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,, 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 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, and you can add me to your contacts using my email address (, 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!