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A cross-cultural world

Note: This post will be the only post about the academic portion of my travels -- namely, four days of summer school and four days of the IACCP congress. There are explorations and photos mixed in, but no unfortunate misunderstandings or awkward bathroom experiences. I type this while on the train to Paris, so rest assured the explorations will continue! I ended my last post with a brief mention of the main reason why I'm gallivanting across Europe for a month: I was accepted to co-chair and give an oral symposium at the International Association for Cross-Cultural Psychology congress, which has been going on for more than 40 years, and was later accepted to attend IACCP's pre-conference "Ph.D. Summer School" for grad students and recent Ph.D. graduates.

After my crash-landing nap at the hostel, I made a vague attempt to look like I hadn't just crawled out of bed and headed downstairs to meet my fellow summer schoolers over local rosé and champagne. I was one of three students from the U.S. out of 43 students total, who represented 21 countries from six continents around the world.

To give a brief run-down of its set-up, over the previous two months we chose a "stream" related to cross-cultural psychology -- namely, Acculturation (the psychological process of encountering a new culture), Culture & Genomics, and Culture & Development. I chose the first, which was then subdivided into three groups -- one on applied implications (i.e., for applied research with a particularly concrete focus that results in real change in the world; my research is theoretical in nature), one on acculturation in context (individuals within groups, groups within societies), and one on the cognitive (mental) and affective (emotional) processes of acculturation.

I chose the third, and was happy to be placed into a group of five others from China, Poland, Turkey, and (x2) Canada. After familiarizing ourselves with the articles we'd been assigned to read and critique, we spent the following three and a half days assessing any holes in the literature, developing research questions and broader theoretical frameworks (i.e., why we would expect certain answers to our questions based on established theories), and developing a research plan to carry out studies to test that central question.

It was intense. Imagine squeezing a semester-long crash-course on research into only three and a half days. We worked 14-hour days in close-knit social situations, and because we came from such different research backgrounds, finding solutions that interested and fit every member felt nearly impossible at times. We gave presentations every day, first for 15 minutes and then for 30 and 40 minutes -- and as might be expected, this kept stress levels quite high. However, I had great group members, and over the course of this experience was so, so grateful to be able to meet so many incredible people.

It might have been the single most important decision of this trip, to apply for a summer school about which I knew very little -- because if I'd started to feel an odd affection for Reims when exploring it alone, it was nothing to exploring when with friends.

We made a point of sharing every meal together -- always within small groups out of our large number, but also switching up the people with whom we ate and spent time. Whether it was having drinks at a nearby pub or pizzas on Place Drouet d'Erlon (our frequent haunt), or even watching the World Cup final (with several German friends in attendance) first in a public plaza and later in a ritzy restaurant off the main square of the Notre-Dame de Reims, our "off" time away from summer school was just as sacred.

On our last full day, we went to a champagne tasting at Charles de Casanove in north Reims, just across from the Porte de Mars (i.e., Roman gate from previous post). We learned about the champagne-making process from vine to glass, which was far more fascinating than I'd expected, and tasted three varieties including one -- my favorite -- that had been aged seven years in their cellars.

On our last day, each of our nine groups (three within each of the three streams) presented their final research proposal in a professional presentation in front of the larger summer school, as well as a few professors who had arrived early for the conference. Each and every one was a success, and engendered interesting discussion for the hours afterward while we had a picnic in a nearby park.

And then began the conference.

Regardless of how glad I was to participate in summer school, it was nothing to the feeling of relief and gratitude once the conference began. IACCP kicked off with a welcome reception in the courtyard of Palais du Tau (I know, super fancy, right?), where almost 900 cultural psychologists stood talking, hugging, greeting old friends and meeting new colleagues. There was free unlimited champagne from Reims, and waiters wound their way through the crowd with fancy hors d'oeuvres filled with things I couldn't pronounce.

And not only did I arrive with two friends from summer school, but as overwhelming as the number "900" seemed, I already knew one out of every 20 people I saw thanks purely to summer school. After greeting and chatting with Virginia and Oliver, it was easy to wind my way through the crowds to hug friends, meet their own friends and advisors, and pass through the evening with company, rather than struggling to stay with a single person or group.

This difference was also quite marked at the congress dinner the following night, which was held in Halles du Boulingrin, a covered market in north Reims. The 900 chairs and many long tables fit perfectly in the space, and even as I walked in alone (and accepted the first glass of champagne that was handed to me at the door -- oh my goodness, this conference), I immediately saw friends standing by the tables piled with meats, cheeses, and breads, or sitting at tables within reach of bottles of local Bordeaux, or greeting professors and big-wigs in cross-cultural psychology.

I'd also like to throw in here that I handed a slice of apple pie to John Berry -- the John Berry, Michael Jackson of acculturation research.

And somewhere, on someone's camera from summer school, exists a photo with Geert Hofstede -- the Geert Hofstede, Elvis of nation-level data -- standing in the background and looking vaguely in the camera's direction while I stand there, mouth open in a look of silent excitement, wishing I had a better reason to introduce myself than mere adoration.

In any case.

The conference was set up as most psychology conferences are, with a series of 1.5-hour symposia held from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m., one or two keynote speakers who are big deals in the field, maybe 60 posters sprinkled throughout the halls with their authors standing close by, one or two 15-minute coffee (and croissant) breaks, and lunch. Each symposium comprised four to six interrelated presentations (e.g., in content, theory, approach), and within any given symposium session there were as few as four and up to eight possible symposia to choose from.

And in case anyone had even the slightest doubt of my nerdiness, I have no shame in confessing that one of my favorite parts of conferences is sitting down with a highlighter and attacking the program of symposia to decide what to see and when.

Throughout the conference, summer school attendees did a great job of showing their support by attending each other's presentations. It was a great opportunity, linking the professional side of these individuals we met at summer school, the fun side we met in the evenings, and the academic researcher side that made itself known at the front of a classroom.

As such, it became a common question to ask the day and time of each friend's presentation and to show up at that time, camera and smile ready, to hear more about their research.

But when I was asked, and when I replied that mine was Thursday at 8 in the morning, I would get blank stares, slightly open mouths, and a slow, "Good luck! You'll be great!"

To borrow the vocabulary of a summer schooler from London, who in their right minds goes to symposia at 8 in the bloody morning.

I end this statement with a period because it's not a question; I already know the answer.

No one goes to symposia at 8 in the bloody morning.

And so I was delighted to show up for my talk early Thursday morning and see several summer school friends who had braved the late night (i.e., after dancing at the congress dinner until past midnight), the early morning, and the broken tram to reach Campus Croix Rouge. Regardless of the hour, I had a good-sized audience that mixed familiar and non-familiar faces, and had the opportunity to greet and chat with many as they walked in and took their seats.

Sharon, my co-chair, gave the audience a lovely introduction to my background and research, and then it was my turn to take the stage, introduce each presenter and his or her research, and finally to present my own.

The very first hint that I wanted to pursue a career in academia is my love of teaching. There are few things on earth that don't make me enthusiastic -- anything can be exciting if construed in the right way -- but there are many fewer things on earth that make me "come alive". As much as I love shopping, for example, it doesn't make me "come alive".

But when standing in front of a classroom and teaching something near and dear to my heart -- which in the past has ranged from entire sections of introductory psychology to a guest lecture on emission and reflection nebulae -- I come alive. In those precious moments, there are few places I would rather be.

As I started speaking, I realized that this wasn't necessarily a one-way road: I wasn't sharing research with a blank wall (although I'd done plenty of that while pacing in my hostel room), I was engaging in a discussion with individuals who were either interested in what I do or happened to wake up early that morning and couldn't think of anything better to do than to listen to presentations on sources and modalities of cross-cultural social support for an hour and a half while the rest of France kept sleeping.

Either way, I was teaching. No notes, no nerves, no hesitations -- simply having an intellectual discussion with the audience in front of me. And I loved every second of it.

The following two nights were spent in celebration of the successful completion of our presentations, whether they be oral or poster, and of yet another IACCP. Our group of summer schoolers sat in the plaza outside our hostel with local wine, champagne, and beer, talking and laughing until the early hours of the morning. We explored the town, explored the local (cheap) cuisine, compared conference experiences, and discussed travel plans for next year's IACCP, which will be in San Cristóbal.

One of my favorite experiences was the Notre-Dame light show that played at 11 and 11:30 p.m. each night and resembled Disney's World of Color: Elaborate images and colors were projected onto the face of the cathedral while set to music, showing the many stages of its construction over the centuries. By that point in the evening, the weather was perfect -- all memories of the day's 95º heat, 90% humidity, and total lack of A/C at the conference -- and we simply sat and enjoyed the incredible sights and sounds around us.


Okay. Academic spiel over, and two and a half weeks of explorations ahead. Even as I type this while traveling somewhere through Île-de-France, I can't help but truly miss Reims. My aching feet and new ergonomic shoes are proof of our daily six-mile treks throughout the city, but those treks were what truly made the city feel like a temporary home. I know most streets and alleys, recognize most sights and sounds, and have come to love everything that made Reims the little jewel that it was.

A room with a view

While my parents were staying at my apartment over the past spring break, I woke up one morning to see a picture my dad had uploaded to Facebook of the view from my balcony. It looked almost alien -- beautiful, yes, with its mix of mountain ranges and sea of palm trees, but certainly not what I'd woken up to every morning for the past two years. When I asked him about it, he shrugged and said he'd cropped the rest out -- that is, the ugliness of my neighborhood that separated my apartment from the paradise of northern mountains.

Sounds legit. I'll admit that I crop a fair amount in my own photos.

I could have gotten a better view from my apartment -- there were plenty of studio lofts that faced the pool far below, with its lovely greenery, hot tub, grills, and lounges. But to have a room with a view would cost me an extra $100 per month, which would easily translate to one triple-shot caramel latte every Saturday morning, brunch with a mimosa every Sunday afternoon, and at least four dresses at Ross.

Priorities, y'all.

Rooms with a view come at a price, which is simply something I've come to expect. And after living in Reims for almost a week, I can say that the entire town resembles something of a "village with a view".

Note: I say "village" to appease the government of France; Reims is still just as sprawling as the drive from Phoenix to Disneyland, but without the windmills. I type this while giving my feet a rest after a 30-minute walk to our conference center, which on the map seemed quite close.

It shouldn't come as a surprise when I say that Reims is a historic town; all of Europe is a network of historic towns. But in this case, I'm not talking medieval times -- I'm talking 80 BC. Reims was actually founded by the Romans 30 years before Julius Caesar's conquest of Gaul. Its previous inhabitants formed the tribe of Remi, hence its name.

Having spent time in Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Nazareth, and surrounding areas, 80 BC shouldn't sound quite as impressive as it does; but the Holy Land, or at least what we see of it today, is quite new. After decades, centuries, millennia of raids, conquests, fires, and destruction, each city is built on the shadow of the last, so that a staircase stretching 50 feet underground is one of the only ways to see a snippet of the ancient Roman viae linking parts of the city with the central trading routes around it.

France has done a pretty good job of steering clear of warfare. I'll add a mental asterisk to that statement, because Reims was a central point of attack during both World Wars, but even so -- the ability to walk three minutes from the town's train station and stand before an 1,800-year-old, 40-foot-high Roman gate into the ancient city just blows my mind.

And what's more, it's no big deal.

I repeat: Reims is a room -- a mansion -- with a view.

So on that very first day, I walked only a few blocks north of Guillaume's apartment to visit the Basilique St. Remi, one of the most important Romanesque abbeys in France. It was built in 1050 to house relics of Saint Remi, who baptized Clovis (i.e., first king of the Franks) in 498.

After a slightly longer trek into the southernmost tip of the city's centre, I came to the Carnegie Library (Bibliothèque Carnegie), donated to the city after its substantial destruction in WWI. It is in this area that Reims feels like the stereotypical network of perfect French streets, narrow alleys of cobblestones and window baskets overflowing with flowers, small courtyards with chirping birds, and the smell of freshly baked bread around ever corner.

By this point, I was famished -- and I followed my nose to a patisserie in a small square surrounded by the Palais du Justice and Opéra house. The 125-year-old patisserie, simply called Paul, not only boasted a window full of baguette sandwiches, pastries, and salads, but also prices fit for any grad student.

France, in case anyone was wondering, makes Disneyland prices seem reasonable.

Armed with a salami-pickle baguette, Evian, and three chocolate-stuffed beignets, I found a table in the square outside and sat, like a little French woman, to enjoy my food and my surroundings. My table afforded a great view of the open windows directly above the patisserie, where the chefs -- both men and women -- rolled and baked bread while chatting happily and waving to customers in the street below.

The Palais du Tau, which sat directly across the street, was the former palace of the archbishops from medieval times. It has since been turned into a museum, and is where the conference will be hosting a welcome reception (and drinks...let's not forget the free drinks) this evening.

And only a few blocks away stood the magnificent, regal Notre-Dame de Reims, which functioned as my landmark (much as A-Mountain functions while in Tempe) as I made my way around the city centre. It loomed up from above the rooftops, casting many of the houses and shops below in shadow even at noon.

Before I discuss Notre-Dame, I wanted to make a side note about public toilettes in Reims and, as I hear, in Paris as well.

Toilets should not be hard to come by.

Walmart has toilets.

Target has toilets.

Grocery stores have toilets.

But the French treat toilets like the most obscure pair of gardening gloves that only one out of ten Home Depots actually holds.

When I first arrived at the Paris airport, I was parched. Arizona girls equate "parched" with "early death", and regardless of the 94% humidity, I was determined to find a water fountain.

But after butchering my way through a few sentences in French, I was told that the airport didn't have water fountains.

Not gardening gloves -- for all I know, and with the number of Guccis, Pradas, and Louis Vuittons in that airport, they might have had some designer gardening gloves sitting on a shelf for 4.500€. No, they didn't have water fountains.

At the look on my face, the woman behind the information desk held a finger to her lips, ducked beneath the desk, and reemerged with a bottle of cold water. Bless her soul.

But the story has remained the same in the days since: France just doesn't drink a lot of water. Even their coffees are 4 ounces, tops.

And now we know why: No one can afford to experience a full bladder when outside their own homes.

So let's talk a bit about my experience with public toilettes.

After practically dancing from Paul to the tourism office outside Notre-Dame, three women each pointed me in different directions to find a public restroom. I danced my way around the block, into a few museums, into (what I later found out was) a government building from which I was promptly shooed out, and finally -- in a state of desperation -- I happened to see a small blue sign on the side of a stone wall that read Toilettes / WC.

Thank God almighty.

I rushed down the stairs into a small basement space, and almost ran headlong into a desk at the entrance. A woman, who was flipping casually through what seemed to be the French version of People, looked up, popped her bubble gum in my direction, and watched me...because I'd frozen in my steps.

In uncertain situations, I get really socially awkward. I mean, like, painfully socially awkward.

And when I saw the small container of Euros sitting in front of this bubble-popping, magazine-reading Guardian of the Toilet, my first reaction was incredulity. Certainly -- certainly -- it didn't cost money to use the bathroom when there were none else available in the town.

But then, people don't sit at bathroom desks reading magazines with Euro-filled containers just lying around.

So I pointed at the container, mouth hanging slightly open in a question I didn't know how to articulate in French, and then looked back up at the Guardian. She was still staring. I pointed vaguely at her, mouth still open, then pointed back to the container. My gaze -- and my finger -- drifted to the bathroom stalls to the left, then back to the container.

And, still facing the Guardian, finger still extended, I side-stepped like a crab into the nearest bathroom stall and locked the door.

Even now, days later, my super-ego is shaking its head in shame. When I rushed out the door several minutes later, the Guardian was shaking her head, as well -- although I imagine for a different reason.

Immediately outside was the tourism office directly responsible for Notre Dame-specific information. It is, after all, a major Catholic destination and sees more than one million visitors each year. It was built on the site of Roman baths in the third and fourth centuries, and has since flourished into a massive 1,000-year-old cathedral. It is currently one of the top 10 largest, and longest, holy sites in the world.

But its tourism office was a disappointment. It sat, crumbling and ruined, missing half the iron letters in its title, in the center of what was otherwise a beautiful plaza. My first thought was one of tackiness at trying to achieve a symbol of history, when its towering neighbor didn't even have to try.

Oh, how little I knew.

The tourism office was one of tens of thousands of sites destroyed by German bombing in WWI. I mentioned in a previous post that Reims boasts close proximity to Germany, hence a wide variety of German foods; well, in times of war, there are downsides to this proximity. Other than to replace the roof, it has since remained untouched and yet fully functional.

The inside of the Notre Dame is simply incredible, and I've seen a fair share of cathedrals and basilicas. On the inside, they've set up a series of historical images and descriptions (thankfully translated in English and German) describing the cathedral's near destruction during World Wars I and II. From 1914 to 1917, for example, Reims was almost constantly under attack. In just 10 days in April of 1917, more than 37,000 shells fell on Reims -- which caused such terror that the mayor moved the town hall to the cellars of a nearby winery. (A priceless picture showed a table full of men, surrounded by bottles of champagne.)

Out of 13,806 houses in Reims, by the end of WWI only 17 homes were left undamaged; and decades later, the post-WWII French-German reconciliation occurred right in the heart of the cathedral.

Truthfully, an incredible place.

I made my way to the Plaza du Forum in north Reims, which -- unlike all other plazas I'd yet seen -- was sunk into the ground. A large stage for summer concerts was erected at the bottom of the plaza, farthest from the surrounding streets, and along the back stone wall were several arched wooden doors.

No one would have known that those doors hid an 1,800-year-old Gallo-Roman crypt, the cryptoportique. (It's unclear whether it was originally meant for grain or bodies because, you know, the two are pretty similar.) The inside was a little underwhelming -- local student artists had set up a series of galleries relating food to four-dimensional touch, and it might just be me, but I'm a little more interested in ancient crypts than I am in a dish of pasta made out of aluminum foil.

Even so, the element that struck me most was the smell that hit me in the face as I walked into the crypt. If my eyes had been closed, I might have sworn that I was back in some of the underground crypts in Nazareth or Jerusalem -- the smell of ancient history (read: dust, rock, and stale air, which just doesn't sound as romantic) was discernible immediately.

My last stops comprised la Porte de Mars, a gate built in the early 200s AD that led directly into the Gallo-Roman city, followed by an expansive and incredibly old and beautiful cemetery (circa the early 1700s), and Foujita Chapel, an Anglican chapel from the mid-1960s known for its wall-to-wall frescoes.

And then, thoroughly exhausted and aching from my walk, I took a tram to Comèdie in west Reims to check into summer school. For those who didn't know, I've just finished a four-day intensive summer school program through the International Association for Cross-Cultural Psychology, which brought together 43 students from 21 countries around the world. It was an intense few days, stretching between 12 and 14 hours each day and relying almost exclusively on interdisciplinary group work, but the experience was unbeatable.

I will explain a little more in the near future (nothing crazy, just a paragraph or so), but for now, I will say that the first thing I did upon arriving at the hostel was to set down my bags, climb into bed, and fall into a deep, jet-lagged sleep.

A tale of drainage grates

Every family has their fair share of embarrassing stories that, regardless of attempts to keep under wraps, have a tendency to spread to many ears in a short space of time. Most of my family's Jessica-specific stories involve red-headed temper tantrums and clear illustrations of common sense gone awry. Another favorite is a family trip to Washington, D.C. when I was in fifth grade. This marked the first time I'd ever experienced vending machine peanuts (which became a twice-daily staple during that trip) and, more importantly, my hatred for trekking through cities in cold, wet, miserable weather. There are many reasons why I now live in Arizona; this hatred is one of them.

In short, I was trying to catch up with my parents on stubby little 10-year-old legs, tripped over my own feet one too many times, and gravity took hold. My parents found me sitting on a drainage grate in the pouring rain with soaked peanuts scattered around me, crying with sufficient volume to let D.C. know precisely what I thought of it.

14 years later, my inner 10-year-old was threatening to pay another visit.

Google Images has a nasty tendency to lie. So do travel sites, travel blogs, and inspirational posters with the clichéd Eiffel Tower in the center. So let me tell all y'all the truth:

It actually rains in France.

I know, shocking. Google search "France" and scan through the images that pop up -- I can guarantee there isn't even the slightest hint that the Parisian skies have deviated from a glorious Carolina blue since the last ice age.

In retrospect, I now question each and every BBC series that depicts a bright and sunny London, because we should all know that's a lie. Even after devouring every episode of The Vicar of Dibley with the enthusiasm of a child on Halloween, it never really struck me that blue skies don't mean a hell of a lot when the actors are darting around puddles the size of baby whales.

So to avoid any crushed hopes and dreams, let's assume rain exists everywhere on earth. Except maybe Arizona.

So there I was, dressed in my cute little French outfit with wedge sandals, skinny jeans, a loose Ann Taylor blouse, and Camille's leopard-print scarf, standing in the middle of a gray and rainy Reims and looking for the closest drainage grate to cry.

But let me backtrack a bit.

Public transportation in France is as temperamental as curly hair in Florida. When trains are delayed by 30 minutes for no reason whatsoever and it's perfectly acceptable to park the bus down an alley, pull out your iPod Touch, and take a 15-minute-break (and be damned with the bus schedule posted outside), I think I'd rather chance Florida without hairspray.

As a side note, France is great. I really like France. But that doesn't mean every idea is well executed. Public transportation is one, toilettes are another. There's a reason why we've invented those timed faucets you see in public places that gush water for five to ten seconds and immediately stop. Why are they important? They save water, and no one needs to spend more than five to ten seconds washing their hands.

Similarly, there's a reason why we do not generalize these timed faucets to showers. Why? Because no matter how environmentally conscious you might be, a five-second shower is realistic only for naked mole rats and other hairless critters with no real need to scrub, rinse, and repeat.

If you haven't noticed, I have a lot of hair. Trying to wash a frizzy mop of curls in five-second increments is like trying to wash a car with an eyedropper.

Another bad idea? French toilets.

Let's talk about what it's like for a woman to perch on a toilet bowl like a pigeon on a power line. If this battle for balance doesn't surpass underwater hockey as a valuable sport in our society, I don't know what does.


After I saw that my first train to Champagne-Ardenne was running 30 minutes late, I started to panic. My connecting train, after all, was scheduled to leave for Reims only 10 minutes after my initial arrival time, so the likelihood of getting to Reims at a reasonable hour was beginning to look doubtful, if not impossible. I rushed to a nearby SNCF employee to explain my situation, and received only pursed lips and a disdainful "It will be fine, it will be fine" and, within a second, a turned back.

Duolingo didn't prepare me for this, either.

To shorten a much longer journey than was necessary, I got there in the end...and was to be found wandering through the Gare de Reims (i.e., train station) with ringing ears from the 200-mph trip.

Reims is laid out at an awkwardly tilted slant of a grid system, with central streets stretching from NE to SW and every street in between zig-zagging whichever way the cobblestones wish to go. The gare is located conveniently at the northernmost tip of town, with the remainder stretching south and across a canal toward the west. That being said, it should have seemed simple to get from the gare to my AirBnB at the southernmost tip, particularly with the aid of public transportation. (Yes, at that point my level of jadedness toward public transportation was still in its infancy.)

So I pulled out my handy little step-by-step itinerary to see how best to get to Guillaume's apartment, which seemed relatively simple: Take Tram 4 from the train station to a bus stop only a few blocks from his apartment, make one turn, and you're there.

Well, this girl arrived only seconds after Tram 4 pulled away from the station, with no hint of its next return.

It was cold.

It was wet.

The drainage grates in Reims didn't look quite as comfortable as those in D.C.

So I stood there, considering my options, and decided it couldn't possibly be too bad of a walk. Although I didn't have a map (it would seem that Reims is too small to warrant map-making attention), I could easily follow the tram tracks to the correct bus stop and go from there.

So let's list all the things wrong with this naïve assumption.

First, I'll admit that I have a gut instinct to roll my eyes when someone says that Phoenix is a "sprawling" city. Phoenicians wouldn't know a sprawling city if it hit them in the face. The Valley of the Sun has the advantage of laying within, well, a Valley. Its natural boundaries force neighborhoods to grow on top of one another, and the result is that there are at least two Starbucks and two Taco Bells on each block. (Hint: these are indicative of my priorities in life.)

Reims, my friends, is a sprawling little town. It is officially classified by the French government as a village, but if this counts as a village, Phoenix should count as a state with at least 25 representatives.

Second, although I tend to have quite a reasonable attention span when it matters, I also tend to be easily distracted in novel situations. If the typical joke is "Ooh, shiny!", mine would be something along the lines of "Ooh, cobblestones! Baguettes! Statues! Basilicas! Vespas! French words! Macarons! Cute outfits!"

In other words, it took me all of three minutes to find myself completely separated from those damned tram tracks, and without the aid of a map, each and every winding street looked like a replica of the last.

Suddenly those drainage grates were looking quite comfortable, after all.

After two hours and more than five miles of wandering through Reims and asking intermittently for directions in broken French, I was soaked to the bone (yeah, guess who forgot her umbrella) and cold enough to miss the Arizona summer. I had no way of contacting Guillaume, no way of finding one of Reims' few Wi-Fi areas, and no way of using a compass to head in a vague direction if I didn't have a clue where I was in the first place. The streets I had written in my itinerary were unfortunately a collection of names no resident recognized, and therefore could only give me vague directions toward unknown landmarks.

To make matters worse, I stuck out like a sore thumb. In Paris, tourism is something to be expected; in a small town like Reims, where very few people speak English and even fewer people trek the streets with backpacks in tow, I was the subject of much attention. It was an odd conjunction in which I was surrounded by individuals, but with none of whom I could actually interact. It was a humbling, and incredibly lonely, experience.

Oh, and let's not forget the moment when, after only half an hour of slipping over wet cobblestones, my five-year-old Target sandals broke, leaving me with only a pair of stilettos (for summer school and the conference) and wedge sandals (which I most certainly wasn't going to wear in this setting).

If it was difficult finding directions toward southern Reims, imagine the difficulty of shoe shopping when you don't have a clue what European shoe size you wear, can't figure out European sale systems (price as-is, or an additional percentage off? where do you even find the price on a box covered in French and German?), and can only hold one-word sentences with the men and women attempting to help you find a pair.

But armed with a pair of 12€ sandals, I finally reached the far end of Reims and one of the last stops along a central bus line. In desperation and aching from my pointless travels, I sat down in the bus stop to wait out the rain, leaned my head against the glass behind me, and stared up at the wall behind me.

Instead, I caught sight of the first map of Reims I'd seen, posted conveniently only inches above my head.

And after a minute of searching, I was delighted to see that Guillaume's apartment was only a few turns away.

And so it was that I arrived three hours after my intended arrival thoroughly soaked, exhausted, and grumpy. Only minutes after Guillaume showed me to my room, I was to be found passed out on the bed with his cat, Mimoun, curled up beside me.

I woke four hours later to the sound of English.

Oh, what a sweet, sweet sound.

I had gone through so much in the last 12 hours that I tromped into the living room, all manners forgotten, and stared at the couple sitting on the couch, taking in everything from the woman's Americanized appearance to the man's Florida State University t-shirt.

The first thing that came out of my mouth was an incredibly intelligent, "I like FSU. I go to ASU."

And that's how I met Dawn and Chad.

They had flown to France for their first time to follow the Tour de France, which had passed by Reims earlier that very day. After staying a night with Guillaume, however, their train tickets to Paris fell through (shocking) and they went back to the only place they knew -- Guillaume's.

The four of us spent the rest of the night chatting together, sharing champagne from one of Reims's fancy wineries (Dawn's contribution), and trekking to the city centre for dinner at Brasserie Les 3 Brasseurs. It was a perfect end to a harrowing day.

The next morning was a slow one, which was precisely what I needed, given my still evident jet lag. Guillaume and I had a breakfast of English muffins, apple preserves, and Nescafé (surprisingly good, or maybe I was desperate) while watching World Cup coverage on the French news. (Given how little I understand soccer even in English, this made no difference.)

And then, without a thought of the itinerary in my pocket, I set off. The weather was warmer, the skies lighter, and my spirit of adventure reawakened. Fed, watered, caffeinated, and armed with Dawn's town map, Reims became an entirely different city: No longer did I feel alone, but rather one out of hundreds of people wandering the cobbled streets with baguettes under their arms, newspapers in hand, responsive to my smiles and murmured greetings.

And thus my day began, exploring a new world under a canopy of smoking chimneys, towering trees, and cathedral spires that stretched toward the sky.


a note on French gastronomy

North Carolina is the country's leading exporter of pork products. I grew up with a hell of a lot of pork. I'll quote shrimp-loving Bubba and say that from country ham and bacon to baked ham and sausage patties to sausage links and hot dogs to salami and barbecue to Slim Jims and pork skins to proscuitto and (my all-time childhood favorite if cooked by my father) SPAM, I know pork.

The French, it would seem, also know pork.

Pork is everywhere. I don't know to what extent this spreads to Paris and other parts of the country, but Reims also boasts close proximity to Germany...hence an onslaught of sauerkraut, home-brewed ales, and flammkuchen (read: flatbread pizza) covered in every kind of pork you can imagine.

When in Reims

I'm one of those people whose head is so far in the clouds when it comes to international transportation that a movie like "Flight Plan" (you've heard of it -- Jodie Foster, kidnap on the plane, ending didn't make a wink of sense) has totally altered what I expect of my cross-Atlantic 777. We're talking hopes of spiral staircases, two-story bars, and seats that actually recline more than 5º to ensure at least an hour of sleep during a red-eye flight. Not the case whatsoever. My 777 from Dallas/Fort Worth to Paris promised to be a deathtrap from the moment I sat down in my seat and an armrest broke on impact. Or maybe when the T.V. screen on the back of the seat in front of me fizzled out of commission before we'd flown over Oklahoma. Or maybe when the overhead compartment shifted downward after a bout of turbulence, popped open, and scared the living daylights out of the (previously sleeping) woman beside me.

But it's fine. A few highly unattainable expectations dashed, but that's what power outlets and Wi-Fi access are for, right? Not quite -- not when neither is available, even though both had been promised online.

Oh it's fine, American Airlines -- I have no problem taking notes on my summer school readings on a pad of paper like it's 1985.

But at least there was free wine. And I took advantage of that free wine.

As future-oriented as I tend to be, there is often a disconnect between the present and the immediate future if the latter is a big, big deal. (I consider a month in Europe a big deal, but that might just be me.) In the weeks leading up to my departure, friends and family would make passing comments like, "Oh, you must be so excited about your trip!" or "Are you getting nervous about your trip yet?" And as much as social norms would have me agree with enthusiasm, it wasn't really the case. It hadn't "hit" me that I was leaving the country -- not while planning, not while packing, not while losing a chunk of change while converting USD to Euro at the only Wells Fargo in Tempe who would do so.

No, it didn't truly "hit" me until I was eating airplane tortellini, drinking airplane cabernet sauvignon, and remembering just how much I hate taking notes on pads of paper that I sat back and enjoyed my first exciting, terrifying "aha!" moment of "Dear God, I'm flying to Paris right now."

Maybe it was the wine.

Maybe it was the surprisingly good tortellini.

But of course, I wouldn't know good tortellini unless I'm using frozen Trader Joe's meals as a benchmark.

I enjoyed a full hour of sleep that night, broken only by the man immediately across the aisle, whose impressive snores somehow made it through my (read: Ryan's) brand new Walmart earplugs. Because I should have expected that anything bought at Walmart would work as well as the packaging would have me believe.

And after an airplane croissant, airplane yogurt, and airplane coffee, I found myself standing at customs while staring out at a foggy, cold morning whose humidity rivaled even Tampa's in the summer (i.e., 94%; if you're reading this and would classify yourself as an Arizona native, yes, humidity really does exceed 20%).

Evolutionarily speaking, it would make a hell of a lot more sense if "aha!" moments were accompanied by a mental list of all the potential dangers, warnings, and considerations worth keeping in mind about, say, a trip abroad. My Tortellini Aha! moment comprised thoughts of only the most important elements of a trip to France, Amsterdam, and the U.K. -- namely, crêpes, stroopwafels, and the Harry Potter studio only seven miles from our St. Albans hotel to which I am bound and determined to walk if all else falls through.

It kinda slipped my mind that I should be thinking of train tickets, language barriers, and cultural boundaries that I probably could have foreseen with a few more Google searches.

In short, getting a roundtrip ticket to Reims (pronounced rance with the guttural "r" that took me three months to achieve) was a nightmare. I used every combination of Duolingo phrases to work out that no, I don't speak French, yes, I'm sorry that I don't speak French, yes, I'll admit that I'm an American, and yes, I need a train ticket to a place that I have a really hard time pronouncing, thanks.

Note: Do not trust Duolingo phrases. In my 24 hours in France, I haven't used "I am calm", "I am a cute little boy", "The red dress and the cat", or "I am holding wine and milk, friend" even once. I know, shocking. Shout-out to the free French Phrases app that taught me useful phrases like "Where is the toilet?", "How much does this cost?", "Do you speak English?", and "Please help me, I'm lost and don't know what I'm doing".

If I sound like I'm whining, I'm not. I might have been mentally whining yesterday, but now that my endeavors have proven successful (i.e., I'm writing this from a cozy bed in Reims that overlooks the Canal de l'Aisne à la Marne, and miraculously secured a return ticket for July 19th), I'm not really whining...just maybe grumbling a bit.

But there I was, sitting in the French airport with a ticket to Champagne-Ardelle and a connecting train to Reims, and realizing for the first time that I was hungry. It was these little things -- needing a train ticket, wanting to eat -- that got to me very quickly, as was proven while I stood staring at a glass display of baguette sandwiches filled with ingredients I couldn't understand except for the word "mayonnaise", which -- I'll have you believe -- is actually "mayonnaise" in French.

(Kidding, kidding -- I wasn't that ill-informed.)

I ended up with a baguette that was actually quite tasty in all its mysteriously filled glory, and to this moment have no clue what I was actually eating while pedaling to charge my phone (the Belgians are clever little cookies) and repeatedly telling every person who tried to engage me in conversation that I didn't have a clue what they were saying, and that I was holding wine and milk, friend.

There were many other mix-ups throughout the day, and my supposedly one-hour trip from Charles du Gaulle airport to my AirBnB in Reims took closer to five, but I'll leave that for another post. For now, I'm content to curl back up in this cozy bed and wait until the rain passes.