I have been in France for about two weeks now, and I have already seen and experienced an incredible amount in that short period of time.
One of my eternal pleasures remains observing and exploring my host town, Auch. Auch is painted shades of time; some strokes, such as the ancient cathedral smack dab in the city's central square, are unadulterated. Others mingle until indistinguishable: a cobblestone street leading to a pastel yellow apartment with '20s-style shutters, '80s-style curtains and a satellite dish. Here, I begin to grasp just how young my native country is.
Upon my arrival, I was (and continue to be) blown away by Auch's sense of history, charm and vibrancy. The town's citizens seem hardly ever to stay inside, and can instead be spotted strolling alongside boutiques, leaning out shutter-framed windows or simply sitting and enjoying their environment. Today, for example, a group of dancers happened to be practicing their tango in the central square while caf patrons looked on.
Auch is also the perfect size: small enough that most wouldn't lose their way (myself not included), but big enough that you can find everything you need (i.e., a boulangerie on every street). I have been spending all the time I can taking side streets, hopping on buses, getting lost and generally seeking out the city's hidden gems.
The city of Auch is located in the French department of Gers in mid-southwestern France. The region is known for its foie gras and other duck products (many of which I have already had the opportunity to sample) and is covered with gangly greenery, red-roofed villages and sunflower fields. Although I have yet to experience the area's seasons, I have been told that summers are long and hot, and winters "extreme," though having grown up in Houghton, I'm not sure our definitions of "extreme" are congruent.
I've really only been experiencing normal Auch life my second week here, as my first was jam-packed with travel. On my second day in France, my host dad took me to Toulouse, the fourth largest city in France. First, we went to a part-museum, part-amusement park attraction called La Cit de l'space (Space City). My host brother and I explored spaceship replicas and went for a virtual moonwalk.
Afterward, we explored Toulouse and ended up riding a Ferris Wheel on bank of the Garonne River.
The next day, my host parents took me to Carcassone, a medieval city complete with castle. After a lunch of the intimidatingly hearty medieval dish "cassoulet" (a heaping bowl of sausage, duck, and beans), we toured the ancient castle. The next day, we drove down to the Pyrenees, picking up a few baguette sandwiches along the way for a picnic lunch. Afterward, we toured the Grotte de Niaux (Niaux Cavern), a vast cave network containing ancient cave paintings. Each person in our small tour group (size is limited because too much heat, carbon dioxide or light can damage the paintings) took a lamp and we headed into the dark, slippery, moon-like depths of the cavern. The paintings of bison and elk were surprisingly detailed, and seeing such evidence of ancient human creativity was truly incredible.
Life in France is much more varied than I could have ever imagined, and I can't wait to keep on exploring. Au revoir for now.
Editor's note: Sierra Parker is spending a year in France as a Rotary Exchange Student through the Houghton Rotary Club.