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.


Monday, January 3, 2011

There's No Place Like Home (and Brussels) for the Holidays...(Pt. 1)

...No matter how far away you roam.

Alright, I know y'all have been jonesing for an update, but between all the transatlantic travel, catching up with friends and famille, and all kinds of jet lag, I've been a bit busy. But this update shall be nice and long (and may in fact come in multiple installations), to sate your voracious blog appetites.

So I left for the US early in the morning on December 15th. Man that trip will take it out of you. In total it took me 22 hours to get from Valenciennes to Chicago, and 27 to get from Indy back to Valenciennes. My trip home commenced at about 7am, when I left my house with my giant rollerbag (just inching under the 50lb airline weight limit for checked bags), overstuffed backpack, and filled-to-the-brim shoulder bag. I walked about 15 minutes to the bus stop at the train station, only to realize after boarding the bus that it stops at both ends of my block. Doh. So I rode the bus for about 25 minutes to the small town of Quievrechain, to begin my super-shady-sounding-but-actually-not, very cheap way of getting to the Brussels airport. You see, there is no easy way to get to the Brussels airport from Valenciennes, unless you drive, which in France I do not. There is an easier (but not easy) way, and there is a cheap way. Clearly I opted for the cheap way. The easier way involves taking a train from Valenciennes to Lille, then another train from Lille to Mons, Belgium, then a third and fourth train from Mons to Brussels and Brussels to the airport, but because the train from Lille to Mons is an international train, and because you are taking 4 trains in total, it will cost you. The cheap way involves taking a bus to Quievrechain, a border town, and then walking through town and crossing the border (the shady-sounding part, even though you wouldn't know you were even crossing the border if you weren't paying attention) into Quievrain, Belgium, and taking a train from Quievrain to Brussels, and another from Brussels to the airport. So to recap the journey thus far: 7am, 15 min walk to the bus stop, 25 min bus ride to Quievrechain, 15 min walk to the train station in Quievrain.Then I waited for about 45 mins for the hourly train to Brussels, already thoroughly exhausted from suitcase lugging, and thoroughly creeped out for reasons I am about to explain.

Quievrain used to have a big, beautiful, brick train station, like most other European towns and cities of reasonable size. However, due to reasons I was unable to ascertain (the economy, perhaps?), the old train station is bricked and boarded up, rusting and rotting and covered with graffiti. Next to it now is a shady-looking construction trailer that is serving as the new (and apparently permanent) ticket office. Since there is not much room in said trailer for waiting, and because I was feeling a compulsive need to smoke as many cigarettes as possible before my flight (I hate a transatlantic flight for innumerable reasons), I waited for my train outside on the platform, in what was once a glassed-in shelter but was now only partially glassed-in and partially busted out. So here I am, early morning, gray sky, light snow falling, staring at this creepy old train station, surrounded by broken glass and graffiti, not another soul in sight, save the light in the ticket trailer. And I'm thinking "Oh, this must be what WWII felt like." I really felt like I was in a bombed-out Polish ghetto or something. Then my wheezing, rusty, heavily graffitied train lurches up to the platform, and I am half expecting to see cattle cars rather than passenger cars. The grizzled old conductor sticks his head out the window and yells at me in French to get on at the back of the train. I do so, wondering if I will really end up in Brussels or if I am headed straight to a work camp. Fortunately I did end up in Brussels, but the whole experience was an exceptionally creepy time warp. 

I arrived at the Brussels airport ridiculously early, with several hours to kill before my 1pm flight (you can never allot too much "cushion" time when relying on public transport in Europe, trust me). So I ate an 8 euro cheese sandwich (ridiculous) and had a 3 euro bottle of water (also ridiculous), because of course I had not used my brain and eaten breakfast before leaving the house that morning. Then, to my delight, I found that Brussels is one of the few airports in the first world in which there are still smoking lounges, enabling me to further increase my odds of getting lung cancer before the ripe old age of 50 (I'm working on this quitting thing, I promise. But begrudge me my addiction on days like this, ok?). So I smoked a couple of cigarettes and befriended a lovely Belgian airport employee who was on his smoke break. Time passed, I boarded my flight to London, and arrived at Heathrow without incident.

Heathrow is by far the most gargantuan and confusing airport I have ever encountered in my short but well-traveled life. Ho. Ly. Cow. I deplaned, followed a maze of signs and ropes and pathways, took a bus to another terminal (and was, for a moment, massively freaking out that we were driving on the wrong side of the road, before I remembered I was in the UK), and went through security again, giggling a bit about the fact that "runny cheese" was considered a liquid on the list of those that needed to be in 3oz containers in a ziploc baggie. Having again forgotten that I was now in an English-speaking country, I spoke to the security guy in French, asking him if it was necessary to take off my shoes. Needless to say, with my American passport in hand and clearly American accent, he gave me a look that was, to put it nicely, quizzical. With another couple of hours to kill, I took it upon myself to explore a bit, and to find a good meal before my long-haul flight to Chicago. I settled on a sushi place, having not had good sushi since leaving the US, and because my inner 6 year old demanded it. Now I know most 6 year olds are not big fans of sushi, but they undoubtedly are big fans of food that moves past your table on cute little colored plates on a conveyor belt, allowing you to take what you like. See for yourself:

Freaking cool, right?
So I'm eating my sushi and decide to snap the above pic with my iPhone. After closing my camera app, I notice that the time on my phone is 4:20. My flight is at 4:30. I don't even know what gate I am supposed to go to, but I do know that it's a 20 minute walk (according to the signs) to the international terminal. Shitshitshitshitshit! Pardon my French. So I literally jump out of my seat, drop a 20 euro note on the table (pretty sure my meal was only about 8 euro... happy holidays, random waitress), and blaze into the terminal to check which gate I need to get to, heart racing, head pounding, eyes welling. Then I notice that, according to the clock on the departures board, it is in fact 3:20. Because there is a one hour time change between France and the UK. And since my phone is still in airplane mode, it would not have adjusted the time automatically. "Doh" moment number two. Feeling like an idiot, but happy to be safe, rather than sorry, I make my way to my gate anyway. The gates at Heathrow are "secured" meaning you have to play 20 questions with the security guard to get into the enclosed gate area, and once you're in, you're in. No peeing, no getting a snack, no nothing. A sickly little kid even had to puke in a trash can because they wouldn't let him out to go to the bathroom. And I thought TSA America's new security stuff was intense. They've got nothing on the UK.

So I'm sitting, waiting, snacking on some Madame Walker's shortbread (yum!), and I notice that the girl next to me is reading a French to English phrasebook, practically burning holes into it with her eyes, and getting this panic-stricken look on her face every time they make an announcement over the loudspeaker in English (which is the only language they announce in, of course). Knowing how I felt trying to navigate Paris CDG when I arrived in France, I look at her and ask "Vous etes francaise?" (Are you French?). She turns to me and nods as her whole face lights up, and she explains to me that she is traveling to the US to visit a friend, but doesn't speak any English and has no idea what's going on or even if she is at the right gate. So I look at her ticket and conclude that she is at the right gate, and I explain to her how they do boarding by groups, etc. She thanked me and told me I spoke French very well for having only been there a few months, which probably made my day as much as my help made hers. So that was my warm-fuzzy good traveler deed for the day.

Boarded the plane for Chi-Town, not thrilled to be in the middle section, but content to be on an aisle and to have an empty seat next to me. On the other side of the empty seat was a guy about my age, who had been traveling Europe since August and was now headed home because he had run out of money. He was a nice kid, and we shared the extra space of the empty seat quite amicably. I think at one point my sleeping head may have drooped over onto his shoulder, but he was polite about it and didn't say anything. Got to O'Hare, again without much trouble, save a bit of a delay on the tarmac back at Heathrow. Had an absolutely stunning view of Chicago by night as we flew over, too. Customs was a breeze, the officer even joked with me about bringing 5 bottles of wine home with me, refusing to believe my claim that they were Christmas gifts. From O'Hare I hopped on the blue line el, to Belmont station to await my best friend, Erica, who moved to Chicago for grad school and with whom I was planning to spend the night before making my way back to Indiana. I was standing at the station, waiting and filling my eyes with the scenery of Belmont street, and suddenly I hear shrieking behind me. I turn around, and before I can figure out what it is, I am engulfed in the whirlwind of enthusiasm that is my long lost best friend, and we do the whole screaming-hugging-jumping-up-and-down-I-haven't-seen-you-in-forever thing. And it was awesome :-). Then we got on the bus headed back in the direction of her place, but you know where I had to stop first: Chipotle.

And that, I think, concludes part one of our series on Sara's adventures to the US and back. Stay tuned for part two: Christmas with the Cranks... I mean Brooks/Whitmers.