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Au revoir, Paris!

Even since we immigrated to Canada, We’ve been moving to smaller and smaller cities. First, we were in Toronto, then Oshawa, a city just outside of Toronto, and now we live in Medicine Hat, whose population is under 100,000 and declining. Paris broke this trend. While the city itself is not that big, it has many suburbs circling around it and many people commute to the city centre for work. Such a big city is difficult to stereotype, I say impossible, although parisians might evoke a certain image in some people’s minds. I have found most French people very nice and helpful. Especially when I first got to Paris and was having many problems expressing myself. Many French people would answer me in English. I actually don’t remember many instances when someone was rude and refused to help. The fact that many Parisians are now speaking English could be simply a result of the huge number of tourists who come to visit Paris every year. Even the amount of tourists in the middle of winter is overwhelming to me. Tourism has definitely become a part of Paris as Paris becomes a part of you when you visit. But still, I see a tourist Paris and a Parisian Paris, with some overlap between the two. The tourist Paris involves all the monuments and all the museums, such as the Louvre and the Musee d’Orsay where one find mainly tourists filled corridors. You can also spot the many touristy restaurants where menus are in English near the touristy monuments. Although one does find Parisians as well, they are there mostly for the temporary exhibitions. And then the Parisian Paris involves sitting in the cafés and chatting with friends while slowly enjoying a cup of coffee or tea (but still mainly coffee). Or getting to one of the many open air markets (marché) on the weekend to buy fresh vegetables and fruits while picking up some ham from a bucherie and cheese from a fromagerie. Although many Parisians have started to shop at the ‘supermarkets’, one stop for all goods, there are still many boulangeries (for bread and pastries), bucheries, and fromageries all over Paris, keeping true to the French culture. On a side note, Paris really does have everything you might want, there is a bird market, a stamp market, and many other dedicated specialized markets. Monuments are not part of this ‘Paris’. Sure Parisians might go to some of the same churches tourists go to but they go to pray, not to take photos. The daughter of my host family tells me she’s never gone up the Eiffel Tower! This is the truth. But I think this is true everywhere. When you see something everyday, it ceases to become interesting (for most things and for most people). Why would you find Parisians on top of the Arc de Triomphe at night or the Eiffel tower? They rather go sit at a café! If there is one thing I regret a little, it’s not seeing more of the “Parisian Paris”. But there is a reason why tourists go to those tourist spots, the architecture and view is simply breath taking.

Besides the people I met, what I know I’ll miss about Paris is the food. The bread is simply amazing, as well as the pastries (patisseries). Here is a picture of 2000 feuilles (a classical French pastry ‘millefeuille’, translation: thousand sheets/layers) from a famous Parisian patisserie Pierre Hèrme.

"2000 feuilles"... Pierre Hermé's millefeuille

"2000 feuilles"... Pierre Hermé's millefeuille

You see why? America is great and you can get pretty much as thing you want, but French bread and pastry is something you cannot get. unfortunately. A few weeks into the program, my host mom was saying that I have never eaten like this. This is true- I’ve been spoilt by the amazing food and all I can hope for now is an easy withdrawl. And it might be hard to see, but for someone who’s never ate cheese before, I’m going to miss French cheese. I even froze one package and am hoping it will make it to Ithaca okay without being detected… J Although some may disagree, cheese to me is like alcohol in that it’s also an acquired taste. And I was very willing to try all the different cheeses my host mom offered to me. Throughout the semester, she’s constantly applauded my efforts to try the cheeses and now I don’t know how I’ll live without it. Let’s hope Wegmans sells some Comté.

So firsts become lasts. It wasn’t too long ago when I had my first bad cheese tasting (goat cheese is not very good) and last night, I had my last munster with my last French baguette. I remember the confusion that Monday morning at Metro stop Place d’Italie and this morning, I had my last metro ride, mapfree. (You can never really go map free in Paris, it’s simply too big with too many streets that run in all directions!) And I’ve just got to the point where I can actually help people who come ask me to find a building or a place.

To be honest, I haven’t really become sad for my leaving Paris until the last day. I think I was simply too busy seeing new places and shopping during the sales (which is actually a sale unlike the ones here…) I realized that I haven’t seen the Mona Lisa and ran to the Louvre last night. I think it’s seeing all those new buildings or old buildings from new perspective that made me on my last day here that made me nostalgic. But saying good-bye to my host mom last night, revenir was a word that came up again and again. (for those who don’t know, it means to come back). Revenir is what I’ll do. I’m sure of it because for the French, good bye is au revoir (until I see you again), there is always a next time. And everything I didn’t get to see this time is a reason to come back for, like all those paintings and sculptures in the Louvre. Until then, I will have my “Paris, Je t’aime” DVD my host mom gave me as a goodbye present showing clips from all the different parts of Paris… Au revoir, Paris! À la prochaine! 😀

From Pasteur Pipets to FPLC, my internship at Pasteur Institute

And that stands for Fast Protein Liquid Chromatography for anyone wondering….  🙂 one technique of protein purification that I religiously used during my internship this semester in Paris at Dr. Gopaul’s lab at Pasteur Institute. But no, this post will not be about the science behind my project although I would be happy to talk about it with anyone interested in it.

So this summer during my summer research program (Hughes Scholar) at Cornell, I met with this important guy from NYU who happens to be in charge of doing an exchange program for biology with Paris University 7 (Paris Diderot), one of the universities where I took classes at. I told him about interested in doing research in Paris and long story short, he helped me to find a lab here. But to my surprise, I was informed by Dr Monique Benesvy, the director of the EDUCO program, that my application to work at Pasteur (which I submitted earlier)  has been accepted! So somehow I ended up with two opportunities! But I ended up choosing to work at Pasteur because of the project and plus, the food is just amazing (it is the best cafeteria ever, if Cornell had something like this, lines everyday would longer than RPCC’s sunday brunch’s dim sum line!). First, Dr Gopaul’s lab is interesting in that he does biochemistry and structural biology- our goal has been to purify a protein in order to carry on with crystallization to eventually try to see the structure. But Pasteur Institute, somewhat following Dr. Pasteur’s footsteps, focuses mainly on diseases, virology, and microbiology (although the protein does have to do with how bacteria acquire diseases).

The Pasteur Museum, one which is actually open to the public! It is the old apartment of Louis Pasteur and have some original decorations from back in the day. I unfortunately did not have time to see the crypt where his tomb is kept.

The Pasteur Museum, one which is actually open to the public! It is the old apartment of Louis Pasteur and have some original decorations from back in the day. I unfortunately did not have time to see the crypt where his tomb is kept.

I started  early October and did my presentation and wrote my 25 page lab report on my work mid December. In these two and half months, I have learnt a lot of new skills and techniques and I am really grateful for the opportunity to work in a lab in Paris. But besides that, I’ve also learnt that I don’t think I will want to come back to work in France, or Europe for that matter after speaking with my Italian friends, who received a PhD from Italy and is now working in Canada. And here’s why.

Here in France, like the country, everything at Pasteur Institute is centralized. On my first day, Dr Gopual drew a diagram for me showing me the different levels of division at Pasteur, from departments to units to individual labs. And if you know anything about how lab does purchases, you will know how much of a pain it is if that is centralized. Essentially, each individual lab loses its ability to make its own purchases, such as DNA needed for experiments, and at Pasteur, such purchases must be submitted before a preset deadline. Furthermore, you have to use all your budget or the money is lost. What?! Sometimes you need to order DNA for experiments based on results you get and at Cornell, because the lab handles its own money, we can buy the DNA right after seeing the result. However, here, that is impossible and precious time could be lost or you must plan ahead very well but science is not always predictable :/ And it’s not just purchasing, to go to the -80 ˚C refrigerators, where protein samples would be kept to better preserve them, I have to go down 5 floors and find our lab’s -80 among 20 others and take a special key to open the lock. At Cornell and at the lab I worked at in Canada, the -80 refrigerator is located in the lab, more logical? I think so.

And I know it might seem like I’m just bashing the research system here but I’m simply comparing from my experiences the two and the American way has won me over. Although there are advantages to working in France. One thing is that the French take their breaks seriously. There are two breaks that everyone takes, lunch break and holiday break, although researchers here will work on weekends as well, but definitely not as much as what i’ve seen in the US/Canada. During my two months here, everyday that I worked at Pasteur (which is usually around 2 per week), I went to the dining hall to eat a delicious lunch with others from the lab for usually an hour. The equivalent in North America is heating your lunch in the microwave while you finish your experiment and then quickly eat it in 15 mins so you can go back to work. Also, when we had armistice day on a Thursday, the whole institute did a ‘bridge’, or en français, ‘pont’, and gave everyone Thursday and Friday off, woohoo! In the US? we work through July 4th. :/ I definitely like to take my time if I can for my meals and I value the real time offs so this is one thing I would give thumbs up to the French for. I’m currently thinking a lot of whether to go into research because of what it might do to my weekends and my breaks.

But really, it’s not just for a closer -80˚C refrigerator that many brilliant scientists are moving westward, it has a lot to do with $$$. There’s just simply more money for research in the US. And because of the lack of funding resources, there is more competition for principal investigator positions. Especially in research, you need money because without it, you simply cannot do experiments. You cannot get the latest equipment to get more precise data, or data more quickly and efficiently, and you cannot test as much hypotheses as you would like or maybe you cannot even do the experiment you would like to do. And the lack of money and positions mean that graduates good enough to have their own lab in the US might have to work as a post doc at a lab in Europe under someone else. Who wants to have a boss then they can be their own boss? 😛 I forgot to mention too that due to the general lack of space in Europe, that means you feel the effects in the lab as well, meaning smaller work areas and shared work areas. Although I might have been spoilt by the brand new Weill hall at Cornell :/

In the end, research is research and the science behind my project is certainly not out dated nor is it any different from the science in the US. The experiments are the same and the concepts are all the same. However, it has been very interesting to work in a different work setting and work culture and to see how much politics is actually involved in research. Unfortunately, even in the US, it’s impossible to avoid the politics as one have to deal with writing a lot of grant proposals… One of my main goals and reasons for working at a lab here in Paris was to learn about how research ‘works’ here and the structure of labs within an institute on top of the technical stuff and I’m glad to have the opportunity to see it. And an advice for everyone who was thinking about doing research in Europe: come here for a test run first before you make any long term plans! Science may be universal, doing research does not ‘work’ the same everywhere!

It didn’t end with a bang… but 2010 was a good year :-)

So last night was New Year’s Eve and despite being sick, I went out because you’re only in Paris for New Year’s Eve once (in my case anyway). First,we went out to dinner at a restaurant. It was packed! The decor was very cool and the waiters (some) were wearing Christmas hats and one had a full blown Santa costume! :O Anyway, we eventually made it to école militaire (the other end of champ de mars from the Eiffel Tower) and I was expecting a grand, magnificent, magical, etc display of fireworks to bid adieu to 2010 and celebrate the coming of 2011. However, the only thing above the Eiffel Tower visible there was a fog that covered the it’s top. Considering all the money Paris has…. Bummer. But not all is lost, not only did I make 12 wishes with the 12 grapes given to me from my latin american friends, there were individuals who bought fireworks and set them off around the Eiffel tower (after midnight). Here’s a good picture of it.


But what came next was more interesting : it was getting really cold so we decided to get to some place inside. The only thing running was the metro so we got into the station but it was unbelievably packed! Think about it: it was New Year’s Eve, Paris and the suburbs have a lot of people, the metro was free (last night only), and it was really cold outside. We were being shoveled and pushed as we made our way down the stairs to the quay. And of course, the incoming train is already jam packed as well….. We eventually ended up at our destination and I will just say it was a great night and I can’t believe how far I made being sick… I came back and went immediately to bed so I didn’t really have time to think about 2010…

In some ways, I feel it’s a bit too early still to think about 2010 because being in Paris and my semester abroad had been a huge part of it (definitely the most interesting). I started early in the spring to prepare my application, along with taking Fren2190 to fill the minimum requirement to study with EDUCO and then had to deal with all the visa business during the summer and arrived, without really knowing a lot about Paris or what to expect on September 4 and checked into my hostel with the squeaky beds, where I stayed for 1 night before the program officially started. But in some ways it’s not too early because all of the academic portion is done, which is one of the most important parts of the studying abroad. I know I’ve talked about a lot about the academics here before some of my exams, which I think went well for the most part except for my art history class, so I don’t want to say too much more on it than a summary. For me, how much you learn is directly related to how much you want to learn and how much work you put in. Yes this applies everywhere but extremely so here. Many classes simply don’t have any homework assignments that you have to hand in and you get a bibliography with a list of books, out of which you pick ones you want to read and read. For my art history class, there were over 20 books! So you can get almost nothing or a lot from a class depending on how much you go to class, pay attention, and read the recommended readings. The professors, although this is changing, mostly do not accept visits (so no office hours) from students outside of the lecture so you gotta ask your questions after class! and some, especially the older ones, will not give you their email address if you want to email them with questions! But professors for two out of three of my classes gave the students their email and both of them actually encouraged students to email them with questions so it really depends! But don’t expect that they have to! And of course a huge part of my semester in terms of academics was my internship at Pasteur Institute but I will leave that for another post coming soon because I want to say something about everything I learnt outside of the class here, which I think it just as important and integral to the study abroad experience. Because especially when you’re abroad, a lot of what you learn is not inside a room. And I know this is also the kind that’s more appealing to most of students!

Studying in Europe gave me the opportunity to travel easily, and more importantly, cheaply, around Europe. I had the chance to visit many places in France, many of them thanks to the staff at EDUCO who organized many excursions for students, as well as other countries in Europe and even Morocco in Africa!  Now I’ve been to Asia, North America, Europe, and Africa! and I’ve learned a lot from every one of my trips. It’s always interesting and eye-opening to visit a new place and even within western Europe, Spain was very different from France. You observe the differences in their customs and etiquette, the way they treat others on the street, their culture, and of course a lot of their history from all the signs around the city and the monuments and sights. Did you know that Spanish starts to eat dinner around 10pm and that in Granada as well as in some other parts of Spain, you get drinks if you’re hungry? (because you get ‘free’ food with drinks, even soda) Or that some toilets in Europe, especially in Italy, don’t have seats? and that you find bidets a lot in Italy, even in the public bathrooms?! Or that greeting in Italy and France is two kisses (one per side) but in Bruxelles, it’s only one? And I’m not sure if I should say it but I sat near a couple who went ‘all the way’ out in the open on the champ de mars (my friend Liz saw it and didn’t say anything until after our picnis) And of course, no one could be seen outside in their pajamas… although couples making out affectionately is a common scene here! And I have to say, from the ancient ruins and churches in Rome and Italy to the 10th century Mont-Saint-Michel (and later modified of course) to the vestige of islamic world in Spain, the Alhambra, to the paintings and frescos from the Italian Renaissance in Florence and Italy to the relatively recent EU headquarters in Bruxelles, I have seen quite a bit of the history as well.

So 2010 was a great year for me even though it also ended for me with being sick and having stomach cramps, (and I forgot to mention how nicely the euro went done to the dollar!) I’ve seen so much and learnt so much about a part of the world that I knew nothing about but had always wanted to visit. And Christmas in Italy with my italians friends, Vittorio and Alba, who I met during my summer research project last summer, and their family was one of the best I’ve had. And the food was definitely The best! And making pizza with an stone oven is definitely something to be remembered! They’ve made me want to move to Italy, where great coffee comes at very low prices as well, and learn italian…

But as the popular saying goes: a picture is worth a thousand words, here are some pictures (from every one of my trips)!

Hell week in Paris ?! and beyond…

Yeah, this is a fact. Hell week does exist in Paris as it does at Cornell, only maybe a few notches less intense and stressful (because it’s only pass/fail! for us) but extremely tiring and filled with frustrations nonetheless. Remember, we are writing papers en Français! And if you think writing a 7 page paper on a single Renaissance painting is bad, try writing it in another language and then read a 200 page booklet about it for an test the same day the paper’s due. Granted I could’ve started reading the booklet and wrote the paper earlier, but if I (and I’m think for most of you as well) can’t do it in Ithaca, how am I suppose to do it in a city with so much to explore, and so many things happening! For example, I decided to take a break from all this work this morning by going to the flea market to look to accompany my friends and to maybe find something to bring back. It turned out to be an 4 hour trip that ended with me visiting an open air bird market on “Île de la Cité”, the manmade island in the middle of Paris. And who knew that getting birds to peck your fingers can feel so good!

And as if that’s not enough to keep us away from studying, libraries close on Sundays (and some on Mondays) and no one stays open past around 8pm….. ?!?! And this has been a facebook update with growing popularity as we approach Paris exam week for americans (before Christmas holidays as it should be). And yes, I was implying that French students are forced to have their holidays knowing that they have multiple 3+ hour exams upon their return in early January… I guess we can compare it to these college application essays due on January that forces you to spend Christmas in front of a computer (which fortunately for an ED student like me did not happen).

But as this semester abroad approaches the end (fortunately for me there’s still a month but many others are leaving this week after their exams), there is a lot of ambivalence in the air. On one hand, many of us are glad to be going home. Afterall, it has been an exhausting semester, mostly in a good way 🙂 And it’s things like these library hours that make some of us, and for some more than others, miss home even more. There’s a saying that goes something like this: you appreciate what you have more after it’s been taken away from you. And I am glad to be going back to Cornell not only because I miss my friends, but because of many of the facilities and opportunities at Cornell that I have maybe took for granted. Obviously one is the library opening hours, and not only the hours but also the facilities in the libraries, can you believe some libraries in Paris do not have wi-fi? yes, it’s a fact. But more importantly are office hours with professors and the opportunity to go ask questions and establish a relationship with them is something practically non-existent in the French system, at least from my observations. Plus, the only thing worse than an 9am class is for the professor to not show up… and that happens in Paris. And I should mention this is after a 30 minutes crowded metro ride…

But as I said many times, I do not regret my time here. Because in between these problems of the French system and everything French that we joke about, we’ve learnt a lot and each of us has found something about this experience that makes leaving very difficult : we are just as sad as much as we are happy. Happy to see our old friends back home but sad to leave our new friends in Paris. And it was at our goodbye party last Friday that the thought of not seeing most of these people ever again in my life suddenly hit me. It hit me so hard that I didn’t know what to say or what to do, and I just kept eating that delicious French bread and cheese while drinking French wine… I remember on the night before my plane ride to Paris, I was thinking to myself how the day coming back would be like. (I’m weird like that). Back then, it seemed so far away, and now…. I remember the sunny days in September and October when I was deciding where to go explore for the day: I’ll go to this park because these monuments and museums i’ll save for the winter when it’s not as nice in the park. And now? Time is almost up and I haven’t even started on my grande museum tour of Paris yet…. I wish I had explored more, but at the same time, as my friend Liz said to me at the party when I expressed my regrets, I’ve seen a lot. I guess I have, but because Paris is so big and so full of history (and some of them are in the most unexpected places :P, literally at every corner), I will always feel that I haven’t seen enough. But I guess that’s the charm of Paris and why it’s one of the most visited cities in Europe.  I read in a guidebook before my trip here that to look at every artwork in the Louvre would take one around three months. Well, with the little time I have time, I better get cracking! Bon courage!

You study science??

That is a question I get often when I tell people here in Paris, France, that I am in fact a biology and chemistry double major in the US… For most of them, including most of the French students in my various classes, it’s a very interesting concept for them that I am taking literature, or history, or art history class here as a science major. This highlights one of the major differences between the two university systems : Distribution requirements. So here at a public university (Paris Diderot, AKA Paris University VII) a history major will only be taking history classes. In fact, their curriculum is pretty much mapped out for them starting day 1! Of course, one has the choice of a field in history, but once that specialization is chosen, one will be taking many classes with the same people. And may I add you will not be finding any traces of math or sciences in those classes… In fact, the “bac” which is almost like the SAT for the US, comes in different versions – one for those interested in sciences, one for those in literature, etc…

But I’ve found that French students expand their horizon in many ways (some very interesting) outside the classroom. No doubt, there are the students organizations. And Paris is a city of culture, with its vast array of museums and monuments, there’s a bit of history and culture to learn at every corner! But most interestingly, most of the French students in my classes are actually older than me! And I take mostly L1 classes, or Licence 1, which means first year university classes. Why? Many French students actually take time off after high school to work, or go to another school (like for acting), or started a different specialization but have decided to ‘transfer’ – something I have done and I’m sure many of you have done as well. (But because the class are pre set and curriculum is very structured and rigid, transferring means ‘restarting’) One girl in my non-western history class went to over 1 year of business school before starting history. Another girl in that class did literature for an year before ‘transferring’ to history. A girl in my literature class actually went to an acting school in Israel for two years after the ‘bac. Of course, French students can do it because the tuition at these public universities is very cheap (few hundred euros per year?) in comparison to the american universities. Although for those high achiving students, the French equivalent is the “Grands Écoles”, where students after the ‘bac’ has to go for 1-2 years of ‘pre-study’ before they can get into these schools. And of course, all the French presidents came from these few big institutions.

Now not everyone here transfers because they are no longer interested in their old subject. I remember the first time I went to Paris I university and went up to the secretary for art history, I passed by the results of students’ exams from the previous semester ( all grades are out with full names of the all the students, no hiding!) and I have to French universities are definitely NOT afraid to fail its students. For philosophy year 1, over half of the students failed. You can imagine the scare I got from looking at all the “défaillant” (failing). I certainly had no intention of failing so that day during dinner with my host family, I asked about why there are so many students who fail. I was told that because French students going to the public universities do not have to pay much, a lot of the students do not put forth as much effort as required by the classes and this is one of the fall backs of such a system. But this is not to say that French students don’t work; there are certainly many among them who goes above and beyond the expectations. Looking at the assignment for my literature class is a good example. We were asked to write about a collection of poems by Apollinaire called “Alcools”, and although the teacher only asked for about 5 pages, some handed in a folder with pages of analyses that is definitely more than 5 pages, but yet there are others who hand one a leaflet (4 pages), hand-written.

Another interesting point on doing assignments in France is that there is a limited number of assignments, (such as “explication de texte”, “fiche de lecture”, “dissertation”, etc… ). And although I haven’t had bad experiences with format, some of other American students in the program who lost many points deducted for not following the correct format for the assignment (although most profs will accommodate foreign students with extra points). When I went in for extra help for a homework assignment and didn’t know the name, the tutor said “there has to be a name for the assignment!” However, the most important part of the grade for French classes is actually not the assignment (many classes don’t even have assignments) but rather the exams — usually mid semester exam and the final exam.

The grading system is also very different between the two education systems.. Even for those students who passed their exams, many only passed barely, meaning with ~10,11 out of 20. In France, the idea is to criticize, not encourage. In fact, we were warned that when tutors and professors criticize our work, it’s only to help us improve and doesn’t (necessarily) mean they have something personal against us. I personally have experienced this during our art history discussion when the professor stopped the student in the middle of the presentation to tell her that what she’s saying is not at all relevant to the painting or what was expected for the assignment; and for another presentation, at the end, he told the presenters that they were wrong about most of what they said about the painting in front of the whole class! So for those of you coming to study in France, prepare your egos!

Being reminded of ‘home’ in unexpected places: Les Hogues and France

Sorry everyone for having not updated this blog in awhile. I’m been too busy traveling! I will be leaving home for Spain in about an hour or so and haven’t packed but there will be lots of good stories to come after I get back!

(so I actually wrote most of this blog in october but forgot to post it so “this past weekend” was oct 22. )

This past weekend, I went with my host mom to her country house in a little village inside a forest called “Les Hogues”, part of L’Eure region of ‘haute Normandie’. It was an amazing trip with very varied weather and a lot of walking. If there is anything that I don’t like about Paris, it’s the amount of people in some very crowed spaces, namely the Metro, bus, and especially during the strikes when the trains are reduced, sometimes by half!  So this trip to a village with only about 5 main roads and probably a hundred or so people was a perfect weekend escape for me (I used escape for lack of better word because why would anyone want to escape from Paris? ).

We left friday afternoon on a very sunny for Paris as it’s very rainy/cloudy in the fall, and I mean really sunny – my host mom was driving and needed sunglasses! It took a while to exit Paris and it’s really hard to know because it’s really just a big road -boulevard peripherique – that separates Paris from its suburbs. Once we got out of Paris, it wasn’t long before we found ourselves surrounded by open land, hills, all things green and brown – natural looking. For me, it’s a reminder of my trips to and from Calgary airport and home (Medicine Hat), where all one sees is flat horizon and farms non-end. As we drove through the forest and eventually climbed up a hill, the sun was slowly setting down and by the time we got to the house, it was sunset! Perfect photo opportunity. Oh, and I forgot to mention we stopped on the way to get 2 baguettes, as there isn’t really a store in Les Hogues…

We got into the house no problem and it was freezing! I went to put the stuff in my room and came back downstairs. That’s when I saw the water heater…. I haven’t seen it in ages! Last time I saw it was in our first home in Xuzhou China, and I haven’t been there in over 10 years. But being reminded of China really wasn’t that shocking to me because ever since I came to Paris, I’ve picked up many resemblances to China that I didn’t find in the US/Canada. (Oh and I forgot to mention that we played French songs from a record player!! :D)Another great cultural observation that reminded me of china is the open air markets in Paris that are everywhere! On sunday mornings, when most shops are closed, you can head to one of these markets and find everything from eggplants to poireaux  (its a vegetable), all sorts of fruits and meats and cheeses and olives make the markets colorful and smell good! Talking about food, the French eat everything. Lamb? yes, and we eat that in China. Frogs? yep, we eat that in China too. Rabbits? yep. Snails? yep. When you order a plat with some kind of fish, expect some bones (or many) just like the way they are prepared in China! And on top of that, just like in China, when you ask someone to dine with you, you pay! Difference? :food is not made in China.

In Paris, the streets are always full of cars and people and it’s always a squeeze to get into that metro train. You see people J-walking all over the place and I happily partake in this practice along with crossing on red light. Just like in China! And traffic circles? Yep, they exist in China too but not in North America (at least I haven’t seen any)! and I will add that they are a pain to cross so hopefully we will keep it that way in NA. And talking about transportation, it’s great to see that I might have the opportunity to sleep in overnight trains, something I haven’t done since I left China! Of course there are many other things (like how expensive housing is in Paris and China’s major cities and how everyone lives in apartments, not houses), some small, some huge, but all these observations in one way or another reminds me of my homeland (my first one) that was completely unexpected. But please don’t think what my host mom thought: that I think they are the same. No, Paris and France are so different from China in many aspects (as long as you stay away from the asian quarters haha). One thing?-  be ready with lots of euros when you dine in restaurants!

Unfortunately I don’t have time now to post up pics from Les Hogues but I promise to do it when I get back! 🙂 stay tuned

Les richesses de Normandie

Remember that tour guide on the tour bus enthusiastically speaking to the microphone as he attempts to explain the story about a monument, or a place, while the rest of the bus tries to sleep with earphones in their ears? This was the case early Saturday morning as we left Paris to visit Normandy. But a 7 45am meeting time isn’t really meant to give a group of college students a chance to be well rested… So as most of others dozed off on the bus, (some surprisingly given the tiny leg space of some seats) somehow I had the energy to attempt to listen to our tour guide, Gilles (spelling is questionable), who was explaining the history of Normandy and the story of William the conqueror. Main point? La richesse. Normandy was a very desirable region because (as it was raining the whole weekend while we were there) it is a very fertile land and agriculture is a huge part here. Specialties include apples, cider, and all sorts of cheese and cream. (Camembert is made here!) And we were lucky enough to try all these during our meals there!

Our first stop was  Bayeaux where we visited the cathedral Notre Dame as well as the famous tapestry that recounts the conquering of England by William in the 11th century. But the most of the day was spent visiting a part of history that is not only more recent, but also more relevant and emotional: the beaches of D-Day and the American cemetery, that is actually on American soil in Normandy. The weather was cloudy with a little drizzle, which I think suited the visit very well as it gave it the necessary solemnity. The beach looked picturesque, it was perfectly calm and only a few figures could been seen moving around. I looked out onto British channel. It was vast – it was all I can see from left to right. It was impossible to imagine that this horizon was completely covered with Allied ships on that critical day of WWII. I didn’t descend to the beach because right beside the visitor center (where we got off), the cemetery of soldiers who died during the invasion drew my attention. The graves were ordered alphabetically; and the erected gravestones, being either a cross or a star of David, were neatly arranged in rows. As I walked past hundreds of graves to reach the chapel, it was the first time in my life that I truly ‘remembered’, the sacrifices they made for everyone, for you and for me. I’ve learned about 20th century history in grade 10. I even knew, back then, the figures of deaths and injuries, the dates and locations, the generals and the battles. But as with many things we learn in the classroom, there is a certain level of detachment that is inevitable. I think for me, especially, the level of detachment was even greater as I had just changed my citizenship to Canada. When I learned it, I had viewed it as the history of foreign countries (even though the scale of WWII did reach into China). On remembrance day, november 11 at 11:00am, I remember how I would go with my classmates to the auditorium for the moment of silence. I would remember what happened during the world wars, but at the same time, I did not really remember. This past Saturday, I remembered. Seeing the cliffs they had to ascend (we later visited Point de Hoc) , and the hills and the land they have traverse, all under fire,  I felt deep respect for their courage and ability. As I tried to imagine what this world would be today without them, I learned to appreciate their actions and what it meant. (although unfortunately Juno beach, which Canadians took, and the Canadian cemetery was an hour drive away and we only saw the American one as everyone else was American..)As I walked back towards the memorial from the chapel, I saw the letter “D” on the left of the path and numerous rows of graves behind it.  It’s unfortunate today that soldiers and innocent citizens are still dying. And (this is my opinion), it’s even more unfortunate that certain conflicts cannot be solved without force…


Omaha Beach


American Cemetery. Let us remember

Now onto Mont St. Michel : one thousand years of architecture in one place! Because we had to drive around the island to get there, we were in the bus for a few hours (I have to say the island looked amazing from far away). The landscape we drove through was amazing. Trees, hills, and valleys still retained their vivid green color, juxtaposed with brick houses that look exactly like ones from the postcard created an amazing view.  On one of our stops, we saw a shepherd with his two sheep dogs guiding the flock of sheep to their grazing field – I never knew you can see these photo/album books’ pictures in real life!!


Sheeps! with Mont St Michel in the background!

Once we got there, there were already many other tourist buses… 🙁 We headed into the village and then up a set of very narrow stairs of no more than a meter. It was bewildering to imagine that the cathedral was build on a platform balanced on a pointed rock! But besides that, I cannot guarantee the architectural details I’m about to give you as Gilles explained to us in French. There is a debate about whether mont St. Michel belongs to Normandy or England. It’s part of a group of islands where originally, the druids (?) went to this island to pray. But it was taken over by the duke of Normandy during the 11th century and while the other nearby islands were returned to England (are not under British rule), mont St. Michel remains with Normandy. There are many different architectural styles visible from the cathedral as when something was replaced or added, the style of the era was used (unlike now where restoration tries to stay true to the style of the time the building was built). The cathedral was built in the 11the century on the platform, but there were gothic additions (evident by the pointed arches and tinted windows), such as the cloister during the 13th. Then later, because of an accident (landslide), part of the nave (the part that fell had 3 of the 7 windows of the nave) and the reconstruction happened in the neo classic era. Then the spire was added in the 19th along with the restoration of the cathedral. There are many other details but it’s much better to see it for yourself!


Village of Mont Saint Michel

For lunch, we ate at a local restaurant and I got to try a very fluffy omelet (invented by la Mère Poulard) with creme fraiche. But the highlight has got to be me attempting to eat “l’aigneau” = lamb… I think after I was done, 50% of the lamb was still on my plate. As I looked over to Gilles and the other Frenchies that accompanied us, their plates were completely clean. This is one cultural difference I will not attempt to adapt to.

Read this if you don’t want to wait 8 hours in line…

Last Sunday, I have truly passed the survival test to live in one of the most touristy places on this planet (Paris, if that wasn’t clear). Earlier last week, on Monday, I took a French language test to see if I need to take a French class while I’m here and the reading comprehension/writing portion dealt with an article on tourism. It criticized tourists for going places and seeing monuments simply for the fact of saying that they’ve ‘been there, done that’; and that they actually ruin the experiences of the ‘better’ visitors who are truly interested in the history of a place/monument. Yes, one can find plenty of these examples in Paris: just take a look under la Tour Eiffel, or try to get into the Louvre without a pass. But the epitome of tourism was witnessed by me on Sunday at le Palais de l’Élysée (the second day of les journées du patrimoine when normally closed sites open their doors for 2 days).

View of the palace

A bit of history on le Palais de l'Élysée, it started as a town house in 1722 by architect Armand-Claude Mollet and only became the official residence of the president of the republic of France in 1848. The building underwent a nearly complete renovation in 1853, and yes it really deserves to be called a 'palace'. more info can be found on

So I would definitely classify myself as fitting the bad tourist stereotype but I have an excuse! I got back from Versailles on Saturday night and when I went online to read the news ( I read an article on les journées du patrimoine and an interview of a little girl who said she had to wait there at 6am after a failed attempt the previously year at 8am.  And the palace only opens at 8 30am. I’ve read about this special weekend awhile back but had completely forgot about it! So I stayed up Saturday to plan my day and marked on my Paris map all the places I need to go. I decided on going to this palace first since it will be the most crowded. Well, planning took until 2am and I decided to set my alarm to 7am. But since it’s Sunday, I ended sleeping in until 8. As I ascended onto the Metro train, not too many people, but a fair amount! Who knew French people work on Sundays… I guess someone has to make the baguettes! I got to the palace at 8 30 and to my surprise, the line took a good 5 minutes to get to from the gates to the end…. I had thought that most people had seen it on Saturday and no one would want to get up early on Sunday. Nope! Here’s a picture of the end of the line of about 500 meters (I used a map)

if you're knowledgable with the roads of paris, I was facing La place de la Concorde.

if you're knowledgable with the roads of paris, I was facing La place de la Concorde.

So my wait started at 8 30am. I heard people say the guards told them it would be about 5-6 hours, and then 6 hours, so I thought okay, 6 hours would be like the maximum, that’s not that bad…. Over the first thirty minutes, quite a few people around me left. I guess they were smart. Soon, I realized that I’m surrounded by my countrymen, Chinese people who were all talking in Chinese! It turns out most of them are doing their studies here as well (not just an exchange) but there was a group of tourists from China in front of us. 2 hours later, I’ve moved to the left edge of the picture… YAH! And then sometime after that, yes I lost the track of time as the gates were no where in sight, I saw this sign. Good/bad? you tell me.

I wasn't able to see the gates from here. I was skeptical of their ability of estimate wait time and I was right.

I wasn't able to see the gates from here. I was skeptical of their ability of estimate wait time and I was right.

And then a little over 1 hour, I saw a similar sign for 1 heure. Okay, so they aren’t too far off. (There was actually a 4 hour wait sign, but I didn’t take a picture of that one) Well, WRONG! After I got past the gate, I realized there’s another line to enter the palace…. well I can’t turn back now….. Really, there isn’t much to say about this 8 hour wait except I am still surprised I survived it without having eaten anything (I had though I would be back before noon to eat and take a rest… silly me) Finally, I got in; at 4 30pm, after having arrived at their opening time of 8 30am…. And of course, with the amount of people, I didn’t really have time to look at anything in detail except just to snap as many pictures as possible to make my wait somewhat worthwhile…. I think I spent a total of 1 – 1.5 hours inside the palace so unfortunately I can’t share with you any intelligent observations except the pictures that I took. Having gone to Versailles the day before, the palace didn’t seem that special/big but remember, it is in the center of Paris (just one block of the Champs-Élysée and it did take awhile to walk through. It was not as ‘gold’/decoration heavy for the most part as Versailles but the Salle des Fêtes is certainly up there. The palace also offered some ‘new’/modern/interesting decor although most of the furniture screamed out ‘royalty’. Because it was a palace and they blocked (you can only walk through one line, ie you can’t go ‘into’ the room and touch anything, which makes sense) the rooms, it was easy for me to forget that this is actually Sarkozy’s residence. Wait! people actually live here?! Wow… Especially with all the royal looking furniture it was hard to think that the palace was residential. (BTW, when I thought about it, I don’t think I would enjoy living in the palace, I am simply in shock that people do live here) One other thing that really struck me, beside how ornamented the dining room is and how many dining tables there are in the palace, was the row of portraits depicting all the people working for Sarkozy personally. He has 3 pâtissiers – people who specialize in pastry, and then more cooks, and not to mention the chauffeurs, guards, gardeners, musicians, tea people, etc…

Mon prof n’est jamais venu…..

Well, I can’t believe I’ve only been in Paris for a little over a week, because it feels like a really long time! But I guess that’s what happens when you are always busy with something, whether it’s trying to figure which line/direction of the metro to take or which staircase to ascent to the RER platform, to sitting at a park and watch French children play or wander through ‘les brocantes” (flea market, and yes, you are pronouncing the last part right if it sounds vulgar). There are so much to tell but yet so little at the same time because most of the things I’ve done, c’est le quotidien.

So I don’t know how much you know about French bureaucracy because I didn’t know much until I came, and it’s really only been the past few days that it has come to really annoy me. First off, yesterday was the first day of classes at Paris VII (Paris Diderot), which is one of the many “Université Paris”s. But for reasons unknown to many of us who live in this high tech world where everything is online, the class times for their classes are not. In fact, all the students must go to the building to find out when their classes are. And since we (EDUCO students) are allowed to take classes at Paris VII and Paris I (Panthéon-Sorbonne), and Paris IV  (Sorbonne, for the exceptional, which is not me btw), in principle you have to go to all the universities for class schedule. On top, Paris I classes don’t start until October 4, I’m not sure if that is suppose to elicit a ‘yeah’ or a ‘boo’ but we will see, or as the French say “on verra”.

So problems didn’t really start until I wanted to see if i can do some major requirements while I’m here (I’m currently planning to do biology and chemistry) but surprise surprise: first, I waited 1 hr in line to see the administrative person only to be told to come back tomorrow to see someone else, then I went to the second person this morning to be told that I need to email someone else, then I emailed the third person and apparently the class isn’t offered. I guess there’s a reason why science majors don’t usually go abroad…. Anyway, this means I get to do more science classes at Cornell! Yeah!

So I have decided to take some social sciences for distribution. Bon! Today, which is really the first day that we can audit classes to see if we want to actually take them because I was very confused by the sign up process and how classes worked here (btw, French students have very fixed courses they need to take so no one ‘drops’ a class). I was excited and a little scared. Most of lectures are 3 hours long, and tout en francais. Although the one I ‘audited’ today was only 1.5 hours, it was a L2 level, so second year of three years. Of course I couldn’t find the theatre because 4A 5A are on the same floor, and they are in part C of a building, which has only ‘halls’ C and E. I was a bit scared that maybe the prof will interrogate me as to why I am late because we’ve been told that there is a lot more respect in the lecture (ie, no cell phones, no food, no lates. I would score a 0/3). But fortunately for me, the prof wasn’t there yet! Whew! But as I sat there waited, something seemed strange…. There was over 100 of us sitting in a room, I heard lots of chatter but no voice on the microphone. No one that’s dressed in a full suit at the front of room either. After repeating to myself the question : This class starts at 11 30 right? in french, I summed up the courage to ask the guy sitting next to me. Of course I was pretty sure it is since I looked at the time very carefully yesterday but who knows what can happen here… Well, sometime after that, I noticed some students getting up to leave. First thing I thought: maybe theres a rule that if prof doesn’t show up for 15 mins, you can just leave because I’ve heard something like that for Cornell… I looked at my watch and it was a random time, maybe 18 minutes or so. So that can’t be it. What’s happening? Apparently these students thought the prof was not going to show up, according to the guy next to me. And man were they right! But I was being a good student and waited there until noon, when I finally decided to leave. Well, apparently according to him, this can happen sometimes, although not often, at the beginning. But this class only meets once a week! ?!?!?!?!?!? Bon, c’est la France pour vous.

PS.  the French law might say  French people can only work 35 hours a week. But that doesn’t mean they work that much. The secretary at the university works from 9 30 to 12 30– 2 hr lunch break– 2 30 to 4 30 M-Th, then 9 30 to 12 30 on Friday…. no wonder it’s so hard to get stuff done here…

and a little something from arc de triomphe

"Passage interdit" NO WAY

"Passage interdit" NO WAY

Beware: Pepsi may do more harm than you think….

I have a tendency (maybe a bad one) to save the best for last… so I will start with the bad part because then it feels like more good things will happen 😀

So I woke up today, after a little over a week back home, tired still after 8 hours of sleep and with a stuffed nose…. 🙁

I lied in bed thinking about what I’ve done over the past week…. Well, that didn’t take long since I didn’t do much of anything besides trying a few recipes and many failed attempts at reading my French books. I have to say I got a very good start that day when I did my first post. After dinner, I went to the library, in a thunderstorm, to borrow books on French history and on other foreigners’ experience in Paris. Luckily for me, all the books are due back on September 2nd, the day before I leave for Paris! (maybe it’s a sign I will actually read them? ummm no.) To date, I have barely touched the history book but I have finished an article on Paris life in August, which is supposedly very peaceful with all the Parisiens out on vacation :/ This no-plan fails more than my old over-acheving schedules.  🙁   To make things worse, I looked at my Cornell bill today and realized I’ve been charged more taxes…. to date, this has to be the most intriguing charge I’ve seen simply because I did not get paid … rather I just paid Cornell :/ But now the good part which I can’t keep to myself much longer…

I got my French VISA in the mail today!!!! Yes, this means I will be actually going to Paris! I was really worried that it won’t be enough time, especially considering I don’t live in a major city and mail can take awhile sometimes… Unfortunately, my plan didn’t work and more good things didn’t happen.. Rather, something terrible has befallen upon my favorite VISA: well, as I am sitting here typing and admiring my French VISA, which I cannot help but to stare btw, my little brother came in and opened a bottle of pepsi….. Yep, carbonated sugar water came raining down upon my passport and my VISA… Now, I have a white spot on my head… hopefully the customs officer at CDG airport will not question because I’m not sure how strange my explanation will sound en Francais.

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