China, here I come

Getting to China is a very long and exhausting process. We arrived at the airport at 5:15am since our flight was at 7:15 and they recommend arriving two hours before international flights. I say we because I am participating in an A&S International diversity program and there are nine students and one U of L professor. The trip is called the summer study abroad in China program. This is the 10th year for this program and we are the largest group thus far. Every student on this trip has studied Chinese for at least two semesters with the exception of one girl who has actually never studied Chinese before. Back to the trip; we flew from Louisville to Chicago and then to Shanghai. The flight from Chicago to Shanghai was around 14 hours nonstop. Thankfully we were flying Delta Airlines, because they have individual entertainment centers for each passenger on certain planes, I’m thinking mostly on the planes reserved for long flights. If you’re not sure what this is, I will explain it to you. So, there are individual T.V. screens mounted in the back of the head rests and each passenger can control their own screen. Through this touch screen you can pick movies, T.V. shows, listen to music, play games, and I’m sure something else that I’m forgetting. I would definitely recommend flying Delta Airlines for long trips. It is so nice to have something to occupy your time on a 14 hour flight, but be sure to get up to stretch and get your blood circulating through your legs often. Upon arriving in Shanghai we had to clear customs, which was rather simple and easy. We only had to wait in line for maybe 5 to 10 minutes before seeing a customs agent. Once we made it to the agent, he just checked our visa and then took a picture of us, and that was pretty much it.
We came to China to study at Beijing Foreign Studies University, but we flew into Shanghai to visit for around five days before going to Beijing. One day we took a trip to nearby SuZhou to visit the silk market and see its canals. The silk market was interesting and educational in a non-boring way. We got to go through the factory and watch the workers in action. We saw every stage of production, from the silk worms themselves all the way to them spreading the silk to make a comforter. At the end of the tour there are a couple of shops where you can buy anything silk at wholesale prices. We also went to the Yuyuan Garden which is an old part of Shanghai where all of the buildings look like what you see in movies that are set in traditional old times. There are many shops and places to eat in this area. We also went the harbor and took a one hour boat cruise. On one side of the harbor is all the modern buildings some of which you might have seen on a postcard or some other picture that represents Shanghai, and on the other side is all the buildings that were built in the early part of 20th century between the last emperor and the current Chinese government. All of these buildings are interesting because they were built by various European countries and you can see the difference in style from one building to the next, e.g. one building built with German architecture and the next with French architecture. After five days of exploring Shanghai we took an 11 hour overnight train ride to Beijing to begin our studies. Each room on the train had two sets of bunk beds. While the beds were not the most comfortable, they are better than the alternative of sleeping in a chair. That’s all of this post, more to follow soon.

Bordeaux Ecole de Management a.k.a. BEM

There are two types of colleges in France; there are grand écoles and universités. The universités are public and very affordable. I’ve heard that it costs a 1000 Euros ($1300 to $1400 depending on exchange rates) or less to attend a université for a whole year. The grand école students look down upon the université students because they feel that their more expensive school is better. I think there is some merit to this because the grand écoles are ranked higher than the universités. As one would expect, a better school comes with a bigger price tag. I’m not sure if the pricing is similar for all grand écoles, but Bordeaux École de Management, a.k.a. BEM, is a private school and the students pay 8000 Euros ($10400 to $11200) per year.
The structure of schooling at BeM is quite different from anything in the U.S. and I hear it’s even different from other schools in France. This structure might be changing due to the merger of BEM with another private school. The current structure goes as follows. The school year is divided into ten sequences, four from September to December and six from January to June. Each sequence lasts three weeks and you can only take one class per sequence. For an exchange student this setup is ideal, but I don’t think I would like it for U of L. In the three week sequence you have 45 hours of class time, but it is not split evenly between the weeks or days. It is purely up to your professors to decide how the class will be divided. I say professors because you typically have more than one for each class; it tends to be split between three professors. You could have 27 hours one week, 12 hours the next week, and only 6 hours the last week; with the final exam usually on the Friday of the third week. Now there are positives and negatives to this set up. On the negative side you can have 6 hours of class a day for four out of five days on those heavy weeks. On the positive side, when they load up the hours in one week you usually get several days off on the next week. There have been times where I would have off from Wednesday of the second week to Tuesday of the third week. Another great thing about having the sequence set up is that with only 10 possible sequences there tends to be many one week breaks throughout the school year, especially during the spring. I was there for four sequences from January to April and in that four month period I had four one week breaks.
If you decide to go to BEM, I hope that they will have fixed the one issue that seemed to bother all exchange students, their wifi or lack thereof. They do have free wifi for all students to use, but the problem is that it doesn’t work very well. It seems that their wireless routers cannot handle heavy traffic, because it seems to work fine in areas where there are many students on computers. For the most part, I stopped carry my laptop to school because the wifi never seemed to work. One professor even said once “if you have wifi you should try to download the document I posted.” It’s funny that even the faculty knows the wifi is bad. I’ve also had professors try to pull up web pages during class and not be able to. The worst is when a professor assigns a group presentation early in the day before lunch and you have to work on it during the day to be presented later in the same day, and you have trouble researching the material needed to do the presentation.
All in all I really enjoyed BEM and the wifi is the only complaint that I have. I would definitely recommend going there for your study abroad experience.

Shopping in Bordeaux

If you come to Bordeaux, make sure you do all of your shopping early. I really had a hard time getting used to how early everything closes. All of the Grocery stores close no later than 10pm and most aren’t open on Sundays, except for a few which close by 1pm. The retail stores close by 8pm or earlier every night. Whatever you do, do not get hungry late at night. I have only found one place to be open past midnight that serves food and it is called Royale. It is located just to the east of Place de la Victoire on Cours de la Marne. It’s not like in the US where you have many 24 hour fast food restaurants and some 24 hour grocery stores as well. You can sometimes find an epicerie, which is same as a corner store, that’s open on Sundays and sometimes find one open late but they are few and far between.
Another thing that I had to get used to, was how specialized all of the stores are. Your neighborhood markets only stock, food, alcohol, toiletries, and kitchen and bathroom supplies. You can get bread in the market but if you want fresh, good, real French bread you have to go to the boulangerie. A boulangerie is literally a bakery, but they specialize in bread, bread, more bread, and a few pastries and sandwiches as well. You can also find pastries and chocolate at the market, but they will not be as good as the ones from the patisserie or the chocolaterie. For those of you who smoke, you can only buy cigarettes at specialty shops/cafes called Tabac stores and they are not open on Sunday, so plan ahead. Tabac stores have red diamond shaped signs and they also sell lottery tickets, stamps, newspapers, and metro tickets.
There are exceptions to many rules, and Auchan is the French exception. Auchan is similar to a Target or maybe even Walmart. They have almost everything except otc medicine, Tabaco, and maybe one or two other things I’m forgetting. There is an Auchan in downtown Bordeaux near the Meriadeck stop of Tram line A. Auchan and a few other markets don’t provide free disposable bags for your groceries. You have to bring your own bags to these markets, or buy the reusable grocery bags that the store sells.
If you have a cough or maybe an upset stomach you cannot go down to the market for cough syrup or Pepto. You have to go to the Pharmacie for anything related to medicine, and be prepared because it seems that they are ALWAYS busy!

Bordeaux First Impressions

Well, I’m actually in Beijing China now, but I had some posts I didn’t get to make about Bordeaux. It seems that I let the fun times and my French roommate distract me too much. I figure the important thing is the content and not the punctuality. I will also follow with some posts later about Beijing.

Bordeaux is an amazingly beautiful city. Most of the buildings in downtown Bordeaux were built in the 1600s, when Bordeaux was a thriving major European port. The buildings are gorgeous and you can almost feel the history as you walk through town. Most of the major streets are modern, but there are also many streets that are still composed of cobble stones. Every day I marvel at the beauty of the city, and every day it seems that I notice something new. France was still a monarchy when Bordeaux was built, so there are these arches, which used to be gates it seems, posted at various points around the city. On some buildings you can find the street names etched in to the building just below the modern signs of the same name. There is actually one Building that has two street names etched in to the building just beneath the new street name sign. The first street name was made under the monarchy, second street name was etched after the revolution, and the third was placed by the modern government.
Bordeaux is located on the Garonne river, and the area next to the river gets heavy traffic especially when the weather is nice. They call this area the quais which literally means docks. You will find people walking, running, and biking along the Garonne most of the day. There is one area called miroir d’eau, which means water mirror. It is a space about the size of a basketball court, where there is a constant thin layer of water that looks like a mirror. People like to take pictures here, because the water is shallow enough to stand on and it gives the appearance that you are standing on water. If the sun is out and the weather is warm, you will find people spread out around the grassy areas all along the Garonne. You will also find skateboarders and skaters doing tricks and stunts. At night the younger generation brings beer and they hang out in clusters with their friends.

The Journey to Bordeaux Part 2

So, I finally make it to Bordeaux eight and a half hours later than scheduled. I’m at the baggage carousel and I’m waiting and waiting. It eventually becomes apparent that my bag did not make the transfer to my new flight. Luckily for me, the girl I was sitting next to on this flight did not receive her luggage either. Since she spoke French and we made friends on the flight, she assisted me in dealing with the airport staff.

There I was in Bordeaux homeless and without luggage, except for my carry-on. I proceed to the exit and I find the Melting Potes waiting to taxi me and a couple of other international students to our destination. The Melting Potes is this wonderful student organization at BEM dedicated to helping international students. Their name is a play on words as potes means mates or friends. I will talk more about them later. The guys from the Melting Potes inform me that I will spend the night with one of their members, William, for the first night and that we will figure out the rest in the morning.

On the ride from the airport to downtown Bordeaux they turn on the radio and what do I hear, American music! I’m in France ready to experience all that she has to offer and the first song I hear is an American song! Then one of the guys proceeds to ask if we were hungry and suggests stopping at McDonald’s! Nooooo! I did not come to France to listen to American music and eat McDonald’s! American influence on France is something I will talk more about later too. For now let’s get back to our trip and the first French word that I learned. As we are discussing the fact that none of us international students know French, one of the Melting Potes guys tells us that we need to know one word because we will hear it often. Now I cannot or maybe should not share this word on this blog, but I will tell you that it would be considered a bad word in the US. In France however, this word is used so often that it has no bite to it. This again is something I will touch more on later.

After spending my first night in Bordeaux on William’s couch, we get up in the morning and head down to Bordeaux École de Management, BEM for short. This is the school at which I will be studying. We’re in one of the larger classrooms and the Melting Potes is busy making arrangements to pick up all of the international students that are scheduled to arrive throughout the day. As I’m waiting and meeting some of the incoming students, I ask one of the Melting Potes guys to call the airport and make arrangement for my luggage to be delivered to BEM since I don’t have an address. After a couple of hours, I’m told that there is a French student who lives downtown and wants to live with an American student. Jackpot!! I have not even seen the place and I already want it. Anything to not be homeless, and besides that it meets all my criteria. We later arrive to see the flat and I take a short trip through and say “Yes please.” I’m informed he has to discuss things with his other roommates and let us know later. I go back to William’s place to await my destiny; will I be homeless one more night? After a few hours I find out that my luggage will be delivered to BEM around 7pm and that the French student said I can move in tonight. The stars have aligned!! I am no longer homeless, and better yet I didn’t have to haul my luggage around for two days until I found a place to stay. It seems delayed luggage was actually a blessing in disguise. Things may not always happen the way you want, but everything tends to work out exactly like it’s supposed to. That’s all for this installment. My next posting will be on Bordeaux first impressions.

The Journey to Bordeaux Part 1

My trip to study in Bordeaux, France did not have such a great beginning, but in the end, some of the seemingly bad things actually worked to my benefit. For starters, I did not have housing accommodations when I left for Bordeaux. I was very adamant about living with French students in downtown Bordeaux. I hoped that living with French students would aid me in learning French, and I was informed that everything worth doing happens in downtown Bordeaux. Unfortunately, I did not get responses from any of the French student I contacted about housing. I was worried and considering taking dorm housing near BEM (Bordeaux École de Management), which is unfortunately thirty minutes by tram from downtown Bordeaux. The Melting Potes, the student organization that helps international students, assured me that I shouldn’t worry, because they would have a place for me to stay until I could find housing. So, I chose to put my faith in the Melting Potes and embark on my journey without housing arrangements.

Then there were issues with my flight arrangements. As a caution to the future adventurers from U of L who will embark on a trip abroad, be careful when booking with American Airlines as they have a partnership with a Spanish company, Iberia, with which another American exchange student and I both had issues. I had a flight from Louisville to Chicago to Madrid to Bordeaux. In Chicago, we boarded the Iberia flight on time and subsequently sat there for an hour without any explanation as to why. It wasn’t snowing at the time, so I am still unsure of the reason for our late departure. This normally wouldn’t be an issue but the connecting flight from Madrid to Bordeaux was scheduled to depart only one hour from our scheduled arrival in Madrid. The girl sitting next to me proceeded to ask an attendant about our delay, as she was concerned about her connecting flight to Germany being scheduled for around an hour after arrival in Madrid as well. The attendant assured her that it would be fine. He said the flight was scheduled for eight hours but with the wind current to our backs we would only need seven hours to get there. So, the only explanation for our late departure seems to be they thought they could make the eight hour flight in seven.

As I was talking to the girl next me, Katrine, she mentioned her grandfather owns a travel company. When she expressed her concern about making her connecting flight in Madrid, her grandfather assured her that she would be fine as long as she wasn’t travelling with Iberia. There goes explanation number two, apparently Iberia is known for being late. With our destiny in the hands of Iberia, Katrine and I proceeded to have good conversation for most of our eight hour flight.

When we land, with only twenty minutes until our connecting flights depart, we proceeded to run through the airport hoping that we might just make our flights. I always wanted to run through the airport like they do in the movies; to stop someone they just realized they are in love with from leaving. Unfortunately, it’s not near as exciting or interesting when you’re trying to catch a connecting flight in a foreign country. We soon realize that there is too much distance and too many obstacles preventing us from making our flights. After making our way through customs and security, we proceeded to the Iberia service desk where we receive great news! Okay, it wasn’t great news. We were told that the next flights to Frankfurt and Bordeaux are seven and eight hours away, respectively. On the bright side we did receive free meal vouchers. Now, I love my free food, but it just doesn’t seem all that free when you’re losing eight hours of your day. Luckily we had each other to keep ourselves company and we hung out in the airport having good conversation for the remainder of our time in the Madrid airport. I will end the first posting here, as not to make this too long of a read at one time, and to add some suspense. To be continued….