C'est si bon!

Bonjour à tous! Je suis Vanessa, étudiante de 20 ans en France pour le moment. Je viens de Pékin, mais j'étudie à la fac à Chicago.

Hello! My name is Vanessa, a 20-year-old student in France for the moment. I come from Beijing, but I go to college in Chicago.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Grandmas, durians, and soy sauce everywhere: on cultural curiosity

Emilie made me sushi
Bonjour à tous!

For the past two evenings, I've had dinner at two different Arlesien families, and I gathered some highly intriguing observations and impressions. 

Let me start with what we had for dinner first: Sunday evening I had sushi made by the family's fifteen-year-old daughter Emilie, with quiche lorraine, something that cannot be more typically French, and ice cream, a worldwide favorite; yesterday evening I had omelette "done the French way," which really tasted astonishingly like the eggs cooked by my Chinese grandmother, along with fried spring rolls dipped in fish sauce and Japanese lettuce salad. 

I was amazed to find that these French people were bothered by mixing cuisines, which they totally did (and did it well!). And what was more surprising to me was how everyone just seemed to pull out these typically Asian ingredients or condiments such as seaweed, and soy sauce, from their kitchen pantries! I couldn't believe my eyes that these things were common items in the kitchen in French families! 

spring roll, Vietnamese fish sauce, Japanese salad
In contrast, from my four years of living in America, I find that it's extremely rare for non-Asian families to have Asian ingredients or condiments in their kitchens. The American families that I have had the chance to know more or less tend to stick to, for the lack of a less generalized term, the Occidental way of cooking. The only times they would venture out into the foreign, or what a lot of people consider as "exotic," cuisines, is when they eat out at restaurants.

French omelette that tasted Chinese
Throughout both dinners for the past two evenings, everyone asked so many questions about China, and none of those were questions that I was commonly asked about in the US, which are "Do you guys really eat dogs" and "What's your opinion on Taiwan/Tibet." (To which the answers are, "Yes, we do eat dogs in certain regions, but it's not the domestic pet dog kind of dog;" and "I think they are part of People's Republic of China.") At those dinners, the French families asked me about how Chinese people ate their food, "if there were many dishes and everyone shared," or if we ate desserts ("Not often; we tend to end meals with hot soup."). The grandma that cooked me the French omelette said that when she lived in Paris, she went to the Chinatown there very often, and loved buying Durian and silk pants there. What random yet so deeply culturally immersed actions! It amazed me how casually she talked about these things, how familiar and at ease she was with them, as if they are nothing to be surprised about. It made me realize that these people are truly curious about my culture, about where I come from, and about my life, not just about politics or stigmatized topics in Asia that are blown out of proportion over the news in America. 

I'm not saying either interest is wrong, I just personally appreciate more the genuine interest that the French exhibit toward my culture, their constant awe and wonder when I tell them some little thing that is so familiar to me in my life in China, and overall their generally open minds, their reservation of remarks or critiques. One perfect example to end this post: when I told one of the French families I dined at that in China people put tomatoes in one of the very common soups (西红柿鸡蛋汤, for those who speak Chinese or are familiar with this delicious dish), the hostess said "Oh that's bizarre!" But then quickly corrected herself and apologized to me, saying how she shouldn't have said that, and that it is only bizarre to her but not to people who are savvy about Chinese culture. It was a touching moment for me because I didn't take offense at all, but her apology just goes to show how much she, as one French person, keeps her mind open. 

Let's hope that more people worldwide can be like that.

Vanessa :]

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Goodbyes are hard

my host family and I on Polaroid
Bonjour à tous!

Today I said goodbye to my host family, which was so much harder than I imagined. As I embraced my host parents and little brother, I couldn't help but cried. And so did they, which made my tears even harder to hold in. 

Before my stay in Arles, the idea of "host family" was just a way for me to observe the so-called authentic French life. Six weeks later, upon the farewell, I realize that I was wrong. For the past six weeks, in almost no way was I merely a bystander that watched and learned - instead I was a member of the family; I participated. 
Louis and me in Polaroid

It is almost funny thinking back to my first days in this small, historic town, when I was surprised by before-dinner sausages and wines and got lost constantly on my way to classes. Now I'm so used to many French customs that I don't even think twice before I do them: I give everyone three kisses as greetings in the morning, and three more as goodbye; I expect to find wines and baguettes on the terrace at my host home at 7pm every evening, followed by a late but light dinner; I got into the habit of taking a small coffee after every meal... The examples are endless. It's just fascinating how much one adapts to an environment without even noticing. Looking back, I became a lot more assimilated into French life than six weeks ago.
my friends from the program and me at Pont du Gard

And I can shamelessly say that I feel proud of myself, for participating. For learning and having curiosity, for trying everything and accepting most things. This is why I love traveling so much, after all, I guess. That I can truly be a part of the local life, but a however short or long period of time. That I can participate in this wonderful thing that is human culture, that differs so much across the globe but is always awe-inspiring. I really hope that by traveling, I can be  more and more open-minded, welcoming, and understanding. I hope I can be a world citizen by learning others' ways and teaching them mine.

Feeling nostalgia and peace of mind at the same time.

Vanessa :]

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Made in China, made in Nature

Emilie and me in front of a vineyard
Bonjour à tous!

The past weekend I was away from basically all modern technology - no WiFi, very poor phone reception, no TV, no laptop, and sometimes even no electricity! You ask why? Oh yes, because I went to the countryside to a vacation house with my host family and another French family. There, I had the most relaxing weekend I have ever had in a looooong time. Being away from technology was in fact liberating! I focused more on my surroundings and on the conversations that were going on around me instead of checking my Instagram feed three times a minute or something. (Yes, I do that from time to time, don't judge!)

vacation house
As you can see from the pictures, there is not much in the countryside. Our vacation house was two hours' car ride away from Arles. As we drove away from Arles, more sky came into view, and gigantic mountains and miles and miles of grapevines... It was quite a sight. Just... so refreshing. Such a change of view from the urban sphere I am used to.

Our vacation house is a traditional masonry style house that was passed down from the great-grandparent generation! It might have even existed even earlier than that, unfortunately I forgot to ask my host parents. Adorning the houses were bushes of naturally grown flowers, in full bloom at this time, making the old stone house come to life in this ripe summertime.

flowers by the house
candlelight lunch when the electricity went out
Because there was no TV or other things to busy oneself, we all just played sports, walked around, tasted wine, made fires, watched stars, swam in the river under a waterfall, and picked berries! It was quite the rustic life, as Emilie (the daughter of the other family who was also at the vacation house) put it, but I absolutely LOVED every bit of it! 
a very bad picture to give you an idea of the amount of stars
Every day in the countryside, something fascinated me: the dormice that live between our roof and ceiling who party hard every night and make lots of funny noise, the complete darkness in my bedroom even with no curtains (seriously, I couldn't even see my own hands), the wild berries that turned out to be not only safe to eat but perfectly delicious, the star-sprinkled night sky, and how bright the night really is even with no artificial light at all... It is in fact impossible to sum up my weekend experience in such few words, but I hope these little examples can give you a sense of the abundance of things to marvel at!

To finish, some beautiful pictures of handmade sausages and hand-picked peaches directly from the field (pourquoi pas).

I hope you all feasted your eyes well!

Vanessa :]

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Inspired by nature: Gaudi's Sagrada Familia

Me at Park Guell

Bonjour à tous! (Or should I say Hola a tots! since this post is about Barcelona.)

Over the weekend I went on a little excursion to Barcelona, which could be reached from Arles in four hours by train. I know three days isn't a lot for Barcelona - in fact far from enough - but I had one of the greatest time of my life and discovered my favorite piece of architecture ever. 

Drumroll, please... Sagrada Familia by Antonio Gaudi!

Nativity facade of Sagrada Familia
The construction of this genius of a church was first started in 1951, Gaudi being the chief designer. Even today it is still far from finish, and constantly under construction. But already, it is so famous that the line to buy tickets circumscribes the entire exterior of the church. (So be smart and buy 'em online in advance!)

It is really hard to get a good picture of the entire church, because it is just SO BIG. It is said that when it is completely finished, it will be the tallest church in the world. Because of its size, I only put a small portion of the Nativity facade of the church, shown above. 

The entire church, inside and out, gave me this feeling of life. The stone it is built with doesn't seem like men put them there; instead, they seem to have sprouted from the ground. Gaudi incorporated countless elements of Mother Nature, like stone-carved snails crawling down columns, tortoises as the base of columns, vegetation covering stones, domes that look like berries... 

The interior is even more awe-inspiring. Numerous enormous fluted columns race up to the ceiling, supporting the weight of the church without it seeming effortful. The shape and the branches at the top of the columns resemble tree trunks, and the ceiling is done in shapes of leaves with little skylights everywhere, mimicking a canopy of tree leaves filtering through sunlight. Walking through the church, one feels as if this is a stroll through a forest of inspiration, imagination and mysterious prayers.

stained glass window
I say this is my favorite piece of architecture because it is just so creative and daring, that nothing even comes close in comparison. The church itself seems alive, and breathing, and it inspired great awe and spiritual uplifting in me even though I'm not religious. It is simply astonishing, and everyone should pay it a visit at least once.

Vanessa :]

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Van Gogh and Arles

Bonjour à tous!

I've always wanted to write about Arle's rich art historical ties, but the topic is so broad that I frankly don't know where to start. So I guess I'll start with something that interests me the most - Vincent Van Gogh's stay in Arles.

Van Gogh came to Arles in 1888, after his malcontent time in Paris, in search of warm colors that Eugene Delacroix declared to have inspired his paintings. However, Van Gogh didn't have quite enough funds to travel to Africa, where Delacroix had found his inspirations of warm colors and bright sunlight. Instead, Van Gogh decided to settle down in Arles, this small, unpretentious town in Provence, the South of France. It is here that he spent that last two years of his life, and it is also here that he shared his dream of opening the utopic "Studio of the South"with his comrades Paul Gauguin and Emile Bernard. It is also here that he painted the world-famous Starry Night (1889).

Ever since I got here, I've been trying to retrace Van Gogh's steps and relive his experiences some 120 years ago. Unfortunately, many original sights that Van Gogh has based his artworks on have been bombed during WWII. However, I did succeed in finding three great spots that are faithful to his paintings.

The first spot is the Cafe of the Night, reconstructed on its original site to mimic Van Gogh's painting Cafe Terrace at Night (1888). The side-by-side comparison is the first picture in this post, a collage made by me.

The second spot is the hospital garden/courtyard where Van Gogh had stayed at during his ill days. Today, the hospital is no longer in use, and has been converted into a tourist hotspot. Every day, many people pay visit to this serene garden, hoping to catch a glimpse of the peaceful sensation that touched Van Gogh back in 1889.

The third spot is the Roman arena in Arles, where Van Gogh had painted a scene of spectacle back during his stay in Arles. Even today, this Roman arena remains a hugely popular (both literally and metaphorically) tourist attraction to travelers all over the world.

That's all for now, friends! Have a wonderful weekend - for those in France, fêtez-bien lundi prochain!

Vanesa :]


Yesterday was Bastille Day/France Independence Day/National Day, and when I went to watch the firework show with my host family, I chanced upon a fourth Van Gogh artwork-lookalike!

Left: a photo I took on the bank of the Rhone river
Right: Van Gogh's Starry Night Over the Rhone (1988)

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Allez! Allez!

Coupe du Monde!
Bonjour à tous! (And happy late Fourth of July to those in America!)

On Friday evening my friends and I met up at the pub to watch the much anticipated World Cup game France vs. Germany. Even though we got to the pub twenty minutes earlier than the actual game, already the place was crawling with people. If two of our friends didn't come an hour earlier to secure a table, we would all have had to watch the game standing. 

Upon entering the bar, I could feel the thick anticipation and patriotism in the air. All around me, people were discussing loudly, throwing out their hands wildly, and constantly tapping the table, as if saying, "Can't we start already?"

On the walls, many French flags ruffled in the breeze that came through the bar's open doors. At the beginning of the game, when the Marseillaise was sung, everyone at the bar started singing (or hollering, really) along with the live broadcast. Being in that atmosphere, it was impossible to not be affected and root for France during the game.

As the game carried on, the crowd in the bar became exponentially a mixture of excitement, anxiety, and tipsy patriotism. Every time the ball even came within sight of the goal, the entire bar erupted into an uproar of "Allez! Allez!" Which is the French version of "Go! Go!" And every time the scoring attempted failed, the invested spectators pounded against the tables, walls, and exploded into booing, cursing, and moaning. During halftime, a band of drummers even came to play outside the bar to hype up the atmosphere, and everyone broke into a wild dance together.

Even though in the end France still lost, I left the bar with good memories. It does not happen every day that one can watch a game in which a country's team is playing in the exact country. All things said, no regrets, and thank you to all the spectators who were there yesterday for the unmatched enthusiasm. 

Keeping my eyes peeled on the last battle for the championship.

Vanessa :]

Marching in style: Festival of Costumes

La Pégoulade
Bonjours à tous!

Even though France lost to Germany in World Cup yesterday (in a heated game which I urgently need to write a separate blogpost about), the Arlesiens marched in total style later last evening. Because - drumroll - it was the annual Pegoulade in Arles! A Pegoulade is where people parade down the main street in town sporting their most proud local costume. In fact, the Pegoulade in Arles has been around for more than 100 years! Last evening, dozens of families - from great-grandma to little babies - participated, not to mention the various bands and at least fifty horses!

The parade lasted about half an hour, and the costumes displayed a wide range of styles representing different social classes, historical periods, age groups, and professions. The professions most pertinent to the Arles area were fishermen, and washwomen, all of whom worked on the the Rhone river in the olden times.

This photo was especially amusing because the word "l'Avenir" on the banner below the little girl means "The future," which I thought was pretty fitting. And on top of that, isn't this little bundle of cuteness just a pure joy to look at?

What touched me the most is how many people participated and how seriously everyone took this event. The older generation marched with dignified and proud looks on their faces, while the teens and younger children worn serious faces as they tried to do every dance, every step meticulously. In honesty, this parade was nothing short of perfection. I was moved to see the people in Arles fiercely proud of their culture, tradition, and identity. With the quick pace of urban life and modernization, something like this is not that easy to find anymore.

Vanessa :]