Post 9/11: Expecting Espionage

Two weeks ago, in my politics group at school, we had a discussion about the NSA concerning the newly revealed spying tactics and the tapping of French phones.

Someone mentioned that the revelations about the NSA depict a world that resembles a bit like that of George Orwell’s 1984. I remember that when I first read the book many years ago, I thought the premise of such a society was ridiculous and was concerned about a government with such an extreme amount of control. However, now, what’s ironic is how it seems to have come to that point in reality, putting us in the unenviable position of the unassuming blindly-trusting citizens oblivious to the extent of the government’s reach.

Many of my American classmates were saying that this level of espionage is reasonable and is to be expected considering all countries spy on each other. In my opinion, the scale of this surveillance is very broad ranging and shocking. Additionally, I feel that it may not be very practical for the government to have such a large set of data from which to try and weed out the important pieces. However, there are those who believe that with even a one in a million chance of success, if that one hit would save lives, it is all worth the while. So although my classmates seemed to be of two minds about recent allegations related to NSA surveillance and the tradeoff between security worries and privacy concerns, on balance my classmates came down in favor of increased security against terrorism. The views of this small sample of my classmates is consistent with that of the broader American population. A recent survey conducted by the Washington Post showed that 57 percent of Americans are in favor of the government pursuing and investigating terrorist threats as thoroughly as possible even at the expense of a certain amount of personal privacy.

I find it interesting that in France the perception towards this trade off is one of scorn. Even though in France they have had a number of recent attacks, like the bombs in the metro almost a year ago, their attitude in the media towards terrorism is not the same as the one of extreme terror it often is back home. Granted, 9/11 caused a deep shock and had repercussions on a global scale. But the French are aghast at the thought of losing their individual privacy for a supposed sense of greater security. If my host family and French teachers are any indication, the French are shocked and even a little insulted to have been investigated in such an intimate manner.

However, the way a majority of my American classmates view this issue is that most people have nothing to hide from the government. In that case, what’s the harm in a little extra security? As a result of 9/11, my generation has a skewed/almost exaggerated fear of terrorism due, in part, to the fact that the consequences of 9/11 and terrorism surround us: the media coverage of the struggles across the globe have put it solidly in the public consciousness and constantly tightening TSA regulations in the airport serve as obvious reminders. This fear is almost innate in most of my generation and frankly, our lives are already so exposed, compared to those of past teenagers, thanks to the internet. Judging from my classmates, people feel like this internet peephole for the government is the small price necessary to pay to avoid further terrorist scares on American soil. To me, it’s almost ironic that we Americans are scared to the point that we are so quick to give up our privacy in a country where liberty and freedom from an overpowering government has always been a core tenet.

These founding principles have carried over into our world image; the U.S is often viewed as this global defendant of civil liberty. Prior to the release of the information concerning the extent to which the NSA intrudes into the internet and cellular activity of American citizens and political leaders the world over, a poll conducted by the PEW Research Center on citizens from 39 different countries revealed that America’s reputation as a country that respects individual rights was going strong. However, by sharing the NSA documents, Edward Snowden opened the eyes of the world to the reality taking place behind closed doors and exposed the sad truth that there simply doesn’t seem to be line which the government won’t cross. In addition to gaining intimate access to prominent world leaders, the U.S initially adopted a position in which they denied everything until they were faced with evidence to the contrary. For example, when this all first came to light, German chancellor Angela Merkel, inquired as to whether or not her private phone was among those targeted by the NSA, and was reassured that it was not. Given that this initial statement has been proven false begs the question, who to trust?

Is there even a choice? Most Americans seem perfectly happy to give up a sliver of privacy rights for their own protection. And if the chancellor of Germany, by no means a naïve woman, was tapped unawares, what choice do the common people have but to acquiesce?

Like it or not, “Big Brother” is watching and you better believe it. Welcome to 1984.


Le Système Scolaire

Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité. That’s one of the age-old mottoes of France. It lists qualities that the French theoretically prize. At an administrative level, equality, at least in policy, is constantly striven for. However, when it comes to the French educational system, it doesn’t quite seem to work out that way.

Although the Jules Ferry law, passed in 1882 in an attempt to create equality, states that classes must include students of all levels, children must go to the public schools in their area and that the curriculum must be uniform in public schools all across the nation, the system has evolved such that there is an obvious hierarchy to many of its aspects. From as young as ten years old, students are publicly ranked within their class, fueling amongst the best students a competition for the top spot and amongst the bottom of the pack creating a sort of apathy rooted in the presumption that, “we’ll never make it, so why try.” The publicity of grades continues throughout high school and secondary education, with results for the baccalauréat, or bac, (the all-encompassing, life-defining exam taken at the end of senior year aka terminale) posted for all to see outside the high schools. High schools are also “ranked” in that some are considered generally better than others and everyone knows it, including the students.

This pressure to attend the best school stems from a broader belief that grades are “the be-all and end-all” of successful education. The French system is set up such that only good grades will leave you with options for the future. By sophomore year, students must choose which subjects they want to focus on, which determines the bac (scientific, economic or literary) they will take at the end of their studies.  Most of the decision on which bac to take is made based not on what the child truly wants to do, but on their grades, thus increasing the pressure to do well in school. Without decent grades, whole professions such as medicine (or anything scientific/mathematic) may be off the table, simply because your grades weren’t good enough for that bac.  This type of system that puts immense stress on students to decide their future career options at such a young age is not unique to France; my parents who grew up in India, mentioned having had to make similar decisions regarding secondary education options based on high school grades.

Parallel to this push for the best grades is the French belief in balance. The school system is the one with the most vacations in all of Europe and most high schoolers go out at least one night a week. Having a social life is highly prized and even in a field as rigorous as medicine, students without one are ridiculed. Well roundedness in the American sense (athletics, academics and social activities) comes not from extra-curricular activities (which are few and far between in high school) but from sports classes (like PE) which continue into college and even have a component on the bac.

From an American educational system perspective, there are lots of discussions regarding the demands and pressure for well-roundedness across academics, extracurriculars (sports, service, music, debates etc.) and testing.  In my opinion, the French search for the ideal balance pushes even certain American limits. Whereas in the States, learning a foreign language doesn’t start for most students until middle school, by that time here, students are choosing their third, having started English back in elementary school. Daily limits are also stretched given that the school day doesn’t end till at least 5, often 6 pm or later (although their lunch period gives them a good hour’s reprieve). Testing is also much more highly emphasized than back in the U.S. Those involved with various education reform movements in the US often complain about the power of the SAT (and to a lesser degree, the ACT) and the amount of teaching to the test (especially AP exams) on a day-to-day curriculum basis. The immense focus put on the bac would leave them aghast. After sophomore year, weekly tests serve to prepare students for the looming, fast-approaching bac with three to four hours spent writing an essay on an undisclosed topic within a certain subject area. In terms of depth and amount of writing, that’s like taking an AP Lit or AP Euro exam every week.

Overall, the French education system is like an intense funnel, simultaneously shepherding those who pass the initial grades filter on to another rigorous cycle of testing, and constantly pushing the students to strive for balance and equality.

On the Cusp of Winter in Rennes

How the time flies! In just under a month, my first semester abroad will come to a close. I can’t believe that it has been three months already.

We have reached the point in the year where the honeymoon is over and the grind has all but just began. The past week was a constant mélange of rain, shivering temperatures, a surprising temporary lull in the workload and many, many cups of tea (so glad to have received a tumbler in my care package). This very wintry week (freak mini hail storm and all) was bookended by two more exciting events: my first visit to the famous Marché des Lices, and the school trip to Mont St. Michel.

Early Saturday morning, green tea in hand, I met my friends at Place des Lices for Rennes’ iconic weekend flower and produce market. I had been meaning to go to the marché since I first got here but host family trips to Dinard, standardized testing and less than ideal rainy weather had kept me from exploring it until now. Despite being a tad nippy, the marché was simply fabulous. Stalls on stalls of food vendors extended literally as far as I could see. There were separate sections devoted to a plethora of seafood, fruit/vegetable, and galette vendors. My favorite stalls however, had to be those selling large bottles of French orange and apple juice, the hot beverage push cart, the wild honey stand, the jam tasting area and the dried fruit vendor. One of my friends bought some delicious creamy “springtime” honey that we straight up ate out of the jar as we wandered in search of picnic lunch ingredients, soaking up all the interesting and delicious food surrounding us. In the end, I ended up with a hazelnut mocha shot, a cheese galette and a bag of dried “fruits” (ginger, coconut, strawberry, mango, fig and kiwi). France has underlined my love for all things cheese, chocolate and carbohydrate (the three “c”‘s) as well as brought out a previously dormant love for tea, jam and dried fruit. Is this what people meant when they said study abroad changes you? 😛

Kouingaman and then so more kouingaman #sobreton

Kouign amann and then some more kouign amann  #sobreton

The Marché Honey

The Marché Honey

Jam Tasting

Jam Tasting



Spread of dried fruit

Spread of dried fruit

How cute is the coffee shot?

How cute is this coffee shot?

After starting out the week on such a high note, I ended it on an equally exciting note with our school trip to Mont St. Michel the following Saturday. Having crossed its baie almost a month ago (seems like just yesterday…) this time, we actually entered the abbey. Armed with multiple insulating layers, including hand warmers (is it obvious I’m from the south?), and with a whole week and a half’s worth of background knowledge on the history of the abbey and its architecture, we swarmed Mont St. Michel at the unearthly hour of 9ish (made unearthly because we had to wake up earlier than some school days). After walking with the columns in the cloître, following the light in the réfectoire, hugging the fat pillars and becoming frenemies with some hungry yet adorable little birds, I would proclaim our visit to Mont St. Michel an overall success.

Of course the rain lets up as we start walking way (@Mont St. Michel)

Of course the rain lets up as we start walking way (@Mont St. Michel)

Revisiting Mont St. Michel almost a month after our first “visit” really hit home the fact how long we’ve really been in France. Sometimes, caught up in what has become routine, I forget that time has kept on ticking and that life keeps on going back home [which I was doubly reminded of as it was my sister’s birthday earlier this week, the first one of hers I’ve ever missed 😦 ]..

Next week is sure to further shake me from my frozen in time reverie as I have already at least four assessments scheduled. As my peers back home are devouring Ben Franklin’s choice for the American national bird, I will, most probably, be discussing the French educational system. As the French would say, c’est la vie (that’s life). Come what may, I wouldn’t change this amazing opportunity to experience life in France for the world.

We Are All Pilgrims

(My second Campus Reporter post on slowly immersing myself into Rennes went up today. Originally posted on the SYA Admissions Blog.)

The word pilgrim conjures up images of stormy seas, the stereotypical first thanksgiving and “really stylish” old Protestant habits. But according to (obviously the foremost authority on definitions) a pilgrim is simply “a traveler or wanderer, especially in a foreign place,” more specifically, a newcomer. Given that definition, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a picture of SYA students right next to the word pilgrim in the dictionary. Traveler? Check. Newcomer? Check. Foreign place? Check. Welcome aboard the 21st Century Mayflower.


Recently, SYA France’s college counselor, Mme. Solter talked to us about pilgrimages in preparation for our crossing of the Bay of Mont St. Michel. The journey we traced to the monastery is one that many religious pilgrims had made before us, and Mme. Solter urged us to reflect during the walk on how it fits into our personal pilgrimage.


The crossing was a breath of fresh, cold Briton air. A large expanse of quick sand, water and “vase” (a unique mud-like mixture that can turn quick-sand deadly in a flash) was the perfect place for us to let off steam, enjoy the arrival of the crisp Rennes fall and bond with the host siblings with whom we traversed the bay.


Mont St. Michel with my host sister (photo credits to L.G)

Mont St. Michel with my host sister (photo credits to L.G)

As we trekked through the mud and sand, I did reflect on how far my classmates and I had come. This 8km hike represented the linguistic progress and everything we’d done in our first month. For starters, I had found among 60-odd strangers close to 60 fast new friends.


A few weeks earlier, at the two-week mark, my classmates and I passed the State Department’s average duration of stay for a tourist and thus commenced our transformation into true Rennais. That weekend, we piled ironically into two large tourist buses headed for the end of the earth (Finistère, Bretagne). Our trip around Brittany, the region we now call home, included a trek to Pointe du Raz (the closest point in France to the U.S), a Miro exhibit, multiple gorgeous ancient cathedrals and a sculpture scavenger hunt around our first chateau- comme c’est francais! After the trip, we had the weighty sensation of having passed the tipping point. Not just passing through, we were truly here to stay, in France, for a year.


Like the settlers at Plymouth on the first thanksgiving, in a sense, we SYA-ers are all pilgrims slowly becoming at home in a world that is to us, just over a month old. We’ve explored our department (from Ille et Vilaine to Finistère), eagerly been initiated into its unique gastronomy (including but not limited to the famous Briton galettes and Kouingaman, the butter cake) and absorbed its rich culture and history (complete with covert nationalist plots), and bit by bit, have inserted ourselves into la vie Rennais. Now, as I walk down la Boulevard de La Duchesse Anne with Bastille blasting in my ear, fumbling in my bag for my Kori Go card without breaking stride, feeling the crunch of leaves under my feet as I try not to get hit by a bus that in true Rennes style doesn’t seem to approve of the pedestrian’s right of way, I can’t help but feel like these are my streets and my city. And for that sense of belonging, I am thankful.

I am here

I am here

It’s The Little Things

“Peace. It does not mean to be in a place where there is no noise, trouble or hard work. It means to be in the midst of those things and still be calm in your heart.”- author unknown

Sometimes, amidst all the routine chaos of school and extracurriculars and learning new languages, it’s the little things that make you feel like you’ve got your life together. This week was full of little things that made me feel like I truly belong here, creating a center of calm in the storm that is junior year.

Speaking of calm, there’s nothing quite like running in the rain to chase away the normal Monday blues. Monday was a national holiday as the French honored its veterans on Armistice Day. It was interesting to see the greater amount of attention given to the 11th of November here including all day long television specials, a parade in most cities and a day off from work for all of Rennes. Having this day to recharge and regroup after the influx of work last week, was very welcome.

On my return to school I was greeted by a large box swaddled in masking tape. Christmas must have come early this year! Complete with chai, Halloween candy, warm clothes and more, getting this lovely package reminded me of home, in a good way (ok fine, a small wave of homesickness may have washed over me).

Box of Goodies!

Box of Goodies!

In this week’s installment of cooking with Mme. P, we learned how to make macaroons and orange duck. The macaroons were surprisingly easy and amazingly delicious. That’s one recipe I’m going to learn by heart ASAP. 😀 And as if that wasn’t French enough, I spent my day in the black wedges that came in my care package. Sacrificing comfort for style seems to often be the norm here and I was happy to grin and bear it like the French for one day at least (that’s all my poor feet could take for the week!)

La Vegetarienne tackles the fatty duck

La Vegetarienne tackles the fatty duck

Homemade macaroons in hand

Homemade macaroons in hand

Finally, as last week marked the end of the first quarter, this week we received our grades and the whole school seemed to have burst into flames. I was a little stunned that something so resembling normal school life was staring me straight in the face confirming that sadly quizzes, tests, and quarter reports don’t somehow get magically left behind when you go study abroad *cue collective sigh*. But for me, getting my grades made me feel like I’d really settled into a good groove and kind of affirmed that I’ve gotten the hang of things (more or less).

It’s just proof that life goes on regardless of the fact that you’ve gone and switched countries. Some things change and some things never will. To top it all off, I’ve had galettes twice this week . Look at me, I feel so Briton. 🙂

By the end of the week, temperatures had dipped severely. One of the good things that came out of staying out at night and freezing half to death was this optical illusion opportunity (below).

Lunar Power

Lunar Power

” Au calme clair de lune triste et beau,
Qui fait rêver les oiseaux dans les arbres…”
Paul Verlaine (Clair De Lune)

The Power of Music

One Republic’s song “Secrets” contains the line “Everyday I see the news / All the problems that we could solve / And when a situation rises / Just write it into an album.” Every time I hear that song, I think about the potential musicians have to make a difference. I noticed that the VMA’s have a category entitled “Best Video with a Social Message,” and it got me thinking about modern “musical activists.”

Rapper Macklemore, featured in that VMA category, made waves with his song “Same Love.” Written in support of marriage equality, Macklemore’s frank portrayal of the situation and direct call out to those opposed to the concept caused some controversy but exposed the issue to a wider audience. As of this post, the video had 94,342,471 views.

2013 must have been the year of proactive pop stars, because British sensation Ellie Goulding released a video to expose the struggles of the one million Syrian children who have fled for their lives. In partnership with the organization Save the Children’s Syria efforts, the video for Goulding’s song “I Know You Care” features heart-wrenching images of the Syrian plight. All proceeds from purchases of this track benefit the organization and go towards aid for the region’s children.

Another example of a musician using their music as a platform to bring attention to important issues is Colombian rocker Juanes. In 2008, Juanes headlined the first Peace Without Borders (Paz Sin Fronteras) concert in Colombia. The idea behind these concerts is to bring people together through a shared love of music on temporarily neutral ground in an area shrouded in conflict. Juanes and his peaceful protests gained massive media attention in 2009 when Peace Without Borders had their second concert, this time in Cuba. Due to the controversy Juanes received over choosing Cuba, Peace Without Borders took a little break. However, the activism lives on. In honor of the United Nation’s International Day of Peace 2011, Juanes unveiled a video featuring popular Colombians like Eva Longoria talking about peace as a human right.

Music can often be a form of peaceful protest. Less than a month ago, renowned Colombian artists teamed up to show support for farmers striking against Colombia’s agricultural policies. The farmers bemoaned recently signed Free Trade agreements and the show of musical solidarity symbolized the unity of the people against big government. The song, entitled Potato with Yuca, speaks to the ongoing disputes over land rights and is a call to action for the people of Colombia.

And the ball of musical change keeps on rolling. Recently, a video released by a Saudi Arabian, California-based singer has caused quite a stir. Sung in protest of Saudi Arabia’s refusal to grant licences to women, banning them from driving. The statement made by this female singer was two-fold, as not only are women not granted the freedom to go where they will and drive, but singing is also restricted.

Music carries ideas from the heads of their creators into the hearts of the people. Music brings hope, unites people and reminds us that our voices were meant to be heard. The winds of change have never sounded so good.

Life in Limbo

One of the interesting things about being an American studying in France is dealing with a sort of double life.

When it comes to school, we adhere to the French vacation schedule and an altered American curriculum. I have both French and American teachers who teach a melange of classes some of which are taught in English and the others in French. We adhere to the French 20-point grading system and the American grading periods. Like Hannah Montana used to say, we get the best of both worlds.

That is, most of the time. This week marked the end of the first academic quarter. Befitting the need to have multiple grades in the grade book, we were barraged with a multitude of tests, quizzes, projects in addition to the normal steady stream of homework. I’m not one to usually get too flustered when it comes to languages and literature but the long days, persistent drizzle, pervading chill and onslaught of work coming after two weeks of doing practically nothing was, to put it lightly, killer.

The Baking Crew with some of our finished product

Thankfully, the French love for food and the promise of an upcoming long weekend got me through the deluge of studying and work. On Monday, I held a cupcake bakesale to raise money for She’s The First, a non-profit organization dedicated to providing an education for girls in developing countries without the means or opportunity to do so. We raised 116 euros and it made the day before’s long afternoon of baking (gotta love confusing French ovens) totally worth it!

Pear tarts before they hit the oven

Continuing the trend of baked goods, on Wednesday, three friends and I started our three week long cooking crash-course, taught by an SYA teacher. We made mini Tart Tatins (an Apple and caramel tart), a pear and blue cheese tart (surprisingly tasty and not weird sweet and salty combination) and almond tuile (like a thinner version of almond brittle). It was hilarious and delicious and the leftovers made for a great breakfast! Can’t wait til class #2 next week…

Spray Vinagrette!

After the long and strenuous week, a couple of friends and I went out for dinner to celebrate A.N’s birthday. Wandering around centreville as usual, we happened upon a neat Italian restaurant with an all glass storefront and sprayable oil and vinegar. I hadn’t eaten saucy pasta in such a long time and my goat cheese and pesto lasagna hit the spot.

So as the first academic quarter comes to a close, here’s what I’ve learned this week. Stress is temporary and when it’s all over, there’s nothing like French food to soothe the soul (I bet it’s all that salted butter….).