Cultural Differences: It doesn’t just mean more baguettes.

The first thing that my roommates learn about me is that I like to go to bed early. I’m happy to wake up at 6AM, and I’m perfectly content to stay out the entire day. But when I come back to home base, I like to stay there and recover from my day filled with stimulation. And living in a foreign country comes with a lot of new stimulation. However, I’ve discovered it’s a very weird thing to be my age and NOT go out at night. At first, this change of pace was quite frustrating. Coming home every evening only to be asked if I was finally going to go out–and responding “No,” each time with an increasing feeling of shame–got a little tiring.

But! I did start going out. I started looking for events. I started accepting more invitations to spend a night out. On the whole, it’s been a fun change. Also a learning experience. I’m not the sort of person who jumps headfirst into new situations, but I’m sort of being forced to. And frequently, I’m enjoying it!

The Opera, one of my favorite places to go at night.
The Opera House, one of my favorite places to go at night.

The second BIG cultural difference I’ve encountered is the attitude towards snacking. In the US, we’ll gladly eat an apple, a brownie or some crackers at 3:30 to tide us over until dinner.  In France, however, snacking is viewed as a big misstep, health-wise. It’s quite common to see signs saying “Pour votre santé, ne pas grignoter entre les repas,” which means “For your health, don’t eat between meals.” I’ve seen this sentence on the signs of doors to crêperies, bakeries, and on advertisements for any food that could be eaten as a snack. It goes in the same place as public service announcements like, “Pour votre santé, avoid the overconsumption of alchohol,” “Pour votre santé, exercise twice daily,” or “Pour votre santéeat five servings of fruits and vegetables every day.”

However, just as in the US, posting PSAs does not guarantee that they will be followed. Not everybody exercises twice daily (though jogging is quite a popular sport in Rennes). I’ve encountered quite a few drunk French people. And at least in Brittany, vegetables are not the first thing to go on a plate. In my experience, that honor goes to bread, potatoes, and pasta. (MVP awarded to butter.)

Still, while you do see people going out for a coffee and pastry around 4PM, snacking is not a habit. To see it so discouraged continues to startle me! At first, this difference was actually one of the most difficult things to get used to, especially since the average dinner time is 8PM. I’ve eaten as late as 9. The good news is, lunches are extremely large! The idea is just to eat three larger meals a day and walk a lot in between.

Basically, once I completely stop snacking and start going out every night, that’s when I’ll know I’ve become a true French person!

Getting around (and getting lost!)

Today is my first day back in Tana (Antananarivo) after a two week stay in the coastal town of Mahajanga and a visit to the farming town of Marovoay and the Ankaranfantsika national park on the route back. I have many fond memories of my stay in Mahajanga, some of which relate to my adventures with the public transportation system  getting lost.

There are five methods of public transportation in Mahajanga: Taxi-be, taxis, badajaja, posi-posy, and my personal favourite, mandeha tongotra.

Posi-posy are like rickshaws – colourful wooden carts pulled by men. In Mahajanga they’re used to transport people or goods. Taxis in Madagascar the same as one might think of in the US, except they have no problem with filling their car beyond official capacity – the first time I took a taxi there were 7 of us in the car! Badajaja are three wheel bright yellow little vehicles with roofs but no walls. Like taxis, they will drive you wherever you ask in the city, but are cheaper and smaller than normal taxis.

The streets of Mahajunga - see the yellow badajaja in the center and the posiposy parked on the right of the photo (Photo credit Anna Dieter)
The streets of Mahajunga – see the yellow badajaja in the center and the posiposy parked on the right of the photo (Photo credit Anna Dieter)

Taxi-be (“be” means “big” in Malagasy; some people also call them buses) are mini buses that do continuous circuits of the city, and the main type of transportation I use. They are colour coded and numbered based on the route they follow, and cost only 300Ar (about 10 US cents) per ride. Each Taxi-be has a driver and someone at the back door who collects the fares from passengers and uses a system of whistling to let the driver know when and where to stop to let off passengers. I haven’t completely figured out all the whistling patterns it yet!

One thing that is impossible not to notice about Taxi-be is the incredible amount people they can hold. Once all the “actual” seats are taken, the man at door hands out wooden planks to balance between benches, creating new temporary seats in the aisle. If after that there were still passengers who want to board, they just cram into the “space” at the back of the bus or even stand on the bumper, hanging onto the back of the bus. Whenever the bus passes gendarmes or policemen the extra passengers duck so that the officials won’t see that the bus is exceeding its capacity!

The particular taxi-be I was supposed to take to class was always bursting at the seams by the time it got to my stop, so after a couple of days I resorted to taking a different one and just walking the last few blocks to the program centre. I didn’t always manage to navigate the system so well though. Once on the way home I boarded the taxi-be at a different location than usual. I had never taken this particular one before, so I wasn’t familiar with the route it took, but I knew it ended in the neighbourhood where I lived. As the ride went on the roads got smaller and smaller and bumpier and bumpier, and none of them looked familiar, but I kept hoping that any moment the bus would turn and end up back on the main road. Of course, it didn’t, and it turned out I had taken the bus in the wrong direction! Luckily the driver was friendly and noticed me looking lost, so I got right back on the taxi-be and rode all the way back to my neighbourhood. And so what would have been a 30 minute walk turned into a 1h30min bus ride – but on the bright side I wasn’t late for anything, and I did get to see more of the city!

The last form of transportation is, of course, walking – mandeha tongotra in Malagasy. I walked to and from the program center on a few occasions when I wasn’t pressed for time – and only got lost once! 😉 That time I asked a girl I saw on the street for directions, and she ended up walking all the way home with me – a 45 min walk! It turned out she was a first year university student at the school of tourism, so it was fun chatting with her.

Now I’m in Tana, and I have to get to know my way around a new city, and quite likely I will get lost again… but I’m kind of looking forward to it – who knows who I’ll meet in the process?!

The group of SIT students from my program during a visit to the port (minus Anna - she's taking the picture!)
The group of SIT students from my program during a visit to the port (minus Anna – she’s taking the picture!)
My host mom in Mahajunga!
My host mom in Mahajunga!
My sisters in Mahajanga :)
My sisters in Mahajanga 🙂

Village Life

Early Sunday morning, 11 other CIEE members and I climbed onto a mini-bus with our luggage and headed to a village known as Kanye. Yes! The village is actually named Kanye like Kanye West, but I am pretty sure the singer was named after the village, not the other way around. When we arrived at the education center to meet our families, we were called one by one to the front of the room to pick a little slip of paper that had our family name for the next week. I went last, and I am so glad. I got such a great family! My host mother and father are both retired; my mother was a nurse and my father worked in the x-ray department in South Africa.

my host mom and I
my host mom and I

There were two grandchildren who lived with us, but I just called them my host-sisters. They were seven and nine years in age and full of curiosity. They always wanted to be around me which was adorable. The family was extremely accommodating probably because they had hosted several American individuals previously including peace corps volunteers. Before I had even arrived, they had bought me corn flakes, hot chocolate, and biscuits (the Botswana equivalent to cookies). They always boiled water for my bath in the morning and made sure I had enough food.

My sister, Letso, and their neighbor Anita. So cute!
My sister, Letso, and their neighbor Anita. So cute!

Village life is very different than living in a city in Botswana. The water situation is especially different. In Gaborone, the water is cut sometimes but it is only once a week at most, but during the week in Kanye, there was running water for about 2 ½ days. I also think the water started making me sick, so I had to switch and strictly drink bottled water. Cooking outside was also fairly common in the village. My sister and I cooked porridge outside over a fire. I found this very fascinating because my host sister and her friends were using matches to build the fire, but none of them were over the age of 12. Situations like this and similar ones may be why many young children come to the clinic in the village with burns. One of our professors also told us, these burns might happen because the mothers are not very knowledgeable about safety precautions and may cook with children in their arms or other similar dangerous situations.

My Kanye living room.
My Kanye living room.

The houses in the villages were just as nice as the houses in Gaborone. An interesting fact about property in Botswana is that it is more expensive to build in the village than in the city, which seems strange though the families in the village live on compounds with multiple houses (usually other family lives there). The compound I stayed with included an Indian family who was living in the other house on the property.  Most of the surrounding compounds contained relatives of my family. My mother told me the villages used to be split by who you were related to, but that is no longer the case. Overall, my village experience was great, though I think I would have a hard time adjusting to life in a village for a long period of time because of the water situation and because everything is so far apart, but I cherish this experience that I was able to have.

Meet my new family!

Meet the family

Last weekend I moved in with my host family in Mahajanga, a coastal town where I’ll be staying for two weeks. This is the first of 3 homestays I’ll be doing as part of the SIT program. My host family is great. They all speak excellent French (as well as Malagasy), and they’ve hosted 6 SIT students (one at a time) in the past, so they are familiar with the peculiarities and cluelessness of study abroad students. My mom is a housewife, has a great big compassionate heart, and is always looking out for everyone. She rode the taxi-be (bus) with me to class the first day to make sure I got off at the right spot, comes into my room to close the windows when it starts storming in the middle of the night (which happens frequently – it’s the rainy season!), and dries off the baby puppies when they get drenched by the rain. She’s been a great help with my homework too, as we have many interactive assignments that often involve interviewing people.

The older of my two sisters is Tsiky, whose name means “smile” in Malagasy. She is 15, loves to sing (it’s impressive how well people who only speak Malagasy and French know lyrics to American pop songs!) and is very patient in answering all my many questions. In church she explained to me what was going on and helped me follow the lyrics to the songs. At least in return I can help her with her English homework!

My youngest sister is 10 years old, and her name is Haingu. Having grown up with study abroad students intermittently at her house since she was 6, she is skilled at playing tour guide and impressively mature and independent for her age. She’s the one who helped me use the public transportation system for the first time! Sometimes when we got off the bus onto the road she grabbed my hand – I couldn’t decide if it was for her own safety or to make sure I didn’t get lost – but either way I appreciated it. Holding hands with a small Malagasy girl was somehow reassuring , plus her presence did significantly reduce the catcalls that follow me wherever I go by virtue of being a white female. A few days ago I taught Haingu how to knit, and although the coordination was difficult for her, she kept coming back to it and trying again. Later she taught me how to play some of their games – a complicated version of marbles and a game that involves throwing, catching and picking up stones in a certain sequence. She had the cutest way of saying, “Tu comprends?” (you understand?) every time I looked perplexed as she explained to me – and the answer was often no! I was quite clumsy at both games, while Haingu is very adept and seriously skilled, so I need to practice!

Besides my mom and sisters, at my house there’s also the lady who helps with the house work, her adorable baby, and an entourage of dogs– including 5 puppies who are only 4 days old and still have their eyes closed! Unfortunately I’m having trouble uploading photos at this internet cafe, but hopefully next post I will have a picture of the entire family to show you!

Classes, Interning and Different Perspectives

Last weekend we got to check out the nearby island of Aegina (just 45 min to 1 hour away by ferry!)
Last weekend we got to check out the nearby island of Aegina (just 45 min to 1 hour away by ferry!)

I can’t believe that we have already had 2 weeks of classes! This was the 5th week that I have been in Greece and I am so happy to say that I am really getting to know this country in terms of its past and present. Quick update on which classes I am taking this semester: Modern Greek 1, Attic Tragedy (a literature class focused on ancient Greek theater), Greek Religion and Mythology, Ancient Aegean Archeology, and a service learning class (where we talk about the current issues in Greece and get a volunteering internship for the semester). Overall, this is a COMPLETELY different type of course load than the kinesiology, psych, and pre-health classes that I am used to, but this has been a great change of pace. I am learning that a semester abroad is the perfect time to take classes that are WAY far out of your major and comfort zone.

For my service learning class, I started interning this last week with an organization called Doctors of the World, which is somewhat similar to Doctors Without Borders in that it cares for vulnerable or underserved populations globally. So far I have been doing a lot of observation of the doctors and nurses, taking blood-glucose levels for diabetics, and helping nurses change wound dressings. I am so thankful to have this experience seeing a different side of Greece than what any guidebook or tour guide will tell you. For those of you who are squeamish about blood and open wounds, I will spare the details, but I will say that some of the doctors and patients have really opened my eyes to how bad the economic hardships have actually been, especially for the poor immigrant population who are already discriminated against.
In the in-class part of the service-learning course, we have been talking a lot about the concept of “volunteering” and why its not really something most people do in Greece (from outside appearances anyway). From what I have been told, it all boils down to different definitions of “civil responsibility” in Greece compared to what we are used to in the US. While it is completely normal for people in America to be connected with numerous committees and volunteering organizations, Greeks see civil responsibility in a closer sense of the word. Here, the focus is on focus serving on the people you are immediately connected with, rather than an organization’s target population whom you don’t know. For example, if a family member falls into hard economic times, it is the responsibility of the family to take that person in, no questions asked. To fail to do so would be a serious social taboo. This is why there are so few homeless people in Greece despite high unemployment. In another context, Greek storeowners will often give you a free pastry and glass of water, while in America, professional interactions are more formal and detached. The Greeks seek to build a relationship with you as a customer, if not as a friend. To put the contrast simply, in America, we tend to be a bit more removed from the people we serve, but we are more intentional. In Greece, service is intuitive and close to home. This is not to say that one form of serving is better than the other, merely that they are different. I will continue to give updates about how the internship is going throughout the semester.

Day Trip to Dinan!

One of the nicest things about France is the dirt cheap transportation around the region. Last weekend, my friends and I decided to visit one of the most beautiful towns in Bretagne. Dinan has a rich medieval history, so the historic district is full of buildings, walls, and towers from the middle ages. We spent the day exploring! As nice as it is to have the official CIEE excursions to look forward to (Mont St. Michel, St. Malo, and lots of castles), it felt great to figure out how to travel someplace else independently. We ended up taking a bus and it only cost about 8 euros round trip. The bus line also goes to Dinard, a city on the coast, and through Bécherel, an adorable old town known for its bookstores.

We were so lucky that the sun was shining all day! Our pictures turned out beautifully. Since we basically went to Dinan solely to admire its gorgeous architecture, I think it’s best to let the photos speak for themselves:

The old medieval wall
The old medieval wall.
At the top of the tower
At the top of the tower!
A view of lower Dinan from Upper Dinan
A view of lower Dinan from Upper Dinan.
This church was one of my favorites, but it might have had to do with the unusual day of sunshine. The light filtering in through the stained-glass windows filled the entire cathedral with rainbows!
This church was one of my favorites, but it might have had to do with the unusual day of sunshine. The light filtering in through the stained-glass windows filled the entire cathedral with rainbows!
One of the aforementioned rainbows
One of the aforementioned rainbows.

We walked off the side of the road and found old stone walls and steps. We stopped to rest on the side of the road and found old stone walls and steps built into the hillside. The deteriorated state of the structure helped make the age of the town much more real to me. Sadly, it’s easy to get used to pretty walls all over the place. But when you see ruins, your brain instantly registers the amount of time it must have taken for that building to crumble, and you end up standing in the grass with the sun and wind on your face, honored to be where you are.

Tour de Catherine

In Which We Start Actually Studying

It’s the first week of classes at CIREFE!

Left: A sunny day at Rennes II. Right: The language building of Rennes II and home to CIREFE and CIEE. It's called simply "Building E."
Left: A sunny day at Rennes II. Right: The language building of Rennes II and home to CIREFE and CIEE. Like all the campus’s alphabetically-inclined names, it’s called simply “Building E.”

Finally, every last bit of orientation is over and we get to start attending real classes! The last three weeks were absolutely exhausting because every day was different. Sometimes we attended classes at a place called Langue et Communications, which specialized in teaching French to foreigners.  Other times we would go to the CIEE classroom at Rennes II to talk about cultural differences. One afternoon we had a tour of Rennes’ historic district, and one evening we had a wine tasting seminar. Some days we had nothing at all! Even though it was really nice to have this period of time to get used to life in France, I’m glad to be settling down with a real schedule and some idea of what lies ahead!

CIEE is a subset of CIREFE (Centre International Rennais d’Études de Français pour Étrangers) which deals specifically with students from the United States. Most of the things we’ve done in January have been a part of the CIEE program, but now we’re starting to integrate with everyone else! I was a little confused for a while about how everything fit together, so I made a little diagram:

CIEE diagramCIEE also arranges homestays for its students.

Anyone level B2 and above can take a class at Rennes II, but CIEE specially sets up the translation course for anyone interested. I decided to enroll, and so far, it’s been really interesting! We have one class for English to French and another for French to English (waaaaay easier). Both professors are British, so we’re learning some Anglicisms along with vastly expanding our French vocabulary.

I’m also taking the Teaching Practicum (teaching English as a Foreign Language), and I’m auditing the Seminar on Living and Learning. But neither of those has really gotten underway yet. Hopefully more posts on that to come!


Madagascar Runs on Rice

Today is my third day in Tana, and it is absolutely beautiful. The first time I saw Madagascar out the plane window I couldn’t stop a smile from spreading across my face. The first thing that struck me was the intensity of the colours: the soil here is reddish brown (in fact for that reason Madagascar is called L’île Rouge – the red island) and it makes an impressive contrast with the lush green vegetation next to the trails that wind between the numerous rice paddies.

Rice is a major part of Malagasy life, as I have already learned in my short time here. Most people eat rice 3 meals a day, and in fact Madagascar consumes more rice per capita than any other country in the world. Today we walked along la digue (the “dike” between rice paddies), which was a really fascinating experience. As a group of 10 white foreigners we immediately stood out – almost everyone within a 10 meter radius turned to watch us with amused expressions, and little children laughed at us and yelled “vazaha!” (which means “[white] foreigner” in Malagasy) excitedly. It was all good natured though, and people greeted and smiled at us as we walked past.

The rice paddies have a lot more uses that simply growing rice. We saw a few boys fishing, and many ducks (destined for human consumption) swimming around on the water. We also walked past multiple women and children doing laundry in the canal water, which they spread across the grassy bank or bushes to dry.( I found it hard to believe that their clothes could be any dirtier than the water they were using to wash them – but somehow it worked  because the clothes did look clean afterward!)

Harvesting the rice itself appeared to be an imprecise science.  On the digue men beat the rice stalks against a rock or barrel placed on a tarp, separating the grains from the stalks. Once the grains are separated,  the men spread them out to dry in the sun, so that later the husks could be removed.  What puzzled me was that harvesters didn’t seem very concerned about getting all the grains off before tossing a bundle of stalks aside, nor did they mind if we walked over their tarp of rice kernels with our very muddy shoes.  The whole rice plant is used, though. The stalks are used as feed for “omby” (i.e. cattle), and the chaff is used as fuel for the fires used to bake the red clay bricks made of soil obtained from the rice paddies during the dry season.

All things considered, I’m glad I like rice! I imagine I’ll be coming home with a number of new recipes for it 🙂

Half way there!


When I found I hadn't used up all weight in my baggage allowance I couldn't resist bringing my backpacking gear - just in case I get the chance to use it!
When I found I hadn’t used up all weight in my baggage allowance I couldn’t resist bringing my backpacking gear – just in case I get the chance to use it!

On Saturday evening, my plane took off from the Detroit airport. After a layover in Amsterdam, my dad, my sister Melinda, and I arrived in Cape Town, South Africa without any complications. The flight itself was quite pleasant – we watched an absolutely ridiculous but very funny French movie, listened to some Dutch pop music, and actually managed sleep for about half of one the flights. By far my favourite part of the trip was seeing the sunrise over the English Channel just before landing in Amsterdam. The colours were brilliant and of course from our elevation there was nothing to impede the view. As we neared the airport, the plane circled and descended, turning away from the sun, and once my side of the plane was facing East again, the sunrise had disappeared behind the clouds and the curvature of the earth.  If the plane had not turned, I might have watched the sunrise “unrise”!

Sunrise as viewed from the plane - although my cellphone pic doesn't do it justice. The blue cylinder at the bottom is the jet engine sticking out beneath the wing.
Sunrise as viewed from the plane – although my cellphone pic doesn’t do it justice. The blue cylinder at the bottom is the jet engine sticking out beneath the wing.

Right now I’m in Stellenbosch (about 45min from Cape Town), where my dad and I are staying with one of my mom’s friends from her university days while my sister moves in and get’s registered at the University of Stellenbosch. My mom’s friend’s house is awesome – it’s right on one of the main roads in Stellenbosch, only a few minutes walk from campus, but it makes a stark contrast with everything around it. If the city is the picture of nature tamed and under control, her yard is the picture of nature allowed to run wild. Wild yes, but without taking over.While in the city humans control nature, here nature and humans live side by side without one controlling the other. Vines and trees line the driveway, but leave just enough space for a car of modest size to fit through.  Bushes, ferns, and grapevines surround the house, but leave room for one to see out the window and get in the door.

Melinda standing in the driveway
Here nature is free!










The inside of the house has a similar feel – everything has a place, the place just isn’t necessarily on a shelf or in a cupboard. And I’ve never seen so many chemistry books in one person’s possession in my life!

Nature may be more controlled, but Stellenbosch itself is beautiful too – it’s primarily a university town, and there are a lot of historic buildings in the Cape Dutch style. It is surrounded by mountains (my sister jokes that if you go running you can’t run more than 10 minutes before you find yourself going up!) and flowers, trees, and vegetation abound.  It’s also the winemaking capital of the country, so vineyards cover the rolling hills that lead up to the mountains.

On Thursday morning I’ll be flying to Madagascar, while my dad stays in SA for business and Melinda starts her studies. Until then, I’m running errands, visiting family, loving the sun, and finding that I haven’t completely forgotten how to drive a manual (ie stick shift) car!


Le Place de La Mairie et l'hôtel de ville (City Hall)
Le Place de La Mairie et l’hôtel de ville (City Hall)

All I can say is: I’m so glad I picked Rennes.

I come from a small town and the idea of living in a city made me feel extremely wary. Most of the grand metropolises I’ve visited have seemed less grand and more smoggy, noisy, and claustrophobic. How can I enjoy all a city has to offer if I can’t breathe in it?

In Rennes, none of these things is true. The noise level may have increased a little, but it’s mostly the distant murmuring of café customers, occasional traffic noises, and the rare police siren. And a lot of high-heel-on-sidewalk clicking.

Nor is Rennes claustrophobic. When I visited New York City, I felt like I was suffocating because of how many people were crammed into one space. The buildings stretched so high, I felt like they made a ceiling that trapped us inside. Here, while I may live in a high rise nestled among a few others, the city is mostly composed of smaller buildings–four stories at the most. In fact, on Saturday I managed to get away from buildings altogether. I went for a run, deciding to just follow a canal that runs by my apartment, and within a half hour I found myself running by grassy fields and tractors!

soldesHowever,even though Rennes is pretty small as cities go, the energy doesn’t go anywhere! Right now, the Soldes are going on, so the streets are full of people shopping, selling roasted chestnuts, and playing all sorts of instruments.The Soldes are basically Black Friday for about a month. But there aren’t any other sales throughout the year, so most people take advantage of the opportunity. Even if you don’t buy anything, it’s fun just to walk through the streets of the centre-ville admiring the variety of all the little shops!

Le Marché des Lices on Saturdays
Le Marché des Lices on Saturdays.

As for city smog, unless you walk directly behind one of the ten billion French people who smoke, it’s non-existent. It rains so much here, any toxins in the air simply disappear. I couldn’t believe how fresh the air smells!

The rain, of course, means that I can’t go anywhere without an umbrella. Don’t let a bright morning sun fool you! Last Saturday, I woke up and decided to visit the outdoor market in the gorgeous warm sunshine. Not a cloud in sight. Since the conditions were perfect and I didn’t want to be hindered by having to carry stuff, I decided to ditch the umbrella. Boy, was I sorry. At 2PM, without warning, it poured. I was soaked in seconds and had to endure the stares of hundreds of French people and their sturdy black umbrellas as I scurried back to my apartment. Never again will I reject the sage warnings of my host mother!

The Places des Lices
Le Places des Lices–not on a Saturday.

Luckily, all the rain makes the sunny days all the more wonderful. Every time the sun cracks through the clouds, everyone tells us to profitez bien while the sun shines. So we do!