Study Abroad in France: Cussing Out Pervy Old Men

Bordeaux is, unfortunately, not immune from people who find absolutely nothing wrong with harassment. Men, women, small children, dogs (not a joke), everyone seems to be a target in France. The perpetrators don’t have a singular look, as is true wherever you go in the world. It could be a drunken man on the street who decides to pick a fight with a college kid, or an angry older woman feeling the need to proselytize and inform you that you’re going to hell for wearing extensions. It could be a group of kids running around and kicking people’s dogs. And with such a wide array of perpetrators, it is almost inevitable that, in a given week, you’ll find yourself being harassed at least twice. I’m going to list the different encounters that I and my friends have had. While they will seem to be ranked from most to least severe, know that in the event of escalation any one of these could be dangerous.  With that in mind, I would also like to add a warning right here that there will, unfortunately, be mentions of sexual assault.

  1.  Bordeaux has a large homeless population. As such, you will definitely see a few homeless people around town when you go pretty much anywhere. They may or may not ask you for money. I’ve known many people who have done so with no problems, and I know one who, in the process of doing so, was mugged. Most people in Bordeaux, sadly, tend to just ignore their presence altogether.
  2. People may attempt to sell you drugs or, in some cases, attempt to buy drugs from you. I, as well as many others my age, encountered many people attempting to sell us various drugs, usually outside of bars and nightclubs at night. I’ve never known anyone to actually buy them. Most likely, whatever they’re trying to sell you is illegal in France. It could also potentially be deadly or dangerous. Do not, under any circumstances, buy anything from these people. Also, as I mentioned, some younger folks tend to assume that people of Arab or African descent have drugs on them. I, as well as the majority of my friends who are black or Arab, have definitely had people come up to me and ask me if I sell weed.
  3. As I mentioned earlier, you may encounter a drunk person while walking around or on the tram, especially on the weekends. These people, if vexed, may begin to scream or yell profanities at pretty much everyone. If this happens on the tram, it is ignored by most. However, in some cases, they might become violent and may target certain people depending on who this person is. Racism, sexism, and homophobia still exist in Bordeaux, as they do around the world, and I witnessed the aftermath of a hate crime when two of our French friends came to my friend’s home with bloodied noses and black eyes, saying that they got jumped by two drunk men after leaving one of the gay bars downtown. What shocked me the most about this situation, though, was that they weren’t surprised, as this wasn’t the first time this has happened. 
  4. All of my points after this one will be about sexual harassment. I want to put this here in its own note just in case anyone reading this may not be comfortable or able to read about this.
  5. I have yet to meet a woman in Bordeaux that has not been sexually harassed at least once in this city, and I truly do not believe that I personally have ever encountered the frequency or the level of sexual harassment that I experienced in Bordeaux. I wish I was joking when I say that it was a daily occurrence. And, these incidents range from gross words made in passing to uncomfortable staring to actual stalking.
  6. Getting on the tram and staying on until you reach the city center will almost inevitably result in you getting stared down by a creepy old man. This seems to be a widespread occurrence among the young women I spoke to about this.
  7. Men in the city center may say something lewd in passing, give you a prolonged stare, or follow you to try to get your attention. This also seems to be a widespread occurrence, especially in the city center and, more worryingly, especially at night.
  8. Be very wary of men at nightclubs. They may actually attempt to put their hands on you. In the event that you start feeling uncomfortable or that you’re being watched by someone, go to the bartenders or the bouncers at the bar/nightclub and tell them immediately. That person will then be watched by the staff and most likely escorted out if they attempt anything else or make anyone else feel uncomfortable.
  9. Going to nightclubs in a group is necessary. Do not go alone.
  10. There were two times during my time in Bordeaux that I got stalked by men. I’m not going to sugarcoat this or make it sound like it wasn’t a big deal. Both times I was followed off the tram and followed down streets. Both times I noticed what was happening and quickly went into a nearby store and told the employees what was happening. This is something that you need to be aware of. I’m not the only one that this happened to.

Study Abroad in France: I Guess Meat Is Poison Now?

These posts are not going to be me just bashing everything about France. I promise. However, I would be remiss in not talking about the negative aspects of my time in France. It’s great to talk about how great the experience was, or how insightful the study abroad experience was, or how I’ve become much more independent (and those things did happen! And I appreciate them a lot!), but I feel like oftentimes when speaking of study abroad experiences people tend to add in negatives almost as a side-note. Therefore, I feel the need to talk about negatives so that anyone studying abroad, in Bordeaux or otherwise, knows that things might not go well, and that that’s okay, too. You can still turn these negative experiences into a teaching tool of some sort. Going through that bureaucratic nightmare for four months, for example, taught me how to navigate it, and now I find myself helping others navigate through these difficult channels that are sometimes filled with equally difficult people. And my experience with food in Bordeaux, which was vastly different from what I expected it to be and definitely different from what I remember it being when I came to France during the summer, taught me some pretty valuable lessons about cuisine in general and about French culture regarding food. So, now that I’ve gotten that blurb out of the way, here’s how things went down:

January

 Like most do whenever they travel to a different country, I hemorrhaged money on restaurants and street food. I don’t think I cooked in January once, despite having a communal kitchen not even 4 yards away from my doorstep. As one of the most popular tourist destinations in France, Bordeaux had more restaurants on any given street than there were stores. You could have a Belgian waffle for breakfast and then follow up with a baguette sandwich from Paul for lunch, and then dinner could be Italian food or Indian food or even Korean food. Rinse, wash, and repeat, adding Burger King whenever you felt a little bit homesick. However, like I said, a lifestyle like that leads to an empty wallet, and I was no Bill Gates. I also started to realize that the tap water was absolutely disgusting. I was told to just buy bottle water, because no one drinks from the tap here. Near the end of this month, I also started to take note of the eating habits of people around me, but not in any serious way. I also get food poisoning from a kebab restaurant in January, which was swell.

February

 I was introduced to French Walmart by, strangely, a childhood friend of a friend I met here in the United States who just happened to be from Bordeaux. We met before we realized this coincidence. The world is small. Anyways, this place had the exact same structure as a Walmart, with clothes, furniture, and cleaning supplies in one section, electronics and books in another, and food in yet another. Instead of being spread out in a wide store, however, these sections were divided into floors. I quickly bought as many junk foods as humanly possible, as well as some fruits and vegetables, some pasta, and also some chicken. I also bought an obscene amount of dairy. I started replacing some of my restaurant outings with meals at this point. No one around me seemed to want to go anywhere for breakfast, so those became almost exclusively a home-meal. I also bought a water filter, because I felt bad constantly throwing out water bottles. My first lunch that I cooked was pasta with meat sauce and chicken. The chicken tasted terrible. In fact, I realized that I hadn’t been a big fan of any of the meat I had eaten in the past two months, and had, at best, tolerated it. At worst, and this happened often, the restaurant meat upset my stomach quite a bit. At the absolute worst, after frequenting yet another kebab restaurant, my friend threw up and I began to have strange stomach pains. Three weeks after this incident, my friend dragged me to the doctor, stating that I looked pale as a ghost. My stomach pains had gotten worse, but I chalked it up to being lactose intolerant and eating too much dairy. Boy, was I wrong. E. Coli. I got E. Coli and I had it for about three weeks.

March

 E. Coli. From a kebab. Pair that with the fact that I already wasn’t a fan of the meat in France and you’ve got the whole reason I became a vegetarian. I started cooking my breakfast and my dinner at home and picking up a small sandwich for lunch, usually. This was in part due to the fact that I knew that if I cooked it, it would be thoroughly cooked, and also due to the fact that I started to get into the same rhythm as my French friends when it came to hanging out and going out. Most would eat a small breakfast, go somewhere for a large lunch or make a large lunch, and then almost exclusively have dinner at home, meeting up later to go out. This schedule was almost never broken, so I found myself simply doing the same. I also started to get more creative with what I made at home, buying a crock-pot and starting to experiment with different soups and broths.

April

 During my last month in Bordeaux, I found myself actually enjoying this newfound routine. It was easy to just get up and have some fruit for breakfast, eat a large sandwich for lunch, and then a small bowl of pasta or maybe more fruit for dinner. I also started to realize that I had a lot more money saved for this month than I did around the same time last month, and definitely the months prior. I realized this was because I spent no more than $25 on groceries every two weeks. Pasta, sauce, fruit, veggies, and dairy are quite a cheap shopping list, actually. I hadn’t gone anywhere near the meat since the E. Coli incident, save for an Italian restaurant where my friends assured me that the meat was imported from Italy and not a French product.

Studying Abroad in France: The Bureaucratic System

One of the many interesting aspects of French culture that I still, to this day, cannot wrap my head around is the strange bureaucratic system that, at times, really seemed to be attacking me personally. Even before I made it to Bordeaux, there were little nuances that seemed a bit…off. For example, I had to mail my application to France, after I had already submitted it online. This required me to go the CVS not once, but twice for two sets of four separate photos of myself that I then literally had to glue onto a small square designated on each document that I needed to mail. I found this particularly strange because I then had to take the exact same documents online and attach a picture of myself to those as well. I didn’t really understand why I would need to do this twice. But I digress.

Once I actually entered the country is when the real bureaucratic nightmare began, though. I went to the main office of the university, as my arrival email informed me to do. When I got there, I filled out a lot of paperwork that I still haven’t ever seen since then, and then got two sheets: one with eight stamps on it that was my official enrollment form and one that I was to take directly to the housing office. I also had to pay a $260 mandatory insurance fee that was non-waivable, even with my international insurance card literally in my hand. I never received my insurance card, by the way, for reasons I will explain later. I then went directly to the campus housing office only to be told, aggressively might I add, that in addition to these two forms, I also needed my birth certificate to obtain my room key. This was never brought up once in any of the housing forms I received. Not once. When I asked them if I could just use a copy, I was sternly told no. However, another student from OU who filled out the exact same forms as me was able to secure his room key despite also not having a physical copy of his birth certificate. It then took me three days extra to convince them to give me my key, and I spent those three days, luckily, sleeping inside the other student’s apartment.

Now, I was certain that that was the pinnacle of the bureaucratic nonsense that I would encounter in France. “Nothing could top that nightmare,” I thought. I was so naiive. So incredibly and awfully naiive. Let me tell you about the mail. So, the French seem to love sending things through the post, which is incredibly different from how I’m used to things being sent in the United States. Sure, things like credit cards and important legal documents tend to come in the mail, but this was the first time that I found myself literally signing a document, watching someone make another physical copy of that document, and then inform me that I would get the exact same document in the mail in about two weeks. Now, this doesn’t sound like much of an inconvenience, and honestly at this point I was just happy to have an actual apartment with a mailbox at all, but it turns out that things that get returned to sender tend to get lost. How, pray tell, did I find that out? Well, it turns out that I have to physically take a piece of paper with my name on it and stick said paper onto my mailbox, otherwise everything I get mailed gets returned to the sender. Like, for example, an insurance card. Now, I wasn’t told about this particular issue for about three months. Which means, for three months, I did not have mail. At all. Thinking about what important documents I potentially missed during this period causes me literal physical pain, so I don’t. But it’s safe to say that I probably lost one or two.

The bank was another mess. In addition to the aforementioned document madness (I got a binder of about 100 pages of things that I needed to keep), banks in France also don’t have a mobile banking app, which meant that checking my balance while I was on the go meant either going to the bank or going to the extremely mobile-unfriendly website. A small complaint, sure, but it’s the little things that make it so awful. Need to walk into the bank to deposit money? Nope, you accidentally came by during lunch time, which was marketing as being from 12pm to 2pm but was most definitely from 11:30pm to about 3:15pm. Want an actual username for your online banking account? Sorry, you have to use the 16-character alphanumerical code that we only hand you ONCE in physical copy form. Lost that? Well, guess you’ll have to wait for us to mail you a new one. In 8 to 12 business days.

I don’t know if the process of getting a French phone was actually easier than the other tasks or if I was just dull to it all by that point, but it didn’t seem terrible. There were still 50 pages of documents I had to sign and then take home with me, but the rest was pretty straightforward. I was slightly miffed that I had to pay full-price for a phone, but now I have an unlocked phone that I can easily switch SIM cards out of depending on where I am, so that’s nice. Honestly, the worst offender in this situation was the United States for regionally locking phones and allowing companies to literally not allow any SIM that’s not their SIM to work at all. The entire phone becomes blocked, too, not just the mobile capabilities.

There are probably loads more examples of this messy bureaucratic system. The fact that you can’t actually rent without having a co-signer with a French bank account, for example, or the fact that you should always carry no less than 2 pictures of yourself in case you need them for official documents. But the gist of this post is that if you come to France, bring some pens because you’ll be doing a LOT of paperwork.

I Spent a Semester Abroad in South Africa

Sooo I returned from my semester abroad in South Africa a couple weeks ago. I meant to announce I was going in July before I left, but I didn’t. Sorry to let you in on the big news after the fact.

To make it up to you, I planned a series of eight posts. I’ll start with a couple about my life there, then move on to some photo essays about my travels, and end with a bit of South Africa’s history.

I’m doing this in part because it’s a requirement for Global Engagement Fellows (let’s be honest with each other), but I also want to share my experiences in the hopes they inspire others to study abroad in South Africa. I was the first from OU to go there in years, and when I was researching the program, information was not easy to find. I want others to know how awesome South Africa is and to be a resource for those who are interested.

If you’re at all curious, check back in the upcoming days, and if you have any questions, feel free to leave a comment below. I’ll answer as soon as I can one way or another.

In the meantime, I leave you with these and, hopefully, anticipation.

A Day in the Life of 戈爱玛

戈爱玛 (Ge Aima), that’s me! I thought you all might be interested to see what a typical day in Beijing looked like for me.

At 未名湖 (No Name Lake) in north campus

Peking University (PKU) is in Beijing’s university district (Haidian), in the northwest part of the city.  I was about an hour-long bus ride from the Forbidden City, which is at the heart of Beijing. Despite the distance from many things, it’s actually very accessible with both a bus stop and a subway station right outside the east gate. Being a little farther from the center of town allows PKU’s campus to be larger than most. In addition, because it’s the most highly-ranked university in China, it’s a tourist attraction and gets a lot of money from the government for beautification. The main reason I chose PKU was, in fact, because I heard it had a gorgeous campus.

Also at PKU’s on-campus lake
On clear days, I could see the distant mountains to the west. This day was so smog-free, I could open my window!

I lived in an international student dorm just outside Peking University’s southeast gate. I was on the eleventh floor (out of twelve) and, although I had a double room, I had no roommate. Somehow, in the four months I lived there, I forgot to get a single picture, so you’ll have to take my word for it – the room was massive. Probably four times the size of my freshman dorm room in Oklahoma. The best part about it was the view. One entire wall of the room was a floor-to-ceiling window. My window faced south, towards 中关村(Zhongguancun), known as China’s Silicon Valley. At night, it would light up, and it was like I was living two blocks from Times Square. It was hard to get out of bed in the mornings because it was so peaceful to just lie there and look out at the city.

I would watch the sunset from my room every night.
On top of the world!
Usually I would check my air quality app just to be sure.

Most days, my first class was at 10:10. I would wake up at 9:00 and look out the window to see if I needed a mask or not. Most days, it was pretty obvious I did.

I didn’t go outside this day.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I would leave for class around 9:45. On the way, I would stop at a street food cart just outside my dorm for breakfast – 煎饼(jianbing)。Before my eyes, Jianbing Man (as we international students affectionately called him) would create a breakfast masterpiece in just 30 seconds from wheat batter, egg, green onions, and some mystery ingredients. It cost USD $1, and it is one of my top 3 foods from China.

Campus at night, taken from the bridge once after it snowed.

To get to campus, I had to cross a pedestrian bridge. Besides the two flights of stairs (which got progressively harder as the smog worked away at my lungs), I really enjoyed this part of my commute. At the top of the bridge, I could see a lot of the city and the campus. It made me feel like such a big-city girl.

My classroom building
My reading professor

The walk to my classroom building only took about 10 minutes total. Most days, I had just two classes – reading, and then either speaking or vocabulary. They lasted two hours each. I really loved my classes, my professors, and most of all my classmates. The 13 of us represented 8 different countries: United States, Australia, South Korea, Japan, Spain, Russia, the Philippines, and Brunei. My closest friend in the class was Carlota, from Spain, in the blue dress next to me in the photo below.

My class with my speaking professor

In between the two classes we had an hour-long break for lunch. PKU’s biggest and best canteen, Nonyuan, was also the closest one to my classroom building, so that’s where I normally went. This is what one of my typical lunches looked like: baked chicken, fried rice, a fried egg, steamed Chinese cabbage, and an Asian pear. Oftentimes I would also get milk tea or red bean sesame cookies for something sweet. All of this cost me less than USD $2! And it was, obviously, delicious.

Twice a week I would go to the fruit store after my classes. This is one of the parts of my daily life I miss most. Walking into the fruit store, my senses were immediately overwhelmed with the sweetest aromas of fifty different kinds of fruit, half of which I had never seen before. The store wasn’t very large, but they packed a lot of goodness in such a small place. I would always get enough pears for the next few days, since I had at least one every day. The pears in China are like an American pear and apple combined – sweet, unbelievably crisp, juicy – you could never go wrong with a pear. In addition to pears, I would usually also get some fruit to snack on, like kumquats or grapes.

After the fruit store, I would get started on my homework. Sometimes I would work on campus with friends, other times I would head back to my room to introvert and get stuff done. I always looked forward to dinner, though – another opportunity to have more of China’s amazing food. On the right is another of my top 3 dishes from China, 涮羊肉. Its English name, instant-boiled mutton, doesn’t do it justice. The cook drops thinly sliced lamb into a massive vat of boiling water for a few minutes, then scoops it into a bowl with some noodles and Chinese cabbage. Ladle some sesame sauce on top and sprinkle some Sichuan pepper if you dare, and you’re good to go! It was so incredibly savory and satisfying. The watermelon was a very nice spring and summer treat, too. This meal was also only USD $2.

After dinner I would usually work some more and often Skype my family or friends, drinking lots of tea all the while. Towards the end of the night I would have dessert: lychee nuts. If you haven’t had them before, they taste like a combination of a plum and a grape. You have to peel that spiky shell to get to the slippery fruit inside, but that’s just part of the experience. I also miss having lychee every night.

That’s what a day looked like for me! When I think about China, the things I miss most are the things in this post: the food, the friends, and the habits that made up my days there. It was a good life.