Monday, November 27, 2006

Vert Claire

When a Kalamazoo College student is sent abroad, it is to study and learn, not to vacation. As if there weren’t enough hours in the day I have to go to class or speak French, let us add another minimum 40 hours of time devoted to an “Integrative Cultural Research Project” i.e. ICRP. The goal of this project, culminating in a 10 page social analysis paper written in French, is to further submerge the student in the culture and everyday life of a Strasbourgeois, improve spoken language, and utilize “problem-solving skills.” I tried very hard to get an internship in an art gallery or a museum, something that would really interest me and look good on a resume, but after having many doors quietly shut behind my back after being told to come back later, I decided to give the little florist shop, an eight minute walk from my house, a try. (This is a wreath I helped decorate)

The owner, a small, thin, tan, blonde, Armani-wearing woman with an enormous purple diamond ring on her right hand and an ear-piece for her cell phone perpetually in her ear, hired me over the phone. I came into the shop the next day to start working. She says things like, “I’m giving you big kisses” over the phone, and it’s not strange because she’s French and she owns a business and is trying to make everyone happy.
I started off learning all the basics: sweeping, mopping and cleaning the flowers. This all went well up until Cecilia, my 24 year old co-worker who is a little bossy but very sweet, and from whom I am learning my French swear words, demonstrated the “correct” way to cut the stems on an angle: toward yourself using your thumb as a base.

Now, as it was my first day and I was trying to make a good impression, I couldn’t directly defy the kind advice of this young woman. But could I go against the first rule I had been taught (by my mother, by Christie, by Sharon) about cutting things: always cut away from yourself? At that moment I knew I would bleed that day. And bleed I did. I was actually almost done with the entire bunch of daisies when the knife slipped and cut right into my abnormally fleshy thumb. This photo I think sums it up.
After that things went more smoothly. I met the head florist, Bruno, a man never without his coffee and cigarette, who likes to talk to me about politics and music (especially Madonna), teach me how to make floral arrangements and advent wreaths, and above all make sure I’m alright (I’m pretty sure everyone in this country likes to compare me to a little mouse). I also met the other two students, Sofia and Laurence, who are a little slow sometimes, but usually very helpful.

So far I have rearranged the store to accommodate new Christmas merchandise, spray painted, threaded wire onto bulbs, made a few wreaths, and decorated two exclusive store fronts and the entrance to one of the nicest hotels in Strasbourg. I’ve been having a lot of fun doing this too. I feel very welcomed in the store and even though I’m trying to work hard I feel like there isn’t too much pressure on me and if I make a mistake it’s correctable and I would learn from it. Maybe this is just the 35 hour/39 paid work week talking, but I like the laid back atmosphere of French work. People aren’t lazy, most of the time; they’re just comfortable. And the work usually gets done, and it’s always beautiful. But I’m not very optimistic about the Lisbon agenda for the EU, a.k.a. Europe becomes the worlds strongest economy by 2010. Working to live sounds much better than living to work.
Another nice perk about working at the florist is that I get free flowers to give to my host mother. Basically, she loves me.

Sunday, November 19, 2006


Today I spent 5 hours making Thanksgiving dinner for my host family. I think they liked it.

I bought lots of fresh ingredients from the market near my house.

This was during the stuffing process. I started crying when I was chopping the onion; I missed my Mom, and the onion was strong.

I was worried about the pumpkin pie because I had never made one before, especially without filling from a can. It bubbled in the oven, but was very smooth.

The table was set for three with some good red wine. J'ai bien reussi.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

At The Ballet

First of all, the Carte Culture (a card available from the university that allows students to buy cultural event tickets for usually 5.50 euro) has been my friend since I’ve arrived in Strasbourg. I’ve had the opportunity to go to an opera, a symphony, a jazz concert, and the museum of modern and contemporary art, and now a ballet, Le Prince des Pagodes, basically for free. Now, we all know that ballets are always a little melodramatic. Let’s just say, there’s something to be said about only having paid 5.50 euro.
Opening: A young ruler, obviously of some nondescript Asian dynasty, is dethroned (but not killed) by an evil older man with a crazy curly ponytail. Apparently some years later, (explanations were kidnapped from this show) the emperor is visited by 4 young rulers from all different corners of the globe; the “European,” the “Mongolian/Native American” (dressed in leather fringe and long black hair), the “Arabian” and the “African” (a white guy with a dark colored body suit and corn rows, even though there was one black dancer in the company) perform racially offensive solos and seem to offer their hands in marriage to the two daughters of the ruler. The first daughter is a ruthless, power-hungry woman who ends up stealing the kingdom from her own father, while the second beautiful, good-hearted daughter is praised and desired by all of the suitors. So who gets her? A large paper frog/monster that appears, for no reason, in the background and out of whose mouth emerges a cloaked stranger with what looks like a glowing, new apple macbook. The good daughter opens the white object that looks like the reason I envy my sister, to find a golden rose that casts a spell over her and compels her to follow the stranger into the mouth of the frog/demon. End first act.
Second Act: Beauty and the Beast meets Nutcracker with some Lion King thrown in for extra punch. The good daughter finds herself in dreamland inside the stomach of the monster, complete with a styx-worthy gondola. She encounters creatures that wear nothing but sequins. She is surrounded by doctors in surgical gowns with long white bandages flowing from their arms. She is entangled in a mass of fish and sea cucumber people who actually make swimming motions on stage. She finally ends in a forest of sorts; a clearing of multi-tired cone trees that come to life before her eyes. She then performs a 10 minute solo, that could have been edited to 5, with an amazing mono-colored nightmare coat, during which she scrubs her face like an obsessive complusive. Enter the Chinese dragon, with toothbrush bristle teeth, maneuvered by at least 25 people. This was basically like watching an oversized game of snake. After the beast had made at least three tedious circles around the stage it vomited out the larvae of a man: the grown rightful prince, of course. A pretty pas de deux ensues, they kiss, he jumps back into the dragon, and we’re done with the second act.
Third Act: You might think resolution, and you would be mistaken. The daughter makes her way out of the dreamland, again apparently a lot of time has passed because the first daughter has gained maniacal rule over the kingdom and the father has gone crazy, but this is not actually made clear. The good daughter returns to set the world straight, and brings with her the dragon to teach her sister and father a lesson, but not without a fight. The father and the rightful prince duke it out in the most boring wooden samurai sword fight I have ever witnessed in my existence. So boring in fact, that a ladder (a prop that the director probably found laying around and decided to throw in because even he knew the 10 minute fight scene was so bad) is added to the brawl so that the audience wouldn’t get up and leave. In the end, the prince wins back the kingdom, makes the good daughter his queen, but doesn’t kill the sister or the father, and the creatures from dreamland are freed from their cumbersome costumes and become human beings again and dance around happily (I think the people at Disney deserve a big round of applause for contributing so much to this work).
This ballet really wouldn’t have been so bad if the dancing was enthralling and the technical aspects of the show were seamless. Unfortunately this was not the case; the dancing was mediocre and there was a moment when the curtains actually opened behind the characters during a scene. It turned out the only redeeming qualities of the show were the very last pas de deux and the ridiculous story I would be able to tell about it.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

The leaves that are green turn to brown

The scent of fall has descended upon the little city of Strasbourg, and with it came a sore throat and a runny nose that are really more endearing than annoying. I took my midterms on Thursday and am looking forward to taking finals in just over a month.
This weekend was nice and quiet; I read, ran, went to the museum of modern and contemporary art, and went to a small get-together chez Jason.
But by far the best few hours were spent making pancakes for my host family on Sunday morning, accompanied by real maple syrup. I’ve wanted to make them “American food” for a while now, but it’s so hard to think of meals that don’t have European roots and taste good without meat (France isn’t big on tofu). So I decided that pancakes would make me happy, and taste delicious all at the same time.
Reasons why this was the best breakfast I’ve had in months:
1) I cooked pancakes in my pajamas
2) We listened to Daisy May and other folk music to warm the soul as well as the
3) I explained rooibos tea to my host father who is an amateur tea connoisseur
4) They loved the pancakes and took the recipe so they could make them themselves
5) We had real conversation that didn’t involve me hesitating on every sentence

This was sort of an epiphany for me. I was able to talk with them, understand them, and joke with them like a normal human being. I felt like I was actually a part of their family, definitely not a daughter, but maybe a niece or godchild. And I could form phrases and be funny. Humor is something I really miss about speaking French. It seems impossible to be funny because it’s hard enough being understood, let alone trying to be sarcastic or witty; you mostly come off as being stupid.
More proof that I can actually speak French: I had a conversation with the mail man and he didn’t have to ask me to repeat anything.
Because of this wonderful experience brought to me by food, I’ve decided to take on the task of preparing a small, but hearty, thanksgiving dinner on Sunday, complete with turkey (not a whole bird since there are only 3 of us and I will not be partaking), stuffing, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie. I’m sure this will both ease my heart in knowing that millions of others across the ocean will be doing the same in just a few days, and make me homesick for my family who will be gathered together without me.

These pictures are things that I see everyday; on my way to school or just around the city. This last one is from the Christmas carnival that is already set up for the season.
Bonne journée.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Drama, in the best sense possible

Madrid was incredible. I didn’t really know what to expect upon arrival, but nothing disappointed me, especially my beautiful friend.
Spanish culture seems to me to be incredibly expressive, decorative and dramatic; first with the Prado and the Reina Sofia museums and their outstanding collections including El Greco, Picasso, Miro, Dali and Goya paintings. I have been aching to see these pieces since I began studying art, and it was a dream to finally be in front of them. They were more powerful than I was expecting, especially Guernica and the Goya paintings. The black backgrounds of so many of the paintings I saw highlighted the stark figures and created and theatricality uniquely Spanish.

Second, the flamenco show with rhythmic clapping and foot stamping, heartfelt singing and dancing, and incredibly fast guitar playing made for an intense night. I would love to take a class just to learn how to make my wrists, and the swishing of my skirt, convey so much emotion. Third, to the insane nightlife that is Madrid; where staying out dancing until 6am is just another fun night, and the old women on the metro (who, by the way, aren’t sleeping either) don’t look down on you at all. All of this, plus the delicious paella and sangria, and the highly decorated buildings that lavish every plaza, sum up one of the best cities I’ve ever visited.

There were things that I didn’t expect from Madrid, like how urban it is; very much like NYC, with dirt, beggars and traffic. It can be dangerous, although thankfully I didn’t actually experience this. But I did gain first hand knowledge of the strong machismo alive in Spain. It’s hard to go through a day without being called “guapa” by strange men whose intentions are unknown. I didn’t think that the meal times would be so different; but eating lunch at 2 or 3 pm, then taking a siesta until 5 pm really does make a difference when your dinner is pushed back until 10 pm. I also wasn’t expecting to be able to understand as much Spanish as I did. I was often confused about what was being said by Annie’s host family or by other people around me, but I could pick out words and phrases, and was even able to get out a few simple sentences.

Our last full day was also amazing. We went to Segovia, a small town outside of Madrid with an ancient roman aqueduct and an immensely decorated church with at least 15 side chapels filled with paintings and statues. It was impressive how stable and strong the concrete arches were after so long. And the decoration of the church was very different from those I’ve seen in France, with fewer stained glass windows and ten times more gold leaf.

I would love to go back to Spain, and see Sevilla and other cities, and more of the country. It’s so different from France, which I love. It has such a deep and complicated history that I want to learn more about. It has churros and chocolate. And it doesn’t give me homework.