The very first Christmas markets in France were held in Strasbourg in 1570. Historically a German tradition, the Christmas markets in Strasbourg include many German characteristics such as German food and drinks. On a day trip to the city two weeks ago I had the opportunity to stroll through the Christmas chalets dotted about the city. When I first arrived, I was immediately impressed with the city’s architectural beauty.
Walking through Strasbourg was like walking in the past, for the narrow streets and rainbow colored houses had designs like the ones often seen in Germany giving the city a vintage persona. The city was also filled with Christmas lights and decorations, making it was hard not to look around in awe.
One of the major must-sees of the city is the so called Petite France, or ‘Little France’. It is an area in the southern part of the city located on the Grand Ile, which a UNESCO world heritage site. The Petite France is made up of narrow and cobbled streets, with houses of old constructions.
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Cramming. But not the type of cramming one would think of around finals time, rather the type that involves fitting in as many activities and trips into their final weeks abroad. Attempting to do all the things one said they would do throughout the semester in two weeks. In my defense, I visited most of the sites I hoped I would while abroad, however I've realized all the small things I wanted to do but never got around to because I was more focused on planning big trips to other countries.
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Week 12 was written in bold text on the projector screen of my Why France Matters Seminar. Objectively thinking of the number 12, it doesn’t seem that large, but when I began to think about all the unforgettable memories and inspiring people I encountered within those 12 weeks my sense of time grew exponentially. To think back to the first day of my arrival in France, and considering all the time in-between then and now, 12 weeks feels like a life time.
I understand the dialogue surrounding the transformative nature of travel is overlooked as a cliché, however travel has the remarkable ability to inspire us, challenge us, and teach us about the world around us in ways no classroom ever could. Having the opportunity to immerse myself in this new, unfamiliar location has come with many experiences which were often jolting, rewarding and difficult.
One of the major difficult aspects of adapting to this new life style was figuring out the public transport system in Reims. What I have learned is that unlike like Paris or Shanghai, the transport system in Reims is not as reliable and runs far less frequently than one would hope. From getting to the train station or to an event on time there is a lot of time preparation that goes into figuring out which form of transportation one ought to take and at what time. Maybe this is just from a foreigner’s perspective; however, the number of conflicts I have run into regarding transportation has been plentiful. In Reims, there are three main forms of transportation: The tramline, the bus, and a local bike share company. The main problems surrounding the tram system that there are only two lines (red and blue) which run in the same direction (east to west) stopping at almost the same stops.
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Art de vivre à la Française translates to the “French art of living” and is somewhat seen as a celebration of living in the present moment in French society. The expression was coined by the French and refers to a unique set of characteristics which surround the French way of living. The French desire for fine living has touched almost every aspect of human life, whether its fashion, sport, gastronomy, conversation, and leisure the French have their ways.
One major aspect I have learned in my studies of French society is how the quality of life in France is equal to, and arguable better than that of any other country in the world. The housing, food, health care, educational system and their general state of well-being are evident for the great majority of the French. Sure, there are undeniable challenges and flaws France must face as it moves ahead in the world, but that’s not what this post is about, this post is about how the art of living in France is unique and has a difficult time being replicated elsewhere in the world.
One of my main preconceptions before arriving in France was how French people are known for having a laid-back attitude towards daily life. The 35-hour work week, five weeks of paid vacation and another two weeks of paid holidays may add to the French’s easy going life style, but whatever the cause I particularly saw this trait in the way French people eat meals and dine out. There is convivial nature surrounding meal times in France, for most workers get long lunch breaks giving them enough time to come home and have a sit-down meal with their family. From the sit down meals I have had with my host family the average amount of time spend sitting at the table just eating and talking is around an hour and a half.
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“Why not Paris?” is the response I get from pretty much everyone when I tell them I study in Reims, a small town 130km northeast of Paris. Peoples bewilderment towards my decision to study in Reims over Paris is mixed. On one hand, Paris is the most popular city for students to study abroad in, attracting hundreds of thousands of international students each semester or year. Besides its rich history and culture, Paris boasts a dense transportation network.
To travel in and around France, Paris is the hub to access such transportation networks making it easier for students, who wish to travel during their semester abroad, to get around quicker and more cost efficiently. While on the other hand people must cope with the high costs of living, overcrowding, and be aware of the higher levels of crime. Despite Paris’s diverse array of characteristics, I could never put together a clear answer to the question, because my decision was never based on the negative aspects of Paris, rather it was geared towards the newness and uncertainty of living in a smaller town away from anyone I knew or am familiar with. Therefore, instead of focusing on all the aspect of why one should not choose Paris, I thought of all the reasons why one should choose Reims.
For one of my assignments within the GW Global Bachelors program, of which I am a part of, we had to brainstorm and outline a set of goals of which we hoped to achieve during our second time going abroad. Two of my main goals were to form a strong relationship with my host family and secondly to form friendships with international students. My first goal was accomplished quickly. Having grown up with 3 other siblings myself, living with a host family with 4 kids was familiar to me. The conversations and the time I have spent with my host family has been culturally informative and fulfilling.
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The French educational system is very precise and challenging. Their methodology is characterized by a lack of teacher to student relationships and a commitment to traditional teaching methods, like pen and paper notes instead of laptops and strictly outlined dissertations. As an exchange student, it doesn’t take long to notice the differences in another country’s educational system, which perhaps allows me to make a clearer evaluation of its strengths and weaknesses.
When it comes to dissertations and presentations there is a specific guideline students must follow to receive full credit for their work. For Sciences Po, they advise us to follow a two-by-two outline for our dissertations, where in the introduction we state a problematique, or the problem we find in the research question, then respond to it with our thesis statement. Then each body paragraph must be a direct answer to the problem and supported with arguments in favor of the thesis. Then each of the sub-parts in the paragraph are supporting arguments for the answer to the thesis we offer in the main part it belongs to.
Finally, the conclusion must provide a summary of all the key supporting arguments in the essay and we must make rise of our opinion from these arguments. Presentations follow the same format, where the slides must state what the problem is in the research question followed by a thesis statement and so on.
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The first time I encountered the bronze statue of Jean Baptiste Colbert, situated in the center of the roundabout facing the Reims train station, was on the first day of my arrival. A day before orientation began I met up with GW Paris study abroad director Florence, a warm-hearted French national who was visiting Reims to meet me and take me out for lunch. The restaurant we were heading to was just past the 20-foot bronze statue of Colbert dressed in royal garments. At the time, I didn't think much of the statue when Florence casually pointed out how he was the economic mister to Louis the 16th and how he was born in Reims, to me he was just another French historical figure.
My following encounters with the statue occurred whenever I would walk to the train station to catch a train into Paris or to another city in France. The circular path encapsulating the statue is unavoidable on my walk to the Reims train station, however I still did not pay any attention to the statue. It wasn’t until my Why France Matters professor pointed out the significance of his work and legacy. His array duties under the King gives evidence that his interests and influenced were not just limited to France’s financial objectives, for he was also the secretary of state in charge of the Navy.
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On the list of Reims tourist attractions, next to the plethora of famously acclaimed champagne distilleries, is the Notre-Dame Cathedral of Reims. The Gothic masterpiece is known as the traditional coronation site of the kings of France, and is hailed for its rich body of sculpture. My first encounter with the Cathedral was on my first day of arrival, when my host mother family generously offered to give me a short driving tour of the city. The Notre Dame Cathedral of Reims was our first stop, where I was instantly stunned by the sheer size of structure. Julliette, my host sister, told me how most people are often surprised to hear how the Reims Cathedral is bigger than the one in Paris.
The exterior of the Cathedral is the epitome of royalty. Along the front façade and on the sides, are beautifully decorated sculpted figures ranging from French royalty to biblical figures. In the center is a colorful rose window framed by an arch, which draws the viewer in. I also couldn’t help but notice the buttresses flanked on either side of the Cathedral, for they are also beautifully decorative and representative of the Cathedrals grandeur. One interesting detail my host mother pointed out to me was the Smiling Angel statue, which looked as though it was looking down at us as we walked into the Cathedral. The Smiling Angel is the most beloved of the Cathedral’s statues, and has become a symbol of the place
When I first stepped inside the Cathedral the gaping space from the floor to the ceiling was unlike any architectural formation I have witnessed. The first thing which caught my eye were the stained-glass windows which line the Cathedrals walls and apse. The windows are made up of a mix of 13th and 20th century styles, for after the First World War most of the windows were destroyed. Therefore, the more modern styled windows were a part of a restoration project which is still underway today. As I walked down the side of the aisles I read about the history of the Cathedral and how it was originally the seat of the Archbishop of Reims, and was the coronation site of Frances first King, Clovis.
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Normandy, a region in northern France, is one of the 18 Départements which make up mainland France. Luckily for me I had the good fortune to travel to this region as a part of the GW Paris program along with other GW students. I feel guilty to say my knowledge of the history of Normandy prior to the trip was limited to the D-Day landing and a vague understanding of The Battle of Normandy during World War Two. Therefore, it was an eye-opening experience when we arrived at our first stop, the Normandy Memorial in Caen, because I learned a lot about the brutality Normandy faced under the occupation of Germany, and the hardships soldiers and civilians underwent during the many battles.
The battle of Normandy is often referred to as the battle which won back Europe. It was a movement which began on June 6th, 1944 where the Allied forces launched the biggest and the arguably the greatest maritime invasion in history, which was intended to free all those under the suppression of the Nazi regime. Walking through each room within the memorial made me feel a deep sense of remorse and respect towards all those involved in the conflict. Reflecting now on the significance of the battle I believe D-day and the other Allied invasions of Normandy represent all that is virtuous in modern liberal democracy.
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Three unusual french dishes I have experimented with while abroad are escargots, frog legs, and quail eggs. I first tried escargots when I visited Paris after I graduated high school, so the taste was not fresh in my mind. After my first week in Reims a few other exchange students and I made plans to go out to dinner at a brasserie near campus. After debating over whether we ought to step out of our comfort zone and try a new dish, we came to the consensus that instead of each of us trying something new, we would all together share a plate of escargots. We were served a dozen snails, just enough for each of us to try three. The texture and taste is similar to clams and oysters, but drenched in a butter garlic sauce. Although escargots are not typically something thing I would order from a restaurant menu, I enjoyed getting to experience the French dish a second time around.
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