Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Christmas in Denmark--Photos

Christmas in Denmark. Story to hopefully follow!


Christmas in Denmark--Photos

Christmas in Denmark. Story to hopefully follow!


Saturday, December 6, 2008

France Pictures, take 2

CAPES Students Christmas Party
CAPES Christmas Party

CAPES Students BBQ from April
BBQ Party

CAPES Students BBQ from May 29th, 2009
BBQ Take 2

Friday, December 5, 2008

France Pictures

Pictures of my apartment:


Pictures of some of my friends:


Pictures of various churches around Poitiers:

Church Tour

Pictures of a student demonstration:


Pictures from my Obama Inauguration Party:

Obama Inauguration Party

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Adventures in Teaching

Well, is it about time that I updated this thing, or what?? Unfortunately, the internet connection in my apartment was more of a myth than a reality until very recently, and that made me particularly lazy about getting stuff posted. But, I finally got hooked up, so here we are!

OK, I think the first subject to tackle is my teaching. As I described before, I have two sets of students, most easily differentiated as “Beginners” and “Advanced”. To be honest, I’ve really hardly taught them at all due to the school vacation in October/November, but I have had some good (and not so good) experiences I can relate.

So, the first students I met were the advanced ones. It was the day before my orientation, and I honestly wasn’t expecting to have to meet them until the following week. It was all a bit of a surprise for me, but I had no choice but to roll with the punches because the other teacher is, in fact, the head of the whole program (Mr. Duchet). Actually, I didn’t need to prepare anything for them; it was just a chance for me to meet them and observe Mr. Duchet in action.

OK…“in action” might be a bit of a stretch for the elderly Mr. Duchet. He should, by all rights, be retired. Why he’s still working is beyond me (and most others), but oh well! So, I showed up 10 minutes early for class. At first, only 3 students were there. Eventually, Mr. Duchet showed up 5 minutes late for class. Still just 3 students. Mr. Duchet showed me the new computer lab setup where we’ll be taking turns working with the students. (It’s very cool, actually…each student has a computer equipped with an enormous pair of airplane pilot headphones that have a mic attached. The teacher has a computer that he/she can use to monitor what each student is doing and communicate with them via microphone. Cool.) Mr. Duchet had no real idea how to use these new computers as it was the first day of class, so it was lucky that my tech-savvy ass was there to figure it out for him.

Eventually, after about 15 minutes, the rest of the students showed up. Turns out they had a class immediately prior and they aren’t given a passing time to get to the next class. Once they got in there, I was made to stand up and present myself. I was pretty nervous about this, but it turns out that they were very friendly and seemed to take to me right away. I made them laugh…whew!

So, I hung out and watched how Mr. Duchet handled class. He had a copy of the T.S. Eliot poem (the title of which I can never remember) upon which the musical “Cats” is based. Now, Mr. Duchet has an incredibly thick British accent. I would never think that he was French, actually. He sounds like he’s from Bristol or something. So, he’s got this Shakespearean actor thing going on as he reads the poem for them as an example. The only problem was that he would start out each line very loud and strong and then, by the end of it, his voice would be nothing but a quiet mumble. How the students understood him, I have no idea; it was a struggle for me!

Another thing about Mr. Duchet is that he constantly talks to the students in French, which led to him speaking constantly to me in French. Naturally, I could only understand him about 45% of the time. Needless to say, I found myself doing a lot of head nodding and saying, “Uhh…oui!” without having any idea what I had agreed to. I had assumed that, like in my French classes in America, the teacher would speak to the students exclusively in English. Otherwise, what’s the fucking point? But no, not here! So, this will remain an issue for me, I’m sure.

The funny thing is that by the time I had the second lab class with these students and Mr. Duchet, I had had them by myself for the casual Tuesday morning class, and I mentioned to them that I could rarely understand Mr. Duchet. So, during the second lab class, whenever Mr. Duchet talked to me in French, they would all crack up as I nodded and kept saying “Oui!”. Then, after we split the class and I took my half to another classroom, I had them translate what Mr. Duchet had been rambling on about. Very amusing.

I really love these students. They’re so much fun to teach because they’re almost fluent (so I don’t really have to “grade” my language with them) and they’re studying for an incredibly hard exam in order to become English teachers, so they’re quite motivated to learn. Excellent combo! Plus, they’re very nice people, too. Several volunteered to call the asshole internet company here on my behalf. A girl named Alice has been especially helpful, calling places for me and even translating my birth certificate into French!

I particularly enjoy the Tuesday morning class with these students. One week, I brought in an article from the International Herald Tribune about an alternative fuel road race in Berkeley, California. We read the article together, then I broke them up into three teams and had them design an alternative fuel vehicle of their own, which they would then present to the class. They worked really hard on it, with lots of debate on the design and drawing of the vehicle, and the results were hilarious. One of the cars ran on “flower petals, perfume, and horse or camel shit”. This was presented by the team of dainty girls, so it was particularly amusing. I saved all of their drawings because they were so great.

Just before the Toussaints school break at the end of October, they had a class outing to a local Irish pub, and they invited me to come with them. What a great time! I think they were a bit surprised when I showed up with my hair down (for the first time) and makeup on, but they quickly recovered themselves and we set about the very important business of getting schnockered.

The best part about that night, aside from it being my first night on the town since I got here, was that they taught me quite a few naughty (but oh-so-useful) French phrases that you just never learn in school. Among these were several ways of saying “I’m drunk”, “I’ve got a hangover” (my favorite of those is “Je suis dans le paté” which means “I’m in the paté”, paté being a fancy type of processed meat mixture, of course), and naturally, many variations on “Fuck you” and how to call someone a bitch or bastard. Here are a couple good ones–bitch: “poufiasse” which sounds like “poofy ass”; blonde bitch: “blondasse”; bastard: “con”. Alice wrote them all down for me so that I could study later (when I would have a better chance of remembering them). Oh, another good one! For something very expensive: “ça coute la peau de cul!” (It costs the skin of an ass!) And something that’s cheesy: “C’est cul cul la praline.” (It’s ass ass the praline.) LOL

At first, my beginning students provided very few experiences as entertaining as this. In fact, the first class I was supposed to have with them ended up being cancelled, although no one thought to inform me of that fact. So, all revved up and sitting there, waiting…not even the other teacher showed up. In the end, I had to ask at the office. I felt like such a dope! Still, my job requirements don’t include being psychic, so everyone was very apologetic, especially Michel (my supervising teacher).

Once I finally got around to teaching these guys, it turned out to be not nearly as bad as I had feared. In fact, we usually laugh a lot and have a good time, in general. The level of English varies wildly between them, which makes for interesting classes, to be sure. Since Michel takes half for the first hour and then we switch, and the students are allowed from week to week to decide on their own how they will divide themselves up, it can often mean that one half will be all intermediate-level kids who love to chat my ear off, and the other half will sit in stony, false-beginner silence, hoping I won’t call on them, requiring me to drag the participation out of them. It’s no wonder that after my second round of classes with them, I nearly lost my voice.

Still, there are a few gems among these students, the ones I look forward to seeing. Mostly these are boys, as the girls seem to be, in general, much less apt to be the ones to speak up. Fred, Charles, Alexandre, Denis, Sylvain, Nicholas, Thomas, Stephane, and a few others whose names I haven’t yet memorized. These guys are really funny or really charming or really sweet. They make the day go faster, to be sure!

The most fun I’ve ever (inadvertently) had with the beginning students happened just this week, in fact. It all started because I had been a lazy ass over the Thanksgiving weekend, and didn’t feel like preparing their class material ahead of time. Since the prep only involves making photocopies of an article and then writing up a few questions about it that we can discuss in class, I decided just to come in a bit early on Tuesday morning to get it handled. The article that I chose came from a group that Michel had given me that were apparently tried and tested. “Don’t reinvent the wheel” he told me when he gave them to me. Nice and easy, just like I like it. So, I looked through them Tuesday morning, chose one more or less at random, and went on about my day.

Well, my mistake was that I didn’t read it out loud before class. I have to read the article out loud during class, so the students can hear my pronunciation before they take a turn with it themselves. Usually, I read through it once beforehand just to see if there are any words I need to emphasize, etc. Of all the times for me to slack off…

So. There I am, casually reading this boring article out loud (on the subject of declining reading scores in Great Britain’s primary schools) when I get to a quote from the Education Secretary, Ed Balls. That’s right. Ed Balls.

I think you imagine my surprise at suddenly finding myself saying the name “Ed Balls” out loud in front of my students, so then it is no great leap to imagine me immediately starting to giggle like a Beavis and Butthead extra. I took a deep breath, apologized to my students, and soldiered on. Until the beginning of the next paragraph which began with the phrase, “Mr. Balls stated that…”

Frankly, at that point, I just burst out laughing like a lunatic. My students (a particularly low level group to start off the day) looked at me like I had three heads. And the thing was, once I started laughing, I couldn’t stop! I just kept thinking about how horrible it was that I was laughing in the first place, and then I’d think about the horrible name, and I was off again! The giggle loop in action (for any “Coupling” fans out there)! It took many deep breaths, four or five tries, and pinching my hand as hard as possible to sober me up enough to finish reading the article.

After I was done, I tried to explain to the students that the name was very funny in English, and please forgive me for being such an idiot. Well, they were laughing at me quite a bit by then, so it was no big deal. At the end of class, however, one of the higher level students asked me, “What this name Mr. Balls means in English?” I happened to have a dictionary at hand, and no remaining dignity, so I looked it up and told him. They were all most amused.

For the next class, I decided that there was absolutely no fucking way I was going to read that name out loud again. In the interim, I had spoken to my friend Jennifer over Skype, and in telling the story to her, I started laughing so much that I couldn’t breathe. I could barely get through the story at all! I mean, Mr. Balls has to be absolutely the worst name in the history of the world!! I defy you to come up with one that can compare. So, yeah, no way I’m reading that again.

I decided to just fess up before I read the article. I explained to them that the name was very funny in English, and that I wouldn’t read it because otherwise I would laugh like crazy. I also explained what it meant, so that they would understand my reasoning. They all thought it was funny, and so the class passed with little to no drama. Sylvain suggested that I say “Mr. B” instead, and used that name himself when writing up his summary. Very cute. Also cute was in the next class when Fred, one of my best students (and a very-nearly-Brad Pitt look alike) was unable to complete his summary as he wanted because, as he said, “I was searching a word play for Mr. Balls, but I was unable to find it.”

The last class of the day, with a couple of the loud-mouth boys who love to go back and forth with me, was really a lot of fun. As they were silently reading the article to themselves at the beginning of class, I noticed that Charles and Alexandre started laughing. So, they were already ahead of the game. When it came time for me to read, I gave my little “It’s a funny name” speech and said that I wouldn’t be reading it out loud. Charles volunteered to read it for me! Ok, no problem. I started reading and then paused for Charles to say the name. He said, “ED BALLS” with a deep, resounding voice…much like you would say “JAMES BOND”. Well, we all died laughing. More of the same on “MR.BALLS”. Then, when they had to write up their summaries, both Alexandre and Charles naturally managed to work in the name “Mr. Balls”. Oh, the little joys of teaching!

And thus ends the blog on my students. In general, school things these days are clicking along with very few issues, but if anything along the lines of Mr. Balls happens again, I’ll be sure to fill you in!

In the next update, look for stories about my first trip to La Rochelle. Holiday blogs to follow!

Sunday, October 19, 2008

A bit cheesy...

OK, where did we leave off? Ah yes…amusing or interesting stories. I think I’ll just write these up in a random fashion, if you don’t mind.

First, let me just say that in a land which is home to over 400 different cheeses, it has been a real bitch to find some cheddar. American supermarket aisles are clogged with every possible incarnation of cheddar cheese, but at the two markets I frequent, there is only one piece of cheddar cheese on offer at each. At LeClerc (the ungodly huge grocery store with 100+ yogurt choices) there is one package of pre-packed white cheddar, a chunk of “Sharp Scottish Cheddar” that weighs about 8 ounces and costs about $4. At Monoprix, the grocery store in the center of town that is relatively small (compared to LeClerc, anyway) but oh-so-convenient, there is a large block of white cheddar at the cheese counter. 18.50 Euros per kilo, which works out to about $11.50/pound. The unfortunate thing is that the most popular cheese here is emmentaler (a basic swiss style cheese), and it just does not work as a substitute for cheddar. C’est tragique.

Another food item that is abundant in America and mysteriously absent here is pepperoni. When I was living in Korea, just getting a pizza was an ordeal, so I’m not bitching too much here. But still, pepperoni is my favorite topping, and it’s practically nowhere to be found. Eggs, however, are a common and quite popular pizza topping, so it’s no wonder that I’m getting screwed on the pepperoni (I hate eggs).

At any rate, there is a Dominos Pizza here, and, as you all know, they are required by law to offer pepperoni as a topping. :-) So, when I received their flier advertising “Crazy Week!” wherein they were offering any sized pizza with any combination of toppings for only 6.99 Euros (about $9, carry-out only), I decided that the time was ripe for my first pizza here in France. Tragically, I neglected to remember that my life’s story is filled with heartbreak and unfulfilled longing.

So, it was with a hopeful heart and growling stomach that I impetuously lept off the bus one drizzly school night at the stop just across from the Dominos. It was 5:45, which meant that I had 15 minutes to sit at the bus stop, staring longingly at the Dominos until the doors were unlocked. Once 6 o’clock hit, I casually strolled inside. I explained in bad French that I was American and in desperate need of a pepperoni infusion. The man was friendly and happy to take my order for the largest pizza possible with a mountain of pepperoni and cheese. For only 6.99, it was going to be a pizza miracle. Until I went to pay, and his motherfucking credit machine would only take French credit cards. I could have thrown that machine through the fucking window and then set the place on fire. And of course, I only had 4 Euros cash on me, so I was basically totally fucked. The man smirkingly suggested going to the ATM at the very bottom of the hill, which I was not keen to do in the increasingly vigorous rain. At this point, the man became a bit too smarmy, so I huffed my way out of there, muttering various curses against the man, specifically, and France, in general.

Remembering that there was a pizza place just down the street, I walked until I came to the “Pizza Box” (I forget the French spelling). The boy who helped me there was exceptionally nice and even spoke some English. No pepperoni, but they did have chorizo. Much more expensive, but they were doing a two-for-one special on carry-out orders. So, for $20 I got two small pizzas and a carton of Ben & Jerry’s to mend my wounded soul.

But let us not forget that I still had to get home. In the rain. Carrying two pizza boxes and a sack of ice cream, in addition to my purse, computer bag, and umbrella. It was way too far to walk, even if it wasn’t raining, so I waited at the nearest bus stop. When the bus finally did arrive, it was packed to the rafters, so I literally stood at the very front, hip to hip with the driver, my pizzas basically resting on the dashboard, trying not to fall over with every sudden braking or turn. It was a misery.

By the time I walked home from the bus stop by my apartment, a pool of water had collected on the topmost pizza box. But they must really know how to make a pizza box here, because not only wasn’t my pizza soaking wet, it was still mostly hot and definitely delicious. The chorizo wasn’t like at home; it looked and tasted almost exactly like large pepperoni pieces. Perfection!

What wasn’t perfection was the night I decided to phone up this same pizza place to have a pie delivered. I’ll admit I was nervous to place an order over the phone, but I had practiced what I was going to say and studied up on the relevant vocab from a flier of theirs I got in the mail. But, naturally, the man who answered the phone had an accent that I could not understand for the life of me. I tried to tell him what I wanted, but every time he asked me a question (presumably the typical things like address, phone number, pizza choice) it was like he was speaking in some sort of Martian dialect; I was at a total loss. Eventually, he got fed up with me and passed the phone to a fellow employee, who, I am proud to say, I was able to understand with absolutely no issues. (I’d like to think that he hung up the phone and said, “I don’t know what the fuck your problem was, but she seemed fine to me!”) The whole thing just reminded me of every time I’ve heard a fellow call center employee bitch about a customer whose accent they couldn’t understand, and they’d say something along the lines of “Fucking foreigners…learn some fucking English.” Since I’m not one of those people (and I was really trying my best to both speak and understand the native language) I don’t feel I should be getting stuck with their bad karma, but what are you going to do? At any rate, I don’t think I’ll be going through that experience again in a hurry.

Another thing which I will not be doing again in a hurry is having my mother ship me stuff via DHL (or really any private shipper, for that matter). The day I left for France, I stupidly forgot my brand new coat at my mother’s. Since it was an insulated raincoat that I planned to wear during the late fall/winter season, and we were running late to the airport, I decided to just have my mom ship it to me. Never again. First of all, my mother didn’t know how much the coat cost, and not wanting to undervalue it in case it was damaged or lost during shipment, she put on the customs declaration that it cost $200 (it was really only half that expensive). I can hear the more internationally experienced among you groaning right now. Yes, that’s right, I had to pay a duty on the package. Plus, unbelievably, I also had to pay a private shipping fee for using DHL. ??? So, when the DHL delivery guy showed up at my door, he required a payment of—get this—60 Euros!! before I could have my fucking package. I, of course, don’t keep this kind of cash on hand, so I had to tell him to bring it back the next day. Unbelievable.

A long-overdue update

There could have been no finer day for a stroll along a medieval river than this past late-autumn Sunday in Poitiers. The sun, streaming brightly through yellow and russet leaves, was warm enough to chase off the late afternoon chill, while the slight breeze carried a hint of wood smoke in the distance.

The constant tinkling of the petite rivière beneath my balcony reminded me of the time I had walked along the river Clain a few weeks ago. I had it almost entirely to myself, and it was an exceptionally beautiful and peaceful experience.

So, feeling cooped up in my studio, and with nothing much to occupy my time (having beat every possible piece of laundry against a rock yesterday) I decided to buy a sandwich at the bakery around the corner and then enjoy it while sitting on one of the many benches along the river, throwing the occasional piece of crust to my Mallard friends. (I refer to them as my friends, of course, because they have taken to napping every afternoon on the bank of the petite rivière, just across from my balcony. I quack hello to them when I open up my balcony door.)

As always goes the story of my life, I had the inevitably embarrassing moment at the bakery, during which my credit card wouldn’t work because their machine was only for French cards. This was only revealed after my entire order had been prepared and bagged up, naturally. I was reduced to scrounging through my purse for enough coins to barely cover the cost of the specially-prepared sandwich, and was therefore forced to leave behind the bottle of water and the croissants for tomorrow’s breakfast. The woman behind the counter was no friend of mine by the time I hightailed it out of there, let me tell you. Still, what kind of establishment doesn’t have a credit card machine that will allow you to swipe a card? These French cards have a “plus” sign (pronounced “ploose”, of course) that allows the card to just be inserted into the machine. Most credit machines have the option to either insert or swipe, so this has only happened to me twice: at this bakery and at a Domino’s Pizza [story to follow].

After taking my sandwich of shame and getting the hell out of there, I headed toward the river, keen to repeat my peaceful and isolated experience. Unfortunately, I wasn’t the only one with the idea to walk along the river on such a gorgeous day; I would have realized that had I given it about half a minute’s thought. Still, it wasn’t quite overrun with squealing brats or yipping dogs, so it was satisfyingly peaceful and inviting. The river was calm, glassy, tinged green like an old Coke bottle. The gravel path snaking alongside the river was dotted with white wooden benches, the best ones already taken by elderly couples (the rest mysteriously not even facing in the direction of the river). All sorts were out for a stroll, including families, couples, men with dogs, women with babies, and one little girl trying to rollerblade through the gravel with very little success. It was lovely.

I know I’ve been slacking these past couple weeks, in regards to keeping this page updated. Please accept my most sincere apologies. Having very little to do in the way of actual work, I should have been posting something every day, but it never really seems to work out that way. When I’m somewhere with internet access (such as my school), I tend to want to goof around online and not do any actual work. I’ve discovered that unless I have 24/7 access to the internet, my productivity once actually connected to it is significantly diminished. I guess I just need to get that goofing-around time out of the way before I can really get down to business. Thankfully, I have at last been able to submit the order for internet in my apartment, and I should be online full time by mid-November. God willing, of course.

Speaking of business, I do have several stories I’d like to share in order to get you all up to date. There’s a lot to report, so I’ll do it in two separate postings. Let us go forth chronologically…

October 1st was a day of orientation for the assistants in my school district, conveniently held right here in Poitiers. I was nervous that the whole day would be in French, and I would be lost for most of it. Of course, it turned out to be mostly French, with brief interludes in English. I got by alright, but not without sounding like an idiot on several occasions which I want to forget and so won’t be repeating here.

I was also nervous that I would be like a grandmother (age-wise) compared to all the other assistants, and I wasn’t far off on that, either. Most of them were clearly in their early or mid twenties. I felt ancient, which was worse than not understanding the French, to be frank. I did make a few “friends”, so at least I had someone to eat lunch with and stand next to at the post-orientation reception.

At this reception, the man in charge of our whole region gave a little speech, and then circulated throughout the crowd, chatting in French with lots of my fellow assistants. Yours truly saw what was going on, and in a desperate bid to save herself from a surely-humiliating scenario, kept one eye on him and the other on various escape routes. Unfortunately, during the one second my eyes wandered over to the drinks table, the man was suddenly at my side and reaching out to shake my hand. Accepting my fate, I plunged in headfirst, speaking very bad French and bringing shame upon not only my ancestors but also all of my fellow countrymen. When did I end up living in a horribly trite American sitcom? *sigh*

At any rate, now orientated, I was ready to begin teaching. My first week only consisted of teaching a small group of advanced students (about 20 in total). Let me tell you a bit about them:

First of all, they already have an undergrad degree in English and some experience living in an English-speaking country. What they’re doing now is studying to become middle or high school-level English teachers, so they must pass a comprehensive and frankly terrifying exam at the end of this school year, called the CAPES (pronounced “Cap-ez”). My job is to help them prepare for the oral section of the exam, wherein they will be graded on the authenticity and consistency of their accent, as well as on their ability to extemporaneously synthesize written and visual material into an oral presentation. It’s nowhere in the same ballpark as easy, and if they don’t pass, they have to wait another year to take it again. It’s also a nationally competitive exam, so it’s all about what percentile you fall into, not about passing with a B+ or some such system. In short, it’s hard as hell, and they need a lot of oral practice.

So, I’m there to give them practice speaking, basically. On Tuesdays, from 9-11am, I get to do fun activities with them, entirely of my choosing, where the goal is to get them to use advanced vocab and to correct them every time they make a mistake. On Wednesday afternoons from 5-7, they have a language lab, where half the time is spent with the other teacher (Mr. Duchet) using computers to record themselves speaking, and the other half with me, using examples from last year’s exam in order to practice their accents and their ability to answer questions about the material.

I like these guys a lot because they’re mostly fluent in English, and I can speak to them pretty much like I’d speak to anyone back home. Some of them have been very nice to me, inviting me to go out for drinks or helping me call the internet company to find out why I’m getting screwed over. I really enjoy my time with them, even though I was warned by my supervising teacher that last year, the CAPES students rarely showed up for class (they’re not actually required to be there, as this is just seen as exam prep), so I shouldn’t put any energy or thought into what I prepare for them.

Of course, this was said by the supervising teacher of my *other* set of students. His name is Michel (pronounced Mee-chelle), and he’s a great guy. Very friendly, very welcoming, very gay (or at least that’s what my gay-dar is telling me). I like him quite a bit, but he does seem to be very prejudiced against the CAPES students (or possibly he just has a personal conflict with my CAPES supervising teacher, Pierre…I can’t quite tell). At any rate, I’m sure I’m going to enjoy my time with him, if not his students.

Unlike the CAPES crew, these students (about 120 in total) have not decided to dedicate their lives to teaching English. In point of fact, they seem to hate English, and only speak it because it’s required in class, and often not even then. Why are they studying English? Well, apparently the French government passed a law a few years ago saying roughly that all primary school teachers must be able to teach basic English to their students (I’m not an expert on French law, so I’m just repeating what’s been vaguely explained to me). These students are required to pass an exam to become primary school teachers, and part of the exam covers their knowledge of English. The portion of the exam which I help them prepare consists of reading through a short text, summarizing it, and then being able to answer questions about it.

I would frankly be shocked if the majority of these students could read an entire English text aloud in an intelligible accent; I would probably fall over dead if they were able to *comprehend* what they were reading and then spend 10 minutes adroitly answering questions on the topic. Now, if I were able to teach these students for several hours every week for the next 5 months, I think we would see a definite improvement; however, I am scheduled to teach these students approximately once per month. For an hour. In December and March I meet with them twice. Oh yeah, they’re gonna do great on that exam! Michel and I have had several discussions on the absolute futility and ridiculousness of this situation, but the fact remains that the French government, while increasing expectations of the students, has simultaneously cut down on school funding. So, not enough teachers, and definitely not enough time. It’s crazy.

Anyway, these are the general descriptions of my students; I’ll relate personal experiences of my teaching later on. I think this is a good place to end my update for right now, don’t you? Seems like a good time to make a cup of tea, enjoy a small snack of some variety, and pick up with some random stories in, shall we say, 20 minutes? Lovely!

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Happy happy, joy joy!

Let the word ring forth from the mountain tops…I have secured an apartment! In fact, I moved in yesterday and am all unpacked. But before you begin to think that I arrived at this point with the greatest of ease, let’s back up a couple days and review the contortions I performed in order to swing things my way.

As you’ll recall, I had found an apartment through a real estate agency and the good grace of an English-speaking agent named Sylvie. At that point, an unfortunate and inevitable problem reared its ugly head: I had to have a guarantor, a co-signer of sorts. Someone who would promise to pay the rent in the event I decided to scarper. If I were under 30, the bank would gladly help me out with this, but as I’m now apparently in “Older Than Dirt” demographic, I was out of luck.

My bank agent, an absolutely wonderful chick named Emilie, advised me to ask for help at one of the administrative offices of my school. This seemed perfectly reasonable to me, as it was the school which got me into this mess in the first place (no room at the inn, if you’ll recall). Oh, if only it were that easy… With that simple advice from Emilie, I embarked upon a Sisyphean struggle [yes, I’m aware you might have to look it up, but I guess I just don’t care] that was eventually resolved only through the luck of the devil, I assure you.

As you’ll again recall, the first office I went to was closed (but the woman there gave me a phone number to call to make an appointment). The second office I went to was also no use because the woman I wanted to see (the one who had told me there were no rooms for me at the university) had already gone home. So, I was screwed for that day and the following, as government workers don’t have to be in on Wednesdays, apparently.

So, Thursday morning, I was up with the dawn and out to the nearest internet café. No response to my desperate email from the chica at the IUFM, so I decided just to call her. Oh joy, her secretary told me that she wasn’t there, but would be in tomorrow. At this point, I started to freak out, I don’t mind telling you. I emailed every administrative person at the university with whom I had had contact previously, and a couple I hadn’t.

[I would like to state here, for the record, that I am as far from impressed as one can possibly be with the University of Poitiers in regards to their handling of me as the new Assistante d’Anglais. You’d think that I was the first one they’d ever had, when in fact this program has been in place for *decades*. At this point, all I should have to do is show up to one particular office, speak to one particular person who is in charge of me, and receive a detailed packet of information that includes a comprehensive list of everything that I need to do in order to function here as a teacher and resident. I know that I am far from the über-regulated business mindset of the United States, but fuck! Get it together people! At this point, I have no idea which of the approximately 15 different offices around town I should be going to, and even less of an idea who I need to speak to, or even who is directly in charge of me. Argh! Thinking about this makes me want to pull my hair out, so I shall cease this bitching immediately.]

Anyway, not getting any emails back in a hurry, I decided to call Sylvie the real estate agent to advise her of my predicament. She was understandably concerned, but I told her that I would call her before she left work in order to let her know the outcome of my struggle.

I called one of the school’s offices (the one that had been closing up when I went on Tuesday), and the secretary there gave me a couple phone numbers to try that were for social agencies designed to help poor people who needed a guarantor, one of which was particularly for government employees such as myself. Terrified to call them on my own, I decided to first try the bank again. It had occurred to me that when I was at the bank, I had said that I needed a “caution”, which is like a deposit, when in fact Sylvie had just said “un garant”, which is a co-signer of sorts. Thinking that I had perhaps not communicated my needs correctly, I rushed across the plaza to speak with Emilie again.

Well, much to my disappointment, Emilie explained to me that a caution and a garant are basically the same thing in France—a promise to pay if the person skips out on rent. Damn. Sensing my impending insanity, and perhaps not wanting me to start crying right there in her office, the incomparable Emilie then offered to call all of the phone numbers I had been given in an attempt to fix this problem for me. What unexpected service from a bank employee!! :-)

She called and called, and explained the situation over and over again, but it seemed that no one could help me. Eventually, as it was now noon and people just weren’t in their offices, she made a last ditch effort and called a lady she knew in the international student department at the university. This Maryvonne had the unenviable task of finding housing for international students and dealing with their various issues. In short, someone perfectly suited to helping me! Emilie told me that Maryvonne should be able to help me find an apartment, but maybe I wouldn’t be able to get the one I already wanted because of the caution requirement (apparently, some apartments don’t have that requirement).

So, to kill time until my 2 o’clock appointment with Maryvonne, I decided to drown my sorrows at my favorite café, Le Gil. I had just placed my order when suddenly I realized that my mobile phone was ringing. It was Sylvie! She had discussed my situation with her boss, and they decided that it would be safe to rent me the apartment without a caution, but just until the end of my contract. If I wanted to keep the apartment after that, it would be on me to find someone to be my “garant”. In fact, this arrangement is quite perfect, as it relieves me of needing to use my psychic skills to figure out in January if I want to keep the apartment past March. (You have to give 3 months notice to vacate an apartment here.)

Needless to say, after hearing this news, I did a little happy dance right there in my seat at Le Gil! I even celebrated with a dish of ice cream (I originally thought I would get one of the enormous sundae creations I saw others eating, until I reviewed the menu and saw the prices were $9-$12!) When I ordered the salted butter caramel ice cream [a revelation!], I told the ever-hustling waiter that I was celebrating because I had found an apartment that day. He seemed as happy for me as a stranger could possibly be. ;-) After lunch, I hurried back to Emilie’s office to tell her of my good luck, and she seemed equally happy for me (or possibly just happy that I wouldn’t be having any more breakdowns in her office for the foreseeable future).

I decided to celebrate my unbelievable luck by going shopping for a bed. After all, I might be lucky enough to have gotten the apartment, but it was unfurnished, and I wasn’t about to spend my first night there on the fucking floor!

The cheapest store in these parts is called “Conforama”, and it clearly fancies itself a French Ikea. But it is not as cheap as Ikea, and the woman who “helped” me was a total bitch, so it’s definitely down a peg or two in my book from the Swedish superstore. In any event, it’s a long bus ride away from the city, but probably worth it if you’re looking to furnish a house on the cheap, as I am. The one thing they have on Ikea is that they deliver; however, this advantage is totally negated by the fact that they currently have a delivery delay of 15 days, of which the bitch in the bed department was all too happy to inform me.

So, in the end, I went with my second choice of the inflatable mattress. Please stop groaning…I can hear you all the way over here in France! Un matelas gonflable. Yes, it’s true. But, it’s like an automatically-inflating Aerobed that actually comes up about two feet off the floor. And it’s queen-sized. And it was only $120. And I could take it home right then on the fucking bus. Deal with it.

In fact, because the mattress looks really awesome, I almost busted it out for my last night at the hostel. The beds here are truly awful, and I was on my own for my last night. Still, the idea of having to wrestle the bed back into its little bag come the morning was more than I could handle. So, since it will be my only furniture for the immediate future, I hope it works when I get to the apartment this afternoon!

After dealing with the bed situation, I had an appointment with the previous apartment dweller to see about buying his washing machine off him. Turns out it’s the tiniest washing machine I’ve ever seen in my life, possibly designed to be used only by midgets or supermodels. But it’s typical for France, and it’s a Bosch, so I went for it. $150 bucks (100 Euros). Literally, I think I’ll be able to wash one pair of jeans and maybe two shirts at the same time…unbelievable. But I had scoped out washing machines at the Conforama, and they were about the same size for twice the price. So, good deal. Plus, Julian told me that it was “15 minutes by foot” to the nearest laundromat, and no way was I about to lug my dirty linens halfway across town “by foot”.

Also for sale by Julian was his portable heater. He explained to me that electricity is really expensive in France, and as the apartment uses electric radiators, I would be advised to find another solution, preferably the one he was selling. As I explained to a shocked Julian, his little heater would probably get you booted from any US apartment complex, as it’s essentially a little fireplace that runs on butane…rather like an enormous Zippo. Open fire–not exactly encouraged by American landlords. Still, this is France, and not wanting to rack up the heating bills, I bought it for $50. Julian was also nice enough to show me the little ins and outs of the apartment and how to get the electricity and internet set up. Looks like it’ll be at least 2 weeks on the internet, goddamn it.

Leaving the apartment, I walked to what will now be *my* bus stop, line number 11. Arret: Pont Neuf. It was almost 8, so twilight was falling upon the city, and as I turned around to take a look back at the apartment, I could see the buildings across the bridge. The sunset had lit the stone-colored buildings to a nice rosey hue. Glowing pink houses in the distance, *my* apartment within view, and a permanent bus pass in my pocket…I just thought to myself: I live here now. This is real, and it’s good, and I’m going to have a great time.

I decided to celebrate by having a lovely pasta dinner; however, the walk-up window pasta shop that I spotted just off the town square was being manned by a girl who clearly cared more about singing along with the radio than about tending to the long line of exasperated customers. Not wanting to exchange my buzz for the customer service blues, I kept walking until I got to the small modern-age shopping mall, Cordeliers, which is squeezed in between all the ancient buildings. I often cut through this building to go between the two main squares, Place Charles de Gaulle and Hôtel de Ville. I knew there was a pasta shop in there, too, so I headed straight for it.

The man there was very nice (even offered to speak English with me), and I had my dinner to go in short order. Keen to catch the bus back to the hostel before the last one at 8:30, I hustled to my usual bus stop all the way over at the Place Charles de Galle. In fact, I hustled so superbly that I made it in time to catch the 8:07 bus. As I got settled in for the ride back to the hostel, I noticed that the bus was stopping at the next stop: Cordeliers. That’s right…I could have just stayed right where I was, instead of speed-walking to the other stop. It was then I realized that, no matter how much this feels like home right now, I still have a lot to learn. That made me smile, because I know that I’m going to have days of utter frustration ahead of me (and some behind me, as well), but at least I know enough to know when I’ve fucked up. And that’s half the battle.

Now, I’d love to go on and tell you all about moving into the apartment and my trip to “LeClerc”, a one-stop shop that offers everything a person could ever need in order to live their whole life (including a mind-blowing grocery department that puts to shame every single grocery store I have ever seen in person–or my dreams), but I need to get out of this internet cafe in order to catch my bus.

Until next time! I'll leave you with some apartment pics...

Front Door, moving in day

Backyard, river included View to the left

Wednesday, September 24, 2008


It seems an absolute eternity since I was able to write an update on here, even though it’s really only been three days. But, as you all know, when one is without the internet, time moves at a snail’s pace. In fact, I haven’t been wholly without the internet, as there are several internet cafés in the center of Poitiers…it’s just that most of them have ancient computers that more or less operate by crank shaft and the luck of the draw. I have recently, quite happily and accidentally, stumbled upon a modern age internet café that even has, of all things, Skype! So, it’s from there that I’m posting this update.

I’m not writing this update from there, of course, because it’s probably going to take me more than an hour to write this, and it would take much more than three hours if I had to do it on a French keyboard. Their keyboard is similar to ours, except the “A” is in the place of the “W” and the “W” is in the place of the “Z”. Also, the “M” is in the place of the semicolon. You wouldn’t think that this would be hard to remember, but 20+ years of keyboarding (and the ability to type about 60 words a minute if I really want to) means that I type without thinking about it, and that just doesn’t work when the keys are different. So, on the French keyboard, I end up having to hunt and peck and do a lot of erasing. And, naturally, all of the punctuation keys are also completely batty. The period is on the same key, but you have to hit the shift in order to get to it! The exclamation point is where the shift key is. And you have to hit shift to get to all the numbers. Of course, this is but the barest sample of the differences in punctuation keys.

So, to avoid having to type on a French keyboard, but being without WiFi internet service (it’s practically non-existent in this town, outside of the university), I have come to the solution of typing everything on my own computer, and then using a newly-purchased flash drive to save the stuff and post it at an internet café. Now, after such a gripping introduction as the one I just provided you, I’m sure you’re eager to hear exactly what the hell I’ve been up to in my first real days in Poitiers. :-) When last we spoke, I was stuck at the hotel from hell, waiting to hear if the university would be able to provide a room for me…

Monday morning, I was finally able to get a hold of the woman to whom I spoke last week about the possibility of the university having a dorm room or apartment or anything with a roof with my name on it. The sad, and yet inevitable, news was that there was no room at the inn. Absolutely no rooms available at one of the largest universities in France. Right. But there was no moving her from this point, and so it then immediately fell upon my shoulders to find a place to live, and with a quickness. Since the hotel from hell was charging me $50/night for the privilege of sleeping in a fucking bunk bed, I figured I could save a lot of money and be just as uncomfortable at the local youth hostel. So, to the Auberge de Jeunesse I went!

For $15/night, I was still sleeping in a bunk bed, but I had to share the room with up to three other people (and also share the bathroom and shower facilities). Being 31 and not 21, this wasn’t exactly the most ideal situation, but for the price, it couldn’t be beat. I brought my bags there at noon, but since the hostel is closed from noon to 4, I had to leave right away. But, no matter, because I hadn’t yet explored the center of town (“Centre Ville”), and I was eager to get out and have a look.

I stopped at the “Tabac” (tobacco and newspaper shop) on the way to the bus stop to buy some bus tickets (a “tabac” is one of the only places to buy such tickets) and get a bus schedule. Luckily, there’s a bus stop very near to the hostel, and that bus makes a stop in the town center. I wanted to buy a month’s pass, but the tabac lady told me that I could only do that at the bus company (“Vitalis”) main store near the town center. Ok, another thing to add to my list!

I found the bus stop and sat down to wait. Eventually, an old man came and stood there next to me, and after him, a middle-aged African man showed up and said “Bonjour Madame! Bonjour Monsieur!” Very friendly. Then he asked me a question in French which I couldn’t understand, so I had to explain that my French is crap, which of course led to a discussion of where I’m from, la la la. As soon as I said that I spoke English, the man immediately says that I will have to teach him English because he has relatives in England, etc. And I couldn’t be rude, but this prospect didn’t interest me in the least. He kept insisting, and tried to speak in the little bit of English that he already knew. I believe he even invited me to stay with him and his wife if I couldn’t find an apartment!

Eventually, the bus came, and we got on. He wrote down his name and number so that I could call him to set up English lessons! Gabriel was his name. I won’t be doing this anytime soon, but it was nice to know that I already had a lead on private lessons. :-)

On the bus drive into town, I couldn’t help staring open-mouthed at all of the amazing buildings. I had gotten a glimpse of some as I came into Poitiers on Saturday, but nothing like what lies at the heart of the city. The bus crawled along, making a spiral around the town, gradually getting closer to the middle. We drove up the ramparts along the edge of the city, and I could clearly see the narrow slits in the wall that would have been used by archers in an incredibly distant past. The streets were narrow and lined with buildings that alternated between intricate stonework with wrought iron balconies and timber-framed houses older than the very idea of my country. I was like a fish gasping for water, looking like a damned fool, I’m sure…mouth just gaping.

We got to my stop, the “Marché Notre Dame” (market of Notre Dame [their big church]), and I pressed the button to request the driver to stop. Well, even though I was standing at the door, of course, the doors didn’t open. I didn’t know if I was supposed to push a button right there or what, but needless to say, I was left standing by the door as the bus started to pull away again. I freaked out and started saying, in English, “Wait! I need to get out!” etc…you can imagine. My French utterly failed me in this moment of crisis. :-) The driver didn’t hear me, of course, but the very nice lady sitting by the door did, and she SHOUTED at the driver to stop and let me out. My god. But I was very thankful anyway. Humiliated, but thankful. (Since this experience, needless to say, I am quite conscientious to make it obvious that I’m getting off the bus, and so it hasn’t happened again since, thankfully.)

After I got off the bus and collected myself, I started walking towards the church. Holy moly…it is beautiful. Smaller than I thought it would be, but very striking. It’s in a beige-colored stone, and has quite intricate carvings and huge wooden doors. None of the doors were open, so I didn’t dare to go in. Still haven’t, actually! Anyway, I was too busy absorbing the scene around the square, and desperately trying to blend in. Did I mention that because I could only leave my big suitcases at the hostel until I could officially check in at 4, I was obliged to carry my heavy-ass backpack and computer bag with me all afternoon long? Yikes! That was a literal pain in the ass, let me tell you. So, of course, I looked like a gypsy (in a sassy new black and white coat), hauling all my possessions with me.

As it was lunch time, I looked around the square for a place to eat, being careful not to turn my ankle on the ancient cobblestones as I craned my neck to see all the different shops and buildings. Eventually, I settled on “Le Gil”, a bar/café/restaurant that looked particularly inviting. And it was. Very friendly and efficient wait staff (they appeared to only have one main waiter, who was responsible for serving both the inside tables and the multitude of outside tables across the little street. He was an utter blur of activity the whole time I was there). The owner, a very nice woman, helped with the inside tables. She couldn’t have been more pleasant to me and everyone else, despite the fact that I was clearly a foreigner. Of course, I did speak only in French, but I’m sure it was painfully obvious that I didn’t belong.

[I would like to interject at this point that one of the most useful French phrases I’ve learned is “une carafe d’eau”, which means “a pitcher of water”. If I didn’t know this phrase, I’d be paying $3 or more for a bottle of Evian everywhere I went.]

Not wanting to be too American, I settled on ordering the “Croque Monsieur”, which is the French version of a grilled ham and cheese sandwich, except that it has a little creamy white cheese sauce on top of it before being put under the broiler. I thought I was being crafty in ordering this instead of a burger or something, but after I ordered it at a different café today, I think it’s really something that only tourists get. When I ordered it today, the waiter’s attitude instantly changed, and when he brought it to me, he asked if I wanted ketchup or mayonnaise…oops! Of course, I said, in French, “No, just some mustard please.” [very French] I noticed then that a table of 4 Brits had ALL ordered the croque monsieur, and I realized my mistake. From now on, I shall strive to order something more French and less touristy.

One very French menu item that I am coming to love is the “Café Crème”, essentially a strong black coffee with cream in it, sugar always on the side. I’m more of a tea girl, usually, but this stuff is addictive. Since the weather is kind of chilly here, I’ve been defying convention and ordering it at the beginning of my meal, just to warm up. Mmmm…delicious! “Une deca crème s’il vous plait!” [decaf, naturally].

After filling my belly, I walked around some more, and eventually decided to go back to the hostel to check in before I went to my appointment with the real estate agency. This was going to be a close call, time-wise, but I didn’t want to fuck up my hostel reservation. So, I tried to take the same bus I arrived on, but [and we can surely all see this coming] I got on going in the wrong direction. Naturally. The problem was that I couldn’t find the bus stop for the correct direction, so I figured I had to ride the bus in a circle or some shit…god only knows what I was thinking, to be honest.

Anyway, I was on the bus for about 15 minutes when I realized the futility and stupidity of my plan. Paying attention as we went by other bus stops, I could see how they were set up, and decided to alight at a bus stop and then wait for the bus going back towards the city. This meant scrapping my plan to check in at the hostel, but time-wise it was now completely impossible to go there and still make my real estate appointment on time. So, I got off the bus, got on the right one, and essentially ended up exactly where I had started. The good news is that I made my appointment with a few minutes to spare, so I was able to check out the decrepit internet café nearby.

At 4:30, I went to the real estate agent’s office where I had an appointment with Sylvie. She was the nicest agent of all those I had spoken with last week, plus she spoke English. Big plus. She showed me all of the available apartments she had in my price range, and we settled on one that seemed quite nice, only about 280 Euros/month, and one the 1st floor, as opposed to the 4th like several of the others. We made an appointment to go see it the next afternoon. Before I left, Sylvie asked me if I might be able to teach English to her 16 year old daughter. She wanted to send her to England to study, but it was just too expensive. I said sure, no problem, and asked her where I could go to get some business cards printed up!

After leaving the agency, I was so exhausted from all the walking walking walking I’d been doing, that I decided to head straight back to the hostel to get checked in and pass out on a lower bunk somewhere. I got a key to a room with no one in it, and the place didn’t seem that busy. Of course, I thought I was going to luck out and have the room to myself. But, we all know better than that!

Shortly after I checked in, a girl slightly younger than me came in the room and introduced herself as Marie. Turns out she’s a podiatrist-in-training, and also in search of an apartment. She had had an appointment in Poitiers that day, and was on her way to Toulouse in the morning to visit her sister. She was very friendly, and spoke great English, so naturally we got on quite well. In fact, I was just going to go to the corner store to buy something crappy for dinner, but she invited me to go into town with her to have a real meal. Hesitant to wrangle any more buses, I was going to decline, but then she said she had her car with her, so I immediately leapt at the invitation.

We ended up eating at a pizza joint, of all places, but it was pretty tasty. She wanted to go see “Mamma Mia” at the nearby cinema, but I was completely bushed at that point, so we headed back to the hostel. Since she’s moving to Poitiers within a couple weeks and doesn’t know anyone here either, we exchanged numbers and are hopefully going to hang out again. She even offered to take me grocery shopping with her in her lovely car…great success! :-)

Sleeping at the hostel was a bit of a torture, I can’t lie. The beds are covered in some kind of rubber just-in-case-they-get-drunk-and-wet-the-bed kind of material that squeaks and pops every time you so much as even think about turning over (which I do-a lot). If I hadn’t been so tired, I’m not sure I could have slept at all for fear of disturbing everyone else with my bed squeaking and probable snoring. Also, another French girl came in around 11, so that made another person to have to think about. Ugh.

Tuesday, I got up and out of the hostel and made it to my apartment viewing appointment with time to spare. I had stopped at a little bakery by the hostel to grab a “croissant au chocolat” and the owner told me I had a great accent, which made me feel very happy and quite satisfied with my choice of bakeries.

At the real estate agency, Sylvie was running late, so I had time to do some emailing at the decrepit internet café. The middle-aged owner was becoming like an old friend, since I had been there a couple times the previous day. Even he was trying to talk to me in English, although he hadn’t specifically asked for lessons. :-)

Back at Sylvie’s office, she and I went to look at the apartment. Well, it was lovely. In a perfect location, halfway between the university and the center of town, right next to a major bus line. It’s a studio in an old building, not furnished, but it does have a little fridge and a small cooktop. The best part, by far, was the fact that it has a balcony overlooking a small stream near the river. Just lovely. And it also has a full-sized bathtub, not a given in most apartments, so that was nice. For only 280 Euros/month, it’s a good deal. So, I took it!

This being said, it’s not really that easy to get an apartment when you’re a foreigner. I had to go back to Sylvie’s office and fill out paperwork. I didn’t have info to put in most of the boxes on the form, but she didn’t seem to really care. [The most amusing part of this visit was that Sylvie referred to me to one of her colleague’s as “her English girl”, to which I said, “Actually, I’m American.” They were both shocked! Apparently, I speak French with a clear enough accent that I sound British instead of American. Very funny to me…]

After the paperwork there, I had to go to the bank to open an account and hope that they would be able to be a “guarantor” for me [something you have to have if you’re a foreigner, so that someone will guarantee to pay the bills if you skip town]. Well, the lady at the bank was super nice, and opening an account was incredibly easy. But, the bank wasn’t able to act as a guarantor because I exceed their age limit of 29. Fuck. Without this piece of paper from them, I can’t get an apartment. The bank lady told me to try the school.

So, I hiked all the way out to the school’s administrative office, to no avail because it was about 4:30 and everyone had gone home for the day. Then to the IUFM to talk to the woman face to face who had told me there was no room to be provided by the university, but she was also gone. And, no surprise, this type of government employee doesn’t work on Wednesdays for some unimaginable reason. Thus, it is now Wednesday, and I have no idea if I’ll actually be able to get my apartment until tomorrow.

After being turned away at the IUFM, I had to find a bus back to the city center because I was way too fucking exhausted to walk back. I couldn’t find the bus stop recommended by the secretary, but I did see the entrance into Blossac Park. Well, it looked so lovely from what I could see through the gate that I was irresistibly drawn inside.

There was a large spraying fountain, surrounded by an enormous space laid out in walkways and lawns. It was very renaissance in its design. Some of the walkways were like shaded boulevards, with incredibly tall trees lining the path on each side. Benches everywhere. Even a petting zoo area with a few small goats being fed by an old woman. Very calm, very relaxing.

So, I parked myself on a bench and rested my feet while taking in the idea of this semi-ancient park in the middle of this utterly ancient city. Sylvie had told me earlier that we were actually living on the 7th level of this city, meaning that the city had been rebuilt upon and rebuilt upon until it was currently 7 levels high. That’s why they can have parking ramps that go so far underground…they just dig down through history.

Eventually, it looked like it might start raining, so I hoofed it out of there. Slowly, I strolled down one of the boulevards toward a large wrought iron gate at the far end of the park. As I was walking, the wind blew some seed pods down from the trees above me. At home in Iowa, we have a tree near my mom’s house that lets out seed pods in the fall that come down in a twirly motion, almost like a miniature helicopter. These here were similar, except that they were like helicopters that had a parcel of goods hanging below it [army rations?]…at any rate, it was surprising and delightful to see them, and they reminded me that even though I was having a bad afternoon, I was still lucky to be having this bad afternoon in France.

At the bus stop I eventually found, I was chatted up by this old French man who kept speaking to me in rapid-fire French even after I explained that my French was crap. At one point, a troupe of teenagers dressed as wild animals, with their faces painted and wigs on, came walking by. After they passed, I asked him, “What was that??” And he said, “Maybe they are going to the children’s hospital. I hope!”

Back at the town center, I ended up eating dinner at “L’Istanbul”, a Turkish restaurant [duh]. The owner, an old man, was very funny and very welcoming. He asked me if I was English [again with that great accent!] and when I said, “No, I’m American”, he said, “Oh well, it’s all the same!” I then ate one of the most delicious dishes I’ve had since I got here, which was an eggplant and beef dish with some type of grain as a side dish, and a lovely salad with feta. Yum! I’ll definitely be going back there.

In fact, when I first arrived, the man was chatting with me [and the other couple customers, and people in the street, and cars that were driving by…in fact, his gregariousness reminded me of my grandfather], and he didn’t give me a menu, just some tea. Eventually, his wife came in the door, and he said, “Aha! The cook has arrived!” LOL So, once she was there, I was presented with a menu, and the food arrived quickly thereafter.

Today, I’m taking it easy, since there’s nothing I can do in regards to the “guarantor” situation. Doing a bit of the touristy thing. :-) Of course, this is the first day that it’s rained since I’ve been here…naturally. Still, there is plenty to do and see.

I hope all of you are well! I’ll let you know when I’ve finally got my own internet set up and can talk again with Skype on a regular basis.


Sunday, September 21, 2008

Purgatory, aka "The Etap Hotel"

So, I can’t decide which is worse: watching TV in a country where you can’t understand a damn word they’re saying (e.g. Korea), or watching TV in a country where you can understand about every 4th word, leading to a perpetual state of frustration and brain engagement when you’d rather just be able to relax and watch it mindlessly (making up your own amusing dialogue if you so desire). This debate was raging in my mind last night as I was trying to fall asleep with the TV on (yes, I’m one of *those* people) and my brain just would not LET GO. Of course, it was a dubbed episode of Law & Order SVU, so all the more impetus to try to understand what was going on. (And can I just say that dubbing has to be one of the worst inventions of the 20th century?! Thank god it never caught on in the States.)

Eventually, I had to turn off the TV and focus on falling asleep on my rock-hard hotel bed. Yes, I’m at a hotel in Poitiers right now. The “Etap Hotel”, to be specific. I chose this hotel based on its cheap rate and Wi-Fi access (pronounced WeeFee in French LOL), so it seems unfair that I should be bitching about the rock-hard bed and sleep-away-camp room décor, but I can’t help it. A newly built Motel 6 would put this place to shame. The toilet is like a port-a-potty cabin–and no, that’s not a joke. It also boasts a BUNK BED. I took the lower one, naturally. The top was a twin, and the bottom is almost queen-sized, so it was an easy pick. Still, the hotel’s website didn’t pretend to offer anything other than cheap and basic accommodations, so I’ll just stop my complaining now.

I had a bit of an interesting journey here yesterday on the train from Paris. First, let us remember that I have two enormous 50-pound suitcases to wrangle, plus my heavy backpack and somehow even heavier computer bag. So, Anne drove me to the Montparnasse train station and helped me with my bags. I had bought my ticket online the night before, and supposedly all I had to do was go to a conveniently automated kiosk to print it out once I got to the station. Well, I think we all know how that was going to end up. Naturally, it wouldn’t read my foreign Visa card (despite having a sign that clearly listed Visa as being one of the only credit cards it *would* take). And, without it being able to read the card, it couldn’t validate the purchase and give me the ticket. We weren’t really running late or anything, but it was just that much more stress in my life to be unable to get my $60 ticket to print. After talking to a station employee (who kept saying that the machine wouldn’t take American Express, to which I kept replying, “Ce n’est pas un American Express! C’est un VISA!!” But hey, I guess American=American Express…), we ended up waiting in line at an “Immediate Departures” window to see if an agent could print the ticket for me.

We got in line at a window where there were three people ahead of us, and the electronic sign said the window would be closing in about 10 minutes. But, we felt our chances were good to get in under the wire. It was looking fine until the old lady ahead of us got up to the window. At first, she seemed to be doing something very cut and dried, but once she had her ticket, she suddenly remembered that she had 27 different questions to ask the agent. At this point, the window only had about 5 minutes left on it. I wasn’t too concerned, but the middle-aged lady standing behind us was huffing and puffing with exasperation at this old biddy.

Eventually, Granny finished up her interrogation and waddled off to find her train. As Anne and I stepped up to the window, the agent spoke to the woman behind us and told her (from what I could understand) that the window would be closing very soon, so she should piss off and find another line. She argued back and forth with him for a bit, insisting that she had been waiting several minutes already in *this* line and shouldn’t have to move. But he was having none of it, so she stomped off, cursing him and the granny both. Anne then told the agent about my situation, and he printed off my ticket with no problem (explaining that the machines won’t take foreign cards…something that it wouldn’t hurt for them to put somewhere on their 1. Fucking website and 2. Fucking ticket machines). So, we only used up about 2 minutes of the remaining 5, leaving the agent plenty of time to help the man who was now standing behind us. I didn’t see her, but I imagined that the middle-aged lady was probably watching from a nearby line with smoke coming out of her ears.

Crisis averted, Anne and I went off to find the train track. My train arrived within just a few minutes of getting my ticket, so it all timed out very nicely. I was concerned about getting on ASAP so that I could find a place for my robust luggage. That ended up being a cinch, though, as no one else in my compartment happened to be moving their life to Poitiers that day.

My seat was by the window, thankfully facing the right way (riding backwards makes me nauseous). At first, I was totally alone in this seating block (two seats, with a table and two more seats opposite, so you’re face to face with the person across from you). But, in the long tradition of suffering that is my life, I didn’t remain alone for long. In fact, after I was settled in and starting to eat the delicious packed lunch Anne had made for me (just like my Grandma would…except Anne didn’t also bless the train with Holy Water), this 90 year old near-deaf woman and her bitchy daughter got on the train. Somehow, they didn’t have seats right next to each other. The daughter sat in a window seat in the row behind me, but Grandma Moses was assigned to sit directly across from me. The daughter amused herself by shouting at the old lady in broadly accented French. “Are you hot??” “Are you thirsty??” “Do you want some bread??” Half the time, the woman wasn’t paying attention and had to be prodded by the hot French guy who had taken the seat next to her.

Had I not heard them speaking French, I would have actually thought this old woman was Italian. She had the hook nose, hunched back, and caved-in toothless mouth of a woman whose husband— Giovanni, probably—died in WWII. Or WWI, possibly. She was *that* old.

So, Grandma Moses and I sat Roman nose to Roman nose for an hour and a half. Thankfully, she slept most of the way, and I ignored her with the help of my iPod. It really is disconcerting to be so near, and face-to-face, with a total stranger. We exchanged a few small smiles when she first got on the train, especially when the hottie sat next to her (her smile had a hint of “I might be old, but I could teach him things he never learned in school!”), and I did say “Bonjour!” when she first sat down. I, however, was not eager to give away my foreign status, so I sat mostly mum for the whole journey.

Eventually, the train pulled into the station at Poitiers, and I scrambled to retrieve my massive amount of luggage. Thankfully, there was a spry young man standing right by the baggage area, and I was able to beg him in my nicest schoolgirl French to help me take my two suitcases off the train. And by help, I mean he did it for me. :-) So, I was soon through the station and off to the taxi stand, where I managed to acquire a taxi driven by an exceptionally ripe French grandpa. I literally had my head practically hanging out the window for the whole drive to the hotel, just so I could breathe some fresh air. Still, he loaded my heavy bags into the cab for me, and helped me lift them up the few stairs at the front of my hotel, for which he definitely earned the 5 Euro tip I gave him.

And now I’m at the Etap Hotel, much further away from the city center than I had thought. This means that last night I had nowhere to eat but the restaurant at the hotel next door. It’s a steakhouse, so it could be worse. I ventured over there last night after carefully scrutinizing the menu that was left in my hotel room. I had thankfully been able to ask Anne a few menu-clarifying questions when she called me that evening. (“What the hell is “Steak dans le hampe??”…turns out it’s just a regular and cheap cut of steak). The dinner was pretty good, and didn’t cost me an arm and a leg. About $15 for a steak, baked potato, salad, apple tart, and coffee. This was their “Petite Grill” menu. I love the European way of buying a “menu” that includes everything for one price. Anyway, it was tasty and economical.

This morning, I had the hotel’s continental breakfast buffet. It was OK, but not overwhelmingly satisfying. There’s just something about having bacon and hashed browns for breakfast that will always leave me disappointed with cereal and yogurt. Anyway, desperate for more protein, I decided to take a walk in search of a grocery store that might somehow be open on a Sunday (it’s decidedly rare for *anything* to be open on a Sunday here). In addition to which, I couldn’t face spending the morning in my padded cell, uh, I mean hotel room. So, I walked down the mostly industrial stretch of road near my hotel for about 15-20 minutes before I got to this big supermarket that was miraculously open. It was pretty chilly, so at that point, I was just happy to be able to go indoors for a bit.

As luck would have it, this was a full-on grocery store with a section of household-type goods (kind of like a Target or Wal-Mart, but smaller). I was able to buy a street map of Poitiers, as well as various and sundry food products that wouldn’t be too heavy to lug all the way back to the hotel. I was quite pleased with myself, I don’t mind saying, especially after the front desk chick had told me that no stores would be open anywhere near the hotel. When I walked in the door of the hotel to find her vacuuming the hallway, I wanted to put my grocery bag right in her face and say, “What? Did you think I couldn’t walk that far?? Eat it!” But, I refrained.

Now it’s just a matter of killing time until I hunt down the university lady tomorrow morning who will hopefully be able to release me from this hotel prison. And, just like in a prison, I’m getting totally screwed. The Wi-Fi that the hotel boasted about (albeit vaguely) on their website is charged for by the fucking MINUTE. .25 cents/minute!! I have hardly heard anything more ridiculous than that in my life. I thought $15/24 hours at the hotel in Chicago was expensive…good grief. So, needless to say, I won’t be online much between now and when I get the hell out of here. My apologies to those who have tried to Skype me!

OK, I’ve written just about as much as possible, and it’s only 3:00 in the afternoon on Sunday. Lord let this time pass with exceeding swiftness…

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Had we but world enough, and time...

As the month of August draws to a close, and my 31st birthday looms large on the horizon, I have found myself becoming introspective and more than a bit melancholy.

I know it sounds crazy to be melancholy when my trip to France is just around the corner, but I’ve found that I have a tendency to get this way whenever I’m about to pick up my life and move far away from friends and family. The idea of starting over is exciting, but it also means having to make new friends at a time when you could really use the old ones. And because I’m moving for work, it also means that I have to maintain structure in my daily life at a time when I’d rather have no commitments beyond getting to know unfamiliar streets and figuring out where to buy the best produce.

Contributing significantly to this melancholy are some major events that have been going on in my life this summer, including but not limited to: the undermining and eventual disintegration of a seemingly-solid friendship; classes for my masters that have tested my patience and will to continue onward with my degree; and the wedding of one of my best friends to a wonderful man. (This last one is only melancholy-inducing in that it made me wish that I was in such a state of bliss as the blushing bride.)

On a more positive note, I have found out exactly where I will be posted in France. It’s exactly what I wanted, so be very happy for me! I will be teaching at the IUFM (teacher training college) at the University of Poitiers. This means, of course, that I will be living in Poitiers, itself, which was my top choice. I will be spending my time surrounded by approximately 30,000 university students and the culture they engender. I couldn’t imagine a better way to live out my time in France! Paris is too huge; a random village would be too small. Poitiers is just right! Plus, it’s on the TGV train line, which means that I have fast and frequent access to the rest of the country (and, hence, all of Europe), something I plan to thoroughly take advantage of in my abundant free time.

Yes, I said abundant free time! Although I will be moving to France for work, my contract is only for 12 hours per week. I’m hoping that my schedule will be something like 6 hours per day, two days per week, rather than a couple hours each day. I’d love to be able to spend long weekends riding the rails (or taking cheap RyanAir flights) to wherever the mood moves me.

Just last weekend I saw the movie, “Vicky Christina Barcelona” (fantastic), and it brought to mind what a great time I had in Spain, and how much I want to go back. So, that will be tops on my list. San Sebastian, here I come! I passed through there once on the train from Paris to Madrid, and I have always meant to actually get off a train there. All the beautiful buildings! Beyond that, I’m sure I’ll spend most weekends exploring France.

Of course, there’s also northern Africa to consider. Morocco (Marrakesh and Tangiers, in particular) have long been exotic destinations on my to-experience list. I’ve actually considered spending my two-week Toussaints vacation in Marrakesh, but a lot will depend upon finances. 12-hour work weeks do not a fortune pay.

By the way, please feel free to give me any suggestions for little-known places anywhere in Europe that I should visit. I would greatly appreciate it!

Anyway, that’s the update for now. Time is ticking away, so I think I’ll be spending my remaining time here boning up on my French and relearning how to walk for miles at a time. :-)

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Heart attack moment

So, since I created this page, I’ve been fairly going out of my mind waiting to hear more info on my French job…in particular, to which city and school I will be assigned. Since I feel like my whole happiness for the next year is dependent upon this information, my patience has begun to run dry. But, I guess hope does spring eternal. I’ve been eagerly checking my mailbox every day (or bugging my roommate to see if she has checked the mail), waiting for the moment that I forget to be hopeful (because surely the letter will come on the day I’m least expecting it, right?).

I had a bit of a heart attack moment the other day. I was at my dreaded Blackberry job, and it was a little slow. I took advantage of the down time to check in on the Assistants in France website, which I hadn’t been able to check for about a week. Well–the shit I had missed!! Apparently, one of the guys assigned to my region had gotten ahold of the email address of the man who’s in charge of us over in France, and had emailed him to ask where the hell our “arrêtes de nomination” were (the docs that tell us our school/city and allow us to apply for our visas). He got an email back in short order saying that our papers had been submitted that very day and should be finding their way to our mailboxes by July 15th-ish. Woo-hoo!! This was very exciting to hear, although not very heart attack-inducing.

The heart attack moment came when I looked further around the website and landed on a page where, after reading the chat, it was obvious some people from my region had apparently gotten a sneak peek of the assignments list. So, they were all whooping it up that they had been assigned to La Rochelle (a seaside resort that is my #2 city choice). Where the fuck did they find this info?? They were just suddenly talking about it on the discussion forums, with no indication of where they had seen the info. I was more than a bit frantic in trying to figure out their source. Eventually, I determined that the list was leaked on our Poitiers 2008-2009 Facebook group page. I immediately violated my company’s internet policy in order to take a quick look at the page. Unfortunately, it was only a list of those who had been assigned to primary schools in La Rochelle.

Crazily enough, the very next day, I got an email from Marjorie (the woman in charge of our program through the French embassy in America). Apparently, she was tired of getting bitchy emails along the lines of “Where the fuck is my letter??”, so she decided to throw all of us a bone and let us know what level of contract we have. I am so happy to report that I will definitely have a *university* level contract, my #1 preference!! I was so worried that I would get a primary level contract and end up being in charge of a writhing mass of snot-nosed French brats every day. Whew! Bullet dodged!

Anyway, that’s all I’ve got for now…more after I get my letter!