Tag Archives: twenty in paris

Alexa’s Study Abroad Journal: A Slice Of Sicilia


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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?


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

charlie 1

Nous sommes tous Charlie – A response to the 1/7/14 Terrorist Attack

(Photo by www.sltrib.com)

Driving at 7am yesterday morning, I did something I rarely do; I turned on talk radio. Because I am too lazy to pull up my car antenna up, I get really lousy reception on the radio, especially for AM or talk radio. But yesterday I had this nagging urge to listen to something smoother than Eminem, my usual morning commute music, even if it meant listening to a crackling voice. When I turned on the radio, instead of the crackling sound of the banal talk of the Congress “rebellion”, I heard something in crystal clear reception that made my heart race. Paris was attacked.

paris attack(Paris under attack in a video game. It wasn’t exactly like this but it feels like it was. Photo by gamingbolt.com)

I couldn’t believe it. Then the radio host announced that the attack had occurred just a few hours before during lunchtime in France. For a moment, I was actually more shocked that there were French employees still in the office at lunch time than over the crime itself. Like I’ve mentioned before, I don’t eat breakfast first thing when I wake up so I’m not my most compassionate because I’m hangry (that’s hungry + angry). I listened to the very American radio host butcher his way through pronunciations of French headlines and comics. News cap: a group of jihadistes opened fire in Charlie Hebdo, a French satirical newspaper, office killing about 10 people than 2 police officers afterwards while fleeing the scene and critically injuring a few others more. Why did they do this? Because they were offended by a satirical cartoon. I’ll be honest with you, the newspapers’ political cartoons seem to be in bad taste but it’s just a cartoon. That’s it. There is never a good reason to kill or be killed but this one certainly has to take the prize for the most stupid reason to take a life.

kissing_hebdo(One of the offensive cartoons. I debated about showing it because they are bad taste but let freedom ring- #JeSuisCharlie. Photo by www.theglobeandmail.com)

This is a very sad time for our Parisian friends and long time ally. I normally advise students to avoid demonstrations in Paris but this is one that I would join in if I was there right now. Freedom of press / speech is a fundamental belief in Western culture. It’s how we keep each other in line; how we point out the hypocrisies and injustices of our society as a means to bring it to light and find a solution; how we have fun. These weren’t politicians or people who were causing great harm. These were a couple of jokesters who liked to poke fun to get people to think. In the streets of almost every major city in France last night, people gathered together holding up signs saying “Je suis Charlie [for Hebdo]” and holding candlelit vigils. That’s one of the things I love about French culture. They can rally tens of thousands of their closest friends in support for any cause at any given moment. It’s not just Paris that is mourning; it’s the entire country. In support of our French brethren, I say out loud that je suis Charlie, but the reality is that he is all of us.

Please send your thoughts, prayers, and wishes to our French friends at this difficult time. Your support is needed.


Talking About Race in French

(Photo by: memespp.com)

It’s true that a new year does bring a new start. January was a really big turning moment for me when I was studying abroad. It was when I really started to get comfortable, and might I say, excel, in French. It was in January that I noticed my conversations with Tatie no longer had 5 minute pauses in between each sentence, during which I would fervently look up words in the dictionary that we kept next to the table. This was the time when I was finally able to hold a somewhat adult conversation that showcased how I did have a higher intellect than a 5 year old. The January that I spent in Paris was also the time that the American primary presidential elections were taking place. From January to March, all the major French news channels were covering what was happening on the other side of the Atlantic. Who was running? Who did the Americans think had a chance of becoming the next Chef d’état? It was during this coverage that the world first came across Barack Obama.

 President_Barack_Obama(President Obama. Photo by en.wikipedia.org)

The French heavily covered this relatively unknown senator from Illinois, particularly his family history. Since my French was at a more advanced level at this point, I was able to answer some of Tatie’s many questions on the American political system. But one night, she had a question that was very difficult to answer for linguistic and cultural reasons. She asked me about race. The French reporters were pulling their information about the presidential candidates mostly from the American news stories. So they kept translating that Barack Obama would be the first black president if he won. But, then they would show a story about his childhood and photos of him and his white mother. After a few nights of watching these news stories, Tatie turned to me and asked why Americans refer to Mr. Obama as black when he clearly had a white mother. It was a valid question. From the eyes of a French person, this person is not of one race, but of two.


(One of the photos that started this whole new conversation topic. Photo by www.metabunk.org)

I thought back to all my French lessons in college but not one of them covered race. How do you explain the social construct of race and its context in American history in French? With no real knowledge of what expressions or vocabulary to use, I trudged through what would be the next forty minutes of explaining the one drop rule. For those of you that are a little rusty, the one drop rule was a discriminatory law that denied rights to people who weren’t 100% Caucasian. Essentially, if you had one drop of any other race’s blood than Caucasian in your body, you were no longer white and could be denied freedom, the right to vote, property, jobs, etc… The far cultural reach of the one drop rule appears to be why Americans do not use the term bi-racial. Instead, bi-racial individuals are culturally coerced to choose one race over another. But how do you explain than in a 2nd language? Just as I was getting comfortable with this new, advanced French, here I was back at the beginning again. Tatie had other questions now that her curiosity was piqued. I did my best to answer them, but I can assure you that I didn’t do well. It’s not something that any French class covers and I’m positive that I wasn’t accurately or even adequately expressing myself and the subject at hand.

man-quote(When you’re feeling stuck in a conversation. Photo by www.pimsleurapproach.com)

My time among the French, I can tell you that they like to discuss race. Or maybe more accurately, they like to discuss Americans’ view of race. In some ways, French views are very different, in some ways they’re the same and in some ways they’re worse (by American standards). France has had a different history with race than the USA which is why you’ll find French people are interested in discussing it with an American. And with some of the current news stories, I’m positive it will come up in conversation. I know in the USA that most people feel uncomfortable discussing race but it most likely will come up at some point in a conversation. Since French textbooks aren’t going to cover race anytime soon, you’ll need to do your own research. Start by reading recent American news stories on French news sources such as Le Parisien or Le Monde. This will give you a glimpse into vocabulary and expressions. If you want to go the extra mile, look on Amazon France for books on American history. Download the Kindle app to your smart phone and you can get it on your phone for a read whenever you have a few minutes. To get you started, here’s some key words for a discussion on race in French:

La race – race

Le racisme – racism (I’m not sure why race is feminine but racism is masculine.)

L’esclavage (masc) – slavery

L’esclave (neutral) – slave

Un noir/ une noire- a black man/woman

Un amérindien / une amérindienne – a Native American man / woman

Un chinois/ une chinoise – a Chinese man / woman

Other notes

The word “bi-racial” doesn’t exist in French. A word that is more commonly used is métis (masc) / métisse (fem), meaning mix.

 Cheerios MeMe Biracial Commercial(A beautiful bi-racial little girl. Photo by minnesotamiranda.com)

Another thing that has appeared in recent French language use is the word un black. This used to describe a black male, typically American. I’m not sure why it’s used but I think it’s strange. I’ve never used and you don’t have to either. If you want to talk about someone who is from Mexico/ Central America or other parts of Latin America, do not use the term hispanique which refers to someone from Spain. Just describe where they are from (ex: mexicain/mexicaine or vénézuélien/enne).

The French love to discuss the news and this is a topic that has been a key point in recent US news stories. Knowing a few key words as well as the fact that you may be asked to speak on this delicate topic as a delegate for your country are ways to prepare yourself for this conversation. Remember, you never have to talk about anything that you aren’t comfortable with but at least now you can recognize when you may want to leave the room.

Bonne chance!