Week One (Part 1)

My first week in Clermont went about as well as could be expected. Well, not at first.

I got here on a Sunday evening. The woman who checked me in to my dorm room spoke incredibly fast, and once again I was reminded that I was a stranger in a strange land. She asked me a question several times, and I was only able to pick out three or four relevant words—not enough to answer the question, just enough to feel horribly incompetent and hope that she wasn’t getting too frustrated with me as I asked her to repeat herself several times. As it turns out, she was just asking me if I’d had a pleasant trip.

We arrived at my dorm room, on the fifth floor of Building C. She unlocked the door and showed me what was basically a hallway with a bed in it. The woman kept rambling, showing me all the features. I basically just nodded and said “oui, oui, d’accord” (Yes, yes, okay) over and over until she left. Then I was alone, able to inspect my surroundings.

It’s a nice room, recently renovated, according to one of the phrases I was able to pull from the endless stream of rapid-fire words my dorm manager hurled at me. Everything is light-colored, pale wooden floors with dark wooden accents, white textured walls and lime-green cabinet doors. The smallest mini-fridge I’ve ever seen sits on the floor by the door, underneath a few shelves and a cabinet. The bathroom? A closet. I have enough room to turn around, and not much else. If you’ve ever been in a bathroom on a train or an airplane, picture that, except with a shower wedged into one corner. If I was any bigger, I genuinely don’t think I’d be able to fit. And yet, there is a surprising amount of storage. I’d taken the advice of the study abroad advisors and brought a single, enormous suitcase. All of my clothes could probably fit in the shallow built-in chest of drawers opposite the twin bed. A desk is also built-in, against the far wall between the little dresser and the bed, underneath a window. There are still more shelves and cabinets screwed into the wall above the bed. I unpacked what I had and sat down on the thin mattress.

I just sat there, for at least ten minutes, thinking “This is home for the next six months.” I think I was too tired to be excited or thrilled. I forced myself up and began to make the bed with the sheets I’d brought in my duffel bag, desperate for a nap. Then I realized I didn’t have a pillow, or a heavy enough blanket for someone who gets as cold as I do at night. In the end, I curled up with my travel pillow and my little travel blanket and closed my eyes.

When I woke up, it was night, and my stomach was growling. Unfortunately, I didn’t know that practically everything in France is closed on Sunday (including the restaurant in the dormitory), and that there is no such thing as “Open 24-hours,” either. I didn’t have the WiFi passcode or anything, so I send a text to my parents to apologize for the phone bill and turned on my data, looking for something that was open. As soon as I found a restaurant, I got cold feet. How could I go wandering around, at night, in this strange city? I just sort of looked around my room until my eyes fell on a little cake that the flight attendant on my last flight had given to me, but that I didn’t eat because I was half-asleep and also because I didn’t recognize the brand. I figured something is better than nothing, so I ate it, and turns out, it was pretty good.

With no internet and no means of getting anything more substantial, I put on my thickest pajamas, some fuzzy socks, and a long-sleeved shirt, and laid back down on my travel pillow to sleep my hunger away.

After shivering through the night, I woke up with a crick in my neck and hunger pangs. A friend of a friend, named Salomé, was going to show me around the city. My friend Leo, who is an exchange student from Bordeaux that I met last semester, gave her my information. She was coming at 1 pm (or 13 h, since people use the 24-hour timescale here). Despite how cold I was and how my back ached, I was drawn to the window in my room, and took a photo of the view—my first morning in Clermont. Then I took the worst shower of my life in the little bathroom.

It’s currently my sixth day in Clermont, so now I know better, but the first time I could not understand for the life of me why the shower kept going off. Now I know the water only stays on for about 30 seconds—something about water conservation. I’m all for the environment, but it’s easier to be that way when I can choose to conserve water, instead of it being forced upon me by some unfamiliar plumbing system.

I got dressed, went downstairs to meet Salomé and her friend, but not before poorly communicating at which entrance I was waiting. Salomé had told me that her English wasn’t very good, but her friend Amé (spelling is questionable) spoke very good English. They introduced themselves, and tried to perform le bis, the well-known French greeting of kissing each cheek, which I had forgotten about until they tried and I panicked, wondering what the hell they thought they were doing. They laughed, because apparently, we Americans are known for not being very tactile, and I felt embarrassed. Then they asked if I was hungry.

I’m a proud person, and I would literally rather die than embarrass myself or be seen as incompetent, so had they not asked I probably would have starved another day. I told them I hadn’t eaten the day before and they took me to a kebab. I learned that a kebab does not, in fact, have to sell kebabs at all. Kebabs are what we call “greasy spoons,” little shops that sell whatever kind of food the owner knows how to make. I had the best sandwich of my life at this particular kebab, though perhaps it was because I was so hungry. I told them that I desperately needed a pillow and a blanket, and they took me to the Centre au Jaude, which is basically a plaza between two big malls that share a name. They’d bought me some tickets for the tram, though the locals usually don’t pay to ride, money is kind of loose around here.

They ended up taking me all around town before we made it back to the mall to buy my pillow and blanket. I saw the church, called Notre Dame—big, Gothic, and black from years of car fumes and cigarette smoke. They showed the different university buildings, scattered around town, as is a necessity for a university in an urban setting I guess. Then we waited for Amé’s boyfriend to get out of class at the local high school, or lycée. As it turns out, both girls are eighteen, younger than me by two years. Then they took me to a brasserie, or bar. Even though it was 2 pm, there were lots of people there. They ordered a Monaco for me, which is a beer with strawberry syrup. Naturally, I was a little apprehensive, because I’m for the US, where you have to wait till you’re twenty-one to drink and even then, you get carded. But the waiter just took our order and walked away. I was honestly shocked at how simple it was. After that, Amé’s boyfriend Victor left, and they took me back to the mall. We bought a pillow and a duvet from a pushy saleswoman who spoke far too quickly for me, and I was suddenly grateful for Salomé and Amé being there. Knowing myself, had I gone alone, I’d have been so flustered that I would have left without buying anything and simply froze another night.

Then we went grocery shopping, because I needed cleaning supplies for my dorm (thanks, Mom, for teaching me to be neurotic about cleaning living spaces that aren’t my own home), and because Salomé and Amé were going to make dinner for me that night and she needed food. The grocery store, it turns out, isn’t far from my dorm at all, and I bought some bleach wipes, toilet paper, and trash bags. Despite having called my bank before I left, my card still didn’t work, probably because I was using overseas, so I had to pay for a four-euro purchase with a 50-euro bill. The cashier was not amused.

They took me back to my dorm, marveled at how tiny my room was and gave me the time and address for dinner. I slipped my new pillow into the pillow case, wrestled my duvet into the duvet cover I’d bought, and wiped down everything in the bathroom with the bleach wipes. Then I realized I still needed hand soap, some dishes, a rug, school supplies, and food. Deciding that I would deal with that another day, I went downstairs and waited ages at the office for the Wi-Fi passcode. Despite the fact that there were three secretaries, they were all helping one boy at the same time—he apparently was looking for a job. When he left, one of the secretaries waved me over and I tripped over my words as I tried to spell my own name with the French alphabet and ask for the Wi-Fi code. Successful, I went back to my room and connected all my devices. I was determined not to fall asleep so that I could get on the right time zone, so I watched Netflix until it was time for dinner.

I found my way to Salomé’s apartment all by myself, a feat which I was irrationally proud of, and had a diner of crêpes full of potatoes and cheese. It was pretty good. Then we listened to music, which was shockingly, mostly in English. In fact, Amé, who was controlling the music, is a big fan of Motown artists and old Black funk groups—which I thought was hilarious. All the songs were familiar to me, I just never thought I’d hear Earth, Wind, and Fire in a millennial’s apartment on the other side of the world. We traded stories about our family’s and hometowns as best we could, and I honestly had a great time. After a while though, I couldn’t ignore how tired I was.

I bid them good night, and they told me to text them if I had any questions or if I wanted to go somewhere and needed some company. I promised I would, and made my way into the night, feeling a little more confident—and not just about wandering around at night.

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Going to Clermont-Ferrand

I didn’t feel anything before I left. Everyone kept asking me if I was excited or nervous, and I knew that I was. But I didn’t feel it.

My parents woke me up on January 13, and I just opened my eyes and looked at them. I’d gone home for Christmas break, and they had been nearly insufferable about me leaving. My mom kept saying “One last hug,” nearly a month before I even started packing. My dad was full of advice that was either intuitive or repetitive. My sister was playfully angry at me for leaving her for six months, even though I’ve lived an entire state away for nearly three years now. My brother seemed indifferent, though not so indifferent that he wouldn’t make jokes about mimes and baguettes.

Right from the beginning this trip seemed both inauspicious and promising. I’m the kind of person who doesn’t believe things will go wrong, even when all evidence should lead me to the opposite conclusion. Sometimes this gets me into trouble. Sometimes it’s the only thing that gets me through something so monumental. To escape my parents’ wailing and lecturing, I checked my phone and saw that my original flight had been delayed, then cancelled. My mom was convinced that this was going to be a huge stumbling block; my dad was full of extreme backup plans. I told them to just take me to the airport at the original time and it would all work out.

And it all worked out. I got a new flight and it actually went much quicker than my original flight plan, not that this would actually help me out or ruin me, as it turns out. But I’ll get to that.

Originally, I was supposed to fly from DFW airport to JFK in New York, then to Charles de Gaulle, in Paris, then to Clermont-Ferrand. Instead, I ended up on a flight from DFW to ATL—Atlanta. But the rest of my trip was unchanged. The flight from Dallas to Atlanta was uneventful, and I just kept contemplating why I felt so neutral about something that’s so important to me. Even though this is normal for me, not getting nervous until after the big event—whatever it might be. I still thought that something as big as my first trip out of the country, with four different flights and all the potential for sabotage that came with them, would elicit some sort of response equal to the size of the adventure I was on. But it didn’t matter. I got to ATL with more than an hour to spare, and so I had a terrific lunch and took my neutral emotion onto the flight.

The flight to Paris was long, about seven hours, and I’ve never had to sit in such a cramped space for so long. My mom gave me some special socks to keep my legs from going to sleep, but once I was on the plane, I was too self-conscious to put them on.

I kept looking around and listening to the other passengers, some of who were Americans going to Europe, and some of who were Europeans leaving America. Not just French people—though they were certainly the majority of the non-Americans. I heard Italian, Spanish, something that sounded vaguely Eastern European from a crotchety couple near the lavatory. That’s when it hit me—well, it didn’t hit me. More like a thought that you’re aware of in the back of your mind, but for some reason you can’t bring yourself to focus on it too hard. The fact is: I am going to a foreign country, I don’t speak nearly enough of the language to feel totally competent, and that’s something that I’m not used to at all. One of the few skills I know I have is clear and precise communication, and suddenly I felt truly aware of just how narrow the purview of that skill really is. After all, I’m only a competent communicator in English. But now I’m about to go to France and probably sound like a child, or an idiot. And it’s too late and too impossible to simply pick up a language.

All this was a whisper in my head, not a shout or even an alarm. I don’t even think my expression changed when it occurred to me. It’s just a fact, not even really a hurdle I have to jump. More like a condition I will have to cope with, until exposure to the very thing causing this underwhelming anxiety cures it.

My seat mate came at that very moment; he was an older guy, tall and gangly and tan. I knew he was French, by his accent and the fact that when he came upon me he said, “Pardonez-moi,” and indicated that his eat was next to mine. I got up to let him in—I had an aisle seat—and I was immediately struck with a bad smell. The very first thing that I thought was: “Way to confirm that stereotype about French people smelling weird,” and then I immediately felt guilty. The last thing I want is to encourage negative generalizations, especially since as a woman of color, I encounter them often. But the smell was seriously heinous, like old pond water and mold and rust.

I had a conversation with him, partially in French and partially in English. We were equally matched—his English was as bad as my French. But I learned that he’s literally been travelling all over the world for nearly a month now. Anyone would be a little rank by then, after all, how often can you really launder your clothes if you only spend a few days in a country before moving on? He was kind and encouraging, and it only made me feel worse about judging him for the smell (right up until he took off his shoes midflight and it literally made my eyes water). I told him that I get nervous speaking French to people who are actually French, and he laughed. He told me that I would speak excellent French by the time I came home. I hope he’s right.

I read The Secret Life of Bees for the majority of the flight, great book. It’s quite sad though, and uplifting too, in that way that makes you cry the whole way through it. My seatmate kept looking at me worriedly until I showed him my Kindle and told him “Cet livre est triste.”

They turned off all the lights halfway through the flight, and I guess I was supposed to go to sleep like everyone else. I had my travel pillow and my blanket all ready, too, but I was so cramped and could neither lean toward the aisle (because of the lack of support) nor toward my temporary travel companion (for reasons I think I’ve well covered). Instead I sat up and got a twinge in my back and read until my Kindle died, then gave in and paid for the in-flight WiFi (which was irritatingly spotty for something so expensive) and fiddled around with my phone until the battery got uncomfortably low. It was only then that I felt like I had nothing else to do, so I pulled my beanie over my eyes and tried to sleep. I only got to that weird no man’s land where you’re not quite asleep but you might as well be, for all the thinking and moving you’re doing, before they turned on the lights and served me breakfast.

We landed shortly after, and even though the giant “Bienvenue! Paris vous aime!” sign told me that I had, in fact, arrived on the other side of the world, I still felt no immediate excitement or nervous jitters. For me, getting to Clermont-Ferrand seems like a mission; I don’t have the ability to focus on anything else but getting there.

In the airport, I had to put all my things into the bins and through the scanners, which was fine. The French-version-of-the-TSA agent spoke English and was kind, but efficient.  I had to throw out a full water bottle and take off all my jewelry, which was a hassle (everyone knows how frustrating it is to try to put on a lobster-claw bracelet on with no help), but I made it through the first security check and caught the shuttle to my gate just in time. My bag did get “randomly” searched, though, and I tried to ignore the irritation that threatened to break through my single-minded neutrality.

It turns out that Charles de Gaulle is a huge airport, it took nearly 15 minutes to get to the correct boarding area by shuttle—which still has about 20 gates. It then took another 25 to 30 minutes to go through customs. My dad promised that it would take at least 2 hours, but all they did was stamp my visa and wave me through. It was actually in the “Border Patrol” line that I inevitably made my first international faux-pas. A Chinese man behind me in line must have a cold or something, because he sneezed about 12 times. I turned and said, “Bless you,” mostly out of habit, and he just stared at me like I’d grown three heads. It occurred to me that he might not speak English, or maybe he just wasn’t used to being blessed for sneezing. Either way, the look on his face made me turn back around in embarrassment and resolutely stare straight ahead as he sneezed another 5 times. Some half-hearted vengeful malice in me made me think “He better not have gotten me sick.”

I got through the line and went to yet another waiting area, glad to see “Clermont-Ferrand” on the switchboard, as it made me confident that I was in the right place. But, since my flight was switched, I arrived here in Paris nearly five hours before my flight to Clermont. I used the restroom and looked around for a way to kill time. I finished The Secret Life of Bees and decided I might as well write a journal entry while everything is fresh.

This airport is almost more a mall than an airport. There’s a bar (which, even though I know I’m of age here, I’m still too nervous to go near—plus it’s 5 am), a newsstand selling books, coffee, and cigarettes, and a giant store named “BUY PARIS DUTY FREE.” Oh, yes, it’s in all caps. I did go in and look around. There’s lots of American candy, but some from other places too. You can apparently buy anything you could want there: perfume (Chanel, Dior, and the like), makeup (lots of L’oreal Paris, obviously), candy and snacks, liquor, cheese, wine to go with the cheese, and fancy tobacco (I have witnessed at least four people roll their own cigarettes). There’s a coffee kiosk also selling baguettes, funny enough, though their coffees look so small it can’t be worth the bother. There’s a little smoking room full of business men. There’s even a clothing store—with negligées you can buy.

If I were to be stranded in Paris—which I am, for the next hour and a half—this is where I’d want to be. Only thing is these chairs are rough on my already creaking back.

My flight to Clermont doesn’t leave until 9:25, and they don’t tell me the gate to go to until 30 minutes before the flight, for some reason, so at 9 o’clock, I have to just be ready to sprint in one of these directions. The sun is starting to rise now—it hasn’t quite broken over the horizon, but the sky is fading from the midnight blue it was when I arrived to hazy cerulean. More and more people are starting to arrive, and they all look so awake that I’m realizing how tired I really am—still with a flight and a cab to catch before I can collapse in my dorm. Maybe it would be worth it to buy a cup of coffee, not matter how tiny it is.

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College of International Studies’ Student Advisory Committee

I am extremely excited to be a part of the Student Advisory Committee this semester. The organization focuses on promoting Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion throughout our campus. I discovered this organization through a film screening of 4 Months 3 Weeks and 2 Days that I attending earlier this semester. I am extremely passionate about the goals of this organization.
This semester, the organization was very small, but applications for new positions were recently opened so I’m hopeful that it will grow and we can continue to raise awareness for global issues. I think this is a great platform on which to start conversations and educate our community. I cannot wait to see what new people bring to the table.
Personally, I am focused on issues of women’s rights around the world and have been particularly involved in the issue of sex trafficking. Next semester I hoping to host a bra drive for women who have escaped sex trafficking and need to regain a place in society. The company, Free the Girls, gives women the opportunity to become entrepreneurs by helping them sell bras to their community. This is one small way people can help. This issue is global and effects many people in the United States. I am looking forward to developing more ideas for upcoming events and projects.

Uncategorized

College of International Studies’ Student Advisory Committee

I am extremely excited to be a part of the Student Advisory Committee this semester. The organization focuses on promoting Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion throughout our campus. I discovered this organization through a film screening of 4 Months 3 Weeks and 2 Days that I attending earlier this semester. I am extremely passionate about the goals of this organization.
This semester, the organization was very small, but applications for new positions were recently opened so I’m hopeful that it will grow and we can continue to raise awareness for global issues. I think this is a great platform on which to start conversations and educate our community. I cannot wait to see what new people bring to the table.
Personally, I am focused on issues of women’s rights around the world and have been particularly involved in the issue of sex trafficking. Next semester I hoping to host a bra drive for women who have escaped sex trafficking and need to regain a place in society. The company, Free the Girls, gives women the opportunity to become entrepreneurs by helping them sell bras to their community. This is one small way people can help. This issue is global and effects many people in the United States. I am looking forward to developing more ideas for upcoming events and projects.

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4 months 3 weeks 2 days

Today I attended a screening of the Romanian film 4 months 3 weeks and 2 days. The story follows a young college woman and her pregnant friend as they endeavor to get an illegal abortion. The secrecy, the paranoia, and the obstacles were extreme. They met in dark alleyways, they gathered up hundreds of dollars, and both girls were raped in order to make sure the procedure went through. The film was excellent and brilliantly made. The minimalism used in the cinematography and dialogue emphasized the gravity and the reality of the situation.
I think the most sobering fact for me was that there are women who have gone through this- or worse- to avoid the consequences of pregnancy. So many countries, including the United States, do have a culture that is supportive of pregnancy outside of marriage. They are usually shamed or disgraced and rarely receive the support they need during and after the pregnancy.
The cost of having a child, monetarily, physically, and socially, is enormous. Most countries have few programs to aid single mothers (i.e. paid maternity leave, affordable childcare, etc.). I think it is extremely interesting that both sides of the abortion debate used this film as a reference for their argument. On one hand, the film shows how horrific the process of an abortion is. The obstacles these women had to face were psychologically damaging and the long shot of the dead baby on the bathroom floor is gruesome at best. On the other hand, people argue that this is why women need access to safe and legal abortion. Both sides agree that women do not have access to the resources they need. Hopefully we can continue to be an advocate for women across the globe who are facing these issues in an unforgiving society.

Uncategorized

4 months 3 weeks 2 days

Today I attended a screening of the Romanian film 4 months 3 weeks and 2 days. The story follows a young college woman and her pregnant friend as they endeavor to get an illegal abortion. The secrecy, the paranoia, and the obstacles were extreme. They met in dark alleyways, they gathered up hundreds of dollars, and both girls were raped in order to make sure the procedure went through. The film was excellent and brilliantly made. The minimalism used in the cinematography and dialogue emphasized the gravity and the reality of the situation.
I think the most sobering fact for me was that there are women who have gone through this- or worse- to avoid the consequences of pregnancy. So many countries, including the United States, do have a culture that is supportive of pregnancy outside of marriage. They are usually shamed or disgraced and rarely receive the support they need during and after the pregnancy.
The cost of having a child, monetarily, physically, and socially, is enormous. Most countries have few programs to aid single mothers (i.e. paid maternity leave, affordable childcare, etc.). I think it is extremely interesting that both sides of the abortion debate used this film as a reference for their argument. On one hand, the film shows how horrific the process of an abortion is. The obstacles these women had to face were psychologically damaging and the long shot of the dead baby on the bathroom floor is gruesome at best. On the other hand, people argue that this is why women need access to safe and legal abortion. Both sides agree that women do not have access to the resources they need. Hopefully we can continue to be an advocate for women across the globe who are facing these issues in an unforgiving society.

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Día de los Muertes

One of the highlights of my Halloween weekend was the Day of the Dead (Día de los Muertes)
festival at the Lloyd Noble Center. I did not realize how much of a community celebration this was. There were little children in Halloween costumes, and families walking around. I think it was great to see how much the University engages with the Norman community.
The music was extremely festive and there were bright colors everywhere. My friend and I rode a few rides and I got a flower painted on my hand! The food was excellent! I tried chicken flautas (Flautas pollo y res) and it was amazing.
The artwork is what stood out to me the most. There were a lot of pieces that had beautifully vibrant colors. The jewelry was exquisite and elegantly made. There were so many different styles, but it was clear that they all came for this distinct culture.
I really enjoyed experience the culture surrounding the Day of the Dead. In Hispanic culture, there is much more respect and reverence regarding our ancestors. In my family, we don’t have any way to honor our dead. We have a lovely funeral and we occasionally visit graves, but this is an annual celebration of all those who came before us and those who we loved and loved us. I really think it’s beautiful and I would like to investigate more of the my German heritage to see if we have any significant ways of honoring our dead.

Uncategorized

Día de los Muertes

One of the highlights of my Halloween weekend was the Day of the Dead (Día de los Muertes)
festival at the Lloyd Noble Center. I did not realize how much of a community celebration this was. There were little children in Halloween costumes, and families walking around. I think it was great to see how much the University engages with the Norman community.
The music was extremely festive and there were bright colors everywhere. My friend and I rode a few rides and I got a flower painted on my hand! The food was excellent! I tried chicken flautas (Flautas pollo y res) and it was amazing.
The artwork is what stood out to me the most. There were a lot of pieces that had beautifully vibrant colors. The jewelry was exquisite and elegantly made. There were so many different styles, but it was clear that they all came for this distinct culture.
I really enjoyed experience the culture surrounding the Day of the Dead. In Hispanic culture, there is much more respect and reverence regarding our ancestors. In my family, we don’t have any way to honor our dead. We have a lovely funeral and we occasionally visit graves, but this is an annual celebration of all those who came before us and those who we loved and loved us. I really think it’s beautiful and I would like to investigate more of the my German heritage to see if we have any significant ways of honoring our dead.

Uncategorized