Europe France Research Grant

Marseille: Hotter Than Hell, But Much Nicer

I spent three and a half days here and had a lovely time.  Part of my goal was to go to the French Riviera and go to the beach!  Mission accomplished.  I also got to soak up some of the regional culture of Southern France.

My first day there I didn’t do much, because I had that interview that I was supposed to have in London until I lost my voice.  I still sounded pretty hoarse, but hopefully it went well!  I did head up to the grocery store, which meant I got to check out my neighborhood a little.

Marseille is different from anywhere I’ve ever been.  It’s definitely not the picturesque petite village that comes to mind when you imagine Provence.  It’s not the same as the sleepy beach villages in Spain, nor does it conform to the European cities I’ve visited before.  It’s not conventionally pretty in the same way as Paris or Strasbourg.  There’s an edge to it, a certain grittiness and realness that you don’t find in places overrun by tourists.  And when I say grittiness, I don’t mean to imply that it’s unsafe.  In fact, it felt very safe, and everyone I talked to was very friendly.  I mean that the walls are covered in graffiti, and the buildings are a bit run down.  It doesn’t have the same glass and steel offices in the skylines.  In fact, if it wasn’t for the graffiti and cars lining the streets, I might feel as though I’d stepped back in time.

Now, I didn’t do all, or really any, of the touristy things in Marseille.  First of all, it was incredibly hot while I was there, and my apartment had no air conditioning.  However, I also reveled in a few days with no responsibilities.  When I don’t have places to be, the pace of Mediterranean life is perfect.  I spent time at the beach, at the Vieux Port, and at cafés behind the apartment.  And most of my time I spent… just walking.  Wandering through the streets, stopping in stores.  Examining the different winding roads.

I don’t have any truly great stories from Marseille.  Once a woman bounced a basketball at me and asked me throw it back to her, a man at a café shared a laugh with me about a bird stealing a French fry, I took a picture of a man from Dubai who was a little upset that he hadn’t actually beat the summer heat.  Those are the most interesting things that happened to me.  Mostly I just observed, and relaxed, and put my water bottle in the freezer to try to stay cool(er).

Here’s your French word for the day: la plage.  The beach.  I put my feet in la mer, or the sea, and managed to get a few more tan lines.  All in all, a nice trip.  I’m back in Strasbourg, which has finally lost its heat wave!  I’m looking forward to my first interviews later this week, and I’ll hopefully get the chance to explore more of this city as well.  À bientôt!

Europe Spain

Costa Del Sol: Beaches, Burros, and Bartering

We stayed in Torremolinos while we were there, and our hotel was beachfront and beautiful.  Our first afternoon we went to Mijas, which was a cute little whitewashed village, and we got to spend a couple hours looking around.  They have “burro taxis” there too, with little license plates.  When we got back to Torremolinos, we went to dinner at a beachfront restaurant and they made me a vegetable paella, which was very good.  I’ve discovered I like the taste of saffron, which is unfortunate since it’s typically very expensive!  We also had freshly squeezed orange juice on the beach, which was amazing.  After dinner my mom and I headed up to a shop where we’d seen a souvenir she wanted.  We also ended up bartering with a different shopkeeper for a leather bag, which was fun.  He spoke a little French with me, and the price went down from 45 euros to 32 euros so I felt accomplished!

The next morning we went out to Malaga, and saw Roman ruins, checked out souvenir shops, and tried some sangria.  We got back in Torremolinos around noon, which left us the rest of the day to have lunch and go to the beach!

We went to lunch at a really good pizza place, where I got in an argument with the management over the fact that they charged us for bread.  Because, seriously, you can’t bring us something we didn’t order, not tell us it costs money, mislabel it on the menu, and then expect us to pay 1.50 euro per person for it.  They took it off our bill.

The beach was incredibly relaxing.  I found some seashells and sea glass, fell asleep on the beach, got a sunburn on my legs, went up to people from Norway to ask which Scandinavian country they were from because their language sounded like Danish, and saw my first live jellyfish, a little neon purple one floating about six inches from my leg.  And for dinner, we got ice cream at this tiny place on the boardwalk, which was some of the best I’ve ever had.  They had all these amazing flavors, like Twix and a gingerbread cookie kind and donut flavor, which tasted like cake and was delicious.  So, all in all, a pretty great day, and a much needed break in the craziness of constant city tours.


Europe Spain

Barcelona: Las Ramblas, Sangria by the Beach, and Taking Grandma to Pride (Accidentally)

We spent about a day and a half here.  When we first arrived, we did a tour where we got to see the oceanfront area as well as La Ramblas, which is a pretty tree-lined open air market.  Unfortunately our guide walked us through that area at the speed of light, but I still managed to snag an image of Barcelona to join the European art collection for when I have a real place.  We also went to La Boqueria, a food market, which was also pretty cool.

Then after dinner we took advantage of our hotel’s great location to go see the fountains across the street at Plaça de España.  The fountains were awesome, they had colors and movement to go along with modern music- I had been expecting classical music, so I was a little surprised when they started playing Top 40 hits.

As it so happened, the weekend we were in Barcelona happened to coincide with Pride.  So the entire street up to the fountains was blocked off and there were rainbow flags everywhere.  We walked by the whole festival and watched some of the dance acts on the stage.  The whole experience was… very enlightening for my grandma, especially after we informed her that the performers in dresses were actually men.

The next morning we went on another tour, where we saw the Sagrada Familia church.  It was unlike anything I’d ever seen before, and I wish I knew what all the intricacies meant because it seemed like there was meaning and thought behind every detail.  We also went through the Gothic quarter, and we took a drive near the Olympic buildings and up to the top of a hill with a lookout point where you could see the whole city.  At the lookout point, instead of sidewalks or normal cobblestones they used recycled materials like gears and old wine bottles mixed in with the stones, and the effect was very cool.

Our afternoon was free, because most of the people on our group were off at a monastery.  So we chose to hit the beach, where I got to dunk my feet in the Mediterranean for the first time.  We walked all the way across, and then we ate a cute little Italian place on the beachfront.  It was a perfect day, with a nice breeze and we ate outside under the umbrellas.  After how busy the previous days had been, it was nice to have an afternoon that was not planned out and scheduled.

Hasta mañana!

Europe Spain

Modern Art and The Running of the Bulls, Except Without the Bulls

After we left Vitoria, we headed to Bilbao, where we saw the Guggenheim Museum!  Architecturally, it was amazing, with all these curved walls.  I’ve only been to one modern art museum before, which was ARoS in Denmark, and for me, modern art is very hit or miss.  I tend to look at it as an experience, rather than “art” in the traditional sense.  And I totally didn’t get some of the exhibits, like the umbrellas in the lobby, but other ones were really cool.  They have this giant flowered dog in the front of the museum, and there was another piece by the guy who did the Bean in Chicago’s Millennium Park, and a creepy spider that was supposed to represent the artist’s relationship with her mother (….yikes).  The most interesting for me was a series of statues that looked like inflatable pool toys, like the animal kind that kids can sit on.  They looked exactly like inflatables, but they were made of steel.  It was bizarre.  I had the feeling if I could reach out and touch them that there would be give.  In the ehh side of the exhibit, the part that made me shocked that someone got paid to do it, there was a series with old vacuum cleaners in glass cases with bright lights.  Don’t ask me what that one represents.

After we left the Guggenheim, we went to San Sebastian, which was beautiful.  It’s shaped like a big horseshoe so there was plenty of beach space.  We walked around the area with shops and restaurants and got some ice cream.  I got to practice a little French with some tourists who wanted me to take their picture, and then we went on to the beach and walked along that.  It was lovely.  It was also my first introduction to topless beaches.  Which is a trend that I am very glad has not spread to America.  Not that I’m a prude, but I really don’t want to see certain people topless.

From there we ended the day in the Pamplona, where we got to walk along the path where they do the running of the bulls.  They were setting up the fencing for it while we were there, actually.  Our guide told us all about bullfights, which I don’t support, but I have seen the running of the bulls on TV so it was pretty cool to actually be where that takes place.

The next day, we left for Barcelona, and we had a stop at Saragossa at a very pretty church where supposedly the Virgin Mary appeared to someone.  After a short tour of the church, we headed off to a café again and enjoyed another relaxed morning.

Photos of Barcelona to come later~ Adios!

Denmark Europe Study Abroad

Fanø, Stargazing, and the Jelling Stones

I just got back from a trip to western Denmark with my core course!  It’s nice to be back to my kollegium with wifi, and more importantly, hot water.

This trip was the first time I’ve actually been on continental Europe, since Copenhagen is on an island.  Driving through western Denmark is pretty much the same as driving through the Midwest in the United States, except you have to replace the cows with sheep, add a lot more trees, and give about half the houses the European-style red roof.  Driving across the entire country east to west was also much shorter than basically any road trip my family has ever done, too.  With the same amount of driving, you might be able to get out of my state at home.  If you’re lucky.

Our first stop was Ribe (pronounced like Reeba) which is the oldest town in Denmark.  It used to be an important city in the Viking times, and now it’s adorable and quaint.  I really wanted to spend more time in the city, but we only had about an hour.  Part of it I spent at a café getting “pancakes” (crêpes) with ice cream.  This café was established in 1583, which is incredible!  It’s been around longer than our oldest monuments on the east coast. The rest of my time was spent wandering through the streets and looking at the architecture of the houses.  Then, we were marched back to the bus so that we could go to Fanø.

Fanø is a tiny little island off the west coast.  It has two main towns, and we went to the less populated southern one.  Our class stayed in cabins on a campground, where “luxury” meant your cabin had a bathroom in it.  Luckily, my group of girls got lucky and ended up in one of the nicer cabins.  We spent a lot of time walking around on the beach and in the sand dunes, and went into the village as well.  Most of Friday was free time.  We went out as far as the sand was (which was pretty far since the tide was out) and stood in the North Sea.

Friday night we went to a folk musical festival as a class.  The musicians were very impressive, and it was great to hear the rhythms of another culture and watch them dance.  I ended up leaving a little early with another girl from my class, and we went to the beach and did some stargazing.  Laying on the beach and looking at the stars with no lights around us was….incredible.  It’s hard to describe in words.  It was more stars than I’ve ever seen before, and probably ever will see again.  It’s hard to find a place that’s so removed from humanity’s influence, and Fanø also had the advantage of being flat so the stars could be seen all the way down the horizon.  It was truly beautiful to experience.

The next morning we headed out, stopping in Jelling en route for lunch and a tour.  Jelling is an important site in Denmark, and is actually one of only a few UNESCO world heritage sites in the country.  The stones are the first place where the name Denmark showed up in reference to the country, and the entire area is a Viking monument.  They used to have a pagan burial ground there, but when Denmark became Christianized they added a church and the site is still currently being used as a cemetery in Jelling.

I’m so grateful that our short trip to Denmark included places that aren’t easy to get to alone.  The experience in Fanø was one that I can’t ever replicate, and it was great to see those pieces of Danish history with knowledgable guides.  In two weeks I’ll be going to my first European country outside of Denmark (I’m starting with Russia.  Go big or go home) but it’s been wonderful to get a better sense of the country I’m living in for these next few months.