2013 in Review

First off, I can’t believe that 2013 is over already. I was trying to think about what I’ve done this year, in the spirit of true reflection, and was amazed at how fast the time has gone, as usual.

I’d like to think of 2013 as my year of exploration.

Well after I was legally able, I joined the ranks of licensed drivers and set off to explore the wonderful world of coffee shops and bookstores to my heart’s content.

This summer, I participated in a summer program called Atlanta 2.o, where I learned about city planning, created my own project to improve a public space in a growing area right by my school and explored my city’s rich and colorful art scene and public spaces through bus tours, mural-hopping and a downtown scavenger hunt.

I also went college-tripping up the East Coast of the U.S, exploring my options for the future. Scary stuff y’all.

And this fall, instead of going back to the same school I’ve attended for 11 years, I decided to cross the Atlantic and spend my year studying in France. I’ve had a marvelous first semester exploring medieval castles, immersing myself in a beautiful language and gorging myself on the wonderful French cuisine.

Thanks in part to my weekly posts about my life in France, this marks my 150th blog on this site, 1/3 of which (50 posts) were written this year. 2013 has been one interesting ride and I can’t wait to see what 2014 brings.

Happy New Year!

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Favorites of 2013

The second edition of my yearly favorites, check it out!

Favorite Band– Bastille, the perfect soundtrack for my year in France!

Favorite Movie– Now You See Me. Includes a fabulous cast (Dave Franco, Woody Harrelson and Jesse Eisenberg anyone?) and a plot twist that’ll blow your mind.

Favorite book (non fiction)– Imagine by Jonah Lehrer
A conglomeration of ideas on teamwork, team building, personal motivation, and productivity with research and scientific studies that prove the general points, all stemming from basic principles of creativity and the various powers of imagination.

Favorite book (fiction)– Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
Magic like you’ve never seen it before, a quirky circus and a beautiful, messy love story.

Favorite App– Charity Miles, an iPhone app that allows you to work out and give back at the same time. Just choose a charity/non-profit organization from their list and start walking/running/biking. Their corporate sponsors donate to your chosen organization for each mile you log. What are you waiting for?

Home for the Holidays

After spending the past three and a half months of my teenage life away from my family, the homesickness in the weeks leading up to break was like an ever-present under-current to all the chaos and Christmas preparations going on the surface. But unlike most people, my advent calendar ended on December 21st, not on Christmas Eve. The morning of the 21st, I lugged my overstuffed suitcase down the stairs of my host family’s lovely home and began my one-woman journey towards America. Now normally, SYA likes family to come visit their children in Europe (which is obviously great) but given that my grandmothers live with me, making the trip overseas wasn’t exactly an option for them.

Being home for Christmas is like being wrapped up in a warm fuzzy embrace. That feeling that gets sung about by countless pop stars come Christmastime, is by no means over-rated. I know that now– nothing beats being home for the holidays. I spent the first few days slowly slipping back into my old normal routines, punctuating my acclimation to hearing English all the time, with last minute Christmas shopping with my family. I don’t think anyone has ever been so excited to brave the crowded malls as I was, simply because I was with my flesh and bone family (as opposed to their pixelated Skype form).

For Christmas, I’d resolved to show off my newfound “Frenchness” by bringing macaroons to our annual Christmas lunch. I think the more macaroons we made the more finicky they got, but three hours, a couple broken shells and several spoon-fulls of cassis ganache later, we had 100 pink and green macaroons all cling-wrapped and ready to go.

The Macaroons

The Macaroons

Christmas Creations

Christmas Creations

Slogging away in the kitchen with my sister, the Christmas songs at full volume in the background, then stuffing my face the next day with my family friends while watching a distinctly un-Christmas-y movie, reminded me of what I love about the holiday season: all the wonderful family memories. So from my family to yours, Happy Holidays!

 

The Christmas Crew

The Christmas Crew

The 12 Days of Noël: SYA Edition

On the last day of first semester, the elf-on-the-shelf  (Raphaelf) gave to me:

Raphaelf, SYA's newest addition

Raphaelf (dubbed thusly by moi), SYA’s newest addition

12 outdoor cafés

11 caramels au beurre salé

10 galettes Bretons

9 missed buses

8 terrific teachers

7 other otters

6 host family members

5 final tests

4 Chinese tea tastings

3 triskèles

2 Carrefours and

1 upcoming flight home.

The Opera House in all its Christmas glory

The Opera House in all its Christmas glory

Living Nativity at my first Catholic Mass

A living Nativity Scene at my first Catholic Mass

Post Chinese exam oolong? Pourquoi pas!

Post Chinese exam oolong? Pourquoi pas!

Secret Santa with I.C, N.B, S.V, R.M and A.N

Secret Santa with I.C, N.B, S.V, R.M and A.N

Spectacle Shenanigans

Spectacle Shenanigans

'Twas the Night Before Christmas (Break)

‘Twas the Night Before Christmas (Break)

‘Tis the Season for Giving

(My final Campus Reporter post of the semester. Originally posted on the SYA Admissions Blog)

Thanksgiving. Back home I associate it with family time, lots of food, and a break from school. But the French don’t really celebrate Thanksgiving and rather than lament all the traditions I was missing, I focused instead on how incredible it was that I was actually in France. That’s something to truly be thankful for.

As this semester abroad has worn on, I’ve been struck by the warm heartedness of my classmates. Realizing that we have been given this amazing opportunity while studying abroad, we have taken every chance to give back. In the period between American fall holiday #1 and #2 (Halloween and Thanksgiving), my classmates and I have coordinated and participated in a number of activities targeted towards helping people in need.

cupcakesTo start things off, I spent my last day of Toussaint break (Nov 3) in my English teacher’s kitchen with three of my classmates trying to understand why the French oven wasn’t adhering to the laws of culinary science (which, in case you were wondering, is definitely the most exact of sciences…definitely, no eyeballing of quantities or excessive buttering involved). Hours later than anticipated, after having to deal with both the early closure of Carrefour on Sundays and a momentary lack of butter, dozens of cupcakes of various shapes and sizes sat on every flat surface of that kitchen, iced and waiting. Long story short, sugar sells, and by the end of the day, the only proof of the previous existence of approximately 100 cupcakes was the pile of trays covered in crumbs and fallen sprinkles.  In the end, all the work paid off…literally. As part of She’s the First’s Bake a Change campaign, we raised over 100 euros to help provide an education for girls in developing nations.

Additionally, since mid November, each week, groups of three or more students visit three different retirement homes around Rennes, helping out and providing entertainment that ranges from dance lessons to arts and crafts. Many American students also took the end of November as an occasion to show how grateful they were for their host families by cooking them a Thanksgiving meal, as American as is possible sans pumpkin, whole turkeys or cranberries. Further proving that food and service go hand in hand, the environmental club hosted a bake sale at the beginning of December to raise money for Philippines Relief Efforts in the wake of the recent disastrous Typhoon Haiyan. It only took us two separate attempts to realize the French silicon “muffin pans” are a prime example of false advertising, but at least us hungry teenagers don’t care too much if the cupcakes turn out misshapen; good food is good food.

As my first semester abroad comes to a close, it’s these activities that have a special place in my heart. This holiday season I’m thankful for a lot of things.  For my family in Rennes, in America and elsewhere across the world; for my friends, on both sides of the pond; and above all, this amazing experience and the opportunities it has provided me to simultaneously get involved with a new community and help people in need.

100 Days Abroad

In elementary school, when we reached the 100th day of school, we would be asked to bring in 100 of something.  Back then, I opted for small, everyday objects like candy and paperclips. If I had to gather up 100 somethings now, I would share the 100 days of memories I have of my first semester abroad in France. As a high school student, it was hard for me to leave my family, the friends I’ve had for years and the school I’ve attended since I was in kindergarten, but looking back on these 100 days and countless memories confirms again and again that it was all worth it.

High up on my list of memories is most certainly the immense cultural education I have received since I landed. In fact, my friend N.B and I freaked out a little about how cultured we felt visiting the Musée de Beaux Arts after school one day this week.  We enthusiastically examined ancient Egyptain artifacts, puzzled over some avant-garde modern art, admired our Art-History teacher’s piece that was displayed ever so casually right next to a Picasso, and found what claimed to be La Joconde (the Mona Lisa)… My cultural journey of the week continued when my friends and I hit up Rennes’s luxurious Gaumont movie theater to see Catching Fire (not in French but shhh), in what was my first visit to a movie theater in France without my host family. The French, or at least the Rennais, know how to do movies right: seats are large and plush (like a velveteen hug), the previews last half an hour with interspersed hard-hitting PSAs and there is a miraculous lack of popcorn on the floor.

Movie Ticket

Movie Ticket

Selfie with my art-history teacher's piece and N.B

Selfie with my art-history teacher’s piece and N.B

The Mona Lisa?

The Mona Lisa?

One of the best parts of this experience has been the amazing people I have met so far! Aside from the great friends I’ve made, both French and American, there are certain encounters that have just brightened my day. For example, this week at the retirement home, I got to talk with men and women who remembered the Americans liberating them during World War 2. We shared stories of our Christmas traditions, and sang carols in English and French.  It was so nice to share in their winter celebrations and we even joined them for the traditional 4 o’clock gouter (snack/tea time).

Of course, given that I swear the majority of my free time and money is spent embracing the gastronomical culture of France, food features highly in my fondest memories of my year so far. I was remarking with some friends this week about how amazing simply the baguettes are, making even a basic meal of bread and butter like a gourmet experience. That aside, I love the fact that I have 10 or so delicious, cheap cafés within walking distance of my school and my house. A pain-au-chocolat is just a hop, skip and jump away! This past weekend, a couple of friends and I also decided to check out La Fête Foraine (the Rennes winter carnival)where we spent most of our time eating candied apples, beignets, cotton candy and admiring the stacks of crêpes and the overflowing cones of churros.

French food is "sweet" (also note that this "small" cotton candy is bigger than my head) / Fête Foraine with S.V

Please note that this “small” cotton candy is bigger than my head

The carnival is one of Rennes’s many Christmas traditions that I have happily and easily accepted as my own. Others include the marvelous citywide lights that have been waiting patiently to be lit on December 1st and have been lighting up the freezing nights since. The city’s enthusiastic spirit is imbued by its inhabitants as well. My family promptly put up their nativity scene, Christmas garlands, Advent calendar and the real Christmas tree as soon as it was delivered. Seeing the flashing red lights puts me in the Christmas spirit every time.

Speaking of Christmas spirit, for me, Christmas is all about family. Thanks to this experience I now have a second family with whom I have been making new memories daily. Just this week, we bonded over a common dislike of studying Ionesco’s plays (sorry, I’m not a huge théâtre de l’absurd fan…) and I partook in one of their winter traditions as I ate fresh/whole walnuts for the first time (suffice to say, I now know how to properly wield a handheld nutcracker, nuts everywhere beware).

IMG_4817

Lights behind Place de l’Opera

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Giant Christmas tree in the Colombier Mall

As much as I enjoy and appreciate my French family, I am excited to see my family in America soon (ONE MORE WEEK *squeals and runs around like a lunatic*). ‘Til then, baguette in hand and a French play tucked under my arm, I will cherish the memories I have made over these past 100 days and look forward to the more that will come.

Modern Diplomacy

When you think of diplomacy, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? To me, I think of ambassadors uniting cultures, overseeing negotiations, seeking compromise and overall, representing their country.

Stemming from this view of diplomacy is the idea of public diplomacy. According to the State Department, public diplomacy is defined as “the means by which governments seek to advance their nations’ interests through understanding, informing and influencing the broader public in foreign countries.” Jennifer Rasamimanana, currently the counselor for cultural affairs of the U.S. Embassy in Paris, came the other day to talk to my School Year Abroad (SYA) classmates, a couple of high schoolers from a French lycée and I, about what public diplomacy entails.

Ms. Rasamimanana explained that there are two facets of public diplomacy: press and culture. The press side represents the publicized transparent aspect of US diplomacy. Although the emphasis varies from country to country, this generally includes working closely with local media, providing info on current US policies, arranging interviews etc. for US and occasionally host country journalists, assisting US correspondents, maintaining the information resource center (a virtual library), and running government sponsored broadcasting services (present in countries where news is often censored). In our modern age, the press side of things also covers social media (tweeting relevant information in the host country’s language for example) and PR. During big news stories, this can mean lots of interviews where Rasamimanana says it is especially important to be clear on the concrete American stance.

In the American Foreign Service (AFS), according to Mrs. Rasamimanana, getting in touch with the culture of other countries forms the heart of the embassy’s mission and is intrinsic to American foreign policy. As a result, the culture side of Public Diplomacy contains a very broad spectrum of responsibilities. The culture section is in charge of among other things scholarship and other programs, like the Fulbright Program, geared towards bringing foreign students to America and providing them with leadership seminars and a basic education of American history and culture. Additionally, they work on using economics to bind us all together in one global world, promoting political dialogue, encouraging places and spaces for people to talk and exchange ideas and using art as a teaching tool to both bring people together and help them find their voices.

Public Diplomacy is one of five options amongst which new arrivals to the AFS must choose. Mrs. Rasamimanana said that being a diplomat has both opened her up to the world and surprisingly confirmed her identity as an American. After spending four months abroad, I can sort of relate to that feeling of intensified patriotism that one experiences when away from home and one’s countrymen. When you live overseas, you become much more flexible and open-minded. As Mrs. Rasamimanana said, this exposure to new ways of life and foreign policies has reaffirmed her support and belief in the American way. Regardless of all the possible critiques, she is still proud to represent her country. After all, isn’t that the essence of a diplomat?