Ten Years

Ten years ago today I hugged my parents goodbye, got on a plane, and left for France.

What was supposed to be a seven-month once-in-a-lifetime experience turned into a life.

When I think about that trip over it’s really pretty astonishing I stayed, since I was actually really sad and nervous to go. Weather was bad in Texas that day, but I had been spending the month at my mom’s condo in San Antonio and had gotten very comfortable there—not to mention there were poodle puppies. My flights got rerouted twice and I eventually was on a tight connection through Chicago and London, arriving four hours later than I was supposed to in Paris. Here’s that story told in a jet-lagged state from the lycée computer room.

I magically still managed to meet up in the Gare de l’Est with Zandra, who was identifiable only by her sparkling smile and the orange ribbon on her suitcase. I called my responsable at the school from a pay phone with an international calling card to warn her I was on a later train. She picked me up at the little train station in Bar le Duc, took me to her house to send an e-mail home, and then dropped me off at the internat to sleep. I woke up in the night and cried, wondering what craziness had taken over me to go so far away from home to sleep in such a cold, hospital-like bedroom.

It is not one of my best memories. Somehow in the following weeks things turned around and I fell in love with this country and this language. Sometimes I take a step back from the day to day and marvel at how I somehow live a normal life in France after all this time.

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Why would you move to France when you could live with these faces?

 

Ten years means:

  1. Boris and Otto are no longer puppies but progressing practically into thoroughbred old age.
  2. Ten years since my mom dropped everything and changed careers (sort of), moved to a new city, and introduced us to San Antonio.
  3. Three different French cities
  4. Four different French teaching jobs
  5. Six different French housing situations
  6. Extensive travel both near and far on my own and with new friends, family, and a partner
  7. Eight cartes de séjour (in 2006 the year-long visa and the OFII didn’t exist yet) and a new nationality
  8. Four absentee ballots (not counting the 2016 primaries)
  9. A huge stack of bulletins de salaire that I’ll keep till I die—and a ton of other files in hard copy
  10. Numerous expat friends who’ve come and gone, or stayed when I’ve gotten lucky

And of course a thousand other things, but ten seems like a nice, round number, doesn’t it?

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Times that Living in France Was Hard

Every once in a while I like to use my WordPress Reader to browse different categories, and typically I’ll have a look in the TAPIF one to see what new assistants are posting these days.

Typically these blogs remind me of the excitement of arriving, the fun of traveling, and the frustration of improving French skills.

But a post I read recently reminded me of the downside of the assistantship: the loneliness.

I had great assistant friends my assistant year, and even a few French friends in the small town I lived in. I lived in the school’s boarding house where the three other assistants also had rooms, as well as one or two of the school’s surveillants on their nights off.

But still, there were a lot of weeks where I did hardly anything at all. Bar le Duc had very little night life, and just one good bar. The other assistants sometimes kept to themselves other than a weekly movie night at the 6-screen cinema. Doors were typically closed in the boarding house and if we ate together it was by accident. I spent a lot of time reading or on the Internet, and going to Nancy on weekends. I remember one particularly difficult week when I had just been to Spain with les filles, and returned to Bar le Duc to see hardly anyone all week. 

In retrospect, if I’d been a little more confident, I would have tried to encourage a more communal culture at the boarding house. Because of the language and cultural barrier, I sometimes didn’t understand invitations from the two professeurs-stagiaires at the school. One of them was from Bretagne and was surely lonely living in Bar le Duc, but as a foreigner I didn’t have the guts to assume she’d want to hang out.

My year as a lectrice in Reims was also difficult at times, in fact, definitely more so than the year in Bar le Duc. Reims has a reputation for being unfriendly. There never seemed to be much going on in spite of it being a relatively large and certainly pretty city. The lecteurs from the fac de langues were a lifesaver that year, but even so, unless you truly hit it off with a couple of new close friends, it’s hard to overcome loneliness with just the help of one or two people. Most of the year I only worked Mondays and Tuesdays, and found myself wishing for more hours. I went to a number of soirées where I didn’t have a lot of fun, but felt good for at least having gotten out of the house.

In the end, if I had to do it all over again, I would:

1) Never say no to any invitation of any sort.

2) Not be afraid to impose myself on people, in a polite way. I think French people appreciate outgoing-ness, and take invitations for coffee or dinner more seriously than Americans, as a real gesture rather than just a courtesy.

I can’t say I really have these same problems today, now that I have a full-time job and a live-in boyfriend. But when he’s gone and I’m off work, it can be a surprise to find myself wondering what to do with myself (besides more work of course). French friends, like young people all over the world, come and go as their studies or jobs end, and that’s the case for me and Ju these days. Many of our good friends are a three-hour drive or more away. Fortunately we have each other, but I should possibly start following my own advice (see #s 1, 2) some time soon.

I wonder sometimes if this phenomenon of expat loneliness is not just from the expat-ness of it all, but also from the difficulty readjusting after college. People used to tell me that it was harder to find friends after Macalester—you’re no longer surrounded by 2000 people of your age with similar interests, looking to make friends. 

Any wisdom or similar experiences out there?

Bilan 2010

I haven’t yet written any sort of New Year’s post. I’m not really a New Year’s type person. Usually when New Year’s Eve rolls around, I feel like lying on the couch under a blanket and watching a movie, if not napping. My New Year’s Eves out have always been a little disappointing (even the one in London in 2006). So even though people think it’s sad when I say I spent the 31st on the plane, I didn’t really mind.

But I think it would be remiss not to remark that 2010 was sort of a turning point year for me. Maybe every year since 2005 has been a turning point year… but I still think this one’s worth commenting on.

I was re-reading the posts in my Arrivals/Departures category this evening, especially the ones about leaving Reims in 2008 to move to Austin for the year, and about how sure I was that I wanted to give France a try. France feels really different now from how it felt then, and I think that’s part new-found familiarity, part lack of desperation over an impending departure. There was a point where I said that if I could have repeated my year in Reims from the beginning, I would. I don’t feel that way anymore. I think things have only gotten better since then. The only year I would repeat if I could is my assistant year. It’s funny, I got an e-mail from an assistantship applicant the other year asking “how my assistant year was,” and it was really difficult to sum up entirely how much fun it was, and how much I learned, and how long it took me to stop missing it.

But I think I’ve stopped. Seeing Zandra four or five times last year helped me get over it and believe that there are still some shenanigans in my future. So while I’m on the topic, here are some other highlights from 2010 for me (stop reading here if you’re already bored!):

January: Return to France, big depression, another visit to Avignon, and I made the decision to move to centre ville. Starting sort of going out with Nicknameless boy. (Would rather delete this part from the highlights but I think it’s actually pretty important.) Met my super cool Canadian friend Tara.

February: Continued sort of going out with Nicknameless boy. Hung out with Sarah K and Zandra in Paris as well as my ex-students A, T, and C. It was awe—wait for it—some. Came back home and signed the lease on my apartment.

March: Moved to centre ville. Visited La Rochelle, St. Emilion, and Medoc with my parents. St. Emilion was really beautiful in early spring.

April: Starting hanging out more back at the coloc. Sliced finger open and fell on my butt really hard. Things with Nicknameless boy tanked and ended, which at the time was pretty depressing. Hung out almost constantly with my super cool Canadian friend Tara.

May: Made the gut-wrenching (well, almost) decision to pass the CAFEP CAPES in 2011 (“2011”), which felt like taking a huge leap into the unknown and like opening myself up for endless intellectual criticism and judgment. Signed up with the CNED, and mailed off my diploma to the ENIC-NARIC to get validated.

June: As classes wound down I spent more time back at the coloc, a lot of it watching the World Cup. Honestly if I had had my own television and the World Cup hadn’t been on, I’m not sure J and I would have gotten together in June! But we did, on my birthday (more or less), and it feels like the first entirely normal, really promising relationship I’ve had, once I got over my stupid hesitations about him being a whole year younger than me.

July: I went down to Avignon during the festival for the last bit of major Zandra-world fun of 2010. I started studying for the CAPES during the day and doing super cool fun stuff at night, including meeting up with Gavin from our assistant year! (Am going to meet up with him again and Laura from my assistant year in Nancy in less than two weeks!) This was definitely a high point of 2010 for me.

August: Hung out in Poitiers while J was off climbing in Alsace and Austria. Spent most of my time with my super cool Canadian friend Tara. CAPESed most of my afternoons. Had a serious mental crisis when a CNED prof told me my French was clearly very weak. Go feck yourself, useless CNED prof.

All in all summer 2010 was a really nice, stress-free time, with fewer people at the coloc and fewer students in town making noise. The weather was beautiful, the music festivals were fun, and the aperos on the bar terraces seemed endless.

September: Super cool Canadian friend Tara moved to Shanghai. Balls. Met new replacement anglophone (American) friend Dan. Started classes back up at the end of the month.

October: Not a whole lot jumps to mind about October. I spent a week-end in Paris with my ex-students A and C. I did a lot of studying.

November: Of course I can’t remember anything about November except the CAPES written exams, which, now that they’re over, feel like a lifetime ago.

December: Reveled in new-found CAPES-less freedom. Went home for Christmas!

2010 was good to me even though it had a rough start. It feels like I’ve delved much further into non-foreigner French life: my own apartment, the CAPES, a new boyfriend. Living in France has lost some of the romance it had when I had to try so hard to stay or to come back. Sometimes I have to remind myself how special it is, and how lucky I am. My newest (and probably short-lived) resolution after coming back from the States is to try to keep more of my natural American friendliness, and remember to assume strangers are probably nice people. And now, I must go to bed. This jet-lag + 8 am classes are killing me.

Vacation has started; Q&As have ended.

So, yesterday was my last day of work until a week from Monday. That’s good, and bad, because the French decided (I think) not to pay me today for the last three weeks, so I’m both glad I don’t have to work for another few weeks and annoyed that I won’t be able to straighten this out until vacation is over. To conclude my three weeks of semi-observation I’m going to make a list of weird, inexplicable, or hard-to-answer questions that French students like to ask me.

1) Do you like French food? Who on earth doesn’t like French food? The British? Or what?

2) What’s your favorite singer/actor? I don’t like famous people as much as I need to for this job. It took me several days to remember how much I like Jonny Depp and Pirates of the Caribbean, and they became my stock answers. My stock answer for the singer question is the Beatles, which I know is boring, but I don’t think they know who Ryan Adams or Aimee Mann are, and I just can’t bring myself to say Madonna is my favorite just for their sakes.

3) What are your hobbies? This question is easy, because I answer that I like listening to and playing music on the violin and the piano. It’s hard, though, if they then follow it up with What are your interests/pastimes? Because I don’t have any others. I mean it. I don’t have hobbies. I don’t do interesting things. Please stop making it painfully obvious.

4) What do young people in Texas think of the death penalty? I don’t really mind explaining this, except that usually when someone asks a question this complicated, half of the class doesn’t understand the question, much less the answer. Also I tend to have really split opinions on things like this, and this particular question led me into explaining that Texas is conservative, and then I had to explain how, and then at the end of the whole topic I felt like I needed to say that regardless, Texans are really nice people whom I like a lot. And then I just felt like I was being condescending to the entire population of my home state.

5) Have you got any … I don’t really get this “have you got” thing. I know it’s British. But I remember being told when I was six that “got” wasn’t good English.

But anyway, the kids are great. My only complaint right now isn’t with the students, the teachers, or my neighbors, who are all great, it’s with the people at the rectorat who decided they just weren’t in the mood to pay me this month.

Not much to update. I was up at 6:45 this morning. Whoa. The travel alarm clock I bought doesn’t wake me up so I’m using a combination of iCal and the alarm clock to get me up in the morning. I started observing yesterday, which mostly means the kids ask me questions, and it means I have to make myself talk really slow, which is harder than you’d think. A middle school student asked me if I like George Bush. If they only knew.

I’m going to Nancy tomorrow for orientation and then again on Thursday for my medical appointment. I think I will probably come back here Wednesday night just because I don’t feel like finding a place to stay. Then on Friday, I will probably, finally, go buy my long-awaited phone. It’s been raining today but it has stopped for a while so if this keeps up I will go to the mediateque and inscrire myself, cuz I have 60 pages left in Middlesex and I need something to do with myself.

This horrendously long post is the product of boredom.

So that I don’t look like quite as much of a weirdo tomorrow morning in the computer room, I’m writing this out this evening and posting it tomorrow. Also, despite being in France, I have nothing to do. Hopefully things will pick up when there are more assistants and when my job starts.

Recap of the past few days: I left for the airport in San Antonio at around 10:45 Saturday morning, and we got there only to find that my flight to Dallas had been canceled due to weather. So they put me on a later one, we went out for lunch, and when we got back, that one was canceled. They quickly put me on a Continental flight to Houston, and not five seconds after that, Houston called a ground stop. So they routed me from San Antonio to Chicago, to London, and then to Paris. I had an hour layover in Chicago and as soon as my flight to Chicago left the gate, we knew we’d be an hour late. I was pretty much resigned to spending the night in Chicago and maybe calling Grace and Charles, but once I got there I found out my flight to London was delayed anyway. That flight was kinda crappy. I wasn’t on the aisle so I didn’t get up at all, and no one was very friendly, except that a flight attendant did put my violin in the business class closet for me since the overhead bins were some wacko size. High point of the ride was watching American Dreamz and watching the plane go in tiny circles on the map for a little while over Oxford while we waited for our turn to land. It took forever to get through Heathrow because of the British Airways screening process. I was in line with a couple Americans going to Qatar and one going to Dubai. Anyway I got to my gate pretty much just in time for boarding even though it had been a 2 hr 45 min layover. Stuff was weird with my bag and my seats because the change of flights hadn’t gone as smoothly as it seemed in San Antonio, but I did get both (seats and bag).

I arrived in Paris, got my bag, found an ATM and a phone card, and caved and took a cab to the Paris East station. I was supposed to meet another assistant in CDG at 9:30, but with the flight change, I didn’t get there till 1 so I just forgot about it. I guess she waited for me, though, because while I was sitting on the cement near a sign at the train station, she walked past, rolling two suitcases behind her, one with the agreed-upon orange ribbon. The train ride to my town was 2 hours and I can’t believe either of us stayed awake. I said goodbye to her and got off the train (she was going all the way to Nancy) and my contact person at some point walked up to me and asked if I was looking for an English teacher. She has been incredibly helpful, lending me a duvet for the year, sheets for the first night, taking me to Auchan, etc. I will have to buy her something.

After showering and sleeping for 13 hours, I got up to go to the lycée. Somehow I found the right place even though I’d seen it for the first time the night before. I got some confusing papers from the office that I have to fill out. I met lots of very friendly English teachers, including two stagiares who are also new here. They took me to the cell phone store yesterday where I found out lots of useful things including that I have to have my bank account before I can get a phone (not a big surprise really). I left with lots of packets of useful information. Right now, since there’s no internet to be found in this town except at the high school and at a little mediateque open on Saturdays that’s kind of a hike, I’m planning on buying a phone with e-mail capability. Also I will get a plan that lets me make calls to the US. I am so excited about this potential piece of technology. I will no longer be reachable only by people throwing rocks at my window or hoping to run into me at the lycée during my short walks between the teachers lounge and the computer room.

The school itself is pretty cool. It’s a Napoleanic (sp?) building so it has a chapel which my contact assured me was pretty rare and not in much use except as a conference room. The internat is actually a five/ten minute walk from the school and I’m in a wing with just commuting teachers and other foreign language assistants. The médiatheque I mentioned is actually in an adorable little castle that my contact drove me by on the way back from Auchan last night. I think I’m going there Saturday.

Another high school English assistant (this one is supposed to actually be English) is supposed to arrive Friday. The girl I’ve contacted who’s working at an elementary school here arrives Thursday. Of course without a phone it’ll be a little hard for her to contact me, but I have some faith in the smallness of this town. Speaking in French is going okay, although I make a lot of mistakes that people humor or ignore, or sometimes they pretend to know what I mean, like when I say “non” and I mean “oui.” Durr. My contact says my French is good so that’s good. At least I’m not a disgrace to Amercans abroad. Last night there was a fire drill and I felt really silly that I wasn’t doing anything at all exciting at 10:30 pm. I was even in my pjs, but you probably couldn’t really tell. Kids were running outside wrapped in blankets but it was really not cold. It’s maybe 60 degrees here.

Okay, so the point of this post was to show you the beginning of my morning walk and my room. It was pretty out today, so I took some pictures when no one was looking. I didn’t want to stand out as the one American in town, walking around with my camera pointed at seemingly boring things. So all you really get to see are enclosed spaces.

Alors, ici, c’est ma petite chambre:

From the window. I’ve implemented slight changes since I took this picture, but they’re not really important. For example, the pillowcase is now blue. Yeah, real exciting.

Sort of from the door. Behind me, before the door, is a tiny entranceway off of which is my sink room. Why is there an entire small room for the sink? Beats me. The showers are next door to my room and the wc is just across from it. Sound carries. I can hear someone coughing at night. And yet I can‚’t hear my alarm clock.

Here is the little kitchen for the wing. I have yet to use anything besides the fridge since I eat lunch at school with the English teachers, who sort of talk over my head about things I don‚’t understand or know about. Whether it‚’s the language or the newness of the place that makes it incomprehensible I‚’m not sure. They‚’re all very nice and welcoming though. Everyone asks how long my trip took and when I arrived and where I‚’m living and how I‚’m doing. And from looking in my dictionary just now, I can tell that they‚’ve all also been asking how much the time difference is and I have not been answering that question.

Here you can see the extensive appliances for the kitchen. If I had more to do I would maybe not document my life in such excruciating detail, but that‚’s not the case.

So here is the first part of my morning walk out of the internat toward the lycée, and it‚’s one of my favorite things about this place.

Here is what you see right when you walk out the door and face the street.

Here is what you see if you instead look straight ahead. I‚’m not sure what this building is. But I‚’m picking up 3 wireless signals (all with passwords, sigh) and I think at least one of them must be coming from here.

And here is what you see if you look to the right.

Then I go completely to the left and out the back over the river.

Left and right as you cross the bridge:

And the little tree-enshrouded walkway to the back gate:

Closer:

And here, from completely the opposite site of the building and a different street, is a picture of the internat:

Well, this is a ridiculously long post, so I’ll stop. I have things to do this week, but not much. Tomorrow I have an appointment at the bank to open an account, and Thursday I’m going out with the teachers to the bar that has music on Thursday nights. If the other American assistant can communicate with me (I’m not sure how, rocks at the window, telecasting maybe) then maybe we’ll hang out Friday. Then Saturday I’m supposed to go get a phone or go to the mediatheque with one of the stagiaires, I’m not really sure. And I eat lunch every day in the cantine. The rest of the time, I dunno, I’ll probably finish reading Middlesex really fast. Then I’ll have to figure out where to get more books in English. I don’t really know what my mailing address is, but I’ve been given a mailbox key, so I should really ask, and when I find out, I’ll post it somewhere, though probably not here.

This new iTunes blows chunks, by the way. Is it possible to download Mac programs on a PC and then transfer them to my computer, by the way? Also, does iTunes have a web-based store or is it all through the iTunes program? Am trying to figure out if it’s possible to get Project Runway, you see. V. important concern. One last question: does anyone know what is the European/French equivalent of hydrocortisone?

Okay, really stopping now.

Bitches, Man

This is just balls. I might as well be in Texas. In fact, I’d be better off in Texas, because then I’d have air conditioning. I wouldn’t be pointing the fan at myself while I sleep and taking cold showers before going to bed. I resent this, world. Shame on you for leading me to think Minnesota summer was so great.

I’m reading Three Junes and it’s making me wonder about all these expats who have such an easy time moving to New York or Greece and fit in so easily. What is it that does it? Money? Brains?

I’m thinking of becoming a librarian. I think it’s a good idea, but it conjures up thoughts of The Music Man and a racy sexy librarian novel I read part of in Cosmo years ago.

Also I just watched Say Anything for the first time and it was great.