Monday, September 19, 2011

Une année après

I am publishing this post several months after I left Paris and over one year since I arrived...

It is 9:54PM the day before I am supposed to leave Paris for good.  I have been thinking a lot about what I wanted to write in this post.  I want to describe everything that I felt in as much detail as possible so future A.J. won’t forget, but I know that that is impossible.  Some things are just beyond words.  But like always I am going to do my best.

Sorry to sound overly dramatic but I think it was Bob Cratchet who said that “life was full of meetings and partings.  That is the way of it.”  This year, for me, that quote took life.  I have met so many people, most of whom I won’t see again for an incredibly long time if ever.  Obviously there are those few who I will stay in contact with, but they will go back to their own lives just as I will mine.  

It is inevitable that I will forget most of what I experienced this year.  I’ve walked down Rue Poteau every day for the last eight months and I still couldn’t tell you what the stores on it are.  Sure, we have that cheese store next to the florist shop (you have to make sure you inhale at the right place, because if you don’t you get a good whiff of camembert instead of lilies…), and that butcher shop that sells horsemeat.  There is a Monoprix and a Franprix.  I’ve gone to the Tobac a few times to recharge my phone credit.  But the further from today I get the more I am not going to remember. 

Today I spent a good portion of the day in the apartment feeling sad for myself.  Aliya left early this morning.  She woke me up around 6:00AM to say goodbye.  I have loved living with her but her goodbye was a bit strange.  Maybe I didn’t hear her right because I was still kind of sleepy but I’m pretty sure her goodbye was “I love you, I hate you.  You’re part of my family.”  To be fair, I shouldn’t have expected anything else from her.  I guess it wasn’t actually a goodbye.  It was more of a see you later.

I went out and bought a new suitcase because I have too much stuff here.  I spent a lot of the afternoon packing.  I really didn’t feel like doing anything and I almost didn’t.  I knew though, that if I just stayed in my apartment when I went home I was going to kick myself for not seeing my favorite areas of Paris one last time.  So I took the Montmartrobus up to Sacré Cœur and walked around.  I needed to do some touristy shopping for myself and naturally I had put that off until the last day.

For the last few days the weather here has been pretty temperamental.  Yesterday I wanted to go up the hot-air balloon in a park here in Paris, but when my friend and I got over to the park it was too windy.  Today, when I got up to the top of the mountain I was pleasantly surprised to find it one of the clearest days in Paris.  From the steps of the church you have a perfect view of the rest of the town, minus the Eiffel tower.  I put my headphones on and just took in the view while listening to “Complainte de la Butte” by Rufus Wainright.  The song literally is talking about windmills and the hill that I was sitting on.  I sat there for a good three minutes, just thinking over what I had done and what had been done to me this year. 

I’ve done some pretty incredibly things.  I’ve had copious amounts of fries and waffles in Brussels, heard a ghost in the dungeons of Edinburgh, saw my first prostitute in Amsterdam, gone salsa dancing in a bull fighting ring in Spain, had wienershniztel and strudel in Germany and Austria.  I went on the Sound of Music tour in Salzburg, had a monkey climb on my head in Morocco, had the best pizza of my life in Florence, saw the largest public square in Europe in Bordeaux, went to the arena of the first Olympic games in Olympia, and went to the birthplace of democracy in Athens.  I’ve been invited into the homes of French people, had dinners on terraces overlooking the city, and had my first sip of alcohol under the Eiffel tower.  I sang for over five hundred people and presented in French for twenty.  I survived SciencesPo and France.

Looking back on it, I already don’t remember the bad.  Only the good sticks out to me.  The

I apologize.  I am finishing this on June 14 on my way back to Santa Barbara to go start work at the Family Vacation Center.  I know that my time abroad has been indescribable.  My grandmother prints out all of my blog posts.  She said that I’ve written over one hundred and fifty pages already.  I know that that can’t begin to describe the kind of things I’ve gone through.  As I said, I’ve done some incredible things.  Yet as I sit on this plane writing this I feel a kind of emptiness.  I’m not sure what the cause of it is.  I do have regrets about my time abroad, but I also have done things that most people in this world can only dream of doing.

I am so fortunate to be able to have had those experiences.  I know that I owe it all to my family for letting me take a year off from school, rely completely on them and go off and do what I want.  I think that now the reality of my future has set in.  I have nine months of school left.  Then I am going to be forced to make decisions that aren’t real.  I am going to have to seriously decide what I want to do.  Sure I can brush off those decisions and do something fun like going to work on a cruise for a few months, or going to try to get a job at ClubMed for a six-month stint, but I will never escape these choices.  France has made my future real. 

I am incredibly proud of myself.  I don’t want to appear arrogant, but I believe that what I have done is admirable.  I don’t believe I am unique and that no one else could have done what I did, but few people on this planet have, or even try.  I love everyone that I met in Paris.  In fact, there isn’t a single person who I met there that if they called me and asked to go out to lunch or dinner or even stay at my place I would try to find some excuse not to see them.  I met some of the most genuine fun to be around people I have ever heard of.  I miss them terribly.

The group of people in France I met were so odd.  There’s the one I had a huge crush on when I first met them and still to this day makes me feel like a bad person for not being as nice as they are.  There is the crazy Canadian I lived with who (and this may not be reciprical considering the morning I woke up to her yelling at her sister and her sisters friend how I never clean and how I can be inconsiderate) I would love to live with again.  There is the gayest straight man I have ever met who, despite my first impression of him has grown to be one of the best friends I’ve made in Paris.  There is the crazy British/Irish girl who, despite her demeanor when she has had a few too many is so ridiculously funny and nice and sweet.  There is the amazing welsh little blonde who has a smile and laugh that can light up the room.  There is the crazy San Franciscan who knows what she wants and isn’t afraid to get it all the while never forgetting peoples feelings.  There is the petit Seattle-ite who has promised to take me out and show me what there is to do there when I inevitably end up some awkward odd wheel out with my Dad’s side of the family.  There is the other petite Seattle-ite who’s time was cut short in Paris (not in life), but who has the most sarcastic, funny, witty sense of humor.  There were the string of roommates, from the gawkey awkward scary-smart Australian to the laid back, hipster Mexican/American/French kid. 

Then there were the French I met.  It took some time to crack their shells, but once I did, they let me in whole heartedly.  The choir guys and girls were always happy to see me there.  I’m not sure if it’s because I am one of the only guys (apparently in the history of the choir) who can sing tenor somewhat well, but every time I walked in it was as if I could do no wrong.  The French kids in my courses (with the exception of one kid who I sincerely hope fails out of school and realizes that life is more important than grades) were so supportive and friendly, especially when I told them my plight in regards to the administration. 

Then there is my French host family.  Michele is literally a second mother to me.  Jerome and Georgina are like family.  I know that I am going to remain in contact with them for the rest of my life, assuming they want to.  I cannot wait to come back and see how big Lucas has gotten and how he plays with his new baby sister (she is due this month!). 

I loved my year.  Had I finished this post closer to my arrival back in the states I honestly don’t know if I could say that.  But now I can.  With time, the bad goes and the good stays.  I think that is human nature.  That is why we can forgive, get over things, and always be optimistic.  We can overlook peoples flaws and look forward to the good times we know we will have with them again.  We are able to see past all the terrible and remember the great. 

I remember the first time I cried in Paris.  I was sitting alone in my room at Michele’s house.  I didn’t know how I was going to survive the next nine months.  Looking back I know that it can be summed up to three words.  Friends, food and France.

Mon Coisiere

Much like my trip with dad through Austria, Germany and Hungary I apologize for not being able to remember all the details of my cruise.  I am also going to start with when Mom and Nana first go to Paris. 

They arrived really early on a Tuesday morning.  For anyone who has ever met me, they know I am not a morning person.  But being the good son/grandson I am I volunteered to meet Mom and Nana at the airport at 7:00AM.  Needless to say I got there at 7:45AM.  I meant to get there at 7:30AM but the RER B that takes you to CDG was running a little behind schedule.  I told them just to park themselves out front of the baggage claim. 

We meet and I say my necessary apologies for being late.  Their flight was early so it turns out they had been waiting for about an hour for me.  Oops… my bad… So from there we take the RER to their hotel.  Now my mom and grandmother are not country bumpkins, but they have never lived in a city that has public transportation.  There was one point where my grandmother just started laughing hysterically because she had never done anything like this.  I asked her why that is so funny she said it was because her friends at her retirement home would never beleive that she was taking the train from the airport to her hotel with two suitcases that collectively weighed 140lbs.  Looking back on it, we must have been a bit ridiculous.

Thankfully we make it to their hotel, which was only one RER, two metro lines and three blocks away from CDG.  My arms were sore the next day from hauling their stuff.  I gave them the cell phone I bought for them so we could stay in contact, since neither of their phones were equipped for Europe. 

The next few days were a blur of walking around Paris.  We took a cruise on the Seine for my mom’s birthday.  It was the first time they had seen me drink!  I think I emptied the entire bottle of wine we got.  We went up to my apartment and I showed them my area a little bit.  We went on a tour of the Cemetery Père LaChaise where some of France’s most influential people are buried.  I took them over to where Michele lived and we got Crepes at my favorite place.  We went into the Pantheon.  One of the days I had class they tried to go to the Louvre.  The other day the watched the Royal Wedding.

Finally it was time for us to leave to go take our cruise!  I had been looking forward to this for, well since we booked it back in December.  It was a week long vacation sailing leisurely through the Greek Isles, with the last two stops in Croatia and Italy.  I had never been to any of the cities we were going too and to make things better, my grandmother who has been traveling internationally since she was in her thirties hadn’t been to most of those places either! 

We had to spend the day in Bari, Italy where our boat was set to leave from.  We weren’t sure what there was to do, so we asked the concierge.  He suggested we go up to Giovennazo, a small fishing town about ten kilometers from Bari.  We could take a bus, but the hotel agreed to drop us off there.  Now I am not sure if this is typical for everyone in Italy, but the four times I have been there I found that Italians don’t seem to speak that much English.  It wasn’t a problem for me, because I was used to communicating with people whose language I didn’t speak.  But I could tell it freaked out my grandmother pretty bad. 

It seemed like every little thing that we did she had to go check and double check because she either didn’t trust our translation or us.  My mom and I still aren’t quite sure…  Anyway, trying to get a bus to take us back to our hotel proved to be quite an adventure.  After walking around the city for three hours my grandmothers back was hurting so we sit on a bench.  My mom still is wondering around so Nana and I talk.  Finally we all regroup in the square where the driver from the hotel dropped us.  My mom and I tell my grandmother to go sit on the bench in front of the bus stop we think the driver told us is where we need to pick it up to return to the hotel, while we go off looking for tickets. 

When I was in Florence I learned that the Tobacco shops are where you buy the tickets.  So we go into one.  In our rather comical exchange, we learn that he doesn’t sell them there.  A nice Italian man walks to the front of the store and points to the left.  All he says is “To the front.”  We have absolutely no idea what that means, but my mom and I walk that way.  We find the bureau of tourism, so we figure we could ask there.  Just our luck, the English speaking lady is out to lunch or sleeping or drinking or something.  All we know is she isn’t there.  I use what little (and by little I mean virtually non existent) Italian to ask her where we can buy the tickets.  She tells us the next store to the left, which it turns out is at the front of the square we were in.  So that’s what the Italian guy meant….

Luckily we make it back and take a cab to the boat.  The rest of the day is pretty smooth.  We get on board and start exploring.  The ship is beautiful.  I guess the Travel Channel has kind of spoiled cruise ships for me because I was expecting something that was ridiculously huge.  I felt like the ship was like a really nice medium size hotel, just floating on water and capable of international travel.  My mom and grandmother were amazed at its size.  To their creidit the ship was thirteen stories tall, had a full size theater complete with balcony, two sit down restaurants, two pools, a spa.  Pretty much anything you expected from a nice resort this place had. 

Every night the ship had a show in the theater.  Some were okay, and some were incredible.  All I could think about when watching the shows though, was how much fun the shows at the VC last summer were and how much I couldn’t wait to get back and start rehearsing!

The ports of call on this ship were amazing.  I can’t go into in depth descriptions of every one so I am going to write about the highlights and the most memorable parts. 

Our first port of call was Katokolon.  It was closest to Olympia where the Greeks met thousands of years ago to have the games.  Fun fact, it wasn’t until the 1932 Olympic games in Berlin that the Olympic flame was lighted there.  Yup, it was Hitler’s idea…   Anyway, we got to go to the original stadium.  One thing I liked was that on the way into the stadium were pedistols where they would put statues of those where were caught cheating.  They would have their likeness there for eternity (or until time and/or some museum removed them) with their name and their city on it, forever a shameful reminder of their transgressions.   I loved Olympia. 

One more thing about Olympia.  I should mention that I had the best olive of my life there.  It may sound weird but this olive was so good my mind still remembers the taste.  When I try to remember the taste of a food I can usually only recall the emotional reaction to the food.  Not with this olive.  To this day I can still think about its taste and my mind allows a little bit to linger in my mouth.  It’s kind of weird but I’m not going to complain.

I can’t remember what the next stop was, but in the next three days we hit Mykonos, Santorini, Korfu and Athens.  Santorini was breath taking.  The pictures from there do it justice.  The water in the caldera of the volcano are crystal blue.  I loved Santorini because I got to ride a donkey up the side of the mountain.  For those who haven’t been, and I didn’t know this before I got there, Santorini is on top of a mountain.  Well its an Island, but there is no beach.  It is just cliffs.  So you can either take a Gondola up the mountain or take a donkey.  Needless to say I chose the donkey. 

Once there my mom and I made it to the town that was about fifteen minutes away from the one the boat docked in.  We shared a cab with an elderly Italian couple who didn’t speak any English.  Our cab driver spoke a bit of English, but seeing as we were in Greece, he mainly spoke Greek.  We managed to get spend about an hour in that town. 

Mom loved it there.  She could have walked those streets for hours and hours.  That was her biggest complaint about the cruise.  She wanted more time at all of the stops.  She felt like she was short changed. 

After we made it back to the boat from the two towns, we were setting sail to go to Mykonos.  We got to Mykonos a little before sunset.  Mom and Nana thought that all of the restaurants on the island were going to be really crowded so we decided to eat in the dining room on the ship.  Turns out we didn’t need to do that because there are a bunch of amazing Greek and seafood restaurants on the island.   Much like Santorini the streets were narrow and not wide enough for cars to walk through.  Nana got tired and went back to the ship which was a short bus ride away.

I should mention the bus ride on the way there.  I’ve never feared for my life nor had as much fun on a bus ride as I did on the way from the boat to the town.  Our bus driver was taking pretty hairy turns really fast.  I think at one point Nana was thrown almost across the aisle. 

Anyway, after Nana made it back to the boat, Mom and I continued to walk around the town.  The weather was great and perfect for walking.  We ended up at the end of the town where four windmills were set up on top of a hill.  Mom and I took turns taking pictures in front of these, but the coolest pictures we took there were the shadow pictures.

I found a windmill that had a light shining right on it.  I saw some people walk by it and saw their shadows get projected onto it.  From there, Mom and I took turns making shapes from our shadows.  The pictures actually turned out really cool!

And that was Mykonos. 

Our next stop was Athens.  I was surprised by Athens.  It was a huge town.   I don’t know exactly what I was expecting but it wasn’t what we saw.  Just to get from the ship to the Archaeological museum took a great deal of time because of the traffic.  From the Acropolis you could see the urban sprawl.  It was as if the population of Los Angeles lived in half the space.  It was bizarre. 

The meuseum was interesting though.  They had a lot of statues and fragments from the Acropolis and surrounding temples and monuments.  The best part of it though was the view of the Parthenon.  From the third floor you had an unobstructed view of it.  It sits atop this fortified hill (back in ancient Greece it was just a hill, since then it was fortified). 

Mom, Nana and I were put in the English/Spanish tour.  Our guide would say something in one language and then she would say the same thing in the other.  It wasn’t a problem until she would answer my questions in Spanish…  That got to be a little annoying.  Mom and I would have to say “English please!”  I guess I’m going to have to learn Spanish now too….

We got to the top of the Acropolis and saw the Parthenon.  It looks exactly as every post card shows it.  An immense structure surrounded by scaffolding.  The one thing that shocked me was that I could get pictures of just the structure, as in without people in it.  I got some great pictures of the three of us.  Form the top it was clearly visible that there were too many people living in Athens.  Our guide told us that Athens is the town of (some number) of hills.  You could see all of the peaks from up top.  The sad thing was that the buildings went more than halfway up these hills.  I could only imagine what it looked like two thousand years ago though.  Those green hillsides would have made the perfect place to show the Gods tribute. 

I was really glad that I got a chance to see that at least once in my life.  Our experience was a little different than most because for what ever reason, nature thought it was a good idea to open the flood gates on us, well almost.  When we were walking up there it started raining pretty hard, and none of us had an umbrella.  The real bad news came when we were on the bus, though.  We were driving by Olympic stadium in Athens when the weather turned into a torrential downpour.  On the way to find the bus, we passed a protest.  I could only imagine how much it sucked to be those guys in that weather…

After Athens, we went to Korfu.  Of all of the Greek Isles we went to, Korfu was the most beautiful.  Santorini was breathtaking and unique, but to be that close to the water and to have it that blue was just something else.   The first thing we did was to go to an old fort.  I don’t know why it was built, but it was the highest point in the town and had great views.  Despite its insanely slick stone path, all three of us climbed to the top. 

From the top we looked out over the ocean and could see the town behind us.  There was a quaint little lighthouse that I don’t think worked any more as well as giant metal cross.  I don’t know if it was a religious thing or not.  It looked cool though.  We spent a good deal of time up there taking pictures and just absorbing the beauty.  After the weather in Athens it was nice to have such good weather again. 

When we got down from the top of the hill we went down a different way.  It led us to this huge… well I guess you would call it a court yard.  There was a church at one end and a really big grassy gravely area in front.  Mom and I spent some time there taking pictures too.  Then we were off to explore the rest of the town.  I don’t remember the town part that much because I couldn’t get over the breathtakingly spectacular ocean views that we got.  I think I have more pictures of Korfu than I do of almost any other city, with the exception of Venice. 

The second to last stop on our cruise was Dubrovnik.  I had never been to Croatia and again I didn’t know what to expect.  We only got to walk around the old town, but oh my god.  If the rest of the country is half as gorgeous as that old town is, it has to rank in the top five most incredible places on earth.  The entire old town fits within these fortified walls.  We had the option of walking the walls but they were three miles and we didn’t have that much time there. 

We opted for the tour of the old town.  It included a trip into the Abbey where we got to see the oldest continually working Pharmacy and ended in a church.  We also got to see the reminance of the 1990’s war between Croatia and Montenegro/Serbia.  In this church the guide showed us a mortar crater that was fired from outside the city walls.  All around the city as we were walking we saw plaques dedicated to those who died in the siege and to the buildings that were ruined. 

The coolest part of Dubrovnik Mom and I found on our own, after the tour.  We decided we wanted just to walk around and explore.  Because the old city was all within these walls, we figured it wouldn’t be that difficult to find our way back to the mian gate, so we took off.  We ended up finding this hole in the wall, and I mean that literally.  There was a bar that was built right into a hole in the walls around the city.  From there you could sip your juice or beer and soak up the sun while watching the little glass bottom boats that puttered past you.  

On our way back to the ship, we had to cross this farmers market.  It must have been close to the hour when we left the hole in the wall bar, because when we reached the square where the market was, the church bells started to ring.  If you have ever seen Hitchcock’s “The Birds” then you could kind of imagine the scene we saw.  Hundreds upon hundreds of pigeons took flight.  One almost flew into my face.   To make matters worse there was a guy who was throwing out birdseed in an open area of the square.  I’m just happy I made it back to the boat not totally covered in bird poop. 

After Dubrovnik, we were off to our final destination, Venice!   My brother had said that he had never been anywhere that was as true to the stereotype as Venice was.  He was right.  The streets are literally all canals.  I had been to Amsterdam that was famous for its canals, but there were still bicycles and cars in Amsterdam.  Not in Venice.  I took my fair share of pictures of the water taxis. 

We signed up on the boat to do some tours in Venice, but because so many passengers were disembarking, our tours got canceled due to lack of interest.  That was fine though, I mean it was Venice!  We could just hop on any old gondola and get serenaded through the canals.  And we did just that… minus the serenade (but I was okay with that).   Our gondola driver told us a lot of the history of the city and steered us around for about an hour.  I could look at my pictures from that city a million times and still not get tired of it. 

After our gondola trip, we walked around for the remainder of our time.  As Mom reminds us every time we talk about the cruise, she was really frustrated that we had to be on the boat so early, especially since we didn’t set sail until way later that night.  But I didn’t mind it.  The Pope was in town and he and I don’t really see eye to eye on a lot of issues.  Though it was cool to say I was within a few hundred yards of one of the most famous/influential people on the planet. 

And that was our cruise.  We made it back to Bari and then flew to Paris via Milan.  Mom and Nana took back a suitcase for me and I finished up my time in Paris!