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 The beautiful, sunny, warm weather we've had the last few days has been replaced by the cold, rainy, windy bs we usually have.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!