All posts by Alexa Wybraniec

Alexa studies journalism, media and French at Rutgers University. She is abroad at Sciences Po for her third year of college. Check back every other Monday for a new post and connect on Twitter.

Alexa’s Study Abroad Journal: Haute Cuisine

All photos by Alexa

I take a picture of (almost) every meal I eat so that I always have leftovers. And a picture’s worth a thousand words, right?

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Ale’s new apartment has this little round table that looks pretty nondescript when my laptop and elbows are resting on it. But, once we decorate it with a bright tablecloth, a fresh baguette, and grilled chicken with roasted peppers and onions, it looks like something straight out of a little bistro in the heart of Paris.

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When I get home from a run, the first thing I do is go to the Monoprix. It’s the best place for cheap but quality food when you don’t have time or patience for the market. One of my easy go-to meals is a salad with red peppers and Italian olive oil, a whole-grain mini-baguette, and fresh berries.

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After the pool, midday, Chez Ale is situated perfectly for some sun rays. It was too cold to sit outside, but some red wine and the heat of the stove kept the place warmer than the average Parisian cafe. Special of the day: garlic and olive-oil drizzled over asparagus and grilled chicken with a tradition (which is like a baguette, but crunchier). I swear I eat meats other than chicken.

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I came home from class one Tuesday afternoon to find a bunch of strawberries drying in the kitchen sink. I stole just a few (dozen) before heading out again. Happy spring!

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This is one of my fancier salads because nuts. Pear and walnuts and olive oil and bread, does it get any better than that?

Thanks for dining with me and have a nice Monday. :-)

  

Alexa Wybraniec

Alexa studies journalism, media and French at Rutgers University. She is abroad at Sciences Po for her third year of college. Check back every other Monday for a new post and connect on Twitter.

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Alexa’s Study Abroad Journal: The Drop of Gold

(all photos by Alexa)

 The amount of times I thought “I wish I could instagram this smell” this week is ridiculous. Spring makes my brain happy. Daffodils, lilies, daisies, and poppies. The flowers here aren’t much different from the ones in the fields in my hometown, but they still make me feel good. Walking through Buttes Chaumont nowadays is more akin to swimming through big cherry blossoms. Monceau Fleurs, one of Paris’s many flower shops, is practically – O.K., literally – overflowing onto Rue Manin. I don’t mind stepping over hoses to get to the pool on Saturday morning. Then, last week, crossing the Seine to get to class, I discovered a hidden army of wisteria crawling all over a wall near the Sciences Po graduate school building. Sometimes, when I get home, my hair smells of rain and flower-stuff, and not like smoke. It’s a modern miracle.

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Last weekend, Ale and I took a brand-new train to L’Isle-Adam, a commune about 45 minutes north of Paris, to visit a few of his family friends. I’ve been rereading The Handmaid’s Tale for the past few weeks, slowly making my way through it at a snail’s pace. I linger over the words as they remind me of the changing weather, and I like that. Once there, time passed between old friends. The family was half-Italian and half-French, and everyone (except for me, of course) spoke both languages with ease. I watched French MTV, sipped my espresso and inserted myself into conversation when I could. The weather has been shit lately. We took a walk through town, on the banks of the Oise River, to the tune of apologies regarding the incredibly strong winds. We didn’t mind (much) and were warmly invited back.

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I spend a lot of my time in a part of Paris where no tourist goes. It’s called the Goutte D’Or, the “drop of gold”, and it’s practically on top of the Gare du Nord train tracks. Thanks to Fox News, which recently deemed the place a “no-go zone”, Americans are going to be even more hesitant to visit than usual. Which is, seriously, such a shame.

I’ve been to Africa only once: Morocco, with a former roommate during our freshman year, alternative-style spring break. But, when I elbow my way out of the Château Rouge metro stop on Friday afternoons, when the smells and colors and sounds hit me, I swear I’m right back there again. The women are boldly bright, draped with sunny patterns expertly knotted in place. You can find them leaning in and out of their beauty salons, smoking cigarettes. They walk together in packs, laughing heartily, and don’t move out of the way for men. It’s the men, mostly, who sell things: cell phones, tagines, hair extensions, spices, fabric, old records, hand-made artwork. Their fresh produce looms in small mountains. Dates, dried figs, nuts that I don’t have names for. Wooden cartons of plantains, stacked, become a small playground for kids. I often dodge clementine peels and furniture, which routinely meander into the streets and block traffic. You’d have to be somewhat crazy to drive here, though.

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As I walk to Le Club Barbès every Friday around 6 p.m., as the sun is getting a little lower in the sky, as the tables are pushed a little farther into the street, as the espressos waft into the air, I’m grateful. Had I not taken this opportunity to “volunteer”, a.k.a. hang out, at a youth club this semester, I probably never would have ventured here. When I enter the Club, I hear the speakers blasting karaoke hits of the 1990s, my peers dancing and singing every word without even glancing at the screen, and I smile. This is fun.

I sometimes forget that what I’m doing here is helping them with their English homework, because they’re too busy helping me. The students I’ve met in this program have opened my eyes to a different Paris. The Goutte D’Or is one of the poorest parts of the city. In fact, the entire northeast part of Paris is known for its large immigrant and working class population, and the Goutte D’Or is the best example of that. The French government has classified it as a sensitive urban zone, due to its high unemployment and low homeownership rates. Although France’s socialist government attempts to help families that struggle financially (public housing, for example), education remains problematic. Not too many kids graduate from high school.

Some of them are refugees, others are third-generation immigrants, and others are still too shy around me to tell me their stories. Regardless, we’re all in this Club together, and it’s the most amazing thing, because I never expected this from Paris. I expected the Eiffel Tower to glitter at night. I expected midnight excursions across the Seine to wine bars with my newfound French friends. I expected to see extreme wealth and beauty. Which I do, but in a way better than I ever thought possible. I participate in the beauty. We make it together.

I think education is the best weapon against discrimination. I hope I’ve taught these kids something, because they’ve already taught me everything.

  

Alexa Wybraniec

Alexa studies journalism, media and French at Rutgers University. She is abroad at Sciences Po for her third year of college. Check back every other Monday for a new post and connect on Twitter.

Alexa’s Study Abroad Journal: Midterm Swim

All photos are my own.

(Cluny Abbey is a former Benedictine monastery built around the year 910. It is located in the Saône-et-Loire department of France.)

 

For 21-year-old expats, study abroad is more often written as “study” abroad. I admit, it’s hard to write a midterm paper when you’re romping around the Bourguignon countryside for the weekend (and not just because the secluded hostel has no wi-fi). For three days, my classmates and I ate fresh farm-to-table sandwiches, fawned over some horses, and explored the stomping ground of 12th century monks. I even went to my first degustation! Still, I finished that paper, plus two exams, last week. By Thursday, I was done and more than ready to let off some steam.

One thing that might not pop into your brain when you think of the typical “study” abroad experience is mental and/or physical health. Believe me, my undergrad friends and I are stressed, too. Paris can be a beautiful tease when you’re up to your eyeballs in schoolwork. So, what do we do? We exercise, we drink red wine, and we repeat.

Last year, I found mental solace in a strict diet combined with high-intensity exercise. But, I haven’t been able to properly run since October. The thing about runners is that they love to lie to themselves. The other thing about runners is that they’re often pretty tuned-in to their bodies’ various health signals and warnings. And yet, they’ll run on their screwed up muscles and chipping bones until their legs detach from their hips. I’m barely exaggerating.

I went to the American Hospital in Paris a few weeks ago. My x-rays proved that I was generally healthy and simply suffering from an extreme bout of shin splints. The doctor prescribed rest. It’s been a lazy few weeks, but I’ve gotten to do a lot of things with my newfound free time. Namely, I’ve eaten croissants, crepes, and nutella like they’re going out of style. Plus, I rediscovered Buttes Chaumont and La Villette, the two biggest parks in Paris that are conveniently located in my arrondissement. I’ve bought some spring staples and books at pop-up flea markets. I’ve volunteered my leftover time at a middle school and a youth organization.

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(The Parc des Buttes Chaumont is my favorite public park in Paris. It was built in 1867 during Napoleon III’s regime. This is my view from the top in late August.)

 

Perhaps my favorite thing so far, though, was the pool. Espace Sportif Pailleron is a pretty big gym at the bottom of Buttes Chaumont. While regular gyms (think exercise bikes, ellipticals, and weight machines) are extremely expensive in Paris, the pools are nicely priced and much more popular. I recruited Ale to check it out with me on Saturday afternoon. Incidentally, the trip doubled as an excuse to get out of the dirty Parisian air for a while.

We walked into the glass-roofed brick building, just a bit hungover, and bought our tickets. (Jumping into chilled water is something I wasn’t completely ready to do in my right mind.) Students with proof of residence in the city enter for 1.80 euros (and for 3.10, otherwise). The first confusing thing I saw was the ice-skating rink.

As we entered the pre-pool arena (for lack of a better description), I was immediately so grateful for Ale’s presence. The place is half maze, half cultural adventure. We stood in the corner and tried to figure out what to do. Drying machines slide up and down on the walls. If you enter one changing booth, you exit into a different corridor. The bathrooms do not have toilet paper. Lockers are electronic and require memorizing numbers and codes. It is mandatory to take off your shoes, unless they are flip flops. You must shower and wash your feet before swimming. And, if you start swimming without a bathing cap, you get kicked out.

We learned some of these things the hard way, others by watching people, and still others thanks to a helpful cartoon instruction manual painted onto a wall. My workout, though, was amazing. I kept thinking of that one Vonnegut quote: “In the water I am beautiful”. And, you know, I felt pretty beautiful. Even though my goggles left me with red raccoon-like marks around my eyes and my cap was too tight for my head, I had fun. I got to blend in with the Parisians for a couple of hours. I saw bodies of all shapes, sizes, and colors, and didn’t feel too self-conscious about my own. I soaked my tired, achy muscles in a jacuzzi.

I am quite full of love and appreciation, and looking forward to more misadventures of the everyday French variety.

P.S. Sorry for the lack of pool photos, but that’d be a bit strange.

  

Alexa Wybraniec

Alexa studies journalism, media and French at Rutgers University. She is abroad at Sciences Po for her third year of college. Check back every other Monday for a new post and connect on Twitter.

Alexa’s Study Abroad Journal: A Slice Of Sicilia

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Octopi, wet and salt-soaked, lay sprawled out on a paper-lined table. It was Saturday morning at the Vucciria market in Palermo and I smelled this street before I saw it.

Alessandro and I rented a white Fiat Panda back in Catania, on the opposite side of the island. (The man who sold us the car was nameless, wore black eyeliner, and was adamant that the blinking oil light meant absolutely nothing. We paid cash.) It had been six days and this was our last excursion.

We chose Sicily as our spring break destination due to its proximity to the equator and our quest for sunlight. Paris is gorgeous with a 100% chance of overcast. Plus, despite the fact that “dialect”, or regional varieties of the Italian language, are still spoken all over the country, everyone understands proper Italian. If Ale got tired of translating, he never told me.

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It is so important to visit the street markets when you go abroad. In general, the European market is not only a place to buy food. It also serves as a community bulletin board: a place to meet and discuss with the producer who has selected these items for you, to socialize and exchange information with friends, and to experience the noise, smells, and visual excitement of it all.

In Palermo, you’d need to lock yourself in your hostel not to notice the Vucciria. Vendors are armed with megaphones, tiny vehicles, and good food. They skirt the medieval streets, barking about their deals to anyone who will listen. They probably only stop for lunch.

For me, the first challenge when I visit a new place is to blend in. As Ale and I meandered the wares underneath the colored tarpaulins, I felt a weird tension. My bulky camera, slung over my left shoulder, screamed tourist. The separation was more pronounced here than elsewhere in Sicily, perhaps because of Palermo’s rough local culture. Once I stopped to tuck it into my backpack, people finally started talking to me. I kept my mouth shut and my hands to myself.

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The atmosphere changed every few seconds. A pocket of air for the blood oranges, as big as my head. A whiff of fresh Mediterranean catch, so many types of fish that even Ale couldn’t name them all. A bar where the coffee was way, way more pungent than all the spilled beer. We decided to eat our way through the sprawl. Breakfast blended into lunch as we savored a cow kidney sandwich, some deep-fried squid, two cannoli stuffed with pistachio ricotta, etc. We even found lemon granita, the sno-cone of Sicily, to wash it all down.

Palermintian markets are vastly different from their Parisian counterparts. They are louder. There is more haggling involved. When you bump into another shopper and apologize, they just shrug and say it’s inevitable, it’s chaos. And it’s true, it’s a beautiful chaos, indeed.

Perhaps the best part of our tasting spree was the panini. In Italy, (provided you speak Italian) you can go into any deli and ask the butcher to please make you a sandwich. Of course, you’ll wait at least 20 minutes. Of course, it will be worth it. For you’re in the land of the freshest meat, the stinkiest cheese, and the softest bread you’ll ever gnaw on. The dude will literally take an entire pig’s thigh to the band saw. He’ll do it gracefully and you’ll just stand there in awe of this beautiful country.

We were munching on arancini when the Vucciria spit us out into the Piazza San Domenico. It was only 4:15, so we headed for the sea.

 

  

Alexa Wybraniec

Alexa studies journalism, media and French at Rutgers University. She is abroad at Sciences Po for her third year of college. Check back every other Monday for a new post and connect on Twitter.