My new home

When you arrive to a small town in a foreign country, perhaps the last thing you’d expect to hear is a choir of “hey Deanna!” But, when VIBOT takes over Le Creusot, that’s what happens (with some help from facebook). There, in front of me in the cheese aisle, was a sample of the students with whom I’d be spending the next two years. That was an easy friendship group to break into!

The beauty of the Erasmus Mundus courses is in so much more than the coursework. I’m as big of a fan of robotics and computer vision as anyone else (give or take ūüėČ ), but when you bring students from all over the world to study *anything* together, something awesome is bound to happen. In particular, an instant family-away-from-home. “We’re going to the McDonald’s to get the wifi, wanna come?”.. There’s a McDonald’s here? I had no idea! That’s not the first thing they’d taught me – within the first 90 seconds of meeting them they’d saved me at least ‚ā¨50 by giving me the heads up that we’d be able to grab some household supplies left from the previous year’s students the next day. I guess this¬†camaraderie¬†extends between generations!

Some would argue that I bought a bit more than necessary, but I *am* one for efficiency when it comes to trekking to the shops. Luckily my friends offered to help me carry my goods.. Really just some juice, p√Ęt√©, fruit, cheese, olives, yoghurt, and a baguette. Quite French if I do say so myself. But, perhaps a bit much considering I only had Thursday night and some of the weekend at home before 5 days in London… The expiry dates were lengthy enough!

I met so many people the next two days. Like, so many. But not just met them, it was like I’d known them for ages! I guess I’d put it down to Facebook, which is funny because originally I was opposed to the idea of e-meeting classmates because I thought it would be awkward when we met in person. And while I did get a bit sick of the response of “I know” when I introduced myself as Deanna from Australia, at least I was recognisable I guess…

Both of the orientation days we heard from a variety of course coordinators about the program etc. and did some administrative stuff, with lunch at the cafeteria which was an experience. Normally you can get away with buying things without knowing French pretty easily, you just need to know the price. But at the cafeteria they have a points system that no one explained and you have to awkwardly point at what you want them to put on your plate… They were nice though (and one of the ladies at the register was a bit lenient with the points system) so it all worked out well: massive meal though! (for me; and only ‚ā¨3..!).

Friday afternoon we were taken for a bike tour of the town by previous/post grad students. With a stack in the first 90 seconds, we were off to a good start.. But, we pushed through and managed to see such acclaimed sites as the hospital, and, … Some statue. I’ll admit that the hospital was quite pretty, but otherwise I think most would agree that there’s not a whole lot to do around here. Not to worry, it will surely only encourage traveling!

Bike ride through Le Creusot

Friday night we had the graduation ceremony for the outgoing VIBOT generation – nothing flash but, in line with my expectations of the course admin, quite relaxed. Each student got a shot at the mic and it was great to hear what they had to say, looking back on the past two years of their lives. Mostly they spoke of all of their friends’ shock when they mentioned where they were moving to, and their own shock (perhaps reconsideration) when they arrived. Most often repeated was this and that it’s a hard two years, but it’s worth it. It seems that the semester in Girona is one to look forward to.. we will work hard but it’s a great city to live in. The students that stayed in Le Creusot for the two years (oh gosh!) made a song about it which was received very well at the ceremony!

I can only imagine what sort of slideshow my new-found friends and I will be able to make two years from now…!

Back in Paris

Wow. Ok, I understand now what people are on about – for real. I got some of the Parisian vibe last week, but this time around is something else completely. I think it might just be because I’m not with a group of people and so when I want to stop and appreciate things, I can. And on Monday night when I was walking around trying to find my hostel, I did that a lot. It wasn’t at all a sense of ‘oh no what am I doing in a foreign country by myself’ but more like ‘how did I end up here?! In Paris?!’. It’s the first time I’ve felt this sort of excitement, which really is a pleasant surprise!! But it wasn’t touristy anymore – cr√™peries were filled with French conversation. Laneways with patisseries and cheese stalls.. is this really my life??

I’ve been very impressed with myself so far in terms of independence, to the effect of having “this isn’t so hard” as my new motto. I’m on the TGV at the moment to my new home (it’s surprising what a workout you can get on a high-speed train, just trying to keep yourself straight when centrifugal force wants otherwise), and while I’m not entirely sure what I’ll do once I get there, I’ve made it this far alright on my own.

On Monday I flew from Rome to Paris after a morning of sightseeing (some of the stranger sights perhaps, like a Roman pyramid and a non-view-obstructing flat-roofed church painted to look (from one angle) like a dome). Ok, I did learn a lesson on that trip about the need to validate a ticket before getting on an Italian train.. found that out when I was written a fine with $500 written on it. Luckily the decimal place was just missing!!

After arriving in Paris and catching the train into the city, I checked out Notre Dame since it’s right near my hostel and then took a bit of a ‘scenic route’ home. I wish I was hungry but after two lunches I thought it best not to give in to the cr√™pes… There were 4 Swedish girls in the 8-bed room I was in who conveniently arrived as I was checking in and so were able to help me carry my things to the 6th floor… There was a wall in the middle of our room though so it was as if I had the place to myself. I woke to an additional two roommates, though – they must have gotten in quite late.

A bit of breakfast and out the door to the Eiffel Tower, with a quick stop at the Australian embassy to check that the water damage on my passport is nothing to worry about. By this point I’d realised that I’d left my credit card in the train ticket machine the night before, but fortunately that was uneventful.. alright, I guess there are a few things that I could have improved on in my travels but I still stand by my previous comment about being impressed with myself!

I had the idea of brunch under the Tower in my mind, so spent probably close to an hour searching for the ideal setting. Nice cafe, no view; nice view, no cafe – what’s going on!! Well, I ended up right back near the embassy for an ‚ā¨8 coffee (I think they might have been generous with their own tip there), with the view I’d been searching for.

Crepes at MontmartreOff for a bit of shopping at the famous Champs-√Člys√©es – hopefully for some shoes, dresses and jackets, but looks like I’ll settle for a French sim card and some macarons from Ladur√©e!! If I had to get to one of the SNCF train stations anyway to buy my TGV ticket, I might as well stop off at Montmartre for a visit to the Moulin Rouge, Sacre-Coeur and some cr√™pes with a stunning view..! New shoes, umbrella (red polka dots) and a ring can be my souvenirs for the trip. How practical! I walked home via the train station to buy my TGV ticket for the next day (today), and found that the early trains had sold out so I’d ‘earnt’ myself a sleep in. Another stay-at-home night, this time with a full hostel room of awkwardness.. It’s hard to tell who is French and who would speak English if I wanted to make conversation!

A soup-bowl of coffee (is this a normal French thing!?) before checking out of the hostel and setting out for the walk to the TGV station, stopping for petit dejeuner on the way. If I make an effort to go out for breakfast, I usually expect something significant, but French breakfasts seem to all be juice, coffee, bread and a croissant. I settled on a western breakfast of bacon and eggs and croissant which was so good that I’m concerned for my arteries. Which pretty much brings us to this train ride! Exciting!!!

Pisa, Florence, Rome..

An early start to make it to Florence with a stopover at Pisa for the cliche leaning tower photos and our first taste of authentic Italian food. The rest of the day involved gelato, a swim up bar, a three course Italian meal, and dancing in the hostel bar until closing time. A good night!

Super early morning to get into town for a walking tour of Florence which was really great. We had a lovely born-and-raised Florencian old lady guide and covered the major monuments within 1.5hrs, such contrast to the vastness of Paris. The Duomo was really magnificent: 3000 tonnes in the double-layer dome, first in Europe, built over a course of 300 years, in the age before computer simulation (and still standing). The statue of David was also quite a sight: 16ft tall and chiseled from one block of marble, with Michael Angelo not working from a clay model or anything. You quickly realize that the majority of statues were of biblical/mythical characters – she also pointed out one with the artist’s face hidden in the back of the statue’s head (benefit of having a guide!). As always I enjoyed taking photos down lane ways, and soaking up the sense of Italy that comes with cobblestone streets and old men riding stepthrough bicycles with baskets. We went to the leather shop for a demonstration on how to detect fakes (to be honest I didn’t pick up much of it.. I may or may not have been napping in my seat a bit) and then had a group lunch at a great Italian (obviously) restaurant. A man with an accordion came along.. It was too perfect! Topped the afternoon off with some gelato and a trip to a terrace for a view of the city, before heading back to the bus to make our way to Rome.¬†[insert joke about roads]

Florence

In Rome we stayed at a campsite a few metro stops out of the city (but we were staying in cabin-like things not camping) which was apparently popular with Topdeck tours: 6 buses in on that night! We didn’t get home till late because as soon as we hit Rome we were out on a walking tour of the city. Again it was so cool to see so many of the tourist hot spots in one sweep: I’m starting to become quite a fan of walking tours! We went to the Spanish Steps (an area of Rome governed by Spain, with a fountain, monument and $100 high tea place nearby), the Trevi Fountain for a coin toss (like, the most spectacular fountain in the world, complete with a tap/fountain with water which restores virginity… (they have heaps of continuously running water spouts which are free to fill their bottles up at – not sure why they run continuously though)). The other monuments were impressive, but perhaps could have been found anywhere. What was mind blowing though is the part of Rome that is absolutely unique: the ruins. While Florence apparently was built ontop of the ruins of ancient cities (possibly something to do with flood problems, she said), Rome has kept its ruins for all to see – with the exception of the chunks of the Colosseum which were taken for building other monuments! It gives just a glimpse into history but certainly enough to get your imagination going. At nighttime the Forum looks like eerie caveman ruins.. which I guess isn’t all too far from the truth. A massive contrast with 150-year-old colonised Austalia..

Flat-domed chapel

I spent the next day exploring the city in daylight, Vatican included.. phwoah. Is Rome just full of giant, incredible things?

I¬†even managed to track down a pyramid, thanks to a tip off from Rick Steves.. Which I’ll admit was a little underwhelming.. but, he came good on his second ‘offbeat Rome’ stop: a flat-roofed chapel with a 3D painted ceiling. The mostly-black dome part had me pretty impressed! A bike-taxi tour around the sites I’d missed, and a toga party marked the celebration of the end to a fantastic tour. Now, just to plan my journey to my new home!

Rivierrrrrrra

After another day of driving we arrived back in France to spend some time at the beach at Nice, French Riviera. Nice was interesting in that it seemed that the dodgy parts of town were right next to the nice streets and Louis Vuitton stores. Or perhaps the strange people just end up in the nice places.. at night time, they ended up in every place.

We went out to dinner at a French restaurant for a few courses (with dessert this time! Ice cream filled profiteroles) and the out to a bar that we’d book some tables at (busy even on a Tuesday it seemed). And by tables I mean the dance floor, apparently! Best night on the trip by far – best music, and we had the whole tour up on the tables (it at least kept the path to the bathroom free – should be implemented in every bar!). Our tour leader and driver are pretty sweet and come out with us each night (navy and grey shirts).

Tables become a dancefloor

The next day we had nothing planned by the tour until 4pm so a lot of us slept in for once (mine was ruined at 8 sigh) then most of us had shopping and the beach on the itinerary for the day. The beach was nice and warm but there were rocks instead of sand which made you earn your swim – torture on the feet. Shopping was good – their main street is like Bourke St mall in Melbourne (trams included), and we were all set the task to dress to impress for the evening’s activities. I was so exhausted from the night before but I still visited every shop looking for some heels to dress up my outfit – eventually I found some for ‚ā¨60 which I don’t even bother converting to Australian dollars anymore because it’s going to be my currency for a while.. And there’s no point thinking of things relative to Australia to get an idea of how expensive they are, because everything is so differently priced here (eg blouses for the cost of a sandwich) that you have to just recalibrate your idea of what’s expensive for clothes etc.

We made a trip to the Fragenhartz perfumery on our way out to spend the night at Monaco (a country with more millionaires than policemen, a population of 8000 residents and 30000 visitors) with a visit to the casino where Casino Royale was filmed – an evening filled with plenty of incredible sights. Drinks on the beach when we returned to Nice finished the day off well.

Switzerland, you’ve outdone yourself!

Picturesque is absolutely an understatement for Switzerland.. For Lauterbrunnen, at the very least.

360x90o of pure postcard. Whatever you picture Switzerland like in your head, this will most likely live up to it Рour bus and the two others that were in town the same two nights as us spent the majority of our time in awe of our surroundings. The Swiss flag-marked waterfall right near our cabins probably helped with that.

Swiss houses

London, Paris: their beauty was as a city – in their buildings and icons. Switzerland’s beauty lies in its landscapes and cute cottages. You would think that the village had been set up just for tourists, to pander to the old-time stereotype of the Swiss Alps, but this town of 800 and one bar isn’t a particularly hot tourist destination – there was no exaggeration! After dinner (fondue and roast at the campsite) we took that bar by storm though. With some exceptionally Swiss-looking cider chilled in the stream, the party began, and continued on through the night with the other tour groups.

The bus journey to Switzerland took longer than I had expected, taking the majority of the day. This seems to create a false sense of hope for sleep catch-up, with late nights ensuing. I hope I learn to remember that they insist on playing music on the bus even when everyone is clearly trying to sleep, and that stops are required every two hours for the driver, so hence the “false” hope, making the bus days not just a missed opportunity for sleep, but a source for a wrongly seized opportunity for a late night beforehand (double whammy!). Don’t regret a thing!

I’ll explain the rest of the night with this:

The best (and only) bar in Lauterbrunnen

Adrenaline junkie..?

The beauty of Switzerland just kept coming today. Up early to catch a train up to Jungfraujoch, the highest train-accessible point in Europe. Before leaving I popped into reception to find out about the bungee jumping I’d heard someone speak of despite our tour leader not knowing of any when I asked (the tour only advertised the skydiving which was $500 plus another $1something for the DVD) . Only $150 for a more exhilarating experience (in my experience)? Sign me up! I asked others if they wanted to join me and the only one to say yes was Chong Sol (very much to my surprise)! We were booked in for 4pm, which I later realized only gave us 2 hours at the Top of Europe because of the 2hr train ride.. No worries, still another $150 well spent.

Jungfraujoch cows

Cows. With bells. Yes, really.

The views were spectacular at Jungfraujoch – we couldn’t quite see as far as France and Germany as is sometimes possible, but with a schnapps and wearing every item of clothing that I brought, it was beautiful. A play in the snow and a go on the 250m zip line and it was pretty much time to head down again, on an earlier train so that there was some spare time for taking a million photos on the way back to the reception, which we absolutely did (as well as some Swiss chocolate shopping).

The next few hours were ones not to be forgotten. Imagine the most picturesque Swiss lake, completely surrounded by green mountains with only a log cabin, dinghy and picnic bench in sight. Oh, and a cable car full of backpackers, 290ft above the lake, chanting a countdown….

Such an incredible experience, bungee jumping aside! Which is good, because I can’t remember much of the jump itself, except the headache like last time, and the sore back I got from this time unlike last. I think it might have to do with the Gold Coast one being more of a ‘fall off the edge’, and this one a ‘throw yourself from the cable car’. I found the falling way scarier (more fun – man that was a scream), but throwing yourself definitely makes for a better photo!!

Swiss bungee jumping

I went third (I’d offered second but the girl next to me got clipped onto the rope first) which meant that I got to sit for still-not-long-enough next to the beautiful lake and watch everyone else. Apparently I was so psyched that I even skipped the countdown!! My throw out of the door (sideways for the photo) must have been good because I ended up going backwards for most of my jump!

Chong Sol was terrified and needed a few count downs but ended up loving it and plans to do many more back in Korea – can’t blame her!

Wow. Off to a good start….

This morning I had a dream that my alarm hadn’t gone off and I’d slept in past when I was supposed to be meeting my tour downstairs. Then I woke up. Then it came true.

For whatever reason, my 5:30am alarm hadn’t been set properly. Not off to a good start. But, thanks to the miracle that is the human brain, I had woken myself at 6:15, in time to race downstairs for checkin before 6:30, followed by some makeup and breakfast before we left at 6:45! Now that’s efficiency – good teamwork, brain! (sorry, Mum..)

I was worried about being overdressed for the tour, but I didn’t want my travel photos ruined by dorky clothes! It’s turned out alright though- I’m certainly not the most fashion-conscious of the group: my blouses are an understatement.

I’ve met a pair from Korea, a group of American girls and a Columbian girl but otherwise everyone is mostly Australian and Kiwi. Most people are around my age but there are some high school graduates and some coming up on their 30s. I’d say at least half of us are travelling solo.

Les escargots in Paris...

We spent the majority of the day traveling over to Paris by bus, boat and bus – at customs at the ferry crossing I had my first French encounter and couldn’t understand the man when he asked me about my visa: off to a good start.

We arrived to the hotel at dinner time and headed over to a local restaurant nearby. First up: l’escargot. Garlic and butter.. Not too bad, if you eat it quickly. Eat it too slowly, and the sauce will run out and you’ll be left with a strange garden taste..! Second and third course were nice but nothing exceptionally delicious or French.

IMG_0306

Back on the bus again, for a tour of the ‘city of love’ at nighttime (ooh la la!). Words can’t describe the beauty. We saw at least 10 of the iconic monuments of Paris, all lit up beautifully in the night. Some, like the incredible opera house, were too large and magnificent to fit in a single shot from the bus. Obviously the Eiffel Tower was like that too, but we stopped for a photo op – timed perfectly so that the twinkle lights came on as a surprise just as we were looking at it. Back past the street vendors (apparently it’s illegal to buy from them?) and we were on the bus home to rest up.

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