Tuesday, November 25, 2008

There may not be Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, but...

Oh the beauty of the human spirit, the universal language of kindness. As I write this, I am fully aware of the cliché of my statement – but I mean it. Every single cheesy syllable.

The moment I arrived in La Rochelle, two months ago tomorrow, I have been so moved by the acts of kindness bestowed upon me by men and women who were so willing to help this foreigner find her way and feel at home:

*Isabelle, my liason with the lycee and colleges, picking me up the afternoon I landed in France, giving me a spare bed for my new apartment, helping me sort through what has seemed like a mountain of paperwork.

*Isabelle N., an English teacher at the college, who has given me an assortment of knick-knacks, mugs, dishes, silverware, and bath-mats for my studio. And every time I enter her room, she greets me with a wonderfully big smile that makes me feel like I’ve always belonged here.

*Renee, a French woman who sings in the La Rochelle Community choir, found out that I was a new resident of France, and within five minutes of meeting, had thrust her address and phone number in my hand. We carpool to choir, and we’re going to start meeting for french conversation ‘practice’ in the afternoons.

*That guy in the train station who let me sneak into the bathroom without paying (yes, that’s how it works here…) on my first day, as I was ‘juggling’ two fifty-pound suitcases.

*People who patiently listen to my simple sentences, smile encouragingly and say ‘for an american, you speak good french!’

As Thanksgiving week approaches in the United States, I can’t help but think about these wonderful blessings that I’ve found in my new home: from my english teachers to the incredible community of assistants in the Charante-Maritime region, I have a lot to be thankful for.

Loved ones in the U.S. - thank you for being a phenomenal support system. While I am enjoying this new adventure, I'm so lucky to have a wonderful group of people to return to at the end of the journey.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone ☺

Monday, November 17, 2008

Its not exactly the orient express....

Trains: the chosen iconic form of European transportation. It seems that when Americans find themselves at a standard gare, finding the correct train, then the correct car and finally the correct seat can be a daunting task – we don’t know trains. And while we’ve made airline travel a sort of science (no liquids over 10 oz, remove laptops from carry-ons before putting them through security), you’ll get funny looks if you arrive at the train station two hours before your departure.

This being said, there are a few things to remember while jetting from destination to destination via rail in France:

1. The trains and train stations are strictly non-fumeur. And in France, this is an issue. Without fail, when the train pulls into the station, people bound out, unlit cigarette in mouth with a look in their eye that says “if I have to stay one more second on this train without nicotine….” It goes without saying that you move out of their way or are subjected to series of sighs, grumbles, and the oh-so-french “pphft!”
2. There are no elevators or escalators in train stations, just stairs. Lots and lots of stairs. Normally, this isn’t a concern, but if you are thinking of traveling for a long period of time (or coming to visit!), pack light! My first moments in France consisted of me lugging two 50 lb bags up and down what seemed like hundreds of stairs. And in that situation, there weren’t just stairs, but a multitude of …stares.
3. They are very open about when they will be using the railways in national protests. In fact, about two weeks before the big event, there will be signs at each gare politely notifying the passengers about the nationale greve. A sort of “If you please, we will be causing some discomfort in your train traveling next weekend – please understand. Thank you.” To be fair, this means that you don’t have the freedom to roll your eyes when you arrive at the train station only to realize your 2:20 train no longer exists. They did warn you. And as I write this, I see that there will be another nationale greve on November 29. Lovely.
Coriscan train in Calvi

Now this is for mainland France only. Once you get to Corsica, all bets are off. In fact, I think they’re still using the same freight-cars that graced the island fifty years ago. Two rickety cars coast through the valleys and mountains of the Corsican interior, and when the occasion arises to ascend a particularly steep slope, the conductor revs the engine, eliciting a grinding noise as the car begins to shake and climb. But this is what makes it so charmingly Corsican! When I found out that they’re getting new railways next year, a wave of Corsican nationalism over took me and I was ready to protest the government for meddling in the island’s affairs. But really, they are in dire need of an overhaul. And if worst comes to worst, in true french style, we can always shut down the system for a few days. You know, just for a little protest.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

a very French November 4th

It’s a strange feeling to be so far away from your country, yet to feel so intimately in-tune with its pulse of activity. This is what it is like to be an expatriot in France on Election day. Students, raising their hands tentatively, with thick french accents, asked me on my first days of teaching “Ooobaama ou Mac-Cain?” It seemed that even the 14-year-olds had an inquiring interest in the United States Election. I found that as I traveled, when people asked where I was from and I slowly answered “Les Etats-Unis,” instead of being shrugged off as just another American, they would ask, with a twinkle in their eye, which candidate I preferred, as if I was about to share with them one of my deepest secrets.

To add another layer to this discussion, I was in the minority in terms of candidate preference in both discussions with my french colleagues and students. It was exciting to have an eager audience listen to my impassioned beliefs, explain and discuss where my positions came from and to hear about American politics from a European perspective.

In my Terminale-Euro class (a sort of A.P. class), one student explained that she thought Obama would bring more change. Seven days later, an old Corsican man told me, on election day, that in ten years Obama would be good, but for now it would best to have an older McCain as president-elect.

I was in Corsica on election day and walking down the streets, each tabac (a french drug-store) had newspaper after newspaper with pictures of Barack Obama and John McCain on the front page and even thousands of miles away, in a foreign land, I could feel the significance of this election.

I woke up on the floor of the ferry back to mainland France at six o’clock in the morning on November 5, grabbed my purse and ran up the winding staircase to the main deck. (let me paint you a visual: my contacts were blurred, I was disheveled from sleeping on the floor all night, and I couldn’t get a good footing because the boat was rocking – I’m sure I looked like some crazed lunatic) There, next to the breakfast buffet line was a large screen TV, the sound muted, people in sleeping bags propped up on their elbows on the floor, while unkempt backpacker had his ear pressed against the speaker trying to hear, what I correctly assumed was Obama’s victory speech.

They say that sometimes to appreciate home, its necessary to leave for a little bit. I can tell you right now that I admired my home country this week – was proud to be an American. This pride does not stem from the results of the election (to be completely honest, I cried on that ferry) but moreso because I was a citizen of a country that showed such passion for our political process that the world couldn’t help but notice.

Monday, October 20, 2008


we dress in black so we can look more european...
Marc and I at the dinner

This past weekend, I returned to Luxembourg after a two year hiatus and it was as wonderful as I imagined! The purpose of my visit was to attend a dinner celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Miami University Diliobois European Center (MUDEC) in Luxembourg. To my delight, I was reunited with classmates, professors, and friends while also having the opportunity to meet new facinating people.Reunited! Miss Em Strez and I in the city

Unlike Paris, Luxembourg city is one that few make their destination, not because it is dull but because it is a smaller city in an even smaller country and sometimes gets overlooked. On the contrary, it is an ecclectic city, the museum of modern art only a few blocks from the 10th century casements. When I was a student at MUDEC one of my favorite afternoon activities was to take the train into the city, walk from the gare to the city center by way of the intertwining squares, or places, drinking coffee, reaching ZARA, an idyllic european boutique, to try on dresses that I was never going to buy.

Walking through the city was a dose of familiarity in a month full of change. It was nice to walk my old familiar path, wonderful to see that ZARA hadn’t moved, and in the spirit of reliving tradition, of course I had to try on a few dresses.a tasty legume in the market - does anyone know what this is called?

My Movable Feast

The beauty of working in the french school system is the opportunity to take advantage of the vacation schedule. Next week I have ten days off for Toussaints, a religious holiday that begins November 1 – I guess you could call it the French Halloween, although thanks to globalization, this is also celebrated here. According to my assisting teacher at the college, the children love ‘American’ Halloween!

While I’ll be taking full advantage of the vacation to do some traveling, I have been able to visit two of my favorite places this month: Paris, and Luxembourg!

I went to Paris my second weekend in to meet with two writers who are involved with an online publication called BonjourParis.com. Walking down the rue de Rivoli, I once again felt that french je ne sais quoi, and in the tuilierie gardens I felt like I was watching the Parisian life, as children played in the bond with the wooden sailboats while their parents read les journeaux in the reclining chairs.

Margret and Cathy represent what seems to be a rather large community of english speakers in Paris (I would like to say expats, but Margret is English, and I think that term only applies to Americans living abroad). Cathy moved to the city of lights thirty years ago to join her mother, also a writer. (side note: her mother once asked Ernest Hemingway for an interview - he told her " I don't do interviews," and I just swooned) It was here that she became the assistant to someone invovled with People magazine before becoming involved herself, and now she is the managing editor of BonjourParis. Margret is a freelance writer living between Paris and London. To say I was inspired is an understatement – sitting in the Hotel Regina, sipping a glass of Bordeaux while the ladies drank what was said to be Louis XVI’s favorite mineral water, I was again (as it always is whenever I find myself in Paris) drawn to the desire to lead my own Parisian life.

Before we parted, I asked Cathy if she would ever consider moving bac k to the United States. She looked at me, thought about it for a few seconds and responded “I’ve thought about it, but I don’t know where I’d go.” It made me think of another response to that same question in Berlin, November of 2006. This time it was from the guide of the walking tour of Berlin, a twenty-something who had just spent four years in
Paris: “The thing about moving to another country is that it stops being an adventure a nd turns into real life.” And while these responses seemingly have nothing to do with each other, I think they have served to make me understand what living abroad means – for better or worse you give up some part of your native nationality in an attempt to not quite become a member o f a nother. As I type this, I realize it may seem a bit meloncholy, but in fact, I don’t think its sad, or conversly overly exciting. It means that you have a desire to explore, to be challenged and to be unconventional. And to me, that is beautiful.

Photo: an exhibit in the Tuilierie gardens of beautiful hand-blown glass cakes from the Louvre: "Oui! Les bateaux et les gateaux"

Monday, October 13, 2008

Never a concern at the Bay High cafeteria...

My life is finding its routine here in Rochefort. Now that I’ve begun to teach, there is a regular schedule of class preperation, mental preperation, teaching, repeat. I have a healthy fear of my students – french teenagers seem to radiate the essence of ‘french chic,’ dressed in blacks and greys, skinny jeans, peppered with various facial piercings and of course, cigarette in hand. My english friend Rose has already commented on how I’m overly enthusiastic about everything – how very ‘american’ – and I’m sure that, for better or worse, my french pupils have picked up on this as well. But, if it keeps them intrigued, lovely. I wasn’t prepared to care so much about what my students thought of me, and I wonder if this is a normal reaction for new teachers.

I have also been able to pick up on the natural trends of the cafeteria, and can more or less stragetically plan when I want to chance it and eat my lunch at the school. It turns out, Wednesdays are a bit precarious. In the french school system, there are no classes on Wednesday afternoons. While this means that sometimes there will also be classes on Saturday mornings, this is not the case at the lycee Merleau Ponty. Around lunch time on Wednesdays, the place clears out, it is usual the language assistants and one or two more teachers in the cafeteria. The past Wednesday, as usual, Claire and I made our way to the cafeteria, which was more or less deserted. I grabed the various dishes off the rack, and when it came time choose the entrée, I grabbed a plate with mashed potatoes and meat under a creamy red sauce – I’m not a picky eater and I don’t mind a culinary adventure, so this didn’t worry me. We sit, I grab my utensils, poised to cut into this ambigious meal when Claire looks at me and says “oh? You decided to get the tongue?” I freeze. I look down, and no longer am I looking at shapeless meat, but two tongues, porous and thin, just like my own wagging themselves at me. Let the record show that I tried it, but never again. That memory of those tongues, sitting there, is burned into my brain and it still makes my stomach queasy. Jean-Luc, the P.E. teacher told me that he has a similar memory only it was a long time ago when he was a little boy in the school cafeteria. They slapped down a tray of eight or nine tongues, wiggling at petit Jean-Luc, creating the same impression that they did for me. In fact, it seems most teachers have some horror story concerning cow tongue. Turns out, my other option that day was liver, so I’m not sure that I even got the worse entrée…

p.s. I voted today ☺

Photo: taking a break from writing at the Corderie Royale!

Thursday, October 9, 2008

here, let me give you a visual!

its autumn!

A french family, walking through Place Colbert - the center square in Rochefort

Ma rose anglais and the palm trees?

Place Colbert

Enjoying the sunshine


Monday, October 6, 2008

Pays Rochefortais

Well, I’ve been in France for a little over a week, getting used to life in ‘pays rochefortais.’

On Thursday, we (claire, rose, julia and I) left Rochefort at 7am to drive to the town of Poitier for a sort of orientation for the assistantship program. As it turns out, we are a melange of Americans, welsh, Scots, Indians, Canadians, Mexicans (and the list goes on) all trying to get our bearings in this new country. For the most part, a few generalizations can be made: if you’re american, you’re in your early/mid-twenties, a college graduate, and generally looking for another adventure or clue-less on what to do with you life! If you’re from the United Kingdom, you’re nineteen/twenty, in your third year of university studying french and required to spend a year in France. Because its obligatory, some are pretty salty that they have to be here.

By the end of the orientation, it was safe to say that all of us were a bit confused. Throughout the day, we went from room to room where the French health care system, insurance responsibilities, and welfare system were explained patiently in french, and then papers were presented that had to be filled out and signed – some of us joked that we had just unknowingly signed up for the gendarme!

I learned more about the french that night when rose and I decided to spend the evening in the city. Our night ended at a Canadian bar, at a table with five french guys, switching from french to English in an attempt to get over that oh-so present language barrier. This is when I got my first lesson in real french conversation:

(French man): “Why did you come to France?”
(Me): “Why not? I love France”
“No, why”
“…I just told you: I love france”
“No, I need concrete examples. Why.”
“no, why.”

One word answers do. not. exist.

The next day, I decided to continue with the paper work and open a french bank account, something that is necessary in order to receive my salary from the French government – everything is direct deposit, or direct withdrawal. In fact, your bank gives you six to twelve cards with your bank number on them to have readily available when you’re signing up for a phone plan, renting an apartment, or doing anything that involves billing.
Once again, I think I’ve signed up for things that I probably don’t need – I’m not good with things in the financial realm in English, let alone french, but I’m hoping that it will all work out. That is something that is very much to be determined….this is when we say ‘bonne courage’ in France.

Tomorrow begins my first day as Mlle Kelley – English teacher extraordinaire. Stay tuned for some interesting (I’m sure) stories on french teenagers! Also, if anyone has any tips on teaching in general, I think I could use all the help I can get :)

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

je suis ici!

I wrote this on my first night here - more updates to come soon :)

After planes, trains, buses, (and a few paces by foot) I’m here! In Rocheforte! Truth be told, I’m a little overwhelmed – now that I’m finally here, I’m realizing that I’m here for some time. But to me, that’s the beauty of adventure. In my experience, it seems that each time I’m presented with an opportunity that makes me question and doubt my motives (‘maybe you lost your mind/blacked out when you signed up for this?’), it turns out to be incredibly rewarding. With things as little as camping trips when I was a little girl, to going to New Mexico in College, I think the important thing isn’t that I had doubts but that I strove to overcome that little voice in my head that was saying “uhhhhh, whaaaat???”

The good news is that my cooperating English teachers, Isabelle and Marie Claude are wonderful and kind. They’ve agreed to speak to me only in French, which I’m sure will lead to frustrating, if not hilarious moments in the future. They also laughed when I said I had watched “Les Demoiselles…” before I got here. Isabelle can’t get through that movie, no matter how hard she tries, and Marie Claude is old enough to remember when they filmed it – according to her, there’s a sort of special meaning to the movie for her generation.

I live in apartments owned by the school. When I asked Isabelle if this was normal, she said that it was, not only for boarding schools (like my lycee) but for regular schools, providing a place for the principal and other adminstrators to live. Its small but cozy, I’ll have a new neighbor on Tuesday when the final english assistant comes into town from India (!!!) and last but not least, I have loved sitting in my room, listening to the city pass by. Granted, I’ve only been in Rochefort (at the time of writing) for 6 hours, so maybe I’m catching everyone on a good night, but I’ll stay optimistic and say that this town has a wonderful rhythm.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

And the ‘goodbyes.’ I don’t even know how to begin. I have been blessed to find a community of people this summer who have been so supportive, encouraging, and wonderful. Without turning into a sap, I have learned so much from everyone with whom I’ve formed a relationship (co-workers, bay village folk, family): if you only knew how many times this summer, I’ve sat back, inspired by your actions.

A girl I worked with a few summers ago told me that she never said goodbye, only “ I’ll see you when I see you” – it made it easier and I found it optimistic. Months later, I told a friend about this, and conversely (to my surprise!), he found it almost rude. He noted that we say “goodbye“ to acknowledge the role someone played in our life and that now, it will be different without them. Sometimes it’s a ‘good ridance.’ But right now, it means “it’s been a pleasure.”

And so, until we meet again,

Au revoir, mes amis

Monday, September 22, 2008

let me get this straight - I can only take two 50 lbs bags??

I remember when I found out I had gotten this job in France: it was after my first (and to date, only) thesis defense, something that had consumed my last semester of college, challenging me in ways I never thought possible. I hadn’t slept the night before (nerves!) and had decided to make muffins – a somewhat unconventional addition to these things- to butter-up the faculty. I had leftovers when my presentation was done, so I made my way to the student government office to pawn off the extra muffins, relax, check email, and decompress before I started my last week of undergrad classes.

I remember seeing the subject:


Thinking “Is that french?” my heart stopping. opening it. reading the message and a wave of emotions. I began my transition out of collegiate life in that moment, the tears welling up in my eyes from exhaustion and elation, my mind brimming with so many things.

Four months later, I’m starting to pack and say ‘goodbyes.’ Both are proving more difficult than anticipated.

As I mentioned earlier, I'll be in Rochefort, a little town near La Rochelle, that has very little notoriety except for a brief period in the '70's when it was the location for "Les Demoiselles de Rochefort" starring Catherine Denuve and Gene Kelly. And yes, it really is as amazing as it looks.

As far as packing goes, my dear friend Sarah Paul passed on her infinite wisdom when I was packing to study abroad in Luxembourg, fall semester of Junior year: pack basics and bring a lot of accessories. Simple enough, right? This hasn’t prevented me from unloading my entire closet, making my room unlivable, causing me to move into my little sister’s room. In fact, as I write this, I’m sitting in a sea of neutral basics, procrastinating from sifting through the rubble.

I also need to consider what teaching materials I’m bringing with me (menus, magazines, maps, anything fun with english words), and what documents I need to become street-legal in France. Recently, I found on wikibooks a list of things difficult to find in europe:

1. Dental floss
2. Sunscreen
3. Peanut butter
4. Electronic equipment
5. Underwear
6. Contact lens solution
7. Over-the-counter medication (especially antacid)
8. Blu-tack (and it's not blue here, it's yellow - le tac patafix!)

….5.??? I mean, I figured about the peanut butter….

Monday, September 8, 2008

19 days away?!?

well, here I am, only a mere three weeks away from France! Two weeks ago the beautiful K(c)ates and I made a whirlwind 36 hour trip to Chicago to visit the French consulate so I could get my long stay visa.

1. visited three sets of extended family members
2. reunited with college friends
3. obtained a visa
4. played in the fountain at millennium park
5. discovered the worst fye store in the world, but ended up with an amazing panic-at-the-disco string quartet tribute album
6. discovered that my glasses prescription is a little of date due to a few...driving mishaps...involving curbs and wrong turns

my travel companions were 'parfait,' soothing my nerves, navigating, and providing amazing company!

now I'm trying to make sure I've crossed everything off the list that I started making in June:

plane ticket - leaving sept 26!
visa - in my passport!
place to stay - living at the school in rochefort for the first part of my stay!

I still need to:

open a french bank account
get a french cell phone
figure out the french welfare system - aparently i'm eligable? why not?

for the time being, while I get everything in order I'm doing some additional research that invovles french film, brie, and lots of red wine... :)

a bientot mes amies

Thursday, August 14, 2008

A Bientot!

plane ticket purchased

officially leaving the country Sept. 26 !

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

the beginning...

With the advent of graduation has come the obvious question: what next? I have recently obtained two degrees in French and in the History of Art and Architecture, which while is seemingly useful, have only instantaneously qualified me for two careers: 1. an afficienato on all things culturally important: I can pronounce wine names correctly, appreciate cutting edge art that usually confuses the 'common' viewer, and figure out the answer to a variety of crossword puzzle clues. 2. a barista - the only thing missing is a nose ring, but a fear of needles has left this on the 'to-do' list for quite sometime, meaning this career path is fading quickly. Thus, as I began my senior year of college, I decided it was time to do some serious soul searching, network until I ran out of printer ink for my resumes, and sign up for a slew of interviews that I could label as 'good practice' if things went sour. This inevitably led to a few second interviews, a collection of 'on site' office visits, and a new wardrobe of professional looking clothing (and about three pairs of black target pumps). Yet, in the midst of the chaos and the interview preparations, while i did feel very grown-up and responsible, i didn't feel...happy.

Months earlier, I had submitted an application to the French Embassy to become an assistant to an english teacher in France. And, as it turned out, the opportunity to live in France was what my inner psyche had been craving. When I was a little girl (and bed time stories were mandatory) my father would read brilliantly illustrated picture books about a sassy red-head named madeline who found herself in all sorts of trouble on the streets of Paris. This, of course, instilled two desires in my little heart: First, to have red hair - little girls with brown hair seldom found themselves in wildly crazy predicaments in the storybook world. And two, to go to Europe, France specifically. To my dismay, I realized that my mousy brown hair would not magically transform itself into a shocking red/orange, but the desire for a "vie francaise" did not fade.

Fast-forward ten years or so, and I found myself in the midst of a rather rebellious summer, earning money to fulfill that very dream through my Universities study abroad program in Luxembourg - while this wasn't France, they spoke french (close enough?) and I figured I could hop the border for a few weekend holidays. Europe was my playground for four months, and though it seems crazy, I almost didn't make it to Paris. The truth is, not everyone loves the city of lights, and the general consensus among my peers was "eh, its nice, but its nothing to get upset about."

Luckily I decided to skip class one week in November, take the TGV into Paris and fall head-over-heals for the city of love. Sitting along the bank of the Seine, sipping cheap red wine (my classmates and I took full advantage of the non-existent open container laws), I realized that Paris had become personal. I remember that moment so vividly: " I have been waiting to discover Paris since I was a little girl, reading Madeline, watching Gigi...but that was not the Paris I found, it was my own. I didn't realize this until, as we were walking along the Seine, I saw the steps that led down to the river, to the banks, and I saw Gene Kelly dancing with Leslie Caron. But there was no Gene Kelly, nor Leslie Caron. No music, no dancing, no dream sequences with artificial lights, just the river, the trees, soft city lights - I think thats when Paris became human, not a dream world, but a real place with real people, people who have problems, dreams, fears..." I think that was the moment I knew I would return.

So I am. But the process has not been as magical as that evening near the Seine. As it turns out, the French invented the bureaucratic process, but haven't quite figured out the concept of simple, easy to read directions - I've read every piece of paperwork at least five times and am convinced I've only comprehended at best, one fifth of what its telling me to do (and yes, its in english..) In order to obtain a visa, it takes a six hour drive to chicago, the kindness of a few friends with an extra couch, and a mere five minute interview at the general consulate. I'm not sure how to find an apartment in the United States, let alone in a foreign country and foreign tongue, and I've already lost track of the number of times I've sighed, rolled my eyes and muttered "how french..."

Mais, alors, this is the adventure I've craved. When the nerves subside, and the paperwork lessens, I feel that quickening in my chest. I smile and realize I'm finally doing it. I know that no matter how often I look up my new home on mapquest, it will be nothing like the day of my arrival and the first time I step off the train, no matter how many french novels I read, it will be nothing like that first conversation I'll have with les francais, and no matter how many times I've read about little red-head in Paris, it will be nothing like the adventures of this brown-haired girl in France.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Figuring out France

Well, I never thought I would join this 21st century phenomena known as 'blogging' but as I've begun to plan for this up coming year, I've realized that keeping friends and family up-to-date with my life would become increasingly difficult and that a blog may be the best (and most effective) way to do this.

As of now I've received my 'arrete' which is more or less my official contract with the school(s) I'll be teaching at in "L'academie de poitiers" or the region or school district that I've been placed in. I'll be spending 6 hours a week at the technical lycee Maurice Merleau-Ponty in Rochefort, and 3 hours a week at the college Jean Monet in St. Agnant.

Still on the "to-do" docket before I leave:

* Apply for a visa - incredibly confusing...wish me luck
* find housing
* figure out the cell-phone situation
* buy a plane ticket