Playing Catch-Up: Barcelona & Belgium Recap

Hello everyone!

I always thought I would be the one person to diligently keep up with her abroad blog, but alas, here we are, with exactly a full month separating this post and my last. I promise I have a good excuse: weekend excursions to both Barcelona and Belgium! (And, you know, some schoolwork…) Here are some highlights from the two trips – click on each picture to see it bigger, with a caption!

~Barcelona~

Barcelona was my first real trip of the semester, and the idea of getting on a plane solo and flying to a country where I knew 0% of the official languages (not Spanish, and certainly not Catalan) was a bit intimidating. Nevertheless, I made it to Orly Airport and caught my plane without any problems. In the city, I was met with a hug & lots of excitement from my friend Christina, who is studying there for the semester. It was so awesome to see her, and she was the perfect host, having already planned my tourist excursions before I even got there!

~Belgium~

My trip to Belgium was a nice little weekend getaway consisting mainly of chocolate, waffles and French fries (which were actually created in Belgium, not France!). My friend from BC, Jenn, and I hopped on a bus Friday morning and traveled four hours to Brussels, where our hostel was located. We spent the whole day exploring the city, which was beautiful. The next day, we took a one-hour train ride to Bruges, which was even more amazing: the city seems as though it belongs in a children’s storybook, and has an even greater abundance of chocolate and waffles than does Brussels. While Brussels is more of a contemporary European city, Bruges really just feels like a magical place preserved in history. All in all, it was a great weekend, and I am now convinced that the entire country of Belgium smells like freshly-made waffles.

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Advice for My Pre-Abroad Self

Processed with VSCOcam with c1 presetAlthough I enlisted the help of basically everyone I know in terms of asking for travel tips before I went abroad, there are a few things that only my current self, after one month of living in Paris, would know to give my past, pre-departure self as advice. So, without further ado:

Don’t overpack. I know this is impossible for you–but for starters, summer clothes are basically not necessary; you will only wear one or two pairs of shorts before temperatures drop. And are you really going to wear all 15 of those “going-out” tops?

Bring a rolling carry-on suitcase. A Vera Bradley duffel bag is perfect for weekend trips home from college when Dad picks you up in the car, but you’ll probably end up smacking some lady in the head with it on the metro if you try to bring it to Normandy. Plus, the pink and purple paisley print doesn’t exactly scream “Parisian chic.”

Three and a half months seems like forever, but it’s not. You’ll realize by the end of the first month in Paris how quickly the semester will fly by.

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Crêpes !

Street food is the best and cheapest way to eat. After a night out, when all you want is food, opt for the €3 crêpe at the outdoor stand (I recommend chocolate & banana, or the trendy salted caramel).

Wear layers & carry an umbrella. Believe it or not, the weather in Paris is even more bipolar than that of New England. Never forget your umbrella, because you will end up sprinting home from the metro in the pouring rain; carry a blanket scarf with you in your bag (to be used as either a blanket or scarf, depending on the situation).

Don’t give in to the temptation of Starbucks. A small latte and a mediocre scone will never be worth a combined total of $9. Drinking shots of espresso, black (€1-2) builds character.

H&M will be your best friend. Don’t fight it. Yeah, the quality isn’t awesome, but it still looks cool and you can’t afford anything else. Plus, there’s one in every major shopping area (there are 2 on the Rue de Rivoli alone).

Try all the food. You’ve always been pretty hesitant to taste new things, but you just have to go for it. You’re really not a picky eater, so stop being so stubborn: chances are, it’ll taste good (i.e. escargots), and even if it doesn’t, you’ll survive (i.e. rabbit).

Traveling is worth the money. When in doubt, buy the plane ticket. As my friend Tyler has said, “spending money on traveling in Europe is better than spending money on Chipotle and J.Crew back at BC.” Who knows when your next opportunity to jet off to Amsterdam or Barcelona will be?

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Impromptu wine nights by the Seine are the best

There will be rough times. Some days, one little, insignificant problem will arise and send you spiraling downward into an “I want to go home right now” mindset. Take a deep breath and eat some chocolate. You’ll be fine.

Always carry a corkscrew. The next chance to drink wine (usually outdoors, accompanied by friends, cheese and/or chocolate) is just around the corner, and you have to be prepared.

Reflections on the First Month

Bonjour à tous ! I apologize for the lack of blog post this past weekend, but it was for good reason: the BC in Paris program took all of its students on a trip to Normandy to tour the D-Day beaches, including the WWII memorial and museum at Caen and the American cemetery in Colleville. It was definitely an experience I will never forget. For more details and an extremely well-written reflection, I highly recommend reading my friend Carly’s blog post about the trip.

Walking on the beaches of Normandy

Walking on the beaches of Normandy

It’s really surreal for me to think that I have been living in Paris for a whole month now. Before I left home at the end of the summer, I was only thinking about the very immediate future in my new country–getting here, seeing all the big sights, and taking advantage of my newly acquired status as a drinking-age adult. I have now achieved all of those things (whether they were as I expected them to be or not is another story for another time), and it’s gotten to the point where I no longer feel like a visitor, but a resident in this city. This is the part that I had not imagined, the part where daily life settles back down to something vaguely reminiscent of what it would have looked like back home in the States.

In some ways, the excitement of being in Paris has waned, as my daily life has become a little more “normal”: excursions to a new monument everyday have become routine trips to the grocery store and the post office, and visiting the Louvre means completing an Art History assignment rather than taking a selfie with the Mona Lisa. That being said, there are moments where I am suddenly reminded of what an amazing opportunity this whole experience is, and I am starstruck all over again (for example: catching an unexpected glimpse of the Eiffel Tower sparkling as the sun sets… I’m sure you can imagine).

Paris as seen from the rooftop terrace of Galeries Lafayette

Paris as seen from the rooftop terrace of Galeries Lafayette

While I have adjusted to Paris more easily than I could have possibly hoped–I was sure I would be a homesick mess as soon as the plane touched down at Charles de Gaulle, which, thankfully, was not the case–I miss my family, friends, boyfriend, and Boston/BC/New England/the U.S. in general a ton. But, having lived in basically the same place my entire life, I think this semester is good for me in terms of a. getting out and seeing the world and b. being able to come back with a much greater appreciation for where I live. One of the best parts of the whole abroad experience might end up being flying home, spending Christmas in my hometown, and returning to BC for the spring semester with my friends, most of whom I will not have seen since this past May.

Until then… I still have 2.5 months left in Paris that I know will go by even faster than the first, and I’m ready to make them count!

Thanks for reading,

Ambrey

Maddie Takes Paris: Musée du Louvre, Notre Dame & Escargots

This weekend, I had the pleasure of welcoming one of my best friends from BC, Maddie, and her friends Gabby & Steph to Paris. Although they were only here for the weekend and I only saw them for about 12 hours, we fit a lot of sightseeing and eating into one day.

Me & Maddie at the Louvre

Me & Maddie at the Louvre

The morning started off with a visit to the Louvre. Since Maddie is a history major who interned at the MFA all summer, it was at the top of her list of things to do in Paris; this worked out well for me, since I had not yet been there. The Louvre is absolutely amazing; I don’t really love art museums in general, but I have to say that this was an exception (which makes sense, considering it’s probably the best art museum in the world). The building itself is a work of art, and it is so huge and full of countless masterpieces. It would be easy to get lost in there–we almost did, multiple times–and I’m not sure that would even be a bad thing.

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The Mona Lisa, or “La Jaconde” en français

Of course, this endeavor involved seeing the Mona Lisa. It was obviously great to have seen such a famous painting, but the swarm of tourists taking photos with iPads through which you have to elbow in order to get a glimpse is a bit of a downer.

After spending the morning and early afternoon wandering through the museum, we ventured over to Île de la Cité to visit the Notre Dame Cathedral. As with the Louvre, it was my first time entering the cathedral, although I had walked by it many times already. Despite the huge line of people waiting to get in, we were able to enter in about 15 minutes. The architecture and stained glass artwork within the church itself really did live up to the hype. Although we did not wait in line to pay and climb up the tower, we were happy to have walked around inside for a while & taken in the beauty.

Notre Dame

Notre Dame

Obviously, all of this walking & sightseeing warranted a reward in the form of a salted caramel crêpe (my favorite kind) by the Seine, after which I parted ways with Maddie and her friends for a few hours to go home, nap and change for dinner before our reservation at 8 p.m. We all met at the restaurant, a cute little French place called Vins et Terroirs, where we were greeted by an extremely nice waitstaff who welcomed my efforts in speaking French but were happy to talk to the other girls in English. We each ordered a glass of wine, and then Maddie and I went for the exact same meal: our first taste of escargots, and filet of duck in a honey glaze. I had heard that this restaurant was the best place to try out escargots, and it did not disappoint at all. They were absolutely delicious–this coming from a girl who refuses to try sushi–and I would 100% order them again. The duck was also amazing, with roasted potatoes and a bit of salad accompanying it perfectly. I think the best part of the dinner was that this entire meal only cost me €20!

Escargots, cooked in a delicious garlic/parsley/butter sauce

Escargots, cooked in a delicious garlic/parsley/butter sauce

Filet of duck in a honey glaze

Filet of duck in a honey glaze

To top off the night, we headed over to the Champ de Mars, where we met up with our friend Carly (who is also studying in Paris with me) to drink wine under the Eiffel Tower. It was perfect weather for it, and we were able to catch the Tower sparkling for 5 minutes at 11:00 p.m. sharp.

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See you in January!

All in all, a great weekend for me here in Paris. Now it’s back to school work!

À bientôt,

Ambrey

Burgers, Bars & Bus Tours: La Deuxième Semaine

Hello everyone! It feels like I just uploaded my previous blog post, but apparently it has actually been over a week. Time flies when you are in Europe I guess! Here’s the scoop on what I’ve been up to:

Places des Vosges in Le Marais

Places des Vosges in Le Marais

Visiting Le Marais. Le Marais, or in English “the Marsh,” is one of the nicest neighborhoods of Paris. It’s known as the part of the city where the youthful-and-hip-but-still-very-well-off folk live, otherwise known as the “bobo” (short for bourgeoisie bohémien). This is where the Place des Vosges is located, around which is situated some of the most expensive real estate in all of Paris. There is also a ton of really great shopping in the area. I walked around the neighborhood with my BC group, led by our assistant program coordinator, Claire. After our tour, we stopped at a restaurant called Benedict for brunch before class. I got a huge, delicious burger; ironically, it was better than most burgers I have had in the United States.

Working out (a little). I went for my first run in Paris one morning this week, just along one of the main streets near my apartment that conveniently has a huge, sandy sidewalk stretching about 3/4 of a mile. This is going to have to become a regular thing (while the weather is still good) based on all of the bread and cheese I have been eating. (Side note: my host mom made me a “cheese pie” for dinner the other night. This was literally the main dish. It was amazing.)

La Tour at night

La Tour at night

Bus touring. The BC program organizes little excursions for us, one of which was a double-decker bus tour this week in the evening. It was a really cool way to see the city, especially with the Eiffel Tower sparkling for 5 minutes on the hour, but it was 9:30 pm and I hadn’t eaten since lunch so I was a bit hangry (hungry + angry about being so hungry). Luckily, there was a Chipotle nearby that we raced to immediately afterwards; yes, I realize this is the least French/Parisian thing ever, but it was so necessary and so worth it.

Finishing up class. I had been taking a two-week intensive French language course for the past two weeks, as mentioned in a previous blog post, that just finished up on Friday. I definitely think it helped to improve my French, but the classes were so long (3-4 hours per day) and chock full of grammar that I am very happy it’s over.

A window display at Ladurée on the Champs-Elysées

A window display at Ladurée on the Champs-Elysées

Dining & drinking. On Friday, we had a big welcome dinner with all 30 BC students studying in Paris this semester/year. It was at a traditional French restaurant kind of near Le Marais, where I had salad, duck, and a chocolate fudgey dessert thing. It was all pretty good, but I think I’ll stick to chicken from now on. This was the first time that we had been with all the other BC kids rather than just the ones from our schools in Paris, so it was good to meet them all. Afterwards, we bought some cheap wine at the grocery store and sat by the Seine for a few hours until it was time to take the metro home.

Going out. Last night, I went out with some friends from BC as well as some Canadian friends from our school that we met during the intensive French seminar. We found a cool bar near Bastille (the eastern side of Paris) with a great DJ – the few other bars we have gone to in the city have had pretty awful music, so this was a welcome change.

That’s pretty much my week in a nutshell. Tomorrow, the semester really begins, with the first week of real classes!

À bientôt,

Ambrey

La Première Semaine

Bonjour à tous! It’s been less than a week since I wrote my first blog post, but already so much has happened since then. Almost immediately, we were thrown into orientation meetings and our intensive French seminar (which, at three hours per day every day, is actually very intensive).

Outside the Louvre

Outside the Louvre

This class is very unique in that it contains students from literally all over the world: we are separated into different levels for our classes, and in mine, I am the only American. I can’t say I’ve ever experienced that situation before. There are students from Italy, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Canada, Korea, Germany, Spain… the list goes on. I don’t actually know where all of my classmates are from, to be honest. This has been a really good experience because I can now say I know people from all parts of the world! The class itself has also been good; we are basically just reviewing French grammar and practicing our speaking. For me, the grammar is easy, but speaking is the difficult part. I think the practice is helping me a little bit in my everyday interactions with my host family, though.

This brings me to the topic of my host family: I am really enjoying staying with the Guilmard family, as they are very welcoming and are patient with me when I am struggling to say something in French. Since I have breakfast at the apartment everyday, Mme. Guilmard asked me what I liked to eat for breakfast, and went out and bought me Quaker oats and brown sugar so that I can make oatmeal everyday. Apparently oatmeal is not very commonly eaten for breakfast in France.

I also eat dinners with the family about 4-5 times per week, and they have all been delicious so far. The first night, Mr. Guilmard came home from having been in Normandy for the weekend with a full lobster, which Mme. G cooked and we cracked at the table. It was my first real experience with eating lobster, but it was pretty good! We have also had pot roast, spaghetti, etc., all of which I have enjoyed.

Inside of St. Sulpice

Inside of St. Sulpice

A typical dinner with my host family consists of 5 courses, beginning with some soup or broth, then a “salad” of sorts (tomatoes, cucumbers, etc. tossed in a sauce), then the main course, then the cheese course, and finally dessert. So, don’t worry Mom, I’ve definitely been well fed!

As for exploring in Paris, I have not had the chance to do too much yet with my class taking up a large chunk of the day, but we did explore the neighborhood of Saint-Germain-des-Pres the other morning, which was fun. We went to the church of Saint Sulpice, which is the largest church in Paris in regards to how many people it can seat for a Sunday Mass. This walking tour also led us to the Pont des Arts (the infamous lock bridge, from which the locks have now been removed) and the Louvre. The Louvre was huge and beautiful even just from the outside, but I think the best part was large amount of people standing on concrete blocks attempting to take a photo with their finger on the point of the glass triangle. It was such an awkward sight, and although I am partially a tourist in this city, I draw the line at that.

On the Pont des Arts, overlooking the Seine

On the Pont des Arts, overlooking the Seine

All in all, I haven’t had much to complain about in Paris, but there is one thing I will whine about: the coffee. It’s seriously awful. I left the United States fairly addicted to the stuff, but that has diminished greatly. A typical coffee here is really just a tiny cup of watered-down espresso; a café au lait is a little better, containing milk in addition to the watery espresso, but even then it comes in tiny portions. I’m going to admit that I did go to Starbucks yesterday, and nothing has ever tasted so good; however, it cost me about five bucks for the smallest size, so that won’t be a regular thing.

So worth the walk to Starbucks & the $5

So worth the walk to Starbucks and $5

So far, the biggest challenges that I have experienced are the language barrier (obviously), and above all the need to grocery shopping. Having lived at my parents’ house or in a dorm with a meal plan all my life, I’ve never had to do this, but I’m quickly realizing that I can’t eat lunch at a restaurant everyday because of how much it costs. This weekend, I’ll try to go to Monoprix and tackle that – but in the meantime, I’m off to go to the top of the Eiffel Tower & do some sightseeing for the day!

À tout à l’heure,

Ambrey

Day 1: Le voyage

The past 18 hours since I left Boston have pretty much been a whirlwind of time changes, flight connections, and half-hearted attempts at sleeping on a moving vehicle (which I am miserable at doing). Consequently, this post may only be partially coherent, but bear with me.

My family brought me to Logan around 3:30 pm (Boston time) yesterday afternoon, where we checked my luggage and grabbed some snacks at the airport café. This in itself was a victory, considering that I had two huge suitcases densely packed with space bags full of clothes, shoes, and toiletries (Aer Lingus only allows one checked bag per passenger), and that each bag was a good two or three pounds over the 50 lb weight limit.

After an hour or so, I said goodbye to my parents & Juliette at the security checkpoint and went to find my gate and wait to board the plane. This all went as smoothly as I could have hoped considering it was my first time flying alone, and my first transatlantic flight since the age of 3. The one thing I realized was that I have never had to fly before as a full-sized adult human; they weren’t kidding when they said airplanes have absolutely zero leg room.

Both flights were good overall, as I was able to get a few light naps in that held me over until Paris so that my body kind of got into the rhythm of the new time zone. My first flight to Dublin served a full dinner as well as two rounds of snacks, so I was pretty content with that. The second flight was on a smaller Aer Lingus plane from Dublin to Charles de Gaulle at about 5:00 am GMT, which was only about an hour long. I slept more heavily on this flight, for better or for worse: I was still asleep when the plane began landing, and upon hearing the crash of the landing gear hitting the pavement I was pretty sure we were falling out of the sky (obviously not the case).

After taking the airport shuttle bus from the airplane to the actual building that is CDG airport, I collected my awkwardly heavy suitcases and managed to load them onto one of the buggies and roll them out to where I would meet the driver of the shuttle service that my parents and I had arranged ahead of time. Within about 20 minutes, I was standing on the sidewalk outside my host family’s apartment right in the heart of the seizième (16th) arrondissement of Paris.

The view from my bedroom window, complete with balcony!

The view from my bedroom window, complete with balcony!

After my host mother greeted me and I lugged everything up the building’s miniature ascenseur (elevator), I was given a tour of the apartment, including my bedroom, the bathroom, kitchen, etc. (the most important parts, obviously). Also, my host mother, Mme. Guilmard, revealed that there is another exchange student staying in the apartment with us, which I was not aware of based on our limited e-mail correspondence over the summer. Her name is Katie and she is a student at Skidmore College. I think we were both a little bit relieved that we would be staying together, especially because Mme. does not speak any English (or so she says….) and M. Guilmard, who I will meet at dinner this evening, only speaks a little. While I can understand pretty much everything Mme. says and respond adequately, my speaking skills need some work. Especially because of how tired I was, it was difficult to put sentences together in French and then actually speak the words. I’m hoping that gets a little better once I have adjusted a bit more.

So, for the remainder of the day I unpacked my suitcases and took a shower, which was much needed after being on an airplane for about eight hours in the same outfit. After getting settled, Mme. and I went out on foot for a lesson on how to use the metro, as well as a trip to les magasins (the shops), specifically le boulanger (the bakery) and le super-marché (the supermarket). 

From what I can tell, the Paris metro is extremely easy to use, very logical, and very efficient – basically, the opposite of the Boston MBTA system in every way except for its basic concept. It is always on time and the cars on most of the major lines do not even have a conductor; they just operate on their schedule, and God forbid you try to get through the doors after the bell has gone off.

My room in the midst of the unpacking process

My room in the midst of the unpacking process

As for the shopping, we visited a Monoprix, which I had heard of before arriving in Paris. I thought it was just a clothing store comparable to H&M, but upon entering, discovered that it is all that plus a makeup counter, a drugstore, and a supermarket rolled into one. Basically, you could shop only at Monoprix for the rest of your life and be reasonably well dressed, fed and entertained. The boulanger was just as you would expect a French boulanger du quartier (neighborhood bakery) to be, complete with warm baguettes that you carry in the crook of your arm as you walk back to your apartment.

After all this walking (also just basic functioning, considering that I got barely any sleep) I came back to the apartment and immediately got into bed, falling asleep for a good two hours.  I think that nap was just what I needed, but I am currently quite disoriented and hungry. Tonight I will be having dinner with my host family, which I am looking forward to because I haven’t had much in the way of a proper meal since leaving home.

Tomorrow marks the beginning of my Parisian university experience, with an orientation beginning at 10 am and the first few hours of my two-week intensive French seminar in the afternoon. À tout à l’heure!