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.


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