Monday, December 6, 2010

You Do the Hokey Cokey and You Turn Yourself Around...

Today we have learned a very important lesson. Today we have learned that the black boots that are so cute, that we love sooooo much, are not suitable for icy conditions. Unfortunately, we learned this lesson the hard way, by making a spectacular fall in the street, in front of one of our schools, in front of several students and parents. Ow... my pride... and my backside. Happy Monday, Sara.

In other news, I learned a new song today. It was a song I thought I already knew, but apparently the British English textbook we use knows a different version. It's called the Hokey Cokey. You put your arms and stuff in and you shake em all about, but then there's this whole weird extra chorus part where you do the Hokey Cokey and you turn yourself around...and then "knees bent, arms stretched, rah rah rah?" Yeah, I don't get it either. I am going to have to take this up with my British roommate.

So I went to the big Christmas market in Lille last Friday. On the whole it was kind of disappointing. I was hoping for a lot of handmade crafts and regional specialties that I could take home for Christmas gifts, but mostly it was just a lot of touristy crap. So that was a bummer. But I still had a very lovely afternoon. I went with Joey and two of his friends from the US who were visiting, Jamie and Brad. The temperature was hovering somewhere near the 20 degree mark (I have recently learned that this is some of the coldest weather Northern France has seen in years), but we bundled up and braved the cold and had a really good time. We got some roasted chestnuts and some mulled wine, which helped us warm up a little, and since the Christmas market was a bust, we trekked across the city to the Citadel, a huge military fortification from the 1800's that is now also a huge park. Very pretty all covered in snow. So we took some pictures, threw some snowballs, complained to each other about being cold, and then headed back downtown to the English language movie theater to see Harry Potter 7. It was excellent, of course, the best one so far, I think, but unfortunately the people at the movie theater must be trying to keep their expenses down, because it was effing freezing in there. During the frozen pond scene my teeth were actually chattering. But we enjoyed the movie nonetheless (it was Joey's second screening and Jamie and Brad's third), had some tasty dinner afterwards (and finally got warm!), and then headed back to Valenciennes to my house for a couple of bottles of wine to cap off the night. Brad and Jamie are now on their way to Egypt, for their honeymoon!

Anyhow, that's about all the news I have for now. But here are some pictures!

Joey, Jamie, and moi, braving the cold.
Christmas market crap...
La Citadelle
Joey and Brad having an impromptu dance party in my room...

Happy Monday, y'all!

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Taco Tuesday!

To borrow a phrase from my British friends, it is BLOODY cold outside. Like, teeth-chattering, bone-chilling, wind-ripping-right-through-you cold. It's so cold that I couldn't even finish the one cigarette I tried to smoke today. I'm quite glad I don't have to work, because I don't think I can be asked to leave the house at this point. So what better to do with my day then spend it inside, in sweatpants, coffee mug in hand and laptop in lap.

I had a really excellent day yesterday. Normally I hate Tuesdays, because I work all day without much of a break and I run back and forth between all three of my schools. Granted, even on Tuesdays I still have it much easier than some of my fellow assistants because my schools are close together and close to my house, but in my world, Tuesdays suck. So I begrudgingly got out of my warm, comfy bed (yesterday was pretty cold too), mainlined some coffee, and headed out the door. I got to work about 5 minutes late, but it didn't end up being a problem because the teacher I was working with was ten minutes late, apparently because of the snow we'd gotten the night before. I actually laughed out loud at this, because I thought she was joking. We did indeed get snow on Monday night, but less than half an inch. The grass and rooftops got a light dusting, and there wasn't any snow at all on the roads. They were just wet, as if we'd gotten a good drizzle, which happens pretty frequently around here. But apparently snow is pretty rare in these parts, and even the negligible amount we got Monday night is enough to paralyze the public transportation system in our city.

But anyway, we started class by continuing our work on body part vocabulary, which we've been doing for a couple of weeks now. We were focusing on the parts of the face, so I did an activity with the kids where I told them to draw a red nose, draw green eyes, etc, and we made monster faces. We did this activity together the first time, with me drawing on the board while they drew on their papers, so that everyone knew what was going on. Then I had them turn their papers over so we could do the activity a second time, this time without me drawing alongside them, and we would see who had the most accurate monster face at the end. So they followed my instructions and drew their monster faces, and then I had them bring them up and stick them on the chalkboard so I could look them over. And I'm walking down the line, pulling out the ones with mistakes, and I get about halfway through and I just have to stop, and stifle a laugh. I've been looking for a monster with a black face, green eyes, an orange nose, and a yellow mouth. And the drawing I see in front of me is a black circle, inside of which I see a green apple, and orange horse, and a yellow key. Maybe she had no idea what was going on, or maybe it was a 9 year old's attempt at abstract art, but nonetheless it made me chuckle, and I gave her some credit for at least getting the colors right. 

Fortunately, my next class was canceled, so instead of having to rush out the door and literally run to another school, I had some time to stop by my house, print some things for my afternoon classes, have another cup of coffee, and check my email. Enter the next bright spot in my day. I got an email from one of my favorite people from my time at IU, Kathryn Brown. I worked with Kathryn for 3 and a half years when I was a part of IU's GLB Speaker's Bureau, which is a group of gay volunteers that visit classes at the university and attend events in the community to do open Q&A sessions, or what I like to call "Ask a Homo." Kathryn is the moderator of these sessions, and I probably participated in close to 100 during my time with the group, so suffice it to say we saw quite a bit of each other over the years. But I haven't seen or talked to her since I graduated, so it was really nice to hear from her again.

So I went to my last morning class with a little bounce in my step, which was good because even on a terrific Tuesday like yesterday, that 11am class always sucks. But I got through it, and headed back to my place to meet my pal Joey for lunch. Joey is another American assistant who lives just a couple of blocks away from me, and frequently comes to my place to use internet and do laundry. My roommates jokingly refer to him as our 6th roomie, such is his ubiquity in our house, and our love for him also :-). Joey normally works all day on Tuesdays, but because of that blasted quarter to half inch of snow we got on Monday (even though it was all melted by noon), he couldn't get a city bus out to his school in a neighboring town, so he had the whole day off. So we were eating lunch and I was complaining about one of my afternoon classes who don't seem to have much respect for me, and lamenting the fact that I don't know enough French to properly scold them. And Joey, who speaks much better French than I do, and who normally works in a high school, wondered if he might be able to come to my afternoon classes with me, to "observe." I figured since he is also a language assistant and since nobody takes assistants seriously anyway, that it would probably be fine. And it was. So I had some company to help me slog through my long Tuesday afternoon, and to help me put some of my less respectful pupils in their grammatically-correct places. Thanks Joey!

So my workday finally ends, and Joey and I decide that since there is a serious lack of Mexican food in France, we are going to make tacos for dinner. While we are in the kitchen, cooking up a fiesta, we learn that my French roommates have never had tacos before, so we decide to go all out. We made a taco bar and margaritas, chips and salsa and guacamole... the works. We also had some other dinner guests, so it turned into an impromptu dinner party of sorts. We had Julien, a friend of my roommate Valerie, Daniel, a (Mexican!!) Spanish language assistant (who approved of my Mexican cuisine, tyvm!), and Amaury, our first couchsurfer! If you recall, couchsurfing, ie staying on willing host's couches for free instead of paying for a hotel or hostel, is how I spent my first three weeks in France, and how I met two of my roommates, so I was quite happy to be able to return the favor to Amaury, who is in town for some job interviews. So we ate tacos and drank margaritas (and later the rest of the tequila), listened to Buena Vista Social Club, and a good time was had by all. Indeed, we discussed making every Tuesday night "Taco and Tequila Tuesday," or the French alternative "Mardi Mexicaine." It was really a very lovely evening. And, to cap it all off, Joey spent the night and got up and made crepes for us for breakfast this morning. C'etait magnifique!

And since then it's been coffee and pajamas. Oh, and shampoo. Yep, I shampooed my hair today. Really just to see what would happen; I haven't made a final decision as to whether or not I am going to go 'poo or no-'poo for the long term. Immediately when I put the shampoo in my hair though it felt much finer and like it had lost a lot of its texture and body, and it had that weird "squeaky" clean thing going on. Now it's almost dry, and doesn't seem to be much worse for the wear. It's much silkier and softer, but definitely finer and maybe a bit frizzier, and my ends seem a little dry, although they were a little dry before, too. I dunno, the jury is still out. We'll have to see how it behaves when I try to style it.

Anyway, that was my lovely day. I definitely needed it. Hope all of you are doing well at home, and I look forward to seeing you in just 2 short weeks!

Monday, November 29, 2010

Lazy Weekend

There are three things I always want when I am sick. Movies/TV, soup of some kind (Thai tom kha gai is always my first choice, but chicken noodle will do in a pinch), and my mother. At least I got two of those this weekend.

Yes, I spent the weekend in the house, feeling pretty yucky. It started on Thursday night. After having a nice Thanksgiving chat with the family on Skype, I headed out to the Little Rock Cafe, which is a local bar (in a really cool old mansion) with darts and pool tables and such where my expat friends and I like to hang out, I think because it's the closest thing we have in Valenciennes to an American bar or British pub. I had a couple of drinks, but not too many, because I work at 8:30am on Fridays. So I was a good girl, home by 11:15 and in bed by midnight, but I woke up around 2am and could not for the life of me get back to sleep. Some of you may have seen my disgruntled Facebook statuses about this. I tossed and turned, counted sheep, read, Facebooked, took some Benedryl, and nothing was working. And the longer I stayed awake, the more I noticed that my body was beginning to ache and my head was getting stuffy, and I was just generally feeling crummy. Finally at 7am I decided work wasn't going to happen for me, so I sent emails to the appropriate people, popped a couple more Benedryl, and tried again to sleep. I think I finally fell asleep around 8:30am on Friday, right as I should have been walking into work.

I woke up late Friday afternoon, feeling even worse. Not really like I had the flu, but not like a cold either. I was stuffy but had no cough, achy but no nausea. And TIRED. Like I couldn't possibly sleep enough. So that's what I did, pretty much for the rest of the weekend. I slept whenever I felt like sleeping, and when I was awake I got caught up on all of the Harry Potter movies and reread the 7th book so that I can see the movie when I get home. By yesterday evening I was feeling better and a little restless, so I took a walk around town. All the Christmas decorations are up now and it was really nice. Now today I'm back to work, trying to tackle a massive to-do list, and counting down the days til I'm home for the holidays!

Sorry it's not much of an update, but I'm going to the big Christmas market in Lille this upcoming weekend, so I should have lots to say and some pictures to share next week!

Monday, November 22, 2010

Le Plus Terrible Thanksgiving du Monde

The least blurry pic of me and all of my roomies. From L to R: Laura (British), Valerie, Romain, and Joel (all French)
So we did Thanksgiving this weekend. And it was, in a word, TERRIBLE. This is of course because "terrible" is young French kid slang for "freaking amazing." Sort of like how we used to say "bad" or "wicked" to mean good... you get what I mean. Indeed though, this was a Thanksgiving for the books.

My roommates and I had been planning this event for about a month, as we also wanted to have a housewarming party at the same time. Little did we know what a party it would be. We decided to make it a two part event, with Thanksgiving dinner in the afternoon, and the party portion in the evening. That way people could come for one or both parts. We did the Thanksgiving dinner portion pitch-in style, which was really cool because then we not only had traditional American dishes, but we had some from Spain, France, and other places as well. We had to have chicken instead of turkey, because apparently you can't find a whole turkey in France any time before December (they only eat turkey at Christmas... seriously, you can't even find turkey lunch meat around here), but when it was on my plate, smothered in mashed potatoes and gravy, even I couldn't tell the difference. So we had chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy, several more exotic plates from our international friends, candied yams (definitely may favorite part of the meal), cheesy potato bake, and all kinds of other deliciousness. My friend Ben and I also collaborated to make a green bean casserole, which was a feat as you cannot find canned cream of mushroom soup or French-fried onions around here. We improvised by making a powdered mushroom soup with a little less water than called for, and we battered and fried the onions ourselves. It actually turned out great, and I was sorry we hadn't made a second batch, because the first one went quickly. We had probably about 15-20 people for dinner (less than half of which were American, haha), all dressed up in our "church clothes," and it was a really nice time of eating, socializing, and drinking wine. I think it was just what I needed to cure that little pang of holiday homesickness.

After dinner, everyone relaxed for a while, changed out of their nice clothes, and more people began to arrive, many of whom were bearing gifts of alcohol. This is the part where the parents may want to stop reading, haha. Nothing too debaucherous happened, but if you want to preserve your image of me as sweet and angelic, this is not going to help :-).

So after everyone changed, we cranked up the music and got down to business on the party portion of the evening. We (myself and my fellow Americans) started off by sharing another very important American tradition with our international friends: beer pong. My friend David and I did well in the first couple rounds, but soon got schooled by my friend Allison (who claimed she hadn't played in years...lies), and a French guy who was super quick on the uptake. No one was skunked or trolled, so no naked laps were taken and no one had to sit under the table, but it was probably a good thing that this was earlier in the party, rather than later. Then two of my lovely roomies disappeared to the kitchen for a while and came back with plates and plates of food, ie, round two of Thanksgiving dinner. This is why I love Europeans, because they have no qualms about eating another entire meal at 10pm. And none of this meal involved leftovers from the afternoon, either. It was an entirely. New. Meal. Yes.

SO there was more eating and more socializing, a VIP sesh in my room with some friends, and then all the chairs were cleared out of the living room to make room for DANCING. Yay dancing! This was when I think having the international crowd was most interesting, because we all took turns DJ-ing and ended up with a pretty interesting mix of tunes. We had American hip-hop, French hip-hop, some middle Eastern stuff, salsa, reggaeton, pop, Britney, all kinds of fun music, and everyone was enjoying it. It was really funny to see different groups of people rocking out to different songs. I think my favorite moment, though, was when the Cupid Shuffle came on. For those of you who don't know, the Cupid Shuffle is like a modernized, club version of the electric slide. Same basic beat and step, just a "cooler" song. Anyway, if there's one thing French kids love, it's a group dance like that. So David and I taught approximately 40 people how to Cupid Shuffle and it was probably the highlight of my night.

After the Cupid Shuffle things start to get a little fuzzy, haha. We danced some more, and then I retreated to my room with several of my friends for most of the rest of the night, as it got quite crazy downstairs. I think, all told, we had upwards of 60 guests at the peak of the party. I know that the cops also showed up at some point, but just to make sure everything was alright and to tell us to turn down the music. They didn't even come in the house. Since the drinking age here is 18, we didn't have any underage drinkers, so we didn't have much to worry about anyway. I think I finally got to sleep around 5 am, after people quit randomly coming into my room, and after the thumping bass of the stereo stopped reverberating through my floor.

So yeah, that was Thanksgiving in France. And it was one I will remember for the rest of my life. I slept until 3pm yesterday, haha, and I'm still feeling the residual effects in my thighs, my lungs, and my liver. But you can't have fun without a few consequences to remind you why you don't have fun like that every weekend, right? :-)

Pics on facebook too, by the way.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Qu'est-ce que vous avez compris?

What have you understood? This is a question I have been asking both myself and my students a lot lately. I've FINALLY gotten into a solid routine at my schools, one which mostly consists of my making very elaborate powerpoint presentations (in English, of course) for my students, and then having to meticulously rehash every detail again in French. But everyone is learning (myself included), so that's a good thing. For example, I can now speak quite competently about American Thanksgiving traditions in French, and my students can speak somewhat competently about them in English. So we are making progress.

Also, I worked with the choir at one of my schools for the first time last week. That was interesting. The teacher is SUPER nice and I really like working with her, but her only qualification for teaching this choir seems to be that she herself enjoys singing. The kids don't read music, they don't know any scales or solfege, and they don't have any concept of key or tune or harmony. So I'm hoping I will be able to impart a little bit of Judy Hubbard wisdom on them in the next few weeks. Tomorrow we are definitely learning do-re-mi. I doubt I will be able to recreate any kind of Sister Act II miracle, but I think I can give them an experience that is a bit richer than what they are getting now.

Despite my successes at work, this has been a long and difficult week in many ways. First of all, I'm not sleeping well. I think it is because my sleep schedule is really turned around due to all of the days off I've had recently, during which I've slept pretty late, so now I find it extremely difficult to get myself in bed (let alone asleep) at a reasonable hour. Then once my head hits the pillow, my brain won't turn off, and with only 4-5 hours before I am supposed to be at work, I'm afraid to take any kind of sleep aid. So of course then I come home from work and cannot restrain myself from taking a nap, and the cycle starts all over again. I'm a bit cranky about all of this. Last night, however, I managed to get in bed by 11:30, only to be awakened by a ridiculous racket in the street around 3am. Granted, I live on a street with several bars, so I am used to hearing the drunks out and about once in a while. But last night woke me from a dead sleep because it was LOUD. I heard lots of shouting and glass breaking, some really loud booming noises, and, eventually, police sirens. A little too scared to open my shutters and check out the situation, I just put on my headphones and went back to sleep. Today however, my roommate informed me that it got pretty ugly out there last night. Apparently a group of skinheads (yeah, the white supremacist group with shaved heads and lots of ink) were drinking in an Irish pub about half a block down from my house, and eventually stumbled out into the street, where they then decided it would be a good idea to harass the Arab guys in the Kebab shop next door. And by harass, I mean break their windows, beat them up, and either fire gunshots or explode small flashbombs (I wasn't too clear on my roommate's French, but it was one of the two, or maybe both). And I'm really hurt for those guys, because not only are hate crimes HORRIBLE, but also those guys are some of the nicest guys in the neighborhood! My friends and I frequently stop by the kebab shop on our way back from the bars, and the guys (all young, probably in their 20's) couldn't be friendlier to us. They ask us about America, and how we are settling in in France, and they often don't charge us full price for our food. They've even called off drunk French guys in the shop who hit on us. Seriously, great guys. My heart hurts for them, and for the ignorance that caused this terrible event.

But I do have some good news to share as well, on several fronts. First of all, making my BS and ACV shampoo and conditioner with boiled water seems to have done the trick. No more glue roots! Hooray! Secondly, after my lovely medical appointment with the French immigration offices yesterday, my visa has been validated and I am officially a legit resident of France! You will also be happy to know that I do not have tuberculosis. And I got to keep my chest x-ray, haha, which is an interesting souvenir of my European travel I guess.

Third, and most improtantly, I'M COMING HOME FOR CHRISTMAS!!!!!!!!

I could not be happier about this. I love France and am relishing my experiences here, but I'm really excited to get to spend some time with friends and family, rather than being posted up in my huge old house here, all alone (all my roomies and almost all of my friends are going home for Christmas). I'll be home December 16-26, so let's hang out!

Alright, I've got a private lesson to give in a few minutes, but I'll leave you with a list of the first things I am going to do when I get home, purely for your entertainment.

1. Eat Chipotle.
2. Eat more Chipotle.
3. Find some dry ice so I can bring more Chipotle back to France with me (I kinda miss Chipotle, ok?).
4. Cuddle my dogs (and friends, and family!)
5. Buy some American cigarettes.
6. Karaoke night at the Metro (Megan, Popkin, Jessie, I'm looking at you!!)
7. Drive a car.
8. Get lost intentionally just so I can ask for directions in English.
9. Buy bras and underwear (SOOOOO expensive in France!)
10. Drink Mountain Dew and eat Cajun trail mix.

That is all :-).

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

French people don't get fat. And kids really do say the darndest things.

I've noticed something really interesting over the course of the last 2 months: I'm losing weight. I'm losing weight despite the fact that everything I eat here is loaded with cheese, cream, butter, and/or chocolate. And bread. I eat mountains of bread. And yet... my pants won't stay up on their own.

I have several theories as to why this might be. 1) French people take meal times seriously, and a good dinner with friends or family often lasts for two hours or more. Although this leaves plenty of time for eating seconds (and in many cases, thirds), it also slows down the pace of each course, and (gasp!) actually allows you to recognize when you've had enough. And instead of inhaling your food, you have more of a chance to actually taste and enjoy it, which I think also leads to eating less. 2) Dessert isn't a big deal. Yes, the French are known for their pastries, and yes, I have had some really stellar ones here. But in general, in day-to-day life, there isn't much focus on dessert. After you've eaten your fill of a really rich entree and had a glass or two of wine and plenty of bread and cheese, a huge dessert doesn't really even sound good. Of course most of us want that little something sweet after dinner, but I find that a small piece of chocolate or a small piece of fruit is usually all I need. Add to that a cup of hot coffee or tea with milk, and who needs cake or pie or cookies? Not the French, apparently. And 3) There's not much of a (if any) taboo on fatty foods here. I think in the US we are always looking for a way to cut back the fat in our meals (and with the way we eat, many of us probably should), but that means that there's a lot of guilt and stress that goes into those things that we do add butter or cheese or cream to. And stress = weight gain. It's kind of an abstract theory, but I think because the French don't feel guilty about all of the rich things that are central to their cuisine, it enables them to enjoy those things in a (mentally) healthier way, and in a more steady, moderate way. I think the tendency in the US is to make things like butter, cream, and cheese a "once-in-a-while" treat, but I think this also leads us to be more reckless when we do eat these things, and causes us to binge on them or otherwise overindulge. Then we feel guilty and/or stressed, and stress = weight gain. Also, this may not be scientifically accurate, but it seems to me that a cup of cream consumed over the course of 4 meals in 4 days would be easier for the body to process than a cup of cream consumed in one sitting. Just saying. Anyway, in summation, I don't really know why I can eat all this rich, fatty deliciousness and still lose weight, but I'm certainly not complaining.

I've had two very full days of work so far this week. I've mostly been giving powerpoint presentations about my life and where I'm from, showing photos of family, friends, and, of course, dogs. The kids are loving it, and it's been a lot of fun for me too. I also have a huge, wonderful map of the US that Mom sent me, so we've been talking a lot about life in America, different fun facts about the states, etc. The kids are downright gleeful when I tell them that Michael Jackson was born in Indiana, but they are soon disappointed when they find out that this doesn't mean that he and I are friends, or that I've never even met him. And they ask lots of strange and interesting questions, too. Now, my students are mostly 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders, and yesterday when we were looking at the map and talking about the different states, I had a student ask me if the death penalty was legal in Indiana. I'm not sure I even knew what the death penalty was when I was that age, let alone what a controversy it is. When I told him it was indeed legal in Indiana, he then asked me if anyone famous had been executed there.So weird, haha. Then today I had a student who knew more about American government than I do. Again we were looking at the map, and he started grilling me about Barack Obama. And he was asking me questions about policy! Do you have any idea how strange it is to discuss health care reform with a 9 year old French kid?! Tres bizarre. But I am quite enjoying myself in most of my classes, and I am SUPER excited because starting this Friday I will get to spend 2 hours a week working with a choir! There were too many conflicts between my schools to give me all English classes, so at one of my schools I will also be teaching music, haha. As strange a placement as it is, I couldn't be happier. I miss my high school choir days! Look forward to a comical post about it soon, as it's been a few years and a few packs of cigarettes since I last sat down in front of some sheet music, haha. 

And lastly, I have some sad news to report. Sad for me anyway. I think I may have to switch back to shampoo for the duration of my time here in France. I had about one week of fabulous hair, and then I started to feel this gunky, glue-like substance building up on my roots. Thoroughly grossed out, I headed to the internet and my guru of all things natural, Crunchy Betty. You see, the water in Northern France is exceptionally hard, and apparently all of the calcium and magnesium ions in the water react with the sodium and carbonate in the baking soda when I mix my shampoo, and this causes what I've come to refer to as "glue roots," ie "must wear ponytail" hair. I've been told that I can try making my shampoo and conditioner with either rainwater (very easy to come by in these parts, but probably not so clean), or water that's been boiled and cooled. So I think I will try the boiled water option for the next week or so and see what happens, but if I still have glue roots I may have to throw in the proverbial towel, at least until I get home and have access to soft water. I'll keep you posted, but don't expect any photos. Glue roots are not pretty.

So that's what's good in the 'hood at the moment (ooh I feel like such a gangsta haha). I'll leave you with a photo. Not of France, but instead, of Indy, because this particular photo elicited a collective gasp of delight from every single class I showed it to today. It is a really great photo, and it makes me proud to call Indy home.


Thursday, November 4, 2010

Uh... Sorry I'm kind of a slacker...

Hello all.

It's been a while. I'd like to tell you that it's because I've been ridiculously busy that I haven't updated you on my life, but really it's just because I've been on a long school break and I've been in super sloth mode for most of it. So sorry about that.

Not much has been going on around here lately. The strikes are still going on in places around the country, but Valenciennes has been pretty quiet the last couple of weeks. Most everyone has also been on "Vacances de Toussaint," which is a 1-2 week vacation period around All-Saints Day, which is November 1. I was off for all of last week and all of this week until today. I taught one class today, and may or may not teach one tomorrow (the actual classroom teacher is away tomorrow), and then, ta-da! Weekend. Then next week is a short week because of Armistice Day.

The French sure do love their vacation time, and I'm certainly not complaining, but I'm so used to working a bajillion hours at home that I'm running out of ways to entertain myself during all of my down time. I've been sleeping a lot, reading a lot (Barbara Kingsolver's new novel!), and spending waaaaaay too much time on Facebook. I did go to Amsterdam last weekend with my friends, and that was a lot of fun. We were there from Thursday night through Sunday morning, and we spent our days exploring the city, checking out the architecture and cultural stuff (we took a really awesome boat tour of the city through the canals), and of course we spent our nights partying. And let me tell you, Amsterdam is a crazy place to be on Halloween. Getting up at 6am the morning after to catch our bus home was NOT fun, but all in all we had a really great time, and I was able to get a lot closer with some of my new friends here, which helps me not miss my crew at home quite so much. 

In other news, my shampoo-free lifestyle change is going pretty well. My hair was really awesome last week, full of body and easy to manage (I even straightened it without a drop of product-- a definite first!), but this week it's being kind of oily and weird. I must still be in that adjustment phase. I think it's going to be a good thing overall though. The biggest difference I've noticed, though, is that immediately after I stopped using shampoo, I stopped having dandruff/dry scalp/ itchiness/ flakes. Seriously. Something others with scalp issues might want to consider. Also, my hair dries wavy/curly now when I air-dry it. Who knew I had curly hair hiding in there?

Here is a picture of me about one/one and a half weeks into the project:
Still wasn't sure if I'd made a good decision at this point... but notice the hair is starting to get wavy.
And here's a multi-purpose picture (me in Amsterdam, with good hair, ab three and a half to four weeks in):
That would be my friend Allison next to me.
And that's really all I've got to say for myself. Except, if any of you see my mother, give her a big hug for me. She is awesome.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Yikes! Strikes! (And some other news)

So the striking continues this week, and unfortunately it is not as peaceful this time around as it has been over the last month. At this point I should reassure everyone that I am 100% safe, that my house might as well be a WWII-era fortress, and that I am staying far away from any rioting/blockades. Yes I said rioting and blockades. Yesterday afternoon I was sitting in my room (which looks out over the street), and I heard all of the yelling and horn-honking that usually means a parade of demonstrators is headed down the street. So I went to my window and found a bunch of kids (I say kids but I don't know how old they were, looked like maybe late high school through college aged) terrorizing their way up the block. They were knocking over garbage bins (of course it was trash day yesterday), and throwing garbage everywhere, banging on the windows and doors of the cars that they forced to stop, and stealing fruits and vegetables from the market across from my house and throwing them at cars, people, and each other. This only lasted for about five to ten minutes as they moved on down the road, and I figured it was just a bunch of dumbass kids taking advantage of the fact that there was already disorder in the air from the "real" strikers, just causing trouble to be causing trouble. But then evening came, and people were forming human blockades to stop traffic, the trams, and the trains. Then a car got set on fire. Rocks were thrown through the windows of one of my schools, and the police ended up having to quell that same group of young people that had been on my street as they tried to start a riot in the park just outside the school right as the kids were being released from classes. And it just ticks me off, you know? I sound like my grandfather right now, but most of these young punks don't even know what the strike is about, and even if they do, they've got their whole working lives ahead of them to change things for the better. Why get violent about the retirement age when you're only 20 years old? Why put my kids and my co-workers in danger like that? SO not cool. Normally one of my groups of kids walks a couple of blocks to the city pool on Tuesday afternoons after I have them, and they were all really upset today because they couldn't go-- the teacher didn't want to risk taking them outside. And as I was leaving said school just about an hour ago, there were probably 20 police officers and/or vehicles stationed all around the little park outside (the same one where there were problems yesterday), and the area was rapidly filling with the same (idiot) crowd as yesterday.  So to reiterate, I'm completely safe, but completely frustrated.

But despite all the social unrest, I've had a really excellent week so far. I've had a lot of fun getting to know my kids and getting to actually do some work with them. I've mostly been doing introductory stuff, telling them where I am from, etc., and it turns out that "Indiana" sounds an awful lot like "India" to them. Yes, my kids think I am Indian.We've also been talking about Halloween, or as they call it, "Allo-een." The teachers I've been working with so far seem to be ok, but some of them are a little hard to read. Despite the fact that each one is the school's designated English teacher, most of them speak, at best, at a rudimentary level, and they do most of their teaching from cassettes or CD's. I can tell they get a little nervous/intimidated about teaching English in front of me. But while some of them actively seek my help with pronunciation, vocab, etc., others remain rather standoffish and tend to hyper-assert their authority over both the kids and me. I actually had a teacher correct me yesterday when I said "tomato." She wanted me to pronounce it "to-mah-to." Fortunately we didn't get into potatoes and potahtoes, or we'd have had to call the whole thing off :-).
 
I also think that I got a little heartwarming nod from the teaching gods last night. I was in my room working on lesson plans, and trying to figure out what I could tell my kids about where I am from. I was flipping through an old issue of Indianapolis Monthly magazine that I had just haphazardly thrown into my suitcase at the last minute. It was the January 2010 issue, and apparently I never finished reading it, because about 2/3 of the way through, lost in thoughts about home and teaching, I suddenly find a double page spread of Jim and Joy Robbins smiling up at me. Now, to those of you out there in New Castle who are reading this, I really don't need to say much more, but for the rest of you, I'll tell you that Jim and Joy are two of the most incredible and influential people I ever had the privilege to be educated by. They were both teachers at my high school for many, many years, and I had the opportunity to have both of them during my sophomore year, which was also their last year before they retired. Jim taught speech (as in the public speaking kind), and Joy taught Home Ec (I had her for "Intro to Foods" and I worked as her assistant during my study hall). And the two of them, just... wow. Amazing people, amazing educators. And they were in Indy Monthly because they also ran an image consulting company that worked primarily with Miss America contestants on their interview skills, and have had several winners in the last 20 years. But it was just crazy to suddenly see them smiling up at me from the page, like they were telling me it was going to be alright, haha. And I never even knew that article was there. It was especially touching, too, because Joy passed away shortly after the article was published. So it was a nice warm-fuzzy for my evening.

And one last thing before I ramble on for too long. About my hair. It's gross. I did the baking soda/ACV wash for the second time last night and... ick. I let my hair air-dry and it dried kind of stiff, and then I brushed it out and it felt like the end of the day after you've had a lot of product in your hair, you know, kind of tacky and waxy. But I was told to expect this, and told that it gets better, so I remain determined to stick it out for at least a month. I'll post a progress pic later this week.

That's all! Peace and love, my friends!

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Strikes, Epiphanies, and the "No-'Poo" Movement

So... I'll let the cat out of the bag... I've been pretty darn homesick lately. I was told to expect a substantial dip in my mood about a month into my time here, and sure enough, it happened. I got really sullen and mope-y and was pretty antisocial for about a week, spending a lot of time in my room wishing I was anywhere but here. And then last night I had an epiphany of sorts. I thought, "Sara, you are here for the next 6 months whether you like it or not, and you can either turn that into the world's longest pity party, and be miserable for every one of the next 180 days, OR you can make the most of this wonderful opportunity you've been given, learn to speak kick-ass French, make some awesome new friends, and immerse yourself in this new and different culture (are you an anthropologist or what?!), and take the few bad days you'll have as they come." I decided to go with option B. Yes, I miss my friends, my family, my dogs. Yes, I miss American comfort and convenience. BUT I have awesome roommates, a great job, and 8 weeks of paid vacation in the next 6 months. What am I moping for?! So I've had a paradigm shift of sorts, and am excited to proceed with this new outlook on my life in France. Hooray!

Speaking of life in France, there are two things France is known for: paperwork and strikes. I wrote about the horrors of paperwork a couple of weeks ago, but I haven't said much about the strikes. Strikes happen every couple of weeks here (mostly stemming from the recent change in the retirement age-- it's been moved back by 2 and a half years), and they range from barely noticeable (What? There's a strike today? I had no idea...) to hoards of people marching through the streets, transportation and businesses shut down, and schools closed for lack of teachers. The latter is what awakened me this morning. I was in a dead sleep (I'd been out celebrating my new-found lease on life last night), and suddenly I hear sirens. Then yelling and chanting, singing, and those super annoying horns they had at the World Cup soccer tournament. I opened my windows, and this is what I saw:
All the way down my street, as far as I could see in either direction. Here is a short video:

video
Crazy huh?

And lastly, speaking of crazy, I have decided to join the "No-'Poo" movement. That is, I've decided to stop shampooing my hair. I haven't decided to stop washing my hair, mind you, I've just decided to stop shampooing it. Turns out shampoo is actually really bad for your hair, and if you stop using it, your hair becomes much healthier, shinier, and more manageable. You can read all about it here, at Crunchy Betty, my new favorite blog for all things natural and crunchy (to those of you who can appreciate this reference, I may make the transition from "Chapstick" to full-on "Granola" after this, though I refuse to stop shaving my legs). Instead of my usual dandruff shampoo (French Head n Shoulders), I'll be using a mixture of baking soda and water. And instead of my usual conditioner (Pantene Pro-V Classic), I'll be using a mixture of Apple Cider Vinegar and water. I'll be doing this regimen about 3 times a week, to start, and I'm going to try it for a minimum of one month.

So, here is my "before" picture:
To be fair, this pic is a couple of months old, but it gives a good idea of what my hair looks like when it's been freshly 'poo-ed and air-dried. I did the baking soda and ACV wash for the first time last night, but in the flurry of Friday night activity in my house, I didn't get to take an after picture. I'll post one in a week or so when I've got a few washes under my belt. So far so good, though. My hair feels relatively clean, it doesn't smell bad or anything, and it even feels like it has a little more softness and body. I'm excited to see what happens!

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Getting Into the Groove


Salut mes ami(e)s!

Ah... everything is starting to come together, and I can finally give you a nice update on the last couple of weeks of my life (Mom, I know you are thrilled)! I wrote briefly last week about the house and about getting started in my schools, but now I can give you a little more info.

So, the house. It seems to finally be in a fully livable state! We have all of the essential furniture and appliances, and all of our roommates but one (Roman, who will be moving in next week). AND, most importantly, we finally have gas (for heat and hot water!) and internet!

Here are some pictures:
My bedroom (yes those doors lead to a balcony!)
Our living room
View of the street from my balcony
 Cute, isn't it?


So now about my schools. As I think I may have mentioned, I am working in three elementary schools in downtown Valenciennes. I've visited all three and have spent the last two weeks observing at two of them. All of the teachers and faculty seem really nice, and I am excited to get to work. The French do education a little bit differently, though, so I will have some adjustments to make. First of all, the school day is from 8:30am until 4:45pm, with a two hour break in the middle when most students go home for lunch. This works out really well for me, because I live within walking distance of all of my schools, so I too can go home for lunch (and maybe a nap!). Also, there are no classes on Wednesdays in the elementary schools, so that will make for a nice break in the middle of the week. The second big difference is vacation time. I will have about 8 weeks of (paid!) vacation during the 7 months of my contract. Our first break is for Toussaint (all Saints), and begins the last Wednesday of October and runs through the first week of November. As of right now I am planning a trip to Brussels and Amsterdam for that time. The third (and biggest) difference I have noticed about the French education system is how strict the teachers are. Monday I was observing with a teacher, and a student was playing with his pencil case at his desk. Without a word, she walked over to him, picked up the pencil case, and threw it out into the hall. Later, this same student was playing with pencils and other stuff on his desk, so she walked over to his desk and simply pushed all of his stuff off onto the floor with her arm. A few minutes later, still undeterred, the student was flipping through the pages of his math book while the teacher was lecturing at the board. She was pointing to things on the board with a yardstick, and when she noticed he still wasn't paying attention, she whacked him on the head with the yardstick! It seemed a little extreme, but I had to stifle a giggle, because this kid kind of had it coming. In addition, French teachers are definitely not afraid to yell at their students. An example of some shrieked dialogue from a teacher I observed today (in French of course): Everyone shut up! You are unbelieveable! What? Am I speaking Chinese?! Put your things away, you are wasting my time! Every Thursday you put me in a bad mood because you are such a horrible class! Shut up now! The next person I hear speak will go directly to Madame M*****'s office! Theo! GO! Alexi! GO! Get out of here!" I have witnessed something similar to this in almost every classroom I've been in. I don't know if the that's just the way things work around here, or if the teachers are a little burned out, or what, but again, this was an unruly class that kind of had it coming.

Tomorrow I've got a big meeting at the Inspection Academique (basically the HQ for the school district) to do paperwork and learn how to teach these crazy kids. I had a similar meeting last week that was so useless and boring I was contemplating escape via the third story window, so I'm not exactly looking forward to this meeting either, but if I can get through it I should be able to begin actually teaching next week. I'm really anxious to get into the classroom and show them what I can do, because I know they don't have high expectations of me, and I'm looking forward to surprising them.

But, yeah, that's pretty much the update for now. I'm missing friends and family a WHOLE LOT, so send me an email or get on Skype and say hello!

Friday, October 8, 2010

We've got some catching up to do...

Hi Everyone! Sorry it's been so long since I've posted, I've been quite busy!

Most of my time over the last couple of weeks has been spent buried up to my eyeballs in paperwork. For every form you might have to fill out for something in America, in France there are 4. Also, French people LOVE to say "No." Maybe you didn't sign it in blue ink, maybe you wrote one of your numbers funny, maybe they just don't like the look of you. If they can find a way to say no to you, they will, haha.

But despite the horrors of French bureaucracy, life has gone on. I'm moved into my house now (pics soon, I forgot to bring my camera chip today), and we've got beds, a futon (it's called a clic-clac here in France), a table and chairs, a stove, and a frig. We're slowly but surely accumulating the rest. We've had water and electricity since we moved in about a week ago, but we are still waiting to get our gas turned on (once again thanks to French bureaucracy), which means no hot water (I've been showering at a friend's), and no heat (which we actually do need, despite the fact that it's only early October). But we should be getting the gas turned on early next week. We are also still waiting on internet, which is going to take about 3 more weeks, much to my chagrin. So I've been spending a lot of time at McDonald's using their free wifi.

We have also found not one, but two new roommates! Our house is billed as a 4 bedroom house, but there is actually a small office that we are using as a 5th bedroom. Our new roomates are Valerie, a 23 year old occupational therapist from Southern France, and Roman, a 25 year old nurse (not sure where he is from, but he is French). So now our household is majority French, and that's what we primarily speak to each other. It's been quite a challenge for me, but my french is improving by leaps and bounds with every passing week.

I also visited all of my schools this week. I'll be teaching at 3 elementary schools in the center of Valenciennes, all within walking distance of my house, which is great! Most of my students are 9 and 10 years old, as this is when they start their first foreign language in France (something I think the US should think about!).I'll be working 4 hours a week at each school, and speaking only English to my students during the class period (though I am sure I'll have a flurry of French questions before and after class). This will be a challenge for me and for them, but I'm really looking forward to it.

That's about all there is to say for now... but I'll be sure to update again when I start teaching next week!

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Weekend Hodgepodge

So this is going to be a bit of a mishmash post, but I have a few little things to share.

1) I have found a really effective way to take cough syrup (normally it makes me gag). Instead of doing 3 spoonfuls, chased one at a time by OJ, I just poured 3 spoonfuls into my OJ and downed it. Worked like a charm. It's nearing cough and cold season, so you should all keep this in mind.

2) Read this blog: Crunchy Betty. This woman does incredible things in the way of beauty products and household cleaners using fruits, veggies, vinegar, stuff like that, and posts all of her recipes. I'm thinking of switching to homemade deodorant.

3) I have the greatest CouchSurfing host <<ever>> right now. She found me housing (see 3a), introduced me to a ton of really cool people in the Valenciennes CouchSurfing community, and is even letting me crash at her place for an extra night so I don't have to go to a hotel. Fabulous.
        3a) I don't want to get super excited about this yet, as it is not set in stone, but it looks like I finally have housing!! When I arrived at Emilie's (my current host), on Wednesday, I mentioned sometime within the first 20 minutes of conversation that I was desperately looking for housing. And she says, "Oh, my friend Joel is looking for a roommate." Well, as it turns out, Joel had posted an ad on "Appartager," which is a French housing website where you can look for roommates or people who need them, etc. I had replied to this ad that very same morning, before I came to Emilie's. However, Joel had been unable to reply to my ad because neither of us are paid members of Appartager (which is of course how they always get you). So I talked to Joel on the phone and later that night met him and Laura, who will be another housemate. We all hit it off and I guess they like me, because now the posted ad has my name in it too :-). Joel is French and Laura is British, and both are also involved in CoushSurfing (how they met Emilie, of course), so now we are looking for a 4th roommate who is male and from a non-English-speaking country so that we have a good balance. Joel and Laura have found a 4 bedroom house which they tell me is huge and amazing (I would live in a cardboard box right now if I could call it my own, so I'm trusting them for the moment), and as far as I know, it's ours as soon as I get my paperwork in, which will be on Tuesday when I get my bank account. Even though we don't have a 4th housemate yet, the house is cheap enough that we can afford it split between 3, which is good. I say that all of this is not set in stone, because there is a small chance that if someone came in with all the appropriate paperwork and money and wanted the house, the agency could give it to them, but from what I understand, it is kind of "on hold" for us, though not in any kind of legally binding way. So fingers crossed and prayers said that all of this works out!

4) I had a really wonderful time last night. Emilie hosted a potluck dinner for the Valenciennes CS community last night in her apartment. I helped her get ready and made some food to contribute, and as we were sitting on the couch waiting for guests to arrive, she told me she thought seven or eight people would come. The first guests arrived around 8pm (including Joel and Laura, which was great), and by 9:30 there were 20 of us crammed into Emilie's small-ish living room. But it was great! There were Americans (yes, plural, there were 2 of us!), French, Spanish, Italians, Brits, and even a guy from Tunisia and one from Colombia. Everyone brought great food and (of course) alcohol, and we all just sat around and chatted in a variety of languages until almost 2am. SUCH a good time. Joel and Laura and I have decided that the next CS party is going to be at our house :-).

So that's the weekend update. Emilie is off to a wedding, and I'm off to the kitchen to munch on some leftovers from last night, and to enjoy the fact that I'm not spending $70 on a hotel right now. Woohoo!

Friday, September 24, 2010

Adventures in Cough Syrup

I've been a bit mopey lately. Maybe it's the gray and rainy weather, maybe it's this cough I can't shake, maybe it's just the first round of homesickness and feeling sorry for myself because I don't have housing, only kind of speak the language, and am feeling a bit isolated. Whatever it is, I've been kind of crabby. Still, though, I have managed to have some bright spots amidst my doom and gloom.

This morning I got up and realized two things: 1) I stink. I've been showering regularly, and while I've got plenty of clean underwear and socks, I've been wearing the same two pairs of jeans and 4 t-shirts for the last week and a half. Everything else is meticulously vacuum-packed in storage bags in the big suitcase, because I thought I'd have housing by now. I could open it up, but then there's an excellent chance that I won't be able to get it closed again. And 2) this cough is annoying the crap out of everyone, especially me, and I need to do something about it. Seriously, I coughed in line at the grocery store today (I covered my mouth as any polite person would), and everyone within earshot turned and looked at me like I was spreading SARS around or something. So I set out in my new rain coat (one of the aforementioned bright spots-- I love this coat) for the pharmacy.

Now, allow me to take a moment to explain that pharmacies in the US are not the same as pharmacies in France. First of all, every "pharmacie" in France has a bright green, Vegas-style flashing sign outside that blinks and swirls and does all kinds of crazy things to get your attention. Strange but true. Second of all, in France, "over the counter" medications are actually sold "over the counter," ie, you don't need a prescription, but you do have to talk to the pharmacist to get them. They are also a lot stronger than OTC meds you can buy in the US, which may be why you have to talk to the pharmacist first. So I walked into the main pharmacy in the center of town and spent a few minutes looking around. Also unlike US pharmacies (I'm thinking like CVS and Walgreens), French pharmacies don't have all that extra crap like hair accessories and makeup and parfume and stuff, which sucks, because in this case I actually wanted that extra crap to be there so I could find some body spray or some Febreeze or something to make myself smell a little better. But, nothing. So I settled for some ylang-ylang essential oil (holistic treatment components are often sold alongside conventional ones), and I think it was actually a better choice because now that's what I smell like, ylang-ylang, instead of half like cheap parfume and half like a 3rd-day t-shirt. So I grabbed that and went in for the scary part: trying to communicate with the pharmacist. It actually wasn't that bad. It went something like this:

Me: Bonjour Monsieur.... uh.... je parle francais assez bien, mais... uhh... (Hello Sir, uh, I speak French kind of ok but, uh...)
Pharmacist: Oui? (Yes?)
Me: Uh... j'ai besoin de quelquechose pour...(I need something for...) and then, not knowing the word for cough, I just gave him the best, phlegm-iest chest cough I could muster.

And it worked. He grabbed a big bottle of cough syrup, told me to take 3 spoonfuls 3 times a day, and I paid and went on my way. So, not as scary as I thought, and taking French cough syrup is actually not quite as torturous as American cough syrup, because it is thinner and goes down much easier. Still have to chase it with some orange juice though.

So that was my morning. The afternoon finds me smelling better, coughing a little less, and looking forward to having dinner with some British assistants and a couple of potential roommates tonight.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Some fun and some stress...

I've had a lot of fun the last couple of days. And also, a lot of stress. But you can't have your cake and eat it too I guess, even in France (didn't Marie Antoinette lose her head for trying?).

I've spent that last two days in the care of Thibault, my second CouchSurfing host. Thib is a 28-year-old middle school English teacher, and one of the most popular CouchSurfing hosts in Lille, for good reason. He is A LOT of fun! On Monday night he took me to his friends' apartment to meet them and have some drinks. There were about ten of us there, and everyone was really friendly, and very interested in me and what I am doing here in France. They were all speaking French (at native speed, and with a lot of slang), but I understood about 20% of what was said, a feat that impressed both Thib and myself. And it was really nice to hang out with a group of young people like that, as it reminded me of hanging out with my friends at home. I got to try some different Belgian beers (the drink of choice around here), and some rum from Reunion, one of the French territories. So a good time was had by all.

It has also been fun to talk to Thib about all of his travels. He has been to almost every country in Europe (except for Greece and a couple of former USSR countries), and has done it all through CouchSurfing. He also spent 2 months in Indianapolis when he was in high school, as part of an exchange program, so it was really neat to talk to him about his time there.

Yesterday, while Thib was at work, I headed into the Centre Ville to meet up with Christin, another girl from IU who is doing the same teaching assistant program that I'm doing. She brought 3 other American assistants with her, and the 5 of us spent the afternoon wandering around the Centre Ville and commiserating about our mutual stress/culture shock/inability to understand what's said to us in French. As it turns out, people in Northern France speak much more quickly and tend to run words together more than in central and Southern France. I guess the saying "everything is slower in the South" applies in Europe too. But it was really comforting to spend the day with some people who are going through what I'm going through.

So that was the fun, which helped to mitigate the stress. I found out on Monday night that the British assistant who had asked me to live with her and two others in Valenciennes, and who had taken it upon herself to make all of the arrangements (and not really let anyone else be involved), had found housing for herself and two of my other prospective roommates, and totally left me in the wind. So now I've got to find housing, which is complicated by the fact that I've learned that in order to go through a rental agency, I need to have an old rent statement from my last place, and some old utilitiy bills, all of which I threw away when I moved out of my apartment in Indy. So I'm not really sure what I'm going to do. My contact person at my school thinks she has found a house for the 3 assistants in Valenciennes that still need housing (myself included), but that means all three of us will have to be on board, and I don't know if that will happen or not. But I have to hope that it will. Otherwise, I'm not sure what my next step will be. I know something will work itself out eventually, and that my school will not let me be homeless, I just hope that it's sooner rather than later, as I am quite anxious to have a place to land. CouchSurfing is fun, but being a nomad is hard work.

So that's the update on my life. This afternoon, Thib is going to drive me (hooray!) to the train station and I will go to Valenciennes, hopefully for the duration. I'll be spending the next 3 nights with CouchSurfing host Emilie, and hopefully getting some other details of my life nailed down, like getting a French cell phone, opening a bank account, etc. I'll be sure to keep you all posted on how things are going.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Good things come to those who rise early...


What an unexpectedly wonderful morning.

I woke up at 5:30 this morning (apparently I still haven't gotten used to French time), and after Skyping with Laura for about an hour (the only American I knew would be up and online in the middle of the night), I decided to venture out into the cool, quiet dawn and see what Lille is like on a Sunday morning. So I zipped up in my cozy North Face jacket (50 degrees would be a generous estimate of the temperature here), and headed for the boulangerie (bakery) across the street. After some contorted and convoluted French on my part, and a lot of gesturing and repeating on the part of the girl at the counter, I managed to order a croissant (still warm from the oven, mmm), and a "cafe au lait" (coffe with milk, of course), "sur place" (dine in). I sat at a table, sipped my coffee, and watched the streets begin to wake up. I noticed some vendors setting up outside the boulangerie, so I ordered another coffee, this time "emporter" (to go), and decided to take a walk. I walked about a half a block, and down an alleyway I noticed several more vendors setting up, so I turned and walked in that direction. When I turned the corner, I found an open-air market that would put the Bloomington farmer's market to shame. This market literally goes for blocks in every direction, and completely fills a huge lot in the center. I saw everything from fruits and vegetables to bootleg DVDs and designer knockoffs, wallpaper and giftwrap, fresh seafood, olives, jailbroken cell phones, shoes, handbags, jewelry, lingerie, and, best of all, rotisserie meats of every variety being roasted on-site. I'm going back for lunch :-).

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Things I have noticed about France

1. Parking spaces, stop lights, crosswalks, and general rules of traffic/pedestrian interaction are optional.
2. No Pandora (Boo!).
3. Most restaurants give a discount for "plats emporter" (carry-out).
4. Gypsies do exist.
5. A good internet connection is a gold mine.
6. Bad American TV, even when dubbed in French, is still bad American TV.
7. American fashion aspires to be French, French fashion aspires to be American.
8. Butter on everything (Mmmmm).
9. Despite what I'd been told, most people do NOT speak English (this is ok with me most of the time).
10. Interracial and gay relationships are much more common and accepted (we should all think this way).
11. Hotels charge an arm and a leg for food, but also disallow you from eating in your room (I do it anyway).
12. McDonald's, Subway, Pizza Hut, Domino's.
13. Homeless people are just as ubiquitous as in the US, but don't swear at you when you ignore them.
14. Apparently I look like I fit in, because people ask me for directions all the time.
15. Lots of Buckeye trees, which remind me of home.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Bonjour Lille!

Bonjour everyone! I've finally made it to France! After a verrrry long flight from Chicago to Paris, an hour long train ride from Paris to Lille, and a lot of walking with A LOT of luggage, I'm finally starting to get acquainted with the city. I'm currently in Lille, which is not where I will be living, but is the closest big city to my eventual home (Valenciennes). Lille is the 4th largest city in France, and is generally known to be pretty gloomy and industrial, but I haven't found that to be true at all. In the last few years, Lille has been undergoing a cultural renaissance of sorts. There are several universities here, and a huge part of the population (like 42%) is under 25, so there are a lot of really cool things happening in terms of art, theater, music etc.
My life here hasn't been super exciting so far, but that's ok with me. I'm enjoying easing myself into the lifestyle, and trying to avoid culture shock (as much as I can, anyway). Plus I have upwards of 100 pounds of luggage to cart around with me until I get settled in Valenciennes, so I can't get into too much trouble anyway. I spent my first two nights here in Lille with a CouchSurfing host named Anso, a girl about my age who works in product design for a company that makes cycling shoes. She was very nice but very quiet, and pretty busy with a project for work, so we didn't get to talk a lot, but she did show me around the city and gave me a comfy place to sleep and some excellent French coffee in the mornings. Now I am in a hotel for the weekend, because my second host was in Valenciennes, and my third host is back in Lille, and facilitating the transport of all my stuff back and forth would be more trouble than it's worth, so I canceled on my second host and will stay in this hotel until I go to my third host on Monday.

Today I took some time to explore the city on my own, and I walked around the "Centre Ville" (downtown) for about 2 hours. The metropolitan area of Lille has just over 1 million residents, but it doesn't feel like a big city at all, and you can walk almost anywhere, which is nice. When I got back, I took a nap. I've found it necessary to take a two or three hour nap every day since I've been here, and I'm not sure if that's jet lag or cognitive overload or what, but I'm sure it will pass. It's kind of nice to take an afternoon nap, anyway. But that's basically what I've been doing all week, exploring and napping. Not too exciting. 

That's about all I have to say for myself right now, but I'll be sure to update again soon!

Friday, September 10, 2010

Prepare for takeoff!

Hello everyone!

Well, the time has finally come. This trip to France has been in the works for almost a year now, and I can hardly believe I will be leaving in just 4 days! The details are all starting to come together, my suitcase is nearly packed, and I can almost taste the wine!

I'll be leaving Indianapolis on Tuesday, September 14th and flying to Chicago, and after a 3 hour layover at O'Hare (and hopefully a last goodbye with my best friend Erica, who lives in Chi-Town), I'll be on my way to Paris. When I land in Paris I'll take a train to Lille, the nearest big city to where I'll be living, and that's where things will get interesting!

You see, I'll be taking a pretty unique approach to my housing situation for the first couple of weeks, as I have about 15 days to kill between my arrival in France and that of my future roommates, who will be coming from the UK near the end of the month. There are no hostels in Valenciennes, my new home, and paying for even a cheap hotel for 15 days would still be very expensive, so instead I'll be trying out something new: CouchSurfing.

I'd heard of CouchSurfing before, but wasn't really sure how it worked. So I went to the official website, www.couchsurfing.org, and found a very open, welcoming community of people offering couches or guest bedrooms to travelers from all over the world, and I am happy to have joined them. So, basically, I've made some new friends in Lille and Valenciennes, who are willing to let me crash on their couches for a couple of nights at a time until my roommates arrive. I'm really excited to be able to get a taste of their culture from an entirely local perspective, and to experience their hospitality. Hopefully, when I get all set up in my new apartment, I'll be able to pay it forward and host other cash-strapped travelers and students in my own home.
If you're interested in traveling this way or hosting someone in your home, I highly recommend going to the website and seeing exactly what CouchSurfing is all about. It's a worldwide network that's been written up in many travel guides, etc., and I can assure you that it's legitimate.

So today I finish packing and work my last shift at Papa John's (not too sad about that!), and tomorrow and Sunday we move my stuff into storage, Laura's stuff into her new place, as well as her new roommate and her belongings (Laura will be sharing an apartment with our good friend Amy). Laura and I have decided to break up while I'm gone. We still care about each other very much, but we've decided that this time apart will help both of us to be able to grow in ways we may not have been able to grow in if we tried to stay together across 6,000 miles of distance. It will be sad to leave her and the dogs (I may miss the dogs even more than I miss Laura!), and to leave my family and friends, but I am really looking forward to experiencing this opportunity I've been provided, and to seeing all the ways in which I will grow and change in the next year. I will (hopefully) be updating this blog pretty regularly, to keep you all posted on how I'm doing, and I will be posting pictures to facebook as well. As far as contacting me (and I would love to hear from home once in a while!), my email is probably the most reliable method, at least until I get settled. My email address is spwhitmer@gmail.com. You can also do a video or voice chat with me (for free!) on Skype. If you don't already have it, it's a free download from skype.com, and you can add me to your contacts using my email address (spwhitmer@gmail.com), or my Skype username, which is sarapwhitmer. When we are both online, we can talk for free! The time difference for where I will be is 5 hours ahead of Indiana (Eastern time), 6 hours ahead of Minnesota (Central time), etc. I hope to hear from many of you!

Well, that's all I have for now. My next post will hopefully be from France!

Friday, August 13, 2010

The planning begins!

Well everyone, welcome to my blog! I hope to be updating regularly once I'm in-country, but for the next month or so my entries may be a bit sporadic. But please check back regularly!


Anyway, my plans are officially in the works! This past Monday I went to Chicago to apply for my "long stay" visa, and all went well, and I was told to expect my stamped passport in the mail in about 21 days. I've set a tentative departure date for September 14th, but I won't be buying a plane ticket until I have my visa in hand (and until some birthday money comes my way!). In the mean time, I'm finishing up my summer teaching in Minnesota and Indy, celebrating my 23rd birthday, and starting to look for housing arrangements and/or a roommate in France. I can't do much in the way of housing right now, though, because I need to get in contact with my head of school to see if they already having housing for me (which would be nice). Trouble is, all the schools in France are closed in July and August, so I will have to wait until the 1st of September before I can make any inroads there. My program begins October 1st, so by leaving September 14th I am planning to give myself two weeks to get settled, find housing if necessary, and get used to the culture before I'm thrown headlong into a classroom full of crazy French second graders. 


That's about all I have for now, but I'll be sure to write again when my plans start to solidify!