Sunday, October 29, 2006

Sorry this isn't a happy post filled with photos

This past week was the anniversary of the riots that happened in suburbs all over France last year. I don’t think it’s surprising that nothing has changed since then. The minorities and poor whites living in these banlieues are still marginalized and disrespected by the government and the majority of French citizens. (This situation seems strange to Americans because the cities are where most of our immigrant and impoverished populations live, while the middle and upper classes live outside of the city in nice subdivisions and have to drive at least 10 minutes to work. In France, the people with money live in the center of the city surrounded by the opera, designer clothing shops, and efficient public transportation.)
The people living a half hour outside the city of Paris are some of the most poorly cared for people in the country. They live in run down, high rise apartments that haven’t seen any upkeep since the 70’s, the unemployment rate is at least 10%, in some places higher and their public schools are inadequate and barely functioning with a high drop-out rate. And the population is mostly French citizens (not first generation immigrants, usually 2nd or 3rd) of Arab and African decent, with whites mixed in as well. This is not what people usually picture when they think of France; this looks more like home to me. And in some ways it makes me empathize more with these people that I see on television (because I have only walked through one banlieue since I’ve been here, and I didn’t spend any time there) because I know them; I’ve seen this before even though it has never been me.
But like the US, France has not changed the lives of these people since they broke shop windows, took to the streets and burned cars one year ago. Not only, I think, because the government doesn’t know what to do and doesn’t have time or money to worry about them unless someone more important than two young minorities die, but also because the riots did not have an apparent goal or a united message; the message received was that people are angry. Unorganized angry people can set their neighbor’s cars on fire, but they cannot change things. But they don’t know how to react and speak out because the sub-par schooling that they received was mostly discipline, and no want wants to help them. I can only hope that the few programs and people that are going into the suburbs are reaching these kids, because for the most part the rioters were no more than 18 years old, and teaching them that nothing will change through violence but that they can have a voice through voting and through education.
The French system of immigrant assimilation into the culture doesn’t seem to be working for them. Here, immigrants are expected to speak French, act French, and become the ideal French person. Not to necessarily forget all of their previous cultural ties and heritage, but it takes a backseat their new life. Not to say that our more integrative system is much better, although I think I prefer to let people retain their personal identities even if that makes us all so different and causes problems. But seeing this difference is extremely stirring for me because I can compare what I see in Detroit to what I see in France. I can see how the government and the citizens react to these kind of behavior; for example, by prohibiting girls from wearing headscarves (all outward religious symbols) at school, while in Dearborn students are free to wear veils, crosses and stars.
Don’t worry; the next post will be full of pictures and stories from beautiful España.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Route du Vin

Saturday morning I awoke at 7:15 am, rode my rented, gearless, basket-boasting bicycle to the train station. I got on the train, bike in tow, with three friends. We rode for 40 minutes through the chilly, thick fog. We got off the train in Colmar, a smaller city south of Strasbourg. We got out our map in search for the mythical “wine road” that would lead us to adventure and hopefully treasure. After about an hour of riding around the city and being directed by a slightly creepy Frenchman, we found the highway of our dreams, which was for a while also a real highway with cars. This did not discourage us.

We rode on, passing signs with impossible german names that I will never be able to pronounce or spell. We passed corn fields and cabbage patches. Finally, we rode into a small town, and as we idled along our bumpy path we saw a sign: Cave Ouvert. We immediately pulled the brakes and locked up our vehicles next to our first winery for a taste.
It was very calm and quiet as we entered (possibly because it was only 10:30 am) and we were unsure of the exact protocol for wine tasting. Do you have to buy wine to taste it? How much does it cost? What do you say to the old man/eyebrow-less woman/silent plant-waterer who is serving you wine? All this, and more, we learned on that fateful day.
We tasted many a white wine that day, because white grapes grow well in Alsace. We savored dry Reislings, fruity Pinot Gris, and sweet Edelweisles from 4 different villages, all with distinct flavors.

We bobbed through beautiful country sides, riding up and down hills covered with vineyards and marked by large roadside crucifixes. We remarked on the beauty of the Voges mountains behind, veiled in a mist of fog for the entire day.
We passed through villages with castles, cathedrals, towers and stone walls that looked as though they hadn’t changed in centuries, save for the Tabac, clearly labeled with a yellow sign.
We ate freshly picked apples that had a natural, but definite peanut butter taste.
It was a beautiful day that ended abruptly at 10 pm when I saw my bed and fell asleep.

Our adventure may have only yielded a few bottles of wine, but it was the journey, not the destination, that was the real treasure. How corny.

Monday, October 09, 2006

The fine line between Delicious and Death

I went mushroom hunting on sunday with Jane, Brad, and their hungarian host mom. We spent 3 hours walking in the forest of the Voges mountains, which was beautiful in itself, while we learned the ins and outs of french mushrooms.
Like a well worn fairy tale we filled up our bags and baskets with all shapes and sizes of fungus, drove home in the sunny afternoon, cleaned the mushrooms while listening to gypsie music on the radio, and then Madame made the most delicious mushroom tarte I have ever had in my life. The mushrooms were fresh and tasted different than the type you can buy at the store.
When I went to the store today to buy cheese I saw the very same mushrooms for sale, for 16 euro per kilo.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

An Emotional Week

Monday: I had my first dance class. It’s a modern/contemporary class with a very Graham style. We did a lot of stretching in the beginning; I was a little worried that the whole class would be simple movement, but it turned out that stretching was very necessary, since I hadn’t danced in a few months. Needless to say I was the happiest I’ve been for some time, possibly since I’ve been in Europe so far. It felt incredible to be dancing and comprehending the language, though on the most basic level I didn’t need to be able to understand the words the teacher was saying. I just had to watch and repeat. And that made it even more special; that it was an action that I was doing here but I didn’t have to struggle with language, English or French. I was free from everything I had been studying for the past few weeks and I actually learned things, and met French people. And I got to dance and be creative and expressive. That hasn’t happened much here. I wanted to cry, I was so happy. I think Mondays, though they are Mondays, are going to become my favorite days.
Tuesday, Wednesday: It rained tremendously. I thought we would have to build an ark; the water level on the river was raising so much. It made the week dreary and miserable because we had to walk to school in the rain, go to class all day wet, and then leave in the evening and it was already dark outside.
Thursday: Had some nice dinner conversation with my host father about the socialism in France and how it affects the economy and jobs. I feel like I’m grasping more verbs and more eloquently expressing myself these days.
Friday: Our Alsacian Excursion. It started off pretty depressingly at the only concentration camp on French soil, Struthof. After having learned about the atrocities of the Nazis for almost my entire life (ty Roeper), nothing could have prepared me to see this. There were only empty buildings surrounded by tall barbed wire fences, a small museum, some memorial plaques and a large, very beautiful sculpture at the base of which was the burial place of an unknown victim of the camp. But just walking along the gravel path and inside the cold buildings was painful. I just kept trying to imagine what it must have been like, but it was almost impossible. Seeing images and hearing stories will never fully reveal the horror of what happened. And that’s why it’s so important to remember. And to think about Darfur.
After a very quiet hour there we got back on the bus to visit the Chateau de Haut Koenigsbourg. At the top of the Voges mountains, this chateau was built during the 12th century, destroyed by fire in 1633 and rebuilt by emperor Guillaume in the 19th century. It was very drafty but big and beautiful, and you could see basically all of Alsace from the towers. The site was amazing. Some of the rooms had nice furniture in them, but none of it was original. There were also frescoes on the dining hall walls and ceiling depicting the royal power of Guillaume and the German 1st Reich which was painted after the region was taken over. These were lively and expressive, with dancing women, men on horseback and wild vegetation. Finishing touches to the decorative scheme included a boar’s head, wooden figurines, a stuffed hawk and innumerable deer antlers.

Saturday: Tour of Notre Dame de Strasbourg. I have previously explored and written about this glorious building, so the tour wasn’t that exciting. Afterwards I went on the second weekly picnic in the Parc de l’Orangerie with some camembert, pinot blanc, apples, and friends.
Who knows what emotions tomorrow will bring?
A tout à l’heure.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Fall forecast

This is my host parents wedding picture. How cute is my père?

Real classes began this week.

French Literature: Apollinaire.
French Philosophy: Descartes.
French Language: Thesis.
French Reading: The Second Sex.
Plus auditing a Byzantine art history class at the real university and a beginning Italian class.
I’m making friends with the other international students in my language classes. The girls from Japan are very sweet and quiet. The girl from Korea is exuberant. The Turkish woman is thoughtful. The American girl (not me) is always annoyed.
I had a really good conversation about vegetarianism and politics with my père tonight. We talked about being liberal and what that meant in France vs. America. We talked about how France gets trends 10 years after America (in everything but fashion) and how they thought maybe vegetarianism would be in style soon. I doubt it. But it was interesting to think that something that I feel strongly about could become more of a trend than a real commitment.
I think my French is improving a little. It will take longer to see the end results.
We had a picnic at the big park yesterday. It was beautiful. We had cheese, bread, Alsacian wine, quetches (little plum/prunes regional to Alsace) and cookies (This is basically all I eat anymore, although my mère does make me omelets for dinner, which are delicious, so that I get a little dose of protein). Then I had some violet flavored ice cream. I don’t really know what a violet is supposed to taste like, but it had a delicious perfume flavor. And it was purple.
I found Hans Arp's house when I was walking the other day. It was a nice surprise.
It’s getting cold and wet here. But the leaves don’t have the vibrancy of Michigan at all. They turn brown and fall to the ground without anyone noticing. I miss apple cider.
I’ve been walking more than I ever have in my life. My walk to school everyday is 30 minutes, then out to lunch, then 30 minutes home. And going out anywhere at night is usually at least that far. I think it’s wearing my legs down. But it's wonderful to be able to go where ever you need to by just stepping outside. You don’t need to pay for gas or worry about getting a flat tire. You just go. And everything you need is right there.
Time to sleep and have more long, complicated dreams.
Bonne nuit.