Monday, November 23, 2009

The Life of the Tired Teachair

I can't believe it's been over two week since I last posted. Time flies when you're having fun (unless you're frog, then time's fun when you're have flies - Coach Dawson, junior physics… It wasn't funny when he said it either, which was often. The other thing he liked to say was “It’s 5:00 somewhere.” Remembering that now makes me wonder what exactly he was trying to encourage among the 16 and 17 year olds in his classes).

What’s happened since November 15th:

I took a couple yoga classes, which were very relaxing and required me to think in French (or just watch other people inconspicuously).

Fabiola and I had an afternoon snack with two teachers that we work with that turned into a 6-hour visit complete with dinner. I work with Christophe, and Fabiola works with Karine; both of whom teach English in our schools. They also happened to live in New Orleans for a couple years until Katrina screwed them over. The invited us to have cake (individual chocolate cakes with a gooey center), and then let us use their phone because they have FREE calls to the United States. By the time Fabiola and I had phoned boyfriends and family, they asked if we want to stay for dinner. We had the best quiche I’ve ever eaten with salad then cheese and fruit after dinner. It was so nice to get to have dinner with people who were familiar with the “living abroad” experience. They also have a 15-month-old baby whose name I can’t quite decipher.

Then came the week of Thanksgiving!

I was looking for information in French about Thanksgiving. I realized, in researching on, that whatever I intended to tell the kids, it was primarily about food. How often, on Thanksgiving, do you really think about pilgrims and American Indians?

Moi, non plus (me neither).

Anyway, they didn’t care about it; the kids are 7. They talk while I'm talking and only pay attention when I give them something to color. So, in the tradition of American school children everywhere, we drew hand turkeys, i.e. they traced their hands and attempted to draw turkeys. It was glorious.

Also read this: Thanksgiving. One of the other assistants posted it, and it's funnier if you know some French, but still.

After Actual Thanksgiving, we celebrated my birthday!

My birthday was fun, as fun as it could be without my bestest of friends and family (I don’t mean I don’t like my friends here, I do). We went out to dinner to a Senegalese restaurant called Daara, which was très bien. We kind of crowded the place; it was pretty small. Then we had drinks at Sam’s, then we went to a pub. We met the band for the French singer Alain Souchon . They were a funny bunch of guys, and it made for a funny birthday. If you want the full story, send me an email. :D

On Saturday, the assistants had Thanksgiving! It turned out to be a pretty awesome event:

First of all, all of the assistants there were girls. American, Mexican, British, and New Zealand. And somehow, we’ve all managed to befriend French guys. So the entire night was a battle of the sexes and cultures! We did pretty well for making the meal with French ingredients. Sam bought a turkey breast and turkey legs. The Brits brought bread cheese and two chickens. I made cornbread dressing (in Christophe and Karine’s nicely loaned baking dishes); it turned out really good! Meredith and Fabiola brought broccoli and potatoes, respectively. We had lots of deserts. All in all, it was great, and we were properly stuffed afterward.

There were probably 14 of us crammed into Sam’s apartment, and after dinner we played “Celebrity.” This is a game that some of Kevin’s friends claim to have invented, but it’s a fabulous mélange of guess the celebrity without saying the name and charades.

We had a marvelous time.

Stories about my kids:

French children have a snack at both recesses. This must be universal because every child at each of my schools has some kind of sweet snack-y cake (as Carolyn would say) or, less often, an apple. Some kids have a mystery snack wrapped in aluminum foil. Anyway, a week ago as I was walking out of Mme. Goupille's class before morning recess, the kids were excitedly putting on their coats and screaming. One kid, Walid, who is absolutely adorable because he is smaller and baby-fattier than the other kids, waved his snack-y cake in my face. Well, not in my face, per se, as he is less than two feet tall, but he waved his snack-y cake at me. "C'est de chichi!" he said. (sounded like shee shee). I responded as I usually do when they tell me non-school related things: "Je comprends pas" (I do not understand.) And he said, "C'est quelque chose qui est un petit peu sucré et un petit peu selé." Which means, it's something that is a little bit sugary and a little bit salty.

Adorable. Yesterday, the same little kid told me he was going to teach his mother English. Well, he said "Je vais apprendre l'anglais à ma mére," which translates more accurately to "I'm going to learn my mother English." This is okay in French, however, as the verb apprendre can be used both to mean "to learn" and "to teach"

At another school, I have a class of CPs (basically, kindergarten), and everytime I arrive or leave they're like "bisous! bisous!" And I kind of give them little hugs because I just really don't want to get kissed from all of those kids.

Also, if anyone knows how to fix formatting in the input box in blogspot, let me know. I'm having a bit of a formatting crisis.

Old Men

Sunday, November 15, 2009


I got lost yesterday. At night. I had a general idea of direction I wanted to go in, but I was not sure. Usually, I write down directions, and once I've gone a certain places, I rarely forget how to get there. But last night, I tried out a yoga class, which was in a residential area I hadn't been to before. It was a 15 minute walk, but I got lost on the way there. So I decided to take a different route back. I walked toward what I thought was Foch, one of the main streets in Angers. It was well-lit enough, but a little creepy as the buildings are tall and are right next to the curb. It was about 9:30 on a Wednesday, so there weren't many people out and about.
I looked down street after street, they could have been perspective drawings from an art class, all buildings in straight lines, with no one and nothing down them. It also reminded me of that Red Hot Chili Peppers music video that's all in black and white, and they sit on top of buildings and whatnot. It might be Californication. (Update: it's otherside from Californication.) I saw a church that I had never seen before. It had a banner in front that said "950 years, 1059-2009." How cool is that? Most churches at home are like, "We've been around 10 years? We need a bigger building. With lots of useless extra rooms. And a pool."
Anyway, I finally saw a Pizza Hut, which I knew was on Carnot. Pretty far from Foch, but I found it and knew where I was. I walked by a café where people were watching a soccer game, I'm not sure who was playing, but when I got to Foch someone had won because the fans had decided to drive crazily around the roundabout waving a flag (couldn't tell which) and honking their horns and screaming.
It was interesting to be lost at night in a place I thought I knew. I didn't feel unsafe, and I really wasn't. It was quiet and calm and kind of like a small adventure.

Some Commentary on Language: (with stories!)

Language is interesting to me. I have never really thought about it before, despite the fact I studied English and French. At the time, it seemed more like the study of literature, not a language. And, in many ways, it was. In all of my classes, I read. It was assumed (and I guess rightly so) that I possessed the vocabulary, the grammatical rules, the intellect to take the words on the page and make them mean something other than JUST the word.
For instance, "the dog is black" doesn't just signify a black dog, the image that comes to mind, it also references many other black dogs, the type of dogs that are black, the instances in which you or I have encountered a black dog. It can be broadened to encompass what we know about the history of many and dog, and in the context of the text it can carry many other meanings: it could be a symbol for something dark to come, or it could simply be the portrait of the American family with the trusty lab at its side.
(I have a point)

But all of this meaning, codification, is assumed, taken for granted. So, when learning a new language, there are vast gaps in your knowledge because you cannot possibly be aware of all the significations a word could possess.

All of that goes to say, I've learned some words, and I'm learning to speak, but I can't ever beFrench. That is obvious, but it's difficult to realize that as much as I learn there will always be something missing that will make the language totally click.
Maybe I'll change my mind about this in 8 months. (Can you believe I've been here almost 2 months?!)

So, when I say that language is interesting to me; I find facts like this fascinating:
The students at my schools all of these things called "les ardoises," which translates to slate.
Imagine the stories of one room school houses with the school marm at the front calling out sums, which the students furiously write on mini-chalkboards. Yes, children in France still have those. It's mostly to practice mathematics, and maybe spelling. Many of the boards are of the white board variety, with expo markers.
I had never heard the word before, so one of the teachers explained that Ardoise means slate, as in the slate used to make the roofs on French houses. I think she said that in the olden days (whenever that was) the students actually used slates from the roof for class. Anyway, they kept the name even though many students have white boards now.
They also love using them. Maybe it's because they get to wave them in the air to show me the answer.

Another language thing:
Would you refer to elementary school kids as students? I would.
In French, the word for students is "les étudiants." But you cannot refer to primary school children as les étudiants. You must use the word "les élèves," which translates to pupils. When I made this mistake, someone laughed and said "you can't call them students, they aren't studying anything." I had never even thought about the fact that student means "one who studies," nor had I considered the fact that elementary school children don't really study.
For the British assistants, this makes perfect sense as they use the word "pupils," but I'm almost 100% positive that I had elementary school teachers who referred to the class as "students."

There is a French verb for which the infinitive is "faire." When you learn French, it's one of the first irregular verbs that you learn. It is almost always translated as "to make or to do," like that: both English words with "or" between them. One can faire les vaisselles, do the dishes, orfaire un gateau, make a cake, but one can also faire un fête, make or do a party? While it's amusing when foreign people say things like "let's make a party," it wouldn't really be an accurate translation, would it? I think that's the problem with translation, and again with learning a language.

A final language thing:
In France, you're pretty much required to say "bonjour" to everyone you meet. Once you know someone well (I think) you are allowed to say "salut." Additionally, once you know someone really well, you can greet them with "coucou." But, at one school, there is a teacher who always says "Salut" to me, I guess because we're close-ish to the same age. There is another teacher who invited me to a party (another story for another day), and when he texted me he said "coucou." Some of the girls in the foyer say "coucou" to me, some say "Salut". I said "Salut" to someone in the foyer, out of habit, but I don't really know her. She responded "Bonjour" rather coldly. None of this makes sense to me, and I think "coucou" sounds dumb.

I'm going to go ahead and post this, I have more stories, esp of the kids (!), but I feel like I need to churn out some kind of writing, even if it's just this blog!

The dog is black:


Thursday, November 12, 2009

Part Trois: Aix-en-Provence/Halloween en France

Dear BNP Paribas,

I hate you. You are the worst bank ever. Why do you suck so much?

Thank you,

Yeah, I hate my bank. Or maybe it's just the banking system here; I couldn't tell you because this is the first French bank account I've ever had. Okay, there was the bit where they forced me to have insurance in case I "hurt a child or broke someone's glasses." Apparently, it is a required type of insurance, and because I was so confused my bank lady reimbursed me half of it.
Then, they wouldn't give me my card because my account was negative, why was it negative? you might ask...
Because they charged me for insurance, and I hadn't been paid yet. Then I was paid, and my card worked and all was right. And I decided I should probably book tickets for Christmas. So I did.
My tickets from Frankfurt to Amsterdam and Amsterdam to Paris are €105 all together, pretty good. But for some reason, the bank has charged me twice, FOR BOTH OF THEM.
I know I did not buy multiple tickets because I was being very careful when clicking through because of our horrible internet. So, I was VERY careful, when purchasing, not to click anything twice.
I discovered the charges Wednesday, and of course it was a bank holiday. So, nothing was to be done. I went Thursday, and my bank boyfriend (he laughs every time he sees me because I'm always having problems.) asked me if I was sure I hadn't bought anything on Monday. Yes, I was pretty damn sure.
"Are you sure," he asked, "that you didn't buy gas or something?"
I very nicely explained that I do not have a CAR!
Anyway, he got this other lady who asked if it was a carte electron, which it is. Then she said, "C'est bloqué, pas de soucie, t'inquiète pas"
And the there was something else that might have been "you're not being charged." When I got home, I looked up bloqué: in terms of money it usually means "frozen." So she said, "It's frozen, no worries, don't worry" And she might have said, "you're not being charged." Either way, my account is in the negative, so I'm just going to keep checking it... I should have made an appointment with my bank lady.

I think I'm doing pretty well, considering I can't access my money. At home, I would be freaking out a million times more; I would be on the phone with everyone from my bank. Here, I'm just kind of annoyed and am making myself wait until the week's up to see what happens.

So, the story continues!
In the last episode, Allie, Meredith, Kelly, and Andrew were running through the streets of Marseilles with entirely too much baggage in tow. We arrived at the station, out of breath, and unsure of which platform to go to. Two minutes to departure, I ran up to some French train worker people who were hanging out on one of the platforms. "Bonjour" I yelled, out of breath.
They looked at me and chuckled, one conductor said, "Bonsoir (at this point I realized my horrible gaffe, one does not say bonjour at 19h00- 7pm)..." He smiled, "yeees?" I threw aside an attempt at parlaying en français, "Is this the train to Aix?"
He looked at the train, then back at me. "Yeees"
Andrew attempted to mock me for not bother with French, but it was more important to bid him adieu and throw (seriously) our baggage on the train.
We did both, and Meredith and I collapsed heavily on the first seats we found.

The train ride was 10 minutes, so we arrived at Aix and Katie, my friend who was already there, informed us we would have to catch the bus into town.
It was dark. We were hungry, and the bus stop appeared to be under a bridge, so we stood by what also appeared to be a major highway, waiting for what we hoped was the bus... for about 40 minutes.
It came, and then we got off at the bus stop where we waited another long long while for Katie and her friend Stevie, with whom we were staying, came to get us.

We really didn't do much in Aix. I think we were so worn out from everything else we had done. On Friday, we had grand aspirations. The plan was to rent bikes and cycle around Aix, so we did. But not until 2 pm. We went to the rental place and decided to plan on a two hour trip; Meredith told the guy, "We want something pretty and easy. Very easy."
"Oh yes," he said, "it's easy, definitely can do in 2 hours. Very pretty."
So we were off.
Now at home, as many of you may know, I enjoy riding my bike; I probably ride it once a week. I jog, I do yoga. I am not unfit.
I also live in flatlands.

The path (or should I say road, because we were on the road with the cars. French people are also bad drivers) took us out of the city, into a kind of forest-y winding road. Then the two-lane road turned into a one-lane road. With huge hills.

HUGE. Going up those hills was one of the most strenuous things I've ever done. In the distance, we could see Mount Saint-Victoire, which was a frequent subject of the painter Cézanne who is from Aix.

It was so hard. I just can't even explain. My quads ached.
We did make it home in two hours, and I'm really glad I did it. The country side was beautiful, and the biking was an experience. You do have to give French drivers credit; they're used to bikers being on the road and know how not to hit them.

Saturday in Aix was spent sleeping in and deciding what to dress up as for Halloween. Katie's friend Stevie had a halloween party (did I mention his awesome apartment. HUGE. 10 foot ceilings. giant bedrooms. they're also paying a ton for it.) I bought an Indian headdress at the one costume shop in Aix, so I was an Indian. French people don't really celebrate Halloween, so it was this huge party of Brits and Americans with a couple Spaniards, an Italian, and two French guys. It was pretty cool, and everyone had to be creative with their costumes because there weren't really many options. My favorite was Freddie Krueger with cardboard fingernails. We went to a club, which was funny because not many people there were in costumes. It was a nice Halloween.

On Sunday, I woke up early. For no reason, at all. So I made the most of it, and walked down the Cours Mirabeau, which is famous and has expensive stores. On Sunday, though, these stores are closed, but there was a Provençal market with leather goods, soap from Marseille, Provençal lavender, jewelry, macaroons, and more. It was cute.
Then, I went to a café and had a café (coffee) and did some writing. I felt like a cliché, but it was one of my favorite things I did on the whole vacation. It was relaxing to be on my own and meditate on my own thoughts for a while.
That afternoon we walked around the city, which was pretty much like every other Sunday in France, completely dead. We went to a pizzeria then rented Vicky Cristina Barcelona, which is a good movie! I recommend it.
And that was Aix. It's a small city, but well known, I guess, for it's pretty buildings. It is very pretty although October probably isn't the best time to go. The trees were loosing their leaves, and it was overcast.
Other than that, I have to admit: I'm more anxious to return to Marseilles and see what it has to offer. It seemed like a place where something was always happening. Aix was pretty, and I've seen it. I think Provence (the region in which Aix is located -- Marseille kind of is too, but it's considered part of the Côte d'Azur) might have more to offer in visiting the countryside. It looked beautiful on the train ride home. Katie and I tried to take pictures out of the train windows while we sped away on the TGV, but it was not successful.

It really was such an interesting vacation. I got to see parts of France I had never seen before, and the weather was beautiful almost the whole time. For the most part, my companions were nice, too.
At the end, though, I found myself ready to return to my bumpy mattress, rationed heating, and seatless toilets. Sometimes, staying in one place is nice too!

By the way, I've reorganized my room. And it is very nice. I switched my dresser and shelves with my bed, which made my room seem a lot bigger. Sometimes you just need to shake things up a little!

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Part Deux: Marseilles

To begin more random France things:

They turned the heat on in our foyer. Yay! But wait, it has to be difficult. The heat is only on from 5 pm to midnight and 5 am to 9 am. If you are home during the day, you must freeze.
I guess that, in truth, I am not paying the heating bill, so I cannot complain.

Also, I booked my holiday tickets! I'm not going home, but I am going to Germany and the Netherlands! I will be staying with my fabulous friend Franzi and her fabulous family who are so nice to have me over for the holidays... then I will be in Amsterdam with another assistant and we will be crashing with another good friend, Victor.
So, I'm excited to do something different for the holidays, although I will miss my family and Kevin and all of you so much.

One more thing, I was having a horrible time with my hair. (I mean other than my lifelong battle with it because it does not do what I want it to.) Anyway, it was like tangly and frizzy and just generally disagreeable. So, I bought some French shampoo because I was still using some from home. It has made all the difference! I can't even tell you!
Maybe French shampoo has a different make up because French water is different? No clue.

Okay, and now for stories of the Mediterranean!
We left Bordeaux on Wednesday at around 11:30 and took the longest train ride, EVER. It was 7 hours, but that's what you get when you buy the cheapest ticket. Instead of riding on France's fabulous TGV (le train à grand vitesse, i.e. the really fast train), we were on the "local" train, which stops more frequently and doesn't even touch the TGV's supersonic (ish) speeds.
Interesting fact(s): The TGV was originally going to be a gas tubine powered train, but after the gas crisis of 1973, gaspowering was deemed inefficient and expensive. So the French switched to electric powered trains. They are powered by Nuclear Power. The fastest recorded TGV reached 357 mph in test conditions, and I think, but am not sure, that the average speed of a TGV train is between 150 and 190 mph.

Anywho, NOT riding the TGV, I had a window seat, which I enjoyed!
Interesting fact about Allie: she loves the window seat! Seriously, I always request it when I book transport (hahaha, book transport). I just want to SEE!
And see, I did. The country side was beautiful; I caught a glimpse of the ocean.
When we arrived in Marseille that evening, Meredith and Kelly's friend Andrew met us at the train station. He was really nice and helped us carry our (too much) stuff back to his apartment. Andrew has a really nice apartment with a shower that has... a wall-mounted shower head! The little things you learn to appreciate.
We went out to dinner to a Tunisian restaurant per the recommendation of Andrew's friend who works at the hostel in Marseille. I had vegetables and couscous, which was delicious.
I also received my first month's pay that evening, which was wonderful! We had some wine back at Andrew's, and Meredith and I crashed on the couches.

Marseille is the second largest city in France, and as a port city, it attracts a large number of immigrants. So Marseille is kind of known as this hodge-podge crazy place of lots of people. My France guide book describes a kind of rivalry between Marseille and Aix (our next stop). The rivalry can be broken down into very simple terms. Dirty/Clean. Poor/Rich. My book also said that people tend to love one and hate the other and that Marseille is a little gritty.
I also think the person who wrote my book is a douche.
Marseilles is kind of dirty. And there are a lot of immigrants. And there are lots of kebap shops and Middle Eastern restaurants and people walking around and broken glass and on and on.
I have to say that I really loved Marseille. We spent the least amount of time there, but I think out of everywhere, that's where I'd want to go back. We only walked around a very small portion of it, and there was just so much to see. So many people! We went into one area to get lunch, and there were all these little grocery stores with all the fruit outside in these stands and one shop with pots and pans and purses and pizza stands (there's also many people of Italian origin in Marseille).
Then we walked down to the pier to wait for our boat. I just had fries to eat, but I had a bit of someone's kepab (fabulous!).
At the pier, there's all these people selling fresh caught fish. My dad would have loved it.

Then we hopped on this boat for two islands off the coast of Marseille: If and Frioul.
Chateau d'If is most famous as the setting for the Count of Monte Cristo. The castle is really even though the count is not. Many people were locked up there and eventually went crazy, died, or both. I kind of poked around the castle, but it was just worth it to be on the island. The weather was perfect; the water was clear; the sun shone...
Then we caught the boat to Frioul, which was bigger and didn't have a castle. It did have some hills and fortresses, so we hiked around for a good bit. And I stuck my feel in the Mediterranean!
Then, we went to catch the boat (it was like a big tour boat, not so big as the one you take on the Mississippi, but it probably could hold a good 150 people), and the French boat person wouldn't let us on. He just cut off the line, and the boat was not full at all. We waited for like 45 minutes for the next one, at the boarding area, so we would be first. We got on the boat, but the stupid man cut the line off again, and there was tons of room available!
We went back to the apartment and had spaghetti. Someone bought wine again, which I didn't think was such a good idea. Then, we had to catch our train. We ran.

I mean, we RAN. We got to the platform with probably a minute to spare, but we boarded the train for the 10 minute TGV to Aix!

To be continued!

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Reflecting on the holidays: Part 1: Bordeaux

Before I begin reflecting, two things:
1. A bazillion birds (or bats?) were flying around my building this afternoon. It was kind of ridiculous, but also very cool looking.
2. I taped some of the pictures my kids have drawn for me on my wall. On kid, Valentin, drew me a picture of the American flag (kind of). Funny thing is: that one keeps falling off... weird.

So, Toussaint is over! I was traveling for 7 days, which is much longer than you think it is. I'm going to talk about it in 3 parts because we visited 3 major cities, and there's so much to say!

We arrived in Bordeaux around 2:30 on Sunday afternoon with plans (and tickets) to a 3:00 ballet. The thing is, we had to change, then Fabiola's friend who lives in Bordeaux and was taking us to the ballet didn't know her way around the train station, so we arrived at the Grand Théâtre at 3:10. They would not let us in. Apparently, the French are serious about their ballet, and that means no interruptions after the curtain rises.
We walked around found some food, and we went into the ballet during intermission.
Interesting things about the ballet:
They were short(ish) pieces, and I think they were choreographed by different people.
The first piece was Afternoon of the Faun, which I played several years ago on the flute!
It's a really beautiful piece of music, but the choreography was kind of blah and had some bizarre sexual undertones.
The second piece was beautiful: Le Spectre de la Rose, I'm not sure if this translates to Ghost of the Rose or the Rose Ghost. It was a pas de deux, and absolutely beautiful! The male dancer was the rose ghost, and he did some amazing leaping and turning, all while wearing a pink full body unitard thing. He was also the most muscular male ballet dancer that I've ever seen, which is saying a lot. Most male dancers are incredibly muscular; he was more so.
The third piece was Russian and strange.
In addition, the theater itself is gorgeous, and I will post pictures. It was definitely worth the experience.

On Monday, we did an all day wine tour in the town of St. Emilion, which is 30 minutes from Bordeaux. We visited two vineyards, tasted (drank several glasses of) three wines, and had a "country lunch." (If any of my kids from peer power are reading this, I will remind you that alcohol is to be consumed legally and responsibly. We had a bus to drive us around.)
The country lunch included several kinds of ham, a duck paté, sausage, salad, bread, fruit, cheese, and a macaroon. We had two of the vineyard's wines at the table.
I don't know what you know about wines; I don't know much, but the wine we drank was red. In St. Emilion, the reds are usually some combination of Merlot and Cabernet Franc, with some Cabernet Sauvignon. French wines are almost always (maybe always) a combination of a couple grapes.
The wine was good.
We spent the afternoon wandering around the town, which was as quaint as it was supposed to be. I drank a nice cup of coffee in the main square.

On Tuesday, we did a walking tour, kind of. I bought a €1 map that listed the sights, and we kind of followed it. Everyone seemed bored, so we skipped ahead and saw the Cathédrale Saint-André, also beautiful. We packed a lot into two and a half days, so we turned in pretty early to pack on Tuesday.

Bordeaux is essentially a beautiful city. The architecture is all 18th century. It has a kind of decadence to it; it's reservedly baroque. That makes no sense, but you can look at my pictures.