Solo Travel: Strasbourg/Colmar Snapshots + A Series of (Mis)adventures

Alsace, France
colmar strasbourg christmas markets

On my first solo trip, I learned three important lessons:

1. Tinder is not a good place to find friends
2. Sometimes men are very creepy
3. Sometimes people are incredibly kind

Basically, we can sum these all up to one lesson: Lily is sometimes very stupid.

After the semester ended, I escaped to northeastern France to visit the famous Christmas markets. The other study abroad program were headed home for the holidays, and my French friends had other plans, so I headed out on my own. The usual soap opera-worthy misadventures of my life unraveled. I present to you the latest episode in four sketches:

strasbourg france
palais rohan strasbourg
strasbourg christmas lights

Day 1: 

I wondered if I would make friends that day. 

The night before, I was restless. Thoughts whirled around in my head--end-of-program logistics, next semester prep, gifts to buy, and most immediate, what I'd do on this trip. 

I was no stranger to my own company. At times, I actually preferred exploring alone--I wouldn't have to compromise on sights to see, or where to eat (offbeat vegan cafes all the way). But my time in France was drawing to a close, and I wanted to spend it seriously practicing French conversation. 

Which meant finding friends, preferrably native French-speakers.

I took to Facebook and Instagram the week before in attempt to find mutual connections in the area. When that flopped, I posted in Couchsurfing forums for travel buddies. I received one response, from a 50-something German man. Something seemed innately off, so I politely turned him down.

So I began to entertain crazy ideas. I needed a platform with a large, active audience my age in a specific geographical location. Tinder was a perfect match (sorry, couldn't resist hehe).

That really flopped. It should've been obvious--it was a dating app, not a platonic friend-making one. But after reading acticles boasting meaningful friendships launched on Tinder, and stats revealing that the majority of college students use the app to find friends, I was hopeful. And after all, hadn't some of my friends made really resonant connections on Tinder?

But instead of friends, I found a couple stale conversations. It seemed as if most people were looking for romance or hookups (whoa, really Lily?! people are looking for romance and hookups on a dating app?!?). There was little interest in meeting up with a random American looking for travel buddies. 

So I headed out to the Strasbourg Christmas markets alone. But I really shouldn't have worried about finding friends. As I sipped some vin chaud (spiced hot wine) at a standing table, friends found me instead.

The market was crowed, so three 20-something guys asked if they could share my table. They were three marines specializing in nuclear engineering from Brittany, and they were incredibly kind. 

We explored the markets together, and later met up for dinner. They refused to let me split the cost for the flammekueche (Alsatian/German specialty) we shared, and neither the pinot noir and riesling wine (French hospitality is very real).

So lesson of the day? Finding friends while traveling solo doesn't have to be stressful--it doesn't even need to involve all the social media gizmos. It can be as easy as sharing a table, and sipping some wine.

alsatian breakfast
Petite Venise, Colmar
Colmar Christmas

Day 2:

Vous avez de l'eau Perrier? Puis-je en prendre?
Do you have Perrier water? Could I have some?

Lily goes to a bar, part 2...again for a legitimate linguistic purpose. But my drink was different this time. Instead of apricot juice, I settled for sparkling water to counter the rich food I'd had that day. I'd long since overcome my fear of alcohol, but I'd developed tastes too pretentious for bar fare (Sauternes, anyone?).

Est-ce qu'il y a un groupe de Couchsurfing ici?
Is there a Couchsurfing group here?

I scanned the bustling room, feeling self-conscious. Unlike the structured Bordeaux Franglish language exchange, this Couchsurfing event was a just a casual get-together. That didn't actually exist, apparently. My question was met with knit brows and confused looks. But it launched conversation with perfect strangers--and so we chatted away, leaping from topic to topic and language to language. 


Colmar Christmas
flower light garland
la fleur des champs, Strasbourg

Day 3: 

Hey Lily!
I'm from Couchsurfing event last night--I'm the French guy who studied in Japan for a couple years. I wanted to talk with you more, but you left early. If you're still in the area and want to meet up, I'm free to hang out today!

As I read my latest Couchsurfing notification that morning, I lit up. I naively thought: another friend dropped right in front of me, and a native French-speaker at that! I eagerly responded, and we arranged to meet up in the city square that afternoon.

The majority of the day went without incident--we explored the Palais Rohan (where Napoleon Bonaparte once stayed), sipped tea in a hip vegan cafe, and snapped photos in La Petite France (a particularly picturesque part of Strasbourg). 

But then my linguistic ambitions seriously clouded my judgment. 

"You have to try this wine called Gewürztraminer--it's an Alsatian specialty! Let's get some at the grocery store and we can have it at my place."

After unbelievable French hospitality, this innately-creepy suggestion somehow seemed less creepy. After all, I'd shared wine and cheese with my airbnb host and her boyfriend the day before, and my newfound marine friends had been nothing but welcoming. Still, something felt off as we walked back to the city square, towards his apartment. He could be a murderer or rapist, for all I knew. But he could just be ultra-friendly. 

I naively chose to believe the latter. After all, he'd been a patient city guide during the day. And I couldn't pass up the chance for more French conversation. 

But my suspicions kept creeping. As we chatted, I became progressively more uneasy. When he put his arm on the back of the couch, I scooted forward. His arm followed--no matter which way I moved. Despite my clear discomfort, he tried to pull me closer. I checked the time and suddenly announced that I had to go (early train the next morning, you know--gotta get home at 5pm).

As I waited for the tram in the slight drizzle, I felt somewhat guilty. Had I inadvertently given off the wrong message? As I debated whether or not to apologize, and if so, how to word it (how do you say "lead you on" in French?), he beat me to it. 

Didn't want to make you uncomfortable, was really interesting talking to you! I wanted to kiss you but I was lost by our conversation. I didn't want to hit on you at first, but you got me at the cafe. Wish you'd want to spend the night with me :)

My slight relief at the quasi-apology turned to horror. I'd seriously misread his intentions. I'd been totally stupid. My quest to find friends and speak French had landed me in some deep merde.

A flurry of troubled thoughts ensued--Was it my fault? How does anyone make friends when you have to tread such murky waters? Does anyone even just want to make platonic friends anymore?

To decompress, I chatted with a friend from home, who offered some sage advice:

When you're in England, make sure you don't go home with a guy who's offering this tea "that you just got to try" even if you want to practice your English.

Duly noted.

So, PSA: not everyone has benevolent intentions. Be much smarter than I was.

Strasbourg Cathedral and Christmas Market
Palais Rohan, Strasbourg
Palais Rohan, Strasbourg

Day 4:

“Sure, you may never be an elite endurance athlete, a math genius, a professional violinist, a renowned blogger…but I think there’s a certain richness in having many passions.”

I found a kindred soul on the train back to Southern France. We'd been chatting already for several hours and had long since exhausted the ususal small talk. 

I admitted that I sometimes envied those with a singular deep passion. Sometimes, I was tired of dabbling in multiple spheres, because I never felt exceptional--I couldn't immerse myself fully in one endeavor because I was always dividing my energy and attention. 

But she was right. She'd know too, as a crossfit-enthusiast former biology student with a love for writing--who also happened to be in a transportation management alternance (sort of like a co-op--you spend half your time learning on-the-job, and half your time in class). We were lucky. Maybe we're not the top in any of our hobbies, but we get to know and love all of them. 

And so the trip ended on a resonant note: a packed train, cool seatmate, and meaningful conversation--in French, of course.

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Study Abroad: Meaningful Host Family Gift Idea + Sticky9 Review

meaningful and portable host family gift
For the 2016-2017 academic year, I'm studying abroad in Europe (Bordeaux, France and Oxford, England). This post is part of a series to help make the experience more manageable and fulfilling for future study abroad students.

Well, it's unique to my home state, but customs might not like that, and neither might my host family.

Superhero film? Pop CD? 
Nope, not personal enough, and maybe nothing special since American culture is so pervasive.

Humans of New York Stories book? 
Better, but way too heavy for my already-stuffed suitcases.

Before I left for my semester in France, I struggled to settle on a host family gift that was both meaningful and portable. I finally settled on instagram print magnets from Sticky9, a London-based site that turns your insta photos into personalized gifts. As a disclaimer, this post isn't in partnership with Sticky9--I just had a good experience with the company, and wanted to help make the gift search easier!

sticky9 magnet review
sticky9 magnet review
sticky9 magnet review

Sticky9 offers posters, phone cases, photo books, square prints, magnets, greeting cards and the like. I ultimately settled on their set of nine 5cm x 5cm fridge magnets--it was something everyone in the family could enjoy. The sets begin at $16 (though check for coupon codes on retailmenot, or feel free to use my 15% off referral code: FRIEND15X56), and international shipping is free. For the US, the matte magnet set is guaranteed within 9 days--my order came within a week.

sticky9 magnet review
sticky9 magnet review

I was ultimately happy with my gift choice--the magnets were a great conversation-starter since I chose photos from my previous travels, they were easy to pack in my luggage, and they were a great everyday reminder of home while I was abroad. 

I also definitely recommend Sticky9--the site was easy to use, and shipping was quick and climate-conscious; the process overall was carbon-neutral (which means there was a net amount of 0 carbon emissions). The magnets themselves were also top-notch--while they aren't glossy and luxe by any means, the matte print was clear and vibrant. And they're holding up well even after four months in a home with small, energetic children. 

If you have any questions about the site, or about study abroad in general, let me know. And for those who've studied abroad--what did you bring your host families? The more ideas, the better!

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Ephémère: Plaid Scarf + Cognac Blazer

Jardin Luxembourg, Paris
plaid scarf outfit
plaid scarf outfit
plaid scarf outfit
plaid scarf outfit
Blazer, Forever 21 | Scarf, H&M | Button-down, thrifted | Skirt, China | Boots, Target | Necklace, Love Nail Tree
Photos by Shekinah

The goodbyes have already begun--and they're even more indefinite than last time.

Last time, I bid farewell to Amherst friends who'd graduate before my return. I began dreading our separation over six months in advance; and when it was time to leave, I was an emotional mess (to put it mildly). Melancholy completely overwhelmed the allure of adventure, of my year abroad. 

Last time, we were unsure of when we'd see each other again--after all, we'd be dispersed across the country. 

This time, as I say goodbye to my Bordeaux friends, the question is less "when," but "if." 

This time, our homes are oceans apart. This time, there are no regular university-organized reunions. This time, nothing links us but a tenuous, fleeting experience--a handful of course meetings or rehearsals, the occasional cultural outing, a few frenzied group study sessions, one particularly-resonant conversation.

Last time, I left full of angst. This time, that angst is absent. These goodbyes are bittersweet, but nothing more.

I wonder why. Have I become desensitized? I'm no stranger to waltzing in and out of people's lives, though it's an often-disorienting dance I'd rather avoid. But waltzing in and out of different worlds is an innate part of this year's agenda.

This dance was briefer and less intense than the last. Here, I've had only a scattering of deeper conversations and real bonding experiences. Maybe it was the language barrier, maybe it was the difficulty of organizing hangouts--but here, I feel as if the rawer side of myself never emerged. There were no late-night heart-to-hearts, no endless hours struggling in professors' offices, no regular dinner catchups, no just existing with each other in the same place nearly 24/7. 

I'm both entirely ready to leave (really because of the school system), but also entirely not. I wish I had more time to forge deeper bonds, to fall more in love with the language. Shorter waltzes are less draining, less emotionally demanding, but also less satisfying. I almost wish this imminent departure were tinged with angst and suffering, because that would've meant I'd made incredibly close friends.

But what does that mean anyways? I now speak only occasionally to the kindred souls I couldn't let go of last time. Some already feel like absolute strangers. But I still hold the moments we shared close to my heart.

There's a time and place for everything. This time was short and this place was foreign. This waltz was a rich and unsettling frenzy. 

I'm not sure if I'll see many of these friends again, if any. Would they come visit me in England? Across the ocean in the US? Would I go visit them? Will we even message each other occasionally?

I don't know, but I'm grateful for these ephemeral moments. For their patience as I stumble over words, for their willingness to welcome me into their close-knit groups, for their keen interest in my culture and their enthusiasm for sharing their own. 

Classes are over, and I have two weeks left. The music has slowed, and I will do my best to savor the final notes. 

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Study Abroad: French vs. American University System

study abroad french university system
For the 2016-2017 academic year, I'm studying abroad in Europe. This semester, I tackle life in Bordeaux with the Middlebury School in France. Here begins a series of my reflections on this uprooting experience.

They said school abroad would be a breeze--I instead got a hurricane. 

The proof? Let's look at last week in numbers:

Times I cried in front of my profs--2
Whopping grade I got on my math midterm--8.5/20 (somehow still a passing grade in France)
How done I am with the French university system--unmeasurable

As a student at a rigorous American liberal arts college, I'm well-versed in academic intensity. And so I believed them--I believed the general notion that school abroad is stress-free. But the French university system is a wild world of its own. The shock was twofold: both the academic culture and structure are stark contrasts. 

To help make the transition smoother for future study abroad students (and to attempt to voice my unrest diplomatically), I've compiled a list of the most striking differences between the two academic systems. 

Here's what I've noted about the French system:

1. Organisation is nearly nonexistent

Syllabi are a foreign concept in France--for instance, in lit courses, you're very lucky to get a sheet detailing which works you'll study and when. Most times, you'll get a list of the novels (called une bibliographie), and you're expected to pace yourself throughout the semester. There will by no means be specific page numbers to read for each class meeting.

Since the syllabus doesn't exist, it's also very possible to get a surprise major assignment at any point--for instance, my French lit prof added a paper worth 25% of our grade to the agenda with only 3 weeks left in the semester. 

This lack of structure also manifests itself in class location and meeting times--my math course randomly changed locations throughout the semester, and additional meetings were added with little notice. From what I've heard, scheduling courses administratively is a nightmare, since there's often a shortage of classrooms. Of course scheduling courses from a student perspective is no jaunt through the park either--because courses for majors (la licence) are very predetermined, the French students often have little choice, so course options might be released as little as a few days before the semester begins. 


2. Courses are long

My shortest course here was 1.5 hours, while in the US, my longest course is 1.5 hours. And my longest course in France was a 3 hour math recitation (travaux dirigés/TDs--more about these later), which is unheard of in the US. 

The majority of my courses were about 2 hours--and for 2 of my 5 courses, that was the only meeting we had each week. When class time was 2+ hours, we often got a short break, but not all my profs were that generous. 

The French philosophy is really to keep students in class longer (my literature and math counterparts had 25+ hours a week, more than double my usual 12-hour load at Amherst!), but to assign less homework. Which brings me to my next point...

3. What homework? 

In my literature classes, I had at most 3 grades for the entire semester--one presentation, one paper, and one final. In most cases, I only had a presentation and final. That didn't make things easier. One: there was still the steady stream of work such as regular readings (harder to keep up with because lack of course structure). And two: because there were so few grades, the pressure to do well could be suffocating--these projects were sometimes 50% of our grade.

In my French math course, I had only a midterm and final, and there was no formal assigned homework, which was unthinkable compared to my weekly problem sets in the US. No homework sounds like a dream, but it was actually a nightmare. Instead, we zipped through exercises in the recitations/TDs, leaving me totally lost--I usually spend several hours wrestling with proofs on my own and in office hours, so the rushed nature of the in-course exercises made it difficult for me to grasp the concepts.


4. "Put name cards on your desks, please."

Speaking of office hours, forget about those--they don't exist in France. The system overall is much less personal, especially from a liberal arts standpoint. We had little contact with profs outside of class, and also, sadly, in-class--I felt as if we were being talked at most of the time, rather than discussing. 

Of course, the class sizes weren't much help--my lectures (cours magistral/CM) were over 100 people, and my discussions/TDs had often 30+ students. Near the end of the semester, my lit TD prof still didn't know most of our names, asking us to make name cards for our desks. And that was actually a laudable effort--other profs didn't even try to call us by name. 

But, the depersonalization is mutual--students rarely call profs by name, instead opting for "monsieur" or "madame," wheras in the US, it's considered rude to call a teacher just "teacher" or "professor."

5. Vibrant social life happens off-campus

One of the things I miss most about the US is my college community. I miss lounging (okay more like frantically studying) in the dorm common rooms, working out on-campus, heading to the library at nearly any hour of the day, chatting with friends in the dining hall.

In France, most students go to class and leave--few students live in university dorms, and even then, the housing is peripheral to central campus. There's really no reason to stay: for one, there are fewer university groups, especially when it comes to music. I tried a university-affiliated orchestra at the beginning of the semester, but it was extremely small and not extraordinarily advanced. Additionally, facilities have shorter hours and aren't as well-equipped: the libraries often close around 5pm and dining halls are open only for lunch. Gyms were an even sadder story: the fitness center at Bordeaux Montaigne, a university with an enrollment of 15,500, paled in comparison to my gym at Amherst College, with an enrollment of 1800. 

A popular option for French students, however, was to take a regular university-organized fitness class for extra credit. This didn't apply to me, so I instead joined a private gym and community orchestra. 



6. Grades and exams are stringent

As you might've noted in the rundown of my disastrous week, grades--even for major exams--are always out of 20. These grades don't convert directly to American percentages. There's a French saying that "14 is a good grade, 16 is for the best student, 18 is for the professor, and 20 is for God." It's incredibly difficult to get high scores, especially in quantitative classes. For instance, several of my math classmates were getting 4s and 5s in their Topology class--while scores that low aren't the norm (the average is usually 10), it's very possible to have some comically dismal results. 

The culprit? Partial credit isn't really a thing. On my sad math midterm, I miswrote a formula that I later had to use on 20% of the exam. I got no points for those problems because I got a wrong answer using the wrong formula, even though I used the right steps and methods. In the US, grading is much more generous--errors don't tend to follow you unless they make future problems much easier. And even then, it's very difficult to get no points for a problem you attempted and finished. 

As for exams, the process is intensely official--for a simple midterm, I had to write my date and place of birth on the cover page and sign my name. For finals, we have the added luxury of assigned seats and anonymous codes. Even better, you might not be automatically registered for the final as an international student, and have to go on a wild goose chase with the administration to even take the final. Content-wise, exams are also ambiguous--profs normally won't tell you what to study, and you might be tested on things you skimmed over in-class.


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The transition from the American to French system was disorienting for me, especially as a liberal arts student. My academic experience has been mostly negative, but I've definitely learned to be more independent and flexible; you really have no choice when profs are less accessible and syllabi don't exist. And ultimately, my goal this semester wasn't to master the French university system--my focus was language and cultural immersion. 

Regardless of any stuggle, remember why you're doing what you're doing and why you are where you are--let's refocus and push on.

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