European Gems: Norway, France, Portugal

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This semester was the first time I visited Europe. In addition to visiting classic destinations (Barcelona, London, Rome), I also ventured to less popular cities, so here is a brief account of a few that pleasantly surprised me with the unexpected.

OSLO – NORWAY

What comes to mind: boats, whale meat, intolerably high prices, endless sunlight.

The cultural and geographic singularities of Oslo made it my most refreshing trip in Europe. The differences I found between Norway and the countries where I’ve lived (Brazil, USA, France) were at times small and inconsequential, but at times so significant that my short stay was not enough to truly grasp them. Whereas I stepped into Oslo with no set expectations or background knowledge of Norway, I left thinking: “what if I tried living here?”

As my flight landed at 10:45pm, I watched the sunset over a city that was still cold at the end of spring. Sunrise woke me up not much later at 4am, and it warmed the air enough so that I could take my coat off in the afternoon. In the following days, Oslo captivated me for its sense of pacifism, hospitality, open-mindedness and sheer natural beauty. The city is an urban spread around nature rather than a concrete block with scarce patches of green. Its mountains reminded me of remote places I’d visited in the American South, its spectacular views akin to those one sees when isolated in nature, except the city of Oslo was right there with its daring modern architecture and cozy cafés in the midst of fjords.

Based on my traveling experiences so far, I found the mix of urban development and geographical isolation to be unique to Oslo. The pacifism that I could feel in the air, added to the tranquility brought by nature, made the place seem at once foreign and appealing, a perfect combination to tempt me to move there.

After learning more about Norway from relatives who live there, I was also impressed by their approach to education, government, religion, and their definition of quality of life. I also became interested in possibly learning Norwegian (even if everyone there also speaks English), as I found out that it helps with understanding Danish and Swedish as well as with learning German. Sweet combo for language lovers.

But perhaps the most unattended surprise was: the sushi! I wish my words would do justice to the food quality at Alex Sushi, but I believe you must taste it in order to understand the gastronomic shock of pure satisfaction. The Japanese food was so mind-blowing (most likely because of the freshness of Norwegian fish combined with the chef’s talent) that it is hard to believe I could find any better, even in Japan. Fearing I’m the only person to have such a reaction to Alex Sushi (besides my friend who recommended it as the best sushi of her life), I googled it and found the following review:

“… I have managed to try a couple of [sushi] places in Oslo. Some things in life will make you alter your view on that particular category, such as the first time I tried real home made Italian ice cream. Ice cream was never the same again. Alex Sushi is that kind of place. Pure heaven” (from the Sushi World Guide website).

His words are my own. The only downside of my food experience in general was the elevated price.

In Norway, I saw people “skiing” without snow, going for a jog during blinding, pouring rain without expressing the slightest worry about the weather, wearing summer clothes and licking ice cream while the low temperature of the day was 37 F.

I might have fallen in love with Oslo but it’s important to emphasize that I visited in mid-May and wore a coat, scarf and hat (plus I used an umbrella which inevitably labeled me as a silly tourist). Would I have had the same positive experience had I visited mid-January? Not so sure, but I’d like to find out.

LILLE – FRANCE

What comes to mind: city lights, cozy atmosphere, best French ice cream, Flemish architecture, Donald Duck.

What an underrated French city. I chose to visit Lille only because it was halfway to the Belgian city of Brugge, my actual trip destination. When I told others I would be going there, I received no excited responses or tips on what to do. Instead I was told it’s one of the poorest cities in France, and that I shouldn’t expect anything like Paris. But after visiting, I can affirm that it’s one of my favorite French cities and one I would even consider living in.

The old part of town, “le Vieux-Lille,” was my favorite. Its Flemish architecture carries an undeniable charm and distinguishes this French city from the others. Many of the residential buildings reminded me of the ones I saw in Amsterdam, and its colors give life to the city. In addition, there are alleys that take you to little hidden gems, like one that took me to the back of a Gothic church where I found colorful, blossoming flowers and a “hidden” lawn where people read and played with dogs.

The city atmosphere felt so cozy, young and vibrant. It might have to do with the abundance of pretty lights, cafés and independent stores that struck me as hipster (and marvelous). Like in many other European cities, everything is in walking distance, and unlike Paris, Lille has a big park circled by a river.

Although I only met two guys from Lille, people there seemed more open, warm and lively than in other French cities. I must also mention the best French ice cream I’ve ever had was at a local shop called La Pause Givrée, which offered delicious, unlikely flavors.

Last but not least, the city has a vibrant cultural and artistic scene. Everywhere I went there were art galleries, and the Palais des Beaux-Arts de Lille was one of the best museums I’ve ever visited – probably because I so enjoyed their exhibition featuring Donald Duck parodies of famous paintings.

So, after living in Oslo, I would move to Lille.

CHAMONIX-MONT-BLANC – FRANCE

What comes to mind: awesomeness, awesomeness, and more awesomeness.

Ah the Alps! Ah the Alps! Ah the Alps! Words cannot contain their beauty, atmosphere and all-around awesomeness. After years of dreaming of these mountains, I finally made it there this winter and none of my expectations were let down.

The decision to take trains from Paris to Chamonix-Mont-Blanc was very worth it for the scenic views during (what should have been) a five-hour trajectory. I got to see different French regions as well as different parts of the Alps as the trip wasn’t, well, a straight line (think: taking the wrong train (because there were three involved) and ending up literally facing Switzerland, stuck for a night in the town where Evian water comes from).

The trains sloped around the mountains, revealing breathtaking scenes that made me abandon the paper I was writing on my laptop and stare for long periods of time, dreaming, while all the teenagers around me were just taking the regular train from their village to the school at a nearby town. Once actually in the Chamonix Valley, the ski slopes were gorgeous (and intimidating for a first-time skier), the mountain peaks beyond praise with fantastic views of the seemingly unending mountain range.

But what I least expected was to find the best burger of my life in Chamonix. Yes, I found the best burger of my life at Poco Loco, a place that a local I met at a ski shop suggested I go. The burger was different than American ones with its fresh “French” bread bun, three small meat patties and a special sauce. Their succulent burger, followed by the Nutella crepe they also sold, provided me with the needed calories to fall every single time I skied down a slope.

The highlights of my Alps experience were the Aiguille du Midi, Mont Blanc, Argentière, École du Ski Français, the river Arve, Glacier des Bossons, travelling by train, and the cheap nearby Carrefour. I would very much like to move there next winter and disappear from the rest of the world, tucked away in a cabin, taking turns between writing and skiing. I can dream.

SINTRA – PORTUGAL

What comes to mind: tropical-like nature, history, Portuguese pastries, hikes.

On my second to last day in Lisbon, a friend suggested we take a day trip to Sintra, a nearby town that is home to castles and ruins. Lisbon was fantastic, but Sintra, a town I’d never heard of before, enriched our adventures in Portugal with its fairytale-like nature and the most adorable castle I’ve ever visited.

The nature in Sintra reminded me of Brazil: a dewy forest with very tall green trees, sprinkled with beautiful flowers everywhere, so well preserved that you can get lost inside the parks and forget that cities exist. The hikes lead to mountain peaks with beautiful overviews of the region as well as to lakes, gardens, castles and ruins.

I visited the National Palace of Pena and the Moorish Castle. The former was the castle where the Portuguese royalty once lived, painted in lovely pastel colors and reminiscent of a fairytale home, while the latter was a collection of medieval ruins that offered a different but equally interesting experience.

After the hikes and castles, more awaited at the village, where I ate the most mind-blowing pastry in Portugal. Yes, pastéis de nata are fantastic, but nothing compares to the experience of eating a travesseiro, a pastry called pillow and so deserving of its name. It’s like biting into a pillow of delicious sugary cream. Traditionally from Sintra, this piece of heaven will both give you a sugar high and reinstitute your hope in humanity. Sintra served as the ideal escape from the city and an excuse for gourmandise.

Du coup, en gros (So, in essence), I just want to live everywhere (and eat their food, of course).

France’s “Other” Sport

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The French are passionate soccer fans (but most of my friends aren’t; so much for stereotypes). One night on my way home from a friend’s apartment, I heard random bursts of synchronized cries every two corners I passed. Seeing a dozen people standing outside a crowded bar, their eyes glued to the televisions inside, I learned that the cheers in the usually quiet and discreet city of Paris were due to the Paris Saint-Germain match against Chelsea.

The next morning, newspapers exposed the faces of David Luiz and Thiago Silva, Brazilians (of course) who play for PSG, declaring their status as last night’s heroes for scoring the finals goals that saved Paris from losing to Chelsea.

Yet, as far as I’ve witnessed, there’s another “sport” that gets French people just as excited: protesting. I jokingly call it a sport for the frequency and passion with which it is practiced here. I kid you not that I have witnessed a little over ten protests or strikes during my stay in France so far.

This will not be a cultural analysis of the different forms of French protests and the role they play as an essential cornerstone of what makes France, France. As you probably know, the French have been through not only one but several major revolutions and that, unlike Americans, they keep great distance from the idea of preserving and following a constitution written centuries ago. Instead, I’ll narrate a couple of the moments when I’ve either witnessed or heard of protests.

Why not begin with yesterday. I was in class learning about the history of the Parisian metro when my French professor remarked: “… and as you’ve seen we have strikes that… wait, have we not had a public transit strike this year yet? Wow! You’re lucky for not having to deal with that.” Her train of thought was akin to, “Have you not seen the leaves falling from trees this autumn? I can’t believe it hasn’t happened this season!” and her face expressed surprise as if she had been told it wouldn’t rain for the next two weeks in Paris.

Indeed I haven’t fallen victim to metro strikes, but my professor’s comment reminded me of my first introduction to this French peculiarity. Last summer, a French pen pal told me that trains hadn’t been running for a couple of weeks as a result of a workers’ strike. Living in New York City at the time, I could not imagine such a thing. No trains? How did people get around? I tried to imagine myself in the same situation, having to arrive at work in midtown Manhattan from Astoria every morning without taking a train. Not feasible. The funny part is remembering how my friend called these strikes “boring” because they happen too often.

One or two months after, I read in someone’s study abroad blog that she was having major difficulties with metro strikes in Paris. Her classes kept being canceled as a result of them, and she risked not receiving credits at her American university if she missed more than a certain amount of hours per semester. Now that’s reason enough to be concerned about a train strike. Her story made me consider the possibility seriously but, knock on wood, it has not crossed my path. But life has not been strike-free. I often get emails from TGV (high-speed train) letting me know that unfortunately there will be no food on board because the workers went on strike.

In Paris, I bumped into the most bizarre and amusing protest I’ve witnessed when heading home from a stroll by the Eiffel Tower (basic tourist routine). A few police cars and motorbikes drove by and along came a very long line of cars and even trucks that honked continuously while driving at a very low speed. It was a creative protest setup that attracted major attention.

I stood on the corner observing, not understanding, until I read a banner stuck to the front of a truck which read, “Je suis pris pour un con par Macron” (Macron has taken me for an idiot). I appreciated the rhyme but could still not understand the conflict.

Once at home, I googled Macron and discovered that he is the recently new appointed Minister of Economy, Industry and Digital Data, and that driving schools were protesting against his new law proposal, which is referred to as “la loi Macron.” One of its propositions aims to allow people to work (more, although most stores here are closed) on Sundays. Let’s just say that labor laws in France are quite different from those we find in America.

It may have been a bit hard to cross the streets with all the cars but I made it home alright. Yet there was another day when I could not arrive home because of a protest. My neighborhood seems to be a popular field for this sport’s practice because it has plenty of government buildings, and I happen to live right in front of one. On this day, when arriving at the block where I live, a police officer told me:

“You cannot go through this avenue past this point, ma’am. You must go around the block by making a left here.”

“But I live right on this block, monsieur. My building is that one,” I replied, pointing to where I live.

He asked for proof of residency but I had none on me.

“Then I can’t let you pass, I’m sorry. You must ask for someone to come fetch you.” 

I contacted my host mom but no one was home. The entire block was surrounded by highly geared police, and I assumed they were protecting the government building from protesters. I stood there trying to find a solution. I don’t even remember anymore what this protest was about, whether it was the one led by the union of medical workers, educators or air traffic controllers.

A man holding a recording camera on his shoulder tried persuading the same policeman to let him pass. 

“I’m not going to use the camera,” he claimed.

The policeman looked at him as if asking, “Do you really think I’m dumb?” and proceeded to kindly ask him to go around the block. Finally, I approached him again and explained my situation, showing him my keys. He called another policeman who asked me to point out exactly which one was my building.

“I’m going to ask for clearance,” he informed me.

He walked into the police van next to us. Thankfully, he “received permission” and let me get home. So much for living in front of a French government building.

It does impress me that the French find so much energy and will to keep protesting against society’s endless problems, and I wonder if it indeed works. To finish with something a Parisian friend once said to me, “It’s hard to find someone who hasn’t either protested or marched here. Me, I prefer walking around the city by myself; it’s much faster.”

Parisian Cafés, Starbucks and the Solution

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To all the people who said I would be too busy to keep a blog while abroad: you were right. Especially since Paris has served as a major source of inspiration for my fiction writing, I spend little time writing anything else.

But today I am writing at a café, and cafés are what I want to speak about. They are part of the core of Paris: you can find them in every major corner in every neighborhood. Some are world-famous like Les Deux Magots and Café de Flore, others have quite uncreative names, going by the name of its street, square or area.

What I did not expect to find out in Paris is that most cafés work like restaurants and even bars. In Brazil and the US, cafés are places where you go primarily for coffee and where you may have pastries or a light meal. But Parisian cafés are more than a coffee destination: they serve three-course lunches and dinners, and turn into bars at night. Yet, this wasn’t what surprised me the most about Parisian cafés. It was the size of their coffee. 

First, I think the taste of their coffee is great: strong and pure. But man, is it small. I mean, the coffee is small. It comes in a tiny coffee cup, unless it has some milk in it, like a cappuccino, in which case it comes in a less tiny version of the coffee cup. The first time I had Parisian coffee, I was transported back to childhood in Brazil where I’d have coffee with my family on weekend afternoons in the same fashion: small, strong and pure, but on a sweaty summer’s day (even winter feels like summer in Goiânia).

Although I enjoy it, going to a Parisian café for coffee isn’t optimal. For instance, there was a miraculous Tuesday morning in mid-March when the sun appeared with its full sunshine. I left my coat at home, and it was the first time I spent the afternoon at a park, reading and talking to a friend.

Believing that the weather would continue like that, two days later I decided to wake up earlier and walk to Esplanades des Invalides to write some fiction since it was halfway between my apartment and the Musée d’Orsay, where I’d have my morning class. But as soon as I left home, the sunny scenery of my imagination was replaced by the cold fog that had crept over Paris overnight. By the time I arrived at the Esplanade I knew I couldn’t sit down outdoors for long, so I decided to find a café.

The closest Starbucks was a detour from my way to the museum, so I continued to walk until I found a classic French café that I randomly judged would serve good coffee. The outdoors seats were all empty. When I entered, the waiter motioned towards the main seating area to the right and I took a seat where I could both look out the window and watch the morning news on TV. The inside was decorated in regal red, elegant furniture. Classic tall windows opened the view to Boulevard Saint-Germain. It was a seventh-arrondissement type of place. The only other customer, a middle-aged man, was sitting in a corner having breakfast and reading newspapers. The news anchor announced that the mayor would offer free subway rides the next day as an attempt to remedy excessive pollution levels.

I ordered a coffee and took my notebook and pen out of my bag. When it arrived, I poured a pack of sugar, mixed it with a miniature spoon, careful not to spill a sip’s worth of coffee. For what seemed like too short a time I went on sipping my coffee and writing. I would briefly glance at the news anchor, who was now leading a debate about the rise of the extreme right in France, observe the man in the corner ordering his third cup, cars outside waiting for the traffic lights behind him. When returning to my coffee, I realized it was nearly over, and no more than ten minutes had passed. I broke my sip into a half sip, until there was nothing left to drink.

You must be thinking, why doesn’t she just buy another coffee? Because as a college student living in the 7th arrondissement in Paris, either I buy many coffees at fancy cafés or I visit other countries. I’m the first to complain that Starbucks is more expensive here than it is in America. But in fact, this tiny coffee cost me €2.50 and even if I bought two it wouldn’t amount to the tall size at Starbucks, which costs way less if it’s an Americano, and the same price if it’s a signature drink (like the almighty Caramel Macchiato). 

The point, however, isn’t the price but rather the act of going to a Parisian café and drinking coffee. Couldn’t this experience last a little longer with a larger coffee? What is the problem with offering larger coffee cups? I know not everyone wants to drink as much coffee as I do, and for them there will always be the tiny doses, but what about those who do? The larger the coffee the longer the experience, the more I can write and the more I can observe random strangers passing by. I thought Parisian cafés were all about that.

This is why I end up settling for Starbucks when I’m looking for nothing more than coffee. I get my jar’s worth, sit down for a long time, write or read, and enjoy the free wifi, which is a plus. If I do go to a café (rarely, to be honest), I go to eat.

With all this said, I haven’t lost all hope in Parisian cafés. There is indeed one place I’ve found that perfectly replaces the Starbucks need in my life. There may be others just like it, I just haven’t found them.

It’s called Kozy Café, located a couple of blocks from the Eiffel Tower, and it’s an alternative, hipster place that serves both as a laid-back, affordable place to have lunch and as a nice work space with plenty of outlets and free wifi. But to me the most important part is that the coffee is large! Hallelujah. Meaning, their small is the size of a tall at Starbucks.

The coffee is delicious, no doubt, and varied: from Americanos to vanilla lattes and mochas. The service is a mix of French and American: you go to the desk to order and pay, but they bring your drink and/or food to your table. You can also sit outside if you’d like, and a random plus is their gluten free brownies!

So, if I’m not at a Starbucks (some of which have Nutella-filled cookies, can you believe it?) for a lack of Kozy around (as there’s only one in the city), I’m at Kozy.  And I reserve Parisian cafés for meals, although I’m still hoping to maybe find an affordable one where I can pretend to be an upcoming literary writer giving form to a bestseller (literary and bestseller are quite an oxymoron nowadays, but anyways).

I hope to write again soon, or perhaps share some fiction. À bientôt. 

The French, Those Very Nice People

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When you arrive in a new country where you know no one, you can’t rely on a close friend or a nice relative who’s willing to pick you up from the airport and take you out to eat your comfort food to de-stress from the long journey. What awaits you, instead, is a series of unknown streets, foreign faces, confusing transportation systems, and signs written in a language you may not understand.

But sometimes luck is on your side and the unlikely happens. This was surely my situation when arriving in Paris. Even though two French friends unexpectedly offered to pick me up at the airport and help me with my luggage, I decided to take the train by myself to where I’d be staying. Because two American friends had already done the exact same route, I felt confident I could do it without a problem.

In addition, I knew there would be someone waiting for me once I arrived at my new (and temporary) place. It’s a long story to explain how this happened. This is the “friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend” type of story. Essentially, because I was arriving earlier than anyone else, my French friend who I met at USC got a friend of his to let me stay at her place in Paris for ten days until the USC program actually began. She said yes, to my utter surprise and gratitude, but told us she wouldn’t be there to meet me.

As a result, she left the keys with another friend who was going to pass them along to me once I arrived. But then this friend, who had the keys, realized she couldn’t meet with me the day I arrived and so gave the keys to another friend, who in turn was the one who welcomed me when I finally arrived. When she came to open the entrance door to the building, she brought another friend with her who randomly happened to have just come back from studying abroad in Brazil, and this is how I met a French person who also speaks Portuguese like a real Brazilian. You see how this world works?

On my first night in Paris, we all had dinner together along with other people who also became my first friends in Paris. Of course, the least accurate thing I could do is to present these people as the embodiment of all that is French. “This is what all French people are like, everyone!” Still, my experiences with them have shaped my thoughts about French people. For example, how they indeed eat long dinners late at night, and I don’t even know if this is something Americans think of the French, but these French people, they talk – for a long time and about the most diverse topics. I cannot explain why but the conversations are also different, topic, pace, tone, and joke-wise.

On top of that, I must also point out that I have been pleasantly surprised by how nice and welcoming they’ve all been. Even in the first few days when I couldn’t participate in the conversation as much and just silently stared at all of them, they welcomed me. At some point, somewhere, some people had told me to expect the French, especially Parisians, to be arrogant and distant… And I’m glad they’re wrong, as far as my personal experience is concerned.

Since the building where I stayed is a place for students only, it has communal kitchens on different floors and I liked how people would come together in the evenings to cook and eat as a group. Even on the days when I cooked alone, I ended up dining with random people who turned out to be cool (and always from Normandie, I don’t know why). A friend would always share her food with me during the first couple of days when I hadn’t yet succeeded going grocery shopping in a French market. Another would periodically take breaks between conversations, turn to me and explain what was going on if I spent too much time in silence.

Another would always use informal words and expressions that I would then repeat myself, and he would sometimes say, “don’t go around saying that!” So, thank you for teaching me how to say ta gueule and c’est dégueulasse. Another understood no English and always ate the same yogurt every night after dinner, and I would mock him for it. Then the next day I’d go to the supermarket and look for the exact same yogurt and eat it privately in my room. At night, I’d get picked on for eating bread with Nutella after dinner because “it’s a breakfast thing.”

We’d talk about politics and they’d ask me how American people could trust Fox News since they lied so much – incredible how even they pick up on such a thing. Then they’d mock the Southern French accent (so – many – times), tell study abroad stories, and drop “cool” English words every now and then in their sentences. One night, a Belgian girl who studies cooking casually announced there were a bunch of desserts left over in the kitchen downstairs, as she had spent the day baking as some sort of assignment, and gosh how delicious were they!

Another time, we had a “pizza dinner” that was preceded by quiche appetizers, followed by French desserts (mille-feuilles, macarons, you name it) and accompanied by red wine throughout. We finished said dinner at 1am and, because trains had already stopped running, rented an Autolib to return home. An Autolib is like a Zipcar except you can drop it off anywhere. It’s also an electric car and tiny for American standards. As I rode in it with four other people, I couldn’t help but try to imagine a USC football player trying to fit in one of them. One thing is for certain: I couldn’t feel more grateful for having met all these people, and especially for having met the French guy at USC, who made all of this possible.

Random luck also brought me a lot of nice, helpful strangers along my way. When I exited the train I had taken from the airport, a lady helped me with my luggage and taught me how to use the train ticket to be able to exit the station. She then showed me the direction I should head towards. Another lady, whom I asked for directions five minutes later just to be sure, apologized for not being able to help me with my luggage because she had a back problem. Yes, a stranger apologizing for not carrying another stranger’s weight.

Then, arriving in front of my new home, I asked a random guy if I could use his phone to let my friend know I’d arrived, and he gladly handed it to me. The next day I went to buy some water at a supermarket and was taken aback once the man at the cashier informed me it cost 32 cents. For a bottle of 1.5 liter! I was not prepared and only had a 5-euro bill. He then told me he wouldn’t count the coins for change and preferred to give me the water for free. I kid you not and yes I understood his French correctly.

A similar too-lucky-to-be-true situation happened the week after I had arrived. Inside the metro, the police were checking people’s metro passes and, even though I had paid for the ride, I hadn’t yet taken a photo and put it on my pass as you’re supposed to. After some persuading, the policeman agreed to let me go with a written warning on my pass, but assured me I’d be fined the next time. When I told this to a French person working at the ACCENT center (the American institute that coordinates the study abroad program), he told me he’d been fined plenty times and had never heard of someone getting away like this. Thank you, France, for having welcomed me so warmly.

Then, there are also French people I have met online and with whom I practiced my French regularly last semester. I do not recommend you to connect with people online if you can’t tell whether you’re speaking to a serial killer or not. This is also not a tutorial on how to find trustworthy people online. But essentially, I used two websites to find people interested in practicing languages, Shared Talk and My Foreign Language Exchange. I prefer Shared Talk and I’ve found it to be quite useful. It’s powered by Rosetta Stone but it’s free, and the focus is put on finding someone who can help you as much as you can help them. No are-they-good-looking type of worries since you can’t see their photos, whereas on the second website you can.

Soon after arriving, I met with every Parisian with whom I kept in touch, and once again I got lucky. They’re all nice, a couple of them are especially bright, others are characters to be around. One even introduced me to a whole bunch of other friends, and I mean a whole bunch. Each also comes from a very different background than the other, which only enriches my experience and makes it all more interesting. With one, I ate magret de canard (duck!), as well as a mind-blowing dessert called le pain perdu, and both tasted so amazing  they made me want to never leave this country. I have come to consider this friend a French gastronomy expert (surely an exaggeration) and concluded that I should accept to try anything he suggests or offers me to eat.

With another, I have had incredibly captivating discussions about topics that interest me so much while taking lovely walks around the city. Every time I see her, my brain thanks me for having met her, yes. I have learned, for example, that France has an incredibly elitist system of education, meaning that a big part of what makes a good education is simply the name of the institution you join instead of your actual intellectual level (and getting in doesn’t necessarily correlate to your intelligence; think of SAT scores). If you got that name on your resume, you’re set. I have also learned it’s illegal to consider race in France (for example, for college entrance or even statistical purposes), and that the principle of laïcité carries a lot of power, to say the least. On a more touristy note, we have gone on tours of Meilleur Ouvrier de France (essentially award-winning) chocolatiers, and here’s a tip: George Larnicol’s noisettes and passion fruit macaroons are to die for.

With others I have visited the Eiffel Tower, eaten a galette des rois (a celebratory type of cake that you eat in January; whoever gets the slice with a bean inside becomes the king, and I’ve unfortunately never become the queen), hung out at a McDonald’s (yes! But the fries disappointed me), pretended like I understood the jokes, stole bits of desserts from others, and so on and so forth. There’s something special about waiting for someone whose face you cannot even recognize, having someone try to trick you by presenting himself as the other friend and vice-versa, and hearing for the first time the voice of someone you’ve become fond of.

Also, it’s not easy to have to give a kiss on each cheek when I’d much rather give an American hug to express my excitement and gratitude. But it’s something I must get used to. All these friends have helped me so much; I feel immensely grateful for the time they’ve dedicated to keeping in touch with me and the patience they’ve had while my French improved.

But to be fair, I have to say that in the midst of all these great experiences filled with unexpected luck, I’ve also found disappointment. The type that can drain the happiness from other moments because it derives from something I spent so much time wishing for. Life decides to remain ironic by bringing me disappointment from exactly where I had bet (and wished) would come my luckiest surprises. Maybe because I thought I had got it right, it had to prove me wrong. Paris is the city of lights; but, man, does it get cloudy and gloomy sometimes.

À la prochaine.

On Choosing France and First French Friends

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In two months, I will be arriving in Paris for the semester. First time in France, first time in Europe. Although I am not there yet, I feel that my study abroad experience has already begun. Each day that goes by, I speak more French, learn more about Paris and France, spend more time with French people, and allow my imagination to transport me to my new life.

Why am I going to France? Well, why wouldn’t I? I love to travel and experience different cultures firsthand. Having lived in Brazil, and then moved from New York to Los Angeles, I’m itching to have a big move again. Surely it will be for a much shorter period of time, but it will still be exhilarating and refreshing.

But why France instead of another country? Two reasons. One, I am in love with the language. It is eargasmic. How I love hearing the French speak and wish to speak it fluently myself! And two, France has one of the richest cultures in the world, from the language to the literature, philosophy, gastronomy, natural beauty and the (hopefully nice) people. Apart from this, there is no grand reason why France is my choice.

Unsurprisingly, my two greatest connections with France so far have been through music and food.

Over the summer I made a French friend online who mentioned Stromae as one of his favorite singers. The name Stromae sounded so odd and foreign to me that I associated it with a genre I dislike and assumed he was a heavy metal singer who I’d never listen to. But time went by and I realized the genre didn’t quite match with my friend’s personality, so I asked for the singer’s name again and looked him up.

Stromae, I learned, is a French-speaking Belgian singer and songwriter whose electronic songs carry some pretty heavy, mind-blowing lyrics. For instance, while you dance to the addictive beat of Alors on danse, Stromae expresses his disillusion with life as a result of divorce, debt, unemployment, and the cyclical nature of our problems.

From that day on, I fell in love with Stromae and, fast forward to October, I went to his concert in Los Angeles with my friends and boyfriend. Having spent months listening to his songs and gradually falling in love with (almost) all of them, learning all the lyrics, I could barely believe that small piece of my new French-infused life was indeed coming to life. The French friend wasn’t there and, obviously, neither was I in Paris, but there was Stromae – as present and as real as anything could ever be.

Apart from witnessing Stromae’s brilliance and energy, it was the first time I was consciously surrounded by many French people and French aficionados (maybe even some Belgian lovers, I wouldn’t know). The guy behind me in line who, although American and rough with his French skills, insisted on speaking French to me; the two French girls complaining about having to tip to use the restroom; the guy leaving the theater saying le mec… le mec… (the guy) to his friend with an authentic French accent.

The other place where I interacted with French people was at USC’s La Table Française, a new weekly French meet-up. Study abroad students from Sciences Po came and we made friends. I soon had my first French-speaking dinner with Christophe, the Parisian, although not a French dinner since we went to Bacaro for tapas and lamented over not being able to order wine as we’re both under 21.

He told me that restaurants in Paris are much quieter because people prefer preserving their privacy by speaking in low voice. It is interesting that the converse reasoning also works – if everyone speaks loud enough, no particular conversation is distinguishable and people can feel protected. But I guess that’s not how Parisians think.

I expectedly made many French mistakes. When speaking of the clothing style in Los Angeles vs. Paris, for example, and how Parisians do tend to stick to darker tones, I showed him my orange sweater to prove I probably wouldn’t fit in, and he laughed at me saying ce n’est pas poule, c’est pull, and a series of repetitions ensued until I was finally able to say pull correctly. Because I pronounced pull like poule, I accidentally said that I wouldn’t fit in because I had an orange chicken, instead of an orange sweater.

Perhaps what has caught my attention the most since our first dinner is how Christophe reminds me a lot more of my Brazilian friends than my American ones. We tend to agree when complaining about the many cultural differences we find in the US, since Brazilian and French cultures share some similarities. We had fun complaining about the mandatory tipping in America, and the more superficial relationships Americans tend to form compared to the deeper relationships Brazilians and the French seem to prefer, even if it may be harder to form them (this is, of course, a sweeping stereotype). 

About a week later, I went to a gathering at his place where we ate a more French dinner with cheese, savory and sweet crepes, and ended the meal by eating yogurt. There, I spoke to another Sciences Po student, Julie, with whom I learned so many random things, such as verlan, that is, the act of inverting syllables in order to pronounce the words backwards in such a way that fou (crazy) becomes ouf, for example. So, hey, I learned that Stromae comes from maestro – and suddenly his name doesn’t seem so odd! This led her to tell me about Le Gorafi (inverse of Figaro, except done wrong), which is the French version of The Onion. 

Julie also told me the double meaning of Moules Frites by Stromae, as I couldn’t stop singing it. It kind of ruined the song for me, but not enough to make me stop singing it regularly. To reciprocate the exchange of surprising but useful information, I told her to beware that, no, the word preservative in English does not mean préservatif (condom).

At another dinner, Christophe decided to open one of the French wine bottles he brought from France, and so he took a Swiss army knife out of his pocket, twisted the corkscrew and – broke the cork in the middle. At least he learned how to say cork in English. We then watched Les Tutos, a channel by a French youtuber, and Christophe was surprised to find out I had already watched it before.

I recently resorted to watching Les tutos even if I couldn’t truly understand the youtuber’s humor all the time because, I admit, I have finished watching all of Cyprien’s and Norman’s videos, my two favorite French vloggers.

It is because of these and so many more experiences that I feel like my French journey has already begun. And I feel ever so grateful for everyone who’s already appeared in my life as I embark on this journey. But before I get there, there is French bureaucracy to deal with while I join the academic program and apply for a visa – wish me luck. 

À bientôt.

Supreme Court Should Overturn Prop 8

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This article was published by Neon Tommy in March 2013.

California’s heated Proposition 8 debate and and the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) has returned to the Supreme Court’s attention, prompting gay-marriage supporters to paradein Washington D.C. and change their Facebook pictures to an equal sign. People should continue to manifest against gay-marriage intolerance, and the Supreme Court should recognize gays’ rights to participate in the institution of marriage.Se 

On Tuesday, justices heard Charles J. Cooper, a lawyer for Proposition 8 supporters, and Theodore B. Olson, a lawyer on behalf of gay marriage supporters.

Mr. Cooper rapidly became trapped in his argument that marriage’s fundamental principle is procreation, and thus gay couples should not be able to marry. He argued that “redefining marriage as a genderless institution will … refocus the purpose of marriage … from the raising of children and to the emotional needs and desires of adults.”

However, Justice Kagan challenged Cooper’s argument by pointing out the existence of infertile couples and elderly couples who can no longer procreate. Justice Ginsburg also mentioned imprisoned people’s right to marry, even though they cannot procreate under such circumstances.

Declining heterosexual couples’ marital rights on the basis of procreation is considered unconstitutional. In the same way, gay couples should not be barred from marriage because they cannot procreate. Marriage goes beyond procreation: it is based on love, care and the creation of a family, which includes the possibility of adoption. But it also provides legal rights and responsibilities essential to gaining a “marriage status” in society.

In fact, David Boies and Theodore B. Olson, lawyers in defense of gay marriage, wrote in a brief to the Supreme Court that “plaintiffs agree with proponents that marriage is a unique, venerable and essential institution. They simply want to be a part of it – to experience all the benefits the court has described and the societal acceptance and approval that accompanies the status of being ‘married.’”

CBS News poll released Tuesday shows that 53 percent of Americans support gay marriage. It will be the Supreme Court’s job to base its decision on constitutionality, but public opinion will likely also have an impact on the case. This Wednesday, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, once considered to hold a decisive vote, showed stronger resistance towards the Defense of Marriage Act and suggested support for gay marriage.

The Supreme Court has to acknowledge Proposition 8’s, as well as DOMA’s, unconstitutional discrimination against a class of people based on their sexual orientation, and allow California to once again embrace open-mindedness and tolerance.

Keeping Score: Water Shortage And Train Troubles

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This column article was published by Neon Tommy in April 2014.

While state governments in Brazil sweat to finalize stadium constructions and other important World Cup-related infrastructure projects, many Brazilians continue to suffer from the long-term precarious living conditions that pose major obstacles to the World Cup’s success and, as a result, have recently become prioritized by both the media and authorities.

For more than a month, the city of São Paulo has struggled with limited water supplies. Residents of the North Zone have complained of water shortage for weeks, and have received no credible justification from Sabesp, the state’s water company. The water is usually interrupted from late evening until early morning, and others have also complained of shortages during the afternoon.

Similar cases have happened in the outskirts of São Paulo, and residents affirm they never received any notifications from Sabesp. Because of droughts, the main reservoir for the metropolitan areas has failed to sufficiently serve the city and, as a result, Sabesp has had to change to other water sources. They nevertheless continue to deny that water is being rationed.

Since the state cannot properly provide water for its residents, the inevitable question is how they will handle the extra flow of tourists this summer during the World Cup. If São Paulo continues to struggle with water supplies, it won’t be surprising if authorities decide to more severely cut water services for the less privileged areas and channel it instead to areas with a large concentration of tourist accommodations.

Another urgent problem is the city’s transportation system. It’s not only a matter of constant delays, dirty platforms or the odds of being robbed. It’s a matter of unsafe overcrowding to the point of compartment doors staying open while the train is in motion. Train riders fight not only to get a seat but also to even enter, and the sporadic flow of trains discourages them from ever waiting for the next one. In such an environment, it’s no wonder passengers often complain of crime and that women report cases of sexual abuse in trains.

In São Paulo, many of the World Cup games will take place at Estádio Itaquerão, which is at least an hour away by public transit from downtown. Tourists will most likely have to resort to taking cabs (and be stuck in traffic paying unreasonably high prices), or fight for space in trains that run with eight to nine people per square meter.

São Paulo’s city hall may turn the busiest World Cup days into holidays, probably the only solution that authorities could come up with, no doubt losing sleep over how to prevent tourists from joining Brazilians in protests once they experience similar struggles.

A government that spends millions of dollars in building stadiums should be expected to afford to invest in better transportation, but that is not the case. Instead, it is a government that believes the best solution to this mess is to halt work and vital family income for a few days until the extravagance is over. Meanwhile, trains will continue to run with their doors open and water will remain scarce for the poor.

Keeping Score: Rioting For More Than Football

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This column article was published by Neon Tommy in February 2014.

Riots exploded all over Brazil last summer because of unfair public transportation fares, but have now developed into manifestations for better education, healthcare, transportation and safety, and – to many fans’ surprise – against the World Cup.

The first riot occurred in early June of last year inSão Paulo, when a group of people protested against the increase of bus fares and entered into  conflict with the police, encouraging people in other cities to take action as well. In a matter of days, the riots encompassed a myriad of current Brazilian issues, from poor public education to massive governmental corruption, even leading protesters to invade Congress.

This year, although less frequent, protests such as these are still taking place and many participants promise they will stop the World Cup from happening – and if not, they will protest during it.

Foreigners planning on attending the World Cup may be wondering, among other things, why Brazilians are suddenly turning against their favorite sport’s event, and how safe and reliable Brazil will be as a host.

The World Cup has been the last straw for Brazilians, who have decided to finally express indignation en masse at the government’s corruption. Brazil is in no shape to host the World Cup when people are dying at hospitals with scarce resources, when public schools barely qualify as educational institutions and when safety is so poor that people fear exiting a bank in the afternoon.

Now, Brazilians hear the fantastic news that the government will be spending billions of dollars on stadium and airport construction for the Cup, even though President Rousseff had previously claimed that the government would not be the one financing these investments.

So it’s not that Brazilians no longer want to celebrate soccer, but that they’ve woken up to the fact that the government will not improve its practices and concern for the people unless the population stands up and proves that they are no longer standing by and accepting bread-and-circuses distractions.

Granted, many Brazilians are satisfied with the upcoming World Cup and do not find much need to protest current living conditions. Despite recent middle class growth, the gap between the rich and the poor in Brazil is still as wide as the Grand Canyon, and the rich will likely be the ones attending most of the games this summer.

But safety is the issue that bonds the rich and the poor. No one is safe: the poor live among many of the criminals, and the rich have difficulties escaping robbery, even with their bulletproof cars and high-security homes. Safety is also a key concern for foreigners who plan on visiting Brazil this summer.

Violence has recently increased because of the protests and widespread indignation. Protesters are vulnerable to extreme violence from the police, and journalists aren’t safe from aggression either. Brazil is the 10th most dangerous country for journalists, falling behind only Mexico and Colombia in the Americas.

Many protesters try to engage peacefully with the police but often face violence anyway. And Brazilians cannot but reflect on the irony of the situation: the police are widely known as never being on time to arrest a robber or kidnapper, but once government authorities demand their service, policemen become as abundant as sunshine in Brazil. The population has become so intolerant of police inefficiency and rampant crime that a handful of citizens began to publicly punish muggers and take the law into their own hands.

Most certainly, the police will be on guard to protect incoming tourists, but visiters should nevertheless be aware of the general risks in Brazil, such as thieves, dangerous areas like favelas and dishonest workers who will rip tourists off at every attraction site, taxi ride and restaurant. Americans, especially those who are used to living in a suburb where they park cars on the street and sleep feeling certain that the cars will still be there upon waking up, may be shocked at Brazil’s reality.

In Brazil, many prefer to live in apartments for safety’s sake. If they live in a house, it is either within a condo or four walls equipped with security systems. People don’t tend to walk around using their iPhones to avoid being robbed, and neither do they wear jewelry while out on the streets. If a robber approaches, they know the best option is to consent and not to fight back so as to avoid being killed. Drivers avoid waiting at stoplights at night for fear they will be robbed.

Attending the World Cup is a personal decision regardless of Brazilians’ attempts to boycott the event. The country is in turmoil but it does not cease to be beautiful, full of people with great hospitality and delicious food. Brazilians are dissatisfied with the government, not with foreigners.

Foreigners who will visit Brazil in the summer must make sure to be in the safest areas with the safest modes of transportation. Although staying at a good hotel in a nice neighborhood will be more costly, it is definitely worth it to not risk one’s life by finding housing in favelas. Cabs are safer than buses late at night and walking down a street at night alone should not be considered a viable option.

But if tourists find themselves somewhere Brazilians are protesting, while they should be mindful to protect themselves from violent interactions, they should also be sure to pay attention to the great lengths to which Brazilians are going to change their country, because foreign witness is what they rely upon to reveal Brazil’s other side to the world.

Keeping Score: Expect Trouble At Brazil’s World Cup

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This column article was published by Neon Tommy in February 2014.

The country of soccer will be hosting the World Cup for the second time this summer. In 1950, the final match was in Maracanã stadium, where Brazil played against Uruguay and lost the championship on their own turf. This summer, Maracanã will again hold the final match, where Brazilians hope to watch Brazil play—and win—its sixth championship.

The World Cup will run from June 12 through July 13 in 12 different cities in all regions of Brazil. A total of 32 countries will participate, Brazil being the team with the most titles (five), followed by Italy (four) and Germany (three). Brazil remains a top competitive team for this year’s title; it has won the past three Confederations Cups, beating Spain 3-0 last year. However, Brazil hasn’t won a World Cup since 2006.

FIFA rotates among continents every World Cup year to ensure that everyone gets a fair chance. 2014 is Latin America’s year, and Brazil was identified as the ideal host for its continuous contributions to soccer and the worldwide popularity of its players and team. From a standpoint of based on passion and emotion, Brazil seems to be the perfect match for a World Cup event: soccer enthusiasts, popular team, beautiful country, relaxed atmosphere. But just like closely looking at a photo and suddenly seeing its flaws, the more one learns about Brazil, the more cons one finds to compromise the pros.

There are, indeed, great possible outcomes of the World Cup in Brazil. Most benefits are economic in nature. The country must invest in certain industries, such as hotels, transportation and restaurants, generating more jobs and giving unemployed people the opportunity to earn income. While the World Cup is a temporary event, the changes are not, and citizens will be able to take advantage of the better economy. There will also be large profits from the high numbers of tourists within Brazil, which will benefit airlines, local businesses, hotels and many other sectors.

On top of the economic advantages, hosting the World Cup also places Brazil under the spotlight and, for better or for worse, it’ll receive more international media attention than usual. This advantage works both for those who support and who oppose the World Cup. Even if one does not support the event for socioeconomic reasons, at least the media will be more attentive and likely to engage in a discussion about the social issues present in Brazil. This has already started; you can find more articles than usual on Brazilian affairs, especially about construction tardiness, favela invasions and exceptional high expenditure on stadiums and other sports-related infrastructure.

However, Brazilian authorities seem determined to destroy the few pros of hosting the event, thus expanding the list of cons. Brazil would benefit from an economic boost after a wave of government investment in infrastructure and successful tourism, but officials have so far focused only on stadium construction and canceled several airport, train and bus improvements, which are far more useful and beneficial to Brazilians than high-tech stadiums.

In addition, the government is estimated to spend $13.3 billion in total for World Cup preparations, far more than Germany and South Africa have spent in the previous years. This, among other reasons, has sparked protests in many Brazilian cities, because the population feels betrayed by the government, who commonly claims not to have sufficient money to properly invest in education, healthcare, safety or transportation.

Another major con is, although the government is trying its best, Brazil simply does not have the necessary infrastructure to welcome thousands of foreigners, offer proper accommodations and means of transportation, and guarantee their safety. Rio de Janeiro, for instance, expects around 300,000 visitors, but it only has 55,400 hotel beds. One can imagine the situation in the other, less metropolitan and less popular cities.

Brazil bets that tourism will produce large profits that will ignite the economy. However, it is challenging to assert an estimated amount of tourists for this World Cup for several reasons. For starters, prices in Brazil have been skyrocketing and, although anyone spending dollars is at an advantage (one dollar is equivalent to 2.3 reais), the inflation of hotel and airfare prices will certainly prevent many tourists from attending the World Cup.

Also, tourists are faced with a serious concern for safety: one need only read Brazilian news to realize the lack of control the police and authorities have over dangerous favelas, robbers, kidnapper and so on. Finally, there is the population’s resistance against hosting tourists in Brazil, as a way to protest against governmental corruption. Many Brazilians want to sabotage the World Cup and are disseminating videos and articles online about why no one should attend the event.

Brazil has in its hands two grand opportunities—the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympics in 2016—to make a lasting positive impression on the world, improve its infrastructure, boost tourism and create thousands of jobs for its people. But so far, the government and World Cup event planners have only disappointed Brazilians and will most likely soon disappoint the rest of the world as well.

Keeping Score: Social Cleansing For The Cup

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This column article was published on the Neon Tommy website in March 2014.

As the World Cup approaches, the Brazilian government tries to solve its favela, or slum, problem by sweeping it under the rug.

It aims to reduce the numbers of favelas by evicting residents from their homes and, when they do not obey, by cutting municipal services like lighting and trash collection for the neighborhood.

In Rio de Janeiro, 1.4 million people live in favelas. According to government officials, residents of favelas must move out for “safety” reasons, when in fact the public knows that the evictions are a part of preparations for the World Cup and the 2016 Olympics.

Because favelas are very visible in Rio de Janeiro and because some of them are in prime locations, the city plans on gentrifying some and depopulating others.

The government is correct in recognizing the lack of safety in favelas and attempting to reduce crime, address the risks of landslides and unsustainable infrastructure and combat the spread of diseases like tuberculosis. However, the government’s disregard for the difficulties favela residents have endured up to now only proves that authorities are solely interested in clearing areas for the construction of roads, stadiums and Olympic villas.

Favelas would not exist in the first place if the socioeconomic gaps were not so wide, and if lower and middle class Brazilians did not suffer so greatly from unemployment, skyrocketing real estate prices, lack of effective public transportation and many other problems.

According to a study conducted by the Popular Data Institute, 65 percent of favela residents have been searched by the police; more than one third of them do not have any books at home; and residents have, on average, only six years of education. Residents also complained about unreliable and poor public services, scarce access to culture, and lack of proper water, lighting and sewage infrastructure in their neighborhoods.

Brazil does not have the money needed to solve all of these problems, but it can afford to start solving a few of them. Instead of evicting favela residents and forcing them to move to Rio’s peripheries, the city should be investing in better infrastructure to accommodate these people’s needs.

Providing basic sanitation, implementing better housing projects and, most importantly, investing in education for all of Brazil’s children, including those who live in favelas, can be done with the same money and dedication given to the World Cup and Olympics preparations.

If Brazilian authorities were actually interested in the well being of their people, they would spend the money that is being wasted on hastily constructed stadiums on education and decent living conditions for Brazilians instead.

With the pressure from recent protests and foreign attention, authorities have started to be more proactive about the problems, but the question remains of whether or not these “changes” are fleeting impressions for the World Cup and the Olympics.