My Year in Belle France

I recently got back home (to France, that is) from an incredible trip that allowed me be to get a glimpse of life in six European countries I wasn’t necessarily familiar with. I left Auch on a Thursday afternoon to spend the night with a fellow Rotary exchange student, a Mexican girl, at her host family’s house in Toulouse. We left the following morning by high-speed train (one of France’s specialties), destination Paris. From there, the adventure began: we met up with 50-some other exchange students from all over France, and climbed aboard the bus that would carry us from one major city to the next for nearly two weeks. We started with a short bus tour around Paris, stopping for photo shoots in front of the Eiffel Tower, Louvre, and Notre Dame, bien sr (of course). We then made the trip to Reims, France, where we stayed the night before heading to Strasbourg the following morning. In Strasbourg, we ate flammekueche (a pizza-like dish, but with fresh cream instead of tomato sauce, typical of the Alsace region of France), and took a guided boat tour of the city. The next day we arrived in Nuremberg, Germany, known for having been the center of Nazi propaganda. We visited World War II sites, including an arena where Hitler often gave speeches, but also Nuremberg’s beautiful castle and “old town.” We also enjoyed a delicious, typically German lunch of sausages and sauerkraut!

The following morning, we drove to the city that was the most “foreign” to us Western European inhabitants: Prague, in the Czech Republic. This Eastern European metropolis definitely defied our expectations in every way. Prague was a web of sprawling, graffiti-covered outskirts leading to an equally haphazard yet somehow beautiful “old town” center. Unlike in France or Germany, each building in Prague had nothing to do with its neighbors, leading to a striking mlange of colors and styles. What they all did have in common was magnificent architecture: elegant carved figurines growing from where they were least expected, giant Atlas-like statues holding up windows and door frames, and “bubbled” roofs so evocative of Russian syles. We were lucky enough to spend two days in Prague; the first, we went on a long guided walking tour (though the Czech accent in French was like nothing we had ever heard, and unfortunately we barely understood our tour guide), visiting the Charles Bridge, Wenceslas Square, Kafka statue and Prague Astronomical Clock. Our second day, we toured the Prague Castle, which was actually an enormous walled center containing a cathedral, several squares, gardens and ancient commercial streets. We then ate lunch at Havelska Koruna, one of the last restaurants in Prague serving traditional Czech food in the communist “cafeteria” style. That afternoon we did some shopping, exploring, and soaked up the vibrant and entirely foreign Prague atmosphere.

The next day, we drove south to Vienna, Austria and took advantage of the rolling Austrian countryside to belt out a few rounds of “Do Re Mi” and “Edelweiss” while in the bus. Once arrived, we took a tour by bus and on foot, and rode up the city’s famous giant ferris wheel. Though we spent only a short afternoon in Vienna, everyone appreciated the sun, beautiful cathedral and shopping district, and relaxed, festive atmosphere thanks to the Fte du Travail (Europe’s version of Labor Day) that was taking place the same day, May 1st. Look for the next half of the trip in my next “Pardon My French” and bon voyage!