Profiter (posted by Pierre en Suisse)

May 16, 2013

Hello, once again, from Switzerland. A few weeks have passed since my last journey outside of the country, which means that recently my time has been spent en profitant de la Suisse. The title of this blog, Profiter (pronounced like prof-eet-ay), is the French verb to mean to benefit from, or to take advantage of. In adding de la Suisse, I mean to say that I have spent the past few weeks in Switzerland  taking part in more of what my European home has to offer. From bake sales to road races and group hikes, the past few weeks have been pretty action packed, but I am not complaining one bit.

Two weeks following the Monument 10k in Richmond–a race I have always wanted to partake in–I ran in the Lausanne 20km, which I ran instead as my first road race. It is called the 20km because the main race is that distance, however I only ran 10km because I was running it with my University team, the Social Erasmus Committee. If you are like me and thought at first that Social Erasmus meant organizing social events, well, this is only partially correct. I serve on this committee here in Lausanne, which is responsible for organizing community service and volunteering events for exchange students. Together, we decided to run as a fundraiser, and it turned out to be a great event. While this was my first time ever competing as a runner, I grew up a swimmer, so I am very familiar with racing. What I wasn’t familiar with were French motivational expressions, since I had never heard any before. That changed during the race when I heard spectators who lined the streets shouting out to everyone, “Allez! Voici! Allez!” It was a shock at first to hear my name called out several times, but then I remembered people could read it from my number on my shirt! I must say, I quite enjoyed hearing the cheers in a foreign language.

The weekend following the race, the committee put together a bake sale, or vente de patisseries as it is called in French. We sold different desserts and delicacies from all around the world, and collected money for a children’s association here in Lausanne. I must say, we had quite the spread before us. We had fresh, homemade tiramisu, a “tarte aux pommes,” which is basically an apple pie of sorts, but different from our American version, and my contribution of chocolate chip cookies, just to name a few. Since I am quite accustomed to at least saying hello to people as they pass by when I am working a stand, a few of the other volunteers and I began to say bonjour to people in the streets. We were quickly stopped by our Swiss friend who was working with us. She explained that she felt like it wasn’t a good idea because she thought it would be bothersome to people and make them feel uncomfortable rather than more willing to stop and look at what we had. This wasn’t really something that people did in Switzerland, she told us. Instead, we ended up gathering everyone’s attention with, I kid you not, a mix of amateur musical performances orchestrated by our iPods and own voices with words on the screen, which was met with many laughs, and smiles, and even the participation of some kids who passed us. At first I was puzzled by the idea that we couldn’t say hi to people, but instead could dance in the streets. But, because we were all having so much fun and bringing people to our stand, I didn’t question it.

The view from our stand at the bake sale

The view from our stand at the bake sale

While still staying in Switzerland, it was about time to take a quick journey out of Lausanne. The following weekend the exchange association had organized a hiking trip to a location north of Lausanne. We headed up to a place called Creux du Van, a rocky circular formation that was cut into what appeared to be some form of a mountain that became a complete plateau on top. We would stand just along the edge and be able to look down into what was an abyss of trees and straight, vertical rock from the top, in addition to seeing the valley and surrounding villages and very small cities in the distance. It was absolutely gorgeous. Although we weren’t very high up by the standards of other Swiss mountains, there was still some snow at the top in the middle of May. It was an incredible sight for me to see snow this late in the year. I did learn that this winter has been particularly snowy and cold across Europe (much like I read happened in the United States), so this too was abnormal. However, being the winter enthusiast that I am, I was not saddened by the sight.

View from Creux du Van

View from Creux du Van

While exams are now beginning to approach, my time in Switzerland is still not complete. I have about two more months here, as my exam schedule extends pretty late in the semester. I guess this means only one thing: I will have more time to continue exploring this wonderful country I have come to love so much. I will be sure to profite bien from every opportunity that comes my way, as a reward for getting school work and studying done. Until next time…

City of dreams! (posted by Pierre en Suisse)

April 26, 2013

Salut tout le monde! If you remember reading my last post, Voyageur du monde, you may remember that I hinted at another upcoming voyage, but I did not reveal my destination. My country count is now officially at four, as I just returned from a trip to Paris! What a weekend that was! Before heading off, I had quite a few expectations of the city, all of which are possibly the most cliché images one could produce of the city. This included wanting to eat crêpes at the Eifel Tower, hearing accordion players at various street corners, and going on long walks through the city’s gardens and famous streets, namely the Champs Elysée. But against all the stereotypes, I was most excited about just being in the presence of such history and culture. Not to mention the fact that I’d be able to visit a European capital city with such importance for politics, finance, and culture.

As always, the first thing that I was super excited about upon arriving in Paris was the fact that I could speak the language of the country. I didn’t have to ask someone at an information window to speak English, but instead, me and my friends who traveled together (other exchange students at UNIL) could all pose our questions in French and continue practicing our language skills. I also have to say that knowing the language definitely enriched the experience for me. The first site we visited was the city catacombs. Buried 45 million years under the Earth, the catacombs are the city’s former stone mines where the materials to build structures like Notre Dame Cathedral were taken from. As a more touristy twist, they have been turned into the burial site of more than six million people. Posted throughout the catacombs were writings, in both French and Latin, with very thought provoking quotes about human nature. Without knowledge of French, I would have missed out on what became my favorite part of the catacombs!

The entrance into the tomb area of the catacombs, underground in Paris

The entrance into the tomb area of the catacombs

Of course, our tour of the city moved above ground after our first stop. We later found ourselves visiting an old train station turned museum, le Musée d’Orsay, where we saw the works of some famous artists I had first learned about in elementary school, such as Monet! My group and I had all decided that it was a necessity to go to a museum in Paris, even though not all of us were crazed for looking at art, just because it was such an important part of the city.

Right in the heart of the city, Paris, with the Louvre and the river Seine in sight

Right in the heart of the city, with the Louvre and the river Seine in sight

We found ourselves right downtown in the city when we left the museum, and by that point we all had food on our mind. After meeting up with a friend from France who had studied abroad at U of R last semester, we went off for our first real adventure into French cuisine. Luckily, our local was able to help us out with choosing some of the more traditional French dishes. I definitely branched out when I chose a duck dish for my dinner, and tasted my friend’s dish. She had ordered something called tartare de boeuf, which is essentially raw, ground meat with various seasonings for flavor. If you thought sushi is a terrifying concept, think again. I was at first really hesitant to try this, since all of my prior food knowledge was telling me something like this needed to be cooked, but I figured if French people can eat it, so could I, so I decided to be open and try it. I rewarded myself afterwards with crêpes, and then we finally made our way to the Eifel Tower.

And of course Paris' most famous site, the Eiffel Tower!

And of course Paris’ most famous site!

That being just our first day in Paris, it would require a much longer post for me to recount everything that we did during this trip. Four days in the city gave us the opportunity to see and do so many things, from just aimless touring to visiting some historical museums as well, notably L’Hôtel des Invalides, a a military hospital that Louis XIV ordered to be built for his forces in 1670. In some of the areas where the walls were newly renovated, it became so easy to place yourself in this time period, and feel like you were a part of it for a moment. It was an amazing feeling, when looking up at all of the stone walls and blue roofs. We also got to see the tomb of Napoleon in Les Invalides, which for a history nerd such as myself was pretty exciting.

Did Paris live up to my expectations? It certainly did, and then some. In the end, I don’t think that I embodied the clichés that I felt like I would before heading off, minus the fact that me and my group all bought berets the very last day and wore them through the airport and all the way back to Lausanne. I do count on the fact that I will be back there one day, but as always, coming back to Lausanne a third time from a trip abroad helped to solidify just how special I regard this city and country, as my first ever home away from home.

Voyageur du Monde? (posted by Pierre en Suisse)

April 19, 2013

Zero: the number of foreign countries that I had ever visited before coming to Switzerland. Three: The number of countries I have visited (or lived in) so far by the time that I am writing this. Four: The number I will have reached by the end of this week when I head to another famous European destination! Compared to the “Pierre” I was before leaving the US, I am definitely on my way to becoming a voyageur mondial (global traveler)! This is far from being an actual title I can claim, I still have some other continents to get to, however it certainly feels this way, being so new to this whole traveling thing. After coming back from Italy during my Spring Break, I spent one day back in Switzerland before hopping on a plane to Barcelona!

I had quite a different experience in Barcelona compared to Italy, just from the standpoint of language. In Italy, I did not know a single word of Italian, which made me feel bad every time I needed to ask someone for English, and even worse when I was on a train and had no idea how to say “excuse me” or “I’m sorry!” However, after having a single year of Spanish combined with my French, I did pretty well in Spain. As Barcelona is in the Catalonian region of Spain, the people speak both Catalan and Spanish. Luckily, I was able to meet up with a friend I met at Richmond who comes from Barcelona and did a semester of exchange at U of R. She helped me out with some key phrases that I would need to know as well, and explained to me the language. She said that Catalan sounds like Italian, and has a lot of influence from the French language, such as some of the letters and even words, since the region is so close to the French border. Luckily, she also spent a great deal of time with me, showing me some of the streets and main areas that tourists would not normally go down on their own. In the sunlight, it was so easy for me to fall in love with such a beautiful place very quickly, when looking up around me and seeing the narrow streets lined by buildings with terraces and plants coming down from them, walking into a main square and seeing a group of people start performing a dance show, and then being introduced to the main tapas dishes of the region.

Managed to capture this image of the birds while in the oldest parts of the Barcelona. Completely fits my image of the stereotypical European image

Managed to capture this image of the birds while in the oldest part of the city. Completely fits my image of the stereotypical European image

My guide also explained to me one of the most notable features of the architecture in Barcelona. The modernist style is unlike anything I had ever seen before. Just like my friend told me, it is something you just have to see, and not anything that is easily explained, but with the help of my friends at Wikipedia I will attempt. The movement began towards the end of the 19th century, and combines very rich, ornate decoration and detail, while preferring curves over straight lines. One of the most famous sights in Barcelona, the Basilica I Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Familia, designed by one of the most renowned modernist architechts, Antoni Gaudi, was designed and meant to feel like a forest on the inside, for example. Still unfinished, it was one of the most impressive sights I have ever seen!

Feel like you’re looking up into the tops of a manmade-forest? Well, this would be the inside of Gaudi’s famous Basilica, La Sagrada Familia!

Feel like you’re looking up into the tops of a manmade-forest? Well, this would be the inside of Gaudi’s famous Basilica!

Among other things that we did in Barcelona, aside from just seeing amazing architecture, I also got to tour the Olympic park where the city hosted the summer Olympics in 1992, in addition to finally seeing the beautiful Mediterranean Sea for the first time! While I know I am still so far away from being able to call myself a world traveler, it certainly is beginning to feel like it, having been exposed to two fairly different countries within the same week. Despite all the excitement of the travels, I still get beyond excited when I return to Switzerland, and feel back at ease with the language and get back to the certain degree of familiarity I have with what is still this foreign land. But in any case, the travels shall continue, so stay tuned for what is to come!

One of my famous images of the city, the fountains in this park were absolutely gorgeous!

One of my famous images of the city, the fountains in this park were absolutely gorgeous!

Fast Trains to Fun Travels (posted by Pierre en Suisse)

April 10, 2013

Last week was my University’s spring break, or Easter Vacation as it is called here. It could mean only one thing: time to hop on a train and travel somewhere outside of Switzerland for the first time! Where did I pick you may be wondering? Italy! One of Switzerland’s border countries as well as language regions, Italy is also from where my family originates. I am quite proud to say that I am one hundred percent Italian when at home in the states. However, as an American abroad in Europe, I have realized there is a very different conception of nationality here than in the US; whereas it is not that common to be completely of one heritage in the US, here in Europe, to say to someone I am a hundred percent Italian usually means absolutely nothing. It was an interesting realization when I first explained that to someone!

To go to Italy, I hopped on a train the afternoon my classes had ended, and after traveling four hours through mountains, tunnels, and past various lakes, I found myself at my final destination, in Bologna.  I am lucky to have a friend who is studying in Bologna whom I stayed with during my visit. No, Bolonga is not typically the first city that comes to mind when envisioning Italy, but I think it was quite an ideal destination. It is in the heart of the Emilia-Romagna region, and is home to some of the most famous Italian foods, such as the Bolognese sauce, the typical meat sauce that goes over some of the most stereotypically Italian pastas such as tortellini and lasagna, also specialties of the region. Tasting true Italian food was one of my main goals of the trip, and I definitely got my fill of it!

My first meal there was at a very traditional family-style restaurant that served the meal in different courses. Starting with anti pasti, the servers brought out massive plates that you take a bit of food from before passing it on to the rest of those at your table, until you have a full plate. This course can include things like prosciutto, salads, and other types of vegetables. Next up is the pasta course, called primi, followed by secondi, or the main dish of the meal, usually some kind of meat, and then finishing off with desert and then coffee. Due to the fact that we were already stuffed by the time we finished our primis, we decided not to get secondis, choosing desert instead. I won’t lie, even in Switzerland, the land of chocolate, I have never had more on my plate at one time than during this course, between the chocolate mousse, chocolate salami, chocolate sauce to go over one of the pastry, in addition to the other deserts. Don’t worry, Gelato came another time, I made sure I didn’t miss it when in Italy. After the experience I truly understood why my friend had warned me not to eat that day, knowing we would be having such a large meal at the restaurant.

My dessert plate at my first Italian restaurant!

My dessert plate

The next day, I found myself in Florence! My friend and I walked around the city and saw some of the major sights, such as the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore, but unfortunately due to the long line and my lack of foresight, we did not have a reservation to go to the Museum where the famous statue of David is located, in addition to the Palazzo Vecchio, or the old town hall of Florence. There, I found among many other things, a map room which happened to be one of my favorite parts. Despite my excitement of being in Italy, I couldn’t help but locate Switzerland and Lausanne on the map of the francophone world.

One of my favorite parts of Bologna: the food markets. Loved the ambiance and just looking at the selection! This is just one of the many fresh produce stands located in the market.

One of my favorite parts of Bologna: the food markets. Loved the ambiance and just looking at the selection! This is just one of the fresh produce stands.

Upon returning to Bologna, I got a full on view of what I envisioned to be Italy one morning when it was sunny. Walking through the city’s colored porticos with the sun burning off any morning dew and fog and shining through the arches, there was nothing else like it. Until that is I climbed up on top of one of Bolonga’s famous two towers and got a full view of the city’s red roof tops and green rolling hills in the distance. The combination of the true Italian food and these images definitely met my expectations of what Italy should be, and I will say I am ready for round two to come at some point down the line. That visit will be to Rome, almost certainly, and then later on I hope to get to Venice. But alas, I am back in the wonderful land of the Swiss, and life could not possibly be better.

A view of Bologna and some of the surrounding hills

Bologna and some of the surrounding hills

Yup, this is all real!! (posted by Pierre en Suisse)

March 29, 2013

Monday in my Swiss Politics seminar, I gave a presentation with a group for the first time since I have been here in Switzerland. Our presentation was only fifteen minutes, and was on the topic of a law that we had been studying for the past couple of weeks, and honestly it was one of the most interesting experiences I’ve ever had. I wouldn’t call this just any presentation, however I would instead refer to it as the presentation of realizations: realizations not solely focused on the topic of our work, but realizations really for me that this is not some fantasy land here, but it is real life. Real studying, real learning, real people seeking their degrees, real people working. Real people are living here doing normal every day things in Switzerland, just like what happens at home in the US.

Sometimes life here can honestly feel like I’m in a dream world that doesn’t really exist. Among some of my other exchange student friends, we often joke that Switzerland is just too perfect of a place. In fact, when I had first arrived here, I saw the water in a river by the university and it was so blue that I actually questioned whether it was highly polluted. The reality is that it is a great deal cleaner than what I’m used to seeing. The scenery is as picturesque as one could ever imagine. On a clear day, when walking pretty much anywhere in the city, just one look to the south and the view of the lake and magnificent snow-covered mountains just takes your breath away. The buildings in the city are real too. As an American, I’m used to really only seeing this style of architecture be replicated in places like an amusement park, or maybe more authentically in a major city. However, the medieval European style is everywhere here, as it is something we just try to copy in the US. Even the money here, being different and far more colorful than what I’m used to can sometimes feel fake, and just as if it’s out of a game like monopoly (this is not to say that I’m spending as if I’m in a game- Switzerland is too expensive to do so, and I’m not trying to run out of money to buy food). And what’s more is that again, people aren’t speaking the language that I am used to hearing. However, it is a language that I truly love and still feel in disbelief that I’m actually able to use it as a means of communication, not just something to study and enjoy hearing in a song or reading in a book, for example. So as foolish as it can really sound, the life here can honestly feel like I’m still asleep and just living in a European fantasy.

However, I think today when I presented in front of an audience of Francophones, it really hit me that no, this is real. I don’t know why it was speaking in front of a class that made me finally realize this. I’ve given countless presentations in my time as a student, however they’ve always been in English, or maybe French to an audience of other Anglophones learning French just like me. So when I was speaking today and opened with, “Sorry if my French hurts your ears” and was luckily greeted with some laughter and some compliments afterwards, it hit me that this time it was real. These people grow up thinking in this language, not in English. It is French that is the little voice in their head that shapes their thoughts and perceptions, not English like mine. It is French that shapes their personalities, and the way that they express themselves, not English like me. Just the thought of how something that we take so for granted each day, our simple means of expressing ourselves orally or written for so many different purposes, has such a profound impact on who we are.  Again, language is something that truly fascinates me. The fact that I’m not yet at a level of French where I feel like it is true French, not just a set of words formulated into a structure very much like that of my own language, that I speak on a day to day basis, really struck me today when I was speaking in front of this class and realized that this was finally me using what I’ve learned to speak and present information to people whose minds speak to them differently. I hope this makes sense; it really has to do with thinking of how you speak to yourself in your head that amazes me, and to think that there are countless ways to do that is an idea that really came to light today.

SO I guess maybe after finally realizing that this is all real might mean that I’m officially habituated or adapted to the life here in Switzerland? I’d say no. Again, every day brings new experiences, but in a way that makes me excited to get up every day and go out exploring. It’s constantly learning time here, with the world around me as my classroom, library, or any other place you could think of as a place of learning. It is incredible, and again, I am so truly lucky to be here.

Homesick? (posted by Pierre en Suisse)

March 22, 2013

It is unreal to me that I have been here already for eight weeks. I continuously keep track of the length of time that I’ve spent here, because whenever I meet someone, especially if they are Swiss, one of the first things they’ll ask is how long I’ve been here. With each passing week, as that number has grown larger, the question started to come up as to whether or not I was homesick at all. My answer? Nope, not really.

Switzerland certainly is a different place than the United States, in very simple ways. What I would normally use at home for a sandwich, for example, was called “sacrilege” by a Swiss friend, since the Swiss standard of bread is much higher than my own. It’s also starting to strike me just how old certain things can be here. While walking through the city, I could pass a site built in the medieval ages, any number of castles, or even a site with Ancient Roman Ruins! When I think about the fact that the first British settlers in the United States arrived in the 1600s, it is really quite impressive to think what an “old” building means to a European compared with me, as an American!

The variety of languages here never ceases to amaze me. Switzerland itself recognizes four national languages: French, German, Italian, and Romansh. But it doesn’t end there. Swiss German, I have been told, can be spoken differently depending on what region you are in, sometimes even by mountain valley. Swiss Germans write in High German, or standard German, but all speak differently. It is as if they could almost form 26 languages of their own, I have been told. But then it gets even more interesting to see the fact that in the Swiss Parliament, laws are written in French, German, and Italian. When I was doing a project for my Swiss Politics class, I had to learn about a law that was assigned to my group. I discovered that one word in the French version of the law, just in the title of it, was the subject of debate, at least among the francophone members of the Parliament. I wondered to myself if this happens in all of the languages, and if it does, just how amazing that truly is that the country can still function as smoothly as it does with all this diversity of language and thought. With diversity of language always comes diversity of culture, so it is an amazing feature of this country to notice the differences between all the different types of people that are here. I definitely came to question whether the political system in the US could handle something like two or even three national languages being used in the Congress, but given the drastically different size of the country the situation is entirely different.

Language is definitely one of the things that fascinates me the most about being here in Switzerland. I share a flat with a girl from Australia, another American, and then a girl from France and a Swiss guy too. As there are some differences between the French spoken in Switzerland and the French spoken in France, as someone learning the language I absolutely love listening to my flatmates point out their differences, just as I would when talking to someone in the states about the word “wicked” or “y’all”. One big difference in Switzerland is the way that they say numbers. The Swiss have a different way of saying 70, 80, and 90 than the French do, using a much shorter word for each. All of us exchange students really appreciate it because it can be a lot easier for us to say! But again, listening to the exchanges between some of the Swiss and the French about the nuances of their respective languages is always a great opporutunity for me to pull out my phone and continue adding to the massive list of words and phrases I have learned since I got here. If I don’t do that I usually forget, so with each day this list keeps expanding!

So going back to my question of whether or not I’ve missed home: I would have to say it’s hard to miss something that I’m so used to when I’m constantly exposed to new things, interesting people, and can practice my language skills. I’ve not been here long enough to find the mountains that lie just across the lake to be any bit normal, so whenever the sky is clear, they always remind me of how lucky I am to be in such a beautiful place, in a way that is completely different than what I have in Richmond. Am I starting to get adjusted to the life here? I don’t think it’s really possible, when each day comes with new challenges and new adventures and opportunities to learn. I think that is probably the most consistent aspect about life here. No matter what, I am always learning, and no matter what, I love every minute of it.

Suivre: to follow (Posted by Pierre en Suisse)

March 8, 2013

As I am writing this, my third week of the semester here at the University of Lausanne is coming to a close. What this means is that the first real week of classes has just finished. At UNIL, there is a two week grace period to try out all the classes you’d like. Unlike at UR where you need to register the semester before and classes often fill up, at UNIL, you can go to any course or seminar you want for the first two weeks without signing up for it to decide if you will take it or not. It provides the opportunity for the professor to really go over what the course will be like, present the syllabus, and also present the grading method. There are several different ways that a student can be evaluated here, depending on the format of the course even. There are two different types of courses that students can take at UNIL, or at least in the faculty (school) of political science: courses, or seminars. Courses are generally lecture style with a large number of students, where the professor presents the information, people can ask questions, and there is minimal interaction in many cases. At the end of the course, students take some form of an exam. Like at Richmond, this can be a formal written exam, a written paper that is due on a certain date, or alternatively, an oral exam with the professor. Sometimes, there is no exam but students are just regularly evaluated throughout the semester. In courses, the entire final grade can be based on the exam result. This is something that is very intimidating for me, as I get nervous when a final exam at Richmond is worth thirty percent of my grade, never mind eighty percent or more! Alternatively, students can take seminar courses. Seminars are very similar to the classes at Richmond, where there’s a lot of discussion, group work, presentations, however the only difference is that there’s no final grade at the end. Students get evaluated essentially pass/fail, with an attestation if the student passes, or an “échec” if not.

Going back to the title of this blog post: suivre, meaning “to follow.” In French, one says “je vais suivre ce cours” which technically means I am going to follow this course, rather than how in English we would say “I am taking this course.” For my program, I decided to suivre (take) two courses and two seminars in the Political Science faculty, and two courses in the French as a Foreign Language faculty. Yes, this sounds like a lot since four or five courses is the normal load at Richmond, but typically students can take as many as seven courses here! My classes are all instructed in French. The only difference is that in the political science faculty, the classes are catered to native French speakers. This is definitely where I find the verb choice to be quite ironic. Rather than me saying to myself, “oh yeah I’m taking this course,” I really will start thinking, “oh I’m following this course! Wait, but am I really following what the professor is saying?” I don’t, however, regret for a second taking the courses in French. Because the French I have been learning at Richmond for the past two and a half years is very scholastic French, I can generally follow the professors quite well. They use the same very formal register of the language when instructing that my professors at Richmond use. However, they do speak a bit faster. Luckily as well, many of the terms that are used in a French sociology text for example are very similar to words in English, so I can pretty easily figure things out when doing assignments or just in general listening in class.

So what am I actually taking now that my two week trial period is done? A mix of sociology courses, one political science course, and two French as a foreign language classes. To highlight some of them, my political science class is called Swiss Politics, since I figured it would be a good idea to learn about the country I am studying in while I am here. I also am in a course called Sociology of Work, which I think is going to be absolutely fascinating to learn about all of the trends in history and what it really means to work. I am also really excited about my French Structuration and Production class, one of the French as a foreign language courses, because the professor really teaches it with the goal of helping us develop a more familiar, casual register of the language for our every day interactions. We are constantly telling stories in class of mistakes we may have made with the language in different situations, pointing out what we learned from those mistakes, listening to music in French to see just how different the casual language is compared to the scholarly French, and many other activities to develop a different level of understanding of French. I will say for sure it is going well, and it is definitely helping me to become much more comfortable in the different situations I face, which is after all the goal of the course! Well that’s all for now! As I have learned to say here, à la prochaine! (Until next time!)

Alpsolutely Amazing! (posted by Pierre en Suisse)

March 1, 2013

Okay, so quick confession: I have been to the Alps so far about three times and I have yet to actually write about it. When I say I have been to the Alps three times, I am talking about skiing. What’s it like here in Europe? Well my title says a lot, because it is just incredible!

I had always planned on doing some skiing while in Switzerland, but I honestly had no idea what to expect, aside from huge mountains of course. I have skied my entire life but mostly on the East Coast, and have been out west before as well. As many of my friends know, I could tell you basically anything you would want to know about North American skiing, but Europe was a mystery! Someone had told me once that Europeans spend more time just relaxing while at the mountains and skiing every now and then. Someone else had also told me that in Europe you spend half the day going up the mountain and the other half actually skiing down. Both of these myths have not ended up being my actual experience. However, I can happily report that skiing here is better than I could have ever imagined! I’ll do my best to actually describe it, but I warn you it is difficult to put into words.

Because Switzerland is a country completely connected by rails, the ski day starts for us with a train ride into the mountains. The first morning I went, I was on the train at 6:30 in the morning while it was still completely dark. About an hour later, when the sun began to rise my view from the train window was just the silhouettes of the jagged summits and snow-covered peaks of the mountains. Once off the train, we always have to take a connector bus or an additional train to get to the actual mountain. I won’t lie, Swiss engineering is impressive. The first place that I went to, or “station” as it is called in French, was really far from the train and required a bus ride to get there. The roads are a continuous series of windy turns as you head up the steep sides of the mountain. In many instances, there need to be tunnels to get around. Whatever the case, I couldn’t help but wonder how people were able to live in this country before the modern technology that was put in place to simply move around. It was impressive to see what people are capable of doing! This may be worth looking into more, but hopefully it is done in the most environmentally conscious manner possible.

The actual skiing is completely different than what I am used to. As soon as you get to the top of one of these mountains, you are above tree line. That means it is completely wide open, unlike what I am used to where there are trees lining the trails. You can also be at the top just looking at glaciers all around you. These can be quite scary but at the same time amazingly impressive to just see the blue crystallized ice that has been there for such a long time! It is also deceiving for me of how high these mountains are. Because everything is in metrics here, I’ll be at the top of a mountain and everyone around me will be gawking at the fact that they are 3500 meters in the air! The first time this happened, we literally rode the highest mountain subway in the world. It was an actual train to carry skiers through a tunnel to the very top of the skiable area. When we got to the top, we had to walk up a set of stairs to get out of the “metro.” It hit me just how high we were when I got light headed and had to sit for a while to adjust to breathing the thin air. While waiting, I looked on my phone for the conversion and realized that we had started out at 5,905 feet at the base of the mountain, and by the time we were at the top, we were almost 11,500 feet high. Like I said, the elevation really hit me when we were at the top. But the views are unreal! Everything at the top is so open! From one of the places, I could see Italy at the top! At another one, I could see France (even though I can see France every day just across the lake). It is simply a magnificent scene; pictures cannot do it justice.





Skiing adventures will keep coming, and I will say I am especially excited for next weekend, when we will have a three day trip planned by the exchange student association here in Lausanne. Because skiing is literally such a part of the culture here in Switzerland, they said it was necessary for them to host one. I’m excited! But that’s all for now! Until next time, à bien tôt!

Bernin it up! (posted by Pierre en Suisse)

February 22, 2013

Bonjour à toutes et tous! This is to say, hello to all ! This is typically how emails that I receive from the University begin. For those of you who are not familiar with the French language, toutes and tous both mean “all,” so essentially I just said hello to all! However, in French there are also the different genders. As such, it is necessary in various circumstances to use both the masculine and feminine forms when sending mass emails or writing to many people! It doesn’t happen all the time, but it does often with official emails. Hope you enjoyed your free French lesson of the day!

What a whirlwind the past two weeks have been. To sum it up really fast before reading on, I have experienced fondue and the festival known as Carnaval. Within the course of a quick four days, I feel as if I got a lot of Swiss culture really fast, but it was all amazing! I will start with the food.

Last week, I went out to fondue with my cours de vacances class, which you may remember reading about in my last entry. Fondue is a very traditional Swiss meal. It is not the typical chocolate fondue that we like to think of using fruit, although one can find it. Rather the Swiss eat bread, a mixture of cheese, and then finish the meal off with wine or tea. The cheeses most typically used are gruyere and emmenthal, melted together in a pot. At the restaurant, we were presented with a plate of bread, and it is your job to take a piece, break it up, put it onto the “fork” and cover it in cheese.

Cheese for the fondue! Bread is dipped into this pot

Cheese for the fondue!

The utensil used was something that I’m used to roasting marshmallows on. It is also critical to make sure you don’t delicately or lightly cover it just to taste the cheese. It was completely obvious to all Swiss people around me that it was my first time eating fondue. I was instructed by a friend who comes from the German part of Switzerland to completely sink the piece of bread into the cheese, then pull it out and let the excess cheese fall off. One also must pay close attention that the bread doesn’t fall off of the “fork” because then the person who lost it needs to either sing or do some other embarrassing task that the table decides. Luckily, this didn’t happen to me. When the cheese is all gone, there is usually some burned cheese left on the bottom of the fondue bowl. According to the fondue experts, this is the best part, and cannot be left! I tried it and must say I loved it. While this entire meal is going on, you need to drink either white wine or tea with the fondue. Otherwise, your stomach is going to be left to digest a block of cheese. While it was very filling and unlike anything else I’ve ever eaten, I did absolutely love it and I am excited for the next time I’ll get to try it!

The food experience certainly doesn’t stop there. This weekend I also got to go to a Swiss festival known as Carnaval! It is very similar to the idea of Mardi Gras, though it happens throughout the country on various dates, beginning anywhere from the weekend before Ash Wednesday to the end of May in some cases. On Saturday morning, a friend and I hopped on a train and headed into Bern for Carnaval in the Swiss capitol city. After a breathtaking train ride through the mountains, we arrived in the city, without a single idea of where to go! Our friend who had planned it wasn’t able to go at the last minute, so we had to improvise in order to figure out where to go. The one thing we did know about Carnaval is that people would be dressed in very colorful costumes. Luckily, we saw some people dressed up for the party and followed them from the train station into the city, until we found where we were supposed to be. Along the way, we saw some of the famous sites such as the Swiss Parliament building, and the most elaborate clock tower I have ever seen (so far). Included in this tour was trying probably way too much food that we found at various street vendors lining the main street of the festival. We ate things such as tarte flambée, crêpes, and of course, German sausage. With our stomachs filled, we lined the street with the rest of the carnaval-goers! In Bern, it is tradition to commence carnaval celebrations with a freeing of the bear that had been captured and held in prison for its winter sleep, and so the parade begins with the bear leading the way.

The carnival parade starts when the bear comes marching through the street!

Parade starts when the bear comes marching through the street!

After the mascot passes through the street, there are marching bands dressed unlike anything you will ever see in your life, playing all kinds of music, and throwing candy to the crowds. There is also a lot of confetti throwing. If you ever go to a Carnaval in Switzerland, don’t be surprised when a kid maybe as young as six year old looks up at you, takes a handful of confetti from a bag, and throws it right up at you with a huge triumphant smile. People usually have confetti of their own to throw right back at whoever throws it at them, but my friend and I didn’t know about this before everything began, so we generally just laughed with surprise when we would get covered in all sorts of colors. I absolutely loved Bern! The city was truly quite beautiful and the festival was amazingly fun!

So many colors at the carnival parade!

So many colors!

There were many creatures like this who also joined in throwing confetti throughout the parade

There were many creatures like this who also joined in throwing confetti

Probably my favorite site at Carnaval was this lady, who was dressed like a snail and walking at the same speed as a snail (despite kids throwing confetti at her the whole time).  A good idea of the carnival atmosphere

Probably my favorite site at Carnaval was this lady, who was dressed like a snail and walking at the same speed as a snail (despite kids throwing confetti at her the whole time)

This week has been the first week of classes. Stay tuned for my next post to hear about just how very different of an experience trying to get settled into classes here at a large university has been, and also to get a glimpse of some photos of the Alps, as this weekend I’m headed skiing! Thanks for reading, and à bien tôt!

Courses, Travels, and Cheese (posted by Pierre en Suisse)

February 13, 2013

Salut! I am now entering my third week here in Switzerland, and I can comfortably say that I’m getting settled into life here. Over the past two weeks, I have been participating in the University of Lausanne’s cours de vacances (vacation course). The course is designed for people of all ages and all levels of French who wish to improve their French language skills. There are three different levels, and I am in the class which is essentially been a preparatory course for taking classes in French at a Francophone university for students whose maternal language is not French. The class has students from all over the world; I have met people from the German part of Switzerland, Russia, Australia, Mexico, and other places, of a variety of ages as well. I am on the younger end of the spectrum, as the course is open to people of all ages who wish to improve their French. With such a diversity of people, it is pretty amazing to hear all the languages that can be spoken at once. One morning in particular, I remember reading an article in English while having a conversation in French at the same time, and hearing people speaking German around me; while all this was happening, one Russian girl even began speaking to another in Russian at one point to figure out how to say something in French. Yes, it can be a tad confusing at times but overall I think it is amazing.

One day after class last week I hopped on a train to go to Geneva. The university has a program that pairs exchange students with Swiss students to introduce us to Switzerland and help us get adjusted as well. My partner lives in Geneva right now. Luckily, the Swiss rail system is incredible, and after a quick half hour train ride without a single stop from Lausanne and some really pretty views of the snow-covered Swiss countryside, I was back in Geneva! This time I got to see more than just the inside of the airport; I got almost a full tour around the city!  I learned quite a bit about the city that I didn’t realize before, such as the fact that the famous philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau was born there, and not in Paris as many people believe. I got to see his statue, and also the entire city from the top of a church roof!

Statue of Jean Jacques Rousseau in Geneva!, because this is his birthplace

Statue of Jean Jacques Rousseau in Geneva

Went to the top of this church in Geneva and got a view of the entire city!  It's truly beautiful

Went to the top of this church in Geneva and got a view of the entire city

This is a rare occurrence in Switzerland at this time of year, because of how much it likes to rain and be cloudy in these parts during the winter. The city seems like quite a great place to live! There are a ton of parks, places to go swimming, and beautiful views.

View of Geneva from the top of the church! Made possible because of gorgeous weather

View of Geneva from the top of the church

The city’s public transportation network, just like that of the other places in Switzerland I have seen, was also quite interesting. There were buses and trams, which were a new site to me. I am extremely interested in urban studies, and as such it was really cool for me to see how advanced the city was in its transportation network. I’ve found that its the same in Lausanne. The metro lines are always running on time, and are so very clean and up to date. The buses even generally run on time, except for a few very rare times that they have been one or two minutes off in the morning rush to work and in my case, school. The Swiss stereotype of being on time definitely holds true!

I am also happy to report that the chocolate has been incredible, as I was expecting. I will admit I never go a single day without it. While prices of basically everything are really expensive here, the grocery stores always have bargain products which are still an incredible quality, and cost far less than the rest of the selection. I won’t lie though, going to the small patisseries and fromageries is my favorite shopping experience. My flatmate and I walked into a patisserie one morning for croissants for breakfast, and we essentially began drooling over everything we saw. The assortment of breakfast foods and breads just looked so good! The two ladies who I am assuming owned the store saw the looks on our faces and had to ask us if everything was okay, we were just so excited! We explained how we were here on exchange and this was our first time in Switzerland with a selection like what was there. We got pain au chocolate aka croissant-like bread filled with chocolate, and then a croissant au jambon which is a croissant filled with ham and cheese. Another time, I visited a small cheese shop, called a fromagerie to buy local cheese. I had asked a Swiss person for some advice on what to buy since there are just so many cheeses, and I wanted to try something really local to the area. Armed with some recommendations, I went in and was still overwhelmed, but I explained to the shop owner in French that I was American and I was here for studies and was investigating cheese. He helped me out quite a bit with the different types of cheeses and sold me two very traditional cheeses, called emmental and gruyere, just to start me off. He also explained to me that it would be a good idea to start off with lighter cheeses before moving on to the stronger stuff, so I really appreciated his advice! I made a second trip back there after I finished my first cheeses and they remembered my face and helped me buy other types after I told them what I liked! Can’t beat service like that!

Needless to say, life so far in Switzerland has been great! I am enjoying my time here immensely, and am really looking forward to next week when I will be starting real classes here at UNIL. I have some ideas of what I will take, but nothing set in stone just yet. More on that next time though!

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