and 470km later, we found ourselves in Lyon.

Lyon is either the second or third largest city in France depending on whether you include surrounding areas or simply the municipal district in the population count (Marseilles has a slightly bigger municipality). Situated on the intersection of the Rhône and the Saône rivers, the city was first established by Romans following Caesar’s conquest of Gaul in the 1st century BC. The city thus has a rich history and several ancient monuments including a set of two Roman amphitheaters.

Later, the city was an important economic and cultural center in France, long acting as the second capital behind Paris. Lyon was famous for its silk production and its exports were renowned throughout Europe. It then was an epicenter for discontent as the silk workers led a rebellion in 1848, and it was later also the stage of riots in 1870-1871 that mirrored those which instituted the Commune of Paris following the disastrous Franco-Prussian War.

Presently, Lyon is famous as the culinary capitol of France (surprisingly enough, this title does not belong to Paris). Upon arriving, I quickly understood why. I was first struck by the portion sizes – a salad in Lyon was three times bigger than a salad in Paris. Also, the amazing diversity of foods from the region – tartiflette, quenelle, gratin dauphinois, and plenty more – not to mention that it is also home to  Côte de Rhône red wine, which rivals the Bordeaux region as a wine-producing district.

We ate fantastically all weekend – first a tremendous Salade lyonnaise which was enormous and covered with a mild mustard-sauce, lardons, or tiny salted ham chunks, and a poached egg. This was followed by wonderful ice cream. At another meal, I tried quenelle which I am fairly certain contains some kind of fish. Or something. It was tasty! Due to our limited budgets, we college students also indulged in a wonderful European classic – the Kebab. Kebabs are literally everywhere in Europe, and I cannot thank them enough for that, though the political discussions that accompanied them were less than ideal. There is only so many times I can explain “the difference between Obama and Bush” before I want to smash my head through a cement wall.

We spent the first day touring all of the major monuments and walking though Vieux Lyon which was absolutely beautiful. We saw the two amphitheaters and the adjacent Basilique de fourvière which was constructed following the riots of 1870-1871 on the top of the hill, where the majority of the violence took place – just as the famous Basilique de Sacre Coeur was built on Montmartre in Paris for the same reason. We also nipped about a bunch of winding streets and explored various corners of the old city.

My friend Sundi had done a summer exchange program in Lyon while he was in high school, so he wanted to meet up with his host family, with whom he was still in touch. The rest of us tagged along as we met for a beer at the pub, chilling and watching the France-Wales rugby match on the TV. Sidenote: I am proud to say that I mostly understand rugby at this point! But Sundi’s friends were cool and we also ended up hanging out with them that night, celebrating Saint Patrick’s Day with some new French friends, after having “Pre-celebrated” in our hostel room, into which we had snuck a few bottles of wine…

The next day, we were all a bit groggy, and the rain inspired us to spend the morning at the hostel, simply telling each other stories and doing a good bit of friendly bonding. We later hauled ourselves into town for that Kebab I mentioned before, as well as nice little umbrella-ed walk through the city. We visited the  Musée des Beaux-Arts  which had some ancient coins and cool artifacts, as well as medieval paintings and furniture, which I can never manage to appreciate. It even had one or two of those “paintings” in which someone just painted a line or something – an act which I see as basically a horrible offense to artists everywhere.

After a little more walking, we grabbed our bags, sat down to a quick, but very nice dinner (quenelle and such), then ran back to the station and shipped back up to Paris. It was a pretty great weekend and a very nice way to travel with friends. It provided a stark contrast to many of my recent adventures which I had achieved in solo. Overall, a great St. Patty’s day and a beautiful city. Can’t wait for my next little adventure!

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Posted by: theblorgblog | March 15, 2012

The Life of an Intern with the French Resistance

To clarify, I’m not actually interning with the French Resistance. It’s a historical society that deals with the French Resistance. It would be a bit difficult to intern with the actual resistance movement at my age.

Now in my fourth week at l’Association pour des Etudes sur la Résistance Intérieure (AERI), I have a pretty good sense of what I will be doing for the next four. The short answer is: translating.

An example of Défense de la France - Issue number 1 - dated August 15, 1941

Thus far, I have spent all of my working hours there translating texts. I am working on a project for their online museum, which is dedicated to the study of the French Resistance during WWII. A former Resistant donated his collection of original issues of the celebrated underground newspaper, Defense de la France, to the National Archives. This collection was then borrowed by my organization, AERI, who scanned them and uploaded images of these original documents to their online museum. Each issue of the newspaper is then accompanied by two tabs on the website: a summary of the articles in the text and a historical context of the state of France at the time of the publication.

Here’s where I come in: these tabs are currently only in French on the website, and the organization would really like to achieve having a bilingual site with English so as to become more reputable as a source for research and information. Thus, my job is to translate these tabs from French to English, which is a much more difficult task than it may sound. Apart from the obvious difficulties of my French vocabulary (which is easily remedied by, aka, the source of all knowledge), but more serious issues of complex sentence structures and the historical or cultural impact of a word (i.e. “la Patrie” which is hard to capture in English, though “fatherland” or “motherland” are the closest equivalents). Sometimes language carries a lot of history or baggage, and that can be very difficult to transfer into another language. That’s not to mention the fact that I had no prior experience in translation before this internship.

It is surprising how often I feel this way during an 8-hour day of translation.

Another difficulty that I could have never anticipated is how awkward some of my English sentences end up. It is extremely difficult to balance the justice you have to do to the original author (especially in direct citations) with the duty of writing well. This means that I will sometimes try to retain the French structure of the sentence, for example keeping the same subject of the sentence, which may force the end of the sentence to either drag on too long, or simply feel awkward. Striking the balance between originality and the text’s initially integrity is an art, and I am too much like a kid with Playdoh right now to pretend that my work is any kind of Venus de Milo.

Nevertheless, the underground newspaper itself is very interesting and its history of growth into a national movement of resistance, all while remaining secret and hidden from the occupying Nazi forces is complex and definitely worth learning about. I have really enjoyed learning about it and I would encourage anyone else to do the same but for the fact that the only information sources available are in French. This does give value to the work that I am doing, however my translations have yet to go online and are instead sitting on the organization’s computer just waiting to be dealt with. But regardless, here is a link to the site to peek around: Défense de la France. The two tabs titled “Analyses Médiatiques” and “Contexte Historique” are the sections that I have been translating.

I also went to lunch with a 95-year old former Resistant who talked all about her experiences carrying messages throughout Northern France on a bicycle. She talked about meeting British pilots that were being hidden in safehouses, German officers who wanted nothing to do with the war, and the first American soldiers to arrive. She was very animated and surprisingly spritely for her age. Above all, I was impressed with her powerful gaze and the clear impression that she still had all of her wits about her. Upon realizing that I was American, she gave me a book to borrow about Virginia Hall, an American spy who worked with the British OSS in France during World War II, who became an important figure in the Resistance and an eventual member of the CIA when it was formed at the end of the war.

Life is interesting how it throws us new things to learn all the time. I am going to try to be better with this blog to keep up with it. Though I certainly did go to England and Berlin, those posts will likely wait because I just have too much to do at present. Instead, I am going to focus on having shorter and more succinct posts in the style of my good friend, Martha Shanahan, so as to make them more bearable. I hope to get back to a more “slice of life” approach that will be shorter, sweeter, and probably even more interesting. Cheerio!

Posted by: theblorgblog | March 4, 2012

L’Hiver à Paris

A bunch of things have happened since I last wrote about Paris. Despite my droning on and on about trips to Morocco and England, I have spent far more time in Paris. Here’s a rundown of what that has entailed for me this winter:

  1. Christmas with the Host-Family: After my week-long escapades in Morocco, I returned to Paris, where I would spend Christmas with my host family. It was definitely a bit odd to spend Christmas away from home, but I decided to think of it more as an interesting cultural experience than a time away from family. Christmas was a bit different here than it would have been at home – the emphasis on religion was certainly not standard practice in the Maier residence, but here, even with a secular family like the Schmites, Catholicism is practically just a cultural experience. So Christmas here involved a nativity scene and dressing up for evening mass, but the rest was the same – the big meal (goose I think?), the family, and the 11-year-old too excited to sleep (the 18 and 20-year-olds not much better). In the morning, gifts were arranged around the shoe of each member of the family, and turns were taken as everyone opened their presents. All of the gifts I brought from Morocco were met with great satisfaction, and I even received a few gifts myself! Later on, we went over to my host grandmother’s apartment for a big family brunch, which certainly reminded me of the annual Ferguson parties at the Dwyers’ house. All in all, it was a good substitute, but I will be glad to be home for Christmas next year.
  2. Post-Christmas Movie Fests: Following Christmas, my two host brothers left on respective vacations, my host parents went back to work, and all of my friends had gone home (or were on small trips elsewhere). I thus found myself alone in Paris. Tickets were too expensive to travel. Most tourist sites were practically shut down and many businesses were closed. My response? Movies. Approximately 17 of them. In one week. Unknowingly, I managed to profit as much as possible from the last days of Megaupload before SOPA ruined our intellectual property dreams.
  3. Final Exams: After New Year’s (which was a fun little party over at Nation), it was time to get back to the real world. I had only six days until my final exams at la Sorbonne, and I looked back over a semester to realize that I had no idea what I had learned. It was time for some epic studying. So for the next six days, I did nothing but sleep, eat, and cram. I crammed all day, and I crammed all night. I crammed until I could cram no more, and when Friday arrived, I felt actually prepared for my exams. Normally, if I have studied enough for a test, taking the test is almost a relief – an end to the hard work of studying. However, these exams were to be just as difficult as the preparation: a three-hour essay exam. 100% in French. And I had to take two in one day. Fortunately the topics were broad enough and I had enough to say, but I was nearly delirious by the end of it. After some Maoz falafel and a glass or two of wine, I slept like a baby. Happy and carefree yet again.
  4. Semestriels: New students are here from Tufts! So our numbers have tripled, which gives us a much larger group of people to hang out with. It has also been fun to show people around and be the guy who knows the area.
  5. Second Semester: I am now taking new classes, a literature class, a political science class about France and the European Union, and a history class on Contemporary Societies in the Muslim World. The courses are certainly interesting, and I have had to balance those out with the beginning of a new internship that I have been working at for 15 hours per week.
  6. Superbowl: Actually super lame. Sunday night starting at midnight here and going until 4am. Streaming online sucked and no one wanted to go out. Second only to Thanksgiving as worst day to be outside of the US.
  7. SNOW!!!: It actually snowed here!!! One morning I woke up to find a light dusting covering the street outside and the terrace inside my family’s apartment. It was about half an inch, and it only lasted a day and a half, but it was snow enough for me! I had been really upset at the prospect of having a winter without any snow, but fortunately, I got at least a little this year.
  8. Deep Freeze: It has been extremely cold for the past three weeks. Since I returned from England, Paris has felt like an icebox. Weeks of daily temperatures in the 20s or even lower and night time temperatures in the single digits. For some reason, these temperatures are much harder to handle in Paris. My theory is that it is a combination of poorly heated buildings, frequent winds, and the amount of time I need to spend outside or in metro stations in order to get anywhere. Time outside is maximized. But whatever the reason, it has been cold. A fact only made worse by the balmy 50 degrees in New York and Massachusetts. And this cold has hindered my motivation to go outside and explore. The result: lots of South Park. Seasons and seasons of South Park. Plus, I sometimes look for internships.
  9. Touring Paris: As the cold begins to let up somewhat, I am beginning to get myself out to explore some of the major monuments I didn’t get to first semester. So far, I have gotten to: le Panthéonle Notre Dame de Paris, and la Sainte Chapelle. Le Panthéon is a giant domed structure located in the Latin Quarter. Constructed in the mid-18th Century, it was originally a church. However, in the spirit of the revolutionary Jacobins, it was changed to a national symbol rather than a religious one and now houses the remains of great French politicians, thinkers, and writers. Residents include: Voltaire, Rousseau, Hugo, Zola, Braille, Curie, and many more. Le Notre Dame de Paris is a famous Gothic style church located on l’Île de la Cité and was also the home to Quasimodo in the Hunchback of Notre Dame. It can be climbed and is pretty huge. Most people know about it so a history isn’t particularly interesting. La Sainte Chapelle is a gorgeous church, though small in comparison with the colassal Notre Dame de Paris just across the island. However, la Sainte Chapelle is filled with gorgeous stained glass windows and is trimmed with gold. It is absolutely beautiful, though I don’t actually know anything more about it.

That gets me all up to date on life overseas! With a new semester ushered in, I may have a bit less to say on a daily basis, but I’m sure life will stay interesting. After all, it’s hard to get bored when you live in the “City of Lights.”

Posted by: theblorgblog | February 7, 2012

Morocco the Third: The Long-Awaited Conclusion to the Trilogy

It is now, at the beginning of February, that I wrap up my trip to Morocco. It was a fantastic time full of adventure, and I really enjoy elaborating on the details. Read on here for the conclusion of my super fun adventures:

We last saw our heroes preparing to leave Fez on a guided tour of the Moroccan countryside. We will meet up with them now as they meet Bakkali, their guide for the coming days, and jump into the car at 7:30AM. Our fearless heroes would have no way of preparing for the fantastic views of the coming days: snow-capped peaks, craggy plateaus, and towering desert dunes.

Bakkali - our guide on the crazy three-day adventure we took through the Atlas Mountains, the Sahara Desert, and eventually to Marrakech (Photo Cred: David Smythe)

As our car drove along the ever-climbing roads leading toward the Atlas Mountains, we began to talk with Bakkali, our guide. We soon learned that he was an older Berber man who had been running his own private tour operation for about 15 years. He drove the same route on constant repeat, having just returned to Fez to meet up with us the night before we got started again. He enjoyed his work because he said that the beautiful views never get tiring and he loved to meet new people from all over the world. He had learned to speak little bits of English, Spanish, and even Japanese through his interactions with these tourists. He also spoke Berber, Arabic, and French (though not French fluently) so he was quite multilingual. Given his limited knowledge of English, my friend David and I spoke with him mostly in French. After our long three days together, we came to love his gravelly voice with his gruff look and friendly disposition. He wore a dark blue jacket and white knit cap throughout the duration of the trip and his giant walrus-ish teeth stuck out in his constant smile. He seemed to me like the human inspiration for the character Watto in the first Star Wars movie (the Phantom Menace).

After about an hour and a half of driving, we stopped in the foothills of the Atlas Mountains for what Bakkali said was to be “nice Berber breakfast”. It certainly was nice, though I have no idea what it was really. I got a tea and a bready-pastry thingy covered in honey. It was really sticky and really good. We then hopped back in the car and continued our journey. This first day involved around 12 hours of driving, but the time passed incredibly quickly as we drove through beautiful and diverse landscapes. We passed rounded, sloping green mountains that reminded me of the Adirondacks from home. We drove through flatter plateaus with rocky crags jutting out through the short thin grass and winding, dry mountain passes that reminded me of the American Southwest. We saw snow-capped mountains reaching up above the clouds and a valley filled with fog, making the mountain tops look as though they were floating. We came upon a mountain that overlooked a sprawling plateau of small rolling hills that reminded me of Rohan from the Lord of the Rings (wow this one is loaded with nerd references). The vast diversity of the terrain we saw on that first day was astonishing and beautiful, making the long car-ride completely worthwhile.

The foothills of the Atlas Mountains floating in fog

Sometime in the morning, we came upon a clearing in the woods and saw a cluster of cars by the side of the road. There was a group of about 15 people walking around this small clearing, and Bakkali pulled over right among the other cars. We asked what was going on and Bakkali just smiled his big toothy grin and said “Monkeys.” Wild monkeys were all over the clearing – lounging on rocks, climbing on cars, and some even hanging from trees. We jumped out of the car and starting taking pictures of these wild monkeys. I had never seen monkeys in the wild before – there is something so different about seeing these little primates in a natural habitat. They sometimes really do seem like little, super hairy, and a bit disproportional people. It is somewhat disconcerting. But it is also really cool. One of the monkeys was a little bigger than the others and he prowled around in a way that I was pretty sure he was the king. He was lounging on a rock and I wanted a picture with him, so I tried to sit down on a rock nearby and when I approached, he made a face and swiped at me with his hand. So apparently he didn’t want to be best friends.

This is the King Monkey - look at his regal pose and be wary

Around noontime, the car was having some troubles, so we had to pull over in a small isolated town. We learned later from Bakkali that the car had apparently been veering to the right whenever he used the break. Not particularly a healthy thing to have going on. So while the car was being fixed, we had a look at the town. This functional yet under-developed look to the town and its setting in front of a beautiful mountain range struck me as how I had always imagined Afghanistan to look. It is always enlightening to explore the back roads of a new country because you can find things that you would never expect. For instance, I had no idea about all of the diversity of terrain that existed in Morocco. While in this town, we got some Tajine, which was fantastic. So we sat ate khobz and Tajine, while we fretted about the possibility that the car would never work again and we would be stranded in this small town forever. Then, all of sudden, Bakkali pulled up and we hit the road again.

The rest of the day was spent passing through more varied terrain: we passed the giant peaks, open plains, many dry arid mountains, and eventually came upon an enormous reservoir. We had been driving through some dryer land for over an hour, when suddenly Bakkali told us to look ahead for a good view. As we reached the top of a hill, the view opened up and we could see the giant man-made lake sprawled out before us. It was quite impressive. After passing the reservoir, we soon dropped out of the Atlas Mountains and passed into the beginnings of the Sahara. This trip enlightened me in many ways about the desert. I had previously been unaware that most of the Sahara is not the massive sand dunes but, in fact, just a barren arid wasteland that is predominantly flat and uninteresting. And it was through that that we drove for another couple of hours until it was almost sundown and we made a stop in Errachidia. Bakkali been telling us that if we had time, he wanted to make a stop in Errachidia to see a certain camel: a camel that drank coke. According to Bakkali, the owner of this camel had raised it on coke and it loved it. Tourists came with bottles of coke to feed the camel and watch it drink the bottle. I would have never belived it if I hadn’t been there. When we pulled up, the camel began making the sound that camels make (I realized that I have no idea what a camel sound is called. Somehow that evaded all of those childhood lessons about barks and moos and quacks.)  Bakkali handed it a coke bottle and it took it in its mouth tilted back its head and drained the bottle, shaking its head back and forth the whole time. It was a hilarious and bizarre sight to behold. I feel like Coca Cola corporation is going to want to buy that camel for marketing or something. They’re losing out on some serious revenue possibilities right about now.

The Coke-drinking Camel of Errachidia - the camel went literally crazy when it saw the bottle yelling and growling

After watching the sun drop below the horizon in Errachidia, we continued on, eventually getting to a point of total darkness. We drove until approximately 9pm, when we pulled off of the long abandoned highway through the desert onto a dirt road. This road led toward a very small cluster of lights in the distance that Bakkali told us was our hotel. Suddenly though, Bakkali pulled over and asked me: “Vous voulez une bière?” I was baffled. A beer? He is asking if I want a beer? First thought: this is Morocco, I didn’t expect to come across any alcohol. Second thought: we’re in a car. Bakkali must have sensed that second one because he said, don’t worry, no one is around and we’re almost there. Then he went into the back and pulled out four beers, one for each of us (including himself) and continued driving along the road. Fortunately, we were only going about 25 mph, and we found that the hotel was closer than it had appeared.

Shortly after arriving at the hotel, we dropped off our things and prepared for the next part of our journey: a camel ride into the Sahara. In the darkness, it was hard to tell what lay behind the hotel, but we were told that it was the great dunes of Merzouga. After taking everything we expected to need for the night, we walked out to find our guide, Mohammed, standing with three camels and prepared to depart. As we were led off into the darkness, I looked up and caught my breath. The sky was more full of stars than I have ever seen. It was a blanket of beautiful lights that left our vision with only faint outlines of our guide and the camel in front of us. As the camel plodded on into the bitter cold night, I rocked with the rhythmic sway of my mounts shoulders and gazed up into the heavens. There was a great sense of timelessness about this ride and a good portion was passed in relative silence, with only the soft plodding of the camels’ feet through the sand showing any sign of our presence.

After around an hour of trekking through seeming endless darkness and barely distinguishable dunes, we arrived at a small campsite with a small fire. At this site, we dismounted our camels and clambered into the tent for warmth, where Mohammed brought us some tea and he and his brother began preparations for our dinner. After huddling under some blankets for a while and scarfing down the tajine they brought us for dinner, we were called out to the firepit where the five of us sat, warming our hands. What followed was an evening of laughter and camraderie as Mohammed and his brother played us some traditional Berber music and then proceeded to tell us jokes and talk with us in a strange hybrid language of Berber, Arabic, Spanish, French, and English. There was no one present who understood everything being said, but everyone understood a good bit. Mohammed had a laugh that could only be described as a silly whooping laugh, and it was brought about frequently as he entertained himself with simple jokes. Mohammed also had this one little habit of replacing any word he didn’t know or couldn’t remember with “l’Afrique” (the French word for Africa). For example, during a joke, he would tell a story about an elephant that was inside of the refrigerator and when he couldn’t think of the word for the handle, he said “you know, l’Afrique” and continued. Naturally, my friends and I found this hilarious and burst out laughing everytime it happened.

Our guide, Mohammed, warming his hands by the fire - really he was just playing with the fire - "L'Afrique!!"

After a few hours of good laughs, my friends and I decided it was time for bed around 1:30. We were to wake up with the sunrise in only 4.5 hours and we had had a long day. We bundled up under heaps of thick Berber blankets and fell asleep. We were awoken by my alarm and ran out to see the view as light was already pouring into the tent. As I stepped out into the cool morning air, I was astonished to find myself standing in the middle of a valley between towering dunes of the red sand of the Sahara. The sky was an beautiful blue and the sun was just beginning to peek up over the smaller dunes in the distance. I scrambled up the side of the monstrous dune that was situated behind our tent and got halfway up when I plopped down too exhausted to move any higher. Climbing a sand dune is actually incredibly difficult, as you have to zigzag and every step your feet slide back downward a little bit, so progress is slow-going. From my new vantage point, I could watch the sunrise at an even better angle and see as the sun reached down into the valley below. I sat watching the breathtaking sunrise and filled a Coca Cola bottle I had brought with the sand of that dune. I then stuffed the top of the bottle with a piece of canvas from the tent so as to prevent the sand from leaking out.

The Sun just peeking up over a distant dune on the Sahara at Merzouga

After the sun had achieved its place firmly above the dunes and it was clearing morning time, we packed up our things and climbed back onto the camels to make our way toward the hotel. The terrain was all lit up this time and we watching the sloping reddish dunes pass by all around us as we rode our camels back to Merzouga. After an hour, we arrived at the hotel where we took warm showers and at a nice breakfast overlooking the dunes before packing up and hitting the road again.

The silhouette of our little caravan crossing back to Merzouga just after dawn

Our second day of travel was much less exciting than the first, as a good majority of our time was spent traversing the flat wasteland that is the majority of the Sahara. Our route took us back to the fringes of the Atlas Mountains and past a few interesting landmarks. The first of these was the Valley of Ziz, a 350km valley full of fig trees. After passing by kilometers of empty sand, a valley opens up and it is a veritable oasis of fig trees. The second site was the Todra Gorge, a beautiful gorge through the mountainside that contains a small river that runs into the adjacent town of Tinerhir. Besides these two stops, much of the day was spent driving through flatlands. After watching the sunset somewhere along the roadside, our merry band of travellers reached our destination, Ouarzazate at around 8pm. We were so tired out that after our fantastic dinner and the bottle of Moroccan wine that Bakkali shared with us, we called it a night, resting up for the following day.

Todra Gorge - a massive gorge tunneling into the side of the Atlas Mountains

Day three started in Ourzazate, where we visited the Kasbah which was situated in the city center. After walking through a few of the shops and considering offers to sell my friend Sabrina for 1000 camels, we clambered back into Bakkali’s old Mercedes and sped off toward our next destination. On the road, we pulled over to see a couple of the Hollywood studios that gave Ouarzazate its fame and brought in its income. We also stopped by the Kasbah Ait Benhaddou along the road. Ait Benhaddou is a famous film site for movies such as Gladiator and Babel and is situated on a secluded oasis in the foothills of the Atlas Mountains. We climbed to the top of the Kasbah and took pictures of the amazing view across the oasis and of the desert in the distance. After Ait Benhaddou, we crossed through the Atlas Mountains through a winding pass full of switchbacks and crazy sharp turns along tiny winding roads. We stopped for lunch at this little shop that seemed to be hanging on the side of the mountain. The whole drive was pretty crazy.

Ait Benhaddou - an ancient Kasbah situated in an oasis - film site for Gladiator and other films

When we finally arrived in Marrakech at the end of our trip, it was Wednesday afternoon. We dropped our bags off at the hostel and after a short rest, we decided to go explore the city. Marrakech is extremely different from Fez. While Fez had a very traditional feel that seemed to remain strongly aligned with the Moroccan cultural heritage, Marrakech was a much more modern and cosmopolitan city. The influence of the Developed World and foreign investment was evident in the number of international franchises present and comparative absence of traditional garb. We also witnessed many local young couples together in parks or showing public signs of affection, which did not exist in Fez. The streets seemed to be, in general, better maintained and Marrakech presented as a much more functional and business-oriented city than its more culturally- and artisanally-focused counterpart.

Our hostel in Marrakech was part of the same company as that of Fez, but there were a couple of little things that made Marrakech slightly inferior. First, when we got there, we were told that we could not have a key to our room. I initially interpreted this as only one person had a key to the six-person room, and so we couldn’t have it because it was taken. When I realized this was not the case, my second thought was that, for some reason, this hostel just didn’t lock the doors to the rooms, which while being slightly worrisome, is fine if everyone is on equal ground. The following day I realized the truth, which is that it was only our door that didn’t have a key and all of the other doors locked. The reason why it took us so long to understand this was because the guy who ran the hostel was one of the weirdest people that I have ever met anywhere: Aziz. This crazy little man would tell us stories that he found terribly hilarious, and at the end he would burst out laughing while the rest of us (including some Moroccan guys staying in the hostel) had no idea what was going on. Apparently, even when he spoke in Arabic to the Morrocans or the Tunisian guy, he wouldn’t make any sense. He told us a story about Ghaddafi that left him in fits. The most I got was that there was a meeting and something about a hat. But it leaves little to wonder that this hostel would have a door that simply didn’t work with a man like Aziz at its helm.

Al Koutoubia - the beautiful mosque in Marrakech situated across from the entrance to the souks and Jamaa El Fna Square

Nevertheless, our time in Marrakech was great, though our adventures in Marrakech involved much more wandering aimlessly and no guide, which was a somewhat new experience for our trip. We explored the various sites of the city, passing through the more built-up New City on our first night. We also explored near Al Koutoubia, which is a giant mosque built in the 12th century and is surrounded by a beautiful garden situated just in front of the souks in the Medina. After wandering through the garden, we explored the souks of the Ancient Medina, starting with Jamaa El Fna Square – a large open space filled with various tradesman in moveable carts selling fruit or lemonade and small clusters of women doing Henna or trying to sell small wooden toy snakes to tourists. It was certainly a cool place, but in comparison to Fez, the openness of the square made it more spread out and thus a little less authentic feeling. As we worked our way into the real souks behind, we found the same sorts of shops as we had seen throughout Morocco – tradesmen selling scarves, woodworkings, tea sets, incense, meat, and even a man selling nougat from his cart. I saw beautiful hand-made chess sets and scarves of silk. We explored the souks for a few hours, coming across various landmarks such as the Royal Palace, the Bahia Palace (glorified ruins), and a beautiful secluded courtyard where we sat and enjoyed the nice weather as Marrakech was the first place that was not cold on our entire trip.

Jamaa El Fna Square - the entrance to the Souks - packed with carts and street vendors

Our time in Marrakech was spent doing a lot of wondering through the streets and a decent amount of sitting and just enjoying the surroundings. I think that after three days of driving, we were all just happy to stay in one place for a couple of days. So we took advantage of the Cyber Park and other open spaces for relaxing, chatting, and even having a picnic on our last day there. For our picnic, we had to go classic – the same khobz, La Vache Qui Rit cheese and a fizzy apple drink that was quite nice. This time we added Pringles though. How multicultural.

By Friday afternoon, we were all packed up and ready to leave Morocco. For me, it was a bittersweet departure – I loved Morocco and found its culture so beautiful and unique – but there is only so long that you can travel without wanting to be stationary. I would love to come back to Morocco and live there for a little while, just like I am in France, be it a few months or a few years, but for me, living there would mean getting to know it better than I can being a tourist. It means learning the language, taking the time to explore non-touristy things, and come to call it home, even if it is just for a little while.

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Posted by: theblorgblog | January 30, 2012

A Marockin’ Time Part 2: A More Fez-ent Experience

Egads! I know it has been a long time, but so much has happened! One month later, I am finally finishing up my blog about the week I spent in Morocco. Since my last post only covered the first three days of the trip, I have about five to cover in this second post. Probably won’t fit it all in, and I apologize for the level of detail, but it is also for Future Matthias’ benefit, and he is one audience I will not disappoint. Also, I hope that the terrible puns in my title are appreciated or at least tolerated. Now for the post; better pick up where I left off:

It is the morning of December 17th. I am sitting in the train station in Tangier, Morocco with my friends, David and Sabrina, and we are waiting (impatiently) for our train to Fez. Though we were happy to finally escape the madness that was the Tangier Affair, we could not help but be anxious as we waited the three hours for our  train to arrive. When it finally did, we loaded on as quickly as possible. The train pulled away and we all breathed sighs of relief, as we finally had put it all behind us. The train took four hours to get to Fez, which was a healthy pause that allowed us to chat, read, (in Sabrina’s case, nap), and take in the beautiful countryside that we were passing. We saw the Atlantic Coast, fertile, hilly farmland, and low craggy outcroppings as we sped along through the Kingdom of Mohammed VI.

The New City of Fez which we explored our first night after arriving

Our arrival in Fez was certainly not as hectic as that of Tangier. When we disembarked the train, we headed straight for the little shop in the station to pick up a map. As we were buying the map, a man came up to us, offering to give us a tour or show us around. By now, we were not about to accept anyone’s help, so we politely said no thank you and attempted to avoid him, however he insisted that he was to be trusted, showing his ID card as proof that he worked for Tourist Information. We still resisted, as we were not about to be duped again, but he was much nicer than Abdul, and offered to just point us in the right direction on our map. He pointed us down the street and gave us his phone number in case we were interested in his tour, but he did not refuse us. Also, his proposed tour of the medina (or the old city) was to be 200 Dirham for a four-hour tour, as opposed to the 800 Dirham we paid previously to be scammed for about 3 hours. Nevertheless, we weren’t about to jump into anything and instead headed off down the road toward our hostel (which I had pre-booked).

The street celebration that ensued following Fez's winning of the Royal Cup against their local rivals - the team from Meknès

After a bit of wandering and some mild lost-ness, we finally found our Hostel, which was nestled back in the New City – a tip for all travellers to Morocco: always stay in the New City – and was about a 15 minute walk from the train station. When we checked into the hostel, the functional doors, clean sheets, attractive wall tiling, and working bathrooms were extremely reassuring. The staff was extremely helpful, recommending us to take a guide on our visit to the medina the following day, and providing us with one who was very cheap and reliable – 150 Dirham ($18) for four hours, and divided three ways. By the time we got in, it was already evening, so we were recommended not to venture out into the Medina, as it was too far and questionably safe after dark. So instead, we wandered through the New City, hitting up an internet café and a cheap restaurant, where we got full meals for 60 Dirham a piece and glass coke bottles in arabic (one of which I insisted upon keeping). After dinner, we explored the main avenues of the New City and happened into a huge street party. The street was filled with cars in a sort of impromptu parade – blasting music, shouting, waving flags, and honking their horns. These cars were flanked by mobs of people doing all of the same things. We soon found out the reason for the celebration – the Fez soccer team had just defeated its local rivals, the Meknès team in the Moroccan Royal Cup! So we watched the festivities for a good twenty minutes, then headed off in search of new sights and sounds. We found a majority of the rest of the New City somewhat vacant, which was not altogether that surprising given the number of people we had just left on the main street. After a bit more meandering : seeing Arab McDonald’s and cafés filled with exclusively men, the three of us decided to call it a night. The hostel had a curfew of 10pm, considering it inadvisable to be out later than that for security reasons anyway, but my friends and I were all rather tanked at this point anyway after a long day of travel and sleep to make up for from Tangier.

Azdim - our guide through the Fez Medina wearing his Djellaba - traditional Moroccan garb

Day 4: We awoke to our warm, comfortable hostel and we wonderfully refreshed – ready to start a full day of exploring Fez! We met our guide Azdim in the hostel and prepared to set out for our tour of the Medina. One short cab ride later, we arrived just outside the Medina, which already felt worlds away from the New City. Once Azdim led us in, we found ourselves in a maze of winding streets, some so small that I had to turn my shoulders in order to pass through. Within this maze were multiple souks, where tightly packed markets formed a seemingly never-ending line of shops. The shops wold everything from scarves and djellabas to nougat and fish heads – one even had a camel’s head on display outside. In the souks, the streets were bustling with the activities of an average morning. Djellaba-ed men led donkeys bearing goods or leading carts into the marketplace. Burqa-ed women darted from shop to shop, chatting and haggling in Arabic, Berber, and French. Children ran and shouted with their friends as they maneuvered the busy streets. The Medina offered a cornucopia of sights and sounds and even smells, as the busy streets filled your nose with the smell of whatever I passed – be it the fresh khobz of the bakery or the fetid stench of animal excrement. The light rain found its way through the awnings and tarps that covered the more trafficked areas of the souks, forming small pools in the crooked, cobblestoned streets. The shouts of vendors attempting to lure passersby into their shops had to compete with the cacophony of wheeled carts bouncing along the uneven ground and of hundreds of footsteps splashing through the freshly formed puddles.

The Fez Medina - I snapped this picture at one of the less-busy moments, but the streets are generally packed with people going in all directions busily doing their errands in the Souks or traditional marketplaces

Through this beautiful maze we were led to some of the main sites – the tannery, the herbal store, the bronze workers, and the weavers. Of the four, the tannery was the most striking. A small unmarked doorway took us into a four story building that was stuffed with leatherworks from purses and bags to coats and seat cushions. From the third story window we could look down on the vats where the leather is soaked and treated with milk of lime. The workers there had passed their careers from generation to generation and they worked diligently through the light rain. Inside the shop, I was enveloped in the thick smell of countless leather bags and the number of hand-made articles was simply astounding to behold. After a bit of exploring, we went up to the roof to take some pictures of the Medina from above and get a feel for the city’s layout. We then re-entered the tannery, where I bought myself a camel-leather footstool and a purse for my sister. My friend Sabrina bought herself a nice leather jacket that she managed to get tailored for free by the nice shop owner.

Fez Tannery - largely the same since the 11th Century, this is where the leather is soaked and dyed before it is crafted into final goods

After the tannery, we popped over to the herbal store, where the owner showed us a variety of spices, soaps, perfumes, and local Moroccan specialties such as Argan oil. One of his many herbs was the “Moroccan Viagara” which would, as he said “fix your broken banana so you can go jiggy-jiggy.” After having taken a whiff of everything from saffron to garlic, I picked up a couple of small spices as gifts and we headed out to the bronze shop. This last artisanal store was a large room in which the walls were lined with shelves of bowls and candelabras while many large tables were covered with glass cases of jewelry and other small metalworks. In the corner, a craftsman worked dilligently as he etched elaborate designs onto a freshly casted bronze ashtray. After the bronze shop, we made our way toward the weavers. On the way there, it was impossible not to think about our previous experience with tapestries and Berber carpets in Tangier, but our fears were soon allayed. The shop owners were just as friendly as those we had seen all over Fez. I was also so impressed with their goods that I bought two beautiful blankets (one for myself, and one for my sister) for a total price of 500 Dihram ($55ish).  After this, I resolved that my shopping was to be over for the rest of the trip, as I had gotten Christmas gifts for both my real and host families. Azdim then led us back out of the Medina for the end of the tour. After a long morning exploring the beautiful intricacies of this living relic of Moroccan tradition, we had to head back to the New City. We knew now that exploring the Medina without Azdim’s help would have been impossible and as such, reentry was not a good idea. So we paid Azdim, bid him goodbye, and headed back to our hostel.

A view of the city of Fez from the Tannery - the labyrinth of the Medina continues as far as the eye can see

After a short rest, the three of us struck back out into the New City, exploring the streets in daylight and spending some time in a café where we bought some quick lunch. We enjoyed the rest of our day walking the streets of the city and eventually deciding to do a picnic dinner to save money. We bought khobz, la Vache Qui Rit cheese, olives, and figs for only 60 Dihram ($7) total. Feast of champions.

As we returned to the hostel to enjoy our feast, one of the hostel staff told us about a potential trip we could take from Fez to Marrakech, which was to be our next destination. The trip was to start in the morning and would take three days and take us over the Atlas Mountains into the Sahara and to the desert oasis town of Ouarzazate. We were given the day to deliberate, and deliberate we did, as the unfortunate expenses of Tangier weighed heavily on our minds. After much thought and great feasting, including a stop-over at the internet cafe, the three of us signed up for what we knew would be the trip of a lifetime. The three of us were to spend three days in a car, driven by our own personal guide for more than 1000 km through the Moroccan wilderness. With so much adventure in store, there was naught to do but sleep early.

Posted by: theblorgblog | January 4, 2012

A Ma’rockin’ Time – Part One: The Tangier Affair

As vacation lethargy and upcoming examinations have sapped all energy and motivation, it has taken me a while to get any blogs up about Morocco. Instead, in the style of a true procrastinator, it is now, three days before two massive final exams that I take the time to write these posts.

I just recently returned from the trip of a lifetime. It was actually the first time I had traveled out of the country for a week or more without classes or volunteering or any kind of program. Despite the fact that I seem to just be listing off qualifying clauses, it really did have a distinct feel for me. Before this year, all of my travelling was domestic, or school related. And though this during the blanket experience of my study abroad program, it was otherwise completely independent. I have never before had the opportunity to take the time to explore a country for an entire week. And I can think of no better place to start than Morocco.

I had been dreaming of this trip since the summer-time, even before I arrived in Paris. I roped in two friends to come with me on what I expected to be a whirlwind tour of the great Kingdom of Morocco: David, a Tufts student studying in Paris, and Sabrina, a Tufts student studying in Oxford. The three of us went not knowing what to expect, but it was so much better than any of us could have anticipated.

Some of the Christmas lights displays on the main street of Malaga - the last bit of Christmas spirit until I returned to Paris

We started by flying into Malaga, a small coastal city in Southern Spain. Why Malaga? Well there are three great reasons:

  1. Ryanair. Cheap. Easy enough.
  2. I had never been to Spain, so… check.
  3. I really wanted to cross to Africa from Europe in a way more memorable than an airplane. Also, the ferry across Gibraltar was just far too appealing.

We arrived in Malaga late on the evening of December 15th. After traversing the city by metro and getting a little lost on our way to the hostel, I remembered that I had my GPS. That combined with the address (which I somehow had the foresight to print out) led us to our hostel safe and sound. Once there, we dropped off our things and went downstairs to ask where we could find a place to eat. We were soon directed toward the main street, which we found wonderfully decorated with Christmas lights. It was our last little reminder of the holiday season before we plunged into Morocco. We found the restaurant that was recommended to us, called Méson lo Gueno where we had fried calamari, tapas, and spanish beer (also our last beer for a good while). Then we explored the town a bit, found the Spanish Cheers bar, took some pictures of a pretty cathedral and called it a night.

Just walking down the street and we see the Spanish "Cash Cab." Didn't know that was a thing? Me neither.

The next morning, we got up early with the idea of catching the bus; wanted to take a bus from Malaga to Tarifa, so that we could take the shortest ferry from Tarifa to Tangier. At breakfast (free from the hostel), we met two young guys, one from Denmark and one from Sweden. The two were very The only problem was that we didn’t know what time the bus was to leave. Therefore, we arrived about two hours too early, and decided to just bum around the neighborhood near the bus station for a couple of hours. That really just meant ordering churros and chocolate, which were ridiculously cheap and so delicious! After our amazing after-breakfast-snack, we caught our bus and headed out to the next leg of our journey.

Tarifa is deceptively far from Malaga. I had anticipated a 1-hour bus ride. We soon realized that it was to be 2 1/2 hours. And by soon, I mean that we realized this when we arrived in Tarifa and saw that it had been 2 1/2 hours. But this was not a terrible punishment, as the drive took us along the Spanish Mediterranean coast, which is quite nice to look at. Also, it afforded us all some nice bonding time as we talked about our families, our friends, and the prevalence of teen pregnancy in our high schools (why do I always win that one?!?) I sat with my eyes gazing out the window at the blue water and olive-tree-covered hilly landscapes until I caught my first glimpse of Africa around a bend. We had entered the Strait of Gibraltar, and that landmass that I saw across the water, was my destination. It hit me then – the magnitude of crossing into an entirely new continent. Morocco, we were on our way.

My first sight of Africa - coming up over a hill to glimpse the Moroccan coast - and my eventual destination

We arrived in Tarifa shortly after, having passed the Rock of Gibraltar (which is enormous by the way) and some small cities including Algeciras. When we pulled into Tarifa, it was around 4:30pm, and the town seemed dead. We were literally dropped off in front of a gas station and then had to find our way to the port to take the ferry. So we struck out toward the water, generally a good place to find boats, and made it there in plenty of time. We purchased our tickets for the ferry and jumped on board, waving goodbye to Tarifa and Spain as we did so. The ferry ride was a mere 35 minutes, but even that was enough to upset Sabrina’s stomach. I didn’t feel so hot either, but I couldn’t pass up the prospect of our final beer before entering a land of Islamic sobriety. During the course of the trip, we heard multiple announcements telling us to go to the room on the left of the boat, but we didn’t understand, so we just ignored it. When we tried to exit the boat after it pulled up to Tangier, we discovered that the announcement was telling us to go to the small customs office on board the vessel. The little Spanish man was not very happy with us when we had to come back up and get him to stamp our passports separately. But no matter, though we were almost the last people off the boat, we were still allowed off and finally stepped foot onto African soil (read: pavement).

Strait of Gibraltar from the ferry - Spain on the left, Morocco on the right

Oh Tangier, how I wish I could give you a positive review. I promise that I am not someone who is easily made uncomfortable, nor did I have a single doubt about the smoothness of this trip going in. I arrived at the port in Tangier ready to be amazed. And I sure was, though not how I might have hoped.

The problem with recounting this little adventure, is that it is impossible not to drown it in the wisdom of hindsight. Also, my unavoidable sarcasm will not help to hide what may seem like super obvious warning signs. Believe me, the three of us being rather intelligent individuals, we had many red flags were flying that we really knew better. But, let me tell you, it’s different when you’re there and the situation is real in front of your face.

Now without further ado: the story, that I have probably hyped up so much, it will be a huge letdown. Oh well. So, when I planned this trip, I booked a hostel for Malaga, I booked one for Fes, and I booked one for Marrakech. There was just one leg of the journey that I didn’t book: Tangier. The reason is that, online the hostels and hotels were all very expensive, and I did not feel like throwing a whole bunch of money at a place that we would only be at for one night. I thought we could just find one when we arrived. What had NOT occurred to me was that three students with giant backpacks arriving off the ferry at dusk with no specific hotel in mind would mark us as prime for a good scamming. Which we promptly received from our old friend Abdul.

Abdul was a rather Igor-like man, complete with hunchback, funky swollen face and eyes that were bugging out like that Ripley’s guy. He was one of approximately 30 guys who were waiting outside of the port to lead wary tourists into their nets of despair. We warded off the first few waves of these pests, but Abdul finally succeeded in wearing us down. He spoke English, French, Spanish, Arabic, and Berber, and seemed to speak somewhat well, and he presented a story that seemed honest at the time, but I now see as just another cruel trick. He told us that the funkiness that was happening on his face was the result of a recent accident, and that he was headed up the street to his home, but he wanted to show us a nice hotel nearby on the way. As we had nowhere to go, and he seemed nice, we followed him. Bad move.

This is the door in the hotel in Tangier - now tell me, have you ever seen a worse paint job? Not a good sign for the rest of the building either...

When we got to the hotel, the man at the desk recognized our pal Abdul, the friendly neighborhood Berber-man, and led us up to see a room. We realized then that we had no idea what to expect from Morocco. No basis of comparison and thus no idea how terrible the room really was. It was dingy, the sheets were questionable, and the door and walls suffered from the stupidest paint-job I have ever seen – they were covered in splotches of gray paint to give some sort of appearance of wallpaper, but the door was ridiculously hideous. That’s not to mention the bathrooms, which were so horrible that they made me uncomfortable just to stand in them. Granted, by this time, my friends and I were flustered into bewilderment, and we had no other plans. So, kicking myself for a lack of foresight, we booked the room, after I neurotically checked the one thing that worried me most – the lock on the door (which seemed adequate).

We then dropped off our bags and went down to pay for the room. 23 Euros for the night for a triple room. Cheap by European standards, but we later discovered it was expensive for Moroccan standards. Then Abdul told us that it was dangerous to go out at night and it would be easy to get lost in the old winding streets of the city. Though we tried to dissuade him from guiding us any further, he reiterated the safety concerns until we were too afraid not to let him lead us. We were then taken to a little restaurant, where we were served good food – traditional Moroccan soup, almond-sugary chicken pie, couscous, and baklava – but at a price of 15 Euros a piece. Once again, a bit of a rip-off for Moroccan prices. But this was not the end of the world.

The view of Tangier "like a plate... of couscous!"

Abdul wound his hunched little body through a couple more streets to lead us to his friend’s rug shop. The Berber man who ran the shop seemed very friendly, though we were now almost paralyzed with the number of red flags in our minds. But we were so far down the rabbit-hole, that we discovered our choices had been made for us a long time ago. Berber-rug-man first took us to the top of his shop where we could see the skyline of Tangier out before us, as Berber-man said, “like a plate… of couscous!” He then took us down to the second floor where he gave us tea and put on a little rug demonstration. I was keenly aware of the goons who stood in the doorway without saying a word, which gave a really ominous feel to the whole situation. Through a strange combination of intimidation and guilt, he forced us to indicate which little rugs we liked best, and pushed us to buy them. We tried to resist, but there was a certain air of alarm that we all felt, eventually forcing us to cave. The rugs were horrendously overpriced, which I can attest to based on later purchases that I made in Fez and Marrakech. He also asked us for a tip for his kindness. We had no idea what the standard practice was, so he also coaxed a little bit more out of us there. We left the rug shop tired and feeling so used. But the worst was yet to come.

Little Abdul brought us back to the hotel, where he asked us if we would thank him for showing us around. We argued that we had told him upfront that we didn’t want to pay for a guide, and he had promised us that he wouldn’t charge us. He asked for 800 Dirham (around $100) for what amounted to around three hours time, most of which he was not present for, as he dropped us at each of his friend’s stations. (To put this in perspective, a legitimate guide we hired in fez cost under $20 for four hours of guiding us through the complex labyrinth of the medina). We refused to pay that much, saying we would give him around 200 Dirham (20 Euros), but he refused any sum less than his stated amount. So much for the Berber bargaining. That was when we noticed the guy across the street who glared at us with his arms crossed was the same man who Abdul had passed on the way in earlier that evening. Angry dude told us, “you should give him the money. He’s a good guy.” Now we were terrified. If this little imp had cronies stationed all over the city, and we were staying in his hotel, was it pay him or risk our safety that night? One look at my friends’ faces and I knew we were all thinking the same thing. So we gave him the money, and tried to head away. But he stopped us, asking when we would be up in the morning, so that he could show us around. “Free of charge.” No one said anything, so I blurted “uhhh…. 9. 9am?” And he bid us goodnight.

This is what unhappiness looks like - welcome to Tangier - you just got scammed!

The three of us marched up the stairs to our room, closed and locked the door, and began to vent. We were shocked and appalled at the level of scam we had found ourselves in. We were too smart for this and we knew it. We mourned our losses, pushed our beds together for a real pity party, and got ready for bed. That’s when we realized that it was only 9:30. Oops. Well, we sat on our beds all night anyway, all of us too afraid to get under the covers for fear of bedbugs, too afraid to use the bathroom for fear of Ebola, and to afraid to turn of the light for everything else. I “slept” facing the door and was awakened by every sound that I heard all night. In the morning, we woke at 7am to find that the power had gone out in our janky hotel. The owner was out in the hallway and he gave us a candle so that we could see as we grabbed our bags and hurried out of the hotel, trying to rush out before Abdul could see us and put the whole thing in the past. The owner very kindly unlocked the mess of locks on the front door to let us out, but the whole scene, especially in candlelight just reminded us that those same locks could be said to have just kept us in the night before. As we hurried down the street, we saw the same angry crony as from the night before guarding the street, he tried to stop us leaving, going so far as to grab my shoulder as we passed. We hurried along the street, but angry dude followed us for about a minute, until we got out of his turf, and he turned back. We were free! But we dared not celebrate until we had reached the train station, bought our ticket to Fez, and waited the three hours we had before boarding the train and quitting town. What a nice little flavor to add to the already intense experience of Tangier.

All of that being said, the worst that happened to us was that we paid too much, losing probably $100 each in scamming, and feeling a bit unsafe for one night. And the rest of the trip improved drastically the second the train pulled out of the Tangier station. I don’t, however, have space to rant on about the following six days of the trip in this post, so I will delay that for a following one. But I promise that the rest was like a dream! The Tangier Affair, as it will henceforth be named was but an elaborately recounted hiccup in the trip of a lifetime! The next post will return with the usual positive and downright silly tone that previous posts have had. I hope that the Tangier Affair can be taken in the same way that I now view it – as a fun and interesting story. Though nothing was exaggerated, it gets the benefit of some genuine ridiculousness that makes for a fun little adventure.

Posted by: theblorgblog | December 7, 2011

Hustle and Bustle

A month-long absence from blog-dom can only mean one thing: tons of stories! And at the rate I have been going, I could probably write a small novel about them all, unfortunately, I am no less busy than I have been over the past month, I simply feel that I need to get at least a few brief things down before it’s suddenly Christmas! I am going to do some quick summaries of the things I have been up to most recently, perhaps in its abbreviated form it will be more manageable for those who might want to read it, but I will likely come back and embellish them, as this is somewhat of a journal account, and those silly little details are the things I am going to want to look back on.

So…. since November 16 (my last post wow!) I have been getting much more involved in homework duties. Nowhere near exciting, but I figure that my ability to push all of my big assignments to the end of the semester where they would all overlap is overly typical of my chronic procrastination. I am currently looking at three 15-minute oral presentations (exposés) and two large papers (dissertations) in the next 8 days. Aka, I really shouldn’t be on this blog, but in the wise words of newfound-cousin Kate Brandeis “I don’t work unless the gun to my head is of a certain calliber.” Never have truer words been spoken. Looks like my new round of Paris exploration will be the libraries…

My big fun stuff: Versailles, Athens, Christmas season in Paris, friends visiting.


Palais de Versailles - The massive gardens expand indefinitely behind me

  1. History: built by Louis XIV (the “Sun King”) to show the authority and dominance of France, this palace is a massive 17th century castle situated on a hilltop that is surrounded by acres and acres of gardens. He built it about a day’s carriage ride from Paris (or 40 minute train) so that it could be adequately removed from the trying city-life. However, he built the palace to keep the nobility occupied, as a disengaged nobility was more likely to plot a coup d’état in their idle time. The palace was big enough to let these noblemen live close to the king and be engaged in the court (which was apparently considered interesting at the time). Also, this palace was the stage of the infamous Treaty of Versailles which was designed to bring Germany to its knees, but instead angered them enough to support Fascism.
  2. Theme: cool tidbit- each of the rooms in Louis XIV’s chambers have a theme – each is a different Roman god, who is depicted on the ceiling. There is the Jupiter room, the Neptune room, and certainly the Mars room (god of war).
  3. Interior: Black marble. There is actually nothing cooler. It’s smooth black marble with white swirls and little green flecks. They have this stuff in staircases, walls, pillars, everywhere.
  4. Gardens: huge. it was actually incredible. It was like the mother of all gardens – le Jardin du Luxembourg fits in its pocket. There’s a little lake/canal-thing in which people row. I don’t know why. It’s a contained space… they’re not going to get anywhere…
  5. Also, the palace is nowhere near the only building on the grounds. There is another smaller palace for the king when he wants to get away from the palace he built to get away from Paris. It’s like a cottage-castle. Then there’s the little cabin-palace that Louis XV made for his mistress. And the weirdest of all is the little farm and farmhouse that were constructed so that Marie Antoinette could pretend she was a farmer. Nothing says make-believe like a mini farm in Versailles. I suspect this was really just an excuse to play lonely farmgirl…
  6. Hot Chocolate: at the end of the visit, we got this incredible hot chocolate that tasted like melted candy bars. So thick. So good. Yum.
  7. Swans: so that little known fact that everybody knows: swans suck. They’re aggressive and pompous little jerks. They know they’re pretty so they get all arrogant and douchy about it. But apparently that has appeal – why else would women go for guys like Chris Brown or A-Rod. But here’s our revenge. For all of the nice guys who can’t stand this injustice and to all of those good-natured swans out there (all five of them) here is our revenge: ugly swan.

Ugly Swan: ugly duckling gone wrong - I bet he was a cute baby


Temple of Nike - situated on the Acropolis, the Parthenon is behind me - also Nike inspiration for Nike, Inc.

  1. Kate Brandeis: My primary reason for going was to meet up with Kate, my distant cousin/aunt/relative person. We have debated this several times and Greeks think she is my aunt, whereas Wikipedia says second cousin once removed (I think I’ll go with Wikipedia, as they are not on the brink of destroying the Eurozone. Oops!) But meeting Kate and her family was really fun! I stayed with them on Thanksgiving weekend, and got to get my fill of turkey, potatoes and stuffing. They took me around the city and we had a great time! Finding long-lost relatives is fun!
  2. Plaka: the center of the city where all of the historical bits are. This includes the Acropolis with the famous Parthenon (incredible views), the Temple of Zeus, and countless other ruins. The story of Hadrian’s Arch is one of my favorite historical tidbits – Roman Emperor Hadrian arrives in Athens in around 130 AD and has the arch commissioned. On one side, the inscription reads: “This is the city of Athens, the ancient city of Theseus” and the other “This is the city of Hadrian, and not of Theseus” thus underlining the contrast of the new and the old. He is also just like “Yo dudes, I am the Roman Emperor, I do what I want. Get at me bro!” Hadrian was such a bro.
  3. View of Athens from the Acropolis - the city spreads out and fills the entire valley, all they way to the Aegean Sea on the other side

  4. Greek feel: This city was amazing. Its history is scattered all over, with little columns or pillars sitting in front of shops, or along the street. The pride and ethnic heritage is apparent everywhere, as they may be the only country that can challenge Americans on flags per capita. The small winding streets are lined with shops, and especially in the Athens Flea Market, the shop owners stand in the street and attempt to lure you in with “a special deal just for you.” Despite the obvious cultural richness, there is a serious appearance of poverty. Next to the beautiful ruins from 2 millenia ago are homes built 50 years ago and in almost the same condition. The streets are not particularly clean, there are broken windows, everything is cheap, and there is evidence of the recent riots throughout Syntagma Square – including bulletholes in a police booth. It is sad to see a beautiful place have so much wrong. It seems like a developing country that somehow made it into the Eurozone.
  5. Changing of the Guard: I know, I know. The Tomb of the Unknown soldier is really important and the processions at Arlington and the sit at l’Arc de Triomphe are extremely important. BUT: just google “Greece changing of the guard” find a video. And watch it. Their costumes are a little silly, but hey it’s cultural to wear berets, skirts, and shoes with pompoms in other countries too right? Just wait until they start moving. THAT’S when it gets funny.
  6. Suonion: On day two, Kate took me down the coast to Suonion, the site of the famous Temple of Poseidon. It’s really cool and situated on an outcropping with an incredible view. You can see why they chose this spot for a tribute to the gods. Also historical tidbit about the Aegean sea: named after king Aegeus, who sent his son Theseus to Crete to kill the Minotaur with the instructions of flying  white sails if he survived and black sails if he had died. In the revelation of Theseus’ success and his newfound love, Ariadne, he forgot to change the sails, so when Aegeus saw the black sails, he cast himself into the sea. Thus giving name to the Aegean Sea. This was supposedly from the point at Suonion.
  7. Food: such amazing food. 2 Euros for Souvlaki on the street. wow. Also, great stuff at dinner with Tzatziki, Feta, and tons of meats and cheeses.
  8. Flight home: generally, this is not something of note, but I flew over some pretty cool stuff and the clouds and fog were looking rather cool. I flew over Greece, probably Albania, the Illyrian Sea, Italy, Switzerland (maybe Austria too?) and parts of France on the way back.

This was my view shortly after leaving Athens - the fog in the mountains of Greece - it has an almost unearthly feel to it

Christmas Season in Paris:

  1. Champs Elysées: The giant road that runs from l’Arc de Triomphe to La Place de la Concorde is all lit up and decorated for Christmas! This was lit up during a ceremony hosted by Audrey Tatou, France’s sweetheart and star of films such as Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulin and Coco avant Chanel. There is also a Christmas village and a giant Ferris Wheel. The Christmas village lines le Jardin des Tuileries and has little shops selling scarves, jams, waffles, sandwiches, and mulled wine. So much Christmas spirit!
  2. Other little markets can be seen in Neuilly-sur-Seine and Montparnasse, but neither holds a candle to Champs Elysées.

Say hello to the Vosgien - the first sandwich I have found that is bigger than my head - it even has french fries on top. oh yeah.

I have also had a couple of friends visiting Paris as their semesters wind down, which is always fun. I unfortunately, do not have any winding down, but should instead be finding some way to get everything done!  No matter, tout s’arrangera, or everything will work out. And plus, in eight short days, I leave for a magnificent Moroccan adventure!


Posted by: theblorgblog | November 16, 2011

Always New Adventures

So this post is back to the fun, real stuff in my life and none of those heavy “oh I think I will be all deep and stuff right now” kinds of topics.

I think that, overall, the keyword approach may be a good way of succinctly explaining my experiences without getting too horribly wordy and boring people to tears. So, I may as well continue the trend of bullet points. I have really been enjoying writing this blog, for a few reasons, being:

  1. This is a great way to organize my thoughts so that I can read them in the future (aka techno-journal)
  2. It’s much more thorough and more fun than writing a bunch of shorter, more general emails
  3. It’s a fantastic way to procrastinate, which happens to be one of my favorite hobbies
  4. It’s a way to keep up with writing in English (you would be surprised how challenging this can be after trying to write in a French mindset)
First thing is first: Continued life in Paris.

X-men comics in French - bridging cultural gaps through geekdom

  1. Homework: That’s a thing now. I have to do that. I am actually having enough homework that my long travels may be done for the semester, excepting of course my two planned trips to Athens (Thanksgiving weekend) and Morocco (beginning of Christmas Break). Thus far, the result of my having homework has been simply a reduction of sleeping time, as my new-found Parisian lifestyle refuses to suffer. The result: see bullet number 2. Also, there is this concept of a Semaine Pédagogique at la Sorbonne. I had been under the impression since September, that this was to be like a “Fall Break” and was a vacation in the middle of the semester – how perfect that it would fall on Thanksgiving! Oh, how wrong I was! The intention of such a week is to still have class, but the professors do not have to go, and the assistant professors (not TAs because they’re legitimate profs, just not the bigshots who teach in lecture) run a review-session-type thing. This is much worse than a vacation. Thus, I am sad. My French homework has also affected my conceptions of margins and formatting. I have enjoyed using that block formatting like newspapers have that even out the spacing throughout the line rather than at the end, as is standard American formatting. Also, as a watchful eye might notice, this and my last post were written with only one space following each period, rather than two, as is the French way.
  2. Procrastination: the natural result of my having homework. I can’t help it. I do my work at the last minute, no matter how hard I try not to. It tends to come out alright too, so the motivation to change is muted. But due to the influx of homework recently, most of my time has been spent procrastinating to the max! I started watching the Daily Show here (which is one of like 5 shows that is accessible in France – unfortunately South Park is not counted amongst those easy to find), and I have been reading books on my iPod. Here is where I praise Apple’s ingenuity for like two sentences: iBooks is a Free App in the Apple Store that allows you to download texts of novels to your iPod and read them like it’s a Kindle. Many of these must be purchased, but there is an exhaustive list of classics that are available for free. Thus far, I have read a strange collection: A Tale of Two Cities, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Candide, Pride and Prejudice, and Rikki-Tikki-Tavi. I am currently reading Alice in Wonderland, and might read Faust or the Illiad next. I know, I’m weird.
  3. English Lessons: I spend one hour every Wednesday teaching two ten-year old girls English. This is a unique experience, as they spend a good 40-50% of the time giggling and messing with each other. Also, sometimes they say things in French and I don’t understand. Nothing can be more humbling than finding that a ten-year-old has a better vocabulary than you.  Overall, these lessons are fun and challenging, as one might expect. Oh, I almost forgot! So the way that I got this situation set up was through one of the women who works at the Tufts program, named Aurelie, who had a friend looking for an energetic student to teach her children English.  After being myself at Talloires on the University trip, she was convinced that my energy and easy-going temperment would suffice.
  4. Marvel Comics: That’s it. The key to actually making real personal connections: shared personal interest. My host-brother, Paul (18) loves comics. He dressed up as Captain America for some kind of strange-European-student-costume-party (that’s all hyphenated because I am assuming there are other events like it. Also if I separated the words they might appear like normal adjectives as you or I might use them, and I am not sure that that applies here.)  Paul is, however, much more of a DC comics fan than a Marvel fan (where I am a Marvel guy). Quick comics lesson for those of you who don’t know: DC – Superman, Wonderwoman, Flash, Batman; aka a bunch of overrated dudes(/ladies) and Batman (who is really awesome and I would never deny that).  Marvel – Spiderman, X-men, Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, basically all of those awesome movies that have been out (except Green Lantern – *ahem* not that great *ahem* sorry Haddie and Lily.)  But this was really great because it gave me something to bond with my host brother over. I can finally have an in-depth discussion about something other than politics and history!
Trip to Lille:

La Place de la Bourse et l'Opera - Lille right near the Grand Place and just down the street from the station

  1. Gameplan – no preparation, just arrive and go.  I bought cheap tickets (30E round trip) so anything I saw was a great value. Anything I didn’t wasn’t the end of the world. I went alone, which is often better on these types of excursions. It is like going to a museum: if you are alone, you can stop and spend time at the stuff that interests you, but you don’t have to wait feigning interest while your friend examines a red splotch on a white background or one of the 8 trillion Jesus paintings that look almost identical. This was just a day-trip; just around ten hours, so I got up early, slept on the train, and took things at my own pace.
  2. Weather – kinda meh. Grey and cloudy all day. I actually got cold! This rather unheard of phenomenon has reminded me that it is midway through November, and I should probably acquire a coat.
  3. Sites – Lille is a nice little city. It’s probably about Boston-sized, and has a lot of similar (though decidely European) charm. Lille features nice sites such as la Bourse – the old financial building, la Grande Place, and a really cool set up near l’Hotel de Ville or the Town Hall – where there was a giant belltower and a large stone arch – la Porte de Paris. Lille is situated in the Pas-de-Calais region of France and isn’t super historically significant, though its proximity to Belgium gives it a slightly different architectural style than other French towns I have seen.
  4. Occupy Lille – In front of the Opera in Lille, there were signs and a small group of people, who seemed to be “occupying Lille” They seemed to be outnumbered by signs, when I first saw them, however I later saw them organized and marching at la Grande Place. I later found that they are called “Les Indignés” (those who are indignant) and are, in fact, a national organization similar to the Occupy movement in the US.
  5. Overall – Great – fun times. Travelling alone is no pressure and allows me to do things at my own pace. This will continue.

Les Indignees or Occupy Lille - now all they need is some protestors

Making Mistakes: I am beginning to doubt whether or not I can go on any adventures without making any mistakes. I made a few silly blunders of the day:
  1. At the Beffroi, I decided that it would be cool to try to go up and see if I could get a look around. I had some trouble finding an entrance, and ended up finding myself walking down an alleyway. When I came to the door, I realized that it was a counselling center for troubled youth, so I walked away. When I was almost out of sight, a man ran out the door, calling me back to ask what I wanted. I think he was under the impression that I was one of the troubled youth who almost came and then got cold feet. I explained that, instead, I was looking for a way up the Beffroi and his face hardened as he told me he didn’t know where to go. So, I left, rounded a corner and found the real door. I entered and found a young woman sitting behind a desk doing tickety sorts of things. So I asked her how much it was for a student to go up. She told me, in a voice that showed me how much she loved her job, that it was 4E but that I shouldn’t go up because there was a lot of brouillard up there. I had forgotten the meaning of brouillard and decided to continue under the assumption that it was some kind of construction or work of some kind. Then I asked: “So is it closed?” and she responded so very charmingly: “NO! I told you already! There’s just a lot of brouillard! So are you going?!?” “Non, merci.” and I left. A few minutes later, I realized that brouillard = fog. Everything makes sense now….
  2. After passing the rest of the day without incident, I got to the train station about a half an hour too early before departure. Luckily the station was a short walk from the center of the city, so I decided to head back out and observe the changes as night began to fall. I set my camera down on a garbage can to steady it as I took a long exposure of the road all lit up. Pleased with my picture, I began to walk away when some dude rolled down his window and called to me (in French) : “Hey you! Yeah you! Did you just take a picture of this car?” I meekly reply: “Non, Monsieur.” Response: “Are you sure?” Even less sure of myself: “Yes completely. It was just the street. I promise!” He looks at me for a second, still stern: “Where are you from?” “USA. I am American.” His face lights up: “Oh American! Too cool! Nice. You have a good night.” “Uh… thanks. Uh… you too…” That’s the second time that being an American has saved me, though this time it didn’t make any sense.
  3. SNCF is the largest train company in France. When I arrived, my program gave me a youth ID card that allows me to purchase cheaper tickets. I used it to buy my return ticket (I actually took the bus there as it was cheaper) and happily saved some money. The key is that you have to bring the card as verification. I forgot the key. So when the conductor came around, I feigned searching for it, hoping that he would take pity. He didn’t. I was charged 26E for forgetting it. The only consolation was that I could be redeemed 16E of it by showing my ID card at the station, and fortunately I was taking the train to Caen in the morning, so I arrived early enough to reclaim half of my stupid mistake.
  4. Scariest mistake of the day and it involves a bathroom. Seriously, how do I manage? Setting the scene: In France, sometimes you have to pay to use the bathroom in train stations. While wearing headphones, many people find that they don’t really hear when squat, cross French women yell at you to pay. When this happens, and you find yourself being followed into a bathroom by the very same squat, cross French woman, you hope you hear her before the soldier arrives. I unfortunately didn’t. By the time I heard her, I was getting to the urinal. Then I turned around, seeing her shouting. Though the soldier in full army gear with the large gun and his look of intimidation that is counted among France’s counter-terrorism defences captured my attention. I quickly apologized and followed her out, where she explained (read: shouted) that I had to pay. So I handed her the 40 centimes and hurried back into the bathroom. Fortunately the soldier departed when he realized that I was just an idiot with an iPod. But man that was scary!

This is the picture for which I was yelled at - so I kind of lied, his car was in the picture, though in my defense, the guy was in the second car, not the first

Trip to Caen:

l'Abbaye aux Hommes - not sure if this reminds me more of Assassin's Creed or Alfred Hitchcock, but it's really cool either way

  1. Gameplan – same idea as Lille, though I was determined not to make as many mistakes. I did a little research before coming to Caen, and discovered that the city could be broken into two parts: Guillaume le Conquérant (William the Conqueror) and WWII. So I took a train, bought a map, walked around, took pics, and ate food. Solid day.
  2. Weather – much nicer; got some sunniness in my pictures
  3. Guillaume le Conquérant –  in the 11th century Guillaume chose Caen as his capital city, so he is all over it: street names, bakeries, monuments, statues, the works. His castle also stands in the middle of the city. The original battlements still stand, though they have been renovated, but his palace and the original dungeon lie in ruins. Today, there are a few museums and a park inside the castle, as well as really great views from the ancient walls. Guillaume’s tomb is also in Caen, found in l’Abbaye aux Hommes (Abbey of Dudes), which is a giant Roman-style abbey with bunches of spires sticking out. There is also an Abbaye aux Dames (Abbey of Ladies), but it is located as far as possible from the Dudes. The Dudes are in the southwest corner of the city center, and the Ladies are in the northeast. The Dudes definitely have the nicer building, as the style and size are absolutely impressive, but the Ladies have the better grounds – as it sat on a hill and was surrounded by an old stone wall shaded by deciduous trees whose leaves had turned, the sidewalk strewn with those already fallen.
  4. World War II – there are monuments to soldiers all over the city. But most importantly, there is a large and very famous museum in Caen commemorating all of the soldiers. Unfortunately it was prohibitively expensive, coming out to about 17E after the student reduction. I decided to eat dinner instead, however it was sad that I couldn’t go and pay my respects to the brave soldiers who fought against such horrible tyranny. I walked the gardens and admired the Canadian and British memorials that were on the grounds. I also wish I had gotten to one of the Normandy beaches, but they were too far without a car, or a really expensive ticket. I may try to swing some kind of return in the spring to try to see one of the landing beaches, maybe Omaha Beach or Aramanches. I feel that I should go see that aspect of history.
  5. Cool foodstuffs – Grignotte – a long breadstick/baguette hybrid covered in emmental (similar to Swiss cheese) and lardons bits of ham used as a garnish in the same fashion that bacon bits are. It cost 95 cents. Therefore, I got one for lunch. And for dinner. I also saw fast food pasta-in-a-cup restaurants. Weird.
  6. Batteries died in my camera. Again. I am an idiot. When will I learn?
  7. Overall – day-trips are awesome, though this time, I wish I had had more time to maybe get to one of the beaches of Normandy.

Château de Guillaume le Conquérant - these are the very same battlements that were constructed in the XIe century

Stade de France for the USA vs. France match on 11.11.11 Pretty sweet.

Stade de France:
  1. France vs. USA!!!
  2. Run-down of the game: France 1 USA 0. The game was close, but kind of sloppy, but it was a Friendly match. I had an amazing time regardless.
  3. First professional soccer (football) game. Different kind of experience. French dudes yelled at us for cheering for the US, and said all of the insults they know in English with a heavy accent. Dear Globalization: thanks for teaching the world all of the most obnoxious things about American culture. It is really nice to have this image of our culture to live up to. Really. Thanks.
  4. Bargaining 101 – Got a super-c00l-one-of-a-kind scarf of the match for 6E instead of 10E from a sketchy street vendor. I just said that I only had 6E, and she was like… eh ok. boo yah!
  5. During the game, I got into a text argument with a French friend. He claimed that the goal was France taking revenge for us stealing Louisiana. I reminded him that it was a purchase; and one first pitched by their beloved Napoléon who sold it like a used car dealer. I then told him that he wouldn’t be celebrating Armistice Day (11.11, which was Friday) without the US. He retaliated by saying we wouldn’t celebrate July 4th without the French. Never has touché been more applicable.
  6. Alcohol-free Beer? yeah the only kind they sold. I heard that it tasted like beer with splenda.
  7. Ethan Corbin!?!?! For those who are not Tufts IR students, this probably means nothing, but Ethan Corbin, the infamous IR TA at Tufts was at the game and only two or three rows behind us and about 25 seats over! He was my TA in Intro to IR first semester, and he happened to be sitting right there! So naturally, my two friends and I went up to him so that all four of us could share the shock of the moment. Only downside: he basically judged me for not being in the more-challenging Sciences Po program (which I didn’t have the language level to even qualify for) but whatever.
  8. Rooster hats: the Coq or Rooster is the symbol of France and its soccer team. This means they have silly rooster hats! Which also means I tried one on and took silly pictures! Take a look:

Me with the infamous Rooster hat - I know this is ridiculous, and I should probably be more ashamed of it, but I'm not

Cultural Tidbit: the rooster is a national symbol because it is territorial and an aggressive protector of its home. Roosters are frequently on weathervanes over farms as well as a symbol of protection. A series of (I believe) 4 roosters can also be found on church spires in Riga, Latvia, where they are also a symbol of protection.
Posted by: theblorgblog | November 15, 2011

Individualism versus Citoyenneté

*Edit* I decided to add another disclaimer to my post: I apologize if I am using this blog as a kind of pedestal for my ideas, as I may be becoming just as guilty as those obsessive, polemic stereotypes of the “blogosphere” (yes those). If that is the case, I can offer only three means of consolation:

  1. I am also writing this as a kind of journal for myself and hope to look back on it in the future, when I am old and grey and all that
  2. Reading this is 100% optional, so just don’t. If you don’t want to, it probably wasn’t for you anyway.  (<– this is a joke. it was meant for you. yes you.)
  3. …. um… EPA? (obligatory Rick Perry reference)  Oops

In my just over two months in Paris, I have often pondered the differences between the French and American cultures. On the surface, they are more similar than they are different – both are developed, Western countries. Both were inspired by many of the same Enlightenment thinkers. They went through the process of industrialization at around the same time. Their two revolutions were even linked, as certain figures were influential in both, most notably Général La Fayette. So where was the split? At what moment did these two parallel cultures diverge? And afterward, how have they come to be so parallel again?

I can certainly claim no mastery on the subject. I have read no books on the matter, talked with no historians, linguists, philosophers, or even really smart people who happen to know lots of stuff. All of my ideas are derived from the ideas of two small excerpts from a 198os text by Raymond Carroll which discussed the differences in observed communication and family dynamics, and, primarily, from my observations and humble ponderings. Now, in case it is not entirely clear, the above is a disclaimer in case any of the following thoughts, references, or ideas are entirely off-base or irrational. I strive to maintain an unbiased examination of this topic, but that is rather difficult, thus, I will just do my best. So, in the unlikely event that you would be offended by someone who points out differences in people rather than blindly following a path toward cultural homogeneity (which I don’t understand but that’s a topic for another day) I recommend you to stop reading. But seriously, I’m joking. This is probably far from offensive, just likely boring to all but the culture nerds of the word.  But hey, I find this sort of thing amusing, so here goes nothing.

I acknowledge the likelihood that language, and the inherent differences they give cognizant experiences, attribute to such differences. Granted, the French and English languages do not stem from the same linguistic branch of the wonderful language tree, given that French is a Romantic language linked closely to Latin, and English is really like some monstrous fungus that grew at off the Germanic branch, ate half of the French branch and shot tendrils into every language it could reach and fed on as many linguistic and cultural references as it could and mutating to create new words faster than a malignant polyp. Sorry for the semi-agressive vocabulary used in the portrayal of English, but it has some real merit. French and English aren’t as tremendously different as one might think, given the number of words that are basically the same with a different accent. Then again there are many fundamental structural differences, which make writing and mastery a bit more difficult, however, this does not account for the entirety of the cultural differences. And I am ready to claim a different source.

I have found that a fundamental difference between these two cultures is the contrast between American Individualism and French Citoyenneté (literally translated as citizenship, this world holds a much more profound meaning in French culture, as will later be discussed). Each is a fundamental system in their respective cultures, which dates back to the differences between their revolutions. The trends of each can be seen in many realms of behavior or comportement in French, a word which includes more than just behaviors but basic mannerisms and the motivations behind them. I would like to highlight a few of these differences in ideology and some of their manifestations in behavior.

*Sidenote: sometimes I find that there are French words that are more expressive than their English counterparts, such as comportement and it saddens me that I have to settle for their less expressive, English translations. My inclusion of so many french words is for this reason, not a desire to be pretentious.

I will first define the American perspective.  Granted, I do not politically agree with all of the policies or behaviors (or at least the extend to which they are taken) but I see them all as stemming from this core principle.

American Individualism: I would define this, most simply, as the true American manifesto – those of individual liberty, the freedom of choice, and the ability to bend social norms and expectations to propel oneself to success against all odds. “Together we Stand” – a unity of individuals. This is the source of American optimism, the ruggedness and almost unpredictability with which the United States has always approached warfare, and the “American Dream”. The First Amendment to the United States constitution is that which secures the personal liberties of speech, press, assembly, and religion. The Second Amendment is the ability to bear arms for personal protection. The American Revolution was one of small, individualized guerrilla warfare against the stronger, colonial British. The individualism of American exploration was the inspiration for the cowboy and Manifest Destiny. It was the source of the extreme federalism exhibited by the government at its birth (stronger than that of any other country in the world). It was the source of conflict that led to the Civil War, as states argued about their own liberties against the federal government rather than within it. The individual spirit was what gave rise to Robber Barons at the end of the 19th century, and the birth of the Technological Age at the end of the 20th. The system that created John Rockefeller and Bill Gates; James Madison and Martin Luther King, Jr. It is what supports the most liberal (read: economically liberal) capitalist economy in the world. It supports private enterprise and has a Libertarian Party with decent political backing. It is how our courts rationalize that corporations can be given the same rights as people before the law. It has a private university system that consistently has more top-100 universities in the world than any other country. It allows for the United States to be a melting pot of immigrants and an increasing mixture of cultural identities. It is why the Constitution includes a provision that the people can overthrow the government and rebuild one that respects their personal liberties. And it is how we can dream to change the world and craft a new society for ourselves from scratch, as Jefferson called for in the Declaration of Independence – “freedom of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

French Citoyennete: Most simply, this is the credo of the French institutional systems – the protection of the state, the equality before the law, and a duty toward the fellow humanity that is echoed throughout French society. “Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite” – Liberty, Equality, and Brotherhood – personal freedom, but in a context of equality and uniformity in a band of equal and inherently tied brothers – thus, one’s value to the community is more important that one’s value to themselves. Born in the time of the French Revolution, when revolutionaries called each other citoyen or citizen rather than their true names. It inspires a French obsession with French culture – a source of unity and increased societal uniformity. It is why the French support a social democracy with a strong central state and a large portion of power centralized in the executive branch. It explains the existence of l’Académie Française which is an institute that monitors the French language and works to uphold its integrity. It allowed the French to be content under the reign of two Emperors (Napoleon I and Napoleon III) and a king (Louis XVIII) during the 19th century, who were, despite their liberal and benevolent policies, undemocratic. It explains the French integration into the European Union and its call to aid ailing European states, namely Italy and Greece. It sparked the building of a “welfare state” following World War II and inspired the national health care system which is now the best in the world. It explains the separation of church and state that promotes discretion rather than flagrancy in religious expression and the banning of religious discussion or symbolism in government. It is a natural correction for the centuries of internal religious conflicts in the 15th – 18th centuries between Catholics and Protestants. It is why a majority of the French collaborated or passively accepted the Vichy Regime, a puppet-government of Nazi Germany, and it is also why a number of the French resisted in Haute-Savoie and the Resistance under General De Gaulle fought until France was liberated. It explains the popularity of unions and their power in the political arena. It gave rise to the spirit of striking culture or manifestations throughout the country. It explains why political parties generally do not hold Primaries (excepting the Socialist Party this year). It accounts for the strict hierarchy of authority in the university system, which looks for answers that are “correct” rather than “innovative”. It is why the French consider “mal élevé” or “poorly-raised” to be the worst insult. And it is why the French subsidize their bread to the point where a baguette costs less than 1 Euro – so that everyone can buy bread, and the famine of before the revolution can never be repeated.

These ideas are based on a simple tendency of consciousness that I have picked up on. I listed them in such a fashion so that hopefully, as a web of information, it might paint a clearer image. I know that when I try to examine one cultural difference at a time it is trying, as it may be tempting to evaluate one as “better” than the either. This system helps me to avoid comparing these differences on any kind of standard, as the whole picture generally shows more of the strengths and weaknesses of both systems. To simply these massive comparisons into an observable personality difference, I would have to say that the French are, generally, formulaic and calculated, having taken the time to examine a situation and planned ahead. In contrast, the American style tends to be one of greater impulsivity – a search for ingenuity and a passionate pursuit of success.

If there is one thing that I have discovered about myself after doing this exercise, it is that I fit the American mold almost perfectly, and perhaps I have reflected myself in the image of my country. If that be the case, I apologize for my inability to rid myself of bias. But, perhaps that is the nature of this entire experience. This blog post was created on a whim. It was written in one sitting, without interruption, and was not edited. Thus, in accordance with my own conclusions, I present my interpretations of the roots of fundamental cultural differences.

Posted by: theblorgblog | November 8, 2011

Paris in Keywords

I have officially been in Paris two months to the day.  These two months have been nothing like anything I have ever experienced:  I am living in a city for the first time, I am speaking French more than English now, I have been immersing myself in French culture, making French friends, and travelling.  If I gave the specifics of everything I have done, especially in light of the length of my last post (which discussed only three days, let alone two months), the novel I produced would rival those of Victor Hugo (in length).  And that is saying something.  They don’t even sell Les Miserables in less than two volumes at book stores.

So, in order to share my experiences in a succinct and interesting fashion, I will be breaking them down by Keywords.

1. Free:  Entry into monuments or museums in Paris.  This is a wonderful little trick that Tufts did for me.  They claim that everyone in our program is an Art History major, so that we can be allowed into any museum for free.  It would be impossible to show pictures of all of these places, so I will list them and those interested can do a Google Image search, which should suffice:  Le Louvre, L’Arc de Triomphe (climbed), Basilique Saint-Denis, Basilique Sacre Coeur, Chapelle Expiatoire, L’Eglise Madeleine, La Maison de Victor Hugo, Les Catacombes, and le Château Fontainebleau to name a few.

Hammurabi's Code at Le Louvre - I know this counts as showing off a little and I'm sorry... but not really

2. Culture:  Immersion into the French language and culture through films, novels, and music.  I have been to the movie theater five times in two months, which is more frequently than I have ever gone before.  Through these films, I have experienced a range of culture from childrens’ films such as La Guerre des Boutons and Tin-Tin to heartfelt comedies such as Le Skylab and Intouchables and even a super-intense drama, Polisse.  I have also read two books with my literature course and am starting a third tonight (hence the procrastination blogging).  I am reading classics by authors such as Marie de France, Racine, and Moliere.  I also purchased the children’s classic, Le Petit Prince today, so that I can see what I have been missing.  Music is a little more complicated, as most of what I hear is American music (though ranging from the Rihanna and Adele I would expect, to the Clash and the Bee Gees, so what’s up with that?).  I have heard a little bit of French music, but the artist that struck me most was Selah Sue (a Flemish girl) who actually sings in English, but it’s really cool – kind of a white Alicia Keys meets Bob Marley (trust me).  I recommend the song Ragamuffin.

Le Petit Prince - a children's classic that I purchased on a whim today - cultural immersion here I come!

3. Spectacles: the French word for any kind of performance.  I am pretty sure that this can range anywhere from a street performance to an Opera, so kind of unspecific.  I have been fortunate enough that Tufts has brought our merry band of (mostly wo)men and myself to three of these spectacles.

  • The first was titled Quatuor and was actually the funniest thing I have ever seen.  It featured four men playing strings and singing, while performing skits.  There were two violinists (though one also played the guitar) a violist, and a cellist (who also played a double bass).  They were all incredible musicians and they performed in French, English, Italian, and even a little German.  They played classical and contemporary, while making everything lively and fun.  From a classical medley of Beethoven, Mozart, Chopin, and others to “Wannabe” by Spice Girls and a Johnny Cash impression, these guys had me entertained.
  • The second spectacle was at La Comédie Française and was actually a stage adaptation of the very play we had read for class:  Bérénice by Racine.  This was a fancy theater for which we had to dress up, and the play was performed by serious, Shakespearean-style actors, but stiffer.  Not to seem like that guy who doesn’t appreciate classical theatre, but it wasn’t as entertaining as the first or third spectacle.
  • The third, and most recent spectacle was L’Intrus which was a darkly comedic play that was a retelling of Faust by Goethe.  The principle of Faust is that the main character makes a pact with the Devil so as to remain youthful beyond his time.  In this retelling, the main character, played by a famous French actor, Claude Rich, has Alzheimer’s and slowly loses his grip on reality.  The Devil seeks to give the main character a chance to retain his memories and his grasp on the truth in exchange for his soul.  The story was very funny at times, however, the overall message was very touching – giving new meaning to the suffering of Alzheimer’s.

4.  Fashion:  I have changed my fashion in significant ways since I have arrived.  Largely because I had never put much thought into it at all.  Now, I have to be aware of how my jeans fit me.  I have purchased two pairs of jeans, two button-down shirts, and a pair of black (pointy-toed) shoes since being here, which is enough to get me blending in enough.  Parisian guys put more thought into their wardrobes than a good portion of American girls (not trying to play into gender role stereotypes, but come on, this one has merit).  The fact that I have lost a bunch of weight due to portion size here isn’t helping my wardrobe predicament any either.  Lastly, winter is approaching, which here means gray, cold, and rainy, and I am going to need a coat.  That will be an adventure.

Basilique Saint-Denis - tombs of Louis XIV, Louis XVI, and Marie Antoinette are inside, as well as bunches of other royal bones

5. Death: Not as bad as it sounds.  In Paris, a good portion of the coolest monuments are related to death in some way.  Hard to avoid when your Place de la Concorde, or “place of peace” is where you beheaded thousands of people with the Guillotine.  I find that the French view death as the simply the last great adventure, and tend to portray it artistically.  Also, the city is old and a boatload of rich people have died and decided that the best thing they could do with their money was to build a beautiful headstone or a temple or whatever.  Thus, any cemetary or church that has a tomb is an artistic site.  I have been to, or will soon go to:

  • La Cimetière Montparnasse – where Balzac, Sartre, and Dreyfus (*Nerd Alert* dude from the Dreyfus Affair) are buried – many of the tombs are beautiful and elaborate pieces of art
  •  La Basilique Saint-Denis – where most Kings and Queens were buried, including Louis XIV, Louis XVI, and Marie Antoinette (I wonder where they placed the heads of the later two…)
  • Les Catacombes – an underground system of tunnels where there are hundreds of thousands, maybe even millions of bones from exhumed graveyards all over Paris.  Incalculable numbers of femurs and tons of skulls.  Absolutely incredible that this place is real.
  • L’Hotel des Invalides – have not yet been here, but this is where Napoléon Bonaparte is buried
  • Le Panthéon – will soon go here, where Rousseau and Voltaire are buried – supposedly just across from one another, opposing each other even in death
  • La Cimetière Père Lachaise – have not yet been, but is the burial grounds of Oscar Wilde, Jim Morrison, Chopin, Molière, and Edith Piaf

Les Catacombes - only one of many hallways like it filled with bones - it took 40 minutes to walk through it all

Les Catacombes - look at this guy! pretty cool, though a little creepy when you think about how this used to be some dude

6. Family:  My host family has been fantastic.  There are a perfect balance between being friendly and interested in my life and allowing me to have my freedom.  I eat dinner with them five times per week, and each time, I feel myself understanding more of what goes on.  The family is very lively and fun, and my host brothers even help me with my homework when I don’t know how to say something.  Also, I get along with them really well.  The oldest, Valentin, is a perfect example of an intellectual European.  At 20 years old, he studies philosophy and smokes a pipe (I couldn’t make at up) and dresses in a less pretentious version of what would be described in the US as really hipster.  He is a really great resource and is super helpful all the time.  It doesn’t hurt that he’s brilliant.  My second host brother, Paul, is 18, and dresses more like your standard European guy.  He is the lively, fun-loving brother, who is always joking, but also has a bit of a temper, which comes out at times.  Teen angst!  And I can make fun of that because I am a real adult at 20 years old now and foolish teenage years are in the distant past!  I have also met the extended family.  Last night, the entire family got together for a combined birthday party for the grandmother and three grandchildren.  There were around 20 people in one apartment : eating, drinking, and talking for over two hours.  It was a wonderful experience and it reminded me so much of my family around the holidays.

Le Château Fontainebleau - Napoléon Bonaparte gave his final farewell as Emperor on these steps before heading off to Elba

7. Travel: To be sure, I have been traveling a bunch; my big trips have been to Belgium, Florence, Saint-Malo, and Talloires.  But now, in November, as my courses get more involved and the weather worsens, I find that large, expensive trips would probably be better later in the year, especially given that I have multiple weeks off in the second semester.  Therefore, I have been planning shorter day-trips (something the French don’t have a word for) and I have already been on a couple.  I took a day to go outside of Paris, just under an hour, to le Chateau Fontainebleau which was the seat of Francois I and an importance palace for many kings of France.  The castle was huge and overlooked a beautiful park.  I also took a day trip just two days ago to Reims, in the region of Champagne (yes, that is where champagne comes from, just as bordeaux comes from Bordeaux).  While in Reims (prounounced R0ntz while pinching your nose), I visited the giant church that was the site of coronations of the Henry kings (all of those numbers) and some other dudes too.  It was pretty giant.  I also got some quality duck for lunch.  Then we went to une cave de champagne or a champagne cellar at Eparnay.  We went on a tour and got a free taste of champagne (or three if, like me, you seized the day).  I also have upcoming day-trips planned to Lille -the city of the north, Caen – in Normandy, former home of Guillaume le Conquérant, and Provins – a small medieval town that is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Reims - the former capital of the ancient Roman colony of Gaul - these arches are the only set of four that still remain

Despite my best efforts, this still isn’t very short, though it certainly is abbreviated.   Also, if there are spelling errors in any of my blogs, it’s not because I am carely*, but because my internet now spell-checks in French, so all of my words have little squiggly lines under them.  So, I basically ignore them.
*here I meant careless, but the error was far too ironic to let myself get away with quietly fixing it.

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