Last day in Europe

Something scary is happening!  Tomorrow at this time, I will be landing in Morocco. Fez, Morocco! I will get off the plane and say good morning, “Sabah behkrer!” to the cab driver, who my hotel has arranged to pick me up and guide me through the winding streets of the Medina, or the medieval walled city of Fez.  I have a calendar drawn in the cover of my journal, starting on August 12th, the day I left home, and ending on December 15th, the day I fly into Chicago.  There is a big circle drawn on tomorrow, for it represents the day that part 2 of my adventure begins.  A two weeks ago, the circle was two weeks away and it wasn’t scary at all.  But now, the circle is tomorrow.  It’s a little scary, I have to admit.  I mean, I should be brave by now, having survived 3 weeks in Europe by myself, but tomorrow is my first day outside of a Western nation. On Thursday I meet my host family and take a placement test in Arabic.  I’ve hardly been able to enjoy my last days here in St. Malo because I’ve been studying. But for now, during this hour-long train ride to Rennes, I want to take some time and write a little about my trip to Europe.

Geneva, my first city, was my favorite of the trip.  It reminded me of Madison.  It just had that cool, diverse feeling, and I know why.  Geneva is where the European branch of the UN is located and they have a lot of immigrants of different cultures.  Visiting the UN in Geneva was very inspiring: since I decided on my major, my big, big career goal in life is to work for the UN, and the tour just fueled my dream even more.  In one room we viewed on the tour, there was a very inspiring painting on the wall.  A mother was standing on a pair of cannons holding her child to the sky, wishing for a warless world for the future generation.  Though the current generation Americans and the other English-speaking tourists live in a world where war is such an abstract concept, the tour guide told stories of when he gave Vietnamese or Korean or Middle Eastern families tours: this painting meant a lot to them.  For all these people, the artists’ beautiful wish is still a dream.  Many of the people on these tours do remember war and have lived in a time where there countries were thrown in to chaos because of a war.  For the Vietnamese and Korean grandparents and the Arab parents and children, a world with wars is very real and fresh in their memories.  A lot of these people were once in the same shoes as the woman in the painting.  At one point in their lives, or currently for some of them, they could only imagine a world of peace.  Some of these people have gotten their wish for the children, but others are still dreaming and waiting.  So . . . let’s all work really hard for peace, so our children and grandchildren don’t even have to watch war on the news. 🙂

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Also during my trip to Geneva, I took a day trip and  went to my first and favorite chateau of the trip: Le Chateau de Chillon, in Monreux, about an hour north of Geneva.  It was a beautiful, blue day by the lake.  Looking out the window of the tower, all I could see around me was blue.  The mountains were colored blue from the lake, but a cute white sailboat added a bit of contrast. One thing that I really enjoyed about being in Europe was how old everything is.  In Madison, it’s lucky to find a building older than 250 years, but the construction of this castle started a thousand years ago!  In Montreux, I also got to meet Freddie Mercury, or at least the statue that commemorates him, but that’s pretty close to the real thing . . .

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Next, I came to Zurich, where all the German-speaking Swiss people called me Bühlmann and completely ignored the Barbeau part of my last name. Yes, here I visited my Swiss-German roots and imagined my ancestors herding cows, making cheese, climbing mountains, yodeling . . . all the stereotypical Swiss things. (Actually, my ancestor immigrated to Wisconsin from Switzerland and made cheese! So maybe, with my family, some of these stereotypes are true.) However, I noticed that Switzerland is very similar to Wisconsin.  There are cows and cheese, rolling hills of beautiful farmland, and people who love cows.  It was wonderful.  One of my favorite moments in Zurich was when I found a random farmer’s market in the train station and spent the day sampling Swiss cheese!  What else is a Wisconsinite in Switzerland to do?!

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My next stop was Arles, France, and even though this was my first bad experience in a hostel, it was completely worth the trip.  I got to visit one of the places that I have been dreaming about since high school French class: the Camargue, where there are wild pink flamingos, my favorite kind of bird, and wild white horses! I spent a day at a wildlife reserve watching the birds.  To be honest, I almost cried with joy when I saw the flamingos fly.  It was the most beautiful sight of my life.  I’ve spent hours watching them at the Madison zoo because they’re just so fascinating, but to see them free was something truly amazing.  I was also able to get very close to the wild horses.  I was by myself in an observation house that had little windows cut out so people could view the wildlife without scaring it, and all of a sudden I noticed that the horses were right in front of me! I was very quiet, but I was able to get some close-up, once-in-a-lifetime pictures.  Arles is also a place where Vincent van Gough painted a lot of his pictures.  I got to see a few sites where he painted, but since I’m not a huge art fan it wasn’t extremely special.  However, there were moments when I was walking down the old, narrow cobblestone streets, looking up at the pastel buildings, and I would completely understand why van Gough loved this place as much as he did.  I had moments where I just felt I needed to paint.  I felt like I had to capture the colors, the beautiful southern sky, and just the atmosphere.  Someday, I decided, I’m going to go back to Arles and bring my paints.

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In Carcassonne, I stayed in my first medieval, walled city!  In fact, there was a double wall, and my favorite memories from this place are walking in the grassy area between the two walls.  In the distance, I could see the modern city of Carcassonne, with the red-roofed buildings and the Pyrenees in the background.  On my first day, it was raining over the mountains, so my pictures were very dramatic.  However, Carcassonne is a very big tourist attraction.  I was overwhelmed by the wall-to-wall tourists, and the castle was nothing like the one in Monteux.  A lot of the areas were blocked off, and most of it had been transformed into a museum for the tourists.  So, even though I had about a day of fun tourist shopping and photography, Carcassonne was not a city that I wanted to stay in.  I found my favorite souvenir here though: here in Europe, they have normal-sized spoons and little, little, cute spoons! I immediately fell in love at one of the hostels and have since used them to eat everything from yogurt to cereal and to stir my tea with.  Some Europeans who know what these spoons are supposed to be used for are probably laughing at me right now, but when I found pretty, painted ones in Carcassonne I had to buy some so I could bring the joy that they brought me back to America!

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Lastly, in St. Malo, my trip’s plan disappeared and I had a lot of stressful, rearranging of my schedule to do because of the irregular bus system in the area.  But what would a crazy trip around Europe be without a disaster or two? When I got lost, a nice lady showed me to the correct bus stop, paid for my bus ticket, and gave me directions.  I am still very grateful for her, but hopefully I’ll be able to pay it forward later on my trip.  I did, however, enjoy my days on the Atlantic shore very much.  I loved the Bretagne area: the beach had areas of rocky shores where there were tide pools.  The water in them was perfectly clear so I was able to see all the pretty shells and the sea grass growing in them.  I had always wanted to find a beach where I could just walk around and snoop around the tide pools, so I took a few hours to take pictures and look for fish!  I visited the old fort in St. Malo, which was built in the 1600’s but used in World War II to protect the area as well.  I had never been to any World War II historical sites, so this one was exciting and special.  I also got French chocolate to make it up to myself for having to rearrange my schedule.

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So, as an experienced traveller, I can now share my little pieces of advice to anyone else who shares my dream of traveling the world.  One little thing I learned was to get a bus map from the tourist office at the train station upon arriving in a new city.  Another is to make time to talk with people back home: traveling alone can get very lonely, but it is nice to be able to do absolutely whatever you want without worrying about making everyone happy.  That means that if you’re me, you get to watch the flamingos for a full day!  I’ve also become a more sound sleeper and a less picky eater.  My family will be proud!  I also realized that my French needs a lot of work.  Speaking French with Americans in class is so much easier and so different than speaking to French people!  When I get back to campus, I need to find opportunities to speak with real French people!  However, I know that my French has improved a lot in the last three weeks, and will continue to improve as I use it in Morocco.

I really enjoyed being able to pay attention to who I am on this trip.  I wouldn’t say that I “found myself,” like a lot of people go to Europe to do, but I was definitely reminded of who I am, and I think that I became a lot more comfortable with that.  I mean, I did survive.  I did have fun.  Who I am must be a pretty ok person.  🙂

Well, in less than 24 hours, I say au revoir to France!  I am hoping for good luck for the plane ride! I hope any readers out there do too!