C’est Terminé

I suck at goodbyes. I prolong them. I avoid them. I pretty much live in denial until the last possible moment where I am forced to face them. I have friends who choose to deal with each moment as if it’s our last, getting all sappy and sentimental about how this is our last brunch together, our last baguette, our last tooth-brushing session…This in turn makes me  awkwardly clam up as they blatantly penetrate the denial walls I have so craftily built. The result usually consists of me blurting something like, “No! We still have time!!” and shaming them for their raw sentiment. Like I said, I suck at goodbyes.

But is there ever a good way to do it? Are there people who actually like goodbyes? Does it get easier the more you have to do it?

At this point I’ve said my fair share of goodbyes- family, community and childhood friends for college, my Grecian union of lovely ladies during my study abroad, my college community, my Boston kin, students -so many students- and now my international clan. And for me it never gets easier. I leave a little piece of my heart in each place. And even if giving a minuscule sliver of your heart makes it that much more painful when you go, I think it’s worth it. But it doesn’t mean goodbyes are easy. 

It’s especially hard as a teacher. You’re in a constant state of goodbyes. And with foreign students there really is a finality to the farewell. As I prepared for my final classes this morning I was surprised to feel slightly anxious. Would they care? Would I be memorable? They’ll have other English assistants next year. I’m just one of many, but they will forever be imprinted in my memory.

It was helpful to remember the questions they asked what feels like forever ago and remember how we’d grown as a group. How I’d gained (and earned!) their respect, their trust and their laughter. 

Looking at things in retrospect is surreal. The places and people that once seemed intimidating, and so foreign (in my case literally), have become a part of you and will forever make up an aspect of your identity.

I was relieved to finish my day with a smile on my face and reinforcement on my walls of denial (my students did a damn good job of breaking them down). We laughed, we drew, we learned and we said farewells. At the end of the day I was left speechless by one of my favorite classes who presented me with a beautiful card.

Some of my favorite “words”:

“I will miss you very, I like you so much”.

“I will miss your lessons…they were interesting, captivating, various and so fun! I hope you’ll keep a good memory of your stay and job here. Good continuation.”

“Anna, I’m really happy about the moments we spent together! I was really enjoying your knowledge. If you liked your journey, you can always come back!”

“Thanks for your amazing lessons!”

“Dear Anna, your lesson was very nice and I enjoyed it. I’ll miss you alot…Your Florian. P.S. I love you”.

“Thank you for everythinks. 🙂 You’ll miss us.”

Don’t know if that’s what she meant to say, but it’s true. I will miss them. And I’m going to miss teaching.

So Montbeliard, it’s time I bid you adieu. As much as we’ve had our ups and downs, and as much as I have trash-talked you when we weren’t together, Montbeliard you were my home. And today a little piece of my heart will remain with you.

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Pre-Life Crisis

In exactly 8 days I will turn 25.

And according to “real life”, in exactly 8 days I need to have my shit together.

Quarter life crisis time? Not exactly. I’ve been in the throws of what I like to call a “pre-life crisis” for some time now. True, I’ve had the space (and privilege) to give time to these thoughts, but basically I’ve been avoiding the whole adulthood thing (what is an adult anyways?), struggling with ideas of what I ‘should’ be doing vs. what I actually want to be doing…and consequently figuring out what exactly it is that I want to be doing…

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You see, I’ve always been very organized and very calculated, with a prospective plan on the horizon. Until one day I set out to not have a plan. That’s right. I planned to not plan. I specifically went to an alternative liberal arts college where majors weren’t declared so I could have space to explore. And what did my type A self do? I decided that I wanted to make my life more complicated, choose a distinct path, and get a license to teach. So I spent my remaining college years with a clear plan in mind and unstoppable wheels in motion. As I realized that I truly adored teaching, and as I saw a potential life flash before my eyes- a young teacher settling in a community and establishing herself in a very specific way- my desire to be unplanned rebelled.

Almost three years later, here I am in France, in my mid-twenties, with the weirdest plan I’ve ever had- winging it. It might seem like a bizarre time in my life to go down this path as I don’t have a working visa, I don’t have a job, and my savings is growing sizeably smaller. But I do have a love of teaching, painting, writing, and cooking, and I plan to do something with it.

And just as I was feeling self-congratulatory and confident about my new path, real life (or my dad) called reminding me of responsibility. I received two important letters- one explaining my need to deal with student loans, and the other stating that I am no longer eligible for health insurance now that I have reached the ripe age of 25. So much for Obamacare. It looks like adulthood has found me. Right when I decided to be self-employed.

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Happy freaking birthday.

A therapist once read my ‘star chart’ and told me that I was going to face a personal crisis that most people experience in their 40s, early on in my life. She said that I would spend some time struggling, but that I would come out of it self aware, secure, and stable even in to middle age where most of my peers would be struggling.

But as much as I’d like to believe my therapist’s lovely portrait of the future, when I look at the present, my peers are also struggling now. Every one of my friends in one way or another is facing the “real world” and figuring out their place in it. Maybe it’s technology, maybe it’s the time (can you say recession?), maybe we’re just at ‘that age’, or maybe it’s just the nature of transition. I think we underestimate the power of times of transition. As you pass from one phase, one place, one path to another, it seems only natural that you face a life-crisis- or maybe a life introspection. But it’s times and challenges like these that help us grow. Or maybe I’m just projecting…

But who knows, if my therapist was actually right, I’ll be sitting pretty while those suckers are doing their time.

So bring on 25 and all the misadventures that come with it!

“To Be Lost is to Live”

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The other day my father sent me an e-mail sharing his horoscope. At the time I found it intriguing but little did I know just how fitting it would be.

“Never to get lost is not to live,” writes Rebecca Solnit in her book A Field Guide to Getting Lost. In fact, she says that not knowing how to get lost is unhealthy. These are useful ideas to consider right now, Virgo. It will probably do you good to get at least semi-lost. As you wander around without a map or compass, I bet you will stumble upon important teachings. At the same time, I hope you will put some thought into how you’re going to get lost. Don’t just leave it to chance. Make sure there’s a method in your madness.”

If only he, and astrology.com, knew just how relevant that horoscope blurb was, because the other day I got lost.

I’ve always been a fairly independent person. And I’ve always relished the feeling of being out on my own, facing new adventures, having time to place my thoughts and space to meet the unknown. But getting lost really is a challenging and eye-opening experience.

As I wandered through the windy streets of Grenoble, on a quest to buy art supplies, I started to look around at the unfamiliar and soon realized I didn’t quite have my bearings. Actually I was lost.

Much like learning a language, I started off energized and approached it as a challenging game. “Yay! Adventure time! I’ll learn my way around Grenoble! I’m independent and this is fun!” Thirty minutes later I was singing a different tune. As each old, gray, building started to look the same and the cobblestone streets fused into a blob of intersecting paths, the irrational panic settled in. “I’ve been down this street before. No, wait I haven’t. Yes I have!…And I’ve been going in circles. I’m never getting out of this clever labyrinth! Adventure time my ass! This is so NOT fun!”

It wasn’t until I embraced the moment and gave in to my lack of bearings that the panic subsided and I began to see where I was. I was in FRANCE. In France with nowhere specific to be and nothing but time and a beautiful day on my side. I could wander down that unknown street and relish in the small savory moments of life- like colorful ukuleles hanging in the shop window with just the right lighting, or the little old lady intimately transfixed by a pair of shoes through the window- boy do the French love to window shop. With new-found clarity I followed my visual breadcrumbs (an important tool for the directionally challenged) back to my destination.

Along the way I stopped in the square surrounded by ancient buildings and an enthusiastic fountain, and felt overwhelmed with happiness. I’m in France. I’m living in France. Will anywhere else ever feel normal? Will I actually get used to the idea of living abroad?

Getting lost came at an appropriate time as it’s appropriate for where I am in my life right now. As I reach a quarter century, move to a new location, strip myself of all defaults of my identity (my language, my job, my friends, my security blankets), I realized it’s ok to get lost. It’s ok to be lost. It’s in these spaces and these places where we can find things we wouldn’t expect- the beautiful and bizarre- and whether we end up on the original path or a new one, we come out a little bit more savvy and self-aware.

As my dad said, “Lo, tho it may be Virgo, it is relevant to you. I liked the title “To never get lost is to Never live” or maybe, “To be lost is to live”.

Ending Where It Began

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Spring has finally sprung and with it comes many changes. One of the biggest being the end of my teaching program and the beginning of an exciting but uncertain next step- self employment (more on that later).

It is quite fitting that we had our last hurrah and said some goodbyes in Besancon. This is the city where it all began seven months ago- as we filtered into a small auditorium, assistants from all over the world, confused, tired, nervous and excited about the months to come.

It was surreal as we checked in to the same hotel we did seven months ago, danced the night away at the same rum bar, and satisfied our bready breakfast needs at the same cafe the next morning. There was a sense that no time had passed and that we were not saying final goodbyes as we parted.

But here it is already- the end. Time really does fly. And as it breezes past, were often left wondering, “where the hell did it go?” My dad once said that life is like a freight train- slowly working up to speed and gaining momentum, going faster and faster until it reaches it’s final destination. Might sound like a bit of a downer thing to say, but it stuck with me in that I need to make the most of the now. 

This past week filled itself with a whirlwind of emotions as I finished classes I would never have again, said goodbye to people I might not ever see again  and felt the ache of distance as I watched my former city suffer from unthinkable explosions and fearing for my friends- all set against the backdrop of long awaited warm, sunny, spring. My emotional turmoil was calmed by the well being of my friends, the strength of my city, the appreciation of my own well being, and the knowledge that out of darkness and change springs new beauty.

I cannot slow down time and I cannot change the ending of things, but I can appreciate the memories I’ve made, value what I have now and look forward, unafraid, to the unknown ahead.

Easier said than done, but it’s worth a shot.

On being Vegetarian in France

Ethiopian restaurant in Paris

Ethiopian restaurant in Paris

When I was 10 I decided that I no longer wanted to consume meat. The decision was influenced in part thanks to a lovely fast-food poisoning experience, repeated shady Mcnuggets, stubborn determination and a vivid 4th grade imagination of the animals on my plate. Despite my parent’s pleas, I haven’t looked back. I don’t like it and I don’t miss it.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to get all vegetarian preachy on you (although I do have my reasons). I’m well aware that in many places meat is a commodity and an honor to be served.

But being a vegetarian is not without it’s difficulties- especially when travelling. Being a vegetarian in France- specifically Montbeliard (the saucisse capital of the Franche-Comté)- is riddled with confusion, mix ups and a general sense of “mais, pour quoi?” or “what the hell is wrong with you?”.

You see, the French have the mentality of bonne vivant, or good living, which means that  good eating is meat eating. Serving a main course without meat is not even within their realm of conception. If you go out, it’s to eat meat. If you have guests over, you serve meat. Take Antoine’s poor mother for example. The first time I visisted she emphatically told him that she prepared a nice stake for the occasion. It went a little something like this:

“Mom. Remember? She’s vegetarian.” 

“Oh… Well that’s ok I have salmon.”

“Mom. Vegetarian- no meat.”

“Fish is not meat.”

“Moommm-”

“Alright. I’ll think of something”

That something was salad- a crevette, or shrimp, salad. It was disheartening to tell her that I don’t eat seafood either. At least she tried. Now when I visit she makes cooking for me like a puzzle or a complicated game- what can I possibly cook that has no form of meat?!

What strikes me most is how bizarre, how unfathomable, it is to the French that someone would make the conscious decision to not eat meat. Growing up in the U.S., especially Texas, I had my fair share of people who didn’t understand. But it was more of a- “well what’s your reason?” kind of mentality and less of a “soooo no sausage?” utter confusion.

I always thought of American food in the stereotypical way- fast, greasy, and big with a strong emphasis on meat. But living in France has actually opened my eyes to the variety that is American cuisine. We are obsessed with fusion food and creative culinary experimentation (though sometimes this results in bizarre concoctions). Whereas the French seem to have a mentality of “this is good, why change it?” (forget about trying to make personal requests) which unfortunately results in me avoiding the duck, beef and lamb entrees and sticking with salads. I’ve realized that a big reason dining sans meat is easier in the United States, is that it is a country of immigrants and thus our food has influences from all over the world.

The best friend of a vegetarian in France is the marché. You can buy local, fresh produce in almost any town for a very little cost. True there’s the effort of cooking for yourself, but it tastes goods, costs less and can be as creative as you please. It’s not impossible to be a vegetarian in France- especially in the bigger cities. Crêperies are popular in many towns and usually have veggie options, or are more willing to adapt to your requests. While Falfel is difficult to find in smaller towns, when you do find it, it is quite delicious. Seek out the Indian, Lebanese, and Moroccan restaurants for filling veggie options. And if you do find yourself stuck at a typical meat centered restaurant, the salade de chèvre chaud (grilled goat cheese on bread salad) is always a good staple.

My personal savior- cheese (sorry vegans). I’ve been lucky enough to actually like the strong, smelly cheeses of France. At least I can redeem myself with cheese.

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Perks of being a Teaching Assistant

Being appreciated.

…REALLY appreciated…

Wined and dined by my teachers tonight for a farewell dinner and then received this!

But seriously- WTF?!

But seriously- WTF?!

Never in my life have I received a necklace in a box! -or such schmancy bling. Best date ever! I was pretty much left blushing and speechless. Jewelry doesn’t make me do that! I’m pretty sure it was the surprise of their overwhelming kindness. Next set of co-workers are going to have some big shoes to fill…

But seriously. After 7 months of hot and cold co-worker relations (though in their defense I recently discovered that past assistants were horrible and thus they were keeping their distance)- it’s nice to know that my hard work was noticed and appreciated!

So many mixed feelings are whirling throughout my mind as the end of this program draws near and yet another chapter of my life comes to a close. But exciting prospects are on the horizon and today I’m really feeling the love and support! I truly am lucky.

The Art of NOT Speaking French

Allow me to illustrate...

Allow me to illustrate…

As I’ve spent time talking, discussing and laughing with people from all over the world, I’ve come to the realization that English isn’t a very lively language- in terms of not speaking. We are seriously lacking in the ways of nonverbal communication- the various eye rolls, the noises, the hand gestures…we just aren’t as equipped as our European counterparts.

It’s amazing that one can communicate so much with so little effort. And boy do the French love that! They are the kings of having some sort of guteral noise for everything. Every so often you will witness a “mwah!” hand kiss to signify perfection or hear tongue tisking (which to us would seem patronizing) to let you know that you are incorrect. Be warned that our circular motion for crazy is their circular motion for smart and there is more than one way to flick some one off.

Here are a few of my favorites:

Mes Couilles (a.k.a. Bullshit):

Pull down the eyelid to signify "That's some bull!"

Pull down the eyelid to signify “That’s some bull!”

If some one is spewing a load of crap, or you just don’t believe what they’re saying, you can give them Mes Cuilles. Literally translating to “my balls” this is a very slang way of saying “That’s some bull!” All you have to do is take your pointer finger and pull down the bottom part of your eyelid. Simple and yet so satisfying.

Saoul (pronounced like sou- a.k.a. drunk):

Nose is drowning in the alcohol

Nose is drowning in the alcohol

When someone has had a bit too much to drink, this hand movement is quite…well handy. Simply hold your hand in a loose fist and move it back and fourth (as if your twisting an imaginary cork at the end of your nose). Apparently this comes from the French saying “Il a un verre dans le nez” (he has a glass on his nose), but is often accompanied with the slang of saol or bourré (sou or boo-rey).

The Gallic Shrug:

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Bof!

Quite popular among my students, the Gallic Shrug is a common way to signify “I doubt it”, “I don’t know”, or “Not my fault”. It is slightly more complicated than the others as it involves sticking out your lower lip, raising your eyebrows and shoulders, and occasionally holding up your hands. Often this is accompanied by the ever so common “Bof!” sound to signify utter annoyance.

The too good/too intense/too much epic hand shake:

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Oh la la!

One of my absolute favorites. Using either the right or left hand, shake it loosely and emphatically back and fourth. I have witnessed this for things being too expensive, too intense or crazy, when something is exciting, or my personal favorite- when food is really good.This is quite a versatile gesture as well as one of the only clear ways Frenchies display their enthusiasm.

Amazingly enough this only skims the surface of the multitude of nonverbal communication common among the French- I didn’t even get in to the noises made! But it sparks an intrigue in my ever growing fascination with language- to think about how we communicate with one another and how subtly or not so subtly it varies from region to region.

But for those of you that are striving to be French Fakers, there is always this Amusing way to communicate in French without knowing the language video for your education and enjoyment.

A Day in the Life of a Teaching Assistant

After today’s frustrating (but some how still semi-successful) lesson, I thought I should provide a small window into the life of a teaching assistant.

Every day, every class and every teacher brings a new experience- especially when you work with 12 different teachers at 2 different schools with 12 varying class by class numbers and schedules. While some days it’s quite refreshing to have variety, other days it’s down right frustrating to have inconsistency. Take last week, when I discovered that I would be grading a student (which we’re actually not allowed to do) for his Mock Bac (or as the French call it, the Bac Blanc) 15 minutes before actually doing so. No prior explanation from the teacher, no down low of the French grading system, just instructions in my mailbox.

My 15 minute break consisted of google translating Degrés 1-4 and typing my own English rubric of what each category actually meant. All things considered, the Mock Bac went pretty well- it was the aftermath where I suffered. I took the rubric back to my desk, equipped with my notes and google translate and attempted to number each category. I don’t even like grading in the U.S. (and luckily as an elementary art teacher I don’t really have to- if you try, you pass)! But to tackle a foreign system and write an evaluation in a foreign language was quite the daunting task to say the least. I finally broke down and sought text advice from a native (Antoine). Luckily he responded in time. “33/40 is very good. Basically: under 10 is miserable, between 10 and 20 is under average, 20-30 is average to good, 30-40 is good to excellent!” I nervously turned in the final results, hoping that I didn’t tamper with some student’s esteem. 

Today was not much different. After pestering the teacher all week about his expectations, I was surprised to find nothing in my mail box prior to class. Each teacher varies with their agenda- some let me plan my own lessons, others provide me with specific frameworks, and then there are those that have it all planned out. This particular teacher usually wants me to follow his specific (and boring) curriculum with no personal touches of my own. I’m happy to comply- when there is a lesson in the mail box! After receiving nothing, I fell back on my go to lesson of speed dating. I waited 15 minutes for Group #1 to show- nothing. So after deciding that maybe I’d misunderstood something, I headed for the exit only to run into three of my students. Three out of nine. The confusion went a little something like this:

“Oh. Hi. Are you guys with me today?”

“Bah…oui!”

-Confused Stares-

“Well where are the others?”

“Avec Monsieur.”

“Really? Are they coming?”

“Non.”

“Did he give you anything to work on?”

“Non.”

“Do you have anything you want to work on with me?”

-Confused whispering-

“Bahhh…maybeee?”

-Sigh-

“Ok. Let’s go. We’ll figure something out.”

I was furious. That they were so late. That I was so out of the loop. That the class had completely changed. That I had nothing prepared as speeding dating with three was a no go, but ultimately that this was a class I was responsible for without having a say in what happens. My anger was getting me nowhere, so I decided to improvise and use the knowledge I had of preparing for the Bac. We covered some helpful reviews of summarizing texts and articulating opinions. Fortunately I came prepared and rewarded them at the end with worksheets of dating vocabulary. At least they left laughing.

These experiences reminded me of what it takes to be a teacher- especially when you’re a teaching assistant.

  • Be patient
  • Be flexible
  • Be ready to improvise and think quickly on your feet
  • And come equipped with a Plan B because you never know when you’ll be out of the loop
  • But also- don’t forget to find the humor- if you’re miserable, they’re miserable…which in turn makes you even more miserable. If you can leave a frustrating situation laughing, your off to a good start.

Sprechen Sie Deutsch?

It never ceases to amaze me how quickly (and easily) you can cross borders in Europe. Coming from Texas where it took 8 hours to go from Central to West Texas just to visit my grandma, I was surprised to go to school in Massachusetts and discover that state borders can be crossed in just 3 hours. But entering a new country in under 2 hours still baffles me.

Tiniest Train to Germany. Short train for a short trip I guess...

Tiniest Train to Germany. Short train for a short trip I guess…

I was fortunate enough to spend a lovely Easter weekend in the quaint city of Freiburg in Germany- a destination with quite a reputation to live up to as my friends had not stopped talking about it since our arrival in France.

Apart from the obscene amounts of rabbit decorations and chocolates abound, there wasn’t much Easter to the weekend. It hardly felt like spring as we did not see the sun until the morning we left and the Black Forest was in fact a white forest- covered in snow and thick fog. In spite of that, Freiburg managed to make it to the ranks of cutest European cities (according to Anna’s mental tally). It lived up to it’s reputation.

Black Forest?

Black Forest?

At least it's pretty

At least it’s pretty

Though Germany’s warmest city was unusually cold, we managed to get in a good day of exploring the medieval buildings and traversing through the small, winding, cobblestone streets. It reminded me of Bruges with it’s quaint charm. Now if a medieval town doesn’t seem that unique, throw in a vibrant university crowd, cobblestone crests, unusual canals and a black forest to peak your interest.

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Running through the tiny streets is a unique system of gutters called Bächle. Contrary to what one might assume, these canals were not used for waste, but rather to put out fires and feed livestock. Hearing the sound of bubbling water coursing through the streets was a wonderful addition to the experience. Apparently the water helps cool the summer streets and rumor has it that you will marry a Freiburger if you accidentally fall or step into one. A long time luster of the Germans, it was difficult for my friend to not feign falling into one of the many Bächles.

Bachle

Bachle

Boat Races!

Boat Races!

Being the lover of art and visual person that I am, I was particularly charmed by the cobblestone crests. Placed in front of shops as a means of identifying the store, these stone images were varied and plentiful. It was like an exciting Easter egg hunt to see what image we would discover next.

The most bizarre experience of the weekend was the inability to use English. Three of us separated from our German speaking friend which resulted in eating our breakfast like hobos on the street. We could barely order our food, nonetheless understand what they were saying or how to ask for a table in the back. So feeling flustered and confused we took our food to go. It was strange not having my basic language tools. In my experience people have taken pity on the foreigner and fallen back on English. Or at least I come prepared with a few basic expressions. I barely even knew how to say please, thank you or  I don’t understand. Travelling 101: Know the basics, bring a travel book, or stay with your friend who speaks the language.

Crossing countries in 2 hours can be misleading. You forget you’ve entered a new region with a completely different language. The nice thing is that when you dive in, you have to sink or swim and I’m happy to report that my German language base has increased.

But I still need to conquer the French front first.