Sunday, April 17, 2011

The Last Hurrah (Or, I Should Be Sleeping Right Now)

I really should be sleeping right now. It's 1:30 am here and I only have about 28475839 things to do tomorrow before I leave. But it's really starting to sink in now, the whole leaving thing. It seems like this has simultaneously been the longest and the shortest seven months of my life, and I am both longing for it to be over and also wishing it would never end.

Thursday night was my big farewell party with all of my roommates and friends. It was a lot of fun, and gave me a chance to say goodbye to people I might not have otherwise seen before my departure ('cause who doesn't love a good party?). Then last night I had one final dinner with the other Americans. We cooked a really nice dinner together and shared all of our favorite memories from the time we've spent together. It was pretty funny how many of the stories ended with "... We were so drunk that night." But I mean, what else did we ever have to do around here? Then after dinner we went out dancing at a bar on a boat. The crowd was significantly older than us, and the music was mostly bad French pop from the disco era, but we really had a blast. Here's a picture:

From L to R: Allison, Shelby, Creepy Photo-Bomber, Me, Joey, Emily, and David

Today I went to Lille to say goodbye to my friend Tristen, and that's when it finally hit me that this was really my last hurrah, so to speak. We just wandered around the city talking, like we always do, but I was really sad when we finally had to say goodbye. After I came back to Valenciennes, Joey came over and we watched a movie, talked a lot, and then ended, as most of our nights together do, by playing a bunch of our favorite songs and singing along and acting stupid. Joey does a mean air guitar, though. I'm going to see him again for lunch tomorrow before I leave, but I was definitely fighting tears on more than one occasion while we were hanging out tonight. I am really gonna miss that kid.

Tomorrow morning I'll be running around town tying up loose ends. I'm going to the grocery to pick up some snacks for my trip and to get some French gardening magazines for my mom. Then I'll head to the bank to make sure all my affairs are in order there. Then lunch with Joey and hopefully Allison and David, and then I'll pack up the last of my stuff, give my room a once-over with the vacuum and dust rag, and head to the airport when I can't stand sitting in my big empty house anymore. Because of scheduling and transportation issues, I'm planning on spending the night in the Brussels airport before my flight on Tuesday morning. That's probably going to suck, but at least I can smoke cigarettes there. And I bought a couple new books today that are in French, so that should keep me busy for a while. My hope is to be completely exhausted by the time I board the plane on Tuesday morning so that I'll be able to sleep most of the way home, something I always struggle with on long flights. And then I'll be home. And I think I will wonder if my life in France ever really happened.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Saying Goodbye

This week has been really difficult for me. For two reasons: 1) I hate "transition" periods. As in, if I have to do something hard or that I don't want to do, I want to do it now, immediately, as soon as is humanly possible. I hate having to wait and suffer and feel bad about it. So I have pretty much been in agony since I bought my plane ticket last week. 2) I am really bad at goodbyes, and hate them almost as much as I hate transitional periods.

I'm flying out of Brussels on Tuesday morning, and so I'm wrapping up my last week of teaching this week.I did alright on the goodbyes with my students right up until this morning. This morning I had to say goodbye to what has definitely been my favorite class this year, and they didn't make it easy:

Some of the cards they made me

A sample of the sweet, sweet messages they wrote: "Dear Sara, You have learnt me full of things on your life on your family and on America. Love, Charlotte." Also "I wish you a happy return to Indiana. France + America = <3 (a heart) La Paix (peace). Love, Simon." You're crying too, now, right? I am. Here they are in all their ornery glory:

They made me bracelets and keychains and gave me candy and drew me lots of pictures of the Simpsons, because that is (seriously) our biggest cultural import to 9 and 10 year olds in France. Simon even made up a song and dance and performed it for me. It went something like this: "Bonjour Sara, bonjour Sara. Sara d'Indiana, Sara d'Indiana. Au revoir Sara, au revoir Sara, Sara d'Indiana, bon retour a Indiana." Bon retour means "happy return," basically. Cue the waterworks.

It's only just begun, however. Tonight is my (and my friend Anne-Gaelle's) big fete de depart, ie, going away party. I am going back to the US of course, and she is moving to Boulogne-Sur-Mer, on the Northern Coast of France, to start a med school internship. So tonight pretty much everyone we know is coming to the house to party together one last time. Then, starting tomorrow, I will be saying goodbye to some of my incredible, wonderful, amazing roommates. Joel is leaving tomorrow afternoon for vacation, and Laura is leaving shortly thereafter. Finally on Monday I will head to the Brussels airport to spend the night before my Tuesday morning flight home. I am beyond ecstatic at the thought of seeing all my friends and family again and getting back to "real" life, but at the same time, my heart is breaking at the thought of leaving everyone here. Thankfully, most of my friends who aren't going back to the US will be staying here in Valenciennes for another year, so I am going to be saving as much money as possible to come back for a week or two, hopefully in the fall. But still, where did the last 7 months go? Didn't I just move here yesterday? Or last week? Sadness.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Whitmer Family Vacay Pt. 2

Ok, now where was I? Ah yes. We finished up in Amsterdam and came back to Valenciennes. My parents stayed in a hotel about 5 mins from my house and my sister stayed with me. After several days of intense togetherness, I think we were all happy about this. Mom, Dad, and Al came to my classes with me on that Monday afternoon, and I think both they and my students really enjoyed it. After school, we all went to Brigitte's (a teacher I work with) for dinner, which was lovely. Brigitte's husband is British, so they both speak fluent English, and they have a lot in common with my parents, so they really hit it off. Mom is quite excited to have a new friend across the Atlantic, and we've all been invited to Brigitte and Christopher's summer home in Central France, which would also be lovely if we ever have the opportunity to take them up on it.

Tuesday night I invited all my friends over for dinner and a meet and greet with my family. It was a blast. I made some AWESOME enchiladas (if I do say so myself), and there was lots of laughter and wine for everyone. I think everyone here secretly loves it when someone's parents are in town because it's kind of like all of us get to have parents there for an evening. Really nice, warm-fuzzy feeling.

Wednesday we set out bright and early for a long day of driving. We had to go back to Antwerp to pick up the jewelry Allison picked out the week before, and then we turned around and drove to the beaches of Normandy, in Western France. It was cloudy and rainy when we got there, but it was still very cool to see such a historical place. We also stayed in a really cute little hotel and ate some really fabulous seafood. Then on Thursday morning we went to see Versailles, just outside of Paris, which is Louis XIV's infamously decadent palace. Sadly, it was kind of a bust. We saw a few of the rooms inside, but it was very hot and crowded in there, so we decided to take a break and check out the gardens before seeing the rest of the castle. Unfortunately, we didn't realize that once you exit the building into the gardens, you can't go back inside. Generally cranky and frustrated, we just decided to throw in the towel and head to our next hotel, in Giverny, where we planned to see Monet's house and gardens. We took the scenic route to avoid France's numerous toll roads, and ended up getting to see a lot of really beautiful countryside, which was actually better than Versailles, in my opinion.

We stayed at a suuuuper cute B&B in Giverny, about 100 yards from the house and gardens. I've wanted to visit Monet's home since I was very, very young, so this was kind of a bucket list thing for me. I was surprised by how much was blooming already, but sad that there were not yet any water lilies in the famous water garden. Another thing that surprised me, but probably shouldn't have, was the sheer number of old people visiting at the same time. I am being absolutely truthful when I say that my sister and I were the ONLY people there under the age of 55, and my parents were easily the next youngest visitors. SO MANY OLD PEOPLE. Maybe this is because we were there at 9am on opening day for the gardens, but still, it was funny and weird and cute, all at the same time.

After Giverny, we headed into Paris for the last leg of our journey. Paris has never failed to impress anyone, I don't think, least of all the Whitmer family. We did EVERYTHING, too. Montmartre, l'Arc de Triomphe, the Eiffel Tower, lots of shopping and eating, Madeleine, Opera Garnier, Notre Dame, Ile St. Louis, the Bastille District, Promenade Plantee, the Louvre, and LOTS of walking in-between. I think I did a good job of really wearing everyone out, haha, myself included. We left on Sunday afternoon and my parents dropped me off at home before heading to Brussels to catch their flight home on Monday. It was a marathon, to be sure, but something I think we all really enjoyed and will remember for a very long time.

And now, suddenly, it's almost time for me to come home. I can hardly believe how quickly the time has passed between mid-February and now. I bought my plane ticket last night and I will be home on the 19th, which you math majors out there know is just 12 days from now. 12 DAYS. Of course I am super excited to be coming home, but I am also finding myself to be quite sad. Now that I am used to living here, and the weather is getting more and more beautiful every day, I'm realizing how hard it's going to be to leave. But all good things must come to an end, I guess. There's a French movie called Bienvenue Chez Les Ch'ti's, about a man who has to move from beautiful, sunny, Southern France to the North, which is generally considered to be the cold, rainy armpit of the country. When he gets there and is settling in, he is miserable, and someone tells him, "A newcomer to the North cries two times: when he arrives, and when he has to leave." So true.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Whitmer Family Vacay Pt. 1: A Rough Start

Hi all. Sorry for my silence the last couple of weeks, but I've been frolicking around Europe with my family in tow. It was a lot of fun, but I am now thoroughly exhausted and glad to have a little downtime and a little time to update you all on my recent adventures. This will come in multiple installments, I think.

As I mentioned in the title, things got off to kind of a rough start when my family arrived 2 weeks ago. They were supposed to arrive around 7am on the 23rd, but because of multiple flight delays and missed connections, they didn't get in until about 3pm. I met them at the airport and we got our rental car and headed to a hotel in Brussels where my mom had made reservations for us to spend the night. I had originally planned not to meet them until the weekend in Amsterdam, but about 2 weeks before their arrival I decided I would take a few days off work in order to be with them the whole time. So my mom had originally made this hotel reservation for three people, instead of all four of us, but she called Expedia about a week and half before their scheduled arrival to change the reservation. They put her on hold while they called the hotel, and when they came back on the line they told her that everything was set and that the reservation was changed to four people. Well, we arrived at the hotel, and the woman at the reception desk only spoke French. No big deal. So I told her our last name and she said (in French of course), "Ok, it's for three people." "No," I told her, "it's for four people. We changed the reservation and Expedia approved it." "Well," she said, "They never informed us of the change, so it's for 3 people." Since Mom had been on the phone when Expedia called the hotel, we knew this wasn't true. Trying to be patient, I asked if we could simply have a cot or a roll-away bed and pay the difference for the fourth person. "No," she told me, "it's not possible. All of our rooms are full and all of our roll-away beds are being used." I could see the reservation book in front of her on the desk, and this also appeared not to be true. I asked if someone could just sleep on the floor or share the existing beds. Nope, not possible. "So there's absolutely NO WAY you can accommodate us?" I asked. "No," she told me, with a little more attitude than I thought was appropriate, even by European standards. "Well, then we will need to cancel our reservation and have our money refunded," I said. "No, it's done, I can't refund your money," she told me. What?! Now I am angry. "So you refuse to allow all of us to stay here, but you also refuse to refund our money?" "Yep, those are the rules," she said, in an incredibly flippant tone. Meanwhile, I am communicating all of this to my mom in English and she is starting to panic. She tries to speak to the woman in English and the woman basically tells her to talk to the hand. So, despite my best efforts, I lose my cool, tell the woman quite succinctly to shove the rules up her ass, and we leave. Not knowing where else to go and not wanting to pay for another hotel, we decide to just drive and hour and a half back to my house and start out from there in the morning. As of right now, Expedia is still trying to get my parents' money back from the hotel, and I have become convinced, after my last two trips there, that Brussels is the worst city ever.

So we came back to Valenciennes for the night and set out for Antwerp in the morning. After a few navigational issues with our GPS, we ended up having a very lovely afternoon in the city. Since Antwerp is the diamond capital of the world, my parents surprised us by telling us they wanted to buy each of us (my sister and me) a nice piece of jewelry. Allison found something almost immediately: a beautiful pearl and diamond ring. Jewelry has never really been my thing, and I really struggled to find something I really liked, so in the end I got a nice Swatch watch and a very nice leather messenger bag in Paris, at the end of our trip. I am quite happy :-).

After Antwerp we headed up to Amsterdam, and (thankfully) checked into our hotel without a problem. We had a blast in Amsterdam. We walked all over the city, took a boat tour of the canals, visited the Anne Frank house and the Heineken Brewery, and did a side trip to Keukenhof Tulip Gardens in Lisse and the Delft pottery factory (for Mom) in Delft. My parents also went to the Rijksmusem, a museum of Dutch art, while Allison and I went shopping. My dad has decided he would like to retire to Amsterdam. I'm not sure if he has convinced Mom yet, but he's working on it, haha.

And I think that will conclude the first installment, but I'll leave you with some pictures. Next up: Valenciennes and possibly Normandy.

Tulips at Keukenhof

Mom and Dad at Keukenhof

Allison and I enjoy a night out in Amsterdam

Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Luck of the Irish...

...Apparently I don't have it. Maybe I should have worn green today.

Normally Thursdays are a good day for me, but today has gotten off to a bit of a rough start. The beautiful, sunny, warm weather we've had the last few days has been replaced by the cold, rainy, windy bs we usually have. Thumbs down for that. And then there's just been a whole host of other trials and tribulations that have decided to rear their ugly heads this morning. And it's only 10am. Sheesh.

I overslept and didn't have time for coffee this morning. Lesson learned: never go to work uncaffeinated. The kids in my only class today also learned an important lesson from this: don't test Sara when she is not caffeinated. Normally I am pretty relaxed with them, as they are generally a good class, but today I had no patience for shenanigans. They had their whiteboards out and were practicing writing the numbers in English, but three students in the back of the classroom were drawing and giggling and showing each other their work. Normally a dirty look from the front of the classroom is enough to stifle this, but today I just wasn't having it. So I walked over to them and politely informed them that if they preferred to draw, rather than participate in the lesson, they could do so in the hallway. I told them that I didn't travel 5000 miles at my own expense to teach them to draw, and that if they wanted to waste time they could waste their own, not mine and their classmates'. Fortunately the teacher backed me up on this (sometimes I think she hates me, so I never know where I stand with her), and out to the hall they went. I kicked it old school and even made them stand with their noses touching the wall. Perfect behavior from the rest of the class for the rest of the period. I hate to be the mean teacher like that, and it doesn't happen frequently, but these kids are old enough to know better, and they only act like this on Thursdays. I see them on Tuesdays with a different teacher, who is much more, shall we say... authoritative... than the Thursday teacher, and they don't dare misbehave in front of her.

After class I had to try to sort out a bank snafu. Everything to do with the banks here is a snafu. I think the military created the term "snafu" just for the French banking system. "Situation Normal, All F*cked Up." Yep, sounds about right. You see, to do anything... anything with a bank account here (other than withdraw money from an ATM), you have to go to the specific branch at which you opened your account. Mine is relatively close to my house, but did I mention that the banks are only open 4 days a week? Yep, Tuesday through Friday, and sometimes on Saturday mornings, but only if they feel like it. Oh and they close for 2 hours for lunch every day, which is generally when I actually have time to go to the bank. Convenient, right? Today I was trying to sort out PayPal. I wanted to open a PayPal account with my French bank account, so that I can transfer my last paycheck into my American bank account from home, instead of waiting around here for it for another two weeks after I finish teaching. When I set up my American account, all I had to do was wait a couple of days and then check my transactions online to verify that PayPal had properly accessed my account. Not the same in France, of course. For my French account I had to print out a form, fill it out, write a letter, and enclose a RIB (an official statement of my account info) before mailing it all to my bank and then checking my transactions online to verify. Sounds like a pain in the @$$, but doable, right? Well, it's more complicated than that. For one, I don't have a printer. This means I have to wait until a Monday to print the form, because that is the only day I have time to use the computers/printer at school. But I can't mail it on Monday because I don't have a RIB. I have to go to the bank to get a RIB, and the bank isn't open on Monday. I can't get a RIB on Tuesday, because I only have time on my lunch break, and the bank isn't open on my lunch break. I can finally get a RIB on Wednesday (and I did), but I can't just give my bank all the paperwork while I am there, because that would be too easy. I have to mail it. And I can't mail it on Wednesday, because the post office is closed for no apparent reason. This happens all the time, btw. So FINALLY today I got everything mailed, but since post (and everything else, for that matter) takes FOREVER in France, I suspect my info will not be received by the bank until the middle or end of next week. Then they will have to notify PayPal that they've received it, which will probably take another week or more, then PayPal will have to connect to my account, which will take a couple of days, then I will have to wait for those transactions to post to my online account tracker thing, which, judging by my past transactions, will probably take anywhere from 2 weeks to another month. In other words, I will be lucky if this is all worked out before I actually receive the paycheck in question. I love French bureaucracy... not.

Add to this the fact that I am out of American cigarettes again (disappointing), and apparently there is a city-wide shortage of the French equivalent of my brand, cause I can't find them anywhere, and there you have my reasons for being grumpy pants today. Fortunately I've got the weekend to look forward to, and my parents next week! Tomorrow is Mom's birthday, by the way, so give her a hug if you see her!

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Sweet Sunshine!

I couldn't be more thankful for the beautiful weather we've been having lately. Mid-50's and sunny! Makes it a lot easier to get out of the house an get things done when it isn't cold and rainy all the time.

Not much to report this week, just more of the same. Last Wednesday my roomie Valerie's friend Naima came over and made us some super awesome food from the Maghreb (North Africa). Chick pea stew, delicious, buttery flat bread, and coconut cookies for dessert. Yum! We also hosted some couchsurfers this weekend. More fun! Other than that, we are planning some birthday festivities for my roomie Joel, who turns 27 (I think?) tomorrow. I'm not sure how/if St. Patty's day is celebrated here, but I plan on having at least one beer to commemorate the occasion.

Both days this week I have gone to my AM class only to find it canceled, which is irritating, but I haven't minded the extra time to have another cup of coffee, check email, etc. And despite the fact that it's exceptionally gorgeous today, Tuesday is giving me the business as usual. Hopefully this afternoon will be better.

And that's really all I have to say for myself for now. Maybe something more interesting will happen in the next few days that I can report on.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Back in the Saddle Again

"I'm back in the saddle again. I'm back! Ridin' high, ridin' high, ridin' high."

Yes, I've been channeling Aerosmith this week, because sometimes you need a little rock and roll to maintain your sanity.

Six weeks of teaching left. I can hardly believe it. My kids still have school until the end of June, so they're not even thinking about summer, but I am about ready to wrap up this whirlwind of a school year. I dove back into classes head first yesterday, and of course they've come back at me with everything they've got. Just before break, some of my students took a big exam over all the English we've learned so far this year. The results were... disappointing, to say the least. The ones who've got it really have it, but the rest... not so much. After some good reflection and discussion with the teacher I work with with these kids, I've determined that these results were not due to lack of effort or efficacy on my part or the teacher's, but rather the fact that our kids simply didn't put in the study time required to really master the vocab. And at the elementary age, you can't really expect them to "study," but the teacher tells me that the ones with the worst scores are habitual offenders on the homework front, and that I shouldn't beat myself up about it. And I'm not. I know I am a great teacher and that I have been working with these kids to the best of my ability, especially given the language barrier, so... tant-pis.

As much as I am anticipating the end of my "tenure" here, though, I'm beginning to realize that there are a lot of things I will miss about this place. I won't miss the small town lifestyle, rude service in restaurants, or the general refusal of most French people to give a damn about anything that doesn't directly affect them and their vacation time, retirement age, or work week length, but I will miss a lot of the little things. For example, most mornings I start my day at Ecole Cariot, about a 7 minute walk from my house. To get there, I have to pass by Ecole Froissart, a school I work at in the afternoons. Since I always pass Froissart just before school starts, I see a lot of my students and their parents on their way into the school, and hearing "Hel-Lo Sar-Ra" in their cute little French accents never gets old. I love the way all the little girls run up to me on the playground when I arrive, to give me bisous (the kiss on each cheek greeting), and how they notice any time I change my hair, wear makeup, or look particularly nice and tell me "Vous etes tres jolie aujourd'hui, Sar-Ra!" (you look very pretty today, Sara!). In essence, I love that they love me. And I will miss the teachers, too. Well, most of them, anyway. I have griped in the past that this job is not very fulfilling, and it isn't, but I have really come to develop a rapport with some of the teachers, even ones I don't work with directly. They're always interested in how I am doing, where I've been traveling, whether or not Joey is my boyfriend (something my kids always ask me, too, and which has become a running joke with Joey and me), and what I will do when I leave France. In the absence of true "roots" like I have at home, having such a supportive and interested community of adults around me has been a wonderful thing.

I will also really miss my roommates. Especially at meal times. I realized last night that some of my happiest times here have not been in Paris or Brussels or Amsterdam, but right at my own dinner table. We're all very busy and have different schedules, so we don't do a lot of things together, but dinner is almost always a "family" affair. We sit and chop vegetables together, munching on scraps, and sipping wine or beer while we chat and cook. We take our time eating, talking and joking with each other in French and English, and the incidence of laughter-induced wine out the nose is at an all-time high (it burns like hell, by the way). It's just such a great feeling of conviviality and community, and I will definitely miss that when I'm gone.

But enough sappiness. I've still got time left to enjoy, and I fully intend to do so. We've had several days of beautiful sunshine and rising temperatures, which has been a welcome change from our normally dreary, rainy days, and my parents and sister will be here in two weeks to visit. Life is very good, for the moment.