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:

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!