Tag Archives: Alexa Wybraniec

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.

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.

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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.