La Raclette et L’Appart

My French friends aren’t the only friends I’ve made.

It seems as though the international students here really stick together, and thus my main group of friends is made up of people from all sorts of different countries. The first and—as I have come to learn, most lasting—friendships I’ve forged began one night when Carole invited me to her house to try “la raclette.”

She invited me and my “American friends” over Friday night, at the end of January. She was, of course, referring to Madison, who I believe I’ve already mentioned, and Kylie. I’ve had some French classes with Kylie at OU in the past, but we didn’t talk much outside of the classroom, or at all really. As it happens we weren’t all friends at the time, just all coming from the same university. I think we all hid it from each other well, but I know that at that time, we were all a little confused and apprehensive about our study abroad adventure. We were like paper ships, sailing down a stream—individuals, cut from different cloths, but united by the current of what was sure to be a new experience—even for Kylie and Madison, who unlike me, had already been outside of the United States before. So we clung to each other in the beginning, if not for a friendly face, for the comfort of knowing there was someone who understood the things that confused, frightened, and excited us. And of course, for someone with whom we could speak English.

Carole’s friend Ibtissim, who is a young woman from Morocco, was also a marriane. She had invited her international students as well: Laurin, a tall boy from Cologne, Germany with dark blonde hair, and two students from Winnipeg, Canada: Ariel, a girl with long hair who was just a few months older than me, and Oscar, a young man of 25 who’s family was originally from Nicaragua. If you’ve ever been inside a French student’s affordable appartement, it is needless to say that the space was not very forgiving. Carole’s apartment did not have a living room. Only a kitchen, a bedroom and a bathroom. Thus, we were all eight of us settled into Carole’s small kitchen.

After the initial introductions, which were awkward, as they always are, we settled into an easy conversation about music, our studies, and our countries of origin. After learning more about each other, Carole declared it was time to show us what to do. La raclette is an interactive eating experience, kind of like fondu in that it is both meant to be shared with friends and that it involves a lot of cheese. There were various types of cheese and ham, as well as potatoes, all laid around one large electric appliance. It looked like a strange hybrid of a pancake griddle and an electric hand-dryer, but it worked like a broiler. There was a little metal tray beneath a heat source, like a toaster. Each of us got a tiny square pan, like the smallest, thinnest, squarest skillet you can picture. Carole explained that we were to put our meat on the pan first, then top it with the cheese of our choosing. Then we were to allow the cheese to melt under the heat of the apparatus, slide it off of the skillet onto the potatoes or bread, or just onto a plate.

Madison, Kylie, and I supplied the dessert, which is polite when one is going to a soirée—guests either bring dessert or drinks. We brought an assortment of chocolate pastries, from a patisserie not too far from our dorm. Laurin, Ariel, and Oscar brought wine. Which somehow turned into the drinking age in America, which of course brought to attention the fact that I am still technically too young to drink in America, since I’m only 20. Though Ariel was the same age as me, she joined in on the light-hearted teasing that inevitably began. Eventually, they let Laurin pour me a glass.

We did our best to speak only in French, but as Carole spoke some English, as did Laurin, after spending several summers in Australia, Greece, and Canada, we fell into broken English and eventually gave up the whole pretense after the second bottle of wine (split eight ways, of course) was gone. Unfortunately, Ibtissam spoke no English at all. This was unbeknownst to us, of course, at least at first. But when she angrily slammed into Carole’s room, it occurred to us that she hadn’t participated in the conversation once the conversation had slipped into decidedly English territory.
The night, however, was saved by Carole, who persuaded Ibtissam to return to the table, and the rest of us were more vigilant about speaking French, limited then though it was.

That was the first night I met Ariel and Laurin, two people who I would eventually grow closer too. It was also the first and last night that I would hang out with Oscar, Kylie, and Ibtissam. Not for any malicious reason, really—Ibtissam, I didn’t know how to contact or speak to (she uses a lot of French slang, and Ariel, who studied French in Canada since she was a child, is the only person I know who can understand her). Oscar and I don’t have anything in common, and if I’m being truthful, he rubs me the wrong way—always needing to be right, to explain, to know everything, even though he’s a student just like everyone else.

Kylie decided that she didn’t want to hang out with us, having decided that she didn’t have anything in common with us—she prefers to spend time with the students in her class. When I’ve seen her, she seems happy, but she also seems like she wants to avoid us. I’m not entirely surprised—even when she’d been in French classes with me, she never seemed keen to spend any time with me. I think that my personality is a little too boisterous for her, and initially, I thought she was too timid for me. But now I know that she’s a pretty strong individual, able to break away from something ‘uncomfortably comfortable,’ like a group of friends who are just as lost as you are but with whom you have nothing in common. As far as I know she’s enjoying her time though, and that’s all I can really wish for anyone.

And so, it was with Laurin, Ariel and Madison that I went to my first club just a few weeks later—on account of only being 20 years old and having lived most of my life in the U.S., where being 20 means little else beyond watching your friends have fun or sneaking around pretending to be older than you are. But I never felt such a weird kinship than at L’Appart, the club near the shopping center Jaude where all the other international students go to blow off steam.

Laurin knew lots of other international students because he goes to the actual university, like Ariel, as opposed to us at OU who have an agreement to learn French only at Centre FLEURA. He introduced us to Francesco and Matteo, who both come from Italy. They each only take one course at UCA and have basically decided that they would take an easy semester in France, even though neither of them speaks any French. But it wasn’t just who Laurin knew. Somehow, we were all there on the same night, and we were all too willing to make friends with the others who had come so far and, for reasons known only to others, had ended up in Clermont.

Deborah and Valencia, also Italian and practically joined at the hip. We met Maybrit, who I had known before from one of Carole’s marriane friends, Justine. She also comes from Cologne, Germany, but she and Laurin had never met before, which I thought was funny. Esteban, who is an architecture masters student from Mexico. Jimmy, from Cameroon, who spoke fluent German, much to the delight of Laurin, Maybrit, and Marie—another girl from Cologne. Yassin, a boy from Morocco; Ahmed, Samuel, and Muhammad, who came from Algeria; Henrietta from Finland; Hayley, Erica, Hannah, who all came from Scotland; Suzanna, from the Czech Republic.

We were all pilgrims in search of experience, adventure, knowledge, fun, and freedom. And I’d never had so much in common with so many people who couldn’t be more different from me. And I surprised myself, which I think is the point of studying abroad. You never know what you’re capable of until you end up somewhere where you don’t know if you can hack it. Usually, by 2am, I’d be far too socially exhausted to feel at ease in a strange place in a foreign country.

But I found myself content, cracking jokes with people I’d only met 20 minutes prior, dancing with my new friends, laughing so hard I couldn’t tell if I’d gone silent or if I’d just been drowned out by the music. Even as we left the club in the early hours of the morning, stumbling and giggling into the silent streets in search of a kebab shop, I was more than assured that come what may, this was one of the best decisions I could have made for myself. I’d made new friends, friends who would prove to be some of the best people I’ve ever met, and even though I knew that it couldn’t possibly be like this all the time—carefree, ludicrous, high on youth—I knew that whatever challenges I would face would be worth it, for all the times like this.

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Les Problèmes avec L’administration

It’s late March now, and I think I’ve been so preoccupied with making friends and deciphering the French collegiate system that writing my journals simply slipped my mind all together. So, to recount my scholastic adventures here at UCA, I’ll have to go back about three months.

There were some administrative mistakes that I could easily blame for the disaster that was my first week of school here, but maybe I could find some blame for myself if I simply retrace my steps. I am a Letters-International Studies double major at OU, and I originally planned to use this semester to catch up with my International Studies degree, since I added it after my Letters degree was nearly finished. Why would I do such a thing? If I’m being honest, the prospect of graduating with a bachelor’s degree at the age of twenty scared me a little. I mean, what am I supposed to do after that? I’ve been in school my entire life, and suddenly I’m supposed to get a job, learn how to do my taxes? Obviously, I plan to learn those things, but I wasn’t quite prepared to do it so quickly. And, I’ve always had an interest in the interconnectedness of the global community, so I felt it would help shape my focus when I do begin searching for a career.

But I digress. The problem is that I chose classes that I believed would transfer over to the College of International Studies. As it would turn out, that was never even an option.

The Université de Clermont Auvergne gave me a “marriane,” which means “godmother.” Her name is Carole, and she is basically my partner, in a program similar to OU Cousins. She reached out via Facebook and told me that she would show me around to find where my advisors and classes were. We met at my dorm, and once again, the le bis took me by surprise. She is short and curvy, with curly brown hair, light brown skin, and bright red glasses. She told me that she was born in Madagascar, and I felt like an idiot for forgetting that people live in Madagascar. That stupid movie is all I could think of, and I mentioned it to her. She laughed and told me that the lemurs there are like the squirrels everywhere else, just kind of part of the landscape. We found my advisor’s office, but not the actual advisor, as apparently, she didn’t come to work on Thursday afternoons. I took a picture of her office hours, and then Carole asked to see my learning agreement—a list of the classes that I had chosen to take.

Because the university is spread out over the city, we hiked back to the building Gergovia, which wasn’t actually that far from my advisor’s office or the dorms, but I suppose I’m used to considering a university to be one cohesive location. Then we took the stairs to the fourth floor, where the secretaries to some of my classes resided. If you’ve never been to Europe, it will come as an underwhelming shock that the fourth floor actually means the fifth floor, since apparently ground-level is “zero.” After we huffed and puffed to the fourth floor, we found a bulletin board with a schedule for classes. I’d never seen anything like it. It was color-coded and grid-like, and even Carole was a bit confused by it, since she is a psychologie majeur and Gergovia is home to les Classiques, Littérature, et Histoire. But we worked out that my first class should take place on Monday at 8:15 am.

I hung out with Carole for a bit longer before I headed out to do some shopping, not just for food but also for school supplies. I found out that there is no such thing as plain lined paper, just grid paper. I decided that it would have to do. The next day, Carole took me shopping for the last few things I needed for my dorm. It turns out that the huge, Walmart-esque stores are too far to reach on foot or by tram, so Carole asked her father to use the car. They drove me out of the city center and asked polite questions about what music I preferred and how hot it gets in Texas and if I ever drive when I’m in the United States. I informed them that I liked all music, that the hottest it ever got in Texas in my lifetime was 113 degrees (which shocked them, on account my using Fahrenheit. In Celsius, 113 equals 45 degrees, which I am assured, is still scorching) and that you could really only get around by driving in the States. We bought a rug and a laundry basket, food, and shower supplies. I thanked them and felt more prepared for my first class on Monday.

The other thing about France is the people. Even though I’m not in a place as notoriously glamourous as Paris, everyone still makes quite the effort to look fashionable. I know that if I had an 8 am class in America, I would have no shame about arriving in my pajamas. But here, no matter how early or late, people are impeccably dressed. So, I woke up an entire hour earlier than I needed to so that I could prepare for my classes. I walked across the street and up all the stairs and I was surrounded by a sea of people, engulfed in a cacophony of French. I felt small in the crowd, and I felt like I was noticeably out of place, even though no one paid any attention to me. We all stood in front of the doors to the auditorium, some people chatting with their friends and others, like me, simply listening to their headphones and observing.

Ten minutes went by, and the professor didn’t show. Some people began to leave. Alarmed, I went to speak to the secretary to ask if I was in the right place at the right time. I stumbled through my question, and she seemed kind but busy. She hustled through her response but was nice enough to repeat herself more slowly after seeing my puzzled face. She also answered a few of my other questions concerning the times and whereabouts of my other classes. I went back outside to wait with the others. Twenty minutes had gone by and now only half of the original crowd remained. After thirty minutes, I was the only one who remained, and feeling a bit silly, I made my way down the stairs and back to my dormitory. Turns out, the professor simply didn’t feel like coming to class on the first day of school, so he didn’t. And while I can certainly understand that impulse, I wish he’d had the decency to tell someone before I woke up at 7 am and ruined my morning.

Later that day, I went to speak with my advisor—Madame Marie France-Yang. She asked me if I preferred French or English, and when I hesitated she used both. The system was so unfamiliar to me that I didn’t know what she was talking about half of the time. She went on about Learning Agreements and student cards and signing up for exams—which apparently you have to do, you don’t just get an exam for being in the class. She gave me several instructions, which included somehow getting a 2 inch photo of myself for the student card as well as a five euro fee for processing my application and student dossier.

It took the rest of the week to do all that she’d asked, and it required a fair amount of running around Clermont. Madison, another student from OU went with me more often than not, since she had roughly the same laundry list of tasks. Three different offices passed us around to each other so often we wondered if we’d ever get fully enrolled. Meanwhile, I was taking history classes and literature classes at Gergovia, struggling to keep up with one my professors but the others were rather easily understood and their subject matter quite interesting. The classes had days in between, so for Tuesday and Thursday I had nowhere to be but at someone’s office, asking for help to officially enroll in classes. Finally, we returned to Madame Yang and she informed me that I wasn’t even permitted to take history and literature classes under the bilateral agreement that they had with OU. I was to take a French placement test and would only be allowed to take French foreign language classes.

I couldn’t tell if I was upset or relieved. I was having difficulties in some of my classes—one of which required an oral presentation that I was in no way mentally or physically prepared for; but I had planned out all my credits that would still need to be satisfied when I returned to the States, and I’m not a fan of changing plans once I’m already knee-deep. But I figured that I could at least finish my French minor, and that way I could take the Letters and International Studies classes that truly interested me in English, thus eliminating the need to translate before brandishing my critical thinking skills.

The very next week I took the placement tests with Madison and Kylie—another OU student, who was actually in my French classes but who I fear never liked me that much, as well as other international students that I’d met: Maybrit and Laurin, both German, and Fernando, who was born in Haiti but came from a university in New Jersey. I was placed in Niveau B2 (Level B2), which means that I can express myself clearly (sometimes) and understand when someone is speaking to me (mostly). It could’ve been better, but also certainly could’ve been much worse—and regardless, I like B2.

We take General French, three times a week, each class is at least two hours long. I also take Civilisation—which is a class about French society, government, culture, etc., and Histoire Culturelle—which is a class about French history and its effect on French culture. There is a writing class called Argumentation, where we learn to formulate constructive arguments about various issues. If you’ve ever seen or participated in a Lincoln-Douglas debate, that’s basically the gist of it, except it’s written down instead of spoken. Finally, there is a class called MVU. It’s been two and half months, and I’m still not entirely sure what MVU stands for, but I believe it’s Module pour la Vie Universitaire, which means they teach us how to participate meaningfully in the French collegiate system, how it’s organized, and how to use it to procure jobs in the future. It basically teaches you how to be a student in France. Lots of my new Chinese friends are very studious about that class. I’m not really enthused about it, it requires a lot of group work even though we don’t have a clear project to work on, and none of the things we learn really apply to me. Despite the fact I’m going right back to America this summer, it’s still required that I take the class.

Another class that was required was FOS. I definitely couldn’t tell you what that stands for, but it’s a class where you learn vocabulary for various fields. We were given a choice between Commerce, Letters, and Sciences. Madison and I chose to drop this class from our 18-hour per week course load. Instead, we signed up for a class called UE Star, wherein we learn about the history and culture of Auvergne, the region we’re in. It was another uphill battle and a game of pass the buck, but we finally were able to forgo the FOS classes, which were Friday morning, for the Star class, which is Tuesday evening. If it were up to me, I’d probably drop MVU as well, if the credits wouldn’t be lost when I transferred them back to the University of Oklahoma. But I need it to be fully enrolled, I’ve made new friends in the class, and it’s much better to have a three-day weekend when you’re travelling abroad.

In summation, I don’t believe I deserve any of the blame for the original mix up of classes. But I can admit that, while worth it, the rigmarole that plagued me once I tried to switch FOS for Star was entirely initiated by yours truly. But that doesn’t matter, because I’ve found a way to make my study abroad experience work for me in every way that matters and if that’s not a qualified success, I don’t know what is. I can honestly say that I know my French has improved since my time here, and so even if not all of my credits transfer back or I have to take a class that in no way applies to me, my cup runneth over.

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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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Jerusalem

At the onset of this month, Trump declared Jerusalem to be the capital of Israel. I will admit to not being very well-versed in the historical aspects that affect this part of the world, so I visited the CNN newspage and clicked the article that I was sure would solve all my problems. It is entitled “Why declaring Jerusalem the capital of Israel is so controversial.”

To summarize, it would first undo nearly a decades worth of diplomatic processes that have slowly nudged the Israeli-Palestinian conflict toward a peaceful solution, as well make foreign embassies a target for violent attacks in response to the news, according to one US State Department official. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been going on for nearly 100 years, and Jerusalem is the most sensitive aspect of this conflict, as both nations declare it as their capital–both with historical justification for doing so. For foreign policy officials, especially during the Obama administration, Jerusalem has always been the ‘final problem,’ and after years of negotiations, all the work has been undone by one rash move by Donald Trump.

Not only is simply declaring Jerusalem the capital of Israel problematic for the Palestinians, but moving the US Embassy is an entirely different issue. It could be a simple thing, to move the capital from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem–especially considering that the US already has a consular outpost there. However, Trump has decided that an entirely new embassy will be built, which of course, is a logistical complication. Moreover, it invited Arabs and Palestinians to protest throughout the entirety of the construction project.

In respect to the international nature of the history of Israel–after all, several countries were party to the original declaration that gave Israel statehood–it is important to note that because of the conflict, no countries have embassies in Jerusalem, while nearly 86 have their embassies situated in Tel Aviv. Were the United States to move its embassy to Jerusalem, it would be the only one.

The Israelis, of course, are quite pleased with this agreement–at least officially. The leaders, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, are applauding Trump. THe Palestinians, however, consider this declaration, and its potential enactment, a breach of international law, and a huge setback in regards to peaceful and permanent solutions to this dispute.Some Americans believe the the timing of the announcement was suspicious, and have posited that Trump made such an irresponsible decision to draw attention away from Robert Mueller’s investigation into his relationship with Russia during the 2016 presidential election. The rest of the international community has found it concerning, careless and rash, and the United Nations has condemned the decision 14 to 1.

Because this is such a sensitive issue with so many moving parts, it is important to keep an eye on both official and unofficial reactions in the days ahead.

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Not All News Is Bad News

Recently, it was announced that Prince Harry of Great Britain’s royal family is engaged to American actress Meghan Markle. For some Americans, it’s like Princess Diaries come to life–well, not exactly, but still very exciting. Some are indifferent to the news–after all, we fought to be a separate country from England, so why should we care? But I can almost assuredly say, that no significant portion of Americans are particularly upset about the upcoming royal wedding.

I, unfortunately, cannot say the same for some Britons. There have been a slew of racist tweets, mostly along the lines of the “dilution of the bloodline” or the “devolution of the Crown.” In general, comments that make no sense and don’t truly bear repeating. After all, I’m sure it’s hard enough to find true love if you’re a part of the royal family. How could you not be paranoid all the time that someone is only after your money, or station? I hope the Prince Harry and Meghan have found the real thing, and I wish them luck in the years ahead.

And of course, there are some who choose to make every event political. While it happens to be a skill of mine to find political implications to every action, I don’t really find it necessary to apply said skill in this case. However, some think that Ivanka Trump’s recent tweet, congratulating the happy couple, was in fact a fishing expedition for an invitation. The thought process behind such a theory is that Obama, who had a great relationship with the Royal family and still does, will be in attendance, and therefore the Trumps cannot bear to be left out. Despite the fact that it is well known that neither I nor the Royal family have much love for the Trump family, I am choosing to believe that this really was a good faith, well-wishing tweet from the First Daughter. If that’s not the case, and it truly was an ill-conceived attempt to wrangle an invitation, I think it’s safe to safe that she tried in vain.

The Royal couple have set their wedding date for May 19, 2018. Prince Harry’s older brother, Prince William, and his wife Kate are expecting their third child next year as well.

I wonder what is the American obsession with England, even after all this time. The culture of both countries have grown so far apart the practically the only thing we share is a language. Even that can be divided into British English (e.g. colour, bins, ‘taken to hospital’) and American English (e.g. color, trash, ‘taken to the hospital’). I think most of the fascination is the fact that England is kind of like America’s ‘parent’ that tried to hold on too tight, and America is like England’s ‘rebellious teenage child’ that was estranged for a while, but now we have a mutual respect and fascination with each other. We find each other’s accents attractive, we watch each other’s television shows. America is obsessed with concept of royalty and nobility–despite the fact that we are vehemently against that sort of thing happening here (at least, in any official capacity). I once had a friend from England who was obsessed with American southern culture, specifically barbecue.

Whatever the reason, it is an impressive relationship that we have sustained. And in that same vein, on behalf of any Americans who care, I wish the Royal family the best.

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Libyan Slave Trade

This is by far the most upsetting thing I’ve had to write in 2017. I find myself baffled by the very fact it’s so ostentatious. One thing that I know is an unfortunate truth: the slave trade never truly went anywhere. People have been sold into sex slavery since the dawn of time–in fact, Oklahoma is one of the hotspot for sex trafficking in the United States. But the actual sale of people in ‘old-fashioned’ slavery: what with the chains and the auctioneer and actual bids on human lives, makes it seem like we truly are stepping back into the past.

CNN broke the news of the Libyan slave trade, with horrifying video footage nearly a month ago, and already it’s become old news in mainstream media. The original story broke in November, but it was in October that the CNN news team witnessed the sale of Libyan men, some for as cheap as $400. I find myself wondering–what kind of person knowingly buys another person? Who willfully and intentionally participates in such an antiquated and clearly inhumane practice? Maybe I’m coming from a place of innocence or privilege–after all, slavery, as I previously mentioned, is alive and well in certain parts of the world, such as East Asia, parts of Africa, and even Ukraine. But it’s the familiarity associated with the way in which slavers in Libya are going about it. If anyone has ever seen a slave documentary, or Alex Haley’s television adaptation of Roots, or been to a terrifying ‘interactive slaving’ experience like I have, one would think–or at least hope–that that sort of practice is done.

Of course we cannot ignore the political causes and effects of this sort of news. Many believe it was the destabilization of the region by American interference (namely, the removal of Gaddafi by the Obama administration) that led to people’s desperation for income. This is the sort of oversight that leaders and governments need to fully consider before taking action. The renaissance of the slave trade is a little…unforeseeable…but surely it was known that removing a leader, not matter how corrupt, would have impacts beyond the immediately known.

The Trump administration has also had some effect on this abhorrent practice, and much like everything out of the Trump administration, the news is not great. Trump’s relationship with American media is tumultuous, if one is being kind. He frequently tries to undermine the integrity of any news source that reports on him negatively, including such accredited news stations like CNN. Libyan slave traders are now using President Trump’s quotes wherein he calls CNN ‘fake news’ to cast doubt on the report and continue this corrupt behavior under the guise of journalistic dishonesty. President Trump, as of today, has done nothing to distance himself from the Libyan slave trade. He has neither put out a statement to bolster CNN’s credibility (to the surprise of no one), nor has he publicly condemned the slave trade in Libya. To say I am disappointed in the United States response would be an understatement.

The United Nations, which currently backs the Libyan government, has promised to investigate these claims in conjunction with Libyan officials, who say that it is the rest of the world’s response to Libya’s migration crisis that has allowed smugglers to exploit desperate citizens. To put it mildly, I am underwhelmed with the international response as well.

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Preparation

I was preparing to go down to Houston for my Consular Visit. Houston is where the Office of the General of France is, which means that it where I had to go to get my visa approved.

This process was nerve-racking and anxiety-inducing. I only enjoyed the process insofar as I knew that it was just one more hurdle I had to clear until I could go to France. That’s the goal I had to cling to through frantic calls from my parents, frantic calls to my parents, gathering materials, making a list, checking the list, printing so much that I probably have the destruction of an entire forest on my conscience. I hated everything about this process–everything except for the fact that it was going to get me closer to studying abroad.

Honestly, that’s all I’ve ever wanted to do. I’ve always wanted to travel and see everything and everyone there is to see. Maybe if I had travelled outside of the country before, I wouldn’t have been so nervous. But as it is, I have never been outside the United States, though not for lack of trying.

I planned my consular visit to take place during Thanksgiving Break. I took the train to Dallas, my hometown. My mother picked me up, I had a brief moment to say hello to my brother and sister before my dad came home. We were rushing around (and by ‘we,’ I mean ‘me’) trying to find the last few official documents that I’d need for the visit. I had two different versions of a checklist in my hands, and I’d check them and the folder with all my documents in it several times, every few minutes. Even once we had gotten into the car and were already driving down to Houston.

We spent the night in town, five minutes from the consulate, so that we wouldn’t miss my 9:30 appointment. Despite my meticulous checking, we’d forgotten the prepaid envelope which was required for the appointment (I later learned it was to mail all my important documentation back to me, like my passport). So, at the crack of dawn, we drove around looking for a post office and a bank which was open before 9 am, because one of the documents needed to be notarized. We found a post office, but all the banks were still closed, it was too early in the morning. I was nervous, because I am the type of person who just waits for something small to derail something big and important. But my mother had a great idea to see if the French Consulate had a notary that we could use when we got there. We called the consulate, and the secretary assured us that it was no big deal, so long as we had identification for everyone who signed the documents.

I was still a ball of nerves when we parked at the consulate. By the time I walked in and sat down it felt like someone had lit a campfire in my stomach, and every so often my anxiety would force me to involuntarily contract my stomach muscles, like it was trying to put the fire out.

I walked up to the window and she asked for proof of my appointment. I knew I had gotten an email but I didn’t think to print it. All my meticulous planning, printing and list checking and this was the thing that was going to derail everything. But no, she checked my email confirmation and everything went smoothly from there. In fact I had forms and printouts in my folder the man behind the counter just handed back to me.

By the end of it all, I got my visa, valid from January 8 to June 8.I plan to leave on January 14 (since my sister’s birthday is on January 11, and she has insisted I stay for it) and I will return on June 13.Even though this process was and still is nerve-wracking, I am more excited than I am afraid.

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Céline

I have an OU Cousin. I have been part of the OU Cousins program before, but I was often paired with a cousin who didn’t really want to hang out or do anything together. But this year, I met Céline, a French exchange student from the University of Bordeaux.

Céline is at OU to study American History and Literature. She prefers to concentrate on African American history, which is perfect because not only am I black, and therefore compelled to enjoy the company of anyone as woke as Céline, but I have an extensive knowledge of African American history due to my elementary education at a private all-black elementary school and my parents’ influence. From the very first moment we hung out, we hit it off. We’d been emailing back and forth, talking about this and that. I invited her to coffee, but she told me that she needed groceries and had no means of transportation. So, a few Friday’s back, I picked her up at Traditions and the two of us went grocery shopping.

She told me about markets in France, and how they’re not usually as big as Walmart. I convinced her to try some Little Debbie snacks, which I think she enjoyed. After the grocery store, we went to lunch at a Mediterranean place near my house. I live right across the street from her apartment, so it was no big deal for us to have lunch on my roof. We talked about our families. She has a brother and a sister, like me. But she’s the middle child, and I’m the oldest. We talked about “frat culture” and Greek letter societies, which are apparently unique to America. She said that they don’t have fraternities in France, at least not in the same way that we do here. We even talked about police brutality and how social justice movements that address American societal problems get more support abroad than they do here. She told me that they even had a Black Lives Matter protest at her university.

Last week, Céline came over and she and I went thrift shopping with my roommate. It was really fun, despite all the traffic and road construction. Céline was really excited to be invited thrift shopping, she said that she didn’t know that we had second-hand shops. I’d recent;y gone to the Pre-Departure Orientation for my study abroad program, where I’d learned some of the American stereotypes. On the ride over, my roommate–Nikki–and I asked her if they were true. She said that she’d heard that “all Americans are rich” and that “Americans are loud” and even “Americans are dumb/gullible.” I asked her why she thought Europeans thought that. She said: “Well, since America is far, when people can come to Europe, people think they must have lots of money. And when people think of America, they think of…I think his name is George Bush? And also Homer Simpson, that’s why some people think Americans are not smart. But yes, Americans are loud.” Nikki and I cracked up.

When we got to the thrift stores, I found a few sweaters and Céline found a denim jacket and few other pieces that she liked. We also stopped at Sonic for a milkshake. Well, Céline got a milkshake, a cheesecake milkshake to be exact. She loves that you can get two desserts in one here.

Céline is staying for an entire year, which is a little bit of a bummer, because I’m going to France next semester, so we won’t get to hang out after this semester ends. But I’m glad that I’ve gotten to know her, and maybe one day when she’s back in France I’ll get to go visit, or she’ll come back to the States for a trip. All I know is that it’s fun to make new friends, no matter where they come from.

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Congressional Republicans, Trump, and Russia

Once, again, I will have to editorialize. Because once again, I have too much of an emotional response to just report facts.

Yesterday, two very important things came to light. The first was that Trump’s transition team was aware that Michael Flynn was being investigated by the FBI for his ties to Russia and Turkey, but hired him and National Security Advisor anyway. The second is that House Republicans have had their doubts about Trump and knew that he was a potential national security risk, and backed him anyway.

I’ve said it before, but the more I hear about this administration and members of this congress, the more I fear that partisanship and politics has replaced any actual care for the American people. Our public servants seem to have forgotten that they work for us. We’re not just votes, we’re people who cast those votes in the hopes that the names on the ballots would do what is in our best interest. Anyway, on to the stories that broke yesterday.

First off, Michael Flynn told the Trump administration that he was being investigated. He personally told them, so it wasn’t speculation or hearsay. But the vetting process for this president has been so lax, and the standard of qualification so low, that they hired Flynn anyway. As National Security Advisor. Like in what world does it make sense for a man who has his loyalties in question, and has actually admitted to illegal lobbying for a foreign nation (Turkey) to be a national security advisor? It’s reasonable to assume that his advice wouldn’t always be for our nation. Instead of not considering Flynn for the job at all, and moving on to an actually qualified candidate, Trump and the members of his team seemed to think that it was enough to know about the investigation.

But not only did they know about the investigation, they lied about knowing about it. Sally Yates, Barack Obama, and other members of the FBI and Justice Department told the Trump team that Flynn was not a good choice because of the ongoing investigation. This too was disregarded. But when it came to light the Flynn was under investigation, every one in the transition team, and Trump himself, claimed ignorance. I’m gonna skip ahead here, because this is an important point I don’t think enough people have mentioned. Because of the information about Trump’s connection to Russia that I mentioned in the previous post, many people are whispering about impeachment. Here’s the problem with that: Mike Pence is the Vice President and second in line for the presidency. But he was head of the transition team and said on TV that he knew nothing about the Flynn’s ties to Russia and Turkey. If that’s true, he is almost as dumb as Trump. He was head of the team and somehow knew nothing? Also, the head of the DOJ sent a memo detailing Flynn’s investigation directly to him. So if he still knew nothing, he’s as lazy as Trump and didn’t read an important document that was send right to his desk. And if none of the above are true, then he knew and he lied to us about it. Is there anyone on the right willing to stand up for us, even if it’s not the popular thing to do? Are any of them willing to be the one who goes agains the crowd and does the right thing, instead of the politically smart thing? DO any of them care about us anymore?

So, Trump and his transition team lied. But even now, this is something that the American people are unfortunately no longer surprised about. But what about the Representatives, that are specifically elected to represent our interests state by state? Surely they are willing to stand up for us even if the executive side of the government is untrustworthy, right? Wrong.

It was reported yesterday by The Washington Post that House Republicans had their suspicions about Trump’s affiliation with Vladimir Putin from the beginning. In 2016, a month before Trump secured the nomination, someone secretly taped a private meeting with GOP members in which the then House majority Leader Kevin McCarthy said “I think Putin pays Trump.” This statement garnered some laughter, to which McCarthy quickly responded: “Swear to God.” Paul Ryan, the current House Majority Leader then said that there were to be ‘no leaks’ and that that was how they knew they were ‘all family.’ The most important aspect of this exchange is that no one ever said “that can’t be true.” Instead, the focus was on making sure the conversation never was leaked.

This is what’s crazy about this who thing: not only no one in the entire transcript ever deny that it was a possibility, but again they lied about it. Paul Ryan fervently denied that this was ever said, until he was made aware that a tape existed. Then he changed his tune, saying that yes, it was said, but it was a joke.

This is  not a joke to us. Our elected officials had reason to believe that the man they were about to nominate to be the leader of the free world was on another country’s payroll-not just any country either, our frenemy, Russia. And they nominated him anyway. And then they lied about it. 

When will the American people be put first again? When will our leaders actually lead, and not be the doormats for men with no loyalty and no sense? When can we trust the people we voted for for protection, to actually protect us? Especially when it seems it’s them we need protection from. 

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