The healing waters of Vichy, France

France wasn’t really in my 2016 travel plans, but last year an opportunity came up that I knew I had to jump on. It was a scholarship for American French teachers, sponsored by the French Embassy in Washington D.C., for a two-week pedagogical “internship” at a language school in the city of Vichy. Very nearly all expenses paid – tuition for the language school, room and board with a host family, a round-trip train ticket from Paris to Vichy, a $600 allowance to defray the cost of a plane ticket, and 200 euros in spending money.

Um, yeah. Sign me up, please.

The only problem was that the scholarship is super competitive. Like, only 20-teachers-nationwide-competitive. Added to that, I didn’t even find about it until literally three days before the deadline Still, I figured I’d give it a shot (it didn’t cost anything to apply – but I did pay to overnight my materials to Chicago) so I cobbled together the application materials as best as I could (realizing that I had lost my passport in the process – thank goodness I had made a copy of the first page for my records!) and crossed my fingers until the day the notifications were to be sent out to the recipients (it was a Friday).

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CAVILAM – Alliance Française

Well, the day came and went and I hadn’t heard anything. I let myself feel disappointed but ultimately moved on – I had rushed to get the application together, after all, so I couldn’t be too surprised – when Wednesday arrived and so did the e-mail that started with Félicitations!

I may have cried a little in front of my students. They were nice about it though!

A few months later I was on a train from Paris to Vichy.

Vichy is an interesting place; it’s in the center of France, right in the midst of a chain of dormant volcanos called Puy-de-Dôme. For literally centuries, Vichy has been known as a place of healing and restoration – there are numerous natural springs that provide the city with mineral water. Some is freely drinkable, and you can fill up as you like at a couple of local wells. The water is naturally carbonated and tastes slightly salty. The others are found in a beautiful art nouveau building in the center of town and can only be drunk with a prescription from the doctor citing your specific ailments and what variety of mineral water you need to drink to cure them.

There are also hot springs and spas are in abundance. Likewise, outdoor activities are in abundance – rowing, biking, horseback racing at the Hippodrome, a lovely riverside park for jogging or rollerblading. It’s a place that values health, quietness and calm. It was lovely. I was surprised at how much I loved it there, particularly considering Vichy’s more recent history.

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La source des Célestins, just steps from my host family’s house

While Vichy has long been known as a sort of “resort town”, just slightly more than 70 years ago Vichy became known for something else. The French government, on the eve Germany’s invasion of Paris, packed up and left the City of Lights while simultaneously assuring her citizens that there was nothing to fear. Yet the Parisians awoke one day to bombardments, and also to find that their leaders had fled – to Vichy. Vichy became the new capital of France, and forevermore a symbol of the French government’s ultimate collaboration with the Nazi regime. Maréchal Pétain, the president of the Vichy regime, was complicit in the deportation of thousands of Jews – including children (originally denied by the Nazis, Petain sent them anyway) – to ghettos and ultimately, death camps such as Auschwitz.

 

In Vichy, there are no traces of the war years. No museums, no memorials, no commemorative plaques on any buildings as there are in Paris. The quiet calm of the city makes it hard to believe that such atrocious ugliness happened there. Yet I’m sure the citizens of Vichy – largely made up of elderly retirees – must carry the memory quietly within themselves.

Or perhaps, just as the water of Vichy has healed the many thousands of people who have come to drink from its springs, the city itself has been healed, too.

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Five Years Since France

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Five years ago today, I stepped on a plane and my life changed forever. I had just gone through a major transition in my life and wasn’t sure what would be waiting for me when the plane landed in Paris. I was excited, terrified, sad, nervous – everything, as I faced the prospect of spending five months living and studying in a foreign country, away from my friends and my family and my familiar.

It wasn’t easy at first. Landing at the CDG airport was a shock – we (I was with two other girls from my same university) were greeted by a clearly homeless and mentally ill man with no pants or underwear on who was lighting magazine pages on fire inside the airport. The first time I ever spoke French to a real, live French person was to buy train tickets (I planned out everything I was going to say, word-for-word, before I got in line). The bathrooms were filthy and cost money to use. It was freezing cold in the train station, and the only area with heat was a closed-in waiting area that smelled so strongly of urine I could practically taste it. The jetlag caught up with me once I sat in my seat on the train, and though I was so exhausted I could barely keep my eyes open, I was terrified of falling asleep and missing my stop.

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And then we arrived in Angers, met our host families and went to our new homes where it really started to sink in – this is it. I won’t see my home or my family again until June. I cried the first night as I Skyped with my mom.

But slowly, Angers started to feel comfortable. My French exploded, and I felt more confident in my second language that my first, wanting to avoid betraying myself as an outsider. I made friends with my host mom’s daughter, fell in love with a little café and their amazing lattés, and even reconnected with some friends that I had originally met during my time in New York, who I thought I would probably never see again after they announced they were moving to Paris (life is so funny sometimes). I got to know people from all around the world. And then when June rolled around, I didn’t want to leave.

I’ve been back to France many, many times since then. I even revisited Angers in 2013 and had lunch with my host mom in that big, old house. It felt like slipping back into a favorite old sweater. Five years – it seems like so long ago but just yesterday at the same time. Even so, I can’t help thinking that I’m not quite done with Angers yet.

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2015 in Travel: A Retrospective

Now that we’re a full two days into the New Year, what better time to take one last look back at the travels of 2015? Since this is also a brand-new blog, this particular post is also a look forward to content that is soon to come. These memories are still fresh in my mind and I’m looking forward to sharing all of them very soon!

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2015 was an interesting year for me travel-wise because not only did I get to take time for myself, but I was also got to do my first bit of work-related travel.

That’s right. I took high school students to Europe. Without their parents. For 10 days. I know. I’ll write more about this experience later, but in short – it was wonderful. Everyone had a great time, including me! So much so that I’m already planning another student trip for 2017.

So, where did Megan take her carry on in 2015?

I hit two major European destinations this summer – France and Italy (super original, I know) but I got to see them both through an entirely different lens. France, because I went to some new-to-me cities and also got to see a few old favorites through the eyes of my students. Italy, because I got to experience it as a traveler with a little bit of money in my pocket instead of a flat-broke college student (more on that in a later post).

Destinations in France

1. Nice

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The looks on my students’ faces as they saw the absolutely gorgeous landscape of Nice, with its palm trees, mountains, and the shocking blue water of the Mediterranean was priceless. Out of all the places we visited in France, Nice was overwhelmingly the kids’ favorite.

 

2. Avignon

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Seat of the Catholic Church during the Middle Ages, Avignon is a quintessentially French town with old stone homes, narrow, winding streets and oh yeah – a gigantic old palace that held six papal conclaves during the 14th century.

3. Cassis

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Cassis is a stunning small town on the Mediterranean coast, a sort of halfway point between Nice and Marseille. We took a small boat into the Mediterranean for views of the impressive calanques and the crystal-clear water below. This was easily my favorite new “discovery” in France!

4. Paris

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Of course, no trip to France is complete without a stop in the city of lights. I’ve been to Paris many times, but this stop was purely for the students – no personal travel to Paris this year, unfortunately, but the kids had a blast exploring this amazing city.

5. Lyon

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My personal travel in France kicked off with a short weekend in Lyon. I’d never been to France’s second-largest city but my Partner in Crime and I had an awesome time exploring the traboules (hidden passageways) and sampling the bouchon lyonnais with our lovely friends Célia and Laure. Bonus – Laure lives in the heart of Croix-Rousse, one of the oldest and most historic neighborhoods in Lyon and allowed us to spend the weekend in her awesome apartment. Merci, Laure!

6. Strasbourg

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The city where French and German culture collide – the mix of cultures is everywhere, from the wooden-beam houses, enormous gothic cathedral and the French twist on spaetzle, flammkuchen, and choucroute (sausage over a sauerkraut-like mixture).

7. Besançon

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Photo courtesy of Pixabay.

We got a personal tour of Besançon from Célia, who went to university in the city. Besançon isn’t a place that gets a lot of foreign tourism, so we were able to enjoy it without feeling like we were being pandered to as tourists and as a French speaker, I could more easily blend in and just enjoy myself without being marked as an outsider – definitely my preference when I’m in France.

Destinations in Italy

1. Rome

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I had been to Rome before, in 2011, and had an unfortunately negative experience in the city. I wasn’t super keen on returning but the Partner in Crime and I knew we wanted to hit Europe again in 2015 and flying into Rome was the cheapest option. Thankfully my experience this time was much improved and we had a blast!

2. All five villages in the Cinque Terre

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Could I be anymore of a traveling poseur? No, probably not. Is Cinque Terre one of the most stunningly beautiful places I have ever been to in my life? Absolutely. Do not try to shame me, travel blog readers of the world, for I have zero regrets in visiting this Instagram addict’s paradise.

Domestic Travel

Of course, as much as I enjoy traveling abroad, I also really love exploring the places around me. Much time was spent gallivanting about Detroit, but a trip to visit my brother in Grand Rapids, on the western side of the state, was also in order. And what’s a trip to Grand Rapids without a stop at craft beer Mecca – Founder’s Brewing Company?

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So there you have it – a glimpse back at 2015! More stories and in-depth posts on these locations will follow, and I’m looking forward to sharing more about my plans for 2016!