Monday, August 2, 2010

Save a horse, ride a cowboy...

I have been back in the US since the evening of July 14th... So that's about 2 weeks and 5 days.  It's been kind of a free-for-all of seeing people, unpacking, visiting what will be my new home in Lake Charles, eating, driving, contemplating re-packing, walking the dogs... etc etc.

The weirdest thing about being home: all of the people in stores speak English, and I have to understand everything they're saying, which means I have to hear all the mindless things I was able to tune out for a year.

The best thing about being home: (apart from boyfriend, family, and friends) customer service!!  I ordered some pants offline, but I somehow ordered the wrong size. I was able to call on a SATURDAY and have the problem fixed IMMEDIATELY.  God Bless America.

Anywho, there's plenty to say about all of that, but I think this will best illustrate coming back to America (and I suppose, in particular, the American South).

I have been going back to the YMCA to work off the 8ish lbs I gained during my near month of travel.  My lovely friend Lauren invited me to a class she's been going to, Zumba.  Zumba is, as the link explains, a latin-infused dance style workout.  It's pretty fun, and the instructor was cute and kept the class moving.  The music was mostly latin-y dance music with the occasional world dance beat, including the Slumdog Millionaire hit song, Jai Ho.  Here is a link to the video to the original song, not the horrible Pusscat Dolls version and video.

So in the midst of this rather world-musicky vibe pops up something just completely out there.  To set the scene, the class was composed of a LOT of middle-aged Collierville women.  For those of you not from Collierville, this means upper-middle class white women with blonde hair, matching workout gear, and lots of makeup. (yes, I am guilty of a couple of these... I'm just telling, not judging).  Although, this was one of the more diverse classes I have attended.  There was a pretty significant attendance of African-American women, as well as females under 40, some even under 30.  There was one male.  We can't be that diverse.

So, there we all are, shaking our little (some not so little) asses away, shedding the pounds, when a song I couldn't quite recognize came on.  The country sound didn't quite match the world sound, but it was catchy and easy to move to.  I was only able to identify the song at the chorus.... And let me tell you, there is nothing quite like watching 40 or so diverse Collierville citizens imitate wrangling wild mustangs and shake their booties to Save a Horse, Ride a Cowboy.

Welcome to America!

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Last night in Europe

Tonight is my absolute last night in Europe.

I am not looking forward to the long day tomorrow, a day which will have 6 hours added to it, and a day during which I should really stay awake if I want to feel kind of normal when I get home.

I am looking forward to seeing Kirsten's lovely face in Charlotte, the roadtrip to Memphis, and everyone else's lovely faces in Collierville.

But, at the moment, I feel a bit sad.  Being alone in a hotel room probably isn't helping, especially after being in a nice, full house in Scotland for the last three nights.  I spent a few days in Ireland with my sister and Lee.  We wandered the city, took a tour to the opposite coast to see the Cliffs of Moher, watched some football (soccer), and drank some guiness.  Then I took a solo ryanair flight to London.  I will admit, I was a bit overambitious with my plans for this last week and a half.  I spent two nights in London.  Two nights dying of the heat in a worse-than-average hostel that had neither the free towels nor the free lock (to lock up my valuables) that was promised.  Without a cell phone (ooo I haven't gone into this wonderful example of French-ness and frustration), I felt a little lost in the giant former capital of the world.  (I am referring to the British Empire; I don't think that was a particularly good reference.)

Luckily, I met up with splendid Sheena without too much trouble.  Sheena and I had an excellent day in London.  It was a full day, but it seemed too short.  We walked in Hyde Park, went to the V&A museum, had ice cream, went to Oxford Circus and shopped, and speed walked to Brick Lane for a "proper curry."  All of this was done in the British equivalent of a heatwave, an event in which temperatures soared so high (maybe mid-80s?) the nice lady who makes announcements on the underground reminded passengers to carry water and to sit down if they feel faint.  I will admit, I was sweating myself.
It was really great to see Sheena after leaving Angers, and we had a great time.  Walking down Brick Lane was quite the experience, all of the restaurant people were trying to get us to choose their restaurant and making us offers like "two glasses of wine, rice and a main course £10."  We followed our stomachs and went for the guys who offered "two starters, rice AND naan, a main course AND a bottle of wine" for £10 each.  It was delicious, and we were stuffed.  We then ran to the train station, so she could catch her train. And I made one of my many genius moves of the trip left my camera in Sheena's purse.

Saturday, I flew into Glasgow where I met lovely Katie RRRundle.  We poked around some shops in the kind of miserable rain then met a couple of her friends for dinner.  Then we drove out into the country side, into the wee village of Haugh of Urr to be exact.  I hope Katie reads this and rolls her eyes at my typing "wee."  Anyway, the village of Haugh of Urr is wonderful in that it is not a major city.  There are lots of fields and hills and trees and cows, and I just absolutely loved it.  We mostly drove around the countryside and to the coast.  We also ate the best ice cream I have ever eaten at Cream O' Galloway.
I tried Haggis and Black Pudding, which I liked.  But I may have difficulty eating them again, now that I know what's in them.

It was really nice staying with Katie and her family and just relaxing in my own big bed and not doing much for a couple days.  They were really great hosts, and I hope I'll have the chance to visit again! I just loved Scotland.

And now, I need to sleep, so that I can stay awake during the long haul between Dublin and JFK tomorrow.

Aurevoir l'europe!

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Au revoir

I have been in Dublin since Monday afternoon.  Sunday and Monday were horribly difficult days that involved lots of packing, re-packing, weighing luggage, eating, and crying.

It's kind of hard to believe I've left continental Europe, France, and Angers for the forseeable future.  I'm pretty sure I've been a miserable travel companion for my sister and her boyfriend Lee, and I am now making an effort not to be the permanent grumpy person. But it's really heartbreaking to know I won't be seeing my home of the last nine months again.  I mean, I will see it again, but at the moment that is a distant speck in the future.  Saying goodbye to Christophe, Karine, and Luz was probably the hardest part of leaving Angers.  They have become my adopted French family, and I can't even begin to describe how much that means to me.  As much as I like traveling and going from place to place, I also love being home around people I love.  And being with them was very much like being home; they are definitely people I love.  I guess that just means I'll have to figure out a way to come back to France and keep bugging them about visiting the states!

My favorite French family:
(I hope they don't mind being posted on the internet!)

My favorite French kid:

The wonderful thing about aurevoir is that revoir means "to see again," so it's not really a goodbye.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Things fall apart

The post immediately before this one was written quite a while ago, and I'm not sure why I didn't finish it...

I also don't have a very good reason for not updating.  There's just been so much going on.

Some things I have done:

About a month ago, I spent the weekend with Karine & Christophe at Karine's parent's home in the countryside near the city of Bourge.  They have a beautiful home with a nice yard.  They also have a huge cherry tree that was full  to the brim with ripe cherries, which we ate morning, noon, and night.  We also saw the Cathédrale Saint-Étienne de Bourges, a UNESCO world heritage site, and one of the largest cathedrals in France.  We were also there when the evening light festival thingy was taking place.  Many of the street lights were replaced with blue lightbulbs and there were images of famous works of art projected on some of the buildings in the city.  Hard to explain, but pretty awesome to see.

I've been stressing about packing and leaving, the date of which is now upon me.  I will leave France on Monday.

My sister is now in France.  I met her and her boyfriend Lee last Wednesday in Paris where they adjusted to time change, and I dealt with the typical train drama that comes with a strike.  Then we went to the Netherlands for the weekend to stay with our wonderful host Victor.  We enjoyed the perfect weather, watched Holland beat Slovakia, and rocked out to the Black Keys.  The Black Keys rocked.

Now I'm trying to pack.  I'm also in somewhat of a battle against my fabulous phone company who has decided to charge me lots of money for no reason.

Hou la la....

Friday, July 2, 2010

It's quittin' time...

In French the verb quitter means "to leave, quit, depart..."  There's actually many instances in which it can be used.  It is also a verb I have been using frequently. Je vais quitter le pays le 5 juillet.  I am going to leave the country the 5 of July.

Quitter seems to imply a sort of finality to my time here, as opposed to partir, which I think of as a more day-to-day verb.  For example, if someone asked what time I was leaving a party, or when I would leave for vacation, or how to get from one place to another, I would use partir.  In all actuality, they are probably pretty interchangeable verbs, but I like the sound of quitter in the sentence.  It sounds like I'm quitting the country, which I am.

But what does it mean to me to be quittin' the country?  It's such a mishmash of emotion and stress and packing and sending cancellation letters and printing tickets and squaring of edges and dotting i's and crossing t's that I can't even begin to describe how I feel about it all.  Well, I can begin... but it won't do it justice.

Many many people have asked what I will miss about France, and my responses always seem so inadequate.
Sure, I'll miss two hour lunches and lots of vacation days and baguettes and delicious pastries and safely riding my bike on the highway and housing assistance.  I won't miss living in a small room with (*cough* sparkling clean) community bathrooms.  I won't miss the language barrier between me and bank employees, shops closing early, the rights (and lack of rights) to do any various and random sorts of things.
I find myself stuck in a rather difficult emotion.  I'm so excited to see Kevin and my friends and my family.  I'm excited to start my masters, to live in a new place.  At the same time, I'm incredibly sad that this is the end (for now) of my life in France.  The things I'll miss most about living here are more abstract than food and vacation time....

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Sur la route de Memphis

here's a song in French about Memphis.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The Things You Miss

It's easiest to just say it: my aunt Becky passed away yesterday.  It was sudden, unexpected.  It was not something anyone was prepared to deal with.

When you leave home for an extended amount of time, there's always that little voice that reminds you what you will be missing.  In my case, when I left in September, I knew I would be missing a year of family gatherings, a year of birthdays, of dinners with friends... christmas programs, dance performances, game nights, coffee dates, movie nights, long directionless drives, walks in the park, and so on and so on, all of those events small and large that string together and define the year.  Those events anchor our lives; they balance out the drudgery of the everyday and establish the moments of pleasure that define our existence.
Those are the things that you miss, that you trade for a new adventure.  And I was and am glad that I did.  I know that there are years and years ahead, that this one year contained a different set of events to anchor me.  This year away includes its own small, normal events and big, important holidays - with a  change in the cast.

I don't mean to sound sentimental.  But I am sentimental.  And I knew that a small part of me would regret those things I have missed, the things I am missing.

There's also the tiny, tiny voice that worries you will miss something else.  Something that you don't want to happen.  You don't often voice that fear.  But the fear that you will miss some tragedy stays with you as well.

My Aunt Becky was 53 years old.  She has four children: Emily, Walt, Lauren, and Sara and her husband, Scott.  She has a brother, Robert, his wife, Mariel, and a sister, Merry, and her husband Andrew.  She has a mother, Alice.  And, on this side of the family, one nephew, Stephen. And two nieces, my sister and me.  I wish more than anything I could be with those people right now.
I can only imagine how they all feel right now because the physical distance makes it seem less real.  My heart positively aches for my cousins.

And while I don't want to sound self-centered, the best thing I can do to commemorate my aunt is to recount a personal memory, one of the most affecting that I have of her: my Aunt, as one of the most enthusiastic about my homecomings.
When I left Memphis for Washington D.C. as a college freshman, I was excited and terrified.  Nearly a year later I made the decision to transfer back to Memphis; it was one of the most difficult, conflicted decisions I have made.  The decision carried with it all of the usual second-guessing: Would I regret it later?  Would I like the University of Memphis even less? And the more self-deprecating: Am I a failure?

I have never forgotten what my aunt said to me when I came home that summer in 2006, "I know your mama's glad you're coming home.  We're all so proud of you, and we're so glad you're home."

That is familial love at it's finest, and it has stuck with me ever since.  I have never regretted the decision to come home, and I have certainly never regretted the decision to be closer to my family.  The hardest thing for me to comprehend, to realize, is that she will not be there to say "We've missed you! We're so glad you're home."
My aunt loved her children and kept them close.  That's how I remember Aunt Becky, never so glad as to have her family around her.

all the cousins (back of stephen's and my heads):

Thursday, June 3, 2010

A Modest Proposal

I just booked my final tickets for my final jaunt about Europe (well, for this year anyway).  I will be going to Ireland, among other places.  Therefore, in honor of Jonathan Swift, I have named this post after his famous essay on the plight of the Irish.  Although this has nothing to with a starving nation of people, I'm still annoyed:

A couple of rhetorical questions:
In a communal setting should each person be required to clean up after herself?
What are the limits of a "greater good" mentality?
And, is it logical, fair, and reasonable (not to mention hygienic) to punish members of a community for a dirty bathroom, by locking it up?

Ok, what the hell am I talking about?  I am talking about the foyer. I am talking about the foyer and its direction's ridiculous approach to cleanliness.  I am talking about the foyer, its direction's ridiculous approach to cleanliness, and the manifestation of that approach in my everyday life.

I have learned to live without the frivolity of toilet seats. I managed to make it through the winter with rationed hours of heat and air-leaking windows.  I have even re-adjusted to sleeping with ear plugs to combat the ridiculous all-hours kerfluffle of living in an all-female residence.

But I cannot get used to the disgusting state of the communal spaces.  In particular, the atrocious spaces referred to as les salles de bains and la cuisine.  Yes, that would be the bathrooms and kitchen.  Here's the thing: we have a full-time cleaning lady.  Kind of.  
Typically, the cleaning lady cleans the bathrooms and kitchen.  This is a reasonable considering the foyer is designed to house around 100 women, and, to answer two of those rhetorical questions: yes people should be expected to clean up after themselves and the limits are not definable.  But, it is best to have a designated cleaning person to maintain order in 100-person chaos.  

What happens when the cleaning lady, say, doesn't show up for a week or so?

I'll tell you what happens:  all hell lets loose, people do not clean up after themselves, and you discover how absolutely disgusting the human race actually is.  

At the end of February, the former cleaning lady went on vacation.  The bathrooms became so disgusting that the women who work at the foyer closed down the bathrooms.  I mean, they were reasonable about it (if you can call denying someone the fundamental right to a toilet reasonable in any way), they didn't shut them all down at once.  The shut down one for a week.  Then they opened it back up and shut down another.  This resulted in a very unhappy me, lugging my bag of shampoo and soap to another floor in order to take a shower.

Let's re-examine this approach for a moment: what exactly did locking up the bathrooms do?  Nothing. The mess just moved, so other bathrooms became inordinately messy and disgusting.  Those bathrooms were, in turn, shut down for their own one-week period.
The absolute, best part in all of this is that the women who work here actually called it a punition, a punishment!

When the cleaning lady finally did return, the bathrooms stopped being disgusting, and the kitchen trash was taken out again.

But, the foyer has reached another level of ridiculousness. 

I noticed, over a week ago, that the kitchen was looking pretty bad.  Someone had cooked something in our mini-oven (which I fondly refer to as our easy-bake oven) and left food spilled all over the inside, on the grill, on the bottom, everywhere.  In addition, the counters were covered in food particles, and the electric burners had more spillage than usual around them.
And, I've refrained from too much detail in reference to the toilets until now, but one of the toilets on my floor had the persistent, lingering scent of vomit.
Even my hallway, a fairly neutral smelling zone had taken on a really horrible, humid, funky smell.  (My room, I assure you, does not smell funky in anyway.  I regularly open the windows and have a couple of vanilla candles I burn from time to time.)

It turns out the new cleaning lady hadn't come to clean in a week.  To date, as I write this, she still hasn't come in.  Apparently, she's ill.  And that's fine.  I do not begrudge anyone their sick time when they are ill.  But, honestly, people, two plus weeks in a living area without a proper cleaning?

That is wrong.

This is what I think:
1. Residents should try to pick up a little more after themselves.  It's not difficult to wipe down a counter when you've sprinkled lettuce and rice bits all over it.
2. There is a limit to looking after the greater good, and that limit has been reached.  When one person leaves a small mess, another person becomes a little more lax in her cleaning routine.  Before you know it, you've got a bona fide mess.

3. This is why we have a freaking cleaning lady.  If the cleaning lady cannot come, it is not only reasonable, it is necessary and humane that they find a back up.

I mean, good grief!

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Ouais Spik Inglesch

The title is actually something I saw on a sign outside of a restaurant in Nantes.  I didn't take a picture, but I wish I had.  If you are confused, it is a French phoenetic-ish spelling of "We speak English."

So, I've been meaning to give an update on my master-y (I'm laughing heartily at my own word choice) of the French language. And by master-y I mean my ability to communicate at all.  If anything, I have learned a great deal about the nuances of translation and developed my own theory on learning a second (or third, or fourth) language.

First of all, I will say my comprehension has skyrocketed, I understand most everything people say, unless they are speaking directly to me.  In those cases, I am so taken aback at being addressed that whatever they've said takes a couple extra laps around my brain before it transforms from sounds to words to meaning.  But, I seriously enjoy my new ability to eavesdrop on an exponentially larger group of people.  

Secondly, to contradict what I've just said about being spoken to, I can actually carry on a conversation.  Once the shock of being spoken to wears off, I can get into a rhythm and talk to some people.  I am probably my own worst enemy when it comes to conversing, though.  What I have learned about myself: I absolutely detest being misunderstood.  This goes for English as well.  And in English, I have a wonderful breadth of vocabulary at my immediate disposal, which allows me to be specific and express my thoughts and emotions accurately.  In French, I have a decent vocabulary, but not one that is comparable to my English.  And that frustrates me immensely.  When I express thoughts and feelings, it sounds shallower, which makes me prefer listening to speaking.

However, things like buying food, going to the post office, asking the teachers a question, etc. no longer give me the anxiety I first encountered in October.  The other day I went to the post office to ask about shipping a box by boat (yes, you can, and yes, it's a very cheap option), and the man and I had a nice conversation about shipping by boat.  I don't think he even knew it was possible before I asked him about it, and he looked on his computer.  One of my teachers and I talk about the TV show the Big Bang Theory, which I have never seen, but he tells me about "le sarcasme." I talk about food and work and movies and whatever with the girls at the foyer.

For me, the most difficult part of French is the pronunciation.  I don't have a very strong foundation in pronunciation.  Every French teacher/professor that I have had - except Dr. Grélé in my final year at Memphis - was not a native speaker.  While their pronunciation was fine, probably even great, it wasn't something that I spent any amount of time perfecting.  Being here has helped me re-examine how I pronounce things and how to think about pronunciation.  A great example is the pronunciation of the neighborhood I work in.  The neighborhood is called La Roseraie.  And when people asked where my schools were, I would tell them, and without fail they would have no idea what I was talking about.  And although eventually we could reach an understanding, and they would tell me the correct way to say it, I couldn't quite get my mouth around it.  Finally, though, it clicked and while this may mean nothing to many of you, I realized I was pronouncing it more like : rozairey and it should be more like rose-uh-ray.  Linguists and phoneticians out there, please forgive my made-up phonetic spellings.

What I have been thinking about the most, though, is the art of translation.  This may seem a banal revelation, but I honestly believe most people don't think about language this way: no matter what you do, speaking another language cannot be a translation of your own.
Yes, many nouns and verbs have direct counterparts between - and amongst - languages. But, if you keep a "translation" mentality when speaking another language,  you will not master a language.  So many words have more than one meaning and meaning is never a direct translation.  For example, the word "toujours" translates most frequently to "always."  But it can also mean "still," as in il travaille toujours? which means "he's still working?"  Maybe this isn't the best example, but what I've been thinking about is that because the French have just the one word that can be used in both senses, they aren't thinking of it as "always" vs. "still."  The sentence makes sense to them without having to address both meanings of the word.
My point is this: when learning another language, you obviously must begin with every word as a direct translation from your mother tongue.  But when trying to gain fluency, the translation should be left by the wayside. Rather, it is best to think of words in terms of the sense in the language.

I am going to think more about this because I think it can be better expressed, and I am having difficulty with it.

This is a picture of Angers.

This is what "la manifestation" looks like

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Oh la la! si français...

I had a "so French" moment a week or so ago that really needs to be shared.  I was riding home on my bike from one of my schools.  My schedule has changed, so now I don't leave Marcel Pagnol until school lets out at 4:45.  (I should mention that I go to Marcel Pagnol on Friday afternoon, so my schedule has become even more fabulous: my only late day is Friday.)  Anyway, one of my other schools, Jacques Prévert, is on my way home, so I rode past when all of the kids were just leaving school with their parents.

As soon as I turned the corner I started hearing, "Ms. Allie, Ms. Allie!"  (French children pronounce my name like aa-LEE).  I smiled and waved and kept riding. Then one of the little CP girls started chasing after me.
 "Allie! Allie!" she yelled, running down the sidewalk and across the crosswalk.

It was windy, and my hair streamed behind me in the wind.  And I laughed to myself because it was so cliché that it was awesome.

In other news, Franzi came to France, and we pretty much had a terrific time.
This is what we did: walked around and sat in the parks of Angers, had a curry that I made, went to a super fun party chez Max, slept in, went to the beach at Lac de Maine, had a delicious dinner out-to-eat, went to a quieter but still fun party, slept in some more, went to Gallerie David d'Angers, had some pastries.
Franziska couldn't have timed her visit more perfectly. It was a three-day weekend, and although she left Sunday, neither of us had to rush too much; we knew we could get stuff done on the Monday.  The weather was perfect.  Actually it was warm then it was hot.  I don't think I've been that hot since I've been in Europe. It was like being home, and I loved it.
Not to mention, it was really great to hang out with her.  I have been rather melancholy as of late, which is the result of a strange vacillation between wanting to go home and see my boyfriend and friends and mourning the end of my year in France.  So, it was great to have a good friend around to distract me. Plus, she did the whole year abroad thing - that would be in Memphis - so she's probably the best person with whom I can commiserate the mixed emotions of imminent departure.

In other news, everyone in France decided to strike today.  Buses, trains, and teachers are all exercising their right to stike (on a la droit de faire la grève: n'importe où, n'importe quand).  It doesn't bother me too much because I take my bike to work anyway. But this morning, I went to my first school, and there was absolutely no one there.  I didn't even realize it at first because the doors were unlocked, so I just went into the teacher's lounge and did the things I normally do to get ready.  It was very quiet, but it didn't register until I walked to the wing where my classes are.  I'm not even sure those teachers were striking.  At my other school, my dreaded CP class's teacher was striking, so I only helped with CM1 and left for the day.
I did get to see la manifestation, a parade of sorts with all sorts of people with flags and a guy with a bullhorn.  They marched down Avenue Foch yelling some things. They didn't all seem to be from the same group. It was strange.

Oh la la!

Monday, May 17, 2010

Things to do before you die:

See the pope √

I'm not Catholic.  Most of you know that.  I was baptized Catholic, then my family moved to Memphis, and we switched to what my Dad calls "Catholic Light," i.e. Methodist.  I like Methodists; they're nice people.

Anyway, this past weekend was a long weekend.  Thursday was Jour de l'Ascension, and to make a long weekend out of it, the primary schools faire le pont d'ascension.  They "make the Ascension bridge" and move the Friday schedule to Wednesday.  So Elvynia and I made the best of the long weekend and went to a place where we thought it would be warm and sunny.

Did I mention that Angers had a second winter?  After all that talk of the great weather, Mother Nature decided we didn't deserve sun and warmth, and it was freaking cold for another week and a half.  It was like it was February again, and I was miserable.  And off we flew to Porto.

Porto is a nice city.  Our Ryan Air flight was, of course, delayed, so we didn't arrive until after midnight, so we were unable to take public transport to our hostel.  We took a cab and, thankfully, were not screwed over.  We stayed in a pretty nice hostel in Porto, the Andarilho Oporto Hostel.  Well it was nice except for the beds and the lack of heating.  I guess I can't complain since it was about €15/night.
Friday morning, we asked the guy who ran the hostel what we should do, he told us to avoid a large section of the city because... the Pope was there.  I suppose he was trying to be helpful and advise us to avoid the crowd, but, seriously, why would we pass up an opportunity to see the Pope?  Even if you hate him, you have to admit he's kind of a big deal.  So to the Pope we went.

It was pretty much what you'd expect in a Catholic country.  Lots and lots of people filled the streets, waving flags with the his face on them.  They were singing hymns (or whatever they're called if they're called something different in the Catholic church.)  We didn't get very close, but I could see lots of the red-robed bishop people, and I could kind of make out the main dude amongst them.  There was a big screen next to them, however, and I definitely saw the Pope - in his hat - on the screen.

Then we wandered away.  We had some requisite cheap Portuguese food, fish sandwiches and the delicious Nata pastry.  We wandered some more; we went to the river side and had an awkward interaction with a port wine seller, which resulted in us buying a mini-bottle and drinking it on a bench.  It was pretty good.  Then we climbed a million steps back up to the city and got a bit lost, but we found the hostel.
The thing about Porto is there just doesn't seem to be a ton going on.  In Lisbon, there were lots of people and restaurants and bars and pastry shops.  In Porto, it was difficult to find things that were open. We weren't sure if it was the Pope's fault or not.  Friday night we went on a long, long quest to find dinner and ended up eating around 10pm.  It was good: salmon with potatoes and vegetables.  It was also cheap. Each of us paid just under €8 for quite a bit of food.  That night we started talking to some other people at the hostel, and we all went for a drink, which was fun.

On Saturday, after some unintentional, preemptive shopping, we took an afternoon train to Espinho to see the ocean!  It was a little too chilly and waaayy too windy to do much, so we sat on some rocks in the sun for a while then went on a quest for fresh seafood.  We ended up at a nice restaurant where we sat upstairs and had an ocean view.  We ended up getting a menu that included bread with butter and anchovy spread, olives, vegetable soup, fish stew, desert, and either half or a whole bottle of wine.  It was delicious.  (And again very cheap... a meal of those proportions in France would be at least €20/person.  We paid €12.50 each.  I love Portugal.)
The stew came in a HUGE pot for the two of us to share.  We did not finish it.  We barely ate half of it; it was just a ton of food.  The wine was a little confusing, as he left a whole bottle on the table, and we had thought it included half a bottle.  We didn't drink all of it, but it was, apparently, included in the price.

After sitting a long time to digest, we walked back along the beach to take a train to Porto.  We did a little more shopping around, then went back to the hostel to rest.  We grabbed a couple more pastries to say farewell to the land of cheap and delicious food and then retired to pack...

Sunday we spent entirely too long traveling back to Angers.  When I am old and rich, I will buy direct flights everywhere, regardless of price.  Until then, traveling goes something like it did Sunday: metro to Airport: 30 minutes. Sitting in airport: 1-2 hours, Flight: 2 hours, Bus from Beauvais Airport to Paris: 1 hours 20 minutes, Metro from bus station to train station: 20 minutes, Sitting around train station: 1.5 hours, Cheap train to Angers: 2.5 hours to Le Mans then 40 minutes to Angers, Walk from train station to the Foyer of Good Advice: 10 minutes.
It was a long day, but I spent a lot of that time reading.  And a day spent reading is never a waste.

The conclusion: even though Porto wasn't as exciting as Lisbon, it had it's appeal.  Plus, we are tired teachairs, so sitting next to the river and the ocean and drinking and eating were major highlights of the trip, as far as I'm concerned.

Next on the agenda: Franzi does France! She's coming next weekend! I'm so excited.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

The 1st of May: Attitude Readjustment.

(photo by the amazing Elvynia)

It is the the 1st of May.  Do you know what that means?  We have made it through 1/3 of the year.  ONE THIRD?!?!  Doesn't that seem crazy?  When did time suddenly start flying by all the time?
What does that mean for me and La Vie Française?
Well I have exactly 2 months left on my contract, and approximately 2 and a half months left in Europe.  I haven't bought a ticket home yet, which I probably should do soon.

Anyway, I'm also trying to approach teaching with a better attitude.  It's a little late, Allie, you might say.  But hear me out:  I started with a good attitude.  And at times, I've really enjoyed those little (cough cough) kids. Though by about mid-January, I would say, I was just worn out, along with all the other teachers.  And in Mid-January, there's not much to cheer you up.  The weather sucks.  You don't see the sun for weeks.  It's cold. Your room is so poorly insulated that you sleep in several layers, socks, slippers, and a wool sweater, and you have to put duct tape over the cracks in your window to lessen the wind tunnel effect your room has....  Then you have to go to work and deal with children who are stir-crazy for the same reasons.
Now, however, it is May, and it is beautiful out.

(A note about April: In April, French people feel that almost anything can be explained by the fact that it's April.  For example: the weather was crazy and would go from sunny and cold to pouring rain to not as cold to hailing back to sunny in a matter of minutes.  The explanation: It's April.  There were train strikes making transportation in France the most frustrating and stressful experience ever. It's April.  There seemed to be more absurd things that were answered with "It's April," but I can't think of them now.  Therefore, Allie's reason for not updating her blog: It was April.)

And because it is May and beautiful and sunny, I have decided to change my attitude, I am going to come to school each day with a sense of humor.  This worked out pretty well this week.  I just laughed when the kids said ridiculous things.  We're learning how to say "Where are you from?" "I am from..."
The cool thing is that at one of my schools, my kids are from lots of places.  So it was kind of fun to hear where they (or their parents) were from, and they got a kick out of the Anglicized pronunciation.
Here's where I have kids from: France, Algeria, Morocco, Cameroon, Chad, Turkey, Italy, Reunion, Congo, New Caledonia, India, Russia, Chechnya, and I think there's more.
More than one kid was convinced that Marseille was somewhere other than France.  They ignored me when I tried to explain that it was, in fact, a city IN France.  Although, I will give them credit and say it is very different from Angers.  It is also on my to-do list for places to go back to before I leave.

This good humor thing lasted pretty well too.  Until Friday afternoon when I was tired, and I started threatening my last class with copying lines if they didn't shut up.  I can handle a bit of chattering, but there's this one kid in the front row of my CE1/CE2 class that just talks and talks.  The teacher even moved the kid next to him, so he wouldn't have anyone to talk to. And he continued to talk, just right in front of my face.  I will admit I cut loose a little on him, in English.  I basically said, "Would you stop talking, you're driving me insane!" And I hit his desk.  He didn't seem to mind too much, as he started talking again about 3 and half minutes later.  I prefer it if they're talking in the back, so I can ignore them.

Also, although I've told most people what I'm doing next year, I thought I should share on here, for those  people I'm not in constant email conversation with.

I will be attending McNeese State University next year.  I will be in the MFA program for creative writing in fiction, and I will, over the course of the three year program, also receive an MA in English Literature.
Now, this is exciting for a number of reason. The first and foremost being that I am incredibly excited to start my masters.  But reason 1a is that this is the same program as Kevin.
Not to toot my own horn or anything, but MFA programs are competitive because if they provide funding, there's just not a ton of spots available.  So, to get into the same program as Kevin was pretty damn cool.
The other reasons I am excited: living in a new place, being in a program where I can write, eating fresh seafood.

There is funding involved in the form of a teaching assistantship, so I'll be teaching two sections of remedial English in the fall and living off of a stipend.

Finally, this Wednesday, I had the best day ever.  I'm learning if you make yourself have a great day, it will happen.  I got a run in the day before, so I didn't have to deal with that.  I didn't have any tutoring engagements.  So what did I do?
I went to a café and had coffee and sat in the sun with my notebook.  I sat in the park and read. I went to the library and checked out 3 books.  I had a delicious galette for lunch.  Then I went to the river with Sam and Elvynia and sat for a long time.
Lauren said this sounded very European.  I hate to say I was living the cliché, but I sure did enjoy the hell out of it

Sooo woohoo for May!  I'm ready to face the next month of insane children with a laugh.

(note: picture at the top of the post was taken by Elvynia in the Keukenhof in the Netherlands, which I will talk about next time.)

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Bienvenue en France, il y a une grève!

Hello there everyone.  Yes, it's been a little while.  Thanks to the wonderful academic scheduling of France, I have been on vacation yet again.
It does seem a bit excessive, doesn't it?

But I'm not complaining, espcially since before this break, a bunch of 6 year olds made me cry.  It was time for a break.  The fabulous thing about this break was that my parents came!

They arrived in France on Wednesday April 7 and were immediately immersed in a true French experience: an SNCF strike. (Learn French! bienvenue = welcome, grève = strike, il y a = there is) SNCF is the train company in France.  France has a very intricate and well-connected train system.  I'm not sure, but it may be the most utilized system of transportation.  So when the good people at SNCF decide to strike -- which they do somewhat regularly -- pretty much all hell breaks loose.
So my parents made it to the Charles de Gaulle airport, only to discover that there were no TGV trains leaving from the airport, and they would have to take a Paris RER train to Montparnasse in the center of Paris in order to catch a train to Angers.
The thing about train strikes in France is that they are simultaneously the most organized and most insanely unorganized thing ever.  For example: there are still trains running.  They even tell you how many are running, what percent that is of normal train traffic, and what alternate forms of transportation SNCF is providing (mostly just coach buses).
But what that also means is that while less trains are running, the same amount of people are attempting to travel on those trains.  The result: very very crowded high-speed trains, full of very very over-heated and annoyed French people.
Trains will also be delayed and/or cancelled.
The story of me and the train strikes goes on, but for now I will say I was very proud of my parents for making it to Angers amongst the, pardon my language, cluster**** that was the Paris train stations that day.

When they got here, we did a lot of walking around Angers and visiting the tourist-y things and eating and drinking.  It was nice.  I got to visit the castle, which I hadn't actually done yet.  My parents visited one of my schools (the good one).  They met my friends.  We had afternoon snack/tea with Christophe, Karine, and baby Luz.  We walked around my favorite parks.  My friend Katie's family was visiting too, so our Dads bonded over being fathers in France or something.
The hotel was nice, and I enjoyed sleeping in a bed that was marginally better than my own and didn't make me wake up with a backache everyday.
I guess there's not too much to say about seeing them, other than it was great and I miss them!
We ate at a brasserie near the hotel, and I had Coq au vin, a very traditional French dish involving chicken, red wine, and vegetables.  There were very buttery and fresh green beans on the side.  It was delicious.

We went to Nantes, which I think was maybe not the most interesting place to take them.  We had a nice time, but our hotel was kind of ... um... Well, the guy at the desk was the most friendly unhelpful person I've ever met.  We couldn't connect to the internet and his response was "Oh, really?  It's working on my computer. I'm very sorry."
He also had a pet turtle wandering around the lobby.  Yes, a turtle.
When I asked him about it he said, "Oh yes, she is from Spain.  I was in Spain, and my friends had turtles, so I took her home with me."  And apparently let her wander wherever she pleased.

We did get to see a pretty cool art installation at Le Lieu Unique in Nantes.  Last time I went, it was a art/video installation that all had to do with music.  This time it was called Tanguy et La Biscuiterie.
Le Lieu Unique is a former biscuit (i.e. hard butter cookies, American folks) factory that has been redesigned as a art venue/bar/café/restaurant/bookstore place.  It is rather industrial looking, which is the appeal.  Tanguy et La Biscuiterie kind of played on the LU's history as a former cookie factory.  It's hard to explain, but it was set up kind of like a palace with all these cardboard walls just covered in images.  Mostly they looked like framed picture in a palace, but they were somewhat grotesque/disturbing.  Many of the people were Tanguy (the artist himself) done up in lots of makeup and looking like a crazy person.   There was a lot of sexual imagery as well as violent/warlike scens and pictures of food. If you click on the link above you will get a rough idea of what I'm talking about. Click on the video, even if you can't understand you can get an even better idea.

Cedric Tanguy présente son expo au Lieu unique
envoyé par presseocean. - Découvrez plus de vidéos créatives.
It was really intricate, though, and interesting to look at.  At the end, there was a video interview with him.  He basically said it was about our over-consumptive culture, and in an over-the-top  kind of way he totally acheived a representation of it.  Although it was so self-promoting itself it was hard to tell if that was the irony or if he had fallen prey to the draw of over consumption.  And that is my art review for the day.

We also ate at this mussel restaurant that I ate at the last time I was in Nantes.  It did not disappoint in anyway.  I had mine with Roquefort sauce, and we had a huge plate of shared fries.  The dish, Moules Frites, (mussels and fries), is very typical in coastal France and Belgium.
When I was in Lille, we learned the appropriate way to eat your mussels.
This is how:
The mussels are all still in their shells, so you eat one then you use the shell as a kind of fork-tongs and proceed to pull the rest of the mussels out of their shells and insert them in your mouth. Yum.

Also in Nantes, we went to see the Elephant, which continues to be impressive.  The elephant is housed in this massive former warehouse looking place.

Nantes has a history as an industrial city, and in recent years that industrial element has been played up in places like Le Lieu Unique and Les Machînes de l'Île.  In my opinion, it's working out well for the city, giving it a kind of funky post-industrial feel.
Just now I read the wikipedia article on Nântes, which mentions something I had never heard before: a form of execution supposedly practiced in the city during the French Revolution called a Republican Marriage.  I'll let you click the link and read the wikipedia article.

Well, I'm waiting for my parents to send/post pictures from their vacation, so that I can remember what else we did.  I'm going to sign off for now and enjoy the AWESOMELY beautiful day:
High of 78˚F (26˚C) perfectly sunny skies...

Saturday, April 3, 2010

A night at the Opera...

(to be said in an affected British accent)

Last Friday night, I went to the Opera.

Going to the Opera is something that you hear about other people doing, or you see people on TV do, or you see Looney Toons making fun of the fat lady.
Sometimes when (if??) you flip through radio stations while driving, you're lucky enough to hit the classical station when a fat lady somewhere is hitting some ungodly octave of "Figaro, figaro, FIGARO!"

But when do normal people ever actually go to the opera?  Where does the opera occur?  What motivates them to go?
Well, I went to the opera Friday, March 26th at the Grand Théâtre d'Angers because my friend Anne who also lives in the foyer asked me to go.  Student tickets were only €10, and it sounded like something different to do on a Friday night.
A very brief history of opera:  The first operas were written and performed in Italy toward the end of the 1500s.  The art form caught on in the rest of Europe, with Lully (someone who I vaguely remember from a special topics: Versailles class) a composer, courtesan, and friend of Louis XIV, spearheading the establishment of opera in France.  Blah blah blah.
If you've heard of anyone in the opera world, however, you've definitely heard of Mozart.  He wrote the opera that I saw, Lucio Silla.  It was one of his earliest pieces.
I love wikipedia's plot synopsis: The story concerns the Roman dictator Lucio Silla (Lucius Silla) who lusts after Giunia, the daughter of his enemy Caius Marius. Giunia, on the other hand, loves the exiled senator Cecilio.
That, really, is pretty much it.  Giunia is held captive by Lucio Silla. Cecilio plots with his friend Lucio Cinna.  At the end Lucio Silla surprises everyone and relinquishes Giunna, and everyone lives happily ever after.  Seriously.

Things that were interesting:
Cecilio and his friend Lucio (not the evil Lucio) were both played by women.  The two parts are written for Soprano.  Anne's theory on this is that Mozart was a young man when he wrote the opera, and traditionally young men are played by women (perhaps to distinguish their age by their voice?).  And Cecilio and Lucio C. are young in contrast to the evil dictating Lucio S.

The artistic director went super modern for the set, and it worked surprisingly well.  On the stage there was this giant rotating semi-circular thing.  On one side it was a stone wall with stairs curved around it.  When it turned, the inside was white screens with which they did some cool shadow-y things with light and candle light.  The costume was very 18th century; the male characters were wearing coats with tails, and the women were wearing long dresses with bell shaped sleeves.  It was beautifully put together.  A lot was done with lighting and the color white, which made the stark set interesting.  At one point Giunia was going kind of mad from captivity and the screens behind her lit up with the shadows of people moving around while she was singing.  There was another part where Giunia and Cecilio met in a cemetery.  She was with 15 other women, all wearing white dresses and holding candles.  Very eery and cool.

The singing itself was impressive.  There's not much else I can say about that.  They are all professional singers, and the appropriate emotions were spectacularly conveyed.  Of note, however, was that the opera was in Italian.  So, the theater actually had a subtitle screen above the stage with the French translation.  This was great because I don't think I would have understood what they were saying, even if I spoke Italian. And the lyrics in opera (or at least this one) are surprisingly simple.  Mostly they say things like "You are always my love; I will love you forever..." over and over again.  This made the story very easy to follow.

Finally, it was a whopping 3 hours long.  I really didn't even notice.  There was so much to take in, to see, to hear, that I didn't get restless at all.

On a blogging note: I tried to embed a Looney Toons, Merrie Melodies** video from youtube on this page.    Apparently youtube disabled embedding for that particular video. You can click on "Looney Toons" at the beginning of the post or here is the link for your viewing pleasure:

the fat lady sings.

**My fabulous friend Lauren recently shared a Merrie Melodies video with me; I had forgotten all about such things.  I'm glad she reminded me about it because it made this post much better.  Plus who doesn't miss the good old days of Looney Toons dropping anvils on each other's heads?

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

What happens in Toulouse...

So, I feel like I should at least give a brief run down of what I did in Toulouse because, well, because I have pictures.  And I want to show those.  And somebody, somewhere might be interested....
Sinon, tant pis!

Basically, one of our traveling companions with whom we had booked the hotel in Toulouse, dropped out at the last minute (the last minute being at the train station in Paris).  I had booked the hotel through, which I will probably no longer use.  In short, I tried to cancel through the website.  They said I had to contact the hotel.  I tried to contact the hotel; they didn't answer.  So we arrived at the hotel on Friday Feb 19th (Elvynia's birthday) where we were told that if we didn't cancel through hostelworld, we would have to pay for the entirety of the four nights.  There was no way to contact hostelworld.  Finally the lady let us cancel nights 2-4, but we lost the booking fee.  We were tired, so we walked to a nearby boulangerie, bought sandwiches, and had a quiet night in, watching BBC.
The next day we planned to couchsurf.

Saturday we wandered around Toulouse, had a fabulous lunch at an Indian restaurant, and saw this:

Then we met our couchsurfer who, honestly, didn't seem to know what was going on and told us that we could sleep in one of his roommates beds that night, but there were people coming the next day.  And he didn't know where exactly we would sleep.  We talked for an awkward while and then played Mario Kart then he and one of his roommates made "dinner," which was just a huge thing of pasta with shredded cheese we could put on it if we wanted.  They did have a tasty looking baguette on the table, but they didn't eat any, nor did they offer it to us.  So we made do with the pasta.  After that we met Elvynia's friend Remy for a belated birthday drink (or three).  Then we went back to the couch surfer's and slept sideways on the roommate's bed.  I did not trust the sheets and slept on my coat.

The next day when we finally got up we got lunch at a very cute little tea house/crêperie: I had a very good green salad with green olives and pesto dressing and a nice little crêpe buerre et sucre.  
Then a miracle occurred.  Elvynia's friend Yva who she met when she studied in Toulouse met us and chatted for a while.  We, without going into too much detail, explained our couchsurfing plight.  Then she said "Oh!  You can stay in my boyfriend's apartment. He's never there (they were about to get a new apartment together); he stays at my place.  It's clean and there's a washing machine.  How lucky we were!
It was a really nice, little apartment.  It was clean and comfortable.  Thank you Yva!
That night Elvynia went to eat with Remy's family.  Meanwhile Sheena and I had comfortable night in with some strange but tasty pasta that I made.  (It was Sunday, and the only thing open was a night Épicerie with overpriced pasta and tomato sauce.  I included a kind of chopped ham called lardon fumé and canned mushrooms in the sauce.  Yes, it was weird, but it was good.)

Monday we planned to go to Carcassonne.  Per usual, it took us a while to get ready, and by the time we got to the train station, we found out we would have to wait a while for the next train.  We went and sat in a café.  It was nice.  There was also a crazy man/drunk sitting at the table behind us who made quacking noises.  Carcassonne was cool.  Before going I wasn't sure if I had been there before (during my high school trip to France and Spain) or not.  Well, I have definitely been there before.  It was nice the second time around, except the sky was gray and overcast, and we were tired.  We wandered around.
Elvynia took this picture of me:
I took this picture of some pigeons:
We wandered around the medieval city, which would be impressive if it hadn't been so overcast and hadn't been made into complete tourist trap with overpriced restaurants and doo-dad shops galore.
We walked back to the new city and found a café where we sat and had hot chocolate.
Back in Toulouse we met Remy and a couple of his friends for dinner at this Chinese restaurant.  The food was very disappointing, but the guy who owned the place was almost entertaining enough to make up for it.  We went to the main student bar that was so packed that we couldn't even buy drinks.  Sheena and I decided to rentrer chez nous. (go home), and Elvynia and Remy came back a little while later.  Sheena had an early train back to Angers, and we had a later one to La Rochelle.

We had planned to stay two days in La Rochelle, but we were so tired.  We ended up just staying one night with couchsurfers Justine and Justine who were roommates and friends and both studied Chinese. They were super nice and welcoming, and it would have been a great place to see.  I think we'll go back.  It's a very pretty little city, smaller than Angers and a port.  Here are some pictures:

We also had some tasty galettes (savory crêpes).  Then we came home.

And that was what happened in Toulouse.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

A Midspring Night's Schizophrenic Episode

Coolest thing to happen recently: On Thursday, Meredith asked me if I was interested in going to a dinner theater.  A Midsummer Night's Dream was this weekends show, and she thought it would be a fun, different thing to do in Angers.  So we went last night, Saturday.
Meredith, Elvynia, and I arrived at the Restau-Theater a little after 7:30.  We weren't sure what to expect.  It was a restaurant with a small stage decorated with bright red, pink, and white plastic flowers and paper leaves.  The food was excellent, three courses.
Here's what I ate:
Entrée (appetizer): Grilled  Shrimp with something-Provençal, which was like a cold Ratatouille.
Plat (main course): Duck with some kind of dried berry. It said sec airelles. "Sec" means dry, and "airelles" means bilberry, blueberry, OR cranberry.  It tasted closest to cranberry, but cranberries do not grow in Europe. On the side were cooked peas, carrots, mushrooms, and potatoes; they were plain but good.
Dessert: Mille-feuilles de pancake avec fraises et chantilly.  I thought this was going to be a Mille-feuilles like I had in Paris.  Mille-feuilles literally means "a thousand sheets."  It's typically a tall, flaky pastry with a custart cream in it.  This was not that.  This was pancakes with strawberries and whipped cream, which was also good.

Anywho, we enjoyed having a semi-fancy meal.  Before the show, I commented on the bright scenery, saying that I hoped it was a moderny-interpretation.
It was better than that.

It was one woman.  One woman with her hair in crazy braids, sticking out all over her head with a pink dress and stripey witch tights and crazy pink makeup.  She came into the center of the dining room and strew paper leaves all over the floor while a kind of electro-rock song played on the speakers.  Then she started the play.  We knew ahead of time that it was going to be a French translation, but I think the fact that it was in French tripped me up at first.  I knew she was saying Puck's lines.  Then she put on crazy white hoop skirt and changed the tone of her voice, which I didn't pick up on immediately.  I kept waiting for more actors and actresses to show up.  They didn't.
There were two skirts, which she put on to play the female characters.  She crouched and looked mischevious when she was Puck, and she stood under a blue spotlight to be Oberon, king of the fairies.  She did this kind of jumping/creeping dance to switch between characters, which was amusing when two characters were conversing.
She looked like a crazy person.
But, it was impressive.  And it was definitely interesting.  After getting over the initial shock of what she was doing, I enjoyed it.  I understood much of what she said, and she gave us all balloon flowers at the end.

A cute kid story: One little girl asked me Friday, comment tu es née? "How were you born?"  I pretended I didn't understand, but she was persistant, so I just told her I didn't know.  Then she asked, Comment ta mère t'a appris anglais?  How did your mom teach you English?  I explained that that was the language we speak at home.  Then I asked her what language she speaks at home. She told me "sometimes Morroccan, sometimes Turkish."  But she still didn't seem to grasp that I also spoke another language at home.  It was very cute, though.

In other news, there is a teacher's strike Tuesday.  What does that mean for me?? I don't have to work!  I am so unreasonable excited about the strike.  I'm not striking; I don't think I even can strike.  But because all the teachers I work with on Tuesdays won't be there, the kids won't be there either.
The teachers do not get paid for the days they strike.  Christophe told me this amounts to about €60.  The strike is for hiring more teachers and changing some benefits.

I have another theory on why they are striking.  They, too, are tired teachairs.  I've had several classes cancelled in the last couple weeks because teachers were absent for one reason or another.  It's almost spring.  The weather is nicer, and the kids have spring fever.  They are getting crazier every day, and the teachers are just plain tired of dealing with them.
But, I could be totally wrong.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

We interupt this broadcast for an update...

Ok, I continue to be remiss in updating on my vacation, but there are some great things happening here.

First of all, it stopped being freaking cold.  It's only regular cold, with some warmish tendencies!
Last week, it was sunny, but below 0˚ every single day, and it was also windy.  In fact, it was so windy that due to the horrible nature of my windows, I could feel the wind through the KEYHOLE of my door when standing in the hallway.  Today's high is 12˚C (54˚F), and tomorrow's is 16˚C (60˚F).  It's absolutely lovely, and I am about to go for a much-needed jog.

Second of all, Elvynia and I went to Paris for the day on Saturday.  We went to an exhibition at the Musée Maillol called Vanité (yes, vanity).  It was entirely made up of artwork that included skulls in some capacity.  Some of you might know about my affinity for skulls.  It's just a funny thing I like, but the exhibit was awesome.  There was everything from paintings to installations, from classical to contemporary.   Picasso, Warhol, Cézanne, canes with ivory skull tops, fruit carved into skull shapes, diamond encrusted skull rings, grim reapers, skeletons with the crucifix.... It was a little expensive; the student rate was €9, but it was really worth it to see a different kind of exhibit.

After the exhibit, we were starving, so we found a brasserie with a €10.50 lunch menu, which included a plat du jour, a glass of wine, and a dessert.  I had steak frites, which was was too much food and totally worth it.  I didn't even finish the fries, a rare thing for me.
Afterward we did a lot of walking and a little shopping.  I have to brag that I found a cropped black winter jacket with a large collar at Zara for  €5.99. It was very exciting.

It was just a really nice day despite the cold and depressingly overcast skies.

Finally, I need to report on my kids.  I think some of them are getting more insane as the school year continues.  One kid (I wasn't there when it happened) apparently pulled down his pants and crapped during recess one day.  This kid is pretty bad, and he drives me crazy in class. He's usually anywhere but his seat, and often that means he is rolling on the floor or hitting another kid or climbing on the radiator.  Christophe told me he was scared to go to the bathroom, so he just went on the blacktop.
Another kid said something vulgar in Arabic yesterday.  Neither the teacher nor I speak Arabic, but most of the kids in that class do.  It was clear it wasn't nice when all the kids started shouting and laughing.  One girl kindly shared with the class that what he said was le truc entre les cuisses des filles. That translates to: the thing between a girl's thighs.  Lovely.  The teacher sent him out of the room.
Today, we finished drawing monsters in CE1 at Jacques Prévert.  The activity goes like this: I say something like My monster has two heads.  My monster has 5 arms. etc.  The kids have to understand and draw the monster. Today I gave the body parts colors: My monster has yellow feet.  My monster has green eyes.  They actually did really well.  But...
Well, have I mentioned Muhammad Ali?  Yes, there is a kid named Muhammad Ali, and he has a pretty appropriate personality for his name.  He's a pint-sized little demon.  Today he decided to draw penises, four to be exact, on his monster.
C'est le sexe du monstre? Jean-Marie, the teacher asked him. Oui said Muhammad Ali, coloring diligently.  At least he didn't go around showing everyone.

Good grief.  Everyday I gain more respect for elementary school teachers, and I become more and more sure that elementary education is not my calling.

And one more thing: Yesterday was Zeus' birthday! We don't know Zeus' exact birth date, but one vet said he was about 6 months old when I ended up with him in September 2008.  In our family, we tend to give our pets birthdays that coincide with holidays, so we can remember them.  (We don't really do anything crazy for them like presents or cakes; it's more of a marker to keep track of their ages... That being said, Zeus had an awesome birthday part last year, which means my friends and I had a party, and Zeus was there. There was also a very snippy little Chihuahua.  He had to be shut in Drew's bedroom.)  Anyway, the estimate that Zeus was 6 months old put his birthday in March, so I went with the 15th.  Not a big holiday, but who could forget the Ides of March?  Well, apparently, me.  I didn't even think about it yesterday.

My monster has four legs.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

... and go awry and go awry and go awry...

Dear Readers, I am so sorry that I am tardy in updating my blog. Every time I think about my vacation, it makes me very tired!  Isn't that horrible?  I mean, I am freaking lucky.  I work for 6 weeks, then I get two weeks off, paid!  Not to mention the huge amount of discounts that I can get just for being under 26 and having a student card.  I'm not bragging; I really feel like I am absurdly tired.  I have a theory, though, which I will expound upon in my next post.

So here's the plan:
I work best in outline form, but I already started writing more about Lisbon.  *Update: I attempted to reduce it all to outline form, but that didn't work.... Now it's day-by-day, which helped me organize my thoughts... Hopefully this will convey the incredibly ridiculous amount of things we attempted to do and the multitude of snafus we encountered.  (I don't think that's the correct usage of "snafu"... oh well.)

So the next day I woke up, and I was sick.  Sick sick sick.  But, I was in Lisbon!  And I wanted to see it.  
I put on my many layers, in anticipation of cold and rain, and we headed for Belém.  Except before leaving, I decided I was too hot.  So I took off a layer.  We took the tram, and about halfway there, the tram stopped, and the driver said something in Portuguese.  A couple people got off the train.  The rest of us idiot tourists just sat there and looked at each other.  After several minutes, every one, us included, kind of dribbled off the tram.  It shut its doors and took off.  We had no idea where we were, and why it left us there.  But, lucky for us, we were with tons of tourists! (Who would ever think that was lucky?)  So we all stood by the tram stop for a while until another one came, which we hopped on and headed to Belém.  While we were waiting, I started feeling much much colder than I had before we left.
And  de la chance! It was free to enter the monastery on Sunday afternoons.
Jerónimos Monastery is one of the most beautiful places I have ever been.  Really.  The cathedral part is nice, but when you go to the cloister... It's really like nothing I've ever seen.  Pictures are better.  This one was taken by my fabulous photographer friend, Elvynia:

Here's one of mine:
After seeing the Cloister, I was about at the point of having chills.  I needed food and a warm place to sit.
Luckily everyone else was in agreement, and we went to a sandwich shop where I had the cheapest and most satisfying meal I can remember: a thick kind of potato and vegetable soup and bread, for €1.90.
It was delicious and wonderful.
I considered heading back and skipping the tower, but I didn't.  The tower is also impressive.  We also saw it during something like a wind storm.  It was freezing and raining and wind-ing.  A lot.  And most of what there is to see in the tower is outside.  I was pretty much miserable, but I guess I'm glad I saw it.  Plus, Elvynia took this cool picture of me:

Monday Feb 15th: Lisbon Aquarium, which was impressive with its humungous central aquarium with hundreds of fish.  The Lisbon Oceanarium is supposed to be one of the best in Europe, and I think I had my hopes up a little too high.  It was really cool, but I guess I expected something a little flashier.  All of that, however, was made up for by the Big Ugly Fish.  The appeal of the Big Ugly Fish can only be explained by clicking that link.  There were also some pretty damn cute otters of whom I also took a video, but that, sadly, will not upload for some unknown reason.  After the aquarium we went to this huge mall that was close by.  Meredith did some shopping, but I think the rest of us were just exhausted. After eating we walked slowly, in a daze, then just found another place to sit down in the food court.
Mistah Crab?

Tuesday Feb 16th:  We walked around and took one of Lisbon's "elevators," which is actually a trolley car that goes up a hill.  We were somewhat tricked by one of our companions into going to a Basilica.  It was pretty, as Basilicas are apt to be.  I did have a lot on my mind, so I just sat down and took the quiet time to think.  Then we went to a cute restaurant café where I had a much needed Irish coffee.
That night there was a "party" at the hostel, which was fun until we found out the other rooms had heaters and one of these Australian boys got a little too friendly with Elvynia.  She and I then befriended the Polish guy working at the desk who gave us bottles of water for free.

Wednesday Feb 17th:  Of course, for our last day in Lisbon, the sun came out.  Meredith had a mid-day flight back to Paris, and the rest of us were heading for Madrid.  We just made our way back to the water and sat and looked out at the ocean. We found a weird burger place to eat lunch then we wandered back to the water and just sat some more.  Sitting became a recurring theme throughout the rest of our trip.  I think being sick just totally took the energy out of me.  I don't know if the others felt the same, but I was glad other people were into sitting.

Evening of Wednesday Feb 17th: With all of our things gathered, we arrived to the airport - like the good little travelers we were - just under two hours early.  We sat a while.  Then we found out our flight was delayed.  And delayed and delayed.  The flight left two hours late, and we did not get to Spain until after 1:00 am.  This is were our trip got interesting.  Elvynia and I had planned to Couchsurf in Madrid.  (I will talk about couchsurfing later) But, the metro closed at 1:30, and we were not going to make it.  We decided it would be easiest and safest to share a taxi with Gloria and Sheena to the hostel in the city center.  So we thought.  One hour and €60 later, he finally dropped us off at the hostel.  It should have been a 20 minute €20 ride, but it was 2am.  And we didn't speak Spanish.
The hostel was near the Gran Via metro stop, which, we discovered, is also where some prostitutes hang out.  An imposing man stood at the door to the hostel.  He said something in Spanish, which we didn't get.  Then he asked in English where we were going.  "The hostel," Sheena said.
"What is it called?" he asked.  At this point, we were exhausted, we had been cheated by an evil taxi driver, and we were surrounded by Spanish prostitutes.  We did not feel like being interrogated by a scary Russian-looking Spanish doorman.
Sheena looked at him.  She looked at the sign on the wall next to him and read it.  He did not look impressed, but he said something into a walkie talkie and let us in.  We should have couchsurfed, I thought.  Inside, the deskman was nice, and Elvynia and I ended up with a private double room for the price of a dorm.  Sheena and Gloria went straight away to their room.  But while we were getting ours reserved, some of the freakiest looking people started coming in.  Shiny-pleather-jacket man, bleached-hair-with-black-eyebrows girl.  It was like some kind of creepy meeting of people that only come out after midnight.  We hurried to our room and promptly went to bed.

Thursday Feb 18th: We woke up and met Gloria and Sheena for breakfast.  The hostel was decidedly less creepy in the day light, and I had some very good bread and coffee.  Elvynia and I checked out, and the four of us headed out into the great city of Madrid.
It was overcast and dreary, and Madrid, I am sorry to say, is not one of the prettiest of European cities.  We walked by the Grand Palace, saw some statues, and went to the Plaza del Sol.  Then, Elvynia and I set out to our couchsurfing place: chez Rafael.  We hopped on the metro and arrived a ways out of the city.  We then walked for a good 15 minutes along a busy road.  There was a "sanatorium" across the street.  I will admit, I was a little scared.  The neighborhood looked alright, and when we got to his building I was relieved.  It was nice-looking and a friendly neighbor woman let us in.
Rafael let us in where we met hi parents and his dog, Pipo.  Even after being told that we didn't speak Spanish, Rafael's father continued to talk to us and point at the dog.  I'm sure whatever he was saying was very interesting.
For our first time couchsurfing, we were spoiled.  Rafael and Miguel have a small third bedroom where they host couchsurfers.  There were two twin beds with clean sheets.  They even had a map and small tourist guide set out for us.  Rafael had to go back to work.  We made plans to meet for drinks and tapas, and he dropped us off at the metro station.  Back in Madrid, we went to the Museo Reina Sofia of Contemporary Art.  It was great.  There are a number of paintings by Picasso and Dalì, as well as one of my favorites, Miró.  The main attraction is Picasso's Guernica, and it is impressive.  You also are not allowed to take pictures of it, but I managed this one from the next room over:

I think this picture beautifully captures both Picasso's magnificent work and the modern aesthetic of nazi-esque museum volunteers.  (While at the Reina Sofia, I was told to step away from a Dalí paint -- which I have to add was BEHIND GLASS.  What is the point of seeing a painting in person if you can't get close enough to see the detail?  ESPECIALLY WITH SALVADOR DALÍ. )

After the Reina Sofia, we spent entirely too long finding a place to go and sit for a while.  I am not pointing fingers.  But sit we did.  After a bit, we went to meet up with Rafael and his roommate Miguel.  Rafael and Miguel are awesome.  They didn't know us.  We were only staying one night, and it was a Thursday.  Yet, they took us to three cool tapas bars where we had good food and drinks and fun conversation.  They have hosted over 100 couchsurfers and are both very interested in traveling.  We traded stories and had a really nice time.  Elvynia and I headed back with them and had a nice, full night's sleep.
We didn't bother and try to see Madrid on Friday.  We slept in and headed to the airport.  Did I mention earlier how fabulous the Lisbon airport was?  Well, it was awesome.  Very clean and modern with lots of food options and comfortable places to sit.  The very opposite of Charles de Gaulle.  Madrid's airport was in between, and all of the food was overpriced.  Luckily, our flight was only delayed by a few minutes, and we were on our way back to France.

Friday, March 5, 2010

The best laid plans of mice and men...

... do often go awry*.

Yes, I am back from Winter Vacation.  In fact, I've been back for almost a week, and I think I've spent the days since then vacationing from my vacation.  It was a good vacation, but... well you'll see:

Our comedy of errors began, oh, so, long ago on Friday February 12th when we took the last train to Paris.  
(Actually, my comedy of "errors" began the day before when Professor Connelly from McNeese State University emailed me to say he really liked the manuscript I submitted for the MFA program and would there be a good time to chat on the phone.  That is another story, which I shall relate later.)

The quote does say "the BEST laid plans," but I'll go ahead and admit our plans were perhaps not the best laid.  One might say they were moderately well-conceived and rather sloppishly put together.  

So the last train to Paris left at about 9:40 on Friday night, and we arrived at Paris Montparnasse around 11:15 or so.  The really great idea we had -- in order to save money -- was to arrive at Montparnasse, rather than Charles de Gaulle, then catch the last RER train to the airport.  This probably saved us less than €20.  Investing that €20 in the train directly to the airport would have saved us from kicking off our trip with confusion and panic.  In Paris, we found out that part of the tracks between Montparnasse and CDG were under construction.  According to the signs, there was a shuttle between another station and the airport.  (Without pointing any fingers, we should have known about this.)
We ended up taking the train to the stop we thought was the right one.  When we got off the train, we were at what could be any anonymous station somewhere within Paris' banlieues.  We stood with several other luggage-carrying foreigners until our savior arrived in a blue coveralls and a yellow reflective safety vest.  
"Charles de Gaulle?" he yelled.  
"Oui, yes!" the crowd of us said.
"Zis way!"
And we followed him.  He led us down the stairs out of the metro and to a coach bus waiting for us.

This brings me to the real genius part of our plan.  We had 6am flights to Lisbon.  Again, they were cheap.  Our brilliant idea was to stay the night in the airport.  Yes, it can be and is done by many people all over the world every second of every day.  But, that is often either done by the involuntary or homeless.  A recap of our night at CDG: it was cold, and it was uncomfortable.  And we were hungry.
I didn't sleep at all in the airport, and it was a relief to board the plane and pass out for the entirety of the three hour flight.  The plane nap somehow revived us, and we arrived in sunny Lisbon.  Despite warnings of sneaky cab drivers, we took a cab to the hostel, and he did not gyp us.  The hostel was very nice and very cheap.  Giddy -- probably from both lack of sleep and the sun, which we haven't seen in ages -- we set off to explore Lisbon.  We almost immediately headed for the water.  We made a pit stop at a corner grocer, mostly because it had an appealing fruit stand outside.  The woman at the counter saw us looking at the bottles of port wine and proceeded to let us sample several of the wines.  That little shot of alcohol only improved our spirits, so when we found ourselves at a rather dingy area of the port (meaning the water, not the wine), we decided to take inordinately silly pictures in which we look a little worse for the wear.  Or, at least, I look very worse for the wear because that 24 hours without sleep had taken its toll on my immune system.  I didn't know then, but I was about to develop a very bad cold.

Then, we went to the Castle of São Jorge.  This meant an uphill hike through Lisbon's Alfama district, one of the most visually interesting parts of the city.  The Alfama district is the only part of the city that wasn't destroyed in the 1755 earthquake.  It was historically the Moorish part of the city and was just beautiful to walk through.

Then we saw the castle.  The thing with castles in Europe is: well, they're everywhere.  So castles kind of become a moot tourist attraction.  The Lisbon castle, however, is cool.  According to Wikipedia the Moors also did their thing on this castle, which makes it different from a lot of the more medieval-knights-in-shining-armor castles.
After the castle, it was much-needed nap time.  I think we tried the famous Lisbon pastries at some point too.  Lisbon is know for these pastries that are one of the best things I've ever eaten.   The Pastéis de Nata are like flaky little quiches with custard filling.  We proceeded to eat one or so of these fabulous pastries every day that we were there.
Anywho, we ended our first evening with the best dinner ever.  Seriously.  Meredith has a friend from Lisbon who reserved us a table at this random little restaurant.  It was crowded.  When I saw the drab looking trays that the food came on, I knew we were in for something good.  It just screamed home cooking.  I had cod, apparently something you are supposed to eat in Lisbon.  I asked the waitress "It's good?" "Si, si" she said, nodding enthusiastically.  And it was.  In fact, I don't think a single meal on our trip could rival that first night.  My cod was cooked in butter and garlic with a side of potatoes and a green salad.  Plus we has a carafe of wine and cheese and bread before the meal.  They charged for the bread, and we still only paid like €11 each, which, when you have been living in France, is downright cheap.

We ate well, and we headed back "Home" (literally, the name of our foyer) where we made a wonderful discovery.  Our room had no form of heating!  At all!  We had to request extra blankets, and I quickly discovered that once I had optimized the position of the blankets and my layers not to move and to go to sleep.

I am going to publish here for now!  I know that is very anti-climactic because nothing too terrible has happened yet!  But I am very tired, and I am having a hard time gathering my thoughts.  Just thinking about everything we did makes me exhausted.  I promise more soon.  Here's a quick preview to whet your appetite: delays! missed rendez-vous! prostitutes! liars and cheats! a nasty cold!

Bonne nuit tout le monde!

*Quote from Robert Burns's Poem "To a Mouse" later became the title of one of the most famous novels in American Literature. Of Mice and Men, which I am embarassed to say I own but have not read.  I added "do" because I think it adds a nice emphasis on the predicate.  Plans do, quite often, go to hell.