Ferris Wheels

The French apparently love their grandes roues because I’ve already seen three of them, in three different cities, which makes me wonder if every town in France puts one up at Christmas time.  I’ll have to add that the roue seems to be a bigger attraction than the sapin de Noël of which I have seen relatively few (and of those, none are very spectacular).

First, the one in Paris at the Place de la Concorde.  And yes, they call it the Roue de Paris… Paris Wheel/Ferris Wheel…ha, ha.  Its so big I couldn’t even get it in the picture.  197 ft. high.


The next largest was the one in Lille at about 150+ ft.


And even little Amiens has a Ferris Wheel.  This is the “junior” version (not sure the height) which I actually did – yes! – take a ride in and had to close my eyes when going up.

529Amiens has one of the largest Marchés de Noël in Northern France which I will cover soon – once I finish exams and spend some time there!  It is truly a Christmas Wonderland and worth every bit of a trip to France just to experience it and see the spectacular lighting of the Cathedral.

Lots of pics of all this coming!


Exams, Thanksgiving dinner, a Fondue dinner

Now that the semester is winding down, I’ve been really busy with pesky little details like exams.  Happily, I suppose, the weather has been cold, gray and drizzly the past  week so I don’t mind so much having to stay inside to study. (I HATE staying inside when the sun is shining!)

I’ll say a few words here about the exams.  They are brutal.  I hope my KSU professors don’t get any ideas from this and think maybe they’ve been too easy on us, but I never had such hard exams and these are in classes that aren’t really all that difficult.  I’m taking FLE classes (for non-native speakers) in language, culture and civilization.  I completely understand the material, and the classes – well two of them, anyway – are interesting.  But a typical exam is like this:

Six pages, which are all short answer and must be answered in full sentences/paragraphs – in French, of course – about the history of France, its language and its cultural identity, followed by a two page analytical reading in which we must write an essay analyzing a text. (And no, we can’t use a French/English dictionary.)

Sample question:  “On dit souvent que le français est “la plus germanique des langues latines”.  Pourquoi?

We only have half the class period for the exam and our professor helpfully reminds us that,  “il reste vingt minutes…il reste quinze minutes…il reste dix…cinq, quatre, trois… minutes.

I have this professor for two of my classes and except for his punishing exams, I enjoy the classes and have learned a lot.  When we took our exam yesterday, he actually complained about how long it took him to print, collate and staple the eight pages (remember, this is a mid-20th century facility!)  We weren’t very sympathetic to his plight, I’m afraid.


I mentioned in my last post that I haven’t had many chances to have conversations in French, but there was one exception.  I was invited to an event at a local evangelical church in which a pastor from Switzerland gave a presentation about the country and its history and culture.  This was followed by a fondue dinner.  No one spoke much English but I managed to get along well enough… je me suis assez bien débrouillée en français ce soir là.

531And yes, they drink wine at a conservative, Protestant, evangelical church in France…. bien sûr

Another cultural dinner was the “Thanksgiving” dinner hosted by the American ISEP students.  The five of us contributed to the dinner and at least 40-50 Erasmus students of all different nationalities attended.  La directrice of the student residence almost lost her mind when she saw how many of us were crowded into the salle à manger.  She didn’t quite understand what all the brouhaha was all about.

537I’ll continue the next post with Ferris Wheels…

On Learning French

Here was the fantasy:  I’d come to France, spend several months here speaking to people all day long in their native language, and greatly improve my French.   In a university with some 25,000 students there would be no shortage of people to talk to and I’d be nearly fluent by the time I left here.  That was the idea, anyway. Here is the reality:  The exact number of French students I have met in France – and I’m just going to round it up to the next highest number here – is ZERO.  As in 0.  As in not one single solitary French student have I met in France.  (I do know one French student but I met him in the U.S.) All my classmates are Erasmus students.  I’ve made friends with a number of them, but none of them are French.  Almost without exception, the Erasmus students speak fluent English while their level of French is about like mine.  So how do you think we communicate?  In English mostly.   We sometimes try speaking French among ourselves but there is quite a wide variety of accents and a range of skill levels so I wouldn’t say that does a lot for helping me to improve.  (For example, as I was writing this a Polish classmate emailed me, in English, to ask me what we did in our French Language class today.)

I do speak French when I’m out in public but the results are sometimes less than I hope for.  For example:  I was in a store looking for a sleeping bag so I asked a salesman for help, “Excusez-moi, monsieur, pourriez-vous m’aider?  Je cherche un sac de couchage.”

His reply:  “Oh, you are speaking English!  Can we speak English together?”

Okay, well I know my French isn’t that great, but clearly I was NOT speaking English.

Like most Americans, I adore hearing English spoken with a strong French accent.  My professor, who never speaks a word of English, randomly said in class one day, “Beeg bruzzer ees watching”  – (“Big Brother is watching”) – and I, as the only native English speaker in the class,  burst out laughing because it was so unexpected.  I was like,  “Dites-le encore une fois!”  I loved it. (Too bad the French don’t seem to feel the same way about our accents and our mistakes, that’s all I’m saying…)

The one thing that has improved is my listening comprehension.  Even if I can’t talk and have conversations, I can listen.  I’ve listened to lectures in class and sermons in church and even announcements in train stations and I understand nearly all of it.   Occasionally I can even understand some of what people are saying out in the streets in random snatches of conversation that I overhear. When I do speak, it is usually involving some kind of transaction like buying train tickets.  I’m pretty good at stuff like “je voudrais un billet simple pour Paris, s’il vous plaît” but that is just standard tourist phrase book French.  I understand what they are saying when they ask me if I want a return ticket, or if I have a discount card, or which train I want.  I can answer “oui“,  “non” or “celui qui part à 8h00“.   But I don’t have prolonged conversations in which I can really practice talking as much as I’d like. I suppose if more French is in my head, the experience hasn’t been wasted but that still leaves me with a passive skill level that exceeds my speaking ability.  I had hoped to change that while I was here, but with only one more month to go, I’m not too sure that is going to happen. ONLY ONE MORE MONTH!!!

Back to the Future, Part I

I won’t lie, there are definitely some challenges to be faced at this particular French university.  For the most part, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say I’ve gone back at least 30 years in the educational system, not unlike Marty McFly (“You’re a slacker, McFly, just like your old man“).  And lest I sound overly judgmental about some of the things I’m going to say, I want to point out that most of the professors and staff make comments of their own about how they are “In the Middle Ages” as far as technology goes.  Well maybe that is a slight exaggeration, but I’ll go along with Mid-20th century.

I’ll start with the most extreme examples.  ISEP students receive a monthly meal stipend (which is about half what we’d get at our home University for meals, by the way) and we have to collect this money in person each month.  Now at KSU, they’d just put the money on our Student Account electronically and we’d be good go to.   Here you go to the Bursar’s office to collect this money and it is just like stepping into a time warp.  A woman pulls out a great, big handwritten ledger, finds your name, checks it off, and then opens her little drawer and counts out the stipend in cash.  You sign your name on the ledger that you have received it and that’s it.

Also, when I recently had to turn in an insurance document to the housing office, the woman pulled out a wooden box full of index cards, found the one with my name on it, and added a little “check” that she had received it.

I’ve already mentioned the registration process in an earlier post, but to tell it again this is  accomplished by signing up by hand in the classes you choose to attend.  The professor has a sign-up sheet, you put your name on it, and now you’re enrolled.  Then later you turn in a handwritten document to the International Office which tells them the courses you are taking.  Again, none of this is done on a computer of any kind.  In fact, all this probably isn’t that different than how they would have done it in the 1850’s, never mind the 1950’s.

In our classes there are no syllabi except some dates the professor writes up on the board – IF you’re lucky.  There are no textbooks – at least not in any of my classes – nor are there any other written materials to study.  The lessons consist of lectures with important terms written on the blackboard, just like in an old fashioned Little Red Schoolhouse.  (And yes, I literally mean a blackboard with chalk, not a whiteboard with markers.)  There are occasional worksheets which are badly photocopied – about one step up from mimeograph – but no Power Point presentations or any other kind of electronic resources used.  In one class, though, the professor did play us an audio tape.  I was waiting for him to set up the reel to reel film projector to go along with it, but I don’t think they have those yet.

Test scores are posted on a bulletin board.  I have no idea, at this point, how final grades will be posted – probably I’ll get them in the mail with a stamp on it a few weeks after the semester ends.  (And no, I’m not even kidding.)   If a class is cancelled, you just figure it out when the professor doesn’t show up unless he/she has posted it on a bulletin board.  For those who can’t quite get how primitive this is, I’m talking about actual corkboards hanging on a wall, not online bulletin boards.


Now to be fair, this University is “connected”.  They do have wifi on the campus, although it is not available in student residences.  But when we asked a professor about doing a Power Point presentation for an assignment, she advised us not to depend on wifi to access it because it isn’t very “dependable”  (big surprise!)

And while I was able to borrow a laptop from the University to use while I’m here, when I had problems with it recently I took it to their “IT Department” which consisted of a guy in a broom closet.  (I AM NOT MAKING THIS UP!   This is a true story!)  When I showed him my problem, he explained that he couldn’t look at it right away because he is the only IT guy they have and he is very busy trying to service the entire university network.  And this isn’t a small university, either, there are something like 25,000 students.

The security system in our student residence is not much more advanced.  Twice since I’ve been here the fire alarm (which is right beside my door, BTW) has gone off and wailed for hours before anyone came to investigate – much less turn it off.   One of those times this was triggered by smoke coming from the kitchen where someone had burned something.  But only after several students called the after-hours emergency number did a staff member finally meander on over to see what it was all about.  There was no ADT sending out an automatic call to the fire dept.  The building could have been on fire and the alarm would have wailed in vain until someone actually called for help.  (And would we then have to dial “O” for the operator and ask Sarah to connect us to the Sheriff’s office like they did in the Andy Griffith show?  I wonder!)

Although I am slowly adapting to campus life circa 1953, I have to admit that I miss KSU even more than I expected.  I’m about ready to leave Pleasantville and get back to a 21st century University.

Museé Somme 1916 – a Sunday afternoon in Albert

Sunday started out looking pretty gray and dreary and not the kind of day you want to spend hours just sitting inside staring at four walls.  So on the spur of the moment I decided to go to the nearby town of Albert to visit this museum.  Since Armistice Day is next week, this is an especially interesting time to visit a museum of WWI history.031

Albert is a village about 20 minutes by train from Amiens.


The town was hard hit during the Battle of the Somme which was not only one of the worst battles in history but also has the dubious distinction of including the worst DAY in the history of the British Army, with 60,000 British casualties on July 1, 1916,

The basilica with a famous statue of The Golden Virgin was destroyed during the war and later rebuilt.

027The museum is housed in a network of tunnels that were part a crypt running under the basilica dating back to the 13th century.   Now visitors enter the dank, eerie tunnels to see a museum depicting trench life for the soldiers of the First World War.  (During  WWII, these same tunnels were used as air raid shelters.)



This museum graphically illustrates the soldiers’ experiences in this battle that took place in the area 100 years ago.  There are exhibits of items excavated from the area and presented just as they might have looked when they were found.  There is everything you can imagine that accompanied soldiers into battle including personal items, helmets, weapons, tools and even a bugle.

008The most interesting exhibits were the many vignettes showing the experience of  trench warfare from both sides of the conflict020 013 023These were exceptionally well detailed vignettes, comprised of orginal uniforms, weapons, and other accessories.  They even included vermin (such as rodents and flies) among the settings to make it as realistic as possible.

The last section of the tunnel was designed to give a complete sensory experience.  You walk into a darkened section of the tunnel with its dank, chilly air and the sounds of airplanes and explosions punctutated with bursts of flashing lights, and you can imagine either being a soldier dug into the trenches of the battlefield or a civilian taking cover during an air raid.  Either way it is a very dramatic and effective.


After my visit I had some time to pass until the train back to Amiens.  Most of this little town was closed on Sunday, but one of the British visitors at the museum mentioned that a little pub nearby was open and I had a pleasant lunch at a reasonable price (for a change).   Le Corner Pub was kind of a cross between an English pub and a brasserie.  This was called poisson frit, the French version of fish & chips.  I had to smile when I saw it because it was so “dainty” compared to the traditional English dish.


But it was pretty good for simple pub fare.  This main dish plus a bottle of Perrier, a double café, and a nice dessert –  pain perdu au caramel – came to 17,90€ which is reasonable considering that it is service compris (tip included.)   It was even served with a smile by the friendly (!) proprietor.

It was just a short walk back to the gare and I still had a few minutes to duck into the Basilica before catching my train.

030And then on back to Amiens.  The dull, gray Sunday afternoon turned out to be pretty interesting after all.  Just hop on a train, go to the next little town, and see what’s there…

A Week in Paris – Part VII

Day 7 – The Louvre

083By Day 7 I was beginning to run out of steam and the Louvre demands quite a bit of stamina, even to do a “quick” run-through.  I met a friend there who wanted to start at 9:00 am sharp so I had to leave my hotel at 8:00 am to get there on time which meant no time for coffee (good, bad, or indifferent) or breakfast.

As soon as we walked in the door she dragged me at breakneck speed through the museum to see La Joconde (better known to Americans as The Mona Lisa).   I’m not sure what the rush was, but she seemed to think that it might not still be there if we didn’t get there FAST.  Well there it was, in approximately the same place I first saw it 35 years ago.  I have to admit that The Mona Lisa doesn’t do much for me.  Its a nice enough painting, but I don’t find it particularly moving or inspiring.  However it’s one of those things you have to take a picture of so you can say “I saw this”.  Hundreds of other people PER MINUTE obviously feel the same way.  You never saw so many people taking pictures of a painting.

151(To me she is smirking at all the people pushing and shoving to take her picture when she isn’t doing anything but just sitting there….)


And, yes, I saw the Venus de Milo, too

Now I know very little about fine arts and make no pretensions to the contrary.  I do appreciate art, of course, but not with a trained or knowledgeable eye.  If I like it, then I consider it “good,” and that is my only criteria.  So with that said, I’ll post the painting I saw in the Louvre that I liked the best (keeping in mind that I went through it pretty quickly and probably missed a great deal.)

Painting in Louvre

This is Seaport by Moonlight by Claude Joseph Vernet. I love the moon breaking through the clouds; the moonlight on the water; the warm glow of the fire.  I just love this painting.

Of course Louvre itself is very beautiful – as much of an exhibit as the artifacts and works of art it houses.  I’ll post just one photo of a favorite space.  I love the yellow marble.


At noon we went to the Food Court where I ate a horrid slice of lukewarm pizza for 10€ washed down with a drink that cost 3€ .  (That comes to more than $16 which is more than the admission price to the museum!)

SIX HOURS LATER I was unable to endure one more minute on my feet and decided to cry uncle.   I stumbled out of the Pyramid, tired and footsore but not quite ready to call it a day.  I sat for a while next to the arch while waiting for my friend who was still going strong.

082After we parted, I slowly strolled back across the river.  The week was about over, I had seen a lot, and I was weary.   When I reached the Musée d’Orsay (where my train station was located) I looked at it longingly – it houses the Impressionist paintings I really wanted to see – but I didn’t even think about going inside this time.  Instead I sat on the steps outside the museum and was treated to a beautiful, uplifting and soul-soothing “concert” by a street violinist.

158Yes, I gave him a couple of euros and wish I could have given more.  He was fantastic and the perfect note on which to end my week in Paris.

(Although I did not record him myself,  I did find a YouTube video of him playing in Paris)