Sunday, April 17, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Saying Goodbye

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

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

Some of the cards they made me

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

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

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

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Whitmer Family Vacay Pt. 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, April 4, 2011

Whitmer Family Vacay Pt. 1: A Rough Start

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

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

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

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

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

Tulips at Keukenhof

Mom and Dad at Keukenhof

Allison and I enjoy a night out in Amsterdam

Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Luck of the Irish...

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Sweet Sunshine!

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Back in the Saddle Again

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, March 5, 2011

In Which My Vacation Draws to a Close

I think the French education system is really onto something. Instead of one week of spring break sometime in March as the only respite from a hectic semester, in France we have 2 weeks at the end of Feb/beginning of March, and another two weeks in late April. Of course they don't finish the school year until late June, but I'd trade a month of summer for 2 two-week vacations in the second semester.

Needless to say, I have thoroughly enjoyed my time off. It's not that I was so crazy busy or stressed out before, but it seems like the less I have to do on a daily basis, the harder it is to stay on top of the few responsibilities that I do have. So having two weeks sans responsibility was nice.

I didn't get up to much at the beginning or end of break, just a lot of sleeping, reading, housecleaning, etc. But last weekend two of my nearest and dearest from the US came to visit me, which was fabulous. They arrived on Thursday and I showed them around Valenciennes and introduced them to my few friends who were still in town. Then Friday morning we set out in our rental car for Amsterdam. Lots of fun and hilarity ensued there, including the crazy adventure of trying to find our hotel and trying to drive in the city, and of course all of the other amusements that go along with being in Amsterdam :-).

We stayed in Amsterdam Friday and Saturday night, and then headed to Brussels on Sunday afternoon, as the girls were going to fly out of there on Monday morning. Ever before, I have always enjoyed Brussels, but this time she was less than kind to us. It all started when we got to the hotel. We had some difficulty finding it in the first place, because the streets in Brussels are so small and close together that it was confusing our GPS. But we finally found it, pulled up in front, unloaded our bags, and asked the desk clerk where to park. He told us we could park on the street or in the garage at the end of the block. That seemed straightforward enough, so it was decided that I would check in, since I had made the reservation, and the girls would park the car somewhere nearby. So I get us checked in, and I take a seat in the lobby to wait for the girls. Twenty or so minutes pass, and they're not back. So I decide to be nice and haul everyone's suitcases up to the room (4th floor, no elevator, narrow, twisting staircase, btw), so that we can be ready to go explore when they get back. This takes me another 20 or so minutes, and still no sign of the girls. At some point I also realize that I have the GPS, which means they don't have it, and that worries me. Not knowing what else to do and having no way to get in touch with them, I decided to turn on the TV and just wait. Thoroughly exhausted, I end up falling asleep. When I wake up, more than 3 hours have passed, it's pitch dark outside, and the girls are still not back. Not quite ready to panic, I decide to go downstairs and ask the guy at the desk what he thinks I should do, but as it turns out he only speaks enough English to check people in and out, and he doesn't speak any French at all. Effffffff. So I go back upstairs and decide that I will smoke a cigarette for courage and then go to the Best Western next door to see if I can call the police, because at this point I don't know what else to do, and I am starting to freak out a little bit. I finish my cigarette, grab my coat, lock the door, and start down the stairs. As I turn the corner, I see Megan coming up the stairs. Inexplicably, all we can do is laugh, both of us cracking up until tears are streaming down our faces. All she can tell me is that they were lost and that Sarah is waiting in the car. Wait, what? Yes, after nearly 4 hours, they still hadn't parked the car. Well actually, they HAD parked the car, on another street near the hotel, but then they couldn't find their way from the car back to the hotel. The poor things spent more than 3 hours walking around in a 5 block radius of the hotel. Lots of people in Brussels speak English, but apprently not in this part of town, because they had asked several people for help with no luck, so finally they walked back to the car, somehow drove back to the hotel, and, after all that, we found a spot directly across the street. What an ordeal.

After all that we treated ourselves to a nice meal on the Grand Place. We intended to follow up with some good Belgian brews at the Delirium Cafe, a famous bar and brewery nearby, but our attempts to make the best of the night were foiled once again by a drunk dude who wouldn't take no for an answer. He approached Megan outside the Delirium, and began speaking to her in French. Since Megan doesn't speak French, I translated. We were kind, but (I feel like) we made it clear that we were going inside and preferred to do so without his company. Unfortunately this sentiment was lost on him, and he followed us in, and began to get a little handsy with Megan. So we decided to leave, and I told him that we had an early flight and needed to get back to our hotel. Of course he wanted to come with. After I emphatically told him no, he suggested we come back to his place. Again, another emphatic no, followed by "We are going to leave now. We have to leave alone." (Remember, my French is functional but still pretty limited). But he follows us out and is walking down the street with us, trying to hold Megan's hand or put his arm around her. At this point, most of the bars and restaurants are closing, and the streets are emptying pretty quickly. I started looking for any big, burly-looking man I could find on the street, to see if I could communicate to him in English that we didn't want this guy around, and maybe he could tell the guy in French to get lost, because obviously I was not communicating that effectively. No takers. Not a single one of the probably 4 men I asked would help us. We are back in the center of town at this point, and I see the Marriott up ahead, and I figure they will have security or will at least let us in to call the police. I ring the buzzer, and tell the man at the desk what's going on. He tells me he has no security and can't let us in because then the drunk guy will follow us in. Go across the street and try McDonald's, he says. McDonald's is closed, I tell him. Can you please help us? No, he can't, he says. Seriously? Meanwhile, drunk guy is still hanging around, making indecent propositions to all three of us. Since we could speak to each other in English without him understanding, we decide our next step should be to go back to the Grand Place and make as big a scene as possible, in front of as many people as possible, and hope someone will help us out. I should point out at this point that although the drunk dude's advances were unwanted and unwelcome, and although we were starting to get a little panicky, he was pretty scrawny and I have no doubt that the three of us could have and would have kicked his ass if it had come down to it. Fortunately we didn't have to worry about it, because, almost like magic, a cab pulled up right next to us (we had been looking for one all night). We nearly knocked over the woman who was getting out, but managed to ditch the drunk creeper and get back to our hotel safely. Sheesh. What a night, right?

After all that madness, I think we were all ready to bid Brussels adieu. I was sad to see the girls go, but all in all we had a lot of fun, and it was SO good to see them. Now I'm just counting down the days until my family arrives at the end of the month!

Monday, February 21, 2011

In Which I Don't Have Much to Say for Myself

Well, it's vacation. Most of my friends are off gallivanting around Europe, and I've been hanging out at home, waiting for my friends from the US to come visit. So since I don't have many options for entertainment, and my friends don't arrive until Thursday, I've been doing a lot of napping, reading, cookie eating, and fiery political blogging. Oh, and I cleaned my room.

Tonight, being quite hungry and realizing I needed something to blog about, I made some delicious food. Now for those of you who don't know, I received several years of classical culinary training in the Brooksian school of MSUAYGA (Making Shit Up As You Go Along). I rarely use recipes, except sometimes for inspiration, I'm not a big fan of measuring, and I swear a lot in the kitchen. But it usually turns out pretty well. Usually, when I decide to cook something, it becomes a game of "what do I have in the kitchen and what can I make with it?" Tonight was no exception, and I felt added pressure to get through some of our produce, since everyone in the house will be leaving at some point this week and the house will be empty for several days (now that you know this, please don't rob us). So, taking stock of the available ingredients and their need to be used before rotting, I decided on stir-fry. And I thought I would be kind and provide you with the recipe (you know, the one I made up as I went along).

Sorry it's kind of blurry.

Impromptu Honey-Soy Stir-Fry for 1:
Ingredients: some fresh vegetables (I used carrots, potatoes, onions, and green beans), garlic, olive oil, soy sauce, honey, strong mustard (none of that French's nonsense... go invest in a good whole grain or Dijon). Rice or some other grain to serve it on... I chose red quinoa.
*optional: meat, fresh or powdered ginger, chopped peanuts

1. Start rice or whatever grain you chose.
2. Chop veggies and meat (the smaller you chop, the faster it will cook), mince garlic.
3. Add veggies/meat to lightly oiled pan on medium heat. Add them in order of how long they take to cook. For example, I added the onions and potatoes and carrots, let those cook a bit, then added the meat, garlic, and green beans. This way you don't end up with crunchy potatoes and mushy beans.
4. While veggies are cooking, whip up a sauce of equal parts olive oil, soy sauce, and mustard (start with ab a teaspoon or two of each), then add honey til it tastes good. (Super technical, I know).
5. When veggies have about 5-7 mins left to cook (they should take ab 15 mins from start to finish), add your sauce and mix everything around to coat it with the sauce. Add some powdered ginger now, if you didn't already add fresh, and throw some chopped peanuts in if you feel like it. Let everything wallow together in the delicious, saucy goodness for a few mins or until everything is cooked through, then serve over your grain of choice.
6. Drink a good, local beer and eat chocolate pudding for dessert. But only if you want to be classy like me.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Looking Forward, Looking Back

It occurred to me the other day that I have breezed through the half-way point of my grand French Adventure without even noticing. Time flies when you're having fun, huh?

I don't have much to report this week in terms of gallivanting I've done or crazy situations I've gotten myself into, but I have been doing a lot of self-reflection lately... a mid-term evaluation, if you will. So I thought I'd share a little bit.

I've really changed a lot since I came to France. Not only in the way I view myself and my relationship to the world, but also in the way I live my life. And I think most of it has been really good change. Leaving home last September was an incredibly hard thing to do. While I was excited about the prospect of living in another country and all that that would entail, I was also really reluctant to leave my comfortable American lifestyle. I left my job, my apartment (the first one I had ever paid for by myself), my car, my dog, my friends and family, and a relationship of nearly two years. When I got here I knew no one, barely spoke or understood French, had nowhere to live, no concept of French culture, and about $1500 to get started. And I remember how incredibly terrified I was as I said goodbye to Mom and Dad and Laura at the gate in Indianapolis, and how terrified I remained for about the first week I was here. But now I look at my life here, and it's awesome. I live in a great house with wonderful roommates, I have a fabulous and diverse group of friends, gainful and (mostly) enjoyable employment, passable skills in French, and plenty of time for adventures and shenanigans. And it really kind of blows my mind to think, "I did this." I did it by myself. And I'm pretty proud of that.

I'm also proud of a lot of the lifestyle changes I have made since being here. When I left the US I was a pretty stressed out person most of the time. I was prone to laziness and lethargy, preferring to spend most of my free time on the couch watching TV, rather than out and about and doing things. I smoked a half a pack or more of cigarettes per day, and ate way too much fast food. And despite the fact that I was making almost three times as much money as I make now, I always seemed to be broke. Nowadays I make my cigarettes last three or four days instead of one or two (and I'm thinking about thinking about quitting, haha), I usually eat out once a week or less, I eat tons of fruits and veg and a lot less meat, and while I am still working on getting out of the house more (hard to do when it rains all the time!), I have traded TV for reading, so at least I'm learning. I always have money, and I just feel so much BETTER about myself and my life. I feel healthier, more energetic, and less stressed.

So now that I am starting to plan for when I come home in a coupe of months, I'm trying to set myself up to maintain these improvements, rather than lapsing back into old habits, which I know it will be easy and tempting to do. My lovely and wonderful former roommates from Bloomington, Rachel and Lauren, have recently moved to Indianapolis, and have invited me to live with them again when I get home, and I think that will be stellar. They are a great influence on me when it comes to healthy lifestyles, not to mention two of the greatest friends and roomies a girl could ask for. And I'm also looking for a job somewhere in the community development/ social justice arena, in preparation for eventually pursuing a masters degree in the same area (macro end of social work). I have no qualms about going back to Papa John's for a while if I need to, as I know community agencies are really suffering at the hands of government budget cuts right now, but I think working in a field that encourages the same kind of lifestyle as I want to live (ie healthy, low environmental impact, frugal, etc) will also really help me make these changes permanent ones.

And that's really all I have to say for now. If anyone has any potential connections in social services/community development, please let me know! Happy V-Day everyone!

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

First Tango in Paris

Ok, so I didn't really tango, but it was my first trip to Paris, and I did dance my @$$ off.

Yes, somehow I have been living in France for almost 5 months, less than 2 hours from Paris, and still hadn't managed to visit until this last weekend. Now I wish I could go back every weekend. I will be going back at least once with my parents though, so that's good.

We left on Friday afternoon and got into Paris around 4:30. My first view coming out of the metro was of Notre Dame, right in front of me. Pretty freaking spectacular. The group consisted of me and my friends David, Shelby, and Joey, and some meet-ups with other friends Allison and Emily, who also live in Valenciennes but traveled separately from us and stayed in different hotels. After navigating our way to our hotel, which was in the Quartier Latin (home of many famous artists and writers during the early 1900's), close to Notre Dame and the Sorbonne, we got all settled in, and then went for dinner at a Tibetan restaurant called Lhassa. None of us had ever really eaten Tibetan food before, so it was an interesting experience for all. I had a chicken curry with some Tibetan bread, and we shared an appetizer of roasted barley flour balls with yak cheese. I normally pride myself on being an adventurous eater, but I think I can probably go the rest of my life without ever eating yak cheese again. But at least I tried it, right?

The rest of Friday night was pretty uneventful. We pre-gamed at the hotel, and then were supposed to go to some bars that Emily's Parisian boyfriend, Felix, knew about. Unfortunately, Felix (who is a pretty awesome guy in general) slightly overestimated his own navigation skills, and we ended up spending most of the night just wandering around the city. We did pop into a couple of good bars though, so the night was by no means a total loss. We went back to the hotel relatively early (about 3am), and tried to get some sleep before a couple of jam-packed days of sightseeing.

Saturday and Sunday both were primarily spent "monument walking," as in, we walked to a lot of the popular sights in Paris and took pictures, but didn't always go in or thoroughly explore them. Since everyone else had been to Paris before, and I knew from the get-go that I would be coming back (with parents who pay for things like museum admission), we really just wanted to do a general tour of the city's main attractions. So we set out from our hotel on Saturday morning and walked across Ile de la Cite, which is the big island in the Seine and the very center of the city. We saw Notre Dame and Sainte Chapelle from the outside, and walked back things like Palais de Justice and the flower market. Then we walked over to Centre Georges Pompidou, which is a gargantuan modern building that houses a library and an impressive modern art collection, among other things. Centre Pompidou is best known for its "inside-out" design, with all manner of pipes and wires in a rainbow of colors covering the outside of the building. Here is a picture:

After that, we headed over to Les Halles. Les Halles was the main marketplace area in Paris until 1969, and is notable for its beautiful glass and steel arcades and extensive gardens. Unfortunately, most of the outside structure was under construction, so we couldn't really explore it or take many good photos. Les Halles has struggled to find and maintain an identity since the demise of its open-air markets, and currently it houses a cavernous underground shopping mall, though I understand that there are renovation plans currently in the works. So we explored the mall for a little while, before having lunch at a cafe and creperie nearby. We opted to dine outside, despite the fact that it was a little chilly and more than a little bit windy. But even with teeth chattering I was a very happy camper, because dining outside in a cafe in Paris was definitely on my bucket list. It should be on yours too.

After lunch we took the metro to the North side of the city to see Montmartre, the neighborhood famous for the Moulin Rouge, which itself is a nonevent. Really. Go, take a picture outside, and then proceed directly to Sacre Coeur, because that is what you really need to see, trust me. Sacre Coeur (French for sacred heart), is a beautiful, snowy-white basilica atop the highest hill in Paris. It is relatively new in comparison to many of Paris' churches (built in the 1860's I think), but it is truly breathtaking. It has sort of an Arabian/Middle Eastern feel to it, though it is a Catholic church. It's free to go inside, but strict codes of silence and no photography are in place and are enforced, which lends an incredible sense of reverence to the place. But outside the church is a different story. You see, Sacre Coeur and Montmartre hill are the absolute best places to view the city, being atop the highest hill and being at the Northern end. You have to work for it, though. There is a tram that goes from the bottom of the hill to the top, but you have to pay to take it, and therefore most people take the stairs. And there are a LOT of stairs. But the view from the top is 100% worth it, once you catch your breath and the burning in your thighs subsides. There are street performers and vendors and hawkers of all kinds, and the whole city is spread out before you like a map, with landmarks like the Eiffel Tower, Centre Pompidou, and Notre Dame easy and fun to spot. My comrades got caught up in a street show, and I took the opportunity to grab a seat on the wide main stairs in front of the church, buy a beer from a vendor, and just relax and take in the city. It was one of the most wonderful and incredible moments of the trip, and I think also a memory that I will cherish forever. Not to mention another thing crossed off my bucket list!

Me with my beer, completely and utterly content with my life.

After Montmartre, we headed back to the hotel for much needed showers and downtime, as we had big plans for Saturday evening. Sunday was Joey's 24th birthday, and he requested Mexican food and dancing to celebrate. So we had a fabulous Mexican dinner near Les Halles (Mexican food being almost impossible to find in France, let alone good Mexican food), and then went to a couple of clubs in the neighborhood "Le Marais," which was a wonderfully good time, and finally stumbled back to our hotel sometime near 6am on Sunday morning. Happy Birthday, Joey!

After about 3 hours of sleep, we were back up and at 'em for our last day in Paris. Since it was the first Sunday of the month, all of the national museums were free. So Joey and Shelby headed to check out the modern art at Centre Pompidou, but I wanted to be outside enjoying the sunshine and gloriously warm weather that had suddenly appeared on Sunday morning, so David and I decided to do some more monument walking. We started at Nortre Dame, and arrived just as mass was starting. I'm not a particularly religious person these days, but nonetheless it was a pretty incredible and moving experience. After that, we walked down the Seine to the Louvre, through the outdoor Louvre complex (which is unbelievably huge, btw), through Jardin des Tuileries, a massive garden/park adjacent to the Louvre, through Place de la Concorde, the centerpiece of which is a giant ancient Egyptian obelisk, and straight down the Champs-Elysees, Paris' most famous grand boulevard. We saw Louis Vuitton, Cartier, Sephora's flagship store, and, of course, two McDonald's. We had lunch in a cafe down a side street, and finally ended at l'Arc de Triomphe, Napoleon's grand monument to himself. It was another one of my favorite sights of the trip. For one, it is phenomenally huge-- much bigger than it looks in pictures, and two, it was just... We didn't climb to the top, as we were thoroughly exhausted by this time, but it still made for a really excellent way to top off the weekend. I'm excited to take my parents there when they visit.

Tired and happy at l'Arc de Triomphe

After that we met the others back at the hotel, collected our belongings, and caught our train home. We arrived completement epuisees (completely exhausted), and I am still not sure I've fully recovered, but it was absolutely worth it for the amazing experience. The others reconvened later that night at Shelby's to watch the Super Bowl, but as it started at midnight, French time, and I had to work at 8am, I opted for bed.

So, in sum, Paris was an amazing experience-- even cooler than I could have imagined. If you ever have the chance to go, please, please do. It will rock your world. 

Monday, January 31, 2011

Cabin Fever, Real Fever, etc.

France thought they were done with the plague after the Dark Ages. Apparently they were wrong. EVERYONE has been sick this week. I've had it, my roommates have had it, my students have had it. Fever, congestion, coughing, the works. Though I had been feeling better on Monday, I ended up spending all of Tuesday and Wednesday in bed. So the beginning of the week was kind of poopy, but the rest of the week was great, and I'm feeling much better now, so hooray!

First of all, I'M AN AUNTIE!!!!!!! Don't worry, it's not Allison. I said auntie, not aunt. My cousin Zeina delivered a beautiful, nine and a half pound baby boy on the 28th. We're not allowed to know his name until his naming ceremony, and I'm still waiting for Kate to get her act together and send me pictures (HINT HINT KATHRYN), but Mom and Baby are doing well and I am so happy for them! Not to mention excited to spoil this kid rotten. I'm thinking I'll load him up on candy and give him a whistle or some other toy that makes noise just before I drop him back off with his parents :-).

In other news, I got a haircut! It's been a long time coming, but I have been afraid to try to communicate things like "layers" and "swoopy bangs" in French. But when I accidentally zipped my hair into my hoodie for the third or fourth time, I decided it was time. So I asked some native speakers for help, drew a quick pencil sketch of what I wanted, just in case, and found a salon. Personally, I think it turned out quite well. But I'll let you decide for yourself:
I'm loving it. And you know you've got a good haircut when you can style it yourself and still make it look good without the stylist's help. I've been singing "Pretty Girl Rock" to myself allll weekend, haha.

So that was my first French haircut. Then Thursday night I had another French first: my first French Chinese buffet. Now, allow me to explain about France and Chinese food. They are not friends. France has plenty of Chinese/Asian restaurants, but so far I have yet to enjoy a dining experience at any of them. I mean, American Chinese food is not known for being super high quality, but compared to France it's like dining in Shanghai, ok? French Chinese restaurants (at least here in Valenciennes) tend to be overpriced, lacking a buffet, and just generally bland and not tasty. BUT we have finally found a place that not only has a buffet, but it also passes muster on the quality end. It's not fabulous, but it's by far the best we've found here so far. So that's exciting.

Friday night was another fun culinary experience. I went to my friend Shelby's for dinner and a movie, and she made us a curry. And it was SPICY!!!! If you will recall, France is seriously lacking in the spicy foods department, and though I am not a huge fan of spice, all the cream and cheese and butter around here leaves me craving a little more flavor sometimes. And Shelby acquired this curry paste from a French colleague for whom it was "too spicy." So you know it was perfect for us fire-eating Americans, haha. So the curry was delicious, and after dinner all of us (Shelby, Joey, Allison, and me) cuddled up on Shelby's tiny little clic-clac and watched Despicable Me. SUCH a cute movie. I know I am a little behind the times, but if you haven't seen it yet, you should rent it. Adorable and hilarious!

Saturday night was definitely the climax of the weekend, though. Most of my roomies were out and about for the weekend, so I took the opportunity to host a little gathering of my own. Seven of us (5 American assistants and 2 from New Zealand) got together at my place for pizza and karaoke. Of course we didn't have a karaoke machine or anything, but we did have really good speakers, so we just cranked up our favorite tracks and sang into an empty Coke bottle. Needless to say, this got more entertaining the more alcohol we consumed, haha. It was really great though, because although in New Zealand they get a formal British education, all their pop culture comes from the US, so Nikki and Sarah (the NZ assistants) knew all the songs that we (the Americans) knew, plus a few fun ones that we didn't. The playlist ran heavily through the 90's and early 2000's, and made for a fun and quite amusing trip down music memory lane for all of us. The songs that got everyone singing along: TLC's "No Scrubs," Destiny's Child's "Say My Name," Hoobastank's "The Reason," and Aqua's "Barbie Girl," along with Jewel, Britney, Green Day, GaGa, Alanis, Whitney, and all sorts of others. Joan Osborne's "One of Us," anyone?

Allison breaks it down to Lady Gaga

I sing some Kelly Clarkson while Joey gets down with his bad self in the background, and Nikki watches.

And that's about it. Yesterday was a lazy day, spent in PJ's, lolling about the house. Made some killer red beans and rice for dinner, and went to bed early for once. Now I'm off to have lunch with Joey before finishing out my teaching day with a lesson on the Civil War. This weekend: Paris!!

Monday, January 24, 2011

Un (Mostly) Bon Weekend

Oh, Monday. Why do you come so soon after Sunday? I had a pretty lovely weekend, despite being sick on Saturday and Sunday, and still not feeling stellar this morning, but it's always hard to get moving on Monday morning. I'm sure most of you can relate.

Anyway, last week was a little more relaxed than usual, as several of my classes were doing standardized testing, which meant I didn't have to go to about a third of them. So that was nice. Then Thursday night my roomies and I had a little wine and cheese soiree with 10-15 friends and members of the CouchSurfing community. We had a lot of fun and I got to experience some of the best cheese and wine that France has to offer (my roomie Joel went to a small, artisan cheesemaker in a nearby town and picked up some delightful treats), but I may have overindulged a bit and will be content not to see another hunk of Maroilles or bottle of Cote du Rhone for at least another week. Ok, maybe the Cote du Rhone (it is my fave, after all), but NOT the Maroilles. Maroilles is sort of the celebrity cheese of our region, and though the taste is relatively mild, the smell is, to put it politely, pungent. As in, we have to keep it out on the porch so it doesn't stink up the whole house, haha.

I worked Friday morning, as usual, then had a nice lunch with Joey and spent most of the afternoon with him. Saturday I slept late (again, as usual), and then Joey and I went to the nearby town of Vieux Conde to have dinner with Brigitte, one of the teachers I work with (the one who has interesting theories about why my kids don't listen). And that was really, really nice. We met her husband, who is British, and both of her sons, who are close to us in age. It was almost like having dinner with my own extended family, which is something I've really missed since I've been gone. The only downside was that about halfway through the evening I started to get a really bad headache, which was the beginning of my being sick for the rest of the weekend.

I was supposed to go out with Joey and the rest of my friends on Saturday night to a bar in town that is pirate ship-themed and apparently actually on a boat in the river. I suspect this would have been quite an adventure, only by the time I got home from Brigitte's I felt like there was a power drill spinning inside my head and my neck and back and shoulders were starting to hurt too. Then came the fever, and the worsening of the cough I picked up late last week. I felt like my lungs were going to burst into flames at any moment. So I decided to cut my losses for the evening, take a fistful of ibuprofen, and try to sleep. Mostly I just laid in bed, tossing and turning and coughing until about 4 or 5am. Not an ideal way to spend a Saturday night.

So I spent yesterday in my pajamas, sleeping when I could and taking more ibuprofen when the situation necessitated it (I still don't have health insurance here and nothing is open on Sundays anyway), and I drank about a gallon of orange juice. Mercifully, I was feeling better this morning, although still a bit sore, tired, and congested. Two cups of coffee got me on my feet though, and fortunately my schedule today isn't too demanding. I may even have time for a nap before my afternoon classes.

Other than that, I don't have much else to report. I'm quite excited because two of my nearest and dearest friends have finally set plans in motion to come out here to visit at the end of February, so I am looking forward to that, and my parents are finalizing the details of their trip out here at the end of March as well. I've got approximately 97 days left here, so I am just trying to make the most of them, and trying to plan for when I come back. I will be in serious need of a job, preferably in community organization/non-profit or something of that nature, but something in education, French, or museums would be good too, so if anyone has any ideas or connections, please let me know!

Monday, January 17, 2011

La Vie Valenciennois

I think one of the most important lessons I have learned since I have been here is this: no matter where you go, everyday life is everyday life. It doesn't matter how exotic the locale, eventually you settle into a routine, and maybe even get a little bit bored sometimes. And that's ok. That's kind of what has happened to me lately. There was the tumult of going home and coming back and getting readjusted and everything, but now I'm settled right back into my old routine and, yes, a little bit bored.

I never thought I would be anything but thrilled about only working 12 hours a week and having basically no other obligations to anyone, and believe me, after my last year at IU and my crazy summer spent criss-crossing the country to teach, for a while that schedule was a welcome break. But now I'm starting to get a little bit... antsy. I've been looking for opportunities to get involved in other activities, to volunteer, or something similar, but so far I haven't had much luck. So mostly I've been reading. Voraciously. In French, in English, fiction, academic texts, journals, news. The backs of cereal boxes. Everything. And that has been both informative and enjoyable. I'm also planning some travel for the coming months, as I have more money and more vacation time than I did last semester. In two weeks I think I am going to take a long weekend trip to Paris, and in March I am tentatively planning to see Berlin and Krakow. So that's exciting.

I've been suffering a little bit of cabin fever lately, too, as winter in Northern France generally means cold and rain. Indeed, last week it rained for five straight days, so I've been stuck in the house a lot. But then, miraculously, we had a gorgeous weekend this weekend. On both Saturday and Sunday it was fifty degrees and sunny, which was a VERY welcome change. I took advantage of the good weather by getting outside and walking a lot. I love walking. With friends, with the dogs, or just by myself with my iPod. It's just such a great way to explore, exercise, and have good conversation, either with friends or just thinking to myself. On Saturday afternoon I took my pal Joey and my camera with me, and photographed some of the more historical parts of Valenciennes. A large portion of the city was destroyed in WWI, and again in WWII, but there are still some very old neighborhoods, a few even dating back to before the French Revolution. Most of the buildings on my block were built in the early 1800's, but I know there are older ones around town as well. So, without further ado, here are some pictures:

There are a lot of houses like this on the South side of the city. They weren't destroyed during the war because they were used as officers' quarters during the Nazi occupation. 
French people always keep it classy, even if they're just spending as Saturday afternoon in the park.
This tower is all that's left of the original city walls and ramparts, built in 1449. The top story was blasted off in some war, and repaired with brick some time later.
Another part of the tower. Inside, there are some creepy-looking, winding stone stairs that lead down to the river, which runs under the tower.

Someone important is buried here. But we don't know who (whom?).

Classy French doorknob.
The end!

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

"The French Paradox," or "Why I Can Scream at My Kids All Day and They Still Won't Listen"

Man. Tuesdays. It doesn't matter how much sleep I get on Monday night, how cheerful I am when I start the day, or how many cigarettes/cups of coffee I consume in an effort to prepare myself, by 4:30pm every Tuesday, I am crass, cranky, overly caffeinated, and out for blood. Woe to anyone who should stand in the way of me getting to the door when that bell rings. Woe to any teachers or students who dare detain me with questions after the appointed time. And woe to the entire world should I happen to find myself without cigarettes (or worse, with cigarettes but without a lighter) when I finally do exit the schoolyard. You know in cartoons, when there is a bullfighting scene, and the bull looks exceptionally angry, pawing the ground, snorting and kicking up dust, preparing to charge at the first sign of anything red? That's me at 4:29. Really, it's me anytime after 2:30.

And the thing is, at first glance, my Tuesdays don't look that bad. Classes from 8:30-10:15, forty-five minute break. Class from 11-11:45, two hour lunch. Classes from 1:45-3:15, and every other week, class from 3:45-4:15. No big deal, right? Well, it wouldn't be, if not for my 2:30-3:15 class. This class single-handedly puts me in the aforementioned state of mental infirmity every Tuesday. No question, no doubt, no reprieve. Every Tuesday. And it's not even the whole class that drives me insane. It is, at most, 5 or 6 students out of, maybe, 25 total. Generally, I only see a quarter or half of the class at a time. I come to the classroom, the teacher hands me a worksheet, calls up a group, and we head for an empty classroom on the other side of the schoolyard. Once we arrive in the classroom, 3/4 of the students sit down at the table and quietly await my instructions. But there are always 2 or 3 who are talking, throwing things at each other, poking each other with pencils, pens, what have you, and just generally being pains in my ass. I do my best to quiet them and explain the activity, though the best I can usually hope for is that they will actually be physically in seats and talking at some volume level below shouting. I try to explain the activity, but the other students either can't hear me over the ruckus, or they are distracted by it (and often incited by it) and are not even looking at me. So then we start the activity, but no one knows what they are supposed to be doing, so I basically have to re-explain it to each student in turn, because I can never get everyone quiet and listening all at once. Then there are always misunderstandings and misinterpretations of the instructions (for which my French might be partially to blame, I'll admit), and frequently I end up with one of my good, well-behaved students crying because she can't understand what I want her to do because the others are too loud. And she made a mistake and it's the end of the world and she's sobbing and snot is running down her face and I am trying to comfort her, meanwhile paper wads and erasers are whizzing over my head and the good students are shouting help to each other over the cacophony of the bad students running in circles around the table, hitting each other, swearing in French because they think I don't understand (which also frequently leads to tattling by the good students)-- basically doing anything but what they are supposed to be doing. And then, suddenly, our time is up and no one has anything done, and I get to look like a jerk who has no concept of classroom management, and no idea how to teach.

I have tried several different approaches to dealing with this class. First, since it is generally the same students every week who give me trouble, when I take them back to the classroom I immediately tell the teacher who was misbehaving. I don't know about all of you, but when I was growing up, misbehaving for a substitute or other person who was not your normal teacher would likely earn you double the punishment of regular classroom antics. In this case, it doesn't seem to have made any difference at all, as I have been reporting the same names every week for several weeks now, and am still having the same problems. Secondly, those of you who know me well know that I am not generally known to tolerate "guff," as it were, from anyone, let alone a rag-tag bunch of 9- and 10-year-old French kids who don't respect my authority. I am perfectly comfortable in front of a classroom, and perfectly comfortable doling out stern admonishments when the situation calls for it. I feel like anyone who has worked with me in a classroom setting or who has been a student of mine would say that I have a good grasp of classroom control, and that I generally maintain a warm but assertive demeanor with my students. But warm and assertive went out the window weeks ago. Warm and assertive couldn't be heard over the din.

When I first arrived in France, and was completing my required hours of classroom observation before I began teaching, I was initially dismayed at the tone almost universally taken by French teachers with their students. Teachers here resort to yelling-- insults, generally-- with the slightest provocation. Not enough hands raised? Tell them they are all worthless. A student misses a question he should probably know? Mock him openly in front of the class and call him a "nul" (literally a "nothing" or a "zero"). Someone is fidgeting with his school supplies? Sweep everything off the top of his desk onto the floor and carry on with your lecture. When I began teaching in the US (before that, even, when I began working at Camp T), I was trained to always give corrections with warmth: "That's not quite the answer I was looking for, Billy, but that is a good point," and to praise effort even if the answer isn't correct. I was trained to teach from a place of positivity and encouragement, and to use praise and empowerment to motivate my kids to learn. In France, however, shame and embarrassment seem to be the primary motivators, and a good blow to the ego supposedly motivates a French student to improve just like praise motivates an American student. Don't get me wrong here, there are plenty of good teachers here, well-liked by students and parents alike. What I am talking about here is more than a difference in style or pedagogy-- it is a difference in culture. And I got some very interesting insight on this difference while talking to a teacher today.

"Ze French, zey are ze coq on top of ze shit 'eap," she told me. This is Brigitte, one of the teachers I work with the most, who is also rapidly becoming one of my favorite people here. She is French, and grew up here in the midst of the turbulent 60's and 70's, which saw the most political unrest in French history after the Revolution. As such, and probably also because her husband is British, she speaks of French politics and culture in a somewhat jaded manner. But she had a very interesting, if not entirely kind, take on why French teachers are so negative, and on why my students don't listen to me. We were having coffee together during our break, right after my terrible 2:30 class, and I was bemoaning the fact that nothing I had tried was working to keep these students under control, mentioning that it was hard for me to understand how French teachers could be so much more strict than American teachers, and yet French students are so much more unruly than their American counterparts. This is when, after checking to make sure there were no other (French) teachers around, she made the comment about the rooster on top of the dung heap. She explained to me (and keep in mind this is just her opinion) that, like the popular stereotype says, French people really do think that they are better than everyone else, and that even when they are in the "merde," i.e., the dung heap, they will still strut around and crow and show off their feathers. Because of this, they also like to pick on the flaws of others, and criticize and cut others down, to further inflate their own egos. She thinks this is why French teachers are so negative: because it's just how French people are. Critical. And kind of mean. Which, incidentally, I also find to be true. French people are critical and kind of mean. I also wonder if, since a blow to a French person's ego is supposedly the deepest cut you can make, the insults spewed by teachers really do motivate some students to do better, even if it's only so that they don't get called out in front of the whole class anymore. I also wonder if the French ego has something to do with why my kids don't listen to me. It's been a long-held stereotype that France and the US are, for lack of a better word, "frenemies." Yes, politically we are supposed to be bff's, but Americans supposedly dislike the French just for general reasons of French-ness, and the French supposedly dislike Americans just for general reasons of American-ness. Again, kind of true. So my students' disrespect could potentially have something to do with their little French egos telling them they are better than me, or maybe just their being influenced by Franco-American relations in general. Brigitte, however, has a totally different theory. Having been raised by radical communists in the middle of a political maelstrom in France, Brigitte, unsurprisingly, rejected her parents' political views and ended up on the more conservative side of politics. She is also kind of old. Keep these things in mind as I explain.

Apparently, in the early 80's, France realized it was running low on children. Wanting to maintain its short work week and early retirement age, the French government started offering a 1500 euro "bonus" for families who decided to have a third child or more. According to Brigitte, this caused all the poor and stupid people to have more children to get the money, and now what we are dealing with in the schools are the children and grandchildren of all these poor and stupid people, who apparently must have bad genetics and remain poor and stupid, or at least stupid. Then she said something else about how French people love to talk more than anything else in the world and that because of their egos they won't shut up when you ask them to. So I'm not sure if, in the end, she was blaming it on genetics or egos, but by this point she was sounding a little bit batty. I just smiled and nodded, and am now hashing out my thoughts on the issue for all of you.

So I have done all this babbling without really reaching a conclusion. Is it just that I have a particularly defiant group of students this year, or is it their immutable French pride that refuses to allow them to submit to my authority? OR are they just so used to being yelled at that nothing even phases them anymore? And what, if anything do I do about it? Le sigh. I hate Tuesdays.

Monday, January 10, 2011

New Year's Eve/Fete des Rois

Sorry I've been dragging my feet on these last couple of posts... I've been feeling a little under the weather lately (read: copious amounts of snot in my head), so I've been sleeping/lazing around a lot.

Anyhow, New Year's Eve. After several hours of recuperative sleep upon my return to my house in Valenciennes, my friend Shelby and I decided to go to Brussels for NYE, because our friend David was already there with some of his friends from home, and because who wants to stay in Valenciennes for New Year's? We made some cheap, last-minute hostel reservations and hopped on the bus to Quievrechain, walked into Quievrain, and took the train to Brussels. By the time we met up with David and company, it was about 11pm (we didn't even leave Valenciennes until after 9pm). He and his friends had rented an apartment for the weekend that had an incredible view of the city, so we took in the midnight fireworks and had our champagne there. Afterward, about half of the crowd decided to call it a night, and the rest of us decided to see what Brussels' club scene had to offer. Not much, apparently. We went to a club we had heard about called "You," only to be turned away at the door by a mean, frighteningly skinny, chain-smoking woman in a fur coat. Disappointed but undeterred, we ended up in another club down the street with decent music and we danced for a while. After about an hour there, the boys were ready to head home and to bed (it was about 3am, after all), but Shelby and I were still wide awake, so we went in search of another club. Unable to find one with a cover that was less than 15 E, we gave up, got some kebab (Northern Europe's answer to the late-night White Castle run), and decided to take the long, but scenic, walk back to the hostel. All in all it was an enjoyable, if not terribly eventful night.

Shelby and Me in the streets of Brussels
Then last week I also celebrated "Fete des Rois" with my roommates. Also know as Epiphany or Twelfth Night, it was a holiday I had heard of but had never celebrated. Indeed we didn't "celebrate" it so much as we used it as an excuse to eat cake and drink wine. But we had a good time nonetheless, because who doesn't have fun when cake and wine are involved? Anyway, to celebrate Fete des Rois, you have to have a gallette des rois, ie, a king cake. This is just a simple tart or cake (ours was something between a giant croissant and an apple pie), with a little figurine (could be a baby Jesus, or a crown, or, in our case, a small cake) baked into it somewhere. Tradition dictates that the youngest person (in this case, me) sits under the table while the cake is cut. Then, the question: "C'est a qui, Sara?" Who is this piece for? And from under the table I blindly assign each piece of cake to someone sitting at the table. The point of this is to ensure that whoever ends up with the little figurine in their piece gets it entirely by chance, and not by cheating, which is apparently rampant on this holiday. Then the person who finds the figurine their piece is the "king" and gets to wear a paper crown and look silly for the rest of dinner. And that's pretty much it. The winner at our house was Joelle, another couchsurfer we hosted, who was Belgian and very nice:

And here's me, under the table:

And that's really all I have to say for now. Happy Monday, everyone!

Friday, January 7, 2011

The Long, LONG Journey Home

So it took me 27 hours to get home. Twenty-seven of the longest hours of my life, I think. I spent the night before my departure in Indianapolis, so that Kate (who also lives in Indy) could take me to the airport the next morning. After frantically rushing around my parents' house, trying to gather everything I needed and cram it into my suitcase (again just squeaking under the 50lb limit), I said goodbye to Dad and Allison and the dogs, and Mom and I drove to Kate's house. Kate took us for a lovely dinner at Adobo Grill, a downtown restaurant that is probably best classified as "gourmet Mexican." We had some fabulous guacamole (prepared tableside!), and some really excellent salsa to start off our meal, and then I had "lomito con mole negro Oaxaquena," which is pork tenderloin in a super delicious mole sauce. After dinner I drove up to Chateau de Ville (friend central, remember) to say goodbye to all my amigos, then back to Kate's and in bed by midnight.

We left for the airport around 9am, because I wanted to make sure I had plenty of time to get through holiday airport traffic, security, etc before my 11:50 flight. I should have remembered that it never takes more than 10 minutes to get through security at Indianapolis and slept for another hour. Especially because my flight was also delayed by about an hour as well. But whatever. I got out of Indy with no other problems, and arrived at JFK, pleased that my 4 hour layover was now looking more like 3 hours. But of course there was still plenty of snow on the ground in NYC, and plenty of issues at JFK. It was no longer packed with stranded travelers, as it had been in the previous few days, but still only about 70% of the flights were getting out on schedule. And of course Murphy's Law of Travel found me once again. After 3 gate changes and an hour and a half delay, I finally got on my plane for Brussels, only to sit on the tarmac for another 2 hours while we waited. And waited. First we waited for a ground crew to push us off from the gate. Then we waited for permission to taxi to the runway. Then we waited in line to take off. And this was only the beginning of what would become 9+ hours in my own personal hell.

First of all, I can never sleep on a long flight. I have no idea why this is. I can generally sleep on short flights, like when I was flying back and forth to Minnesota all summer to teach, but for some bizarre reason, a transatlantic flight induces in me an insomnia that is incurable, apparently even after 2 Ativan and a glass of wine, which would normally put me into a near-comatose state for at least 8-10 hours. Infrequent dozing is really the best I can hope for in these situations. But, having already tried to induce said comatose state, I am now on this unending flight, unbelievably tired and cranky and craving sleep, and I find myself surrounded by not one, not two, but THREE crying babies in my direct vicinity. And we all know that the only creatures on Earth who hate a transatlantic flight more than I do are crying babies. All the Ativan in the world can't help me now. And of course it was not long before the crying babies became shrieking babies. And if one got going, eventually the other two joined in. It was like a crying baby conspiracy. Conspiracy to commit murder. By making me kill myself. Add to this the fact that immediately next to me is the most disgusting, kissy-face honeymoon couple in the world, ever. I, like most people, am not a fan of PDA. Like, hold hands, peck on the cheek, that's fine, whatever. But I had to sit there and listen to these two MAKE OUT for most of the flight. I mean, I understand, you love each other. You're thrilled to be spending the rest of your lives together. But that means you have the rest of your lives to make out. So it is not necessary to subject me to 9 hours of your slobbery face-sucking noises. I mean, we're on an airplane, who DOES that?!

Although I was unsure I would ever get off that plane, let alone with my sanity intact, I did finally escape. Just in time to experience more holiday travel joy. I was able to walk through passport control without much questioning, thanks to my newly stamped and legit status as a French resident, and I was hoping to be able to spot and retrieve my suitcase with relative ease and get the bleep out of the Brussels airport. No such luck. Despite the fact that in the arrivals hall at BRU there are 3 or 4 luggage carousels, all functional, as far as I could see, they decided to offload the luggage for the SIX recently arrived flights onto one carousel. So not only were there a few HUNDRED people crowded around said carousel, my flight from JFK was also the last to be unloaded. So I waited another two hours for that nonsense to work itself out, realizing as I heaved my suitcase off the carousel that TSA America had not only been through my bag, but they had also seen fit to break my luggage lock to do so. Isn't this why we pay extra for luggage locks that say "TSA Approved?" So they can get into your bags without breaking the locks? And of course I didn't have anything to hide from TSA, but no one likes the thought of a stranger going through your belongings without your supervision, especially if there are dirty sous-vetements involved, haha.

But I digress. I got out of the airport, took a train to Brussels Central station, where I could change trains to the one that would take me back to Quievrain. Of course this train only comes once an hour, and of course I looked at the weekend/holiday train schedule instead of the weekday schedule I should have been looking at, so I missed the first train (which I had waited for for 50 minutes on the wrong platform), and then had to wait another hour for the next train. At least at this point I could finally smoke, although that involved lugging my suitcase up and down several flights of stairs and being harassed by 5 or 6 different homeless people outside the station (Do you have a euro? No. Do you have 50 centimes? No. Do you have any food? No. Do you have a cigarette? Yes. Oh, Thank yo- oh it's menthol? Nevermind.), so I only smoked twice. Finally got on the right train, got to Quievrain, walked back through town into France, got on the bus, got off at the end of my street. All of this took probably another 3 hours. Then I remembered that my house keys were with my friend Shelby, because my friends who were staying in town had been watching the house while my roomies and I were gone. So since no one else was back from vacation yet, I took all my luggage and walked another ten or so minutes to Shelby's, got my keys, and walked back. I am now absolutely ready to collapse into my bed and not get up for at least 2 days.

So I get into the house, wrestle my suitcase up the spiral staircase, get into my room and throw everything down. No one has been in the house for about two weeks, so of course all of the heat was off and it was cold. I crank up my radiator as high as it will go, put on some sweats and throw an extra blanket on the bed, figuring I can sleep while the house warms up, and then I can worry about eating, etc. I wake up an hour or so later because I am so cold I cannot sleep. So cold I cannot sleep, despite 3 blankets and all my layers. The heat in the house is not working. After some frantic and fruitless texting to my various roomies to try to solve the problem, I go on a hunt throughout the house to find whatever controls the gas to see if it has been shut off for some reason. I finally locate the control box in the kitchen, and I push the power button. The heat kicks on. But when I take my finger off the button, it stops. So I push the button again, and the heat kicks on. I stop pushing, it turns off. I play this game for about ten minutes, trying various combinations of button pushing, button holding, etc. No luck. So I start looking for some tape. No duct tape to be found in the house (in fact, I don't think I've seen duct tape anywhere in France), and the best I can come up with is a roll of Scotch (du Scotch, as we say in France). So I use about half the roll to tape the power button down in the "on" position. This works for about ten minutes, until the pressure of the button pushing back stretches out the tape and the heat turns off again. Thoroughly frustrated at this point, teeth all a-chatter from the cold, I punch the control box (probably not a good idea), pull off the tape, and give the power button one more excessively forceful push. And for whatever reason, this time it stays on. Hooray! Finally I can get some (toasty-warm) sleep.

I slept for about 16 hours, I think, and it was some of the best sleep of my life. The house was empty and quiet, and I was physically and mentally exhausted. I woke up about 4pm the next day (Dec 31), to a text from my friend Shelby: "Hey! Let's go to Brussels for New Years!" And so the adventures continue...

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Christmas Adventures Part Deux: In which I finally get to eat Chipotle.

Right, so where did I leave off? Ah yes, in Chicago, on the bus with Erica, on my way to Chipotle. Thankfully there happens to be a Chipotle outpost right across the street from Erica's bus stop. So I made her hold all my luggage while I went in. Such were my need and excitement for this pseudo-Mexican delight that I couldn't even be bothered to pass go or collect $200 (or pee, which I also needed to do pretty badly), before indulging. I was so thrilled, I was even blabbering to the cashier about it. She probably thought I was off my rocker. And maybe I was, a little bit... it had been a long day. I took a picture of it when I got it home:

Nom nom nom...
But why this burrito obsession, you might ask. Well actually, it has less to do with the burrito (although I do enjoy a good burrito) and more to do with the spice factor. As I may or may not have explained before (I really can't be asked to remember what I've written in previous posts), French food is great and all, but French cuisine has no concept whatsoever of spiciness. Take, for example, fry sauce. When you order fries here, you typically have your choice of 5-10 dipping sauces for them, and your options are generally the same in every fry shop. "Samourai" sauce is supposed to be the spiciest, and frequently, if you order it, the person at the counter will say "Are you sure? It's reallllllly spicy. Do you want to try it first? Are you SURE?" making you wonder what you could potentially be getting yourself into. But then when you taste it, you must immediately assume that all the questioning is some cruel form of French mockery, because in fact it is about as spicy as your average "mild" wing sauce or taco sauce in the US. And Samourai sauce truly is about the spiciest condiment you can find in France. It is extremely difficult even to find jalapenos or chilis here, to make your own spicy sauces. And the thing is, I wouldn't ever claim to be a spicy food fanatic, or even a spicy food lover. In general (with the exception of Thai food), I prefer my plates to be on the milder side. But what I have come to realize about the differences between French and American cuisines is that in America, spiciness is a huge component of flavor, whereas in France they focus more on different aspects of flavor like the sharpness of a cheese or the saltiness of butter. Maybe their palettes are more refined. Maybe they are just pansies. But regardless, I had an immediate need for Chipotle in my life.

So, primal needs sated, I commenced catching up with my bestie. Erica is in her first year of a PsyD program (that's a clinical practice-based doctorate in psychology... the girl is smart and will be a helluva therapist someday) in Chicago at Argosy University. Apparently the program is kicking her @$$ but she is doing well and enjoying her studies. I told her about my life in France thus far, and we shared some of my favorite French cookies and my favorite bottle of French wine. It was really wonderful to see and catch up with her, and I felt like we didn't have nearly enough time together before I left for Indy on the Megabus the next day. But who knows? Maybe I, too, will end up in Chicago for grad school.

The journey from Chicago to Indy on the Megabus was... trying. Those of you who have driven or otherwise traveled between these two lovely cities know that there is always some kind of major traffic jam or other issue on I-65, usually affecting traffic in the direction you are (or want to be) traveling (Murphy's law at work, folks). And of course my journey was no different. There was a jack-knifed semi just North of Rensselaer (barely out of Chicago!) that had us stuck in traffic for nearly 2 hours, during which time we traveled less than 5 miles. At this point I was prepared to walk to Indianapolis if I had to. I truly could not have been more frustrated with the situation. I was exhausted, it was hot and stinky on the bus, we were still at least two hours from Indy even after we got out of traffic, and I just wanted to get hoooooooooome! But eventually we got through the bottleneck and the driver made up a little bit of our lost time, and I got to Indy only about an hour and a half later than I'd planned. My sister, Allison, picked me up at the bus stop, and I was elated to see her smiling (well, more like smirking... she is 18 after all) face. We are very close, and it has been very difficult to be away from her, because we both have quite busy schedules and find it hard to find time when we can talk on the phone or Skype while I am here. From the bus stop she took me to Chateau de Ville, the Indy apartment complex otherwise known as friend central. Five or six of my very close friends live there, and it is also where my dog Stewie has been residing since I left, so it was the obvious next stop.

After that things start to blur together a little bit. I spent about half of my time in New Castle with my family, and about half of it in Indy with friends. Drinks were consumed, shows attended, trees decorated, carols sung. And Christmas with my family is always a really special and enjoyable time. We are a pretty hilarious crew by nature, but add wine and a deck of cards to that, and all bets are off. I think our favorite family pastime may be busting each others chops. That or seeing who can out-cheat whom at euchre or Scrabble (my aunt, Kate, is the both the biggest cheater and the biggest chop buster). And even though church isn't really my thing these days, I also always enjoy the candlelight Christmas Eve service at my parents' church. Something about candlelight and Christmas carols always gives me that warm-fuzzy holiday feeling. I didn't have many presents under the tree, as my plane ticket home was my real present, but just getting to be home with everyone during such a family-oriented time of year was really special and wonderful, and I couldn't have been happier to be there.

I had planned to leave the states and fly back to France on the 26th, with Kate-the-cheater-and-chop-buster in tow. We had grand plans to celebrate the New Year in Norway (where she had her own study abroad adventure when she was about my age), and to explore Paris and Germany, but with all the snow on the East coast of the US and in Northern Europe, our flights were canceled. Kate is a professor at Butler University and had a finite amount of vacation time before having to return to class, so she got a refund for her plane ticket and may come in the Spring before I leave, or we may return together over the summer. I obviously had to come back, and was able to reschedule my flight for the 29th. I was really sad that my plans with Kate were foiled for the time being, but I was also really happy to have an extra three days at home. I hadn't quite been ready to say goodbye to my friends in Indy on the 23rd before heading back to New Castle to spend Christmas with the fam, so getting to spend a couple more days with them was perfect. Even if all we did was sit on the couch and play Wii. But that's one of the things I really appreciate about my group of friends... I can be gone for three months and when I come back we pick up right where we left off... sitting on the couch, playing Wii.

And that's about all I have to say about that. I'll leave you with a cute picture of Lily (one of my parents' dogs) and my sister. Next up: my harrowing journey back to France and New Year's Eve in Brussels.