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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7 Things to Do in Angers, France

Paris is lovely, it truly is. I adore Paris and try to visit as often as possible; I usually make it to France every other year. But France is so much more than just Paris and unfortunately, many tourists tend to overlook the so-called “provincial” areas, opting to stay in the city instead or maybe taking a trip down to the Riviera to soak in the sun and the sea. Well, I can tell you there’s a lot of awesome stuff happening in between Paris and the Riviera so the next time you’re in France, try to take a trip outside of the city and experience some of what makes this country so wonderful!

I spent a semester living in Angers and I have to say – I would move back in a heartbeat. It’s the perfect mix of city and provincial. The location in the heart of the lush Loire Valley is to die for. It’s close to Paris (90 minutes by train) yet far enough away to have its own identity and personality. It’s quaint yet lively, historic yet modern, and so very French.

So let’s explore Angers, shall we?

1. Le Château d’Angers

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Angers is most easily identified by the enormous château fort that towers over the river Maine. It was originally built in the 9th century but underwent further construction during the 1200s. It was a residency, an armory and a prison, but today is a major tourist site in the city of Angers. In addition to being an amazing work of architecture, the chateau also houses the Tapestries of the Apocalypse, that date from the 14th century. There is a nominal entrance fee, but it’s worth every centime!

2. Le Musée des Beaux-Arts

Angers is also home to a lovely fine arts museum in the heart of their downtown area. They have works from the 14th-21st centuries and a special exhibit that focuses on the history of Angers. After you visit the Museum, you can enjoy a nice stroll downtown and grab a bite to eat at one of the numerous cafés/pâtisseries or take in some shopping!

3. La Cathédrale de Saint-Maurice

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Simply known as just la Cathédrale to Angevins, the cathedral is only a few steps away from the Chateau and is one of the first examples of Anjou-style Gothic architecture. It was built in the 12th century and is still standing strong today. I had the privilege of singing with the Cathédrale’s choir and even was able to sing a Sunday mass in this gorgeous church. It’s definitely a must-see!

4. La Loire à Vélo

For those of you who are a little more adventurous, Angers is one of the stops on the Loire à Vélo bike tours! They have several different itineraries, including one that stops at some of the area’s vineyards. The Loire Valley is certainly well-renowned for its wines, so that’s one you definitely wouldn’t want to miss!

5. Saturday markets at the Jardin du Mail

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One of my favorite, favorite things to do when I’m in France is to hit up the local weekend markets. There is really nothing better than the hustle and bustle of the open-air farmer’s markets – in France, it’s definitely a social experience. So get out there, banter and sample, then grab some fruits, cheese, and saucisson and head over to the Jardin des Plantes for an afternoon picnic. You won’t regret it, I promise.

6. Le Carré Cointreau

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Of COURSE, no visit to Angers would be complete without a visit to the Cointreau distillery! It’s located just outside of Angers proper in Saint-Barthelemy-d’Anjou but is easily accessible by city bus. You have to be sure to make a reservation, but when you get to the Carré, you are treated to a comprehensive tour of the facility and the history of Cointreau. Be advised: the tour is in French. It’s really well done though, so even if your language skills aren’t quite up to snuff, I think it is definitely still worth the trip. The best part, of course, is the tasting at the end. The bartender first provides everyone with a sample of plain Cointreau, and then mixes up their current signatures cocktail, the Cointreau Fizz. They also provided several garnishes so we could customize our cocktail to our liking – I chose the strawberry/mint combination and it was delicious. You can also order additional beverages after the tasting, should you so desire.

7. Eat a crêpe

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Angers is just close enough to the region of Brittany to benefit from mostly all of its culinary offerings. This includes crêpes – the much thinner, flatter, and tastier relative of the American pancake that usually comes stuffed with a variety of sweet treats like Nutella and your choice of fruit, caramel, or my favorite – butter, sugar, and a dash of lemon juice. Some places in France (Paris in particular) offer savory crêpes, which is usually just a normal crêpe stuffed with ham and cheese but to you, dear reader, I say non. The true savory crêpe, the one that all others wish they were, is the galette de sarrasin – a crêpe, yes, but made from buckwheat flour. It is thinner, crispier, and saltier than the regular crêpe and is traditionally served with ham, cheese, and topped with a fried egg.

There are so many more things that Angers has to offer, but these 7 are my absolute favorite. Next time you’re in France, take a day or two to get out of Paris – maybe you’ll wind up in Angers!

 

 

You Probably Shouldn’t Study Abroad

Yes, you read that right. You really should NOT spend that semester in France, dear reader.

I mean, after all, a semester (or even a year!) away from home is a long time! Think about all the things you’d be missing – you know, those Friday night parties at your best friend’s apartment that you and your group of friends go to every week and, well, do the same things you always do together? You definitely wouldn’t want to miss out on those just to gallivant about Europe or Asia, would you?

And speaking of friends, think of how much you’re going to have to put yourself out there to meet new ones while you’re abroad. School-sponsored weekend excursions, weekly conversation hours at the bar, classes every day with strangers? Strangers who also probably won’t know anyone else and may be just as homesick and nervous as you are? Is that a can of worms you even want to open?

Not to mention that those new friends will probably come from totally different cultures and all walks of life. They may even challenge everything you thought you knew about a particular cultural group, or even your own culture and perspective – could you imagine?

And forget about the language issue – what if French is the only language you have to communicate with all these new people? An entire semester or year of only French, with minimal (or even no) English at all. What’s even the point?

Don’t even get me started on the food.

And when it’s all said and done, think of the heartache you’ll experience when you have to leave this brand new home you created for yourself, the family you chose, to return to a place that feels almost as foreign to you as your destination did six months ago. How could you possibly withstand those pangs of nostalgia when you stumble across a photo from that night on the banks of La Maine, that longing deep in your gut when you remember how it felt to wander the cobbled streets and drink wine on the terrace at night and that last bise goodbye before you got on the plane, not sure if you’d ever see this place or these people again?

No, no. You should probably never study abroad.

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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Tips for Traveling During Tourist Season

Rome, Paris, Cinque Terre, London, Dublin – all are beautiful places, no doubt, but if there’s one flaw in any of them it’s that so many people want to see these beautiful cities. All at once. Usually during the summer months. I get it – as a teacher I am basically limited to traveling during the summer as a week in April and 10 days (or sometimes 2 weeks) in December isn’t really enough time for me to justify hopping on a plane to Europe. Particularly at a time when I’m fall-down exhausted and really just want to spend time with my family and vegetate on the couch for a while. And when you have kids (which I don’t), it’s even more difficult to justify pulling them out of school to travel so maximizing summer break is really the best solution.

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So how do you manage to have the best experience possible without becoming overwhelmed by throngs of people? While I am by no means an expert, here are a couple of things that have worked well for me as a summertime traveler.

1. AirBnB or Couchsurfing

I love hotels. I really do. Going to professional conferences during the school year fills me with such excitement because it means that for two or three days, I get to sleep in a ginormous, fluffy bed all by myself. That being said, when I travel internationally I almost never stay in a hotel. AirBnB and Couchsurfing have been my go-to sources for travel lodging since I did my study abroad five years ago. Both offer something that you can’t really get when you’re staying in a hotel: real interactions with people who know the city well. And not just the tourist sites, but the off-the-beaten-path gems, too. And the kicker? When it comes to AirBnB (and even the right Couchsurfing host), you generally get more space for far less money. Another perk to staying in someone’s home as opposed to in a hotel is that you can be as close to or as far away from the major tourist attractions as you want. Personally, I tend to choose quieter neighborhoods that are a bit farther away from the main sites so as to have a more authentic experience but the choice is completely up to you!

My experiences with both AirBnB and Couchsurfing have never been anything but totally fabulous and I’ve met some amazing people in both scenarios. So go ahead and skip the hotel!

2. Forget the touristy stuff

“But Megan!” I can hear you wailing right now, “Why would I skip doing that awesome thing that everyone says I should do when I’m in ________?”

Well, you’ve basically answered that question yourself – because everyone  will be doing it and you’ll probably not have a great experience and be mad that you wasted time that could have been spent doing something else.

I’m a French teacher. I’ve been to Paris probably close to 10 times. I studied abroad only an hour and a half away from the City of Lights and I’ve never been to the top of the Eiffel Tower. Not once. The lines are absolutely outrageous, you’re crushed by thousands of people, and frankly, if I’m going to the top of ANY building to get a great view of Paris, I want the Eiffel Tower to actually be in it. Montmartre, la Tour Montparnasse, l’Arc de Triomphe, and the top of Notre Dame offer similar beautiful views, much less of a wait, and you’ll actually get to see the Eiffel Tower as well. Same for the Louvre – forget about the Mona Lisa (she’s tiny, behind glass, and you’ll never get through the insane crowd of people) and go see the other side of the museum instead. Or better yet, forget the Louvre entirely and go to the Musée d’Orsay to see works by artists whose names you actually know: Monet, Renoir, Manet, Degas, Cézanne, Toulouse-Lautrec, Rodin, Van Gogh…the list goes on. But if you find you really MUST do something “touristy”, buy your tickets well in advance and skip the line.

3. Book a tour

This seems like the antithesis of what this post is about. Book a tour? But tours are for tourists! I know, I know. But you know the great thing about a tour? The details are taken care of by someone other than you. Imagine you’re staying in Dublin but want to take a day trip to Giant’s Causeway – how are you going to get there? Are you comfortable driving a stick shift from the passenger seat (if you’re an American) and on the “wrong” side of the road? Crossing the border into Northern Ireland, an entirely different country? Where are you going to buy tickets? What if it’s all sold out for the day, or the weather is bad and you can’t go? All of these details are handled by the tour company – you just buy your ticket and show up. Many tour companies also limit the size of each group; so you’re not being herded around like cattle and can experience the best sights with a relatively intimate group. You also get the benefit of the historical and cultural commentary of your guide, as well.

4. Take a nap

Summertime in many European countries can be sweltering. Italy, Spain, and even France (it was 100 degrees when I was in Paris this summer!) can be oppressively hot in the late afternoon. The daytime hours are also almost always the time when the crowds are at their worst. I don’t know about you, but when it’s that hot the last thing I want is to be pressed against someone else’s sweaty body, attempting to see something that I’m never going to get a good view of with that many people around (short girl problems) or waiting in a long line in the hot sun.

When my traveling Partner in Crime and I were in Rome this summer, we made it a habit to take a nap during the hottest part of the day, usually between the hours of about 4 and 6. We got to escape the crowds, get some rest, shower off the grime and gear up for a great evening of sightseeing. The city was totally different in the post-American-dinnertime hours: far less crowded, much cooler temperature-wise, and the evening was really when the locals started to come out as well. We were able to get GREAT views of the Colosseum and Pantheon at night and experienced amazing dinners at local restaurants during the times when most tourists were back at their hotels. There were some evenings when we didn’t eat dinner until about 11 o’clock at night – and the restaurants were still packed with Roman families and young people enjoying their time together.

So there you have it – it’s hardly revolutionary, but these are the things that have helped me survive traveling during the high tourist season and enjoy myself too. What would you add to this list? Feel free to share your best tips in the comments!

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!