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.
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Alexa’s Study Abroad Journal: A Long Overdue Post Regarding Christmas

(All photos by Alexa)

December 19, 2014

I can’t stop thinking about the sentence: “You forget what people out of the country of cancer do.” Elizabeth Seydel Morgan wrote it. It’s the first line of her poem “Ten Days in France in April” but I think it could be a feeling about anywhere. As long as it’s not home.

I met Alessandro through the track and field team at Sciences Po, first semester. When he invited me to spend Christmas with his family, I’m sure he didn’t expect me to say yes. But, here I am: in the city of Fagnano Olona, in the province of Varese, in the region of Lombardy, in the country of Italy. It’s six days to Christmas.

His family is the second one to welcome me — stranger, girl, American — so graciously and completely (the first being my host family in Paris). In fact, I think his parents stationed me in their very own bedroom. Mrs. Tronconi is a killer cook and an esthetician, working from a private salon in the attached basement of the house, where local clients come to chat and have coffee. Mr. Tronconi delivers English phrases in a cheery tone and has an affinity for completing odd jobs around the house. Davide, Ale’s brother, enjoys vacuuming the cat’s tail, cycling, and science.

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December 20, 2014

At the summit, there’s a small mountain town populated by sunset-tinged buildings and their elusive inhabitants, known only from laundry, which dries on lines stretching from one window to its opposite.

Varese.

We entered the church and mass began. To watch the room transform from dim and silent to heavy and bright at the organ’s cue was nothing short of, for lack of creative phrasing, a religious experience. Ale dipped into the holy water. I stood up straighter. The priest swung an enormous ball of incense over the altar as the parish erupted into song. I’m not religious, but I liked this.

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December 21, 2014

Sleep still crusted over my eyes, a pair of legs ambling down the transformed landscape of my own house, a fire in the fireplace, sugar in the air, a sense of being weightless, or my weight transferred into something bigger, much more beautiful, and family working like gears. I feel like a kid on Christmas morning.

Como.

Ale, Davide, and I stood on a balcony while the sky lit itself on fire. The lake-water was so still, and the deepest blue. I could see a shallow spot where the sun concentrated lightly. If it hadn’t been winter, we would have been swimming. I was content to dangle my feet and head over the gate, which dug into my torso and made my stomach turn. Happily digesting the world. We must have stood there for an hour. I thought of nothing. I had a mind that was clearly erasing its contents and making room for more. I thought of clouds playing tetris, air like rocks that crack, knuckles and knees, the first frost of the season. I felt things I thought I’d moved past. I had butterflies. I wonder if there’s a better way to say all of this in Italian?

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December 22, 2014

There is a train that weaves in and out of the mountains, and it rolls so slowly that you feel more like fog, passing through tunnels of The Five Lands. When we stepped outside and I breathed Mediterranean winter air, warm and soft, I began the first phrase of my broken-record chant: “Wow.” (followed by any combination of “This is unreal” and “Oh my god” and “Paradiso!”). Houses look as if they’ve been built straight into mountain rock, as if pressed there and left to sink in. Locals cultivate the land in accordance with the light of day. Resilient lemons and oranges are tough enough to grow, even at the end of December. We romped around in someone’s private vineyard for an hour.

Cinque Terre.

When we descended onto the rocky beach at Monterosso, I slid my hands into the surf and lapped up the salted sea, scrunching up my nose, laughing. A fish smell filled my pores. Ale and I proceeded to sprawl out on some giant salmon-tinted boulders overlooking the watery wilderness. Happy is an understatement.

December 23, 2014

I had wine and spaghetti for breakfast.

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December 24, 2014

Entering a new country is as easy as waving to a guardsman at a small roadside checkpoint that resembles a toll booth.

Lugano.

We ate fresh fontina-prosciutto sandwiches and homemade sugar-frosted biscuits, listening to a man raking leaves, sitting on the top of a Swiss mountain overlooking a lake overlooking more mountains. It was extremely quiet up there. Back on the ground, the city center was slightly more lively. A Christmas market, an ice rink, and low music. Italian, English, French, and German.

December 25, 2014

We sat down in the yellow house and started to eat. The meal began with a toast, champagne and white wine, followed by appetizers. There was feta, vegetable, and ham salad, served cold. There was cheese and prosciutto. There was a pistachio-glazed pastry. There were miniature pizzas of all types. Of course, there was bread. The main course was normal lasagna and salmon lasagna, swordfish, and Brazilian chicken. For dessert, there was pannatone and mandarin oranges. There was chocolate and coffee. There were pictures and red wine. There were gifts and letters. We simply had to dance.

And dance we did. I’m still not sure who was controlling the music. American, English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, and, of course, Italian blasted on and on. Ale’s aunt led us through a traditional dance which partnered up all participants and, at one point, I learned how to tango. I spun in circles, jumped around, and closed my eyes to everyone’s laughter, including my own. It was ridiculous, all three hours of it.

Then, it was time to play cards. Mercante in fiera. I was too tired to count coins in a foreign language, so I pretended to be on Ale’s team. We won second, and then first place. Eventually, someone switched off the red and green party laser and we headed back to the red house for the night, our bodies worn but full.

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December 26, 2014

Inside the grey Duomo, kaleidoscopic colors bounced off of the walls. I was glad for the day, cleared of clouds. We explored the covered passage across the street, complete with a glass ceiling that reminded me of Alice In Wonderland dimensions. A diamond-laden tree dazzled. On the floor beneath it, a small mosaic attracted a substantial crowd. People queued to individually spin around on the bull’s balls, for good luck.

Milan.

We exited and ate leftovers in cold shade, near an old theater. I felt the bump on my forehead where I fell the night before, about to lean on the shower wall in the bathroom. There was no wall.

The ride to the airport was the end of the world.

December 27, 2014

“The laughter of friends on the path ahead / or heard from another room / so normal and present, so light and healthy, / so oblivious to anyone’s ending.”

 

  

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: A Day in the Life

(All photos by Alexa)

I ricochet between indulging in the life of a little old French lady (you know, the one that spends an hour strolling through the arrondissement’s marché en plein air on Sunday to meet their little old lady friends, just before strolling home to a three-course déjeuner, followed by coffee, laundry and some light reading) and hitting the high notes of ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” at expat bars (you know, Chez Georges).

This afternoon, I selected the former. The temperature has hovered around seven degrees with a slight drizzle for a week. My French friend told me she wears dresses in the summer, and the same dresses with tights in the winter. Inspired, I donned my fleece-lined stockings and purple lipstick and struck out to the street.

I was aimless. I thought of some research I did for my Theories of the Photographic Image course, re: Guy Debord. Debord was a member of the Situationist International in the 1960s, which is a puffed up version of Dadaism and Surrealism. He and his philosopher pals developed the idea of dérive, or drift, which is an unplanned tour through an urban environment. They basically wandered around in Paris in order to find patterns of emotional and atmospheric forcefields. Psychogeography. Mumbo jumbo, maybe, but there’s something malleable about Paris that makes the idea seem plausible, like the city’s been trapped in a slow-cooker for the past few hundred years.

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(Detail on the Notre-Dame cathedral in Reims, taken on a day trip. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, this church is where kings of France were crowned. The older church, destroyed by a fire in 1211, was the baptismal site of Clovis in 496. Before that, it was the site of Roman baths.)

 I ended up at the church next to metro Jourdain, the closest portal to transport me from my little mountain to the Seine. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Paris is made of castles and churches. This one, deemed Église Saint-Jean-Baptiste de Belleville, is almost medieval-looking, or maybe just a bit unloved. The right side always smells like piss, but rain helps.

I had my reuseables with me, so I decided to head in the general direction of the Monoprix and look for a gift for Alessandro’s family, in return for shelter and copious amounts of pasta this upcoming holiday season. I didn’t get far before someone clutching flyers spotted me. I prepared my “Non, merci” and delivered it gracefully to the man. He responded by laughing, insisting, “Je ne vous attaque pas!” He had friends, some playing music, so I smiled politely and repeated my refusal.

Once I ducked inside the closest thing Paris has to an American supermarket, I found a bag of Révillon chocolates. Last year, when I lived in an off-campus apartment in New Brunswick, my Lyonnais-native flatmate was overjoyed when her family mailed her the candies and informed me that these were the quintessential French treat for New Years. Moving on, I couldn’t decide if dried fruits sprinkled with sugar screamed holiday cheer or bizarre gift, so I bought them for myself instead. I also bought dates. At certain Monoprix, you need to weigh your fruits and vegetables (and dates, if fresh) on the scale before you get to the register. I always, always, always almost forget to do this, and it has caused so many awkward jogs around the store.

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(I really like candles. Especially in churches without an internal heating system.)

Back outside, I fished my receipt out of my bag and realized that the Christian-enthousiast had tucked his flyer inside as I passed. It was a home-made creation, featuring a drawing of the church on the front and wishing me “Joyeux Noël 2014”, followed by a quote from “Jn 3,16” about how God is everyone’s friend. On the back of the card, there was a program for upcoming weeks: confession, midnight mass, a weekend block party. I took not two more steps before reaching the front of the church.

A flock of Parisians congregated around the entrance, which is now dripping in white and blue lights. Nobody in France celebrates the religious aspect of Christmas (in fact, my host brother laughed out loud at the question) but Parisians really know how to deck out a city. I realize, now, the true origins of that infamous nickname.

A woman offered me fresh-baked chocolate cake, which melted in my mouth as I stood in a puddle between French chatter and costumed children caroling on the steps of the church, wondering how I’m going to study for my last final exam of the semester, pack my suitcase, and say goodbye to my friends who aren’t returning to Paris in January.

I finally feel like I’m settling in. Not in a total old-lady way. Only sometimes.

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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: On Shin Splints, Quicksand, and Staying Put

There is something to be said for drastically altering your life.

I’m talking about my shin splints, and the fact that I haven’t been able to go for my usual seven-mile run lately. At first, like any runner, I was devastated. I went through the stages of grief in a single day. I even cried a little bit in public.

Then I woke up one day, wasn’t tired, and found out that there is a world outside of running. Lo and behold, Paris is so much more beautiful when I’m not limping out of a metro car. (I actually had to sit down a few times because the jerking motions became near-excruciating. I never sit down. There are people who need those seats and I think it’s rude to steal them.)

I walk now. I walk for more than an hour every day to get to school. I walk from my hood down the hill that is Belleville (inhaling straight boulangerie-fumes), across and along the Seine (covertly posting for camera-toting tourists), all the way to the most expensive part of Paris (feeling sweaty and underdressed and happy).

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My shin splints taught me to slow down. Paris doesn’t rush. Where was I trying to go, so fast like that?

The phrase “burnt out” is not limited in its application to pot-smokers.

I went to the outdoor market at Place des Fêtes yesterday morning. I hadn’t been there in weeks because of various footraces and footing practices. As I struggled through mouthing out the French words for avocado and apple, I realized that my French hadn’t improved all that much since the last time I’d been in that queue.

 

It’s almost December. I frowned inside. I should be fluent.

 

I think my problem is incredibly high standards, or something.

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In other news and to completely switch the subject on you, dear reader, let’s talk about my second trip outside of Paris (the first being Giverny).

 

I went to Mont-Saint-Michel on Saturday. When you’re twenty, you don’t really think twice about an eight-hour round-trip bus ride as long as it’s free and so are you. Thanks to MICEFA, which is (from my understanding) a program that works with various U.S. universities to enroll their students in various Parisian universities, and thanks to the fact that Rutgers is a university partner, I didn’t have to pay. Even though I’m not in the MICEFA program. Sweet deal, eh?

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I reconvened with a bunch of the MICEFA-Rutgers students and met a bunch of MICEFA-other-university students.

The day began with a four-hour bus ride that required me to wake up at a groggy 5:30 a.m. But the ride was beautiful. We drove through the countryside that seems to be the entirety of France, outside of Paris, as the sun rose. We got to the island around noon, had lunch, and walked freely for two and a half hours. Then, a patient French lady handed out audio-tour guides to each of us, which was very nice of her because I think we were more than forty. The abbey was gorgeous. So much bigger than I thought. We walked around in there for an hour. I found the prayer book and added my surname to the endless list of international surnames. We fed the impatient seagulls and sunk our feet into the medieval quicksand. There were a bunch of guys in wetsuits wading around in the deeper parts. Apparently, quicksand-wading is très chic. (There is probably a name for quicksand-wading. Someone should tell me what it is, because I’d like to try.)

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The thing nobody tells you about studying abroad is that it’s exhausting. The day was great, but the four-hour bus ride back was an achy, boring sleepfest, broken up only through games. My favorite was a lateral thinking puzzle, narrated by a Russian girl. It goes like this: “A man enters a restaurant, orders duck, eats one bite, and kills himself.” It took four of us and almost half an hour to get the answer.

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Some of my friends are leaving in a month and it’s really unbelievable. I’m trying not to think about how I might never see them again. I’m thinking of going to the Olympics in Rio next year as a graduation gift, or something, because I have friends in Brazil and I need to see their faces! I miss them already.

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But I’m so glad that I wake up here everyday. I’m so glad it’s not over. It feels like it just started.

 

  

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: Tour de l’Europe

I’m sitting in a place called AntiCafe. Their shtick is that they give you as much coffee and as many pastries as your body can handle while you sit and do work to groovy jazz tunes. You pay by the hour, not by the espresso (thank you). It’s packed, sweaty, and full of people muttering to themselves in French.

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I should be reading extracts from Hobbes’ “The Leviathan” right now. (Let’s be real. I will never read even three pages of Hobbes’ “The Leviathan”.) Instead, I’m browsing Google Flights. If you’ve never used it before, please stop what you’re doing. This is Google at its finest. It knows where you live, so just go to the website and click on the map. You’ll see pinpoints on every airport in the world. Click on a point to figure out how much money it’ll cost you to go there. Et voilà. Go there.

I want to plan a little birthday-week trip. My under-100-euro options include: Lisbon, Barcelona, Marrakesh, Naples, Munich, and Geneva. One of my biggest struggles here is not booking a flight to someplace with a dreamy name whenever I see fit. Or whenever I’m bored. Or drunk. Tough life, I know.

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Speaking of, I’ve finally got Christmas plans! I toyed with the idea of going back home to New Jersey for about two seconds. Then I decided that would be a terrible idea. Go home? When I’m stuck in the middle of Europe with no plans for four weeks? As if. My friend invited me to spend the week leading up to and including Christmas with his family in his hometown, which is a small place near Milan. I know zero Italian. But, I know I like lasanga.

 

After that, I’ll return to Paris and stay for New Years. Then, who knows? A friend from home is coming and we’re in the process of planning a small trip for the first week of 2015. We’ll probably go to the south of France (Nice, maybe Monaco?). Then, we have a 24-hour layover in Barcelona. Neither of us plan on sleeping. After that, we’re going to Warsaw, Krakow, Gdansk, and Sanok to visit his family and friends there. I know zero Polish. I am so, so, so excited! I’m preparing my body for real kielbasa and home-made pierogies. And I’m buying thermal underwear.

Last week, Paris took its vacances. Why? I don’t know. I don’t know if anyone here even knows. It was just break time.

And it was great! My mom and my grandma came to visit me, and I became their personal tour guide for the week. We finally hit all of those tourist-y points of interest that I’d purposely left out. Sites included: Jardin du Luxembourg, Musée du Louvre, Champs-Élysées, Musée Rodin, Cimetière du Montparnasse, Tour Eiffel, and Galeries Lafayette. We also went to Versailles one day, and Giverny the next. We accidentally sat in first-class seats on the train, and marveled at how beautiful the accommodations were for a full 15 minutes before realizing where we really belonged. Ah, the American tourist experience.

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A word about climbing the Eiffel Tower in October (versus, you know, August, like everyone else): It was the best decision I didn’t purposely make. At the very top level, when I looked down, I didn’t see a blank city. I saw the place I’ve been crawling around for the past eight weeks. I felt powerful. I was up there alone. I thought about how I came to this city alone. I gazed one more time over the railing’s edge and made a small contented noise, which the wind swallowed up and nobody would’ve heard anyway. I think the entire thing was fitting.

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The day that my family left, I ran the Semi-Marathon du Bois de Vincennes. I was in a haze for the entire day, grouchy and mad about my aching limbs. I kissed them (my family, not my limbs) goodbye, bisous-style, and fell asleep for twelve hours.

In other news, I read one of my poems out loud at that poetry-in-the-basement-of-a-bar thing. I wonder why I did that. I wonder if I’ll do it again.

Apart from all that, I’ve been decompressing. Because it’s hard to grow up in the most beautiful city in the world.

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Also, not everything is wonderful. I tried to go to Norway with a friend to see another friend, but the plane allegedly broke as it pulled away from the gate. Long story short, four hours later, I was on a train back home. Then, I lost my phone. Actually, a scary man whose face I never saw stole it right out of my hand as I was opening the gate to my building. There’s something extremely unsettling about having your personal space violated like that. Though, I know, it could have been so much worse.

I was walking home from being drunk in Paris at 2 a.m., which is nothing unusual and nothing short of stupid. It’s on the list of things I’m never doing again after last Saturday night.

I’ve seen a lot of you, Paris, but the police station was probably my least favorite part.

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Note to self: use iCloud, you idiot.

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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.