Métropolitain Monday, Jun 14 2010 

There are few engineering feats I consider more impressive than the subway system in Paris. To people who have never taken a subway, it would seem like the epitome of scary: riding a very rapidly moving transport medium dozens of feet underground, pressing yourself uncomfortably close to complete strangers who do not share your language. But to those of us who have become veterans of the métro in Paris, it’s un morceau de gateau (piece of cake)… sort of.

The métro system opened in 1900, without ceremony. It has expanded to 16 lines today, carrying 4.5 million people each day and over 1.4 billion people annually.

The two Lauras and I left Paris on June 9th during rush hour in Paris. Our last stop before getting to Charles de Gaulle Airport was taking the RER, a more expensive commuter train that runs through and around Paris. Thousands of people take the RER every day. What these thousands of people do NOT do is carry every belonging on their person. They MAYBE carry a briefcase. I, however, was not holding a briefcase–I was holding 1) a giant rolly suitcase that was emblazoned (embarrassingly) with AMERICAN TOURISTER, 2) a royal blue backpacker’s bag that towered over my head by 10 inches and 3) an Eddie Bauer backpack that made me look like I was pregnant with quadruplets.

When we got to the RER station, the Lauras and I were at the cusp of success–the only thing left to do was board the train and get to Charles de Gaulle Airport. But when the train approached, O LA VACHE (holy cow!), every Parisian was ON the métro. I didn’t care. I was French enough to fight my way into the train and stand there, the width and bulk of at least 3 Parisians, praying that I wasn’t going to get trampled. The train screeched to a halt, the first batch of people swarmed off, bumping into each other and scattering like sheep. I plowed ahead, and that’s when I heard a howl from in back of me. Laura the Chef couldn’t get on the train. There simply wasn’t enough room for her! As the train started moving, I craned my neck to see her, and the doors started to close, menacingly.

“LAAAAURA!!!! TAKE THE NEXT TRAAAAAAAIN!!!!” I bellowed, throughly American in my volume and desperation, while I saw the mass of Laura the Chef get pushed to the wayside by people.

As Laura rapidly planned which train to take to Charles de Gaulle in absence of the one in which I was currently being smushed, she witnessed a woman trying desperately to squeeze herself into the tin of sardines that the métro had become by this point. The doors would not completely shut, however, so someone began to pull her out of the RER. But horrors! The doors began to close again and at the same time, the train began to move so that the woman was trapped between inside and outside the RER. At the last minute, she freed herself and pulled away from the train which, along with me and Laura T, sped away toward Charles de Gaulle Aéroport.

It couldn’t get worse, I told myself. What I didn’t realize was that when Parisians have to get somewhere, they don’t care if there are walls in their way. The walls had better move or they’ll get mowed over. The same thing goes with a woman laden with every personal belonging, clinging cat-like to a center pole in a moving subway, sweating profusely by this point. If the woman doesn’t move, she will get jostled and body-slammed until the wave of exiting people ends and the ENTERING begins. I have a tiny idea of what someone who is looking smack into a tsunami might feel: when you are facing a sea of Parisians on a rush-hour RER, nothing passes through your mind except, “ah non, here it comes!” and you brace yourself for impact.

To make a redundant story short, after two stops (which doesn’t sound like a long time but it truly is an eternity), most of Paris got OFF the RER, and I was left with the rest of the sweating people, lugging equally obnoxious baggage off to Charles de Gaulle and their flights. Looking back, it’s rather dream-like. I’m not sure how I got on the métro, off the métro or even had the ability not to get robbed. But somehow, not only did I manage to live through the RER experience, but I lived through the airport experience, the flight experience and the counter-culture shock experience when I got home.

When it comes down to it, the crazy Parisian métro is just one more little hurdle, and when I sat down at my aunt and uncle’s kitchen table with a giant plate of chocolate chip cookies and ice cold milk, I forgot all about my trials and relished being home and being American.

[I have two more posts to share with you. Stick around for the goodbyes and thank yous!]

To learn more about the métro and it’s fascinating history (and to see a map!!) click here.

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Dispelling the Myths: The “American” Study Abroad Experience Friday, May 21 2010 

I have spent the morning reading my University of North Dakota colleagues’ experiences overseas this past year, and I felt ashamed that the one thing I have not conveyed to the general population is what Study Abroad really is and is NOT about. I feel compelled, as in any post, to teach my readers something about the system of studying overseas, culture or how to overcome obstacles. Therefore, I give you: dispelling the myths of the “American” studying abroad experience.

I will be completely honest and say that when Study Abroad told me that the process of applying to another college, getting a visa, booking plane tickets, organizing classes, rearranging my courses at UND and bracing myself for culture shock would be EASY… I believed them. I know they meant well, but they lied to me. It’s not easy. It’s excruciatingly difficult. The difficulty of studying abroad is what gives the Study Abroad advisors their jobs. If it were so ridiculously simple, I could have done the paperwork myself! Just getting on the airplane pointed toward my destination felt like a HUGE accomplishment!

Traveling is exhausting!

And just in case you didn’t feel like you accomplished anything by getting on an airplane where the pilot speaks your native language, the next step is even more worthy of a victory dance. The culture shock of studying abroad is nothing to skim over. You’ll recall my entry about the Culture Shock Ninja and his sneaky ways! I do not jest. He is very sneaky.

Culture Shock Ninja Weapons: 1 Kg of Nutella and a Spoon!

Study Abroad is many things, but it is not a chance for a student to go overseas for the express purpose of getting themselves sloshed every night and to wake up with a splitting headache.

Study Abroad is not about going to every country except the one you came to acquaint yourself with. If you came to learn a language and meet the native speakers, why go globetrotting? See the sights! Enjoy the culture! Drink the wine! Speak with the native speakers (even though their Normandy accent is almost impossible to understand)!

Studying overseas is NOT cheap. It does NOT cost the same as your in-state tuition. The end.

Too bad that's a 1000 Czech crown note and not EUROS!

Trains Trains and more Trains! They aren't always reliable, especially in France and the national sport of "Striking!"

Americans have the same warped perceptions of how “small” Europe is in the same way the Europeans have a warped perception of how giant North America is. It takes a very long time to get from point A to B via train.

Study Abroad IS, however, an experience of a lifetime. When I tried to wiggle out of studying abroad, the realization that I would never get another experience like this one struck me, and I signed on (with much fear and trembling!) for the bumpy ride.

Study of a language abroad is invaluable to acquisition. It takes seeking out the people with whom you do not share a common language outside of French and talking with them, stumbling through bad grammar and phraseology in order to convey your thoughts.

It is a way to shrink the world. You will find that you’re only a plane ride away from your family and just down the hall from the girl from Italy who’ll be your friend for the rest of your life. You may even be in the same CITY as your culturally-adopted family!

University Family

My new Brothers and Sisters

It is a time for growth: physically, mentally, academically and spiritually.

Studying abroad is a time to be flexible in your sleep schedule, your class schedule and your every-day comforts. It’s a time to let go of things you thought you absolutely need to live and see how it is to live like a true adventurer!

Study abroad is a unique opportunity to make lifelong friends, cultural adjustment, sacrifices, splurges and life-changing decisions.

So! With the truth before you, what will you do with your life? Where are you going with your goals, and are your goals used to bring glory to yourself or others? Are you ready for adventure? Are you ready to grow emotionally, physically and spiritually?

Go ahead, jump. Do something great.

Kamakazi Culture Shock Thursday, May 6 2010 

I have an apology to make to my faithful followers: I have given you a warped sense of living in France. You may have thought that living in France has been nothing but sunshine and flowers, pain au chocolat and fantastic churches. I have been careful to conceal all meltdowns I have experienced and have realized that by doing so have given you a warped sense of the emotional rollercoaster ride that is studying abroad. However, the truth has been hidden long enough and therefore, I give you the post where I admit to going a bit grey over French and Culture Shock.

If Culture Shock had a human form, it’d be a ninja. Stealthy, plotting, sneaky–it attacks when you least expect it. It comes out of thin air and kamakazi attacks you from behind without giving you time to arm yourself with the weapons needed for hand-to-hand Culture Shock Combat. The Culture Shock Ninja doesn’t leave very many survivors, either. Victims can be identified by the blank, mindless stare most commonly found among beginning French students mid-worksheet at about 4 PM on any given day of the week. Sometimes victims burst into random tirades in English or fervent “Franglais” protesting whatever injustice they feel has been dealt them and in extreme cases, the victim may burst into tears and threaten (if only to herself!) to leave the classroom.

The Culture Shock Ninja is very cunning, too. He doesn’t only use the culture in question as a means for emotional, physical or psychological distress. He uses every single instance around you to slowly grate away at your nerves until–all at once–you flip out! “WHY IS THERE NO HEAT IN MY ROOM?!”  she may or may not yell to nobody. “DON’T THEY KNOW IT’S COLD IN THIS BUILDING?! ARE THEY INSANE?! I’M GOING TO FREEZE TO DEATH IN FRANCE!!!!!!!!!!!!” Also very common is the distinct lack of chocolate resources when the Culture Shock Ninja strikes. It is widely suggested throughout the Culture Shock World that the Culture Shock Ninja waits until chocolate resources are at their most minimal and then makes its attack. The victim, upon realizing she has no chocolate resources and may suffer frostbite at the hands of the person who turned off her heat may be observed to yell, “WHY DO I HAVE NO CHOCOLATE???! THIS IS MADNESS! I AM GOING TO MARCHE PLUS THIS INSTANT FOR AT LEAST 10 EUROS WORTH OF FATTENING SUBSTANCES!!!!!!!!!” and then stalks off in a full-on chocolate hunt.

Another weapon that the Culture Shock Ninja uses is environmental annoyances. For example, the victim, while sitting in a classroom of depressing bareness can become so worked-up over the slamming of  the doors, scraping of chairs from upstairs, clicking pens, snapping joints, incessantly sniffing noses, tippy desks and scratching chalk that she may or may not have just enough self control not to 1) lock the doors by whatever means necessary, 2) tip over every chair in the building in angst, 3) snatch pens away from classmates, 4) hand out tissues and insist that they “blow” and 5) break every piece of chalk that the teacher has in her possession into the tiniest shards possible.

So what, you may be asking, is the remedy for such awful symptoms of the Culture Shock Ninja? There are weapons to combat the Culture Shock Ninja if you feel its presence or its impending attack. Go for a walk to Marche Plus to buy boatloads of nice things to eat (i.e. substances with a lot of endorphines also known as Dark French Chocolate (DFC)). Go for a walk to the castle while listening to show tunes, singing along to them on your iPod while skipping. Make some tea and write a blog post about your grey hair. Take a deep breath and tell yourself that you only have a few days left in the country. Seek out the wonderful hugs you know your friends are ready to give. Boo-hoo on their shoulders, taking care to soak them throughly (it’s okay to cry). Realize that you really do love France, you wouldn’t change the experience for the world, and everything will be better in the morning.