Monday, February 12, 2018

Are Americans Actually Rude?

     Whenever Americans start to plan trips abroad, we're met with a slew of warnings about how others perceive us. Every study abroad document I received before coming to France cautioned me that the French would expect me to be loud, ignorant, and unable to handle alcohol with grace (that one is always the most amusing to me); friends and family echoed this warning. What I've observed while in France, though, doesn't really line up with these stereotypes; in fact, without analyzing things too much, I could easily say that the French are a very rude bunch, themselves.

     Writing any nationality off as "rude" is a cop-out, though. Cultural norms and different attitudes can almost always account for any behavior that one group or another perceives as "off", so today I want to try and dig a little deeper into behavioral differences in France; my analysis is based off of what I've observed here and at home in the US.

In America, people...

  • Will strike up a conversation with cashiers/other commuters/various other people they run into throughout their day
  • Expect waitstaff in restaurants to be prompt and proactive
  • Are more spatially aware of others around them-- people tend to move if they think they're in your way
  • Generally avoid staring at one another blatantly
  • Work with a sense of purpose-- we have to be at work, and we're going to do our job
  • Are usually discreet about smoking
  • Often define themselves by their education/career

In France, people
  • Will greet you when you enter a store, but cashiers/other strangers will almost never chat with you 
  • Are left alone in restaurants-- if you need something, it's up to you to seek out the waitstaff
  • Don't really care as much about personal space; if you're in they're way, they're still going to do what they want to do, even if that inconveniences you
  • Will stare openly. This is especially the case with men staring at women, and my friends and I are often made uncomfortable by men who stare at us obviously for extended periods of time while we're out eating at restaurants or going to bars/pubs
  • Act as though they're doing you a special service, even if they're just doing their job
  • Basically smoke whenever/wherever they want
  • Don't talk about work or school much

     As a disclaimer, these are all just my own personal observations from my time spent in France this semester and last summer. When you read through these lists, I hope it's evident that although French people can certainly come off as "rude" sometimes, it's not really purposeful; there are just major cultural differences between the US and France that can skew our perception of each other's behavior. Reflecting on this, it's interesting to see how two large, developed Western countries can differ so much in how their citizens go about their daily lives.

     What sort of behaviors/cultural differences have you experienced and/or heard about in France? I'd love to get some more input from others, so leave a comment below!

Thanks for reading,
Alex


   
Monday, February 5, 2018

January Favorites (+Top Posts This Month)

     It's no secret that I've been slacking a little on the blog recently. Normally, I'm super organized, planning my content out for the month and then following a schedule to a T. In general, though, my lack of discipline with blogging is because I'm busy enjoying my time abroad, so I'm not too concerned if I miss a post here or there.

     In the vein of playing catch-up, though, I'm coming at you with a very late January favorites post, sans the usual collage of items (sorry guys, Canva is a real bear to use on spotty French Wi-Fi).


  • The Greatest Showman soundtrack // I went to see The Greatest Showman with friends as soon as it was released in France two weeks ago, but even before seeing the film, I was listening to the soundtrack pretty frequently. After seeing the movie (and crying happy tears at the end), I just can't stop listening to "A Million Dreams" and "Never Enough" on the walk to school in the morning; I can't recommend the music, or the movie, enough.
  • Roquefort // I had never tried Roquefort cheese before coming to France, and now I'm completely obsessed. Me and two of my friends have a little wine and cheese party every Thursday since we only have one class in the morning, and Roquefort is always on the menu. If you've never tried it, it's similar to blue cheese but made with sheep's milk. Be warned, I've heard it's super pricey in the US (but definitely worth it).
  • Trains // Guys, I really wish the US had a better train system. Almost every day, I take a tram to get around Montpellier, and on the weekends, taking trains to visit new cities is not only convenient but also really cost effective. As an American, taking trains feels like a novelty and I can't help but feel excited every time I head to the train station to go discover a new city. Stay tuned for a full blog post on how to use the trains in France as cheaply as possible!
  • La Roche Posay Cicaplast Baume B5 SPF50 // It's no secret that I'm obsessed with La Roche Posay, and this product is super convenient to use. Although it's technically a repairing/protective cream for irritated patches of skin, it also works great as a morning moisturizer since it has such a high SPF and is very nourishing; additionally, it's pretty cheap in terms of French skincare products. Although I'm not sure where exactly you could buy this in the US, it's worth trying Target (they carry La Roche Posay in-stores) or Amazon to check out this simple but effective moisturizer.
  • Natural beauty // People don't wear a lot of makeup in France (except for the occasional swipe of eyeliner and red lipstick), and I gotta say, I'm loving it. The philosophy here is that you should feel comfortable in your own skin, and that your flaws define you. Although women certainly go without makeup in the US, too, I feel like it's a lot more common here and I feel very comfortable going sans makeup in Montpellier. I suppose you don't need as much makeup when you have fabulous pharmacy products to keep your skin in tip-top condition!

And the top posts this month?
  1. 2 Weeks in France: Study Abroad Update
  2. Adjusting Abroad
  3. Resort Roundup
     Also worth an honorable mention is Are the French Actually Fashionable?, so be sure to get caught up on the best posts from January! 

     I've got some exciting travel plans coming up during February (and March), so although my posting might stay spotty, be sure to keep following along for travel content and study abroad advice!

Thanks for reading and happy February,
Alex
Friday, February 2, 2018

Afternoon in Avignon

     Ever since I knew I was going to France, Avignon has been on my list of day trips I wanted to take. Well-known as a quintessential Provencal town, Avignon seemed like it would be a fairy-tale town, and it didn't disappoint.

     My friends Annie, Anna, and I were all wanting to take a day trip last weekend, and Avignon felt like a natural choice. Train tickets were just €17.80 roundtrip, and the train was about an hour and a half each way, making transport to the city very simple. If you head there yourself, though, make sure that you book tickets for Avignon Centre and not the Avignon TGV station-- it's 6 km outside the city!

     Once you get off the train in the city, it's just a 5 minute walk straight down the main drag to the tourism office, where you can stock up on free maps and get some advice on walking tours. We decided we wanted to wander around a bit and check out Les Halles, the indoor market in Avignon, because the woman at the tourism office said something about vegetation but we didn't quite get it. Our understanding of her French was right, though; the market is dripping in greenery! Inside, you  can find all sorts of bakeries, butchers, spice vendors, cheese stalls, and restaurants.

     After wandering the picturesque streets a bit longer, we wound our way to the famous papal palace which dominates the city. The Catholic papacy was headquartered in Avignon during the 14th century, and this relationship with the Church gives the city a lot of rich history and architecture. The palace is built straight into the mountain, giving it a fortress-like look.


Outside the papal palace

     The papal palace is 
€10 for students and €11.50 if you buy a combined ticket for the palace and the famous bridge in Avignon, but it was well worth it. Even if you're not into the rich history of the palace, you can appreciate its staggering architecture. Not to mention, you can get a great view from the tallest tour of the palace. 

One of the impressive murals in the palace-- shh, I wasn't supposed to be taking pictures!

An attempt at an artsy photo out the stained glass windows

     After taking our time through the palace, we popped into a restaurant near the Place de l'Horloge, a lively square in the center of Avignon. Full of a yummy meal (and some overpriced bottled water), we decided we just had to take a spin on the carousel in the square. Carousels seem to be a big thing here in France, because here in Montpellier, we also have a two-story carousel in the city center! If anyone knows why that is, drop me a line because I'm curious.


     Sufficiently amused, we started walking again, finally climbing up the tallest hill in the city where there's a huge garden with fountains, a pond, and an incredible view of the foothills of the French Alps. The mountains were snow capped, and you could see medieval castles on top of some of the hills closest to the city-- it was truly breathtaking, but hard to capture in a picture.

     Climbing down from the gardens, we walked along the Rhône River, which was flooding onto sidewalks. If you've watched the news recently, you might know that France is experiencing some intense flooding; luckily Montpellier isn't effected, but Paris isn't fairing well and some small towns are completely underwater. With all this flooding going on, it wasn't hard to imagine how raging flood waters swept away half of the famous Pont d'Avignon (Pont Saint-Bénézet) during the 1600's. 



     Today, the bridge is a famous landmark and a great place to go and get a new perspective on the city. Looking back at Avignon from the bridge really makes you feel like you're in the middle of a storybook. 


     Once off the bridge, we wandered along a small stone wall outside the city, and were rewarded with this incredible picture that Anna took. As my boyfriend said when I sent him the pictures, Avignon looks like it could be a set for Game of Thrones!



     Having seen everything that was on our Avignon bucket list, we meandered through the beautiful, narrow streets of the city. The rest of our evening was spent sipping coffee in a McDonald's (hey, we're on a budget!) and checking out some of France's twice-yearly sales in the shops that lined the main street of the city. 

     We had a change of trains on our journey home, and we decided to be a little daring and leave the train station to site-see for a whopping 10 minutes. Nîmes is a famous Franco-Roman city with a rich history, and the old Roman arena is conveniently located just 5 minutes straight down the road from the train station. I'll be headed back to Nîmes for a class field trip, though, and my pictures that I managed to snap at night weren't great, so we'll save that for another time.

     All in all, my day trip to Avignon was incredible, and I'm so glad I got to see this historic city. If you find yourself in Provence or within a quick train ride to this city filled with UNESCO World Heritage sites, be sure to budget in a day to explore the beautiful medieval town.

Thanks for reading,
Alex
Wednesday, January 31, 2018

How to Use Your iPhone in France for €2 a Month

 

Figuring out how you're going to stay in contact with people while abroad can cause a lot of anxiety; how the heck are you supposed to be able to use your phone while in a foreign country? Although I was very intimidated at first, I'm here to tell you that it's incredibly simple to keep using your same phone while abroad in France and keep doing (almost) everything you normally do at home, all for a fraction of the cost you normally pay.

Check your domestic cell phone operator's offerings first
     While people often write off US cell phone operator's plans as "too expensive", that generally isn't true. Although it used to cost an arm and a leg to keep using your same plan while abroad, plans have gotten increasingly more affordable. In fact, I'm able to keep using my exact same plan from Sprint (which includes unlimited data) for the exact same price while abroad! The only problem is, if someone with a French number needs to call you while you're still using a US cellular plan/number, they'll be charged international rates, and if they want to text you, they'll have to use WhatsApp if they don't have iMessages. 
     Depending on your situation and your cellular provider, just sticking with your same plan while abroad might be your best bet. If you use a provider that offers free/cheap international service and you don't think you'll need to contact French numbers very often, it makes the most sense to avoid switching over to a French provider. However, if you live with a host family who needs to be able to contact you and/or you plan on making lots of French friends, it's probably best to look for another option.

     In general, the easiest way to keep using your phone abroad is just to swap out your US SIM Card for a French SIM Card. Lucky for us study abroad students, the options here in France are incredibly affordable. Although there are a lots of options for operators/plans, I'm sharing the absolute cheapest option in this post-- who wants to pay a ton for cellular each month when you have trips to plan?!

Getting Cell Service for €2 a Month
     If keeping costs low is your goal, you can't beat Free Mobile in France. Free has good coverage across France, and their €2 a month plan is by far your best option here. The ultra-cheap plan includes 2 hours of calls per month (to almost anywhere in the world!) and unlimited SMS messages within Europe. The SIM card itself is an initial charge of €10, meaning you have minimal start-up costs. 

     Granted, the amount of data included in the plan is measly (50 Mo, to be honest I don't even know what that means but I blew through it kinda fast) but I haven't found that to be much trouble since you also gain access to FreeMobile's Wi-Fi hotspots, which are plentiful in most French cities. When you consider that you'll probably have Wi-Fi at your residence and at school, there are very few times you'll actually be without data. If you're in a tough spot and need to go over your data limit, though, it's very affordable.

     So how exactly do you get your new SIM card?

  1. Go to a Free Mobile store.
  2. Go straight to the self-service kiosks
  3. Select the option to create a new account/receive a new SIM card-- make sure you request a nano SIM card if you have an iPhone 5 or newer. 
  4. Pick your new French phone number and enter all of your personal information (address in France, e-mail address, etc.). Make sure you enter an email address that you'll check, because billing takes place online!
  5. Pay the initial €10 fee for the SIM card. The kiosk will spit out your new SIM card and you'll be ready to install the new card when you get home. 
  6. Pay your monthly bill online.
  7. When you're ready to terminate your service, go online to cancel your subscription.
     Incredibly simple, huh? Theoretically, you won't even have to speak to someone in the store or wait in line to get your snazzy new SIM card! If only US cellular plans were this easy. 

Thanks for reading,
Alex 


     


Monday, January 29, 2018

Delsey Luggage Review

    I feel like luggage is such an adult thing to buy. Before studying abroad, I didn't really have my own luggage, aside from backpacks and an XL Longchamp Le Pliage Duffel and whatever old battered suitcase my parents lent me. Once I knew I was coming to France though, my mom brought up the point that I was going to need my own luggage.

     The problem is, luggage is SO expensive, especially you consider how it's just going to get instantaneously battered the first time you check into into an airline cargo hold! When searching for luggage, I was trying to strike a balance between cost and function. One day, my daily Brad's Deals email mentioned a luggage sale at Macy's, and when I saw Delsey luggage being offered on sale, I was so excited.

    Delsey is known for it's killer Instagram profile and dozens of influencers have shared their love for the French luggage brand, so I was excited to snag some suitcases for a deal. This way, at least, I wouldn't have invested too much if I didn't end up liking them. However, after using the suitcases to travel to France for study abroad and for weekend train trips, I would've gladly paid full price for these amazing luggage pieces!

    Right off the bat, I loved Delsey's 4-wheel luggage design because it's infinitely easier to roll through airports and train stations. With just a gentle push, I can wheel two suitcases with ease. The real standout, though, is the way that Delsey thinks of every little detail.

     In my large suitcase (25 inches), there's a zipper pouch inside the lid that's made of waterproof material. A little zippered pouch in the suitcase seem is perfect for organizing small cords or underthings. The hard sides of the suitcase makes packing and organizing easier because I don't have to worry too much about the contents getting banged up.

I was able to fit a LOT of stuff in my 25" Delsey suitcase

     The best part? The built-in overweight indicator! If you pick up the suitcase by the side handle (zipped up, of course!), the window of the indicator will turn red if your suitcase is over 50 pounds; no more hopping on the scale (or just praying) to avoid overweight baggage fees.

     I'm equally in love with my Delsey carry-on (21 inches). The built-in laptop sleeve in the front of the suitcase is perfect for in-flight Netflix binging now and business trips later on, and the front tech pouch is deep enough to fit bulky chargers, too. Inside the carry-on, a mesh cover helps ensure that your clothes won't fall out the second you unzip your bag in a cramped Airbnb.

 
The laptop sleeve/front zippered area of my 21" Delsey carry-on

     Both pieces of luggage features Delsey's ingenious TSA-approved luggage locks. The ends of the exterior zippers clip right into the passcoded locking mechanism, which means no one can mess with your stuff.

All locked up

     Traveling with my Delsey luggage has been nothing but great so far, and I'm looking forward to buying more Delsey products in the future! If you're on the market for serious luggage, I can't recommend this brand enough.

Thanks for reading and happy travels!
Alex




Thursday, January 25, 2018

Ready, Sete, Go

     Ever since I found out I was coming to southern France, I've been researching day trips and cool places to visit. My list of day trips includes 8 cities, and unfortunately with so many weekend trips already planned, there's no way I'll get to see them all. Luckily, two weekends ago, my host family offered to take me, Anna (the other girl here from William & Mary), Allesandro (the Italian student who lives with us), and Allesandro's friend to Sète, a port city just southwest of Montpellier.

    Sète is a bustling port city that's home to canals, lots of fishing boats, an overnight ferry to North Africa, and little oyster farms. Although teeming with tourists in the fall, the city was calm enough on a Saturday in early January.

    We started our day trip with a visit to the top of Mont Saint-Clair, the big hill that the fringes of the city cling to. As we drove up the impossibly steep, winding road, we were treated to incredible views of the Mediterranean below, and we also passed some equally impressive, massive homes.

     The view from the top of Mont Saint-Clair took my breath away; seeing the city laid out below me, riddled with canals, helped explain why Sète is called the "little Venice of Languedoc".

The view from Mont Saint-Clair

     After exploring a little chapel at the top of the hill, we descended back into the city to check out the beach. The wind was whipping there, and a few kite surfers were braving the chilly water; according to my host "dad", kite surfing is getting very popular here in the south of France! Anna and I just had to touch the water--come on, it was my first time visiting the Mediterranean coast-- and to my surprise, it wasn't as cold as I had thought it would be.

Two very wind-whipped girls
     Back in the city, we parked near the port before wandering the streets in search of tielle, a city specialty that I can best describe as something like a seafood calzone-- my host family brought one home for dinner and it was absolutely delicious. The city itself was adorable, full of narrow streets with colorful buildings and wide canals.




     I absolutely loved Sète and can't wait to come back when it's warm to eat some fresh seafood while sitting outside along a canal. This weekend, Anna and I are headed to Avignon for a day of exploration, so stay tuned for more travel posts soon!

Thanks for reading,
Alex

Monday, January 22, 2018

Are the French Actually Fashionable?

     Friday was the first time I've unintentionally missed a blog post and I can't help but kick myself for allowing a slip-up. I have a lot of free time here, so I don't have much of an excuse, other than that I wanted to watch Netflix while leisurely packing for my weekend trip to Toulouse, whoops. I'm getting back on track this week, though!

     France is constantly looked to as a capital of fashion. With legendary designers living and working in Paris, it's hard to avoid haute couture in this country; even here in Montpellier, the tram cars that circulate the city are decorated with patterns designed by Christian Lacroix. Heading to France, I expected to feel woefully inadequate in whatever outfit I stepped out in each day. But are the French actually fashionable?

     To answer this question, I'm going to walk through some style observations I've made. Then, at the end of the post, we'll dissect what I generally wear on a regular school day here in Montpellier.

Everyone rocks an amazing coat
     One of the first that things that'll strike you while walking around the city or a college campus here is that everyone has invested in a very chic coat; I can't help but feel like a country bumpkin in my Barbour waxed jacket! The great thing about these statement coats is that they instantly elevate one's outfit, just by throwing it on. Since coats can be worn year after year if you take good care of them, they're a practical investment piece, too.

With scarves, it's go big or go home
     Girls here almost never leave the house without a scarf piled on over or tucked into their jacket. College aged girls seem especially fond of massive blanket scarves that just let their heads peep out. If you choose to go sans scarf, you'll probably get a few odd looks.

Tights are worn very differently here
     Lots of girls wear tights here in Montpellier, but not in the same way that tights are typically worn in the US. Here, almost no one wears opaque tights (you know, the kind that are actually warm); instead, girls opt for sheer, pantyhose-like black tights that are often worn with...wait for it...sneakers. Personally, I find the tights and sneakers combo to be horrifying.

Backpacks are a no-go
     I've noticed that basically only American exchange students carry around backpacks here. In general, the girls at my school opt for sturdy leather totes or eternally-practical Longchamp Le Pliage nylon totes. This is a lot more practical here, though, considering that school isn't terribly rigorous and therefor most people don't need to fit much more in their backpack than their laptop and a notebook.

Makeup is more subtle
     I've been using makeup a lot less here in France, and that's because it seems like it's much more acceptable to wear less makeup here. Perhaps it's because people's skin is great from all those pharmacy products, but anything more than a little foundation and mascara seems very "done up". One of the nights I went out with friends, I put on eyeshadow and eyeliner and then immediately regretted it because I felt clown-like compared to the chic, lightly made up French gals.

My Daily Look
     On any given day, I'm probably wearing...

     I find that this outfit is standard enough that I can skate by without being immediately recognized as an American. Keep in mind, too, that on a day-to-day basis, I dress for comfort since I walk to campus!

     So are the French really more fashionable? In short, I think not. However, the French really seem to understand how to present themselves well on a daily basis. Their commitment to putting on real clothes every single day (no sweatpants in public here) and top off their outfit with a great coat and a polished bag; the light makeup look and emphasis on taking care of your complexion make beauty effortless in France.

    If you want to get the French look, try going the extra mile to put on a good pair of jeans each day, throw on your scarf, and throw out your heavy eye makeup for daytime. 

Thanks for reading,
Alex