I am sorry for not writing anything in so long, I’ve been super busy with everything here, particularly because I’ve visited four new countries in the past month! Over our whirlwind fall break (les vacances de Toussaint), my three friends and I visited Prague, Budapest, Milan, and Paris in 9ish days. The Czech Republic, Hungary, and Italy were all extremely different from one another, but also from France, and it was an amazing opportunity to see them all.
Then, two weeks ago, our entire program went to Morocco, where we spent a week with host families in Fès, with excursions to Meknès and the Merzouga region of the Sahara. This trip was an incredible learning experience and was truly unique in comparison to anything I have ever seen in my life. I feel so lucky to have had the chance to see so many wonderful things recently and I am grateful to everyone who has helped me along the way.
Over fall break, because of our time constraints, we really only spent a few days maximum in each city over fall break and from everything I saw, I know I want to return! I think that being an American living in a foreign country where I can (sort of fluently-ish) speak the language has spoiled me. I found myself thinking that I am better or different from other Americans/tourists because I can conduct myself in the native language. However, this is obviously false, because from the moment we stepped off of our plane, it was clear that this false sense of superiority is only marginally true within the borders of France. Communicating in Czech, Hungarian, or Italian was far beyond my scope and so we were extremely touristy with our maps and language barriers just like everyone else.
Eastern Europe was extremely interesting, because despite the fact that it is still a part of Europe, its historical, architectural, and political influences are radically different from those in France. As Prague and Budapest are both very touristic cities, there were many maps and signs in multiple languages, so they were fairly easy to navigate. We are extremely privileged to have English as our first language in the US, because it truly is beneficial to have while traveling abroad. The two cities have many commonalities, but are also different in their organization, cuisine, and building structure.
We discovered the fairy tale architecture, the mind-bogglingly recent Communist history, and the fact that beer and wine were often cheaper than water in restaurants.
I loved the hilly terrain, as it made for lovely views, and the rivers traversing the cities. In addition, the advantageous conversion rate made it incredibly easy to buy cheap, high-quality local food and drink! My two favorite places were the St. Vitus Cathedral in Prague and the Szechenyi Baths in Budapest. I could have easily spent so much more time in both cities and hope to return one day in the future (:
Milan was also a lovely experience, although extremely different from Prague and Budapest. It is much less of a tourist city, so the feel was less of an amazing discovery at every intersection. However, it was nice to spend the second half of the week at a more relaxed pace after walking, seeing, and doing so much for the first half. Of course, due to my passion for all things carbs, the Italian food was the pinnacle of my eating life thus so far. We tried many different types of pasta, pizza, bread, and of course dessert.
Unfortunately, the re-entry into the Eurozone was a disappointing reawakening into the reality of financial management. We ended our trip with one day in Paris, exemplifying the benefits and disadvantages of low cost airline travel and the correspondingly sketchy airports/terminals used by these companies. It was so crazy to casually spend a day in Paris and we did our best to see many of the classic sights. Our day ended with a panoramic view of the sunset, city, and illuminated Eiffel Tower from the top of the Arc de Triomphe, followed by macaroons as we headed towards the airport.
Overall, it was a week of new experiences, public transportation, and eating. We took normal flights, lowcost flights, buses, and metros, and jammed in just as much as we possibly could. It was a bit too rapid at moments, but I am so so happy to have had the opportunity to see many things that I may never see again. At the same time, I didn’t realize how happy I would be to return to France/the French language, and then Marseille (:
Despite the fact that it was a crazy, wonderful, tiring week, we then left barely a week later for Fès (Fez is the English spelling of the word), Morocco with our entire program and our director. The entire trip was focused on continuing the intercultural study that we’ve been doing so far this semester. As a result, we spent the entire week in a Moroccan family homestay and participated in lectures/discussions in addition to touristy city visits.
Most of the week was spent in Fès itself. It’s an ancient city, the oldest in Morocco, and known for being a cultural and academic center. One of the world’s oldest universities, Al-Qarawiyyin, is located in the Ancient Médina, which is also classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Médina is filled with narrow winding streets, markets, artisanal workshops, mosques, and homes.
Its streets are too narrow for cars, so donkeys are often used to transport goods. Fès is also home to the Nouvelle Ville, which was largely expanded during the French colonization. We toured the city, visited some of the workshops (including pottery and a tannery), and saw the Wood Museum. In addition, we spent one day in nearby Meknès, including a trip to Volubilis, a site of ancient Roman ruins.
Our trip also included panels related to the history of Fès and woman’s rights in Morocco. Several hours were spent discussing the role of the hijab in modern society, which we debated with female Moroccan students our age. These conversations, along with my host family, gave me a rich perspective into Moroccan society and daily life.
Each of us stayed with a student who spoke both French and Arabic, but the rest of my host family, for example, did not speak French fluently or at all. Despite our linguistic barriers, I really really appreciated the generosity and kindness shown by my correspondent Hind and the rest of her family, particularly in terms of my vegetarianism.
On the Friday of the week, we boarded a tiny bus for a 9 hour drive to southeastern Morocco, where the Sahara desert begins!! The Sahara was without a doubt one of the most amazing places I have ever seen in my entire life. I felt at a loss for words at the sight of the vastness of the orange dunes.
We ended up arriving at dusk and made the choice to ride the dromedaries to tents several kilometers away through the sunset. The night fell as we headed towards the oasis and thanks to our guides, we were able to appreciate the insane view of the Milky Way without worrying about getting lost. We spent the night in tents (with mattresses and a cooked dinner…) and woke up at the crack of dawn to watch the sunrise before heading back to the lodge.
The entire experience felt extremely surreal and I really couldn’t believe that we had actually just ridden dromedaries in the Sahara desert. It is safe to say that it was the craziest thing I have ever done.
From there, it was a 9 hour bus ride back to Fès, with a stop along the way in a cedar forest, home to wild monkeys. It felt strange to be in a foggy forest just hours after the desert, but we caught some glimpses of a few monkeys before we had to hit the road again.
That night was a goodbye party with all of the students, both American and Moroccan, although all of the Americans wore traditional Moroccan clothing and henna. In the morning, we had to rush off to the airport to head back to Marseille and it was sad to say goodbye to our host families and friends. The week flew by and even though there were moments of exhaustion and frustration, I have never had such a rewarding experience in my life.
I promise to post a few more updates before my semester is over, it’s hard to believe it’s already December! If you made it this far to the bottom of the page, thank you so much for reading through all of my reflections and I hope it was mildly entertaining (: Bisous à tous ❤