The Trip isn’t Over Yet

All of my friends from Finland have returned home. Most of the other people I know who were studying abroad in other countries have already made their way home, or are finishing up post-study abroad travels. The summer study abroad groups are out in the world, with the clock already ticking on their returns.

And my trip isn’t over yet. 

The Finland part of my trip has been over for a few weeks now (though I’m still working on the long list of blog posts about Finland), and I’ve only recently finished up the rest of my school work for classes there. But I’m not home yet, though my return is drawing closer.

I’m in the midst of what I jokingly call the longest layover ever. It’s not really a layover, since I had to go out of my way to get here, but it’s my pause between Finland and the United States. The real way of describing it sounds a bit pretentious: I’m spending the summer in France.

I’m incredibly lucky in this respect. I lived in France for seven months in 2010, and now I get to spend another two months in the South of France. It’s something like a vacation, though I’m really just living with family, working on various things (…mostly blog posts), with some traveling and exploring on the side.

It feels normal to be living in France. I’m staying with my dad, who moved here two years ago with his wife and my three stepsisters. I’m older than all three of them; they’re all taller than me. My dad and I talk in English; my stepmother and stepsisters speak in French. We all change between French and English and often end up speaking the bastard child of both languages: ‘franglais‘.

Life in France is a treat. There’s always bread and dessert with dinner (and sometimes, lunch). Saturdays and Sundays are American pancake days, even if we don’t eat the pancakes with syrup. Chocolate hour is between 4-6 pm daily. There’s always tea on hand, though these days my dad and I have been making sun tea. Iced and sweet, a truly American treat.

Days are hot and sunny here. Sometimes it’s so hot that the hills and mountains on the horizon gets blurry, obscured by smoggy heat. After months of living in Finland and feeling as though winter weather could happen at any moment, the Mediterranean summer is unyielding. I don’t think I’m quite used to it yet. I long for air conditioning and sometimes I miss my drafty Finnish room.

Aix on Provence is lovely, and getting to explore more of France makes me happy. I’m truly “Aly en France”, as I have been on the internet since 2009, again. And I have new stories and pictures to share, though I’m not quite there yet… I should finish telling some stories from Finland before I start rambling about the places I’m visiting in France.

Since I don’t have much else to do, expect those to start appearing more frequently. I hope to catch up on most of those before I head back to the US in July!

Sauna Days

Hello, all!

Well, it’s been three months since I arrived in Finland! Time is still passing too quickly for me, but life has settled into something of a routine— however much of a routine you can have when your classes are never the same from week to week!

On the way to the sauna with Carmen!

One of my absolute favorite routines is going to the sauna. Not just any sauna– the polar bear sauna!
For those of you unfamiliar with the Finnish tradition of sauna, here’s the overview:
  • Sauna is a major part of Finnish culture! According to VisitFinland, the Finns will “start feeling incomplete”. That might be a bit of an exaggeration, but this centuries-old tradition is amazing, and after incorporating sauna time into my life, I can see why!
  • Saunas in Finland are a near-religious experience. While everyone in the sauna is accepting of strangers, conversation is not essential. Sauna is a great time for deep conversation with friends, or a relaxing time in your own head.
  • When you’re nearly (if not fully) naked around strangers, you learn a lot about body acceptance. You just can’t be self-conscious about yourself or judgmental of others in the sauna. That might be because everyone is sweating buckets, but nonetheless… sauna time is not a time for being self-conscious, it’s a time of introspection!
  • Going to the sauna has tons of health benefits! This includes stress relief, relief from sore or achy muscles, flushing out toxins, cleansing the skin, and many more. Read about some of the benefits here. I’ve noticed some of these myself!
  • Spending time in the sauna followed by dip in cold water increases circulation and heart rate. After going to the sauna a few times, I’ve noticed that my heart rate increases after the time in the sauna and a dip in the lake. You really become aware of your heartbeat, breathing, and circulation.
For those of you interested in a longer explanation of the sauna experience, I recommend reading this post.

Looking towards the sauna & ice swimming hole

The Polar Bear Sauna

The polar bear sauna in my town (check out their website!) is a pretty decent size. It’s only 3-4 km away from my apartment, so I usually walk there. The polar bear sauna costs 95 euro for a membership pass for a full year, but since we’re only here for a few months, we get a guest pass for 5 e. Since the polar bear sauna is a public sauna, swimsuits are mandatory, even though that isn’t the norm for most Finnish saunas. Members have these patches that they sew onto their swimsuits.
My friends and I have made Sundays our semi-official “Polar Bear Sauna” day, though on Wednesdays, there’s a sauna available for (free!) use in my apartment complex for residents. Women and men have a separate time, and clothes aren’t mandatory there. It’s a very small room, but it has the same effect– even without the lake!
The inside of the polar bear sauna is a typical sauna with heated rocks in the center flanked by two water troughs, with scoops for water hanging on the edge of the wooden frame around the rocks. The entire sauna room is made of wood, with a chimney in the center over the rocks, tiny LED lights in the ceiling and along the edge, and small windows facing the porch (overlooking the lake) and the parking out out front. There’s a clock on the wall so you can keep track of time.

The sauna building

Before you go into the sauna, you change into your swimsuit in the locker room in the main building, then walk outside a short way to the sauna building. If you want, you can hop in the lake first or rinse off, but my friends and I usually just slip off our flip-flops in the mud room (with taps and a towel rack) before opening the door to the sauna, where you are suddenly blasted with stifling hot air! (I admit this may be the wrong way to do the sauna, but we’re foreigners so I think we’re excused…)

Excited about the first time at the Polar Bear Sauna!

The first time at the sauna, this was quite shocking. The people in the sauna– mostly older Finns– kept adding water to the stones to make steam, which meant that we were sweating profusely within seconds and most of the time, it was difficult to breathe! With a room so hot, it felt like we were breathing fire— or at least, trying to. It was awful! We could barely stay inside for 10 minutes at a time, and even then, we had our eyes closed and our hands covering our face, trying to cool down the air before breathing.
(For the record, that method is helpful but also results in more sweat running down your face from your hands… which is kind of gross.)
The rule of thumb seems to be “stay in the sauna until you can’t stay in any more”. For my friends and I, this means 10- 15 minutes in the sauna, or until we can’t breathe. Breathing is important, so when that becomes difficult, it’s a good time to go outside. Sometimes, you feel like you could stay in the sauna forever! In the sauna, it’s essential to listen to your body– if you feel dizzy, lightheaded, or have difficulty breathing, then you should get out! Sometimes sauna time can be physically taxing, and making sure you are safe is far more important than braving out the fire-breathing dragon-steam.
The first time we went to the sauna, it was REALLY cold outside– something like -8*F! This made for a beautifully clear day, but the lake, which was already frozen over, was insanely cold. We only made it in a few times, but mostly we stood outside for a while and enjoyed the feel of sunshine on our skin as we cooled off. This remains a very pleasant way to shift from the heat of the sauna to a normal body temperature, instead of the shock of the extremes. Definitely my favorite, though less effective now that we’ve been having warmer temperatures.

Still steaming from the sauna…

Getting into the lake…

VERY cold!

The extreme shift in temperature is part of what makes the sauna experience so great, even if the first time it is horrible! It’s very hard to force yourself to go down a ladder and swim in a frozen-over lake, even for a few seconds. Everything in your mind is screaming at you that it is a bad idea, and sometimes the water is so cold that your chest clenches up and you swear that your heart stops for a moment. In that moment, you are hyper-aware of every inch of your skin and then suddenly, you’re climbing out again.
And then you drink some water (from a bottle, not the lake!) and head back into the sauna to do it all again… which seems crazy.
After a few circuits, it’s time to leave. We usually make it about an hour or an hour and half, in 10-15 minute intervals of sauna and 5-10 minutes of lake/outside time. At the end of it all, we’re slightly sweaty but very relaxed, if not a bit sleepy.
This is definitely one of the strangest and best experiences I’ve had in Finland. It’s a quintessentially Finnish thing to do, and although it seems crazy the first time, there is something magical about the experience as a whole. After weekends of partying or unhealthy eating, there’s nothing quite like a sauna (and ice-swimming!) day to make you feel fresh and ready for the week… even if you will definitely need a shower!

At any rate, I hope you have a chance to try something like this one day! It’s definitely an experience, and you may fall in love with it.

Feeling good after the sauna!

A bientot,
Aly

The Whirlwind Month

Hello, all!

Well, 2014 is here and I am writing this from Finland (!). The Helsinki airport, actually, since I haven’t made it to my final destination of Joensuu yet.

On the plane!

(Note: This was written 2 weeks ago, I’m late on publishing it…)

It hasn’t quite sunk in yet that I am in Finland. The last few months have been a whirlwind, and I am still caught up in it. I’ve spent most of the last 24 hours travelling, and despite the fact that I am sitting comfortably now, I feel as though my feet haven’t quite touched the ground. Though that might just be the jet lag…

I intended to blog some over the past month, and I will probably end up blogging about parts of it more in-depth later (particularly my trip to New York City to get my Student Residence Permit and my trip to Hawaii!), here’s the run-down of my whirlwind month!

At the Finnish Consulate in NYC!

  • Marathon road trip to NYC over Thanksgiving Break with my mom and two girls from my school who are also going to Finland to turn in paperwork and have biometrics taken for Finnish Student Residence Permit

  • Wandering around NYC for a day

Photo by my friend An

  • Celebrating one of my best friend’s birthdays
  • Exams!

  • Student Marshaling at December Commencement with Laura
  • Packing/moving out of my dorm room
  • Finishing up work stuff

Birthday dinner at my favorite restaurant in Asheville!

  • My 21st birthday!
  • Unpacking from school
  • Packing for Hawaii

Hanging out in Hawaii

  • Week in Hawaii to celebrate mine and my mom’s birthdays/Christmas
  • Unpacking from Hawaii
  • Packing for Finland and other preparations for travel
  • Packing up all my other belongings to be moved when my mom sells our house (while I am abroad)

  • Saying goodbye to friends/family

  • Ringing in the New Year with my mom, my brother, my mom’s best friend, and one of my best friends

The view from the Helsinki airport.

  • The trip to Finland so far!

I don’t feel like I have had a moment to breathe over the last month. As it turns out, preparing for study abroad while life carries on with its complications and demands is no easy task; it can be quite overwhelming.

Not to complain, though. The overwhelming qualities of this experience are well balanced out by my excitement and I am incredibly lucky to be having this experience. My friends and family have been wonderfully supportive through everything, and wrapping up the year with so many memorable adventures has been the best send-off.

For all that, leaving is no easier. While I am comforted by the positive attitudes and emotional support of my friends, I remain slightly uneasy about the trip. I feel quite unprepared– still!– even as I sit in the airport, mere hours from arriving the town that will be my home for the next 5 months.

It seems kind of ironic.

So much of my life for the last few months has been spent preparing for this trip, be it editing my (super-specific!) packing list, finishing up paperwork, applying for an apartment, the list goes on… and yet, when it comes down to it, no preparations will prepare you for how things are.

Studying abroad is like any other kind of travel– scary, overwhelming, exciting– but most of all, unpredictable. You can never be fully prepared for everything, no matter how hard you try. And that isn’t a bad thing. So many things about travelling are out of your control. It’s hard to remember that sometimes. And you may have a breakdown in an airport. (I did!)

But the journey goes on, and the whirlwind will continue to whisk you away to new adventures. 

While I may not feel fully prepared, if nothing else, this whirlwind month has given me plenty of stories to tell and small reminders of important life lessons. I’ll never know exactly what is coming, but the fact that I have made it so far (airport breakdown and all!) is a comforting thought.

So here we go… out of one whirlwind and into another!

Aly

Three Years Ago…

 

 

Pictures from my last day with my French friends when my mom and brother visited.
 

Hello, all!

Three years ago I landed on American soil after seven months of living in France. 

Three years have passed since my friends came to pick me up at the airport and I didn’t quite believe it was real. Since we screamed and cried and hugged in an airport lobby because it had been so long and so much had changed.

Seven months changes a lot. 

Three years changes more.

Three years ago, I had already accomplished the dream that I had been working towards for 10 years of my life. I didn’t have a new dream; I was happy to be home but my language and my heart was still captured in French. (It still is, but to a lesser extent.)

Three years have passed since I was last in Europe. Slightly more than that since I said goodbye to “my Frenchies” and embarked on a short vacation to Italy with my mother and brother. More than three years since I wandered through Southern France with near-strangers that are kind of family and now-distant friends. Since filming silly videos with my friends and dancing through La Villa Aurélienne. Since hanging out in MacDo and Quick and getting sunburnt on the beach of La mer Méditerranée

Picture from a picnic my class threw me before I left France.


I find myself looking through those pictures and blog posts and thinking of all those experiences and I fall in love with those experiences all over again. Or I feel the sting of loneliness as I read about those rough days when I felt like I was falling apart. I re-watch the video I made to celebrate five months in France again and tear up as I remember those friends and I think about all the stories and pictures that I never shared here. (There are so many)

I think about who I was then. How I felt out of touch with the United States and my friends on either side of the ocean at different points; those moments of clarity on long train rides alone and when goofing off with people whose names I probably never pronounced exactly right. 

And then there’s now. 

I’m rediscovering myself and my strength and challenging myself all over again. I’ve found a new dream to pursue at long last and I am pursuing it the best I know how.

Life is strange and time passes too quickly. I’m not sure where I will be seven months from now, much less three years from now. I wonder if I will still maintain the friendships I have had for years, or if I will re-establish the closeness I once had with my seven month friends. 

That being said, it’s time to share again. 

A bientot!
Aly

Long Time, No Blog

Hello, all!

Earlier today, my friend Laura commented on a couple of my old blogs, which brought me back here. I found myself reading some of my old posts and remembering why I loved blogging.

From 2009 to 2011, I blogged fairly regularly– mostly during my time in France, but recorded deep within the pages of this blog is my own personal history. The thoughts, emotions, memories, rants, and dreams of a girl that had a lot to say and wasn’t afraid to share. This blog was both my private story and my public outlet, and I realize that this was an important part of my life, for much longer than I acknowledge now.

I stopped blogging rather abruptly, and sometimes I think about why I made that decision. I didn’t really explain it on here– I posted once in January of 2012, but beyond that, I made the fatal blog mistake of disappearing. I’m still around on the internet– my tumblr is pretty active, but it isn’t a personal blog so much as a collection of things I like.

The thing about this blog is that it became a bit of a chore after a while– it began to feel like something I HAD to do, rather than something I wanted to do. It became a far-too-public forum for me to feel comfortable sharing some of the experiences that I had previously written about without even thinking twice. As I get older, I become more aware that the internet is a very public thing and in most cases, there are things that really ought to be kept private. There are things that are difficult to share, and not knowing who reads my blog made me feel vulnerable.

Furthermore, this blog ceased to be about “Aly en France”. It became a personal blog, for my own benefit (and the benefit of anybody that cared to read what I have to share), and the transition struck me as awkward. 

It may be time to start blogging again. My distance from France does not mean that is no longer part of my identity or my lifestyle.

With that in mind, here’s to a new year– and maybe a new blog. As my tumblr states: my heart is in France, and I am here. Life is ongoing, and I may be ready to share it again.

-Aly

And So, September

Hello, all!

It’s September at last and as promised to a few people months ago, I will be blogging every day this month. There’s a lot going on right now– hence the fact that I have yet to post despite the abundance of things to write about lately– but I think this is an important month. This is my first month of college life, and I’ve also decided that for this month, I’m going to become vegetarian, just to see how it goes. Granted, I’ll probably make a few exceptions this weekend since I’m returning home (and cafeteria food is more vegetarian friendly, though not always the most delicious).

At any rate, this is just the short intro post since I’m running out of time to write today and I desperately need sleep.

A demain!

-Aly

Parties and a Puck

Hello!

I’m currently sprawled out on the floor of my room (which I just cleaned from all the art supplies that Molly, Matt, and I managed to get all over in the process of making Noelle’s birthday present), surrounded by roughly a third of my closet. I’m packing, but right now I’m in the stage of “Sorting”.
[It’s really not that exciting, and I’d much rather be bowling with Molly and Claire right now.]

Yesterday was amazing. Despite the foul weather, a fair number of people managed to make it to my birthday party. I’m really sad that some of my really close friends couldn’t make it for some reason or another (being offered a job by the CIA? Okay then. See ya next July?), I plan on going out to lunch on Monday if anybody’s around and wants to come join in.

I have to find time to write thank-you’s to everybody for their wonderful gifts, but I must admit, I don’t remember who gave me what. Probably because I was consuming a lot of sugar and was a bit rushed through that entire process. So, if you were there and brought food/soda/presents, then PLEASE remind me so I can thank you properly. (Note: that = fail)

Besides my own party, I went to Noelle’s surprise birthday party with Molly and Matt. We went to see Avatar, and although I wasn’t paying enough attention to enjoy the beginning fully (didn’t help that I was talking), I did enjoy it quite a bit. Let’s go to Smurf Space-Africa!

[I’m one of those terrible people that talks and laughs obnoxiously loud in movie theaters. Whoops. I can’t help it that I was reminded of a lot of random things, like Disney songs, and I was between two people that had funny things to say. Grrr…]

Après ça, we ended up at Noelle’s house (awkward moment: when you say goodbye-for-six-months to somebody and then you see them a few hours later). We ate another funfetti cake (so sugary. so yummy. also quite delicious as partial-breakfast), played Never Have I Ever, and I guess that was about it.

OH! That reminds me. The art supplies in my room went to decorating a duck that Margaret, Alex, and I were trying to use for our physics project. We covered it in puff balls. It is now named Puck, and Noelle loves him. 🙂

I could say a lot of really awkward things about yesterday because they’re quite humorous, but the idea is that yesterday/today was a lot of fun.

Now I’m home; going caroling with Tori, Molly, and Kat later (maybe Claire, too, since I couldn’t go bowling). My brother and mom decided to be awesome and got me DVDs– Blu-ray Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (unexpected move on his part; we don’t buy each other presents, much less with our own money :P!), Les Misérables (if you don’t get why that’s so awesome, read this, although that doesn’t help that much. mostly, happy thoughts), and The Aristocats (I’m working on getting all the Disney “classics” on DVD, since I only have them on VHS).

RIGHT. Now that I’ve updated you will all sorts of insignificant details and anecdotes, here’s the OTHER motive for this post.

If I haven’t gotten you a card with my address, skype, and email on it, then I’m sorry! I kept forgetting to hand them out. I can give you all that information, you just need to email me at alyinfrance @ gmail.com. (well, fine, that’s my email right there. SKYPE AND ADDRESS, THEN.)

Since I don’t have most people’s email/skype/address, if you want to keep in touch with me by any of those means, please EMAIL ME your information (PLEASE remember to include your name!). If you give me your address, I’ll definitely try to send you a postcard/letter from France! (I know you want to. Everybody loves snail mail, yeah?)

If I haven’t gotten to see you and you want to hang out ONE FINAL TIME before I leave, please let me know and I’ll find a way to get you details about the plans for Monday (lunch).

-Aly