bureaucra-see part deux, at the doctor’s office.

attestation

Doesn’t look like much, does it?

In America, if you want to do something stupid and ill-advised, that’s usually just fine. Say you die – so what? Well that was dumb of you!

Not so in France. If you want to do anything athletic at all, you need to have a signed doctor’s note saying that you are healthy enough to participate. In some ways it makes sense, but in others, what the- why!? How many people die each year at 5 k road races? How about intramural soccer games? Maybe a few heart attacks could be prevented by telling people who were at risk not to do sports, but I’m not even so sure about that. Some people know they are at risk; some would probably want to run a road race anyway, if it makes them happy.

And yes, people tear their ACL’s and whatnot, but that just happens, it’s a risk you know you take when you decide to play. They are called sports injuries for a reason, and that’s because they are an inherent part of sports. These kinds of injuries happen from the bottom level of sports all the way up to the very top, and no doctor’s note is going to make a tendon change its mind about snapping.

In my mind, here’s how this system came into place. Doctors weren’t getting enough business. Hmm, they thought. How can we get more people to come in? I know! We need to see the healthy people, not just the sick ones! So let’s try to think of a way to get perfectly healthy individuals to be forced to come see a doctor a couple times a year… hmm… yes! I have it! We’ll just require them to come see us before they do anything that’s, oh, I don’t know, completely normal for a healthy person to do!

Anyway. After I signed up for my marathon, I knew that I had to get one of these darn doctor’s notes. I put it off for a while, and eventually discovered that the university health service does this kind of thing for free. Great, I thought! But then it took another two weeks for me to get an appointment and make it into the office.

Because here’s another thing that bugs me about this system: it’s a pain in the ass to go to the doctor’s. They’re only open during working hours, and you know what I’m doing then? I’m working. It’s a relatively small barrier to participation, but it seems like erecting any more inconveniences and barriers to sports is a bad idea, even somewhere like France where there are a dearth of fat people. We shouldn’t be creating any more excuses not to exercise – or, forget the exercise in itself, to taking part in fun group activities that are so emotionally beneficial.

So, I finally figured out a day when I could come in to work late, and there I was. (And I should preface this account by saying that everything was discussed in French.) When the receptionist asked what I needed the note for, I said a running race. She laughed, like, a serious one? Yeah, I said. Then she laughed a lot more. Ha, ha, a whole marathon or something crazy like that! She rolled her eyes.

The receptionist took my height and weight and asked me to read an eye chart. When I replied to her questions by saying I didn’t smoke, no not even cannabis, nothing, and I didn’t take birth control pills, she gave me serious side-eye.

Then she asked me if I ate three meals a day. Where did I eat lunch, the university restaurant?

The fact that she said “good” when I replied the affirmative was troubling, because the food at the university restaurant is shit.

Things were not off to a good start.

The doctor was slightly more sympathetic, in that she did not laugh at me immediately (that came later). But my next challenge was explaining to her that yes, I did have asthma, but it probably wouldn’t be an issue because it’s only brought on by the cold.

How many times a year to you use your inhaler? She asked.

Oh I don’t know, a few.

Has an attack ever made you stop running?

No, I said, I’m never running when it’s cold enough to give me asthma. Then I’m skiing.

So when you’re running do you ever have heart palpitations?

Umm, no, what?

Well will you be carrying your inhaler with you just in case?

No, I mean, it’s going to be June in southern France, the chances of me having a cold-induced asthma attack are pretty slim…

Next she examined me for scoliosis, which I guess is nice, and took my heart rate. She expressed surprise and approval that it was so low. Blood pressure, too: “parfait.”

I was asked to do 30 flying squats, so that she could see how my blood pressure responded to activity. I’ve never been asked to do that before, but it’s a good idea, actually. So off I went. La la la la la la la, 30.

The blood pressure was again “parfait” but the good doctor was troubled that my heart rate had jumped. It increased a lot, she said. And all you were doing were 30 squats – do you really think you can run 40 kilometers if your heart rate does that?

My initial reaction was to be pretty offended. Yes, of course I can run a marathon! I didn’t quite know what to say. Had I really been working that hard? The squats had felt pretty easy, and my old Tabata instructor Jon – whose workouts I really miss, incidentally – would have been yelling at me to push harder, that I could do 25 in 20 seconds, or whatever. Standing in the doctor’s office in my bare feet, without a shirt and facing the doctor, I had gone at a pretty pedestrian pace.

As I mulled over the troubling possibility that I had been working really hard to slowly squat down and stand back up, she reached over and took my wrist to check my pulse again. Wow, she said, okay. It’s only been a minute but it’s already back to normal.

Now we were getting somewhere. I explained that the last weekend I had run 35 kilometers in 3 hours and felt fine, so I was pretty sure I could finish the marathon with no health issues.

Have you run a marathon before? she asked.

No, I said. Just a few halfs.

So this is your first one? Are you sure you are going to be able to do it?

I wanted to say, well, you have to do the first one once, or else how would anyone ever have done one before… but what was the point.

After a few more questions – many about a detailed history of my family’s heart health – she signed the sheet above and I was done. I felt even more ridiculous than at the beginning; I had imagined getting some sort of official-looking form describing my medical history. Instead, all of that was for a half-sheet of paper that doesn’t even say anything useful (but has, as all things in France must, an official stamp!). Are you kidding?

As I biked to work, I thought more about my heart rate, and realized that she probably had no idea what a high heart rate would even be for me. Okay, so at rest, it’s around 55 or 60 these days. That could double and I’d be working at the rate of an easy jog. It could triple and I’d be working pretty hard, but still not at max. I don’t think most people can see their heart rate go from 60 all the way up to 195, so she probably had no idea that I wasn’t working all that hard.

This is another reason the whole system is so stupid: you go to some doctor who doesn’t know you, and yet they are supposed to be able to quickly draw a conclusion about your suitability for sports. It’s so similar to other French bureaucratic messes that I have encountered, in that deep at the core it’s maybe a nice idea, but in practice it is so poorly executed that it just creates a hassle for everyone without fulfilling its actual purpose.

Oh well. I have the signed note, and I should never have to do this again, because after this summer it’s goodbye, France.

*       *       *

I have been thinking about trying to write something about the events that happened in Boston this week, and I have been struggling. Part of it is that it is difficult to process what is going on; I’m so far away, and it’s not exactly a top-headline news story in France. I know that if I was at home, everything would seem so much more immediate to me.

Every once in a while someone will realize that I’m American and ask me if anyone I know was affected. What do I say? None of my friends died or got their legs blown off, is that what they want to know? But yes, we were affected. I know so many people who were there at that marathon, either running or supporting friends and loved ones, and I have so many friends who simply live in Boston.

For me, it’s a double whammy against two of my communities: New England and running. A gut-wrenching shock. I can’t see or understand what’s happening all the way across the Atlantic, but I know how horrific it must be. These are great people, and they do not deserve any of the pain, physical or emotional, that has been inflicted on them. Luckily, I know a thing or two about New Englanders, and runners. If there is anyone who can weather this storm and help each other out, it is these two incredible communities of people. Already we have seen so much strength.

But that’s not really it, either. It comes down to what it means to be an average joe of an athlete. I’ve been at big sporting events where there was tight security; it was kind of a nuisance, but I knew exactly what sort of an impact it would have if some group attacked World Championships or something like that. It would get at a system where athletes generate a huge amount of money for themselves and their sponsors, where fans are rabid for their city or country or just their favorite athlete. Professional sports are inspirational and exciting and hopeful, but also economic and, to some extent, a matter of luxury. It wouldn’t be any less horrible if something bad happened at a professional sporting event, but it’s something our minds are more prepared for – something that government suits warn us about, at the very least.

The Boston marathon, on the other hand, is none of those things. The man who won, Lelisa Desisa, is an incredible athlete who is now two-for-two in marathons and is surely destined for more great things. He’s a professional. But if you look him up on the internet, you can barely find any information. He’s Ethiopian and is sponsored by Nike. You can bet he’s not raking in the big bucks; nor is he probably making Nike too much money either. Does he have other sponsors? Who knows. Distance running is not a particularly lucrative endeavor.

Instead, Boston is about everyone else. Talk to anyone with a passing commitment to marathons, and they’ll talk about the year they ran Boston, or that they’re planning to, or that they are working towards qualifying. It’s something special, not something you do every year; it’s also a very difficult marathon. Heartbreak Hill is famous even beyond the running community. And so the honor of running in Boston creates an incredible environment. It’s uplifting to see what “normal” people, our cousins and brothers and friends and teachers and bosses, can do. You always want to congratulate them and urge them on to greater heights, which is why Boston draws so many spectators for what is, at its heart, one of the more boring sports to watch.

Come marathon day, people are fulfilling their dreams and goals. Even if you have a bad race: you have run Boston. You did it. That’s a huge accomplishment.

To imagine that running towards those dreams could ever put you in danger – not from a moose or shin splints or a speeding car or a dog that slipped under the fence, but from a bomb – messes with all of our minds. It’s not supposed to be this way.

It all feels especially strange given that I had finally decided to re-enter the running community for real, and had signed up for my own very first marathon. It’s easy to imagine that another year, that could have been me crossing the finish line in Boston after four hours. It makes that much more real the threat that our community feels, and what has changed. As I run more and more in the next few weeks, this will likely be on my mind. I want to do a good job in my marathon for those that weren’t able to have the race they had dreamed of on Monday.

Let’s hope that things are not changed for good.

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Bureaucra-see?

immigrant

This is what an immigrant looks like.

I think I look pretty normal. And I’m not sure why you wouldn’t want me in your country. I mean, I know I’m a little biased, but I’m a university graduate, working on an advanced degree, got my visa aboveboard, had it with me when I entered the country… I’m not sure why I should feel unwelcome.

And I can only imagine how fun it would be to try to enter France some other way, for example, illegally. And then try to stay. Montpellier is in the poorest region of France, which is certainly not unrelated to its position on the Mediterranean coast: there are lots of immigrants pouring into these ports, and France does not welcome them or integrate them at all. I recently read a great essay comparing these cities’ economic woes, unfavorably, to those of America’s rust belt. There’s imigrants, and poor, and homeless, and addicted – and by appearances, nobody does much about it.

Because you know who are an immigrant’s worst enemies? Liberté, egalité, and fraternité, that’s who. I’m afraid the venerable trio may have fallen a bit from their ideals.

I have to say, happily, that I am finally a legal resident in France. Six and a half weeks after arriving here, visa in hand,  I finally have a sheet of paper that says I’m allowed to stay. And for me, it was easy. I shouldn’t even be allowed to complain. But the number of appointments, paperwork, exams, trivialities… I would say it’s mind-blowing, but people do tell you that France is a bureaucracy that fuels its own appetites for paper (another great post: David Lebovitz’s, here). It’s true. I felt like France found a way to marginalize me, a relatively affluent white American.

It actually began way back in the fall, with the Visa Saga. I’ll gloss over the visa part, except to say that it lasted until the end of January, involving three separate trips to the French embassy in Stockholm, a lot of e-mails and phone calls and hair-pulling-out, and my consideration of either dropping out of my masters program or spending the spring semester in Munich just so I wouldn’t have to deal with France.

Think about that for a second. I was so dejected by French policy and bureaucracy that I thought the rules would be easier to follow in Germany.

Finally, the very day I left Sweden, I got my passport with my visa in it. Woohoo, I thought! Wait, not so fast.

I was legal to travel and arrive in France but, it turns out, not to stay. For that, you have to get a whole different “stamp” from the immigration office, OFII – it’s really the same thing as your visa, but from a different agency. The embassy in Stockholm gave us a piece of paper that we had to take to France and give OFII. If we lost it? Tough luck. You don’t get another one, your visa does nothing to vouch for you, you don’t get your residence permit.

I didn’t lose it.

So upon arriving, I copied my passport with the visa and the entry stamp from customs and brought it to OFII. A few days later I got a letter: my medical appointment would be at 8:30 a.m. on March 28th, and my interview at 9 a.m. The fact that I had two different obligations was immediately intimidating. Then there was, too, the fact that we didn’t get to have any say in the time – I had three free half-days from class that week, and Wednesday morning was not one of them, but too bad.

Min Ya and Berenice also had the same appointment. We told our professor: we have this silly OFII thing at 8:30, sorry, we’ll miss the first part of class. But we’ll be there by the first break!

He looked at us like we were crazy.

“Well, I don’t know how they do things here in Montpellier, but I know that in other places those immigration things take a really long time. Maybe we’ll see you in the afternoon, or who knows, it might take all day.”

What!?

Still, I was cocky and unconcerned. Although multiple signs should have warned me, I was so confident that this would be a brief formality that I didn’t eat breakfast. I had this plan: I’d go, fly through the appointments, and then come home and do some chores before going to class, since my professor was so sure I’d miss the whole morning anyway – why not take advantage of it?

When we walked into the lobby of the OFII building, there were already at least ten people there. The office is on the first floor (or, what we could call the second floor in America) and they don’t turn the elevator on until just after 8:30. The doors to the stairs are locked and can only be opened with a keycode (apparently the same on the way down, too – hope there’s never a fire!). So we all milled about in the lobby waiting for the elevator to start working. 8:30 came and went.

Eventually, we made it up to the office itself, where a bunch of us sat in the lobby waiting. We checked in at the desk, and then nothing happened. I first really realized that this was going to take a while due to the sheer number of people: we had obviously all been given 8:30 “appointments”, but what that really meant was, sometime today. There was no such thing as an “appointment.”

By nine, I had seen the first of the doctors, who asked me my height and weight and to read the top line of an eye chart, paying no attention as I did. I guess that was just screening, because I returned to my chair in the lobby. We all did: maybe fifteen people saw this woman, then sat back down. There were several more steps in the medical process, but the next examiners were apparently not at work yet.

Or perhaps it just took a long time to set up the x-ray, which is how they screen for TB. One by one, again, we were called in; we had to strip off our shirts and breath in as we smashed our chests up against an x-ray machine, then wait for the technician to produce the x-ray itself. It seems improbable that this is the cheapest way to test for TB, but what do I know. I got a free x-ray out of it. I’m thinking of hanging it in my window. What startled me more was the demand that we just strip down. No hospital gowns here; take your shirt and bra off, miss. In French.

The other thing that seemed incredible was the timing. Okay, so they don’t want dirty immigrants bringing TB into France. I get it. But if they were so worried, wouldn’t they call us in immediately? If I did have some dread disease, I had been living and breathing on the earnest and hapless French citizens for more than a month and a half. If you’re going to make me undress to protect everyone’s health, at least try to make it seem like you’re doing a good job with your public health program.

At the end of the x-ray assault, I at least got to go to a different waiting area – where I joined all of the people who had x-rayed ahead of me. We still needed to see one more doctor, but she wasn’t in her office yet. So we waited. Gradually, everyone who had initially been in the reception area was in this new area, and nobody had yet seen the last doctor. There weren’t enough seats for all of us.

The last doctor asked us me if I was on any medications or had been to the hospital recently. Did I smoke? Use contraceptives? I thought – who the hell cares? I’m pretty sure they couldn’t have kicked me out of the country for smoking, since the French themselves smoke like chimneys. So what’s the point of asking? There’s now a paper somewhere, that nobody will ever look at, saying that I don’t smoke or take any medications. And that paper belongs not to some health care service, but to Immigration.

Over an hour and a half after I was supposed to have my “interview”, I finally got called into the last office I’d see in that building – to a woman who did not speak anything other than French. I pulled out my passport, and she asked to see the letter I had received in the mail from OFII.

“Et les timbres?” she asked.

“Quoi?”

“Les timbres. Vous avez les timbres?”

“Les…. Repetez, s’il vous plait?”

She was becoming exasperated.

“Vous devez payer, les 58 euros.”

Yes, yes: this I knew. To get a student visa to France, it costs 99 Euros. As Erasmus Mundus scholarship recipients, this fee was waived – thanks, Embassy of France. But OFII was not so kind. There’s also an immigration “tax”, which for students in 58 Euros. And this was not waived. We had to pay to live here.

I pulled out the receipt from the Embassy stating that I owed only 58 Euros.

“Ah, celui-ci,” I said. “J’ai de l’argent.”

“Non. Vous avez besoin de timbres.”

Now I was really confused. She kicked me out of her office, saying that I could buy the stamps – that’s what “timbres” are – at a Tabac. I held a counsel with Min Ya and Berenice. Did they have stamps? No, they did not. Did they know what the stamps were? No, they did not. That made zero of us that had any idea what the hell was going on. Luckily, another poor battered immigrant waiting began to explain to us that the only way you could pay was with pre-bought stamps. He had bought his online and showed us a printout, stating that he had paid 58 Euros. That wasn’t an option for us, since we didn’t have a computer or a printer. We went in search of a Tabac, having still no idea what we were actually looking for.

It was raining, also. As we tromped through the rain and past the hobos, I was getting more and more furious. Why was the stupid OFII letter only in France, and why did it not explain where you buy these special Timbres? As we left on our quest, we saw another girl get up and leave, too. She had been listening and didn’t have any Timbres either.

The first Tabac did not help.

“Bonjour,” I said. “Est-ce que vous avez des timbres pour payer les….. choses officiels?”

“Rien,” the guy replied.

Right. They sell them at all the Tabacs.

So we tromped and splashed down another street, found another Tabac, and bought our damn timbres. They are just like stamps for letters – they might even be stamps for letters. In order to stick them to a piece of paper, you lick the back. We turned over our change, got our tiny stamps, and headed back to OFII. The lady mocked us when we arrived. I directed mental thunderstorms her way all afternoon.

Luckily, I had everything else I needed: an ID photo, a signed and stamped attestation from my dormitory that I lived there. Smooth sailing. She put the residence permit in my passport, and, x-ray in hand, I was free to go!

Just in time for lunch. By which I mean, my first meal of the day. And then, afternoon class.

For me, the paperwork is far from over – I still have to make my research at the university official. But at least I can’t get kicked out of the country. I’m allowed to live here. What a long, strange journey it has been. Welcome?

voyage aux alpes.

DSCN1209

A few days ago I saw an opportunity: a Monday morning with no class. That meant a weekend a few hours longer. This could not go to waste and on the spur of the moment I bought a train ticket for Grenoble, booked a hotel, and got my skis down from their dusty perch atop my closet.

This is the beauty of your 20’s, I’ve said again and again: you can get up and go. You have work or school, but no house, no husband or kids, no pets that need to be fed, no garden that needs to be watered.

My approach to travel has certainly changed a bit since beginning grad school, though. Now I spend the time to search out a deal at a fancy hotel, and it’s totally worth it because the craphole of a dormitory that you are stuck in is so miserable. Even if time is money, it’s reasonable to spend some making sure that you’ll have a big bed and a nice shower (the benefit of traveling at the last minute is that even if I’m cheap, I’m a better guest than having an empty hotel room). These are things that do not exist at CROUS Montpellier. Even in Sweden, I used to simply look for the cheapest hostel or a floor to crash on: better to spend the money on many trips that cost practically nothing. Now, with a little bit more cash spent, I can enjoy comfort that I never, ever find in my daily life.

(To my classmates who say that everything is too expensive: I suggest a job. I have one and I haven’t died yet or failed out of school, and even the tiniest bit of extra money every month makes a big difference in how you’re able to spend your time.)

And so on Saturday I found myself at a hotel in Grenoble, with a shower that poured water out of a foot-squared matrix of spouts like a rainstorm. I sat under the hot water for 20 minutes, soaking up the chance to be in a shower where you don’t have to hit the button every 15 seconds to restart the water. There’s plenty of water here.

The plan had been to ski, but that first day it hadn’t worked out with the buses, so I ran up and up and up into the hills above town, first past the views of the city – which says it is the second-largest economy in France – flanked by Alps, and then into the hill farms, no city in sight. My calves ached, my knees twinged on the way down, my feet slapped. I collapsed into my huge bed that night.

Come Sunday, I finally boarded the bus to Autrans. It was raining and gray. In the city, there was no snow to be seen anywhere. As we rounded one hairpin turn after another, cutting through gorges and across cliff faces, there was still no snow. I got more and more nervous.

About ten minutes before arriving at the small town that hosted the cross country ski races at the 1968 Olympics, I began to see snow through the fog. But it was still raining. It was 9:30 and the bus home didn’t leave until 5:30. I wasn’t sure how I was going to occupy myself all day in the rain.

After walking to the nordic center, I timidly approached the ticket booth.

«Je veux skier, même s’il ne fait pas si beau» I said, doubtfully.

«La neige est bonne» the woman replied. «C’est meilleur que s’il faisait chaud…»

I thought to myself, of course she’s saying that. She’s just trying to sell tickets and convince people that it isn’t completely disgusting outside. That’s her job.

When I finally stepped into my skis and took the first few strides, though, I saw she was right. They had groomed that morning and the corduroy – barely skied on because the weather had turned most people away – was surprisingly fast. It felt more icy than waterlogged, and didn’t have the cementy-potatoes feel that I had been dreading. Okay, maybe this was going to be fine.

Just as I had on my run the day before, I climbed up and up and up to start. Knowing that I had almost 2000 feet to ski up into the Alps if I really wanted to try the whole trail system, I paced myself. But the skis slid easily, and my body worked better than I had expected after the hard run the day before, and after a month of not skiing.

I eventually reached the upper trail center of Gève, where it wasn’t raining anymore. Half my climbing was complete. Onward I skated, onto a trail called “Panoramique.” Not so much today, but it would take me up to the ridge and around a snaking bowl that, I am sure, would have had lovely views if it hadn’t been fogged in. Every once in a while things would clear for a moment and in just one direction I would glimpse a few ragged peaks before they disappeared back into the fog.

After two hours of skiing and some hard climbs, I reached La Quoi. But things weren’t over yet. Up here, it hadn’t been groomed, and the skiing was slower; it was also snowing. But there was a loop of maybe eight or nine more kilometers along the ridge, which dropped down to a refuge before climbing up through a steep meadow to rejoin the trail and head home. At the refuge I bought a lunch of ravioli and cured ham, plus an entire pot of Russian Earl Grey.

Back on my skis, it was cold. The next few kilometers alternated between rain and snow. I had expected to feel better after lunch, but I had been skiing for almost three hours already and I did not feel better at all, at least not at first. I began to wonder if I had made a huge mistake: the weather was terrible, and here I was, 15 or 20 kilometers from the touring center, cold and tired. I could die out here!

That was a little bit melodramatic. Yes, climbing was hard, but as soon as I got on more gradual terrain, it was so easy to be on skis, gliding along, even in the slow mush. At one point, feeling cold, I decided to sprint up a hill to try to get the blood going. Much to my surprise, after a long ski and months of no speedwork, I fell into the easy rhythm of attacking and reached the top of the hill warm.

It was an exhilarating feeling: I’ve still got this. Against all odds, I’m still a skier.

And as I began my descent of the Alps, cruising around corners and gleefully picking the best lines, popping up and over the hills with my momentum and a few quick hop skates carrying my speed, I thought: I’ll always be a skier.

Maybe it’s not so different than the joy I found in Font Romeu a few weeks ago. But for one thing, I’m in better shape now. Trails or no trails, two weeks ago I decided that I would be damned if I sat on my ass all day and signed up for a marathon to kickstart a running routine. I have incentive to go run, even if I don’t like the places I’m running. After two 30-mile weeks and a crash diet, I felt fit (fitter; hills still kick my ass). I swear I felt lighter and stronger than I had in Font Romeu. Skiing for hours was hard, but not as hard as it had been then.

For another thing, my entry to Montpellier had been confusing, more confusing as time went by. I found myself in a city unlike anywhere I had ever lived. Not a city to be a sportswoman. There’s a lot of pavement and cars that pay no attention to pedestrians or cyclists. In the first few days I thought, well, I just haven’t found the good part yet. But as the weeks wore on, it seemed more and more impossible that my kind of city even existed within anywhere in Montpellier.

Here, there’s no ski club for me to embed into, nobody to tell me the secrets to happiness. Some of my classmates have made new friends here, outside our program. I’m jealous. They have people who share their interests and their cultural backgrounds, people to cook Chinese food with or talk in Spanish. How did they do it? Where are the people like me? I glimpse them every once in a while, but I can’t truly find them.

Hence, running in yucky places, on the hot pavement, dodging ubiquitous dogshit that covers the sidewalks.

It’s not that I’m not having fun – it was nice to have so many options for what to do at night, pubs and restaurants and classmates who I love. We have a good time. In the last few weeks it has seemed so impossible to have the kind of life that I’m used to that I thought, well, maybe I just resign myself to this semester being different, because this isn’t miserable.

Back in the States, my friends are all multitaskers. They are professional skiers who paint amazing pictures in their spare time (look at Hannah’s website!); scientists who get out every weekend to kayak or rock climb or mountain bike; professors who rip turns on their tele skis at every chance; adults with full-time jobs who nonetheless donate their free time to coaching kids. They hike the mountains, play Frisbee, farm. Doing one thing never means that they can’t also do something else.

That’s how I lived too, but it’s foreign here. Sure, people have interests – drinking, watching movies or sports, eating, (occasionally when the weather is good) being a tourist, talking to their boyfriend or girlfriend on the phone. These interests prevent many further trips and adventures. It’s “normal” that these simple things are all a student has time, or desire, for. Being a student is apparently very limiting.

School had never defined me before, but I was ready to let it. Maybe this was my new life, the kind of friends I would always have. Maybe my old life was over; maybe this was growing up. Had my friends at home just not grown up yet? Or was following several passions a uniquely American trait? This wasn’t so bad, after all. We won a bottle of vodka in that pub quiz. In a few years, I’d be married to another scientist, doing research somewhere as part of a PhD.

As I skied back down to Autrans, I rejected that completely. Not a single person I know in Montpellier knows or understands the joy that I get from being on snow, or how having skis attached to your feet is easier and more natural to me than running. They are my good friends and always will be, but they can’t be my only friends. Just as a few of them have found people outside of our program, I need that, too.

To come back and not be able to even convey this feeling I had on my skis was just wrong. To not be able to share this trip with anyone was disappointing. I have no problem traveling alone – I find it much more agreeable than most people probably do, and it’s relaxing to be able to decompress and just not talk – but there’s an undeniable yearning to have someone to experience these new places with. I wish I could have turned to someone as I sped through the trees and said, “isn’t this awesome?”

But nobody was there.

If I can survive this semester, I’ll find them again. If I marry another scientist, he’ll be one who climbs mountains or ride bikes or does something – anything – in the outside that I love so much. Maybe he’ll fish or hunt, or watch birds or dabble in nature photography. Maybe he won’t be a scientist at all. Maybe I won’t get married at all! But in the next months, I will find some friends who won’t pass off my trips as that unfamiliar, but cool, I guess, thing Chelsea does because it makes her happy.

Sitting on the train back to Montpellier, my legs ache. That’s my souvenir from the weekend – that and the reminder to keep being myself, that my people are out there and sometime soon I’ll find them. Until then, I’ll keep running and enjoy the nights out at the pub. Just not every night.

the real experience, or, who wants a castle anyway.

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You might think that southern France is warm. Well. Take a look at that picture – does it look warm to you?

Taking a rudimentary glance at a map, I realized that we were not far from Carcassonne, a medieval walled city that I had learned about in French class in high school. At some point, the teachers decided that the best way to make us interested in learning French was to add a little bit of history and some pretty pictures into our classes. One thing that is so surreal being here is that I can remember learning about places and people in history classes or language classes, but now I have a chance to go see them or their environs firsthand. A lot of cool history happened in America, but things in Europe are just a bit more legendary. They are old. They have a bit of myth to them.

IMGP1088(This was true in Sweden as well, but unfortunately I never learned much about Sweden in school. So all of that was discovering new things for the first time, rather than feeling like I was walking into my own textbook.)

So, I said, let’s go to Carcassonne! It was not a well-hashed-out trip, more of a last-minute thing, like, we have this Sunday and we don’t have homework, let’s make the most of it. We looked and train and tram schedules, managed to all get to the train station at 9:30 (well not all, I’m looking at you, Katie), and get on the train. When we left our dormitory it was a bright blue day, sunny and beautiful. Not warm, of course not, but picture perfect.

At some point on the train, we began realizing that it was quite hazy outside. Maybe this happened around Narbonne. Visibility was low; we knew there were hills but we couldn’t see them. When we stepped off the train in Carcassonne, we realized that it wasn’t haze. It was a snowstorm, and it was zero degrees and blustery. I have to admit I think that our first instinct was to run back into the train station, but we were here – we had to carry on. We hadn’t looked up any directions or maps of the city, figuring that the walled city up on the hill would be visible from everywhere. Not today. We checked tourist signs and streetside maps as we felt our way around the city, hunkered down in our hats and mittens.

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As we learned later, Carcassonne is really two cities. In the 1200’s, Carcassonne was a Cathar city. Despite a whole unit in a Dartmouth history class and a book read and assignment completed on Montaillou, where the heresy was really strong, I didn’t realize that the small hamlet lay just 90 kilometers from Carcassonne and that the powerful family that held the city were also Cathars. When the heretics were rooted out in southern France, the residents of the walled city were allowed to survive if they left their homes. So they went through the gates and eventually made their livelihoods down the hill, in a second city. That’s where we arrived by train. And it was quite pretty – nice shops and squares, monuments.

But at last we reached a bridge and could look up and see the castle. Yes, this is what we came for. (The wind on the bridge was something terrible.)

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So up we climbed, up and up, to get to the UNESCO World Heritage Site that is Carcassonne. First, through the improbably green grassy hillside – the Mediterranean does get all its rain in the winter – and then up cobbled steps, behind walls and through arches.

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The most surprising thing once we got inside the city walls was to see…. life continue to go on. I hadn’t realized this, but the city is still a city. I guess I shouldn’t have been so shocked; after all, Fes-al-bali is a World Heritage Site and it’s very much alive. And the area is big enough that it would be a shame to turn it into a sterile museum. But nonetheless, I wasn’t prepared to walk through the last huge arch and see a restaurant.

IMGP1102All of the establishments in the walled city cater to tourists. There are restaurants, cafes, coffeeshops, chocolate shops, kitschy souvenir shops. A few smallish museums of unclear provenance. I guess that people live there, but it wouldn’t be very convenient; the real world is down in the other city. There are hotels, but they must cost a fortune. Still it was strange to see so many people walking around, talking boisterously and popping in and out of buildings.

We were sorely tempted to eat lunch, but decided instead that we should at least look around before we ate. We wandered into the main museum, assuming that it would cost a lot of money, but it turned out to be free for students – hurrah! So in we went. The castle within the walled city itself was rebuilt, redesigned, and fortified through the years, so to begin we had to walk over the stone bridge over what used to be a moat – protecting the nobles from not only invaders but also providing some insulation from the townspeople themselves. These days, the moat is dry and they were beginning to plant vegetable gardens in the grass below the bridge.

Then under another arch, where you could see the old defences: there was where the portcullis would go down, there was a gap where something hot and painful might be poured on people passing under the gate. Then, we were inside the keep.

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The museum took us inside, up the stairs, and into a dark but probably otherwise grand hall where we watched a video about the history of the city. It fell into disrepair and squatters lived in the free spaces until the mid 1800’s, when someone took an archeological interest in the site and began trying to decipher what it was supposed to look like. From that point on, restoration work was done to get the city into the shape it is in today – so that when you visit, you can imagine what life would be like.

As we walked through long halls, up and down winding stairs to scale towers, and out along the ramparts, we certainly imagined what it would be like. In a lot of ways, not that nice. For one: it was dark inside. For another: it was cold. A few rooms were sort of heated, or at least protected from the cold, but in others the windows did not have glass and we could hear the wind howling fiercely. It was scary, in a way, how it picked up speed along various rooflines and then flung itself down the sides of the high walls. I would have sworn there was a hurricane outside as the wind blew past us.

You would spend the winter cowering from the cold, locked up in this vast hulking stone castle, looking our the window with fear. At least that’s the sense I get.

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Eventually we made our way down to the lower rooms, which had been the chapel, receiving rooms, and other fancy spaces. They were more equipped for guests and for comfort – one had frescoes of horses and nights painted all around the top of the walls, and the ceiling was washed a bright blue color like the sky. In here, art from the city’s history was housed, and restored gargoyles and details from the tops of columns. All sorts of beautiful things; perhaps when the castle fell into disrepair, only the stones used in the structure were left. Maybe, back when people lived here, it wasn’t as cold and isolating as it felt to me. I can only hope.

Because, what I’m left with, even after a bowl of hot onion soup at a local restaurant, a nice trip to the ornate cathedral, and a train ride home to warmer Montpellier, is the memory of the snow flying around those cold stone walls. Supposedly, in the summer, it is unbearably hot; that wasn’t something my mind could even comprehend. Instead I was stuck thinking how lucky we are to live when we do, when life isn’t so hard, so painful, or so short.

But even despite those takeaway messages, despite the fact that our photos were not against the clear blue Mediterranean sky, the city was beautiful – and I felt more than ever lucky to be in a place where I could walk into the pages of my history books. The sheer scale of the walled city was astonishing, the number of turrets and towers, the tons upon tons upon tons of rock that had been summoned to defend the stronghold. Can something be harsh and lovely at the same time? I say yes – even as the snow flies.

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things you do in france.

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The next few blog posts, I am quite certain, will be all about the stereotypical things that tourists do in France. I used to hate doing touristy things and be embarrassed by them; I burned with shame as I snapped photos of monuments and sights. Well, now I feel like sometimes, you just gotta do what you gotta do. I’m in France! Let’s be French!

IMGP1053Even though I learned French all through high school and into college, and visited Quebec regularly for ski races and camps over a period of five or six years, I haven’t been to France since the 1992 Olympics in Albertville. Then, I was almost five years old. Unsurprisingly I don’t remember much.

So this is my chance to get to know the place. Besides the bureaucratic nightmares and endless reams of paperwork that I seem to encounter on a daily basis, it’s pretty nice. On my first Saturday in town we decided to go to one of the traditional outdoor markets. Leaving our dormitories it was a beautiful blue-sky day – but don’t be fooled, it was windy and cold. Apparently around here people say that to know whether it will be cold on a winter day, you don’t look at the forecasted temperature – you look at the forecasted wind.

Katie (in the bottom left of the photo in the cute jacket) said she knew where to go, so we hopped on the tram and got off at a familiar stop, then walked up a long, winding hill on a narrow street with the buildings clambering above us. Eventually we reached the top and real, wider roads – one with a planting in the middle, leading down to a park. With an Arc de Triomphe. I guess every French city has one of their own, no big deal.

It was a gorgeous day. We were astounded – we signed up to go to the market, and we got to walk through this incredible park first? Sure, France, I’ll take it!

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We climbed up and around the vaguely temple-like structure, which turned out to rather ingeniously house a water tank under its floor.

“The market is just down the side on the left,” Katie said.

And by the left, she meant to the left of the aqueduct. Because of course there’s an aqueduct! And of course on Saturday the farmers come and sell their vegetables under the shelter of its arches!

Seriously.

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Finally, we reached the market, and were greeted by everything we’d hoped. Vegetables. Fruit. Fish from the sea, all sorts of meats, from whole gooses plucked except for their heads, to roasted chickens, to the most incredible variety of charcuterie. Bakers of bread and pastries. Cheesemakers hawking both dainty rounds of goat cheese and huge, several-kilo slabs of regional specialties that you could order 100 grams of and they’d slice you off a piece. Honey from so many different kinds of flowers, or if you preferred, honeycomb. Jams from every fruit in the region. Spices.

We walked all the way through the market, wondering as we went along. Each stall seemed more delicious than the next; how would we decide what to buy? We faced some tough choices, that would almost certainly be decided in a completely arbitrary manner.

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I mean, I’ve been to many a farmer’s market in multiple states around the country. There was really nothing new here, minus the aqueduct. But it seemed so charming, the way they wrote the signs with big looping “2”s, and how I got nervous before I asked for something, afraid I’d mess up my French. In the end I walked away with a nice poppyseed-crusted sourdough loaf and a round of the goat cheese, which I have been snacking on ever since. It is delicious, and I don’t think that’s just because I’m seeing the world through French rose-colored glasses.

(It’s really unfortunate that my kitchen situation is so craptastic, because I could buy so many vegetables and other things and cook up a storm. Maybe I’ll write about kitchens later….)

The other highlight of the market were the vendors selling food to eat right there, or take home with you – more take home with you, it seemed, since none of them offered utensils. We were tempted by a giant pan of paella as we walked in, but by the time we returned it was gone. Next was the couscous with lamb, reminding me of all the delicious smells of Morocco. But with no forks we were sort of out of luck. We ended up buying samosas from one vendor and slices of quiche and tart from another, then hiking back up to the park to eat them.

Let me say this for fusion cooking: it can be great. Two of the samosas were traditional, and delicious. The other two had a French spin. One was basil and lemon, also yummy, but what knocked my socks off was a hot, steaming samosa filled with Roquefort cheese and crushed nuts. I am sure Indian cooks are rolling over in disgust, but I couldn’t believe how amazing it tasted. Sometimes you have to think outside the box, I guess.

Happy times – as touristy as it makes us look, I have a hunch we’ll be going back many a Saturday to do our shopping and grab a tasty lunch. Next time, I’m bringing a fork so I can dig in to that paella. Katie and Berenice agree.

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A Week in Montpellier.

I shamelessly stole this photo from my friend Min Ya’s facebook page. Thanks for taking photos, Minya! These are just a very few MEME (my program: evobio.eu) people I met this week: me, Nikki and Kristel from the Netherlands, Daniel from Mexico and Portugal, Paul from the Netherlands, and Katie from England. All but Paul are newbies in the MEME masters program; when Daniel, Katie, and I head to Uppsala in a few days, Paul will be there finishing some things up to graduate and he will be able to show us around.

Before going on, I should explain a bit about my program. It’s evolutionary biology, which I’m really excited about. I’ve been an ecologist for all of my scientific “career” (HAHA) but I have realized that I find evolution really fascinating at a large scale. Okay, that isn’t anything new. What’s new maybe is that I also realized that knowing some genetic techniques would be really important to be able to answer some bigger, more interesting research questions, and also that having those skills will make me a much more competitive applicant for ecology jobs. So, evolutionary masters degree, here I come! Our program is two years, or four semesters, and you pretty much have to switch campuses (there are four main ones to choose from, or you can do an “external project” anywhere else as long as someone from one of the four universities signs on as a co-advisor) every semester, and attend at least two different schools. We will be traveling a lot.

In all, almost 50 students were in Montpellier for the week along with five or six or so coordinators. And they were all awesome! The biggest contingents were from the Netherlands, Colombia, and Mexico. I am the only American in my class but there are a few in the years above me, and a few Canadians too. Mostly, though, it’s people from other places. That’s already taught me things like…. in the U.S. college takes a year longer than everywhere else. Yet another reason I feel kind of old. There are two students in the year ahead of me who are actually 20 years old. They must be geniuses.

Our program was a combination of things for different people: orientation on the first day for us newbies, graduation on the last day for the oldest students, lectures and outings and a journal club in the middle for all of us. The first day was learning about the different campuses, what research opportunities there are, how we can fulfill all the various requirements from each university to get our two masters degrees (that’s right, I’m going to be a double-master when I am through with all of this). For each university, one of the coordinators gave a presentation and then a few students talked about what it was like to live there, what trips to go on during the weekends, how to find housing, and what to do in your spare time. At the end of each of the four university’s presentation I was convinced that THAT was where I wanted to go.

So: I am off to Uppsala, which sounds like it is definitely one of the favorite places of everyone who has been there. After that my tentative plan is to do spring in Montpellier, next fall in Munich, and then my final term back in Uppsala. But as the older MEMEs have told me, plans will change and evolve and mutate (ha!) a million times between now and then.

On day two, we had lectures by a few of the Montpellier faculty. All were interesting; my favorite one was by Sonia Kefi, who looks at patterns at the landscape level and what makes those systems resilient to change – or where the tipping point is in processes like desertification. I am thinking of how I can blend that with evolution to do a project, although there are also so many other interesting things in Montpellier I could work with (like Tour de Valas). You can see more about Kefi’s work at her website.

We also had presentations by all of us newbies about what we have done so far – both in science and in life. None of us were sure what to talk about. I put up some pictures of me skiing, which I think confused people (less so, though, than when they saw that I had my ski bag with me: “you are never going to have time to use those!”). Other people talked about where they’ve traveled, what their favorite movies are, or some things about their country. I learned that so many of my new classmates have already done amazing research, and been all over the world. We are a pretty cool group of people, if I do say so myself.

Then we went to Tour de Valat, which I wrote about. On the final day, a few of the graduating students defended their thesis projects. It was so interesting to see that they worked on – one was looking at using genetic sampling to estimate population size of primate communities, one at the evolution of trees depending on fire regime, another at the important of self-pollination in a plant community. Completely different topics, highlighting that we all have the ability to really do whatever research interests us. What is better than that!

Finally, we had a journal club – several groups of students were assigned to each of seven articles and had to present the papers to the rest of the group. All in all, this was a good way for me to ease back into school. I haven’t been in school for three years. I’ve read papers and helped edit them in our lab in Oregon, but it is one thing to look at how a paper is written when you know everything about the project was about and how everything was done beforehand. It’s something else to read about an experiment you are completely unfamiliar with – sometimes completely, if it’s modeling or genetics – and parse everything out. That I haven’t done as much in the last few years.

Most fun, of course, was getting to know the other students. Every night we would sit outside our dorm rooms and just talk and drink wine. It is such a fun group of people! We are going to have a really good time in the next two years. It reminded me of my freshman year of college, when you automatically and instantly make friends with people and are inseparable. Because we were all fairly bewildered – only two of the incoming students had ever been to Montpellier before – we moved as a herd, fifteen-strong, wandering to the supermarket, cafes, the campus, back home. One night all fifty of us were supposed to go have a picnic on the beach but we missed the bus, so there was a long straggling line of us walking the 20 minutes along the road to get to Carnon. I’m sure it was a sort of funny sight.

It is sad that we are splitting apart and heading off to campuses all over Europe and even America (a few second-year students are going to Harvard for the fall), but I love the people who will be in Uppsala with me, and we will see some people again at a winter school in January. And we’ll visit each other. The absence will make it more exciting when we re-shuffle to different campuses in the spring, too – we will get to see people for the first time in several months.