Thursday Thoughts

I think it’s time to give up TexMex. Yes, even though I’ve been living in France for almost a month now, I’ve still tried to concoct various texmex meals. It’s always been a staple of mine. But after last night’s fiesta fail, I think it’s time to toss in the towel. I’ve taken refried beans, black beans, even cheddar and limes for granted. I thought there was a glimmer of hope when I found the “tex mex” isle, but the only beans are kidney beans, their salsa tastes like sweet ketchup with a mask of spice and their guacamole resembles only what I can describe as spicy goo. No bueno. Diego and I cringed and commiserated over the awfulness that is French Tex Mex and the multitude of meals that we missed, while Ilka happily slathered on the salsa, telling us that it reminded her of the popular curry ketchup in Germany. So until I find limes, ripe avocados, proper salsa ingredients and receive my shipment of real beans, I must bid Tex Mex adieu… for now….

This is the first time I’m missing the holiday season. True, I’ve been away from family and have not been home for Thanksgiving in quite some time, but this is the first time I’m out of the country at this time of the year. It’s strange to feel the cultural divide and homesickness, not from food or feeling unhappy, but from feelings of missing out. I love this time of year and I love Halloween. Honestly what’s not to love? Candy and creativity?! Halloween provides the perfect playground for my creativity to run wild. It’s strange not to be picking apples, drinking cider, carving pumpkins, watching horribly cheesy horror movies,and meticulously preparing the details of my costume. However, I have discovered that with the right people, Halloween can be possible. Last night the american assistants and I rallied Ilka and Diego into donning Halloween flair, dancing to thriller and monster mash, watching Hocus Pocus and gorging on candy. I know I’m in France, but old habits die hard I guess. Wonder what this year’s tacky holiday party will be like…

English is weird.  It’s fascinating to learn more about my own language as I study a foreign one. And I’ve come to the conclusion that English is indeed very strange. We have multiple ways of saying the same thing and overcomplicated ways of expressing ourselves. We use strange fillers and words that really aren’t all that necessary. Must we always insert ‘kind of’ into everything? Was it really ‘kind of a long way’ or ‘kinda a hot day’?   Why did we ‘used to’ do things? Why don’t we just say what we did? Living on the border of Germany and living with a German has opened my eyes to what a mix we are. We are part French (latin) and part Germanic. For example freedom (German) and liberty (French) are two completely different words commonly used to express the same thing. We not only have a multitude of words to choose from, but also lengthy ways of expressing things. For example we say ‘to laugh at someone else’s pain’, while the Germans just use one word “Schadenfreude”. That word would have come in handy growing up in my family…

And finally, apparently I’m inappropriate in French (**relatives be advised). I know it comes with the new language territory, but I’ve set a record for myself in the past couple of weeks. Somehow I have managed to say one dirty statement after another. First I told Diego that instead of having mosquito bites all over my body I had “beaucoup des bites,” or the french slang word for penis all over me. First fail. Then as I was happily carrying on a conversation with my host in Besancon about the differences between French and American cuisine, I added that there are many more “préservatifs”, or condoms, in American food. I even knew not to say that one! Fail. And finally when I was hosted for the wonderful raclette feast, I was describing the pickle smell in my room but some how instead of saying ‘cornichons’, I said ‘gornichons’, which roughly translates to slang for big boobs. So apparently I have penises on my body, condoms in my food and the smell of big breasts in my room. Big time fail. I think I’ll stop speaking now…

And with that. I conclude my Thursday thoughts. Maybe I’ll continue Thursday Thoughts and start Fromage Fridasy. That one’s a must. My goal is to be a fromage connoisseur by the end of my stay here. But for now, I must prepare for my classes, Antoine’s arrival, and the road trip to Prague! Toussiant is finally here and tomorrow after 1:30 my two week vacation commences!

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Overachiever

I overwork things. Always have and I’m afraid always will. My parents often laugh as they tell stories of how in middle school I’d be up until 1 or 2 in the morning, panicked and frazzled as I worked on a project or paper that just had to be perfected. My dad would often tell me that it didn’t need to be perfect, “just good enough”, as he fixed the computer malfunctions that were sparking my meltdowns, while my mom would often suffer through the nights with me, lending editing skills or conceptual advice. I used to think that it was just me, but as I’ve gotten older, I blame both of my parents. Each of their own neurotic and anal tendencies (and maybe even genetics) have combined into a full fledged type A mutant. I found a picture of me not too long ago that pretty much sums it up- a picture of four year old little Anna bearing a big, proud smile as she stands surrounded by shoes organized in concentric semi-circles. My parents tell me that I had been quiet for so long that they decided to check on me, only to discover that I had not in fact died, but instead had anally organized the shoe closet. I’m afraid there’s no hope.

I am reminded of all this as I dive into the teaching process. Or assistant process. Except that it’s really more like teaching. Here begins the start of my confliction. I’m technically a teaching assistant, here to add extra help, support, and native information. However there are 12 different teachers with 12 differing ideas of what that means.

The overall idea is that I get them to speak. That’s great in theory, but I’m learning that in practice it’s a whole different ball game. So even though, yes, technically I work 12 hours, I find myself turning into that overachiever Anna-spending hours looking up interesting videos and games to engage them, reading articles on the most effective ways to teach ESL, meticulously crafting Plan B strategies, all the while feeling overwhelmed with where exactly to start. The French professors on the other hand, simply seem to have the oh so typical laissez faire mentality of do the bare minimum and ‘just get them to speak’. But when you have 14 students at varying levels, too shy to talk for an entire hour, you know it’s time to have some structure. I’m at a cross roads. I want students to be engaged and interested, but not at the cost of my own sanity. How can I take laissez-faire and overachiever and meet somewhere in the middle? It’s a learning process I guess. For now I’m thankful that I can fall back on the excitement and intrigue of being the ‘new assistant’, ‘the American’, ‘the Texas girl’. But we’ll see what happens when the novelty of that wears off…

Was I this bad?
                                              ….debateable

εὐδαιμονία

I can be such a recluse sometimes. Fortunately tonight was not one of those nights. After quite the busy weekend (wonderful but a tad chaotic day trip in Mulhouse- more on that to come), I was not feeling entirely enthused to take my precious time to my professor’s house to deliriously stumble through a dinner filled with French. But I decided when in France…suck it up and get involved. And boy am I glad that I did.

Not only did I have succulent sweet wine, and a delicious raclette dinner (originally from Switzerland, consisting of savory melted cheese poured over potatoes and onions), but I managed to talk entirely in French…for the most part. And I was surprised. I talked about the death penalty in Texas, how to say hello in Turkish, my opinions on Romney, why I chose to be vegetarian, how capitalism is hurting our nation, how my father is a conspiracy theorist, how I’m trying to learn the ukulele, our cliches of the French (eat frogs and snails, don’t shower, are semi pretentious, smoke and complain all the time…) and many other things that I never thought I’d be able to do. I held my own in a French conversation! Of course it was not as articulate as I would’ve liked, maybe even verged on a spastic 8 year old’s interpretation of politics, but it’s a start!

And moments like these remind me of why I got that first tatoo 3 years ago. I wanted to always remember to thrive, to flourish. And as weird as it might sound, tonight I experienced my own personal eudaimonia.

And ultimately I left the night feeling full- not just of raclette, but of life. I felt invigorated by my own small personal accomplishments in French, but also by the people. I loved hearing their stories, getting little snipets of their lives. One man, who most certainly belongs in the organic food movement in Austin, kept saying that I had “good energy”. Normally I would’ve smirked at such a thing, but tonight I smiled.

Love this

Besancon

So as my father so deliberately pointed out, it has almost been a week since my last post. Correction. I think today marks the week point. So in order to combat the risk of this blog becoming yet another thing that should be a source of enjoyment, but instead turns into a source of stress, I figured it’s about time I recounted my Besancon trip.

Beautiful Besancon at the golden hour (Or as I often say to Ella “money light”)

A basic summation of the trip is best described by my facebook post “One citadelle complete with baboon soap operas and lion/tiger rivalries, 10 euros for 10 shots, a night full of gagnam style dancing in the streets, lots of spanglish, frenglish, and other mixes of languages, 1 strange dancing german toast, much delirium and even more laughter later, I have returned from Besancon. Time to catch up on 4 days of sleep. But oh what a great trip it was.” ….is it weird that I just quoted my own facebook post??

Besancon was a wonderful first excursion to have for many reasons (most of which are noted above). Venturing outside of Montbeliard, exploring an old city, learning more about the region, bonding with assistants, speaking with native frenchies somewhere around my age, finally dancing, completing one more paperwork hurdle, commiserating with other assistants about orientation boredom, and feeling the satisfaction of a four course french meal cooked by a quirky french host woman, are among the pros of the trip. After buying my Carte 17-25 (which gives me half off train tickets), me and four other assistants, Diego, Maggy, Maribel and Jose (two Americans, one Mexican and one Panamen(?) hopped on the train. It was nice to see that even the seemingly rundown looking trains not only functioned, but provided a quick, smooth and surprisingly pleasant trip. I’d gotten all too familiar with the underground world of the T where surprise stops, unrelenting creepers, crying babies, loud incomprehensible announcements, and increasingly more agitated people were commonplace. I welcomed the beautiful country side, the good company, the audible announcements and realization that in fact we had arrived early. Qu’est-ce que c’est ca?

Tourists

Mas Tourists

We greeted Besancon in full fledged tourist attire- dragging bags and pulling out cameras as we wandered around until we eventually found the cobblestone streets leading to our hotel. Besancon is old and beautiful but is also unfortunately under a ridiculous amount of construction because of the addition of a new tramway. But even through the construction, we were able to experience the beauty of this enchantingly old city (not quite sure how old but apparently during the 4th century it’s name was changed to Besontio, which later led to the transformation of Besancon…so it’s pretty darn old).

After checking into our conveniently located hotel (what? we don’t need to put down a deposit and our keys are already in the door??), we explored the area and stumbled upon an old flea market. It took everything in my artist/hoarder power not to purchase a multitude of chachkies. I saw so much potential in the old frames, worn text books, a rusting owl brooch- but as a survivor of a recent painful purge-o-stuff process, I kept on walking. Some how we were led to an environmental fair where rows of tiny huts promoted and sold fair trade, organic, and local items. And some how we managed to purchase the last crepe of the evening, relishing in the savory goodness of our prize.

He even put on his apron specially for us

Fast forward to 4 bottles of wine, 3 baguettes, 2 cheeses, and one dance lesson including dougie, cupid shuffle, superman, and most importantly gangnam style, and we were ready to check out the Besancon night life. In short, the night was a blast and I learned that french people love to speak English to you even if you answer in French, that 10 is definitely too early to arrive at the bar but if you don’t give a damn, they won’t either, and having Latin men as dance partners is fun, educational, and actually quite painful (legs and hip flexors suffered the next day…or maybe I’m just that out of shape…). Surprisingly enough we managed to get up by 8:30 the next day, which actually wasn’t that difficult considering we had five people crammed in one room.

Citadelle Monkeys

With several museums, an insectarium, an aquarium, a noctarium, and a zoo all within it’s 17th century walls, the Citadelle was quite the cite to see. Apparently by the early 1700s, it was one of the strongest fortifications in France during that period, but let’s be honest- the animals made it pretty damn cool too. It was by far one of the most unique zoo experience I’ve had. Normally, zoos depress me, but watching weird assed lion monkeys roam around ruins and climb on ancient citadel steps was too interesting to feel sad. Besides, they weren’t even in cages. During the day I communicated with strange piglets, entered a bird cage, witnessed a lion challenging a tiger (each within their own respective cages) followed by a strong tiger roar, and watched the baboon equivalent of an intoxicating reality tv show- monkey hierarchy, fights amongst the females, struggles to protect the newborn and teenage antics- Who needs the discovery channel when you have this?? We left the citadelle feeling both thoroughly exhausted and entertained as well as completely unprepared for the next two days of orientation and mandatory medical visits.

Luckily I survived both- though the medical visit was quite awkward as a tiny french doctor asked me rapid questions, while taping on various parts of my back and then pushed me against an x-ray machine, because apparently I didn’t understand how close one needs to get to be registered by said machine. But I FINALLY received my official documents from the France side and am one step closer to being done with paperwork hell! Social security, reimbursement and bank card, here I come!

There is much more I would like to recount or discuss- the lovely dinner (spoken entirely in french!) with the quirky divorcee who houses foreign students or visitors and who hosted me and an Australian assistant before our Dr’s appointment, the historical and cultural differences between Catholic Besancon and Protestant Montbeliard, the weirdness that is English language (or so I’m learning) and of course my first week of teaching. But for now I must say adieu and enjoy the pictures!

“What do you want??”

Today marks the end of my observation period- or at least according to technicalities. For the past two weeks I’ve been thinking about how to summarize the French school system, the teachers, the classrooms, what highschool in France is like, but ultimately I cannot actually make sweeping statements about such things. All I can do is note what I’ve observed.

The jury’s still weighing the pros and cons of these particular high schools, but so far I’ve noted a few key things. High schools here, at least the two I’ve witnessed, are treated almost like college in America. The rooms are bare and decoration is sparse because no room is for one teacher. Instead the rooms are rotated on a daily basis, leaving no teacher ownership of any particular space. On the one hand I got tired of teachers being so possessive of what could be utilized as a community space in the states, but on the other hand, there is something to creating a unique environment designated for your own particular class.

Teachers are more like college professors here. They take their breaks seriously- this is time for coffee and chatting. They will vent about their classes and then move on to other topics. They do not cram in grading or last minute lesson planning. They leave right when it’s time to leave, not 10 minutes prior to the start of class for prep, so that by the time they come to their room, the students are waiting outside. Once invited in to the room, students must stand until they are told to sit, at which point they talk and gossip while the teacher scans the room for a quick attendance check. The lessons vary from teacher to teacher but are generally more laid back than the lessons I received in high school. However, they’re more multicultural than the ones I received, and I felt like I had a fairly multicultural education… It’s fascinating to watch a language course delve into green energy, stereotypes and bias, the history of the Aboriginal culture and the oppression in Australia, the caste system in India, and the fractioning of the English language into a family of dialects like Spanglish and Singlish (in Singapore) and Taglish (in the Philippines). I’m excited to come up with my own lessons.

Of course there are many more observations I have noted, but for now I will share a few of the common questions that students love to ask.

Common Questions I’ve Received:

1. What’s your name/Where do you come from? I usually get gasps of excitement and hand gestures that resemble pistols in the air, or what I can only assume are gestures that only cowboys would do, when I say that I’m from Texas. This is then followed by heightened excitement when I tell them I was born in Los Angeles, but only leads to disappointment when I say that I’ve never actually been there aside from the 9 months or so of my infancy, and ultimately leads to confusion when I say that I’ve been living in Massachusetts for the past 6 years. I think I should just stick to Texas. But even then, one student asked me “Do they speak English in Texas?”, at which point I knew it was time to get out a map.

2. Why did you come here (To France)? No why did you come here (To Montbeliard)?? There is usually a common interest as to why I came to France but an even greater interest in why the hell I came to Montbeliard. It’s a bit of a let down to tell them that I didn’t in fact choose it, but was instead placed here (and I don’t dare tell them that it was definitely not my first pick). I started off with some BS answers but then realized there was actually some truth to the fact that I never previously visited the Franche-Comte region, that I am intrigued about the proximity to Germany and Switzerland and the accent that ensues, and that I’ve been dying to live in a small French town ever since I biked around on my own along the tiny roads of St. Cast 12 years ago. Of course all of this is said with much more simplicity.

3. What’s your favorite French food? This is always a tricky one to answer because I have to first break the news that, “Sorry guys. I’m vegetarian”, which usually creates a room full of “ohhhhsss” as if to say “c’nest pas possible!”, “how can this be?!”. But I usually redeem myself when I say cheese. Lots and lots of cheese. Especially because this region is known for their Comte. But it takes a while for them to grasp the concept. “So chicken?” “No chicken.” “Fish?” “No. No fish”. “Nothing? No beef? No sausage? No bacon? No sausage???” “No. No meat. Nothing that had eyes. But I do eat eggs.” “Ok…” The fact that I consume dairy gives me some credit. I can’t imagine if I was vegan.

4. Do you have a boyfriend? This one is always asked by the boys and always starts off somewhere in the back as a quiet question. Then the surrounding group starts laughing and he gets up the courage to ask it so that I and the whole class can hear. The first time, I moved on to another question because I wasn’t really sure about the appropriateness or what the policy was like, but then I wised up to the laid back frenchness and tried to answer with a simple “Yes.” This however, usually leads to more questions, disappointment (feigned by most I assume) and giggles at which point I moved on to other questions. Lycee Viette is particularly interesting when it comes to this topic as it is a vocational school comprised almost entirely of boys who apparently don’t see many younger women on a daily basis. I’m hoping the ‘I love yous’ and ‘beautiful’s were just a way of practicing the limited vocabulary they know, but needless to say, this is definitely new territory. When I told them I was 24, I heard one whisper in the back (in french) “Awww. She’s too old for us”, at which point I chuckled and another student noted “Elle comprend!” Damn right I understand. I just hope I can keep on understanding…

5. Are American highschools like the movies? This one amuses me as students seem to have a romantic notion of American high schools. One student even asked, “Were you a cheerleader?” It was hard for me not to respond, “Ha! Cheerleader? If only you knew…” but instead I managed a simple, “No.” I tried to explain that every high school is different, that not all high schools are obsessed with football and that there are actually quite a few similarities to the ones I’ve seen so far in France. They seemed disappointed until one asked, “Do they have lockers?”. “Well yes. Most of them I think. Mine did at least.” She gave me a large smile and proceeded to excitedly talk with her friends. At least I could give them lockers…

6. And finally my personal favorite, What do you want? Ok. So this one wasn’t a common question, but rather one from a particular student who seemed to only know how to ask, “What do you want?” At first I laughed and tried to guess “what am I doing here?” “what do I want to do in France?” , but he kept repeating “What do you want?”. And while I think ultimately, he wanted to know something else, I felt it was a valid question. Especially right now in my life. And while I don’t have the time to delve into the quarter life crisis questions that ultimately translate to “What do I want”, it was interesting to be asked by someone other than myself. I quickly came up with an answer about wanting to learn french, wanting to teach in another country, wanting to see how English is taught, wanting to travel and to learn. Ultimately I guess those things speak to some deeper desires of wanting to see, to explore, to challenge, to questions, to stop, to think, to play, to create, to grow and hopefully to learn- about France, people, different places and hopefully myself.

But enough metacognitive ranting. It’s Friday, most of my paperwork is done and a group of assistants and I are going to Besancon tomorrow for some good ol’ fashion exploring and boite de nuit (night box= night club) dancing. So right now, it’s pretty safe to say that what I want is to start the weekend!

Detox

As I finally start to descend the giant mountain of French paperwork and see through the fog of too many administrative tasks, I realize that it’s time to detox. Yes detox. As I impatiently waited in the long, painfully slow supermarche line today, I felt the restless thoughts of “gotta go”, “gotta hurry”, “why is this damn line moving so slowly??” filling up within in me. I felt anxious and irritated as I looked at the only cashier (even though others could have opened), moving each item across the scanner as if she were in a slowmo contest. I found myself thinking “this would never be so slow or inefficient if I were in the US…”  But then it donned on me- I’m not in the US and I don’t really have all that much to do. Ok yes I still have to completely dismount the mountain of paperwork…but today was the first day where much was accomplished and I could go home and relax a bit. And that’s when I realized it’s time to take a few steps back.

The US, Boston in particular, moves at such a fast pace. I was working two jobs, 50+ hour weeks, taking night classes, planning lessons, applying to summer jobs, trying to squeeze in the gym and catch up with friends, as well as find time to create. Yes I know people accomplish far more and some even have kids to add in the mix, but the point is, that I was constantly going. Even when I didn’t need to rush somewhere, I walked quickly. If I had a moment of free time I felt guilty or overwhelmed with all the things I felt like I should be doing. I was agitated easily and wayyy more rude. Now some may say that these are elements of survival in a bigger city, but for me, a person who is already going all the time, it’s nice to stop in a small town in France once in a while and be reminded of simpler things.

True, right now I have the time and privilege to slow down a bit. I’m not working that many hours and I’m in a small town. But there really is something to the French way of life. They know how to savor a meal (rather than scarfing and inhaling their food), how to take a breather with a cup of coffee, laugh with coworkers, and actually take a real lunch break.

So as I left the supermarche, I tried to slow down, to feel the old cobblestone beneath my boots, to listen to the french around me, and to take in the smells of Montbeliard. But after a while clouds of cigarette smoke accosted my nostrils and my grocery bag dug into my shoulder, so I picked up the pace. I guess it’s gonna take a little time.

I don’t know if I’ll ever really stop being one of those people who is constantly going and doing, but I do know that once in a while it’s good to try to stop and detox.

Enfin! C’est un blog!

So this is my first time writing a blog, and so far learning how it works is as easy as learning how to communicate in French. Needless to say- bare with me. I have FINALLY arrived in France after months of submitting paper work, writing french essays, squirreling away money like a greedy pre-hibernation rodent, convincing new teachers to vouch for me, having moments of France bound panic, taking night classes in Cambridge and oh and let’s not forget 12 years of dreaming…and I can’t believe that it’s all real. A dream of mine has actually become a reality! I’d like to take a moment here to thank all the little people- haha no- all of the really important people in my life who have helped me get here with their constant support and love. As cliché as it may be, I really would not be here without my friends and family.

Je suis arrivee

So France. I don’t know how to quite sum up the past 2 1/2 weeks. It’s been a whirlwind of traveling, paperwork, french, excitement, panic, awe, some more excitement and lots more French. Antoine and I traveled 24 hours from Austin to New York to London to Lyon and then from there a bus to Grenoble and a car ride from a dedicated friend of Antoine’s to our final destination, Braincon. I never want to do that again. I was too delirious and sleep deprived to take in the initial wonder of finally arriving in France. All I wanted was a bed.

Too much stuff

But I survived and we spent another whirlwind of a day in his home (Briancon) only to wake our asses up at dawn, pack up his car and drive 6 hours to Montbeliard. After projectile vomiting on the side of a mountain (TMI? I think we had food poisoning or really bad jet lag or a combination of both in addition to the constant winding roads that you must take to exit his mountain town), and braving torrential down pours, I made it to Montbeliard like a little rat dog- shaky and soaking. But I met my coordinator, Veronique, who was instantly warm and helpful. She showed me a little bit of the school but most importantly la salle des profs (teacher’s room) and then showed me to my room. Aside from the strong pickle smell coming from my pipes, the tiny shared fridge in our kitchen and the semi broken tiny shower, it’s really quite nice. I have a decently sized room to myself, a kitchen and bathroom just for me and two other assistants- Ilka, from Germany and Diego, from Mexico, a great location for my job (the school is a courtyard away), and close proxemitiy to le centre ville. And I only pay 80 euros a month! Tough to beat. Every time that I get irritated with the pickle stench that greets me as I enter my room, I remind myself that this room is helping me with a trip to Prague, a weekend in Besancon and many more adventures to come.

Bienvenue a Montbeliard

In an effort to not rant too much more (I have French paperwork calling my name), I will try to summarize my experiences here. Montbeliard is beautiful. It’s bigger than I expected but the ‘night life’ is smaller than I expected, as in non-existent…..as in not even restaurants are open on a Friday night. Ok there are a few, but it’s scarce. Maybe I have yet to explore the right areas of Montbeliard…but it’s not that big. We have a beautiful chateau, an old city center, a plethora of vibrant flowers (we’re a four flower city…apparently that’s the highest flower rating a city can get- it’s a weird French thing), beautiful rolling hills and lots of fog and rain. I have returned to New England. There are a few key differences though. It seems as though you can have multiple seasons all in one day. The morning usually starts off foggy and cold and turns into a full fledged summer or spring day by the late afternoon. And supposedly the seasons don’t last forever. Fall exists until early November and snow stays only for a month or two- not SIX!! Sorry. Still a little bitter about being robbed of spring for the last 6 years. I hope it’s different here….

Well of course it’s different here and so far I’m loving it. There are times when it can be overwhelming  not to know the language, but I’ve been surprised at my abilities to carry on a conversation or accomplish important tasks entirely in French. Living with roomies who communicate in French is also very helpful. Working in a highschool and speaking French with the teachers is beneficial as well. I’m working at two different schools- with 9 English professors in one and 3 in another. So far, I’ve only been observing the classes for the past 2 weeks. I start the teaching process next week which is both scary and exciting. I will have to write a different post entirely on the french school system, the teachers and the students because there is far too much to say. In so many words- France = relaxed and high school students aren’t scary but hilarious and adorable.

For now, that’s it. But this is only the beginning….