Wednesday, August 3, 2016

land that I love

I’m sitting in the beautiful screened-in porch at my Aunt and Uncle’s house, comfortably stretched out on a cushy green lounge chair with my laptop, brand new Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge and a recently purchased North Carolina mug from Starbucks filled with my favorite flavor of Green Mountain Coffee…Island Coconut. You haven’t lived until you’ve tried this coffee. I can hear the thunder rolling in the distance on this partly gray, but very hot day. 84 degrees according to my phone. Even so, it’s hard to believe what I’m seeing and feeling. I can’t believe I’m here after all this time. I can’t believe I’m holding the new phone I’ve been wanting after carrying an old, unreliable, and quickly dying phone all around Paris for the past year. Or that I’m sipping coffee filled with liquid creamer. Or that I’m moved into my new, albeit temporary, home complete with a closet and my own bathroom. Did this past year really happen? Did I dream it? Did I really live those days where I was chilled to the bone, walking here and there in the cold rain, and then coming back to a house in the outskirts of one of the most beautiful cities in the world? Was that real?

That may sound silly, but I kid you not, since I’ve been home, there hasn’t been a moment when I’ve felt like I have been away for as long as I was. It has all felt so familiar to the point where I could have sworn I had just been there and seen the same faces the day before. But before I venture too far down the road of how life has been since my return, let me first go back and fill in the space between my last post and the day I came home….

My last week in Paris was beautiful weather. Hot, sunny, and very few clouds most days. The day of my last post was July 1st. I remember this day because after I published my latest blog, the day turned into one of the most horrendous days I’ve had overseas. It was one of those days where there wasn’t one huge thing that happened, but rather so many little things that added up to create the perfect storm of a sucky day. Problems with my storage unit in Lynchburg, problems with my house I’m renting out, forgetting important things, unintentionally wasting precious money, and the cherry on top of it all, trains not running as they should be running in Paris and having to Uber home. Having to hire an Uber when trains were down became more frequent the closer I got to home. So frustrating. Thankfully, the following two days, Saturday and Sunday, were wonderful. So my crappy day was quickly forgotten.

I had no intentions of wasting a minute of my last weekends in Paris. When I first arrived in France, I made a very extensive list of places I wanted to go. This list contained around 60 items, and I am so happy to say that I completed all but 3 of those items. Those items were the more expensive things that I will have to do when I come back one day. So I set out that day with about 8 things on my list, and I thought I’d just go with the flow and do as many as I could. My first stop was Sainte-Chapelle, which was a royal chapel back in medieval times. It is located on the Ile de la Cité, a small island in the middle of the Seine where Notre Dame is also located. I had several people tell me to go here, and from the moment I went upstairs, I understood why. The chapel is wall to wall stained glass, the most beautiful stained glass I had ever seen. Starting from the left, from bottom to top, the stained glass tells the story of creation all the way through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. It was incredible. My pictures don’t even do it justice.
Next to Sainte-Chapelle is the Conciergerie, which is a former prison and the last place where Marie Antoinette was held before she was executed. I love the history of the French monarchy, particularly Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI, so to stand in the place where her prison cell once stood was a really cool experience for me. Once I saw her chambers, I walked around and looked through the old cells and what they would have looked like back in her time. I have to say…I’m happy I never had to live in those conditions.
After I left the Conciergerie, I walked North toward the Right Bank of Paris. As I crossed the Seine, the police had a small barricade set up across the sidewalk and I couldn’t figure out why. They checked my purse and let me carry on, and then I walked right into a massive LGBT festival that stretched from the Ile de la Cité west toward the Louvre. I realized then why the police had checked my bag. For a while I walked along the packed street, seeing people from all walks of life holding and wearing rainbow flags. After a while, as I started to get toward the densest part of the crowd where the central location of the festivities seemed to be happening, I started to feel like I should probably distance myself. Keep in mind, the Orlando attacks had just happened about 3 weeks prior to this day, and if you watch the news carefully, ISIS is in no way finished its attacks on France (the Nice attacks had not yet happened at this point). All I kept thinking was here are thousands of people standing close together out in the open in Paris promoting ideals that ISIS has vowed to attack. I can’t really say I was scared, because scared implies that I was afraid for my safety at that particular moment. But I was feeling cautious, so I took the stairs down to the river bank and walked along the river as the parade carried on above me.
Looking back, this is just one example of the ways I feel like my mindset has shifted in terms of being cautious in this current world we live in, where ISIS had threatened pretty much every group that is not ISIS itself. I hate that I felt the need to steer clear of crowds of people I don’t necessarily agree with, or crowds of people in general, to be honest. But that’s where my head was, and still is. I tell people now that I felt a little like I was living in a war zone or an occupied city. You have to carry on with life as if everything is ok, but you always have your eyes peeled. You’re always feeling out a crowd or separating yourself from one or just being cautious on the metro or wherever. Maybe not everyone living in Paris felt that way, but as someone who watches the news daily, I definitely was constantly paying attention. Perhaps in that moment, I wouldn’t have thought twice if the Orlando attacks, which targeted this specific group, had not just happened. I don’t know. But even now, I would still mention to those in airports or cities or Paris itself to be careful and to pay attention. Part of me thinks it’s crazy that I’m that paranoid. But then again, am I paranoid or am I realistic? I guess the Nice attacks that happened just a couple weeks later would point to me being realistic. This is the world we are living in, folks, and if living in Europe for the past year has influenced my thinking at all, then this would have to be the most significant way.

I found my way to a Starbucks near the Louvre off of the Rue de Rivoli, a really beautiful area. After I arrived and sat here reading for a bit, my friend Hannah, the LUO alum, texted me and said she and her friend who was visiting were about to head to the Cimetière du Père Lachaise and later to the Moulin Rouge. So I met up with them for the rest of the day. When we got there, I could see why it is the world’s most visited cemetery. It was absolutely beautiful. There was a beautiful view from the top of the hill, and the tombs alone were lovely. Such a quiet beauty in this place. So many were centuries old, but there were a few new plots as well. The likes of Jim Morrison, Oscar Wilde, and Frédéric Chopin are buried here. I could have wandered around here for hours, and meant to go back before I left but I ran out of time. The most significant grave I saw was not one of a famous musician or author or composer, but rather a small plot covered in flowers and photos. There was a single visitor about my age, maybe younger, sitting on the edge of the curb, smoking a cigarette and dabbing her eyes with a tissue, just staring at the photo of a young, beautiful girl. I walked past her a couple of times on my way to find Jim Morrison’s grave, but it wasn’t until I walked past her the last time that I read the plaque propped up on the grave. This grave belonged to a girl who died at the Bataclan on November 13, 2015. ISIS took this girl’s life. That was the moment when everything came full circle for me. Most people have moved on with their lives after the heinous acts of that night, but this visitor lost a friend or family member and is still there mourning that loss. It’s so unfair, but that’s the world we unfortunately live in. After we left the cemetery, we headed to the Moulin Rouge. We got a few photos in front of it, and after that it started to pour and we hopped in an Uber and had it take us up the hill in Montmarte to a quaint little Italian restaurant. It was sooo good and a fun and relaxing night out with friends.
Later that week, I had to say goodbye to a lot of friends. The hardest goodbye that week was to my friend Amanda who has been my right hand in pretty much everything since we both arrived in September. She and her family are in Paris for about 3 years, but they were heading back to the States for a 3 week vacation, so that Tuesday, we had our last hang out at her house over tea, croissants, pain au chocolat, and country music. My last weekend in July was wonderful. We had great weather, and I filled my days with lots of relaxing things. I visited the Army Museum which was really awesome, and I saw Napoleon Bonaparte’s tomb. I also visited some of my favorite places and just strolled around some of the most beautiful parts of Paris. On my last Sunday in the city, I was invited by my friend Julian to a picnic near the Louvre. We sat there for 4 hours, which sounds like a lot but I’m telling ya…this is normal life for a lot of people living in Paris. Grab food and drinks, and go have a picnic. No place to be, just hanging out and relaxing, and letting the hours roll by without any concern for the time. Definitely not something you find very often, if ever, in America. And there are so many beautiful places in Paris just to sit and people watch. I do remember sitting there regretting not having more beautiful days where I could have done that more often. But as many French people said to me, I was really unlucky with the year I chose to come, in terms of the weather. Yeah, thanks, I’m aware. After our picnic, I went with our little group to watch the Euro 2016 final between France and Portugal. There was a lot of hype leading up to this event, and it was a lot of fun watching from the street outside a little pub because it was too packed to stand inside. However, France lost. I saw some beers thrown and heard lots of cursing over this haha. But it was still fun to witness.
My last work week was a short one. After my final day of taking care of G, and that moment of realization that I had no more responsibilities and could just go and do what I wanted, I think that’s when it hit me that my time was over. I went out into the city and saw as much of my friends as I could. On Bastille Day, I walked around by myself the majority of the day. I started at Place de la Concorde and walked all the way up the Champs-Élysées to the Arc du Triomphe, then made my way back down again. I stopped when I heard a really great performer standing in the middle of the Champs singing some popular English songs, so I sat down and enjoyed a free mini concert for the next hour and a half. After that, I wandered around then ended up in Jardin des Tuileries for a couple hours, just people watching and eating Amorino gelato. MmmmMMMM so good.

After that, my friend Isabelle joined me and we made our way toward the Eiffel Tower to watch the fireworks. It was PACKED. I mean, I expected this, but holy crap. I’ve never been to Times Square on New Year’s Eve, but from what I’ve seen on TV, it was exactly the same. People squeezed together like sardines. Oy vey. In order to get to the Champs de Mars, the long green field in front of the Eiffel Tower, there were two checkpoints where they checked bags. I mean, you read what I wrote above about crowds and being cautious, so you can imagine this would also be a prime occasion for some type of attack. After we passed the checkpoints, we literally couldn’t find a spot that we could clearly see the tower, so we walked as far back as we could go, away from the tower, to the very end of the Champs de Mars. From here, we had a decent view of the tower from the second floor up. The fireworks started at 11 PM, because it literally isn’t dark enough for fireworks until that late. I love how light it stays outside until that far into the evening. I miss that.

So as the show is getting started, there is a concert or song we can hear from a stage we can’t see playing the national anthem and some other songs. That’s when something strange happened, that actually sparked real fear into me for the first time. From where we were standing, we saw across a distance of a couple hundred feet smoke rising in the middle of a crowd. We didn’t hear any loud bangs or shouting, but the people near this smoke started scattering in all directions. Like dominos, people started running, without knowing why, they just turned and ran because they saw others turning and running. Me and Isabelle did the same thing. As we are watching this unfold, the people in front of us turned around and started running toward us, so we grabbed each other’s hand and ran for it. We didn’t run far, until we turned and tried to see what happened, because again, we didn’t hear anything. There was no explosion or crazy screaming happening. We turned around and didn’t see anything. I still don’t know, but I assume someone had a smoke bomb or something of that nature and whether intentionally or unintentionally, freaked out a lot of people. I have to admit, my hands were shaking for a good 10 minutes after this. But we walked back to our spot, and the show started. Seriously…the best firework show I have ever seen, and am convinced, ever will see. It was incredible. I still haven’t had time to post my videos from that night.
After the show, it was about 11:40, and we made our way along with thousands of other people toward the metros to go home. It was so packed, and neither of us felt like standing on a packed metro platform, so we decided to hang out at one of the restaurants near us for a while until things cleared. There, we met up with my friends Alicia and Rachel, who we had tried to find before the show, but couldn’t. we sat there and had a drink, and that’s when Isabelle got a text and told us all about what happened in Nice. I pulled out my phone, and looked up the news articles myself about some maniac driving through a crowd in Nice as they watched Bastille Day fireworks. My heart was sad, but still, I wish I could say I was surprised, but I wasn’t. I’m not longer surprised by these attacks. Every day I open the news, I half expect to see another attack as the main headline. I’m no longer shocked, though my outrage is still growing. When is this going to end? I don’t know. By that point, I had people who only saw the words “attack,” “France,” and “Bastille Day,” messaging me asking if I was ok. I assured everyone that I was since Nice is in the south of France and Paris is in the north. But still, I appreciated those who reached out because they cared. But thankfully, I had one day left and I would be leaving France. I know that nowhere is really “safe” from these attacks, as we have seen our own country fall victim to ISIS related incidents. But still, being away in a country that has seen so many, and even after coming home the attack on the priest that happened an hour and a half from my home in Paris, I was thankful to be back on US soil.

My last day in Paris was emotional. I teared up on more than one occasion. I went to Holybelly for the last time, got the savory stack of pancakes, walked around the city that I had grown to love, even though I was ready to be home, and enjoyed the last steps I’d take during this adventure. My last item to do was to see the Tour Eiffel for the last time. So I took the metro to Trocadéro, took some photos, and just stared and reflected on this past year. “I did it.” I thought. “I did it and I finished strong. I didn’t give up.”
I made my way back to the house to finish packing and to spend the rest of the evening with my host family. I miss my little buddy G. It was hard to say goodbye, and it was obvious he was bummed I was leaving too. As the hours ticked away, I was so excited I could barely sleep that night. After about 3 or 4 hours, I woke up, packed up the last bits of my things, and called an Uber to take me to the airport. I remember every moment of that ride. Pulling away from the house and looking back at it for the last time; leaving Houilles for good; pulling up to the airport and checking my giant suitcases; sitting in the waiting area and fidgeting while watching the clock when I could finally step on that plane home. I took Icelandair home, and had purchased a middle class ticket. Long story short, when I had chosen my seat online, I ended up getting a first class chair, even though my service was still middle class. This. was. AWESOME. I mean who cares about first class service, when all people really want is the bigger, cushier seats. I was quite comfortable the entire way home. We stopped over in Iceland, and I had about an hour until my next flight. I got some of Iceland’s yummy chocolate and finally, FINALLY boarded the flight that would take me back to America.

Once we landed, the minutes seemed to crawl by as I went through immigration and security and waiting for my bags. But finally, this moment that I had daydreamed about for months, was about to come true…I walked through the doors and saw my family waiting for me (color coordinated, by the way). That was one of the best feelings and best hugs ever. I couldn’t stop smiling. My sister had a bottle of Cheerwine waiting for me in the car and my first meal in America was Chick-fil-a. Ahhhh that sweet tea tasted like heaven. Over the next week and a half, I was home with my family, enjoying relaxing days on the lake, my favorite American foods, and seeing my family and my best friend Sarah. But it felt like I was on vacation, and it wasn’t until I actually drove down to Lynchburg last Wednesday that it started to feel real. I came home at Christmas, but I hadn’t been to Lynchburg since last September. What felt weird was that it felt like I had just been there. It didn’t feel like it had been nearly a year since I had driven those roads or seen the faces of my friends. I stopped by my old office and saw some familiar faces, and it just felt so comfortable. I had a great day in Lynchburg, and was able to go by my storage unit and see the contents of my house piled into a 10x20 box. I’m still living the nomad life since I don’t have my own place yet, but it was still nice to see my furniture, as strange as that sounds.

On Thursday, I drove down to Chapel Hill, where I will be temporarily living with my Aunt and Uncle until I find a job and can save money for my own place. To be honest, I don’t think life will feel normal or like I’m “at home” again until I have a job and can finally get all my stuff out of storage and into my own place. Hopefully that will be soon. Friday, I made my way to Asheville for the weekend for my Grandma’s 75th birthday. We had a girls weekend and visited the Biltmore Estate, and it was such a fun time with my mom, sister, grandma, aunt, and cousin. We had tons of fun. But Sunday night, finally, I made my way back to Chapel Hill and unpacked my bags. I have been living out of suitcases since I was in Paris, and that’s not really fun at all. Now I at least have a closest and a dresser and my own bathroom, and it’s starting to feel homey. But it has only been a few days. I’ve had fun hanging out with my cousin here before she goes back to school in a couple weeks. We went to Raleigh yesterday, my first time in the city, and had fun exploring together.

As I sit here, I don’t think it has fully hit me yet that I’m back. Or that I left to begin with. I feel like I have changed in so many ways, and yet after waiting and waiting and longing to be back, it’s so odd to actually be back. Like it felt like I was waiting for something that would never happen, but then it does happen. I definitely miss Paris, but I don’t miss living there full time. There are things and people I miss very much. I mean it’s a gorgeous city with so much to see and do, and I miss how beautiful the buildings and scenery were, and I can vividly remember how grateful I felt to be standing in the middle of the city having been able to live in Paris for this past year. I’m so thankful. So so so thankful. It was wonderful. But the day to day living, the having to rely on trains and walking, the weather, and so many other things, those are the things that are hard to explain to those who just could not understand why I was ready to come home. I missed the day to day living, the lifestyle, the driving, the culture of America. This is where I want to live full time. I hope to visit Paris every year or at least every other year from now until I die. I love it that much. But I just want to visit. I have now been to 9 countries. I have seen 9 different cultures and ways of life. I have seen and interacted with so many fascinating and kind people, and have appreciated the opportunity to experience so much. But after traveling the world and loving every minute of it, after diving feet first into other ways of life, after craving adventure and still wanting to see more of this world, there’s only one place that is home for me.

The United States of America….yes, this is where my roots belong. This is the land I love above all others. This is where I want to live and die. This is where my heart lies. I’ve always been a patriotic person, but after living abroad, my appreciation and patriotism has reached new peaks. I love my country more than ever before. I love our values and our way of life. I love what we stand for and what we believe in. And I have never been more proud to be born and raised as an American.
Thank you to every single person who supported my journey and followed my year through my blog posts and Instagram photos. You all are the ones that kept me going, encouraged me, kept me focused, and reminded me that what I was doing was so unique and special. Thank you so much for motivating me to get out and to write about what I saw and did. You all will never know what it meant to me.

This is Chelsea the Au Pair officially signing off. Next time I go on an adventure, I’ll be sure to keep you posted. Bisous!

Friday, July 1, 2016

old towns and ball gowns

Bonjour everybody!

It's crazy to believe that this is going to be my last post before I'm back on American soil. I will write at least one more after this one, but for my final post to wrap up this incredible year, I want to write it from home to really reflect on my time in France. I feel like being able to look at this past year from the point of view of my "normal life" will be interesting for me to do, and will probably show hints of how I have changed because of this experience. I may do one more post several months down the road to see if anything has stuck with me in the long term, but I won't know that until I am back in my normal routine.

A lot has happened since my post about Normandy. June has been a bit more gracious to the locals, though not nearly as much as we would like. Right now, I'm looking out at yet another relentlessly gray day, and while it is no longer cold enough to require a jacket, it's still chilly enough to wear a few layers of long sleeves. We've had a few sunny days, and some have felt very hot, but I assure you, it is not "summer" here, but feels more like how April would feel back home. Certainly not July 1st, which is the middle of summer and when people back home are flocking to lakes and beaches. I posted a few news articles about just how terrible the weather has been this spring. I know I complain about it a lot, but I promise you, it's justified. This spring has been a record wet and chilly one. The worst for 116 years. May was the wettest month of May Paris has seen in 146-ish years, which contributed to the Seine rising to flood level and causing damage, delays, and the closure of several metros. I even had one local neighbor I frequently walk with when taking G to school say to me that I picked a bad year to come. Great, thanks. So it's not just me. Even the locals, my French friend Isabelle can attest to this, have had it with this weather. When you think of Paris, there is an image that likely comes to mind of walking along the Seine, picnicking along the canals, or strolling through the beautiful gardens with a good book while the sun happily shines down. Or perhaps sitting outside at one of the hundreds of sidewalk cafés with un vin rouge or un café, chatting with friends and people watching. That's the image I had, and while I have done all of those things, I certainly haven't done them as frequently as I had envisioned. I guess it just makes those times I was able to do them that much sweeter. But for those who ask me why I am so ready to leave the City of Light, this is why. I want my summer, I miss my friends and family, and I am sick and tired of the rain and gloom. My soul can't take it anymore, even with the marginally improved temperatures. With the weather, union strikes, train delays and frequent maintenance, flooding, and unfortunate continual threat of terrorist attacks, I can't honestly be blamed for saying "check, please!" I can't tell you how excited I am, in particular, to get away from public transport haha.

But looking back on June, it is easily the best month I've had my entire year in France. From my trip to Normandy, to being able to shed my jacket, to visiting the small medieval town of Provins, and of course, the masquerade at Versailles, this is the month I will think back to when I'm in the States fondly reminiscing about my adventure overseas.

The weekend after my visit to Normandy, my host mom went out of town for a week. She went on her first international trip outside of Europe for a work trip to the USA. It was fun for me to see her go to my home country and hear about her experiences when she returned. She spent most of the week in DC, and one day in NYC. She loved DC and can't wait to bring the rest of the family next year when they hopefully come visit again, since the rest of them haven't been to America either. One thing she mentioned when she got back to Paris made me laugh, because it was something I noticed the French didn't do that Americans always do, and I have been meaning to talk about it all year. I didn't even ask her about this, she noticed it on her own. She noticed that everyone on their way to work was holding a travel mug of coffee. She then imitated a person standing, waiting for a metro or walking with a travel mug in hand. I laughed and told her I thought the same thing when I moved here, but with the opposite thought. In America, we love our coffee. Now, the French love coffee too, but when they drink theirs, they sit. In the U.S., we tend to grab our coffee and go, or for those who do sit and have a cup in the morning (or a cup while getting ready like me), you probably still take cup #2 on the road. During my first week or two in France, I found it so odd that no one, and I mean NO ONE, was holding a travel mug full of coffee on the train platform as they made their morning commute to work. "Do none of these people drink coffee? No one is holding coffee...." was my initial thought. Now that I've been here long enough, I know it's because they all get up early enough for breakfast and sit and enjoy their morning cup of joe. And their coffees are TINY. "What is this tiny cup? Get me a real mug!" I have found myself thinking on a number of occasions. I'm not really a fan of French coffee for that reason. Yeah, it's good once I add milk and sugar, but I've never been able to drink black coffee, and I miss coffee creamer (which apparently is only a thing in the USA). But I'm American, damnit. I need my coffee, and I need it in large quantities. So if there is any more question as to why I'm such a frequent visitor at Starbucks when I live in a city where coffee is sacred, now you know. Starbucks serves a normal size cup.

The day after my host mom returned from the US, my friend Isa and I headed about an hour east of Paris to the charming little medieval village of Provins. A few weeks before our visit were medieval festivals, which I would have loved to see. But they do have 2 permanent shows for those who visit during other times of the year. The first was a show with a number of trained birds. I couldn't understand what the show itself was about, and Isabelle tried to translate a lot of it for me, but for the most part it was a demonstration with all types of birds. Owls, vultures, eagles, just to name a few. I found this pretty cool until these trained birds started swooping over the heads of the audience. I'm not normally afraid of birds at all, but when I have to duck because vulture and vulture is flying about 6 inches above my head...yeah, I'm gonna freak out a bit. One bird actually brushed Isa's hair into her face. They were well trained, so I knew I wasn't in danger, but each type of bird that came out would just fly over us for a while. The vultures they let fly back and forth for about 10 minutes, one after another. Afterward, you could walk through the cages of the birds from the show. I saw a beautiful eagle up close and an owl that could have passed for Hedwig from Harry Potter. The vultures were so creepy looking, but there were some adorable baby birds fresh from the womb.
From here, we made our way to a medieval show that was a play of sorts. There were jousting demonstrations and a storyline that was interesting even if it was hard for me to follow. But we had a great time enjoying the show and seeing the medieval structures and games. After the show, we walked through the town, and I couldn't help singing "Little Town" from Beauty and the Beast. We found a cute little crêperie on the town square and had some tea and crêpes, before continuing our walk near the church. We passed the Tour César, a watchtower and former prison, built somewhere around the 11th century. What I really loved was a little boutique we stopped in, which was full of rose products. Provins has a very well-known economy of producing products from roses. Rose petal jam, rose honey (which I deeply regret not purchasing), rose candy, rose jelly, rose tea, rose all smelled incredible. I opted for a rose lollipop, which was wonderful and I wish I had grabbed a handful, some rose tea, and a bar of rose artisan soap. I wish I could go back and buy all of it. After we left the boutique, we walked along the medieval ramparts that surrounded the city and snapped some pictures of the beautiful view of the French countryside. Overall, very excellent day trip and I'd highly recommend it.
The following weekend was the big event I have been anticipating for over 2 months, the masquerade ball at Château de Versailles. When my friend Amanda first pitched this idea to me, my heart started hammering because I HAD to do this. I have secretly always dreamed of going to a masquerade, but who would have ever thought I would actually get to go to one. And not only go to one, but go to one at Versailles in baroque period costumes! I told Amanda then that if she didn't go with me, I was still going on my own haha. But she and her hubs came, and we met up with her friends from college who originally told her about it since they were flying in from the States to attend. Seriously one of the most fun nights, and worth all the stress of finding a costume, figuring out our hair and makeup, and the rest of the planning, time, and money that went into making the night a reality. Worth. every. penny. Amanda's friends had opted for the highest level ticket, which included a parking pass right outside of the Orangerie, which is the part of the Palace where the event took place. They weren't using it, so they gave it to Amanda. So we pull up to the parking spot and couldn't have been closer to the event. We were still pretty early because we wanted to come and take photos when the light was best. There were about 5 other cars when we arrived and we parked about 50 feet from the entrance. That's VIP parking if I ever saw it. We walk in, and the event didn't start till 11:30, so we were directed to the gardens above for the fireworks show which took place around 11. It was about 8:30 or so at this point, but we were able to take our time walking around, taking amazing photos, and getting stared at by visitors having no idea what was going on and why there were so many people in costume. Some of the costumes we saw were absolutely incredible and elaborate. I know if I ever come to this event again (which I'd like to do), I will be in good company for going all out. We even saw some guy dressed as Louis XIV (I believe) and tourists were stopping him one after another for photos. We had a few come up to us and ask to take pictures with us or of us. It was fun. :)
Once the fireworks started, we all sat on the ground and just enjoyed the show. Amanda had her nice camera with her and got a spectacular photo of them. Versailles knows how to put on a show, I'll tell you that. After the show, we found Amanda's friends and made our way to the ball. In the Orangerie, there is a cavernous long hallway that has enormous windows that look out onto the Orangerie gardens. The hall was made of stone and lined with gorgeous chandeliers. When we walked in, the first thing we see is "beauty and the beast" which was the theme of the event this year. The beast was enclosed in a glass structure playing the piano, while Belle was standing on top of it dancing near a table with an rose enclosed in glass on top of it. Past beauty and the beast were about half a dozen women dancers standing near horses taken from a carousel, all wearing long flowing skirts with the sides exposed, and completely topless except for the silver pasties hiding their nips. Alrighty, then. lol In the center of the hall was a group of dancers, dancing a coordinated routine. These routines changed every 30 minutes or so throughout the entire night. Some were really cool, like the one I recorded with 1920s era music, and others were more burlesque type dancing. We walked to the end of the hall where the VIP section was located. Me, Amanda and her husband purchased the middle level VIP tickets (about half the price of the highest ticket), which gave us access to 2 glasses of champagne, a table with food and desserts, and two huge sofa beds full of pillows to lounge on when we needed a break. After we got some food, the dance party started so we wandered around and danced for hours. We went outside for a bit and walked around the Orangerie, but for June 25th, it was pretty chilly. They had a roaring fire going, but it was pretty crowded around it, so we went back inside to keep dancing. Amanda's husband had a flight to catch the next day, so he left around 3 AM. At dawn, there was going to be breakfast served, but around 5 AM or so, Amanda and I were ok with calling it a night. When we left the event, we had a pretty frustrating experience getting back to Amanda's apartment, but I'll leave the details of it out because I'm pretty sure she and I both want to forget about it and not let it taint our memories of a wonderful evening lol. All in all, I'd definitely attend this annual event again if ever I get the chance. You can tell that Versailles spares no expense when it comes to this masquerade. Definitely an experience I'll never forget, and a party I'm not sure any other will ever match. I can't believe after months of counting the days to this event, it's over and now nearly a week after.
They had these bubble machines going all over the place
So there you have it folks. A wonderful month, overall, but still overshadowed by my anticipation to be home and to see my friends and family. I'm trying not to wish my time away, but seriously, I haven't seen my family since Christmas, and none of my Lynchburg friends since September. I miss my people. On the day I return, it'll be nearly 7 months since I was in the States, and nearly 10 since driving out of Lynchburg. I'm excited to start my life in the Triangle, and would still appreciate prayers for a job. I hope you all enjoyed this post, especially since it'll be the last one I write on this side of the pond. See you in 15 days America! And happy early birthday! Wish I could be there on the 4th, one of my favorite holidays. Someone eat a hotdog and have a slice of apple pie in my honor.

À bientôt! Bisous!

Monday, June 6, 2016

Normandy and Omaha Beach

Today is the 72nd anniversary of D’Day, when the Allied Forces landed on the beaches of Normandy. So many lost their lives that day, but their sacrifice ensured our freedom, and that’s a debt we can never repay. I feel so honored to have been able to visit the beaches this weekend.

I have been looking forward to visiting Normandy since my first day in France. It has been at the top of my must-do list before returning to the States, and for a while I wasn’t sure how I would be able to get there and if I’d have to go alone. I am so so thankful for my friend Isabelle who not only offered to drive, but invited a couple other friends who were just as excited to go as I was, made sure we had packed lunches and booked our Airbnb (an adorable house about 12 minutes from Omaha Beach). She drove the entire time and made sure we were all having a good time. So to Isa, thank you for not only making this weekend possible, but for making it a weekend I will never forget.

I don’t even know where to start. I took over 750 photos and saw and participated in so much, that it’s hard to pinpoint where to begin. I suppose the first thing that stuck out to me was on the drive to Omaha Beach. Once we reached a certain point, nearly every house that we passed displayed the American flag. There is so much gratitude toward Americans in this part of France, and it was humbling to see my own country’s flag everywhere I looked.

We pulled into the parking lot, and the sky was still pretty gray and cast a chill in the air. We walked over to the memorial on the beach, appropriately named “The Brave,” and that was the first look at Omaha Beach. I couldn’t believe I was finally standing there after wanting to come for so long. And here I was. Facing the water, I couldn’t help but imagine how different the same spot must have looked 72 years before. Not the tranquil, quiet beach we were looking at, but somewhere dangerous and war-torn. When I looked behind me, I could see these lovely green hills overlooking the ocean, but all I could picture were guns pointed toward the incoming American soldiers. It was a somber moment for me, standing there realizing that this same beautiful beach I was looking at was once covered in bodies and blood, and the sky was filled with gun fire and smoke. These soldiers were so young and their lives were cut so short. How did they mentally prepare themselves for that day? Knowing that as soon as those boats made it close enough to shore, that it could very well be their last moments, which was the truth for so many. How do you dig deep enough within yourself to find the strength and bravery to do what they did, despite the fear they must have felt? I have no idea. But I’m so thankful for what they did that day.

I brought home some sand from in front of the monument as gifts for some very special solider family and friends of mine. After taking some photos around the main area, we walked along the beach, then came back toward the monument to eat the picnic we packed. By this point, the sky was finally starting to clear and the sun was beginning to feel warm. This is the first blue sky and sunshine I’d see in a week and a half, and we were so happy. After we finished eating, we decided to shed our jackets and walk along the beach to the American Cemetery. It was quite a hike, but by now the sky was clear and the sun was getting hot, so we were just so happy to be outside. We had a great time walking and talking and taking photos along the way. About an hour or so later, we make it to the bottom of the hill in front of the cemetery. We walked along the path, and saw that the gate was closed (none of us seemed to notice that there was a temporary sign that said this was closed for security reasons, but I noticed it when going through my photos). So we got creative, and hiked to the top of the hill, and trekked through a beautiful field that was beside the cemetery. Seriously, it was gorgeous up there.

We walked around to the main entrance and into the visitor’s center. We took our time walking up and down the rows of displays and films being played, then made our way outside toward the monument. As I reached the top, I was just in time to see a Scottish band begin playing for about 10 minutes. I love bagpipes, so this was a pleasant surprise, and we enjoyed sitting there listening to them play. At this point, we all dispersed and began wandering around on our own and taking photos. I just couldn’t believe I was actually standing there after wanting to come for so long. After a half hour or so, I hear planes in the distance. Thankfully, I had my camera in hand, because all of the sudden, planes started flying low over the cemetery. Like…REALLY low. I think there were 5 planes that passed over us, then did a few more passes while we were there. It was so awesome.

As you leave the American Cemetery, you can find this inscription on a wall of the visitor's center, which I loved:
"You can manufacture weapons and you can purchase ammunition, but you can't buy valor and you can't pull heroes off an assembly line."
Sergeant John B. Ellery
U.S. 1st Infantry Division

After we left the cemetery, we made our way back down to the beach and walked back toward the monument where we were parked. We drove to our Airbnb for the night to drop our stuff and chill for a while. There were so many events happening that weekend, and we had a guide that told us what festivities were happening and where. We found a festival in Sainte-Mère-Église. This little village played a significant part during the Normandy landings, particularly with the paratroopers, many of which lost their lives while descending over this town. When we got to the square near the church, there were people and soldiers from the US, France, and Germany everywhere. There was music from the 1940s playing, and the smell and smoke of sausages on the grill hung in the air. We walked around for a bit, and ended up standing in line for sausages and fries…which was the only thing any of the tents sold. Not sure why haha. But as we were standing there, a US soldier got in line behind us. Isabelle could hear the French guy behind him trying to talk to him, and she intervened to translate. We all got to chatting, and we ended up following him over to his friends, who we spent the rest of the night chatting with. We all had so much fun, and the entire night ended with an amazing fireworks show over the square. It was a perfect day.

The next day, we went back to Sainte-Mère-Église for the paratrooping event. The soldiers we met were selected to participate in this event among others, which is why they were there. The day started off chilly and cloudy again, but ended up really hot at one point (my poor face is currently sunburned). We enjoyed another round of sausage dogs and fries and watched the paratroopers jump from their planes and sail to the ground. After this event, there was a ceremony commemorating the occasion, and we ended up running into the same group from the night before. One of them gave us some of his patches and pins as we left, which was something we noticed the night before. A lot of the locals would come up to the soldiers and ask for patches, or the soldiers from one country would trade with those from another. Although wearing a service member’s uniform in the States would be considered disrespectful, I asked one of the guys we were talking to if it was different here, because so many of the locals were dressed up in military gear. He said that here it wasn’t since they were basically honoring the soldiers at this event. There was a store open right next to us that sold military gear and uniforms, so we finally figured out where the locals were finding the stuff they were wearing. But it was really endearing to see them approach the servicemembers from each country to shake their hands and ask for photos. We stayed in Sainte-Mère-Église until about 5 PM on Sunday. A parade was about to start, but we had to skip it so we could get on the road and go home. It was such a bummer to leave because the energy and camaraderie among both soldiers and civilians at these events was something I was so grateful to be a part of. I’ll never forget it.

We weren't able to visit any museums or some other important sights, but it just makes me that much more excited to return one day. Normandy is beautiful. The entire region is just so quaint and lovely. If ever you have the opportunity to visit, do it. You won’t be disappointed. And I highly recommend planning a trip around this time of year when these same events are going on.

But back to Paris we went. Back to the oppressively cloudy skies and rainy days. Not sure if everyone has heard, but Paris has flooded. The Seine rose to 20 feet above it’s normal level and washed out the embankments, some roads and metros, and some museums and other sites had to close. But apparently the water level is lowering now, but I think we are still supposed to have rain for the next few days. My rain-soaked soul is ready for consistent warmth and sunshine. It’s June, I shouldn’t be outside in a coat.

I feel like May was a blur. After returning from Barcelona, we had a few beautiful and very warm days where I could walk around in a dress and enjoy some afternoons picnicking with friends along the canals. Me and a couple friends were finally able to visit Giverny, which was just as beautiful as I had hoped it would be, although it was packed. It’s not the tranquil, uncrowded scene that the movie Midnight in Paris displays. Nope. Lots of school groups and tourists hanging about. But it was a gorgeous place, and totally worth the trip. The actual town of Giverny was so small and picturesque. It was the perfect charming little French provincial town. 

Another friend from high school who was in my graduating class visited Paris a couple weeks ago. Adam has been traveling solo and stayed in Paris for a few days. We had one good weather day, but unfortunately the torrential downpours that caused the flooding started during his trip. He says he still had fun though. I’d probably have cried if that was my first trip to Paris, but he was a good sport. It was fun playing the tour guide though, even though we walked a ton and it wore me out lol.

I can’t believe my time in Paris is nearly over. I literally can’t believe it is June and that I’ll be home soon. 40 days from today, 5 weeks and 5 days from now, I’ll be on US soil for the first time in what will then be 7 months. I can’t wait to see my friends and family, and get back to normalcy. But hopefully I’ll be able to jam as much as I can into the coming weeks (including the masquerade at Versailles!), and enjoy probably the last time I will ever have this much freedom and time to travel and do what I want without having a career or other responsibilities. 

Not too many blog posts left! Hard to believe. I hope you all enjoyed this post, though I feel like it was pretty short and didn’t really do justice to my trip this past weekend. I literally can't put Normandy into words that truly capture the experience. Put it on your list of must visit places for sure. 

Until next time!