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 clich̩ of my statement Рbut 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.