Belgium

I’ve lost count now of how many times I’ve been to Brussels. I’ve got the entire routine down, memorized, and I almost hate that because the trip is an enormous hassle. But always in the end, despite the extra-lengths of getting to and from Brussels via Spain is without a doubt worth ever second of the annoying journey.

As always I sat on the plane, and then the bus, and then the train, nervously and anxiously and excitedly awaiting my arrival at Chez Peebles. My palms were sweating and despite being exhausted, I couldn’t sleep for a second on the plane due to my unnerving excitement. Continue reading

Brussels II

Brussels has been the place I’ve given most attention to in the past year because I so desperately wanted to study there for my Master’s. However, after my previous visit, we’ve all seen my great disappointment in the school I found there. I would have looked into other schools but it seems that French is such a fundamental element to their education that I would fall short of understanding.  Regardless, Brussels continues to be a place that I like better and better.

I went out there last week to visit Chloé for three reasons. One was to just pass the time since I’ve finished working. The other was to see Chloé (and Olivia of course). But third, it was also Chloé’s birthday.

I arrived Thursday morning bright and early. I had the entire city to myself. Not even Chloé was there at the moment, she was in Amsterdam visiting family. She left me the keys to her flat at the newspaper stand across the street from her place. She wrote me out a script to tell the man in French. I entered, said, “Bonjour” the best that I could, and I tried to read the note Chloé left me with the most authentic French accent I could muster. The guy looked at me strangely at first, but then understood what I meant. He laughed and handed me the keys and then in a broken English accent said, “There you are.”  I smiled, grabbed the keys, and left, proud that I was already speaking French.

The rest of the day was spent alone, wandering Brussels getting to discover it for myself. I had always been accompanied by Chloé but this time I got to make my own agenda.

After eating lunch, I went to the Atomium. I’m not entirely sure what it is but it’s this giant sculpture in the form of an atom. Chloé told me it was boring and not worth the visit which is why she had never taken me, but I know that it’s an icon of Brussels so I wanted to see it for myself.

Afterwards, I returned to the city center and went to the Modern Art Museum and saw a special photography exhibit by Stanley Kubrick. It was absolutely wonderful. He has always been one of my favorite directors but I didn’t know he was such a talented photographer.

Eventually I made it back to Chloé’s house, pretty tired from having walked so much and having slept only a few hours the night before. I ended up falling asleep on her couch only to be woken by her and Olivia a few hours later.

The rest of my trip was spent meeting all of Chloé’s friends around town. Our first night we went to a small get-together to drink, talk, and watch Italy beat Germany in the EuroCup.  The people at the party were all wonderful, inviting, and seemed to have really gotten a kick out of having an American there.  Most of us were pretty divided by language since my French is so elementary as well as their English. But I ended up getting the attention of all these Belgian guys as we discussed anything from music to politics. I’d see a few of them, including the girl that had the party again at Chloé’s birthday.

The next day we were pretty groggy and I was still overtired from not sleeping the night before, so we took it easy. At night, we went out with some more of Chloé’s friends, had a few delicious Belgian beers and then called it a night. My favorite part was the bike ride home. We rented bikes to get from point A to point B. I dearly miss cruising through cities on bike, especially at night. When I move to Barcelona in August, I am definitely getting one.

On Saturday, we woke up and had a picnic in this gorgeous park. We sat there for several hours just talking, eating and reading. To all of our surprise despite the cloudy day, we all ended up getting pretty sun burnt. Go figure getting burnt in a place famous for having considerably dreadful weather year round.

Eventually we made our way back to Chloé’s flat to prepare for her birthday party. We made food and got cocktails already. Chloé had devised a fun game for her birthday: everyone had to wear a name tag with the name of the first street they lived on. Then, everyone was given a Hawaiian lei and if you called the person by their real name, you had to give it up.  Some people ended up with several lei’s and others with none.

Chloé’s birthday was a blast. There were so many people there and everyone was kind enough to make an effort to speak English so that I could understand. When they did speak in French, I tried so hard to understand but it only resulted in me getting a really bad headache. Once the moment came for us to all go out, we went to a wild karaoke bar until about six in the morning when we went home for me to grab my bag and then head directly to the airport since I had a morning flight.

Brussels, as boring as Chloé says it is, continues to amaze me. It’s always a riot for me. I love the quaintness of the city, but also it’s grandiose internationalness. I felt like a complete loser there, only being capable of speaking two languages. There you meet people who speak several languages, have family all over the world and are just so downright international. I guess I hold my own as being a cien por cien American, but everyone there is just so well educated and interesting.  I really hope to move there after my master’s to attempt to make myself more international. Even just talking to the people, I feel like I’m learning so much. In the few days I was there, I feel like I learned more French, more about other countries, more about my own country and just about things in general than I have in college. Not only was it a trip for pleasure, but for knowledge. And those are always the best kinds of trips.

Missing Chloé and Olivia as always. Hope to see them soon.

Write more later,

Graham

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La France Profonde

Thus begins my adventure to La France Profonde and my first full-immersion into French culture via the American way.  By that I mean I stayed with Chloé’s incredible multi-national Franco-American family.  I couldn’t have asked for better company and a more inviting family: I owe Chloé and her family everything for giving me one of the most unique, interesting, and overall enlightening experiences of my life. Not only did they take amazing care of me that I will forever be indebted to, but they also showed me the real French way of life which no one in their right mind can pass up.

The adventure started at 4 in the morning last Friday when I headed to the airport to catch my six am flight out to Paris – Beauvais. The flight went perfectly as planned; quick and easy. It still amazes me that I can fly from Madrid to Paris, the city of lights and love, in only an hour and a half.
Once there, I found my way to the bus station, bought my ticket (using my new French skills), boarded the packed bus, and rode to Porte Maillot where I’d meet Chloe an hour and ten minutes later.

It was great seeing Chloe as always.  We grabbed a quick cup of coffee and a croissant with a friend that she was with, bought sandwiches and cokes for the 4-hour car ride we’d have a head of us and met up with our driver. What’s great about France is that they have a car-sharing site where you can find and pay people who are driving from one city to another. I call it modern hitch-hiking.  For only 35 Euros, as opposed to the 80 we would have paid for a train ticket, some guy drove us from Paris to Niort.  Once we arrived in Niort, we were picked up by Chloe’s family who drove us another 45-minutes to Chloe’s wonderful country home.

Her house was spectacular! You wouldn’t have believed it. It was gently resting deep in the middle of the French countryside, surrounded by small locally-run shops organized by people whose families have lived in that same centre-ville for ages. The buildings were all made of ancient brick, coated in moss and vines. It’s no wonder famous artists like Monet were so inspired living in such a gorgeous place. The town was as Chloe had told me, in the middle of nowhere, but that was what made the place so incredibly inspiring, unique, and beautiful. The open rolling green hills filled in with fog every afternoon giving it an eerie feel and a cozy stay-in-bed warmth.
Chloé’s home was large and inviting, complete with numerous beds and bedrooms, and of course a swimming pool like all good chateau’s have. We couldn’t go swimming at this time of year, but I can only imagine what a great time it must be during the summer being able to swim in their pool right in the heart of France and pick fresh mint from the mint plants that sat alongside to make cold mojitos.

Anyway, once we were all nestled in, we began living the French way of life.

With Chloe’s family, we did everything French: the food, the rules, the traditions, and even the language. Although my French is far from even comprehendible, I still felt as if I were one of the French people who had been living in this little village for centuries.

Chloe’s family prepared these exquisite meals for us with food not just French, but specifically typical only to the part of France that we were in. When I went to Paris, I was telling some of my friend’s there some of the names of the things we had eaten in La Châtaigneraie (the name of the town we stayed in), and they had never even heard of it. I tried to describe it, but even the description fell short.  What I can tell you is that we ate Foie Gras and raw oysters amongst other things that I was unable to catch the names of because their French titles were too much for me to understand.

I knew that French cuisine was exquisite and that American food is a joke to the proud French, but I didn’t know that there were strict rules to eating it. Take the Foie Gras for instance. Chloé, whose American half clearly shown through, took the delectable Foie Gras and smeared it on the top of a piece of French bread. Her mother looked aghast and said that you NEVER spread Foie Gras! Rule number one: NEVER spread your Foie Gras. It is not cream cheese and your French bread is not a bagel.

So Chloé’s mother explained to me (and to Chloé) how to eat it correctly. First, you take your fork, you cut off a piece for yourself, and you stick it directly into your mouth. You enjoy it, you savor it, you take in all of its flavor. Once you have finished chewing, you can wash it down by tearing off a small piece of bread or by taking a sip of red wine. Together, the flavors blend in your mouth, but you NEVER eat them all at the same time.

Almost every night we ate raw oysters; you place a splash of fresh lemon on top and carefully scrape off the contents of the shell and place it into your mouth. It tastes like the sea; very sweet, yet rough from the salt it has bathed its entire life in. Chloé’s mother says it’s best eaten with a glass of white wine, but that’s mostly to help you get through cutting open the stiff oysters. They were terribly difficult to open so as to forget the struggle, a bit of white wine takes the struggle away (or you can go next door to meet Chloé´s kind neighbors who can open them in a single swipe). I of course cut myself trying, and Chloé’s paniced mother sent us next door where their neighbor split them open instantly, and then invited us into his cave (wine cellar) where he brews his own liquors. We drank something I can’t remember the name of, but the taste was divine.

This was all in the first night.

Over the next few days, I saw the wonderful church Chloé plans to get married in, the surrounding towns, and we visited Chloé’s dead great-grandparents’ graves. Chloé’s father said that her great grandmother was widowed at like the age of 38 so she had to spend the rest of her life wearing black. Due to the strict Catholic tradition of the region was she not permitted to remarry or change from her black attire. I find this incredibly fascinating!

Christmas morning was spent by opening up Christmas presents and everyone just feeling good. I missed my own family, but I’m glad I had Chloé’s family to take good care of me. Chloé even got me a book on how to learn better French which I cannot wait to start reading and practicing.

During the day, we went on a stroll through the town, had some hot chocolate and then returned to the warmth of their home for dinner.  Upon returning home, Tom took us through his wine cellar where he had been collecting wines from the region over the years. Even though I know nothing about wine, I hope to start a collection like his someday. He bought a collection of wine from this region in France the years that Chloé and her sister, Olivia, were born. It’s was really cool because that means that he had wines made in 1987, the same year I was born. He is saving the wines for special occasions, like birthdays, graduations, etc. I thought that was just really awesome.  Chloé later told me that that was a very typical French thing to do.
Of course.

Although my Christmas day went perfectly, it ended on a sour note with Chloé and I both spending the entire night throwing up in separate bathrooms.  Bogus.

That wasn’t the worst part though: it was far worse being woken up at 6 am after only 45-minutes of puke-free sleep, then having to drive with Tom, who was nice enough to get up that early and take me to the train station 45-minutes away with me holding my stomach. Fortunately, Chloé’s mother gave me some medicine before I left which I think helped.  Then I caught the 2-hour train ride to meet up with Britt in Paris, which I will tell the tale of in my next post.

Anyway, my trip to La Châtaigneraie was unbelievable.  I wish my family could have partaken in this once-in-a-lifetime experience in the wonderful countryside of Deep France. Chloé’s family will always remain in my heart for one of the most fascinating experiences of my life. It was so great that they took me in and took the time to Frenchify me the best that they could. Thanks, Peebles!

Anyway, write more very soon on my trip to Paris!

Graham