7 tips from a graduating senior

swaraj-tiwari-156618
Image by Swaraj Tiwari, c/o Unsplash
Hey, amis 🙂  It’s been entirely too long since my last post.  Now that school is almost over, I’ll hopefully be posting on a much more regular basis in the coming months, with scheduled times for personal essays, recs, and more.  I did actually have another post in the works for earlier this month, but it’s taking a bit longer to untangle in my head than I originally planned.  So hopefully that one will be the post after this~

Speaking of school…. school is not just almost over for the semester for me  It’s, like, over over (?!?!)  Yep.  I’m graduating.  [cue Wilhelm scream].  Which brings me to the topic of today’s post: seven pieces of advice for anyone starting college in the near-ish future (or even just embarking on any new kind of adventure in their lives).  We’re gonna veer into some pretty cliché territory today, but I’m just going to go with it.  Hopefully you guys will join me 🙂  So without further ado…



(1) Know how big your new school (and/or city) is before you get there.

This one might seem like a no-brainer, but it’s something I definitely underestimated as a high school junior looking at different schools. My school is a BIG state university.  Like, the-size-of-a-small-city-big.  For reference, I’m a pretty quiet person. I’m not fantastically social, and I can get easily overwhelmed by big places. In my enthusiasm for the school’s other qualities, I told people who brought up my school’s size that I wasn’t going there « to make friends with everyone.”  (Which sounded less ridiculous in person, I promise).  I did end up being overwhelmed my first few weeks, but I grew into it, and had known before I got there at least a little bit of what I was getting myself into.

As someone who’s comfortable with quieter surroundings, I didn’t want to go to school in a big bustling city, so I chose a school that although huge, is next to a small town.  It’s balanced out well.  It’s more than okay to force yourself into a new environment if that’s what you want to do.  I could have totally gone the opposite way and went to school in a place like Philly or New York City.  That would have been even more of an adventure.  But just check before you commit, so you can make that decision knowingly.

(2) Be your own advocate.

When you go to a school that’s big like mine, it can feel a lot like you’re a little house pet goldfish that suddenly got dumped in the ocean.  You learn quickly that you have to be the one to advocate for yourself, which is something that is valuable to learn in any situation, anywhere.  You have to find the information you need.  You make your own phone calls, schedule your own advising meetings to make sure you get the classes you need for your requirements, and find fun events on and off campus for the weekends.  All the resources are there for you, which is wonderful, but you must seek them out.  This skill is just part of growing up, and even though it might have been scary at times, I’m glad my school forced me to jump in feet-first, and learn it quickly.

(3) Health(y)(ier) eating.

I will be the first to admit that I do not always eat very heathily.  I have been known to polish off a pint of ice cream in one sitting.  I will always love Dr. Pepper, which is essentially perfumed and carbonated floor polish.  But I do know that the times when I do carve out space in my schedule to eat healthier are when I feel the best-equipped to take on all of my tasks and responsibilites.  First semester freshman year, I had problems with disordered eating.  I missed home like crazy, and being sad and overwhelmed sometimes translated into not wanting to leave my room to eat.  I’m not going to go into much more detail about that, since I don’t have anything well-planned to say about it.  It never got more serious for me, but if you do find yourself in a mental health crisis or emergency, please reach out to family or friends, contact your doctor or mental health care provider, campus mental health services, your local crisis center, or your nearest emergency room/call 911.

I only bring this up to stress the importance of keeping yourself fed to the best of your abilities.  If you can, and if you have one, try to keep your fridge or mini-fridge stocked with some basics – stuff for sandwiches, and some snacks like hummus and crackers, fruit, yoghurt, or veggie sticks.  These can help you during the times you need to eat on the go, or want to study without leaving to go to the dining hall.  However, blocking out time to go get food and taking time to sit and eat is also a really good way of breaking up study time and giving you a chance to clear your head.  I say this from experience – go to the dining hall, or go out and buy food.  You have to force yourself to do it.  If you want/don’t already have company, text a friend or friends and ask them to come with you.  And stay hydrated – carry around a refillable water bottle, use water fountains, the dining hall, or vending machines.  However you do it, drinking water helps keep you up and running, and can help ward off headaches too.

(4) Get into a routine.

Schedules that vary from day to day can be tough for trying to develop a routine.  However, having some consistent markers throughout the day can give a comforting and helpful structure – maybe you get up and go to breakfast before your 10am class, or head to the library and study between classes.  It can also be a really good thing to have a ‘lights off’ time with your roommates.  Last semester my roommates and I all had very demanding schedules, so we decided that 11 o’clock would be lights out time, and we would all try and be quiet for those who decided to go to sleep.  Before that, I lived alone and often found myself staying up much later than I probably should have.  Having that quiet time meant that my body started easing into bedtime earlier, and I had less of a hard time falling asleep.  Now, this current semester, I’m trying to put my phone away at least a half-hour before bed, so that my brain isn’t woken up by the bright light of the screen.  It’s been hard, I won’t lie, but it’s really one of the most basic things you can and should be doing for the quality of your night’s sleep.

Routines can also apply to self-care, a vital part of keeping centered in what can seem like the busiest times of your life.  These are ways that you take care of yourself and keep a pulse on your own mental state as you navigate all the fun things like homework, lectures, and exams.  Maybe it’s a favorite tea that you make before starting your reading, or a favorite TV show, or writing in a journal.  Keeping your grades up is important, but not at the price of your mental health.  Check in with yourself.  Treat yourself like you would your best friend.  Every once in a while, splurge on that fancy shampoo, or organic chai, or a new book that isn’t a required text.  Make “ordinary” days special, just because you want them to be.

(5) Observe.

Keep your eyes wide open to the world around you.  Read, read, read.  Stay informed.  Write down new books you hear about and maybe check them out of the library.  Take advantage of the access to materials and resources that having a college or university library gives you.  Seek out new music.  As much as your schedule and program allow, take classes just because the description interests or intrigues you.  Although they get a bad rap, gen-eds can sometimes be the catalyst for this.  The classes that aren’t a part of your actual major can prove to be rich in inspiration, as well as information.  I’m a history major, but I’ve taken classes in literature, statistics, astronomy, film, translation, and languages, all of which have actually deepened my skills and knowledge as a history major, learning how to absorb, synthesize, and analyze information.

I’ll make my case here too, although I’ll try and keep it brief, that everyone, no matter what their major, should take a class on translation, and/or on a language that’s totally unfamiliar to them.  These classes can illuminate aspects of communication and human interaction that we often take for granted, opening our eyes and forcing us to reevaluate biases.  Speaking in a foreign language forces you to break your thoughts down to their most basic forms, a dose of humility that’s sorely needed among many today.  This is also another great reason to study abroad, if you’re able.  I could make a whole post on that alone (and probably will), but I’ll save my enthusiasm/preachiness on that for later 🙂

(6) Create a record.

Maybe it’s just the history major in me talking, but I am all about documentation.  Take pictures.  Keep a journal.  Don’t worry if it’s perfect.  Fight against the perfection gremlins as hard as you can.  I’m 100% in support of capturing the little moments, and sharing them if you want to.  Basically, don’t be ashamed to use your Instagram!  Or whatever tools you use.  There can be so many sweet moments of connection.  Forget the people who say that no one cares about your plate of fruit or your afternoon walk or your new shoes.  Even if it’s just your morning coffee, if taking a picture of it for your friends makes you happy, then do it.  You’re not being selfish.

(7) Speak up.

When you look back on your years in college, you’re probably going to have some regrets.  I wish I’d gone to more campus events, and talked with my professors more.  The goal is to have as few regrets as possible.  Say yes to things.  Speak up.  It sounds cheesy, but speak up.  I know from experience how much harder that is to do than to say, believe me, but try to speak up if you can. Volunteer an answer or opinion in class.  It doesn’t have to just be with your voice.  Find causes you’re passionate about and give what you have to them.  Know when to pass the mic.  Give someone a compliment.  Remind the people you’re closest to that you love them.  If you’re feeling really brave, tell someone how you feel about them.  You’ll never know what’ll happen if you don’t try.  Life will always, always, always surprise you.  Be open to those surprises.  Don’t tell yourself that something will never happen just because there’s a little voice in the back of your head telling you it won’t.  Plant your feet in the present.  Be there with an open heart.

“We will never be the same again.  But here’s a little secret for you – no one is ever the same thing again after anything.  You are never the same twice, and much of your unhappiness comes from trying to pretend that you are.  Accept that you are different each day, and do so joyfully, recognizing it for the gift it is.  Work within the desires and goals of the person you are currently, until you aren’t that person anymore, and everything changes once again.”  Cecil, Welcome to Night Vale, Episode 75

a different kind of travelogue

3wygakaeqc-simson-petrol
Image by Simson Petrol, c/o Unsplash

I’ve always been terrible at keeping journals. My desk at home is full of little notebooks, either with a few scribbled pages at the beginning or left totally blank. Part of this is perfectionism – if something’s not perfectly phrased, or gets misspelled, I freeze up – and part of it is laziness. I don’t have the discipline to write substantial entries every day – words will eventually peter out as I move on to other things.

So last month when I found myself with yet another blank notebook and an airplane ticket in my hand, I wanted to promise that things would be different. That I’d write down everything, that I’d sit in cafés and draw up funny yet piercing vignettes of the people around me, that I’d photograph everything too, beautifully, and have perfect handwriting and maybe even perfectly messy hair while I was doing it. But part of me (all of me) knew better.

While I was sitting at Logan waiting for my flight to Reykjavik, I noticed that the same Icelandair employees who had checked me in were also working at the gate. One of them had complimented my rings, had me take off the silver hamsa one so she could look at it, and asked where I’d bought it. I couldn’t remember the name of the store, so the best I could do was to tell her Etsy, which wasn’t very specific. Afterwards, sitting at the gate, I felt bad that I hadn’t remembered. But that also gave me an idea. I took out my notebook and scrawled a couple of short notes – one to her, apologizing, one to the person behind me excitedly describing their family’s vacation plans on the phone, another to another woman who was bemoaning a forgotten matching scarf that she’d specifically wanted to wear in a picture with her friend.  I eventually remembered the name of the Etsy store and tore out a page of the notebook to write it down, giving it to the employee as I was boarding.

This was something I could actually do – little shout-outs to people that I was too shy to actually strike up a conversation with in person. Maybe these notes would help with that – encourage me to be more outgoing, or at least encourage some more serious people-watching. I was able to start in some perfect people-filled places – airplanes, and airports.

To the boy & his father sitting next to me on the BOS to KEF leg, it’s totally fine to stretch out when you nap, I get it (no sarcasm). There are worse things in life than having a six year-old fall asleep on your shoulder, no need to apologize. Though I was a little jealous of the complimentary sandwich & juice box … 

Over the course of two weeks of vacation, I found that these notes were a simple way to capture moments, little twinges of clarity in a trip that will, like all others, eventually become hazy.

to the girl on the train from paris to caen with cute clothes reading the star wars novel, I want to be your friend.

To the guy sketching at the Marché de Noël who I later saw at the rue Froide, your drawings are really good.

To the woman at the tram stop on Sunday in the rain, with the coral patent leather spike heels, matching bag, and two little kids— your kids are adorable, I love your shoes, and I hope one day I can pull something like that off. Maybe not the spike heels part but —

To the toddler who kept falling all over the floor at Mémoranda, I feel you

You can write them for places too, for anything really, and grammar and punctuation can be optional.

To the sunset behind the buildings when we were walking to the tram stop on Tuesday, thanks. You were picture-perfect (even though I didn’t think to) & the perfect shade of lemonade-pink.

When I read back over these notes, I don’t just remember each person; I remember what was around them too, putting them back into context – sights and smells and feelings. I don’t have to write down everything for fear of forgetting; there are guideposts.

To the bartender at Le Royal and the really pretty lady at McDo, I’m sorry. I did speak French at one point, but apparently after a year and being really hungry that flies out the window. Also for dropping my change, but that could have happened to anyone. 

On a related not, to last year’s professors, I’m sorry. You deserve better. Je suis désolée. 

To the guy blasting hotline bling from his car on Sunday at the crosswalk, i don’t really have anything else to say except I wish you’d pulled up before the song was ending 

Biting social commentary these are not. But writing them is a way to be mindful of, and thankful for, the people I encounter on a daily basis – people I see or maybe even interact with briefly but might not otherwise give more thought to.

To the lady on the caen-Paris intercités with the black and white striped shirt and red paisley scarf- you made me feel a lot more confident about my outfit (black and white striped shirt and red paisley scarf)

Thank you to everyone who tolerated my french and didn’t automatically switch to English with me, including the florist in centre ville, the nice old waiter at cafe royal, and the ticket guy at the gare de caen. Thanks for taking one for the team

To the kissing, selfie-taking couple who took the same route as me from Gare de caen to Gare du Nord, I kind of hate you, but that kind of unexpected person-continuity can really make someone feel better. 

to the people in front of me on the KEF to BOS leg – the student talking about his business major with the older couple – who all agreed about the uselessness of majoring in the humanities – i know this thing is about positivity but i am jetlagged already and tired so – fuck you 

To the guy i helped fill out his customs form on the way to Logan, I hope everything went smoothly 

to the father at baggage claim who explained to his son that the dogs at the airport were there to check if people had fruit (or bad guys) hidden in their suitcases, i kind of love you 

To the girl on the phone with her mom who missed her connecting flight, i really hope everything worked out ok

Now that I’m back at school I’m trying to continue this practice, trying to keep a pulse on my own way of interacting with the world. I encourage other failed journalers (and anyone else) to make some similar bite-size shout-outs – not just to people but to places and other things too. These words don’t have to be intimidating, like the pressure of perfectly recording your every thought in a pristine journal, and they can be done anywhere – in my case both in that little blue Moleskine and in the Notes app on my phone. Who knows – you might find yourself a « journal person » after all.

on being a « real » writer

photo-1434030216411-0b793f4b4173.jpg
Photo credit: Green Chameleon c/o Unsplash

On some level, I have a hard time calling myself a writer. Which, frankly, is a little ridiculous. Piles of poetry, folders of character sketches, this blog, and, in the interest of full disclosure, many thousand words of fanfiction, all attest to the opposite of this statement.

Maybe it would be fairer to say that although I can call myself a writer as a simple descriptor – these words do not hesitate at my fingertips or in the cartridge of my pen, I have a harder time actually considering myself a “real” one. The first problem with that is, of course, what is a “real writer?” Here is where the first hurdle can be cleared: I write, therefore, I am a writer. The only way to be a “fake” writer, perhaps, is to say you are a writer when you haven’t actually written a single word – not to write fanfiction, or to have a graveyard of incomplete projects, or to write badly, whatever you think that might mean. But most people have written at least one word in their lifetime, or so it can be assumed. So what is all this nonsense about not being a “real” writer? Maybe it’s the conviction that the quality of my past writing (an entirely subjective topic, but I’ll be the first to criticize my high school poetry)  somehow negates the fact of its existence. Maybe it’s plain old self-doubt, and a healthy dose of imposter syndrome. Any future psychological diagnosis might be better suited for a different avenue than this blog post, but I do have some observations.

At 21, I’m on the brink of “almost.” An adult, technically, but not really. Almost graduated. Almost in the so-called “real world.” Age aside, “almost” is still a funny thing. It permeates. “Almost,” or, “not quite.” I’ve had more than one job, more than one commute, and have attended more than one funeral. I’ve traveled alone. I’ve fallen in love. I can say with truth that I’ve accomplished a handful of things that society (American society at least) has agreed fall squarely on an adult’s to-do list. (Which, a lot more can be said and argued about that.) But I still feel some restless half-quiet thing in my heart, something that understands, maybe even more than my brain, that there are still so many more experiences yet to be had. They might not be so neatly organized, in a list with little boxes for the check marks, but they’re there. I might not – I do not – know what they all are yet, but I’m okay with that. The non-superstitious part of me thinks all this, at least. Well, what if you die tomorrow can be both a rallying cry, a perfectly-calligraphied Pinterest Carpe Diem!, as well as an admonition, quietly dispensed by a man in a worn corduroy suit with the Forverts tucked under his arm.

This is all to say that in a lot of ways, I feel massively unqualified to write about a lot of things, even the things that I have actually experienced. While this might be true – I am indeed massively unqualified to write about a lot of things – racism, for example, or nuclear physics, or 20th century South American literature, it’s also true that at 21 I’ve experienced plenty to write about, and with at least some level of assurance that I know what I’m doing.  Self-doubt is a hell of a demotivator, but I’m trying to learn to recognize when and where to listen to it.

When the voice says, gently but firmly, “hey, it doesn’t need to be perfect, but I know you can do better than this,” listen to the voice.

When the voice says, a little firmer this time, “hey, maybe do some more research, talk to some people, and come back to it – a change of topic might be a good idea,” listen to the voice. When the voice talks to you like a critical, but loving, friend, be a friend back.

When the voice says, and maybe it’s a different voice this time, “no one cares about what you’re writing, it’s ridiculous that you even think so, stop throwing garbage into the void, the void has already met its garbage quota for the month and is longer accepting further submissions, get yourself a real hobby and maybe do something different with your hair because whatever you’re doing now is obviously not working, and also you had better start picking out names for your future hamster-children because they’re all you’re going to have when you die-” don’t- don’t listen to the voice. Put on some noise-canceling headphones and turn up some happy music.

Learning when and where to listen to the voice – it’s a process. Music helps. A properly-timed cup of tea helps. Reading other writers helps even more. Picking up a pen or opening up my newest project on my computer – and letting myself go – that helps the most. Don’t think too hard. I know it’s harder than it sounds, believe me. It’s the opposite of what anyone will tell you about almost any other activity, and something I’ve been taught since starting tae kwon do a couple of years ago – to worry about accuracy first. Don’t worry about accuracy first. Accuracy will come later. For now – write.

after paris, « the partisan »

Author’s note: I had this post scheduled for a few days before the airport attack in Brussels.  Afterwards, I didn’t know whether or not I should post this, but maybe now is better than never.  This is the post as it was written back in March.


This is not a post about Paris, or least it’s not supposed to be.  I’m not comfortable with assuming that my voice will add anything to an already-saturated online landscape.  This post is about music, and how songs can give a voice to feelings you might not even have known you were feeling at the time.

You find songs to cocoon yourself with sometimes, to shield against things.  Hearing Colombia by the Local Natives brings me back to being sad and sick my first semester of college.  One bar of Corsicana by The Antlers and I’m in the backseat of a car headed down the highway, a few minutes after hearing the news that my aunt has passed away.

On the walk back and forth to school last semester I had my favorites to listen to- usually something upbeat in the mornings to wake up with and something softer on the way back.  Most of the time I would only put in my headphones for the distance from campus to centre-ville, sometimes with only one earbud in.  Our program director told us after the attacks that we shouldn’t walk around with headphones in.  After Paris I listened to Leonard Cohen’s The Partisan a lot, kind of on repeat.  It was quiet enough to be a backdrop to life but stirring enough to cause everything short of actual tears; the song’s French chorus caused a swell of feeling in my chest that felt physical and filling.

I came back from France not knowing what to say when people asked me what it was like to be in the country “when it happened. »  That was usually the first thing they wanted to know.  It still is, and I still don’t know what to say to them.  Except of course, I wasn’t actually in Paris, I was two hours west.  With that one, the conversations usually end about as quickly as they start.  People want to know if I was scared.  The answer is yes, but I say no, not really, and somehow both of those things are the truth.  After the attacks themselves, after the terrible immediate uncertainty of not knowing where people where, the only time I remember ever truly feeling scared was that Saturday, mostly because I’d just been shuttered up in my room constantly refreshing news websites.  The television and radio in the apartment stayed on all weekend.  At the Sunday market with my host parents I was a little jumpy, but comforted by the fact that the market seemed to have just as many people as it did any other Sunday.  You can’t live your life in fear, my host father said.  If you do, you’re not living.  Hearing that, remembering it, helped a lot.  For the most part the panicky feelings dissolved when I came in to school on Monday and saw my friends, and the activities of daily life, la vie quotidienne, resumed.

It’s been almost four months now, and last week I listened to The Partisan again for the first time since November.  The voices of the French chorus lightly swelled, j’ai repris mon arme…, and I started crying. With the distance of four months and an ocean, the tears had finally come.  I didn’t question them.

The emotions that rise in my chest when I hear this song remain nameless, but I do know that whatever they are, they’re a small relief.  The song stands in the place of what I didn’t know how to say in the days and weeks after that night, and still struggle to know now.  How good, and how human it is that songs have a way of doing that, of helping us along.

Mais j’ai tant d’amis
J’ai la France entière

when in caen…

IMG_5204

 This post was what kick-started me into actually making this blog.  Someone over on Tumblr asked for recommendations of things to see and do in and around Caen, the city where I recently finished spending last semester.  My first draft of this post ended up sounding a lot more like a dry travel book than what it was supposed to be- a collection of the memories that made my stay in Caen so special.  So I decided to redo the post.  If you’re looking for comprehensive lists on what to see and do in the city, there are plenty of resources for you- TripAdvisor, Lonely Planet, Virtual TouristBrittany Ferries, and the Caen Office du Tourisme, to name a few.  Numerous other suggestions could be given by my friends and classmates who explored different places, as well as by native caennaise and other French bloggers.  The things on this list are by and large the ones that, after almost four months, felt special to me, and in many cases were ones I returned to often.  
So, without further ado…

If you ever find yourself in Caen…

…get a sense of history at the Château de Caen

IMG_5205
The chateau with drapeaux proudly flying
The location of my host family’s apartment meant that I got to walk through this place every day to get to class.  Sometimes I started to take the walk for granted, but then it would hit me out of nowhere- This place is over nine hundred years old.  Built by William the Conqueror, the chateau watches proudly over the city, just opposite the church of St. Pierre.  Through the gates stand both the Musée des Beaux-Arts and the Musée de Normandie, both great places to spend an afternoon, in addition to walking the grounds and up portions of the fortifications themselves.  You can even do both museums on the same day if you plan ahead.  Buy your tickets in the chapel opposite the art museum, and have a day exploring the history and art of Normandy.  Just be aware, both are closed from 12:30-2:00 for lunch!  Lounging around on the grounds below the chateau (see the next photo) is a very popular student activity and a favorite of mine.

…dig your toes in the sand in Ouistreham

Take the Bus Vert from Tour Leroy and in about 20 minutes you’ll be at the beach!  This is an outing that our group’s resident director took us on during one of our first days in Caen.  You can wander around town and buy postcards and have coffee, or get a sandwich on a giant baguette and ice cream and sit by the water (or, do all of those things!).  Just keep an eye out for greedy seagulls!  If you have a car and it’s a nice day I’d recommend doing what my host mom and her friends and I did a few times- driving down a little farther than Ouistreham towards Lion-sur-mer and taking a long walk along the beach.  You can see some wonderful old houses, and on a lazy, breezy-warm Sunday this is the perfect way to spend an afternoon.

taste the clouds at Le P’tit Chou Normand 

aka the boulangerie that stole my heart.  It’s on the rue Saint-Pierre and is painted red.  The cream puffs (les petits choux) are actual dream clouds (this coming from someone who does not usually like cream puffs) and I got all of my friends addicted to them too.  The mint tea here is also good, and with extra sugar is a nice treat on a cold and rainy Norman morning.  You can also buy yourself a croissant and then head across the street to Les Arcades for coffee, one of our little American group’s favorite spots, introduced to us by our program manager.  Le P’tit Chou is her favorite boulangerie, and when she took us here on our first day it quickly became everyone’s go-to.  After four action-packed, 90 degree days in Paris at the beginning of the program, it was a welcome respite to sit on a bench in the cool air, to eat a sandwich and just breathe.  That was the first moment I remember feeling a sense of real calm since landing at CDG, the sense that maybe I hadn’t overestimated myself by taking on a program of studies entirely in French, and that hey, maybe I can really do this.

…get your wander on en centre ville

IMG_5206.JPG
A view from the chateau, with the church of St. Pierre in the background

Just wandering around the main parts of the city will give you a tour like no other.  Caen breathes history, and you can find it everywhere.  My fondest memories are of walking Caen’s streets with friends or by myself (usually in search of coffee)- up the rue Froide to Place Saint-Sauveur, around the old Palais de Justice, or down by the water- and everywhere in between. Caen is a very walk-able, live-able city.  When my parents came to visit me, my mom said this too.  There was no intense or awkward adjustment period here, for me at least, which surprised me.  I just felt comfortable in Caen, a freeing feeling I haven’t experienced in many other cities.  On a summer or early fall afternoon you might catch a lively brocante (flea market) with live music- keep an eye on local announcements or check with the tourism office at Place Saint-Pierre, located next to the statue-filled historic courtyard of the Hôtel d’Escoville.  There’s also an abundance of shops and shopping opportunities in centre ville itself, and at the nearby Les Rives de l’Orne, a swanky shopping complex a couple tram stops from the chateau, and which also boasts a really nice movie theater.

Make sure to also check out the beautiful Mairie de Caen, the historic Vaugueux district with its many restaurants, the famous Abbaye aux Hommes (Abbaye of St. Étienne) and the Abbaye aux Dames (Abbey of Sainte-Trinité), both built by William the Conqueror.  The former, the « men’s abbey, » is the final resting place of…actually just his femur (history, man); his wife Mathilde lies in the women’s abbey.  Inside the grounds of the Abbaye aux Dames is Parc Michel-d’Ornano, home to a beautiful Cedar of Lebanon tree planted in 1849 and a wonderful, quiet spot to see a great view of the city from.

…have a museum day at Le Mémorial

If don’t have a car, you can purchase a carte pour dix voyages from the Twisto (transportation) office at Place Saint-Pierre (or simply pay your fare at the front of the tram) and head over to the Mémorial de Caen.  This is an amazing museum and memorial (with surrounding gardens) focused on WWII, absolutely packed with information.  There is so much to absorb that after wandering through what felt like the entire museum my friends and I felt an information overload, yet we still ran through the last section on the Cold War and the nuclear age just because it was there.  Their gift shop also has a great selection of historical books, both in English and in French.

galettes and crêpes at La Ficelle

For traditional, must-try galettes and crepes.  I went here on a group outing, then took my parents when they visited (and they returned while I was in class), and then went back with a friend during our fall break.  It’s that good.

…chateau it up in Mezidon-Canon

IMG_5242
A view from the back of the chateau

The Château de Canon is about a 30-minute drive outside the city.  This is where my host mom took me on a weekend during September’s Journées du Patrimoine (« Heritage Days »), when French historical sites have reduced or free admission, and many often-closed sites are open to the public.  The chateau’s fascinating history, gorgeous surrounding grounds and walled gardens, and homemade apple products make this a near-perfect way to spend a (hopefully warm) September afternoon.  To be honest, the relative size of this place, lack of huge crowds, and the unnaturally good weather we had on that weekend makes the question « Canon ou Versailles? » an easy one for me 🙂

…rule Britannia at Dolly’s

For giant weekend breakfasts, cozy afternoon teas, and whenever you need a sugar hit.  This place is kind of expensive and reservations are usually needed on weekends for breakfast/brunch, but that makes it even more special when you treat yourself.  The atmosphere at Dolly’s is best shared with friends, and it’s really fun to soak in all the British kitsch and ephemera while sinking into a plush armchair, listening to the great fifties and sixties music and talking over steaming mugs of chocolat chaud avec cannelle (hot chocolate with cinnamon).  All of my memories here are of warm conversations with friends, and also cheesecake.  Cheesecake definitely tastes better when you’re supposed to be studying.  Another alternative to Dolly’s is Greedy Guts, a charming vegan and vegetarian restaurant hidden down a stone alley on the rue de Bras.

…explore D-Day where it happened

IMG_5397.JPG
A windy, misty day at Pointe du Hoc

I won’t go into the details of the numerous D-Day related excursions you can do (with transportation), since that would take up at least another post in itself, but of course these sites are also highly recommended (seriously), since they’re so integral to the history of the region, besides being great places to visit.  History still inhabits these places, floating above the beaches, resting in the fields of farmers, living in the now-quiet, sunlit paths over which the hedgerows still tower.  Closer to Caen is the Pegasus Bridge museum, Ranville War Cemetery, and the Merville gun battery (among others), as well as Sword and Juno beaches in the vicinity of Ouistreham.  Farther out, you’ll find the harbor at Arromanches, the battery at Longues-sur-mer, Pointe du HocUtah and Omaha beaches and their respective museums, the American cemetery at Colleville-sur-mer just above Omaha beach, and much more.

…take a day trip or an overnight

IMG_5524
One of the famous cliffs at Etretat

Caen is within a reasonable driving distance of many other wonderful places- the historic town of Bayeux with its cathedral and the Bayeux tapestry, Rouen and its famous Gros Horloge, Monet’s Giverny, the Chateau de FalaiseLe Mont St. Michel, the walled port city of Saint-Malo, as well as the surrounding communes of Vire, Dieppe, Le Havre, Deauville, and Trouville.  Where you choose depends on what you want to see and, of course, the weather!  It was a really awesome thing to be able to leave my French culture class on Friday morning and then travel within only a couple hours to some of the places we’d just talked about- over the Pont de Normandie to to the picture-perfect Honfleur and the stunning falaises d’Étretat.

…stop for lunch at Le Falafel

I might be a little biased here, since this was where my class went for lunch after finals and we were all drunk with happiness off the idea that we wouldn’t have to study la grammaire for at least a few weeks (and emotional about saying goodbye, too).  I got ‘le samourai,’ with spicy samourai sauce (don’t ask me what’s in it) and fries, and it was the kind of sandwich that’s so big you can’t really finish it but you do anyway because it’s so good.  A giant merci to the staff here for accommodating our 15-person class in the back of a not-exactly-huge restaurant, giving us complimentary tea, and for not looking phased when we all left crying after coming in laughing and smiling an hour earlier.  If you still need more of a fries + sauce fix, go for the ones with « magic sauce » (pretty sure it’s just amped-up tahini, not that I’m complaining) at La Corne d’Or near Tour Leroy.  Ask for them without cheese and say hello to your new favorite late-night snack.

have a tea party at Mémoranda

This is a delightfully crowded used bookstore with a café upstairs and a fabulous tea selection- endless happy place vibes all around.  The food can be a little pricey but is totally worth it, especially if you go with friends and each get something so you can all sample.  I’d go earlier in the day rather than later to avoid crowds, and if you want to get a seat upstairs.  I bought a lovely book of Paul Éluard poetry and a thesaurus here on one of my first days and they weren’t too expensive.

…feel like a local at the markets

0C2E346A-6F65-4595-BFAA-80DC8F0C3489
The tops of the Christmas market stalls on one of my last nights in Caen
We got out of class early on Fridays so sometimes we’d go to the one at Place Saint-Sauveur, even though it was usually somewhat packing up when we got there.  I’d recommend the tergoule (like a super-blended rice pudding with cinnamon) at the end of the first street (I don’t remember the vendor’s name), or maybe some fresh fruit.  My best market memories are of the Sunday one at Tour Leroy down by the water, which my host family goes to every weekend.  It’s a huge market, and when almost everything else is closed on Sunday, it’s the hottest place in town!  This market might be the thing I miss most about daily life in Caen.  You can wander up and down looking at all the wonderful food and flowers and clothing and books for sale for quite a while, especially if you buy a crepe to savor along the way.  If you want to buy nice local booze (cidre, calvados, etc), this is the place to do it.  The market is especially fun with friends (as are most things while you are abroad, though being alone of course is its own experience), and you can head the two steps over to Café l’Univers for a café crème when you’re done browsing.

…get into a winter state of mind

I spent the fall months and the near-beginnings of winter in Caen, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t talk about a few things to do that are special to this season.  The Christmas spirit starts early here- pick yourself up some vin chaud (hot wine) at Place Saint-Sauveur’s Marché de Noël, and wander up and down looking at all the holiday wares for sale.  On one of the last weekends I was there, there was also a smaller antique book fair next to the market, spilling out of the Église du Vieux Saint-Sauveur, with old postcards, books, records, and art.  There’s also the Patinoire de Caen la mer, an ice skating rink with special late-night holiday hours, and the grande roue (Ferris wheel).

(One last thing… click the top of each photo to hear one of my favorite French songs- a couple of the artists are from Caen!)

Bon voyage, et bon appétit xx

faith + pomegranates in france

4076758686_12b0d8a255_o.jpg
photo credit: Tony Kamenick via Flickr

This first post is about a memory.  I’d meant to write about it at the time that it happened, and I tried to, but the words didn’t come just right, and I gave up.  So there are no photos either, something that I want to become a big part of this blog.  It’s always after you leave that you realize the things you didn’t capture, but should have.

It was an afternoon about a third of my way through a four-month stay in Caen.  In terms of faith, I was floating.  Too nervous to seek out a synagogue.  Too nervous to mention anything vaguely Jewish.  This was before the most recent stabbings in France, but after so much else.  We’d been paying attention to the news for years.  But one day at the Sunday market, the abundant displays of produce were a reminder.  I could buy a pomegranate.  In Ancient Israel pomegranates were the fruit, the fertility, of the promised land.  I wanted to count each of the seeds’ mitzvot with my hands.  To feel connected, to find something old and treasured to hold onto in these waves of feeling rootless and alone.

Back at the apartment, I set out to take apart the fruit, removing each jeweled aril one by one. There was certainly a more efficient way to go about the task than what I did, carving and poking around the fruit with the tip of a sharp knife and plucking out each seed one by one.  But the act of pulling the pomegranate- la grenade– apart slowly, getting rid of the rotten seeds and watching the pile of good ones grow, felt like something necessary.  Into the blue glazed bowl they went, as my host mother and her friends worked around me in the kitchen.  Even after it felt like I’d peeled back the last filmy inner wall, there was another, offering up its tiny gems.  The arils were beautiful in that bowl, undeniably so.  My hands became stained with brilliant juice, the color caught under my fingernails like blood.  My host mother and her friends oohed and aahed when I was done- bravo! – for the dedication, I suppose.  It had taken quite a while since I’d worked slowly, half-listening to their conversations and trying to translate.  But now I had a full bowl of fruit, and the rinds and reddened fingertips to show for it.

Up until that point, I hadn’t known what to say to my host parents when they asked about my religion.  My father is not Jewish but my mother is; both of them raised my sister and me in her faith.  “Does your mother cook Jewish food?” my host parents asked.  “Does your mother go to temple?”  When I mentioned fasting for Yom Kippur- “isn’t fasting just the tradition of the parents, the older people?”  I knew they didn’t mean it maliciously.  French secularism, and a hundred other things, dictated that response.  But after a while, I couldn’t help but hear their questions as negative.  “Isn’t it just the older generation?” sounded like, “isn’t it just the ones who don’t know any better?”

My religion is the religion of my mother, yes, but it is also just that- my religion.  The religion of a people, their culture, their history.  I have inherited this; I have chosen it.  This blessing belongs just as much in my bowl of seeds as it does in my mother’s pots of soup, just as much on her lips reciting the Kaddish every autumn for her father as it does to mine mouthing the words after Paris, just as much in her tears, mournful and joyful with the seasons, as it does in my own.  My religion doesn’t belong to dusty books and locked cabinets.  It’s right here, I wanted to say, looking at the red pomegranate caught under my nails, staining them like an ancient memory.  It’s right here in my hands.