Thursday, July 29, 2010

Tim's Blog: The Second and Third Week!

Pick me up, love, from the bottom
Up to the top, love, everyday
I will pay no mind to taunts or advances
I take my chances on everyday

-Dave Matthew's Band Everyday

From July 16th to the 18th, I left the group and spent the weekend in Paris where I met with my parents. This wasn't a trip that was funded by Stony Brook, but I believe that any future student who goes to Montpellier through Stony Brook University should take the time to visit this amazing city. Spending the weekend with my parents was the best part of this entire trip. It was like a piece of reality coming to France and waking me up from this dream.

I took a TGV train (for those who don't know, TGV holds the record for the fastest train, traveling up to 200 mph) from Saint-Roch (which is one of the closer stops on the tram, just one right after la Comedie ) straight to Paris. After meeting my parents at the train station, we traveled back to our hotel. The Eiffel Tower is roughly about a 30 minute walk from the hotel. That night, my parents and I went to a restaurant where I finally got the chance to order Escargot. I must say, it was very small and garlicky; if you can tolerate clam, then you'd have no problem with this. It's too bad they didn't have frog's legs; that's what I really want to try.

On Saturday the 17th we spent time walking up and down the Seine River visiting the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, and the Arc de Triomphe. We also had time to take a river boat tour, which I highly recommend to everyone that visits Paris. It showed and explained nearly every single famous site in Paris along the Seine River, so if you're only in the city for a few days, at least you'd be able to see everything in the span of an hour.

On Sunday, the last day in Paris with the 'rents, we visited Notre Dame Cathedral right as 12 o'clock mass began. We were able to walk around the outskirts of the chamber while mass presumed at its center. After mass let out, we walked along the river Seine back to the Eiffel Tower, where we grabbed a taxi and returned to the hotel, and inevitably, the train station. The train ride back to Saint-Roch was quick and smooth. I was looking forward to getting back to the group to see how their weekend went and to live out the last two weeks of France.

On Thursday, July 22nd, our group traveled to Sete and walked the peninsula, "Venis du Languedoc", known for its many channels. We first arrived to Mt St Clair where he had a panoramic view of the city and its coastline. We traveled to the port and walked around the town visiting its many shops and trying some of their restaurants. We left the city and traveled to a nearby beach where we spend an hour soaking in the sun and swimming in the warm water of the Mediterranean Sea.

Our group had a free day that Saturday, so a few friends and I went to the Montpellier zoo and saw some animals. First of all, the zoo is GIGANTIC with an excellent array of animals! Some animals included where cheetahs, rhinosaurus, kangaroos, lions, etc. After walking around for a few hours, we ate at the zoo's restaurant. My meal consisted of a raw (but otherwise delicious) piece of steak along with some delicious steak fries (oh how I'd thought I'd never miss steak fries. Silly me.) Next to our table was a window that overlooked into an exhibit filled with monkeys and birds. As we were eating, a few monkeys came up to the glass and watched us! One even brought some food and ate with us! Later that night, I led us to my favorite restaurant in all of France, "Les Jardins de la Babote" where we had an excellent three course meal. Upon asking the waiter what he'd recommend from the menu, he suggested that their lamb was "quite exceptional." And it was, along with their scalloped potatoes and mixed salad. For desert I tried their white chocolate milk shake, which ended up being a favorite of the group.

So I've survived the second and third week! With one week left, we all plan to do everything we can so that we leave France with no regrets!

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Tim's Blog: The First Week

After everything that's happened here,

I need to get out, find a change of atmosphere

I need to get out, see the world from the other side

And live life (live life)
That's right (that's right)

-Dela Change of Atmosphere

Where do I begin? Should I describe the exhilarating atmosphere of this city? Or how about the priceless, breathlessly beautiful scenery that I've encountered only within the first week? Or maybe I should describe how this group of people I've only just met seems to be like long lost friends straight from the beginning of this trip?

I guess I'll begin with the plane ride to Montpellier a.k.a Heaven.

The plane departed from JFK at approximately 6:50 P.M, and was to be a 6 hour flight to Amsterdam, where we would have an 8 hour layover. But we rode in on "excellent tailwinds" and arrived an hour earlier, giving us plenty of time to leave the airport and see Central Amsterdam. Our group met appropriately right after we got off of the plane, and proceeded with finding lockers to store our carry-ons and purchasing train tickets to Central Amsterdam.

The best way to describe our group is that every one of us has an outgoing personality, so it's been one of those experiences where we all "clicked" instantly. The train to Amsterdam was easy enough, and arriving to the city, the first thing I noticed was that people there are soccer (excuse me, 'football') crazy. There were orange streams and giant soccer balls decorating the narrow streets and shops for their team in the FIFA World Cup, and roughly every 4-5 shops was a merchandise shop filled with orange jerseys. The style and architecture of the buildings were absolutely beautiful, and the streets were narrow and cozy. Though none of us went on a shopping spree here, we were able to kill a few hours walking through the plazas while getting to know each other.

We headed back to the airport and took the plane to Marseille where we met Dr. Arens, who escorted us via coach bus to the University of Montpellier. We got a two hour taste of southern France as we drove past its rolling hills, its many farms and vegetation, and its towns. There is nowhere in America that is like France. We arrived to the dorms in a timely fashion and checked into our rooms. The dorm rooms were made for a single person, complete with its own shower, toilet and refrigerator (though some of the lucky students were able to obtain a stove and a sink as well). We all settled in and did the only American thing left to do; we ordered Dominos. Well fed, we succumbed to jet lag and the anticipation of a very long Monday.

The next day, we traveled to our classrooms via tram, which overall took about 10 minutes. We took our oral and written comprehension tests and were placed in the appropriate classes. I, who doesn't speak a word of French, was placed in the beginner class with some our group and an amazing professor, Fabian. For the entire week, every single one of our classes have been funny, intriguing, but also difficult (Fabian will only speak to us in French for the remainder of the trip). At the university, we were able to meet another group of students from Spain who are also studying the French language. They share the excursions and classes with us, and both groups have become increasingly close over the past week.

Our first excursion was a tour of the city of Montpellier and let me tell you, this city has EVERYTHING! From amazing restaurants to entertainment in the main plaza (called Place de la Comedie) to its beautiful architecture and endless amounts of shops; this city has it all! One of its best features (strictly in my opinion) is the amount of outside eateries and bars, where you can sit yourself, have a drink and watch people pass by. Our group has made it a habit to travel to la Comedie on an almost daily basis.

The following day, we visited the village of St. Guilhem Le Desert and the Gellone River. The Languedoc styled village is set up in a Romanesque cloister. Walking through the streets, you would swear that it was left untouched by time. After the visit to the village, we jumped into the Gellone River and swam before finishing up the excursion with wine tasting.

On Thursday evening, our group attended an evening dance at the University, where we learned and practiced the traditional dances of southern France.

On Sunday, we traveled an hour and a half to Carcassonne; a famous ancient fortified town with ramparts. We took a tour of the church and the ramparts, and afterward spent time shopping through the town.

The first week has been life changing. I've made so many friends from all over the world, had so many amazing experiences, and just overall I've been having the time of my life.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Casey's Blog: La Première Semaine

Saint Guilhem le Desert et Rivière
Right foot first. My toes glowed luminescent as they slid along the mossy rocks beneath the clear surface. The water’s chill shocked my body, initiating an irrepressible storm of excitement behind my wide eyes. I pushed off from the dusty rock and leapt forward. The icy turquoise river swallowed me, refreshing my bones after a tired afternoon of climbing sloping cobbled streets under the mighty july sun.

Our second excursion was everything I’d hoped for and much more. Our journey over took us through the awesomely vast countryside, with manicured farms blanketing the valleys between majestic blue mountain ranges. My eyes grew wide and fervently scanned the scenery before me so as to paint a permanent mental landscape. I felt the thirst in my eyes and the need to appreciate the beauty laid before me. When the bus gained ground on the elevated highways, one could look down onto the tiled roofs of small houses-- aged villages quietly existing under the guard of the mountains.

At length we crossed the narrow Pont du Diable (Devil's Bridge) built
high above the rocky cleavage of the Hérault River. Built in the early 11th century, it's the oldest Roman bridge in France. From this point one could look down into the narrow rocky gorge where the fresh water runs its 92-mile course.

Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert had a very romantic feel to it. Altogether, with its narrow cobbled roads and close stone buildings, it seemed comfortably separate from the rest of the world,
as if a self-sufficient people had dwelled on this mountainside without incident for a great many years. If only my words could bring you to understand the sensation in my heart as I climbed higher into the depth of this city. Think children with their dogs, iron-framed windows and arched wooden doors nestled deep in light stone walls. Vibrant pink products of flower boxes bringing the eyes up the balconies where patterned skirts hang to dry, flapping carelessly in
the warm breeze.
Small shops where local artisans work their craft as shoppers admire their creations-- a man standing barefoot in his gallery, working the wet pigments of an oil painting as recently finished landscapes hang to dry.

As a group, we were led to a small specialty tapenade shop where we were able to taste three varieties of the spread-- black olive, green olive, and tomato. How delicious! I bought a jar of the tomato for myself afterwards. I know, you care.

And of course the educational part.. we visited the church established by Saint Guilhem-- L’église abbatiale de Saint-Guilhem-- in the town center.
After all this pack traveling, we were allowed a few hours of free time, during which we could go swimming in the river if we wanted to. After some more exploring and shop-searching, my friends and I made our way down the quaint stone steps that led away from the main road of the village and down into the wooded cliff overlooking the gorge. With the rest of the explorers (and of course, our fun tour guide Nicolas) we refreshed our tired bodies in the chill clear water of the Hérault.

And, bien sûr, there was wine tasting.


Les Danses Occitanes
1-2-3-4: Ladies sashay forward into the circle. 1-2-3-4: Ladies walk backwards into place. 1-2-3-4: Men strut out into the circle. 1-2-3-4: Men come back and face their partners. Right hand on each other’s right shoulder. Left hands linked underneath. Sixteen spins and then the men guide their ladies for eight steps around the circle. Repeat.

Whoever knew that dancing medieval dances to the rhythm of a one-man-band would be such a fun time?
After a normal Wednesday morning of classes and afternoon of exploration, many of us returned to the university’s hall at 8:30 to learn the traditional dances of the south of France.
To be honest, I was kind of on the fence about this one... after already having so much fun and a few intense nights in France, did I really want to go learn a few corny dances. But then I decided not to be a recluse and to take advantage of this window into French culture.Oh my goodness, so much fun. So our special guest emcee was our very own adorable tour guide Jérémie, accompanied by Jérémie on the harmonica, featuring the star accordionist Jérémie, and on the kick drum... Jérémie. Rather entertaining.

We learned line dances, couples’ dances, and circle dances. And Anna totally did the worm at one point! That was not in the program. We first had our intelligence slightly insulted by being taught a simple children’s dance which involved all of two moves. Some of us immediately had our pride weakened by being unable to learn said dance. But then things really got spicy, and complicated, but in a fun way. You know, in a “this is difficult and I’m a beat off but I can’t stop smiling and laughing at myself” way. And our four-in-one musical master must have loved watching us try to keep up as he sped up and slowed to a crawl at his leisure. I especially liked the last dance, where everyone formed a circle and started with his hands on the shoulders of the person in front of him. Each of Jérémie’s refrains named a new body part... hands on their ears, hands on their eyes, their hips... their thighs... their ankles... Very challenging. But very, very fun.


I stood happily gazing from the rampart up high,
From which a husband in chain mail once feared for his life,
The stone was still firm and the fountains still spouted,
The dogs still ran free and the vendors still shouted,
It’s too much to believe that this rock was once theirs,
That they sat on these ledges and mounted these stairs,
Once a set of twin walls halted traffic both ways,
Now a thousand strange people come through every day

Sunday we travelled 200 km west of Montpellier to the fortified city of Carcassonne. We dismounted the bus in the village center, amongst shops and roads at the bottom of a paved hill. Just visible at the top was a fairy-tale castle, seemingly photoshopped onto the crest of a small mountain. As we ascended and neared its fortified walls, the image became more real. Before us loomed the largest fortified city in Europe, existing today in very nearly the same condition as a millennium ago, after it was constructed to defend its people from foreign invaders.
The city’s history is quite interesting. As with several other excursions, we were shown a short informational film on the journey over, and there was a short historical film inside the city. Walking through the city in this summer of the twenty-first century, trying to comprehend the efforts and motives behind its creation, was a powerfully moving experience.
We were given time to explore the city and its shops on our own, at which point I nearly
drowned in my own contemplations. Now, Carcassonne receives three and half million visitors every year. The open squares have turned into dining plazas where visitors can eat outdoors in
the shade of surrounding ramparts. Gift shops and vendors of regional crafts line the narrow roadways. At one point I sat at the foot of a statue carved of stone and imaged the men and women who’d sat there before me. Other tourists, recently. Before that, those working to restore the city. But first? Men of the Middle Ages resting during a day of work.


Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Casey's Post-arrival Blog

Pour commencer...

To be completely honest, I’ve been having such a good time over here that I forgot I have to share my fond memories with the people back home! The last thing I want to do is sit inside online when the beauty of France is just outside my window (this is a good thing!)
I’ll start where I started... at JFK airport in New York, where I met this amazing group of people with whom I’d spend the next four weeks conquering le Sud de France. Together we flew into Amsterdam, where we spent a very interesting eight-hour layover.

Here's some Amsterdam in a nutshell.

(That’s a story for another time. Let’s just say I plan on returning.)

Eventually we weary
travelers reached Marseilles, where a bus met us for the last leg of our trek to Montpellier.

With our overpacked suitcases and newly obtained room keys, the new study abroad friends parted for the night.

Soooo much more to come...
Á bientôt,