God Bless Toussaint

The miraculous two week respite plopped beautifully at the end of October that the French call Toussaint Break, is finally here. And let me tell you, it feels SOOO good to be on break. For starters, I can get ten hours of sleep every night. And catch up on all the writing I have to do.  And the reading. And the running. I might as well call it, Tara ‘s Catch Up Breather Break.

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Place de L’Opera

But really, comme la vie est belle. Despite starting off practically every day unceremoniously wet and overcast, Rennes has pulled through with some crisp, sunny, quintessentially fall days. Although the bipolar weather has me thinking of Atlanta, the break has afforded me time to get to better know this wonderful city of Rennes and spend more time with my host family.

The first day of break (Saturday) I started off baking a brownie and Oreo bear-shaped cake for my youngest host sister’s birthday. After the celebratory
birthday lunch, my afternoon was spent weathering a flash storm in a cozy tea shop with I.C and S.V then stepping out into the sunshine to relax
in Thabor (where we ran into my host mom, youngest host sister/birthday girl and host dog, en promenade). After wandering around Thabor reveling in
the general no-schoolness, S.V and I met up with R.M in Centreville. Feeling a bit peckish, comme d’habitude, we marveled at the giant brioches on sale
(B.O.G.O) and then bought a baguette Viennoise (with chocolate chips) to snack on instead. Armed with food, we continued our favorite pastime, wandering. We weaved in and out of stores, and around and through various squares until some girl on Ruth’s street
stopped us, flyer-ing eagerly. According to her, we looked just like the kind of girls who shopped at some French store we had never heard of, and quelle coincidence there were some girls selling said style of clothes in an apartment further down the street. It’s a good thing my friends are more
adventurous then I am because up the dimly lit stairs and in the small two room apartment were racks of cute, name-brand clothing
all being sold for less than 10€ each. We left victorious, each of us with purchases in hand, and in my head I thought, “Good job
Tara. Look at the nice hat and tank top that following Seth Godin’s advice got you!”

Aforementioned Bear Birthday Cake

Aforementioned Bear Birthday Cake

Caramel Tea at L'Aparté

Caramel Tea at
L’ApartéGame Ticket!

Game Ticket!

Congratulating ourselves on our luck, S.V and I left R.M to meet up with some other friends to watch a soccer game at the local
stadium. The atmosphere was fantastic- the French do not take their football lightly. Even better, a couple of my friends had come with
their host siblings.  Double win: watching soccer (it has been too long since I’ve been to a game) and meeting more French people! After the game between the local team Stade Rennais, and the bottom of the table team (Valencia), resulted in an upsetting tie, we spilled onto the lively, thronging streets dodging gallette saucisse vendors and consumers left and right. We soon realized that the overstuffed buses were no
longer taking passengers, so my friends and I walked to Republic. There, forgoing the previous plan of Mediterranean food for a
closer option, we got a late dinner (which for me consisted of unevenly salted French fries) at Quick, a classic fast food
American diner with a French touch. S.V and I headed home before the others so we could be sure to catch our bus. Fun fact: there is
an app showing bus arrival times in Rennes where you can specify which line, what direction and where you want to pick it up– how neat is that?

The next few days were a conglomeration of rainy-days-in, sorties and a decent mix of French and English. On Sunday, I watched my first French movie in a movie theater with my host parents and host sister G. French movie theaters have super plush seats, entrances at the top and very bottom, and no steps on the outer sides of the mass of chairs, unlike in the U.S. Ads also come between every movie preview and aren’t just PSAs about being quiet like in AMC theaters back home. Some of the previews showed movies that seemed pretty good or at least entertaining, like one entitled Fonzy, about a man with 500+ legal children… The movie we went to see was called Neuf Mois Ferme and focused on a high-performing, law-abiding judge who one day finds out she is pregnant and through a little effort, learns that the father is an accused criminal. After the majority of the plot is quickly covered
within the first few scenes, what follows is a simple comedic tale that culminates cleverly in the tying of all loose ends. All’s well that ends well!

On Monday, I discovered a beautiful little park minutes from my house on a run during one of the sunny respite
periods. After lunch, I met up with A.N, D.G and G.O in St. Anne and we walked around new areas of Rennes
before settling down for a bit in a diner in Colombier, where I learned how to play Hearts. Next to Colombier was a big mall and at
a neat shop in the mall where one of my friends stopped to buy a yoga mat, I got Christmas gifts for Mom and Dad (2 done, 3 to go!). The mall was really big and when we came out, we were in a different place from before, that turned out to be close to this really cool skatepark. It was interesting to see the various tricks people did, the small amount of girls not just watching and the large amount of people actually using the park. We stayed there for
a while, admiring the impressive skaters, skateboarders, bikers and scooter-ers (these aren’t the Razor scooters of my childhood by a
long shot!)

Wednesday was my host sister G’s birthday. We celebrated in typical French fashion, with lots of food: a salted caramel crêpe, a cheese and potato gallette, a pear and chocolate tart and even the newly beloved brownie and oreos recipe made an appearance. My host sister and her friends and I spent a large portion of the night dancing off all the food to the tune of a motley mix of French and American music. Une vraie soirée!

Saturday started off with a lovely bout of standardized testing. I undertook the ACT, the last of three in my month of tests and if all goes well the last college-related standardized test I’ll have to take. Fingers crossed! Post-test, I went into town with A.N and S.V to shop for care packages/birthday/xmas gifts (basically we decided shopping was in order). I got some more gifts for my friends and a ring for myself (Merry early Christmas self!). To top off my long but exciting day, dessert was homemade waffles, eaten with a spoon and powdered sugar (not confectioners’ sugar; the name simply differentiates between it and sugar cubes).

My host family all seem to have birthdays around the same time and on Sunday, we celebrated the birthday of my host mother’s mom with all of her side of the family. My host-dog Lucky and I were duly introduced to all 9 new acquaintances over the 4 course meal that spanned almost the whole afternoon. We started before noon with aperitif (where I tried an interesting chicken sausage-type thing called un boudin blanc) , and after the entrée and the cheese course (favorite part), finally dessert (apple pie, strawberry tart and once more, the new favorite brownies) ended at 5pm.  How very French, dontcha think?

Nevertheless, it was a nice, albeit extremely filling end to an amazing first week of break. Tomorrow I leave bright and early for the Loire Valley with my classmates and teachers. Fingers crossed for better weather than the classic persistent downpour that has featured prominently in the first half of Toussaint Break thus far.  Rain or shine, les châteaux here we come!
 

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One Month In- First Impressions

Voila! My first post as a campus reporter for SYA France (originally posted here), reflecting on my first impressions after a month in Rennes.

Rennes: Love at first sight

Time is a funny thing. One part of me can’t believe that I’ve already been in Rennes for a month but, on the other hand, it feels like I’ve known my classmates and host family for much longer. There’s something about adapting to a new life that helps form quick tight bonds.

The first few weeks adjusting to Rennes seemed to fly by but each individual day seemed almost interminable. As a whole, the average French weekday is much longer than in the U.S. Classes start at 8:10 most mornings and can go to 5:00 or 6:00 in the evening depending on the day. However, interspersed in these long lasting school days are extended lunches (an hour and 15 minutes long) and multiple free periods with the option to go off campus.

Parc du Thabor

The American School (which is what the Rennais call the SYA school) is located within five minutes from downtown (Centreville) and one minute from a beautiful park (Parc du Thabor), a decent boulangerie, a nice crèperie, a Carrefour market and a smattering of small restaurants. Suffice to say, off campus contains a multitude of exciting possibilities for places to eat, study and blow off steam. Additionally, one of the great things about France is the immense number of well-priced cafés within a stone’s throw of each other. Le Centreville is full of shops, restaurants, cafés, pop-up musicians, and churches that could fill up numerous afternoons with fun new experiences. Many of my classmates have taken it upon themselves to find the best cookies, ice cream and crèperies in Rennes in a valiant journey of amazing tastes and empty wallets. Personally, I am on a quest for a café I can call mine and am still blissfully in the market, having even tried two of Rennes slightly hidden tea shops.

Even better than the interesting people I’ve met and the delicious “nourriture” I’ve tasted, is the sheer freedom I’ve acquired as an SYA student. Every day, I walk to school either by myself, like most other high-schoolers in Rennes, or with one of my classmates who lives nearby. I have almost complete autonomy over my time: I decide when I go home, what I want to do after school and where I want to study. To top it all off, I can get myself everywhere by myself. Whereas back home, this was only possible with a car and my newly acquired driving license, here everything is either within walking distance (which is actually quite a large range), accessible via bus or with a combination of the two. With just a month under my belt, I think it is safe to say I have fallen back in love with public transportation.

In fact, I’m just head over heels for this whole experience in Rennes. The freedom, the food, the school and the people are all amazing, and I’m so glad I have eight months left to fill up with as much chocolate, bread, cheese and French as possible.

Fall in France

L'église Jeanne D'Arc

L’église Jeanne D’Arc

Orange leaves, crisp air, football and Halloween– October in Atlanta resembles a quintessential American autumn, only slightly warmer. Spending this season in France is a whole new ball game: perfectly-put together Europeans in knit sweaters, jean jackets and scarves (no matter what the temperature, there is no dressing for comfort here), sipping hot tea in an outdoor café with an astonishing lack of pumpkin in anything edible. (My host sister actually didn’t believe me when I said pumpkins flavored things were huge in the US; here it’s used in a soup, at best…)

Rennes’s fall weather, when it is not raining down like the tears of a broken-hearted lover in a Nicholas Spark’s novel, is like a dream. Unfortunately, I can no longer say that I wholeheartedly love rain, having been slowly but steadily drenched the first half of this week. This perpetual drizzle has led to my discovery that nothing cures rainy day blues better than a big bowl of hot tea, a pain au chocolat, yoga, and/or a good book.

 

My foray into the French fall this week was accompanied by new insights into being an American in France. For example, taking a standardized test in Europe does not make it any less tedious or long. Additionally, French students only have school for the first two weeks in October, followed by the heavenly two week Toussaint Break. As a result of this break, I had the interesting opportunity to participate in an early Rennes Halloween at the Franco-American Institute. In order to optimize the full experience, the registered attendees participated in an age-appropriate story-time, face painting, a costume contest, afternoon trick-or-treating, and orange squash carving. Interestingly, the French are such foodies that they take this holiday normally fueled by junk candy and load the snack table with delicious homemade chocolate desserts. I think that’s a tradition we should bring back home to the US…

The French take Halloween

The French take Halloween

Celebrating Halloween with 20-odd little French children and their mostly English speaking parents afforded me the opportunity to meet other displaced Americans, living here as parents, teachers, students and wanderers. It really made me think of the “culture straddling” my SYA classmates and I are currently attempting.  I find myself realizing, not for the first time, that life is a balancing act. Back home, the struggle is mostly between school and extracurriculars. Here, it’s letting in just enough Americana to remain sane amidst the sea of flawless French. My daylight Halloween fête with squash jack o lanterns, gourmet treats, French children and American teens sweetly epitomizes this tricky balance.

Squash-O-lanterns

As the seasons shift and we at SYA start to settle comfortably into our new roles (to the point that we laugh at our clueless awkwardness from the first week), I remind myself to continue striving for balance, even if that requires some baked goods in one hand to equal out the stress pressing down on the other side. After all, this is France, and if my first glimpses of fall here have taught me anything, it’s that a cozy balance is not achieved without some conscious adaptation. When in France, do as the French do– alors, tea and scarves for everyone!

 

Enjoying the crisp weather with some princess friends (L-R: me, I.C, A.N, R.M)

Enjoying the crisp weather with some princess friends (L-R: me, I.C, A.N, R.M)

Things Fall Into Place

Winter has arrived in Rennes. After a few weeks of sunny respite, we were hit by an incessant drizzle, temperatures in the 40s and personally, a sense of belonging that marks my fifth week abroad. Activities are being coordinated, routines have been found and life has set into a groove.

With my host sister G and another host sibling, D (far-right) crossing the Baie

This week was highlighted for me by encounters with real French people outside of my host family, getting back our first grades from last week’s pile of assessments and getting settled into various extra curriculars. Personally, I’ve committed to helping out at a retirement home starting in November and have become a member of the International Club. In addition, learning only two languages just felt weird 😛 so I’ve also been continuing Chinese over here at Rennes’s Confucius Institute. The level isn’t too difficult and this way, I also get to meet French people with similar interests- win/win!

My successful week of new French connaissances continued with this weekend’s school trip to Mont St. Michel with host siblings. 65 SYA-ers and multiple host siblings braved the cold and mud to cross la Baie de Mont St. Michel. Misery loves company and I befriended a couple of host siblings as we commiserated on the sorry state of our feet and our general fatigue. I must have said “je ne peux plus” at least every few minutes… Walking the 8 kilometers really wiped me out. So much for getting rest over the weekend!

Trying to stay warm and being super discreet about it with (from left to right) S.B, I.S, N.B, K.M and I.C

Four days of classes stand between me and two weeks of vacation. See you on the flip side!

One month, 10 lessons

10 things learned in a month of study abroad
– a not at all comprehensive list by me –

 
1. Flying with family is infinitely easier (in a multitude of ways) than flying solo with a bunch of strangers.
You can sleep on the shoulders of your family. That doesn’t quite fly with most strangers…

2.  Music is a powerful stress reliever.
But sometimes, listening to top 40 music from your home country will either

  • a- make you really nostalgic and sad OR
  • b- remind you of fun times back home (which oftentimes inevitably leads to “a”).

3. There’s nothing quite like flying over a country at daybreak.
The sun is coming, you know it and slowly the dark mass under the wings of the plane blinks to life.

4. Homesickness will wear off (eventually).
Scout’s honor. It takes on average a week for most people (me included).

5.  Number 4 comes true quicker once you realize you are not alone.
I have a group of 60 people to commiserate and rejoice with but if your trip is a solo expedition, blogs and books about other people’s experience are also super comforting (which holds true even with a large group).

6. Not sticking out as a foreigner is an art.
In the beginning, keep your head down, observe and follow the lead of locals your age.

7. Don’t try to mimic your life back home.
A new country means a new culture and a new time table. School hours, after-school activities, homework time and meal times vary from country to country. I believe in always keeping a snack and some work handy.

8. Study abroad, not party abroad.
Don’t forget that a large aspect of study abroad is the scholastic component. Work hard, play hard applies especially well.

9. Getting lost can be both a blessing and a curse.
Aimless wandering is a great way to explore a new city and really familiarize yourself with your new home. However, as someone who has been hopelessly lost before, I can attest to the fact that it can be slightly intimidating. Not only are you in a foreign country but oftentimes there’s a language barrier as well. Don’t freak out, and always remember that even the experiences that seem harrowing at the time turn out fine eventually (plus they make for great stories).

10. “Me-time” can be the difference between a strained and fantastic host family relationship.
Being in a new country comes with culture shocks and adapting to a new routine, new surrounding and new language can often be quite tiring and stressful. It’s important to take time to reflect and unwind by yourself but not at the expense of interacting with other people.

More tidbits of newly accumulated knowledge to come as my journey continues.

(cross posted from my piece on Huffington Post Teen)

Travel Trip Captured

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Cemetery at a calvert

Cemetery at a calvert

One of the many "tara-sized" doors I keep seeing around Bretagne

One of the many “tara-sized” doors I keep seeing around Bretagne

(From L-R: D.G, G.O, S.V, me, A.N and I.C)

(From L-R: D.G, G.O, S.V, me, A.N and I.C)

Quintessential Breton wood-house known as une colombage

Quintessential Breton wood-house known as une colombage

Posing with a cool sculpture at the Quimper chateau with I.C and S.V

Posing with a cool sculpture at the Quimper chateau with I.C and S.V

Hanging out at the beach with I.C, S.B, S.V, N.B, L.G and D.G

Hanging out at the beach with I.C, S.B, S.V, N.B, L.G and D.G

La Cathedrale

La Cathedrale

Stained glass at une cathedrale

Stained glass at une cathedrale

Enjoying the beach with A.N

Enjoying the beach with A.N

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Quimper

Pointe Du Raz aka the end of the world

Pointe Du Raz aka the end of the world

Drying my ocean soaked jeans the best I could (the struggle is real)

Drying my ocean soaked jeans the best I could (the struggle is real)