Ever since freshmen year in college at Georgia Tech, I have wanted to study abroad and learn by experiencing about other countries in the world. Specifically, I wanted to participate in the Georgia Tech Lorraine program, known for being 'The Gateway to Europe.'
Georgia Institute of Technology Lorraine
It is a Georgia Tech campus located in Metz, France. The campus features Georgia Tech faculty members (Professors and Staff) who understand the rigorous curriculum and the university's rules and procedures. All of the course work is graded the same, taken in the English language, and lectured as if it were in taken in the Georgia Tech Atlanta Campus. Many of the third and fourth year Electrical, Mechanical, Industrial Engineering course work is offered at this school. The best part about this program is that lectures are arranged into one hour and a half or two hour sessions Monday through Thursday only, leaving three day weekends available to travel. One could potentially take a train Thursday night and have three full days of fun!
Video Travel Blog Series
Voila! The following are video blogs I shot and edited together from my adventures traveling Europe as part of the Georgia Tech Lorraine program.
I took French Courses I and II at Georgia Tech which gave me a grip on reading and writing. However, I rigorously studied Pimsleur French Audio Courses and trained my ear as well as my pronunciation. I had an advantage over my peers since I could get by understanding and communicating with locals. It is far more exciting to have prior knowledge of the culture and the language of a country and put them into practice upon arrival.
I applied for studying abroad in Fall 2012. The Georgia Tech Lorraine staff guides students throughout the entire process of application. Making it very simple and painless. To obtain the VISA, students are advised to go to the French Consulate of Atlanta. This center in Atlanta already knows the procedures for Georgia Tech Students and they will stamp the OFII form which allows students to obtain a Housing Discount in France making costs match the costs of studying in the United States (for instate and out of state students). Students who are late in the process sometimes go to the Consulate at their home state. Some may experience problems were the authorities do not stamp the form, saying it is not necessary therefore missing out on the ~$800 discount.
Initially, I thought that I could obtain cheap tickets by arranging a group to travel together. After calling various Airline companies I learned that they do not provide this convenience anymore. Therefore I tried to get people interested in traveling together, but our plans did not work out. Because I would be traveling in the Fall, I saw it as a perfect opportunity to arrive early to Europe and depart a few weeks after school ended to enjoy traveling without the course load on my back. I bought my tickets for August 8, that is a week and a half before school started and returning December 25th, a week and a half after school ended. I got these tickets with the help of my future travel companion (which you will meet in my Travel Blog Videos and future posts :) ).
On the summer 2012 I interned at the Goddard Space Flight Center. In the afternoons, I would spend time planning this Epic-Once-in-a-Life-Time Adventure. One of the most important questions I had was, should I travel always by train? or by plane? should I buy a Eurail Pass? Or the individual tickets? Here is what I have learned. The Eurail pass is the most convenient way to travel despite the high cost, it can be payed off if each trip is planned correctly. For instance, local train tickets within France are not expensive, but overnight train tickets go over €100 euros. This is when the Eurorail pass comes in handy. I got one unlimited 3 month pass, and a 10 day pay, which was perfectly timed for my stay from August to December.
Flying everywhere is not convenient at all because some distances are short enough that it would take less time by train than having to get to the airport. Airports are located away from the center of the city, which means extra expense in taxi's or unique buses, overnight hotel stays (since hostels near airports are hard to find), and less carry on. Ryan Air is one of the cheapest and most low rated airlines there is. Carry-on restrictions are tight, which means that you will have to leave your packed food behind and that extra pair of underwear. I am planning on traveling to Italy by plane so stay tuned for my experience on Ryan Air!
What to Pack
Knowing that I would be homeless and backpacking before and after the school semester, I should have brought less things. But here is the essential I highly recommend you all to take.
What to wear! Clothes and winter wear
In Europe the weather in Fall gets cold very early. Sometime around October it will be cold in France, and even colder in the northern countries. Counting on the fact that one should only bring one luggage, the key to survive the winter is to wear layers. For instance, instead of carrying one big, furry, fluffy, and heavy winter coat, try carrying a light winter coat with a jacket underneath, gloves, a scarf, and a winter beanie. It gets so cold and that your face will go numb and feel like a thousand blades are cutting it. Therefore cover your ears with a nice beanie and a scarf. Also, bring only two or three pairs of jeans maximum and wear tights underneath and/or leg warmers, since you will most likely be walking 10-12 hours a day around cities in November and December. It will also start snowing in places like Germany earlier than in France, so I brought a pair of furry boats that allowed me to hike comfortably while keeping me warm. Only bring one of each type of clothing (1 beanie, 1 boots, 1 jacket, 1 pair's of thick socks etc) because as a tourist, one does not have time to pick and choose fashion. And especially you will regret having to carry a heavy load in your hikers backpack only to realize that you did not use half the stuff in it.
Georgia Tech Lorraine staff helps students open a BNP Paribas French Bank Account. This allows students to obtain the Housing reimbursement and deposit euros. For currency exchange, airports an locations near train stations are very expensive. Instead, investigating a specific location in a city can pay off a lot.
Flying Over the Atlantic Ocean (8th August)
My journey began on August 8th. I flew from Atlanta early in the morning and arrived to Miami at midday. There, my good friend Leonardo took me out of the airport to eat at a Colombian restaurant. Then at six in the afternoon EST time we departed to Paris-Charles de Gaulle Airport. As the hours passed by we looked outside the window and always saw it bright and sunny. Our internal clocks were very confused. We took turns sleeping on each other's laps, reading the manual for Leonardo's new DSLR camera, and reading a tourist guide book for Paris. We avoided eating meat or cheese in the airplane food to prevent our vacations from being ruined. After a long 9 hours, we arrived at 9 in the morning in Paris! Nous sommes arrivés à Paris! We had a whole day ahead of us. I was super excited. After this point, we now start counting time in 24 hour military clock.
Dragging our Luggage Safely to the Hostel (9th August)
Now we were on a mission to protect from pickpockets and blend in as French people! Course this was difficult given the lost look on our faces. Found our way to the Bus by asking the staff "Excusez-moi, Je suis désolé, Parlez-vous anglais?". This phrase is nice because it does not assume that they speak english, as we were warned that that would get them angry, and it shows that as tourists we are trying their language. Inside the bus ride I caught a glimpse of the Eiffel Tower, and my heart pounded in joy. The bus stopped at the Arc de Triomphe de l'Étoile which stands in the center of the Place Charles de Gaulle. In english this translates to Triumphal Arch which honors those who fought and died for France in the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. I could not wait to stand under it. By the street there was a line of taxis, to get one I had to go to the very first one, as they are in turns. When we arrived to the Hotel des Batignolles, the staff spoke English with an accent and held our stuff while we explored the city. Our stomachs were growling so we took a walk and found a sandwich restaurant. There I got a Falafel pita. Falafels are deep-fried balls made out of ground chickpeas and fava beans. We were thirsty and trying to figure out how to get free water, when I said L'eau Libre, they did not understand me. Luckily, a lady nearby taught us to say Une Carafe D'eau s'il vous plait, which means a jug of water. Then they gave us crystal jug of water and cups for free. Technically, they only give this out if you ask for it, so tourists tend to get trapped and spend money on water bottles. They are actually traditional Arab food, not french. We then walked to a train station, activated out 10 day Eurorail pass and reserved our tickets for our trip to Normandy, France in a few days.
While we strolled the city we observed this electric vehicle that was recharging while parked. Cars in Paris are very small, and apparently the government subsidizes energy efficient and pollutant free vehicles, making it more accessible and attractive to everyone. For dinner, we ate pasta at a restaurant, which tends to be the cheapest food around, and by cheap I mean € 7-10 euros.
Le Avenue des Champs-Élysées
We then took a walk through Le Avenue des Champs-Élysées. This street is filled with cafés, luxury specialty shops, and beautiful horse-chestnut trees. Water here will cost as much as €3 euros. This is were I learned to always carry your water bottle and refill them at restaurants. We decided to lie in the grass and contemplate life. It was some of the most carefree and relaxing moments of my life. The Champs-Élysées leads to the Arc de Triomphe which is at the center of one of the largest rounabouts in the world. As pedestrians, we walked through an underground tunnel to get to the Arc. The top of the arc is free for those with Student ID Cards. The monument has the names of all the French victories and generals inscribed on its inner and outer surfaces.
Le Catacombes de Paris et la Tour Eiffel (10th August)
The next day we were still very jet lagged. To prepare for the beautiful day, we bought fruits at a local super market, and pain au chocolate (Leonardo's favorite) et escargo au raisin (my favorite). Carrying snacks around saved us many times from paying expensive food in desperation to satisfy our hunger. We also bought wine for a perfect picnic at the Eiffel tower later in the day. We took the metro to the catacombs. Around midday, the line is humongous, wrapping around a garden park. The entrance to the catacombs was not an expensive price. Inside was dark and cold, we walked through tunnels filled with inscriptions. Then we encountered an entrance that gave us a warning. As we proceeded we saw entire walls filled with bones and skulls. They were in different arrangements that formed different patterns. L'Osuaire Municipal,or ossuary holds the remains of about six million people, more people dead than those alive in Paris today! Because the catacombs are right under the Paris streets, large foundations cannot be built and for this reason there are not many tall buildings in Paris. The catacombe contains bones from various Paris graveyards when they ran out of safe in the city. I think this is a great idea, as Paris looks very beautiful without graveyards on site.
La Tour Eiffel
The classical moment you realize you are not in the states anymore is when you walk around, under, and on top of the iconic Eiffel Tower. On our way there, there were many African people selling €1 euro key chains of the Tower. Upon arrival we took pictures at every angle of the Tower, we could not get enough of it. The tower is located in the Champ de Mars in Paris. It is the tallest structure in paris, and the most-visited-paid monument in the world. It was engineered Gustave Eiffel but protested by many artists who thought it did not contribute to the beauty of Paris.
Experiencing the tower at night is a whole different experience. Every hour the tower has a spectacular light show. The yard is filled with many couples, families, and friends having picnics and music. We very much enjoyed this eventful and surprising day. It costs money to get to the top of the tower. The elevator would transport tourists till the 3rd level for the full price, but the line was humongous. We decided to pay half the price by taking the stairs and admiring the view of the city. This way we fully experienced the Tower every step of the way. Then we payed the second half of the price to take the elevator to the third level, since the line was short and it was the only way to get up there. Thanks to our tripod and DSLR camera, we took breathtaking night pictures of the city.
Notre Dame, Louvre, Seine (11th August)
Île de la Cité
On our last day, Leonardo and I took the metro to the two remaining natural islands in the Seine, called the Île de la Cité, which is within the city of Paris. It is filled by the city's Prefecture de Police, Palais de Justice, Hôtel-Dieu hospital, Tribunal de Commerce, and the famous Catedral de Notre Dame. Which reminds me of the French movie "The Hunchback of Notre-Dame." The back of the cathedral looks like a Disney or fairy tale castle.
We walked to the Notre Dame de Paris, which means Our lady of Paris in french. It is a historic Roman Catholic Marian Cathedral that has gargoyles standing on its windows. The gargoyles are part of its French Gothic Architecture. There was a huge line to get inside, so we walked around it.
We saw a man standing with his arm stretched out and holding bread and countless birds. We decided to give it a try. Leonardo was very successful.
After a bit of hesitation, we decided to experience a sip of wine by the seine. The restaurant only allowed two or more people to sit, and minimum of two drinks. I will not be doing this again!
Then we crossed the bridge to walk towards the Louvre and found a huge crowed packed around a performer. We stuck around and enjoyed the show.
Musée du Louvre
We walked to the Musée du Louvre, or Loure Museum. The first thing that popped into my mind is the book Davinci Code and the painting The Mona Lisa. This is the most visited museum in the whole world. The Museum is actually underground since it began as a fortress in the 12th century. We took the classical picture poking the top of the pyramid and proceeded to go inside. Unfortunately, it was closed after 5 pm so we drank wine by the water fountain. After we were done drinking, we discover a sign that said it was prohibited. Oh well! We then went to the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel, which was right besides the Louvre. It commemorates Napoleon's military victores.
Finally, it was time to head home and prepare for my first European train ride to Normandy, France!
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