So classes have officially ended! Though I know all of you are laughing at me because technically I didn’t really have classes to begin with this semester. It seriously has been bizarre academic wise. I had a lot more free time than I knew what to do with and I probably wasn’t that productive with it. I probably had time for a part time job (and I mean a paid one, I don’t count the museum internship as a real job). So yeah I still have some papers to hand in and I just got an extension on one paper which just means I will procrastinate writing it even more.

And yeah I only have 2 weeks left here! Already some of my friends have returned home from studying abroad. Though I have one who isn’t coming home til July because for some reason in Germany they give you 2 months off in the middle of the year! So random! It’s going to be so weird to be back in America hearing people speak English all the time. While I speak English all the time amongst the other students, it’s going to be strange hearing it every day in the streets and knowing people can understand every word I say. So now it’s back to speaking French if I don’t want people understanding my conversations jaja! (I sadly won’t be able to get away with Spanish). And it’s just going to be weird to be home… I’ve been thinking about all the cultural differences between Americans and French (there are a lot, more than any of you will ever really realize… except for Mom and Papa).

Like for example, why is it that Americans feel the need to destroy land and build huge monstrous houses? I just accepted this as a fact of life because in my hometown McMansions are just as common as squirrels. The French are all about preservation and sticking to tradition and not destroying things. I’ve been living in an apartment and to be quite honest, it’s spacious enough for the 5 people living in it (6 this week because Host Papa is here visiting again from Cameroon). The French don’t need 10 bathrooms, living rooms that never end, and huge kitchens. They use what is necessary, not what they think they might need. Like seriously, I never play in the treehouse in our backyard. It’s going to waste and it’s just sitting back there. We are such a consumer society, it’s kind of sad.

And I love cafes! Americans need to sit in cafes and relax more and stop this we must always be on the go madness! No wonder we are all getting heart attacks and have high blood pressure, we’re all stressed! Even though a lot of them smoke like chimneys and consume a lot of anti depressants, French people are healthy and live a lot longer than we Americans do. Same goes for the Spaniards, they love their cafes. And their siestas.

And having stores open on Sundays… that’s going to be weird. I’ve gotten used to lazy Sundays where everything, including supermarkets, pharmacies, and most restaurants are closed. I don’t think some of my American relatives and friends could survive like that, we’re so used to being open all the time. And putting work on top of everything else! Man do the French love to take their vacations which is why you will be hard pressed to find a doctor if you get sick in August. That’s because they’re all at the seaside working on their tans. Or in the mountains hiking. It’s going be some serious reverse culture shock… please excuse my moping for the first few weeks I’m home, it’s going to take me awhile to get used to being American again.

And now for more exciting stuff!

So I went paragliding yesterday in the Pyrenees. I know those of you who know me best are probably wondering where this desire for extreme sports came from. I had warned Mom it was a possibility and she was understandably nervous and seemed unsure about it. In case you don’t know what paragliding is, it’s basically parachuting as you run off a cliff. Then you sit back in your little saddle and using the different cords attached to the parachute, you direct your parachute where you want it to go (or where you can get it to go, depending on wind conditions).
It all came about because Avi, one of the more… shall we say adventurous of our group, found out about some company that organized paragliding outings for total beginners in the Pyrenees. Honestly, if you were in the same position as me, you would do it too, fear of heights not withstanding. When was I going to get an other opportunity to paraglide in the Pyrenees, in France, of all places?

In the end, 7 Dickinsonians made the trek to Foix yesterday (just learend via Skype I have a cousin once removed living there, I swear I am related to half of this country it is not an exaggeration), bravely getting up before our 7:50 AM train on Saturday morning. It was a really good group because there were just enough of us to be able to talk to everyone but not too much to make it obnoxious. After the hour long train ride, we got off at Foix (we had actually originally bought tickets for the stop before Foix only to be told by Avi that the paragliding people were going to pick up at Foix… hurray for French conductors who sporadically check train tickets) where there is also a semi-famous Cathar castle. Kathryn and I have been debating going to see it but after seeing it from the outside and seeing how small Foix actually is, I’m not so sure we will be returning there.

Alain, one of our friendly paragliding instructors, came to pick us up at the train station and drove us in his van to a rendez-vous point where other people and other instructors had arranged to meet up. It wasn’t until after I paraglided that this meeting spot was also the bottom of the valley where I would be landing. So after waiting around some time, we got back in the van and drove to the summit of one of the peaks. The car ride was pretty intense as Alain is a fearless (and also crazy) driver, obviously used to driving on the narrow roads and maneuvering the tight turns. Reminded me of the horrible drive in Andorra!

I forgot to mention in the train as we approached Foix, the snowy Pyrenees beckoned to us in the distance and once more made me yearn to go skiing. As of now, I still have yet to ski in France.

We finally reached the top of (one of) the summit, a rather spacious and flat grassy area. The weather was also cooperating. It was a beautiful blue sky, cloudless, and the temperature was beginning to rise, making my two sweaters a bit unnecessary. We had an incredible view of the valley below, mostly farmland and green fields. We weren’t near any snow, but we could make out some snowy peaks in the distance. Our instructors started rolling their equipment out and prepping the parachutes, also coaching their students who had showed up for class. It was so nice to get away from Toulouse for a day and to witness what lies beyond the city center I walk around every day. It was good to be reminded there is life and stuff to do outside the city limits. I am only sorry I didn’t take advantage of the Pyrenees more and go hiking. Avi, who is very outdoorsy, has been skiing and hiking and what not all year with the Club Alpin Francais. However, I know all about her adventurous spirit seeing as how we both participated in Alternative Spring Break last year. She was one of the 9 people who was with me in Arizona on the Indian reservation. After the program here ends, she is planning to bike all the way to Croatia from Toulouse and from there take a train back to Bulgaria (where she is from). And yes, as of right now she is planning on doing it alone. However, knowing Avi, I’m not worried about her and neither should any of the people who read this blog. If you met her, you would understand.

So we waited around and finally it came time for the first person to go on their “baptismal” flight (that’s what it was called, a bapteme). Avi, of course, went first. We watched her get strapped in her harness and put on her helmet as the instructor attached her to the parachute. Oh, in case I haven’t made this clear, we all flew with qualified instructors. None of us flew solo. Then, after waiting for some good wind, they started running and as the parachute raised into the air behind them, they launched into the air. We cheered Avi on and watched her parachute as it got farther and farther away. And we watched her until she landed and she was in the air for a good fifteen minutes. I think with paragliding, depending on wind conditions, you can stay as long and as high as you want. Since we had just paid for a simple flight down the mountain, we weren’t really given that option.

Then we waited for awhile since the other instructor who was going to take me down was busy helping other students. We alternately napped and talked and at some point, a herd of horses showed up near our launch. I’m guessing they belonged to an area farmer because they all wore a bell, just like cows do, so the farmer can always hear them moving around. I was fascinated to see roaming domesticated horses since you only usually see that with cows. I snapped some pictures and Vania, who is prone to picking up stray cats and the like (as she did in the Japanese Gardens in Toulouse I recently visited with our Occident/Orient class), approached the horses offering them some grass to eat which was a bit funny since all of them were grazing anyways. Two horses came up to her to directly feed out of her hand but I remained more cautious and stayed some safe distance away.

Some time afterwards, it was finally my turn. And to be honest, I wasn’t nervous at all. Not before the flight on the train, not watching Avi, not even as my instructor Chris snapped me up in the ridiculous looking harness that included a butt pad for rough landings. I’m not trying to sound brave, I am afraid of heights after all. But the cliff wasn’t a sharp drop or anything and I could tell Avi had been enjoying herself. So anywho, I got all strapped in and put my helmet on and Chris attached me to the parachute. Then he explained to me we would start running until the parachute rose and to keep running until we were really into the air. Ok doesn’t sound too hard…

Well let’s just say take off was a little rough because I tripped on some rocks which caused me to slow and I wasn’t sure if I should keep running blahblahblah… Whatever, my fellow Dickinsonians obviously got a laugh out of that one but my instructor was nice about it and blamed our less than graceful take off on the parachute. So yeah, we took off and then we were in the air! There’s a fast rush when you take off but I barely noticed since I was so excited to be flying! And let me tell you, it was A-M-A-Z-I-N-G. It’s not something you can really describe, being up so high (and I don’t even know how high we took off from) and watching the little houses and trees beneath you and the chain of Pyrenees surrounding you. If you’ve always wanted to try an extreme sport that is aerial related, try paragliding. You directly take off with the parachute, there isn’t any of that jumping out of a plane, free falling, and THEN launching the parachute. I had my camera securely around my neck so I took a bunch of pictures including one of the parachute’s shadow. The mountains were so green, the sky was so blue, the wind in my face got my adrenaline running, and I wasn’t afraid, not even for a second. My instructor was obviously qualified enough and he is a very steady flier so I wasn’t subjected to many sharp turns like some of my other peers.

As we got closer to the ground, I stopped taking pictures because we were doing some sharp turns so I held on and enjoyed the ride. I can easily say paragliding is on my list of top ten most fun things to do. My instructor talked to me a little but I mostly sat there in silence and in awe of what I was doing and what I was seeing. I was able to see Foix in the distance and even got a picture of the castle. I am honestly so happy I decided to do this. I also later learned the same company does some paragliding off the dune du Pyla. As soon as I heard this, I was like WHAT??? In case you have no idea, the Dune du Pyla is the largest sand dune in Europe near le Bassin d’Arcachon (Bordeaux region of France, sort of). I have only been there 3 or 4 times with my family. Paragliding from up there with the Atlantic Ocean on one side and the forest on the other must be awesome. Oh well, next time! (Mom is probably horrified reading this).

So, since all good things must come to an end, we eventually landed in a field next to some cows (which I had mistook for sheep up in the air, they looked that small). Avi was waiting for me and snapped some pictures as I landed. As I disentangled myself from all my protective gear, I gushed “That was amazing! Oh my God! I am so glad I did that! I want do it again!” Avi shared the same feelings as I did. The only bad thing about her flight was that she landed in a pile of cow manure. Oopsies!

Once all the paragliders landed, the equipment was packed up again and Avi and I were taken back to the top of the mountain where we both raved about how great it was to our waiting compadres. After this, the day was less exciting for me since I had to wait for my peers to do their flights and I hadn’t brought a book (when will I learn?!). I fought a losing battle with the sun as I reapplied sunscreen several times, ate my lunch, admired the scenery, and got to get up close with nature during bathroom breaks since there were no adequate facilities for kilometers.
The wind died down for a bit which forced the paragliding to stop for awhile. Avi’s two friends who had joined us went ahead first since they had some exam they had to prepare for. After they went, the wind wasn’t cooperating so Vania and Emma were taken to a higher paragliding launch to see if the conditions were better up there. I am slightly jealous they got to take off from a higher vantage point only because I’m sure the view was that much greater and being that much higher must have been incredible. They both landed on our summit instead of in the cow pasture down in the valley where Avi and I had landed. And they both had the same exhilaration and rush running through them that Avi and I had on first landing. It really is a very exhilarating experience.

After they went, it was Tony’s (the only boy who joined us) and Kathryn’s turns. They were also taken to the higher launch point. Tony actually got pretty high and for some reason, I confused him with Kathryn and ran to the landing area to get pictures of her landing. As I waited around, Tony literally came out of nowhere above me. Once he got unstrapped, he explained Kathryn’s instructor had been having trouble with the wind and were flying very low. We all scanned the horizon and eventually, we spotted a parachute landing in a field…. way across the valley on a different summit. The thing with paragliding is, you can never really know what to expect! The wind can be unpredictable and force you to improvise.

So off went the van in search of Kathryn and her instructor. We weren’t able to get pictures of her landing but we managed to get some pictures of her as she got out of the van. We learned that indeed, her instructor had been having trouble with the winds and that she had been flying so low along the slope, her feet almost grazed the trees. In fact, I had seen a parachute disappearing into the trees earlier and I had been wondering who that was. She then ended up in a sheep pasture with what she described as a “quintessential looking French shepherd shearing a sheep” who didn’t seem the least bit perturbed by their landing or their presence. It definitely made for a very funny story.

Melanie was the last one to go and she was taken back up to the higher launch. We collected our belongings and were taken back down to the cow pasture where Avi and I had landed. We got there just as Melanie landed which means out of all of us, she got the longest flight down. She apparently requested to her instructor to do “freestyle” which means he did all these crazy tricks, sharp turns, 360 turns, and all that jazz. And indeed, she had the same reaction we all did upon landing: she loved it. Everyone definitely enjoyed the experience and we all thanked Avi profusely for organizing the trip. I seriously felt bad for everybody else who had stayed behind in Toulouse studying or taking (yes because apparently it is legal in this country to have exams on Saturdays) exams.

We finally paid before being taken back to the train station. Another cultural difference: if I had done this back in the US, we probably would have had to pay beforehand. And sign waivers stating the company wasn’t liable for injuries or death. I’m not sure if this usually happens in France but we didn’t sign anything. That may sound sketchy but the instructors were very friendly and obviously very knowledgeable about the sport and extremely capable. They didn’t seem like they were hell bent on killing us.

We were driven back to the train station and then almost didn’t get our tickets as it came into the station as we were still buying them. After getting back to Toulouse, I went home to shower and change and then met up with Kathryn and Emma to go visit the Natural History Museum which is really close to my house.

Last night in Toulouse it was the “Night at the Museum” (not like the movie sorry) in which many museum in several cities across France are open to the public at later hours and are also free. There was a long line of people when we got there but luckily Emma spotted some friends she knew and we cut the line. I know, that was a bad thing to do… I didn’t want to do it either but it definitely got us into the museum faster.

It was a very interesting museum and had the skeletons of all these animals put together, including stuff animals, and preserved dead exotic insects. While a lot of the bugs made my hair stand on end, there was an exhibit devoted to butterflies and it was amazing to see in how many colors they come in. There were also the more ugly moths. Seriously, some of these bugs were bigger than my hands. Where do these mutant creatures live????

There were also some dinosaurs hanging around and exhibits on the Earth’s minerals and rocks, earthquakes, volcanoes, the core… Everything you would study in an earth science class. There were also a lot of different kinds of fossils grouped per Earth Age they were found in (the Cretaceous Period, the Pleistocene Period etc.) It was all very cool but Kathryn and Emma kept zipping past a lot of stuff because it was very crowded so I didn’t really get to take my time. I managed to spot a horse shoe crab which made me think of home and the beach and the summer. That’s when all the horse shoe crabs emerge from wherever they go in the winter and populate the beach near my house.

After the museum, Emma went home and Kathryn and I went to go join a lot of the members of our group at “La Prairie des Filtres” (not really a prairie, more like a grassy bank) on the other side of the Garonne. I was wearing a skirt and it was actually quite windy near the Garonne… Probably not the best idea I know. I have a love-hate relationship with skirts because I am always so paranoid it’s going to blow up into my face and show everyone my underwear. I suppose it all depends on the skirt’s material but the one I was wearing was very light. So I held onto my skirt as we crossed the bridge to find the rest of our group being typical rowdy drunk Americans. It was actually kind of funny, in an ironic sense. Hear you had this group of Americans drinking in plain sight and being very obvious about it, standing around and shouting and cartwheeling and what not… Kind of like a circus. All the other French groups consisting of young people were drinking too but sitting around in circles like the civilized and restrained people they are known to be. They weren’t running around and being ridiculous. I’ve always wondered if people have ever fallen into the Garonne due to much drinking… Here is hoping it never happens or has happened because the current in that part is very strong. It is also very muddy and probably deep, not a place you want to fall in while drunk.

Well anyways I didn’t know the event was BYOB so yeah it was kind of awkward but funny. The group finally decided to head to a dance club which I was in no mood for since I was exhausted from my paragliding adventures. I was also annoyed at my skirt that was determined to fly away. Kathryn and I and some other girls decided to call it a night and head home. And that’s what I did… but then I watched the Twilight movie (again) before falling asleep.

Then I woke up this morning to my phone vibrating. Apparently Host Papa’s flight was delayed an hour and she had a “gigot” (leg of lamb) cooking in the oven. So I had to turn it off then turn it back on when she called me again… And then when she came home, it was pretty burnt, but still edible.

So indeed, Host Papa is back for another week but I’m leaving Thursday for Provence so I won’t be around him again. He seems like a nice guy, all the boys were dressed nicely during lunch today and I could tell he instills a lot of respect (and probably some fear) into them. However he seems to have a penchant for the sarcastic and I’m not that great at recognizing sarcasm. I’m sure my host mom is thrilled he is here since she only got a week’s notice that he was coming.

OH and if you haven’t seen the movie Angels and Demons which I saw last Friday night, go see it! I hated both books and the Davinci Code was the most bland and boring movie ever, despite Tom Hanks whom I adore to pieces. Angels and Demons was a lot better, just the pacing and the characterization and there was less exposition. I also went to Rome in April so I recognized a lot of places where key scenes took place that I had visited. It was kind of like “Where in Rome has Amelie been to?” Of course the Vatican/Sistine Chapel figured prominently in the movie but it is worthy to note those scenes were not actually filmed in the actual Vatican and Sistine Chapel. The Vatican refused to grant permission to Ron Howard because they are against Dan Brown’s books for some reason… Whatever. I was blown away by the sets they built for those scenes because it was pretty much just as I remembered. However I’m not so sure the Vatican Archives are as hi-tech. So yeah anyways that’s my plug for Angels and Demons.

That seems all I have to say for now. I have 2 weeks left and I hopefully will make the most of my time left in Europe. It is going to be really weird going back. I’m sure La Queen (since she doesn’t want to be referred by her name anymore, this is the nickname you forced me to come up with) and I will be sick each other after 24 hours together and that Mom will want to send me away within 3 days. And I will want to be back in Europe, paragliding and water skiing and skydiving (just kidding about that last one). And speaking French/Spanish every day.

I’m headed to Provence on Thusday (Arles, Nimes, Avignon) so expect a blog update about that later. Otherwise just assume I’m dutifully writing papers.

A la prochaine,
Amelie the thrill seeker