Strawberry Pancakes

My housemate Izzy and I popped downstairs for breakfast at 7:15am last Friday. Cecelia, our mama tica, or Costa Rican host mom, had laid out two pancakes for each of us, peanut butter, jelly, and maple-flavored syrup as toppings, and pineapple chunks on the side. She always puts each breakfast item on a separate little plate – even our coffee mugs get small china saucers.

“These pancakes are strawberry,” she told us, in Spanish. “I got two boxes of mix; one is strawberry, and one is banana because I know you girls like banana.”

“How sweet!” we responded.

To further prove her point, she brought the pancake boxes from the kitchen, proudly showing us her selections. I immediately realized both boxes were in English and both had a large photograph of a stack of pancakes on the front. On one box, they were garnished with strawberry slices. On the other, banana rounds. Both boxes read, “Original”.

“There were some other mixes, but I didn’t know what kind they were because they didn’t have the drawing on the box, y eran en inglés,” she told I smiled big at her, and on the inside, I crossed my fingers that no one would ever tell her the pancakes she had bought were all just regular pancake flavor with pictures of fruit. She is such a sweet, well-meaning lady, who, just like me, struggles to understand when things are not in her native language.

In the three weeks I’ve been studying here, there have been countless signs, labels, comments, and conversations that I misunderstood due to my lack of Spanish fluency.

Last Thursday, I went out with my friends and one of them tried to order a tequila soda. The bartender was confused and asked if she wanted a tequila with Coke. After a few more attempts to explain, my friend gave up and ordered a margarita (which turned out to be bright blue).

Once I accidentally ordered what was essentially a frappuccino when what I wanted was an iced coffee. Apparently at my favorite sandwich place, that’s as close as you can get.

Even my and my housemate’s nightly dinner conversations with our mama tica involve countless lapses in understanding between us. Izzy and I have a little debrief session on the way back upstairs after eating. Basically, we compare notes on words we didn’t understand or whether we both followed one of Cecelia’s long stories (she likes to go on tangents about the state of the world and how her sons and daughters are doing). I think collectively we normally process about 80% of what’s happenin

As becoming more fluent in Spanish is arguably my biggest priority while I’m here in San José, I put a lot of pressure on myself to understand and to be understood. Our plain/strawberry/banana pancake breakfast was a reminder that learning any language is not a fluid process. There will never be a full jump from “intermediate” to “fluent” or some point I reach where there are no more mistakes and no more to learn. Communicating outside your native language is messy, and if I’ve realized anything from the ticos I’ve spoken to so far, most are more than willing to patiently work with you to reach mutual points of understanding.

IMG_2316 Small
Cecelia showing us around the neighborhood.

Food in French Culture

One of the first things that comes to many people’s minds when thinking of French culture (and one of the many reasons I decided to study abroad in this country) is its excellent cuisine. During my first month of studying in Aix en Provence I have tried many new cafés, restaurants, bars, and recipes in my own home! Whether you’re looking for a coffee and pastry to start your day, a perfect charcuterie board, a fancy dinner, or delicious seafood by the coast, the south of France has more than enough to offer.

Cafés and Patisseries

My favorite way to start my weekdays is with a cappuccino and a croissant from one of my favorite cafés or patisseries (pastry shops). There’s no shortage of these adorable stops in Aix, so the hardest part is finding which one you like the most. My typical stop is Chez Augustine, which is just around the corner from my apartment and typically where I get my daily baguette. Another favorite of mine for when I have more time to sit is Maison Riederer, which specializes in hot chocolate and their delicious pain au chocolats.

However, if you’re ever feeling a bit homesick or just looking for a place to study, my recommendation is Café Lumiere. One of the best places in the city to find good wifi and great iced coffee drinks (a rare find in this city). Owned and run by an American woman, the staff is incredibly welcoming and it can be a comforting feeling to walk into an English speaking business from time to time.

Restaurants in France

One of my favorite parts about French culture is the way that people here find time to enjoy each and every meal, whether that be for themselves or accompanied by friends or family. One of my favorite sit-down spots for breakfast, brunch, or lunch is at La Crêpe Sautière. This awesome crêpe spot located right near my school (IAU) serves the most delicious recipes as well as offering a build your own option. You can find a variety of fun pub/lunch spots located around la Rotonde at the edge of the historic part of the city. These spots serve cocktails, charcuterie, tapas, as well as larger plates of food that work well for lunch or dinner with friends. Some finer dining restaurants such as La Rotonde and Le Piston offer classic French dishes such as steak tartar, escargot, oysters, and more.

Market Shopping and Cooking at Home!

As a student abroad I still have to live on a budget, so eating out for every meal isn’t the most sustainable. Fortunately, Aix hosts a massive market every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, which offers a variety of fresh foods at an affordable price. Since I live in an apartment, my roommates and other students in the building have started a “family dinner night” where we all contribute to the meal and cook together. Just last week we got mussels from the market and made mussel pasta with baguette and a beet salad with goat cheese. Gathering ingredients from the local market and cooking with and for your friends is such a fulfilling experience that has helped me create so many deep bonds in my program.

The culture around food in France is much different than most people experience it in the United States. Here, meals are meant to be a time to relax and connect with people you love, such as friends or family. Meal times are much less flexible, and fast food is not nearly as common. Instead, when you go out around 12-1pm you’ll see every restaurants full, all French students are on breaks with their friends, and families are eating together. In addition to offering a wide array of delicious cultural foods, France has given me a new appreciation for how food is used to create and build connections and establish a more fulfilling way of life (even though I’m perfectly happy keeping my cheese and baguettes all to myself).