South Korea: The Good, the bad and the ugly

Six months. How am I already at the halfway point? There are far too many experiences to recount, so in an effort to reflect upon and consolidate the past few months, I present Korea: The good, the bad and the ugly.

But let’s mix things up and get the bad out of the way first.

The Bad:

Rude after teaching in the land of smiles (Thailand), the levels of rude in Korea shocked my system. True, I’d gotten used to the n’importe quoi rudeness of France, but it was a laissez faire rude of simply not caring. Korean rude, especially Pohang rude, is in your face and impossible to ignore. Some days it is literally in your face as people stare inches from your cheek with a fiery, unmovable gaze. Other days people yell what one can only assume are Korean expletives and spit in your path. The most common rude though is the push. Oh the push. It doesn’t matter where you are or how much room there is, at some point in your day, you will get bumped or pushed past with such force that it makes you question your own existence. Am I really even here? To be fair it’s mostly the ajummas and ajusshis (old people) who barrel through you. And they’ve seen and been through some shit in their lives here in Korea, so I can’t really blame them. Most days.

Staring-  Over the past 5 years, I’ve been an étranger, a farang and now a wagook. You’d think by now I’d get used to the staring that comes with being a foreigner living abroad; it’s part of the territory. But Korea’s staring game is strong. In other countries people usually look away after a while, especially if you make eye contact. Not in Korea. Quite the contrary, people stare for long, intense sessions, as if bigfoot has just stepped onto the bus. And making eye contact only intensifies the stare, transforming it into a glare that grows with increasingly obvious dislike for your face. Word of advice, don’t even try a staring contest. You will always lose.

Crowds-  With over 50 million people living in only 30% of the country (as 70% of it is covered in mountains), it’s no wonder people can be a bit rude. Korea is densely populated and if you live in a city, or even a semblance of one, you’re bound to be packed onto a bus, subway or even sidewalk at some point. If you’re agoraphobic, stick to the countryside.

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To be fair this was Halloween.

Corporal punishment- The first time I heard the tapping sound I thought something had fallen on a desk. The next time I thought surely my eyes were deceiving my ears as the angry flood of fast Korean was interrupted by the whisking sound of wood on skull. Naively, I initially thought that those wooden sticks were used to gesture and aid in my colleague’s’ classroom instruction. Having my desk nestled next to the disciplinarian’s cubicle taught me otherwise. As the months went on I witnessed students being smacked upside the head, slapped in the face, hit with sticks, and forced to sit on their knees with their hands above their heads in the cold hallways. It was shocking. Even worse, it was the norm. Supposedly this is more common in middle schools and private schools, as I have yet to witness this at my elementary school. And while this form of discipline continues to shock me, I must admit that there were almost times when I felt my unruly elementary hellions could’ve benefited from some swift, hard justice. Almost.

But let’s move to The Good:

Healthcare- As an American, it is easy to impress me with healthcare. Americans are so royally screwed when it comes to dealing with, waiting on, and paying for their health. Ask my sister who recently had surgery, to fix a toe tendon severed by a freak knife falling accident, and paid over $5,000- with insurance! Who can afford that?! Cut to Korea where I had my first gynecology, dentist, and eye doctor’s appointments in years and paid under $150 for all three- and that’s including my first cavity filling! Not only are appointments and medicine ridiculously cheap here, but they are fast, efficient and walk-in friendly. I almost never need to make an appointment and I’m usually in and out in under 20 minutes- including my first cavity filling! Sometimes this speed comes with the downside of wondering how in depth your medical provider actually is, but I’ll take $20 over $5,000 any day! 

Transportation- Even in the “boonies” (as I so affectionately refer to my area), there is still usually one local bus that can connect to the terminal within a decent amount of time. Intercity buses are wonderfully cheap and (depending on the destination) run so frequently that you can show up on a whim and hop on the next available bus. I can do roundtrip to Daegu (about an hour away) for under $13. The KTX train is a more expensive, but smooth, clean and fast alternative for further destinations, like Seoul. And then there are the Taxis. Taxis are a double edged sword as they are so, very, cheap. And plentiful. Which means that I’m constantly tempted to take them and that can quickly add up. In my experience taxi drivers range from hating foreigners, to pulling out every semblance of  conversational English they know. Most remain silent and jam their old school tunes, appreciative if you know some basic Korean such as:

hello 안녕하세요 (annyeonghaseyo)

goodbye 안녕히 계세요 (an-nyeong-hi gye-se-yo)

thank you 고맙습니다 (gomabseubnida)

straight 직진 (jigjin)

and here 여기에 (yeogie)

Quirky Korean weirdness Cat cafe? That’s old news. How about a rabbit, raccoon, or goat cafe? Or better yet a poop or princess cafe? Yep. Korea can offer you all of the above. How about a penis park or a love land dedicated to gargantuan sex statues? If you need to escape try one of the many themed escape rooms or belt your heart out under disco lights at one of the always available norebangs (don’t call it karaoke here). Or try a mall with a fantastical playland on the rooftop, a ball pit adorned with giant silverware, and a toy store dedicated entirely to phone service characters. In almost every downtown, you can hop into an arcade, blow of steam in a batting cage, go on a 4D ride, or try your plushie winning luck with the claw. Want zombie or cat eyes? Or want to keep it simple and make them a more natural shade of purple or grey? Step into any lens shop that will fit you within minutes. Even if you want just regular prescription lenses, they’ll throw in a fun pair of socks- just because. Or try a toy store that blasts hip hop and vaguely resembles a taxidermy shop with it’s giant furry friends on display. The list goes on. There is no shortage of colorful, comical, and whimsically weird when it comes to Korea. Quite frankly, I love it.

Community- As a foreigner, I have only touched the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Korean community. But in my mere six months, I have been amazed by all that comes with a society operating with the community in mind. That is why Korean crime rate is so low, and I can experience the freedom that comes with feeling safe in the streets at night, or the security of leaving my bag while I grab my order. That is why education is so strongly emphasized, resulting in a 98% national literacy rate. When the country faced a major financial crisis in 1998, Koreans, young and old, formed lines spilling outside of banks to give up their personal gold trinkets, statues, jewelry, and bars to get the country out of deficit. And it worked. That is why Korea became the first country to go from an aid receiving country to an aid donor- the power of community. I have personally experienced the office snacks celebrating a colleague’s new daughter in law, welcome dinners, work retreats, and random trinkets on my desk. My favorite experience has been the communal dining as people dig into the array of 반찬 (banchan, or side dishes), passing around bowls or bottles of alcohol, and digging into big pots with chopsticks. It’s hard not to smile as people sit crossed legged, elbow to elbow, slurping, sharing, passing plates, and laughing with alcohol infused red cheeks.

And finally, The Ugly:

I’ll be blunt, it’s you. It’s always you. If you’re a foreigner, you can expect insults about appearance quite frequently. Sometimes it comes from a more subtle place of, “Oh you look tired”, amps up to a,“Are you sure you’re not sick??”, and gets really obvious with hand-to-chest-clutching, bug- eyed gasps of “Oh my gosh! You look horrible!” To be fair I was really sick that day. My friends have gotten their own charmers such as, “Have you been eating well?”, “You have hollow eyes.” And my personal favorite, “You can take a sick day” (because she wasn’t wearing mascara).  

Let’s face it, if you’re a foreigner, you ugly.

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I need a face filter at all times.

So there you have it, The good, the bad and the ugly. I obviously need to write much more frequently as I haven’t even touched upon a day in the life of teaching, being a woman in a hierarchical society, the culture of alcohol, the pros and cons of EPIK, or my induction into K-pop, but those are future posts to come.

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5 Lessons Learned from Perseverance at the Prefecture

I’ve been MIA, I know. But before I delve into the roller coaster of emotions/events of the past few months (BIG changes on the horizon), I figured I start with something concrete- life lessons I’ve learned from the prefecture.

‘What the heck is a prefecture?!’, some of you might ask. To which I would respond that it is the hellmouth, the keeper of your future, a cirque du soleilesque mental challenge of your emotional strength, or as some people like to call it ‘the administrative building for visas and other important documents’. And for those of you who know what it is, I’m sorry. Let’s take a minute to hold hands, sigh, and let go of what we cannot control. Life lesson number one.

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For those who need a visual

Which brings me to: 

Five lessons learned from prefecture pain and perseverance:

#1- Learn when to let go of things you cannot control. I’ve learned this the hard way, but when dealing with administration, it’s important to check your desire for controlfreakyness at the door. Once you step through those big wooden frames, you are a mere puppet at the mercy of French hands. Building a bubbling rage over a desire for the line to be shorter, the weather to be less miserable, the French people to be less rude, or the process to be less inefficient, won’t change a thing. It only makes the time painfully slow and your mood increasingly less pleasant. Feel that rage for a moment if you need to, and then breathe it out. The line will move, and you will get to your destination.

#2- Expect the unexpected. Just because you have all the right documents, or you waited the allotted six weeks (or months), does not mean that you will leave with a smile of success. In order to release, or at least aid, that desire for control, you must expect the unexpected. Prepare for a multitude of possibilities so that your emotional armor is strongly in tact when you leave. Don’t assume anything. Because trust me, no one wants to see a frustrated sobbing mess crumpled in defeat just outside the gates. It’s awkward. On the flip side, when you do have that rare moment of prefecture success, it tastes all the more sweet…especially when you weren’t expecting it.

#3- Kindness Kills. Ok, so this is a strange expression, but it never hurts to appeal to a person’s humanity. Don’t over do it- especially with the French. But a simple smile, a polite ‘how are you’, or a preemptive merci can work wonders. This is not to say that you should avoid being firm when needed, but rather don’t come in with guns ablazing and silent rage bubbling. After all, these are the gatekeepers you’re dealing with. Make eye contact, be confident, but most importantly be kind.

#4- Be creative, don’t despair. If things don’t go your way, don’t crumple in awkward panicked defeat. Allowing your first thoughts to be your worst thoughts is not only unproductive, it’s unrealistic. There are always options. Maybe let a few frustrated tears fall if that’s what you need, but then get back to the drawing board! Did you ask all the right questions? What would happen if you went again? What would happen if you talked to someone new? 9 times out of 10, plan B has had a weird way of working out.

#5- If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again…and with different people. Piggybacking off of the whole being creative thing, is the need for some good ole fashion perseverance. Keep trying. As my grandma loves to say, “Never surrender! Never give up!” (yes, I know that she mixes the order- it just adds to the delightful quirkiness of her shouting it).

My French coworker once said to me, “French administration is a labyrinth. You can get in, but you can’t find a way out.” While it is indeed a mental maze and at times you might find yourself in a pit of despair, a release of control, a creative outlook, a little kindness, and a lot of persistence are excellent tools for navigating that labyrinth.

…and if all else fails, grab a tea or coffee at the nearest cafe with a supportive loved one and prepare for round 2…or 20.

The Camp Diaries: Weeks 2-3

Bonjour from camp land!

Where to begin? Unfortunately I fell a bit short on the blog updating front as I got pretty sick (still have yet to regain my voice to its full potential), and as a result have far too many stories to tell from the past two weeks. BUT I shall use my notes in an effort to convey the gist of camp craziness.

End of Week 1- The Weekend Adventure:

Saturday marked the first venturing beyond the walls of the chateau with fellow counselor, Olive. It felt strange to leave the premises and see a space outside of a camp-covered chateau. At first sight only Normandy countryside-a.k.a. flat farmland as far as the eye could see- surrounded us. But 30 minutes later Olive and I arrived in a tiny town filled with old people gambling, smoking and sipping on coffees at a miniscule cafe, and bored teenagers hanging out in front of the small highschool. We walked back and forth searching for a semblance of food and sticking out like bright, awkward tourists. Finally the boulangerie opened and we feasted on bread, cheese, and cider in the shade of a chapel as Frenchies walked past with smiles or stares plastered to their faces. We didn’t care. We were content with our picinic….and tipsy off cider.

Week 2- Monday Madness:

Change is the theme of this week. Two new counselors arrived last night full of energy and excitmement.

The day started with a relatively calm atmosphere- we were efficient and even finished the set up with extra time on our hands. We had a week under our belts and figured we had it in the bag. Bring on the kids! …That is until a storm of 50 tiny kids poured off the bus. Not teenagers, not adolescents- kids. At first I thought the perspective was making them tinier than expected. But it was actually their age. Not 10 and 11 year olds but tiny, hyper, first-time-away-from-home 8 year olds.

The rest of the day was chaos. The teachers came over-prepared and messed with the money system (which I was conveniently in charge of) and the kids were confused, hyper, scared, shy, and unable to comprehend the situation (aka English). Olive and I’s window was apparently not fully shut and our room flooded with the afternoon rain that decided to contribute to the chaos. Our evening campfire was canceled and dividing up ESL classes was quite the confusing effort. This week is already so different.

Bank of America time

Bank of America time

Tuesday and Wednesday It’s a love/hate game I’m playing: 

We divided the ESL classes and I got the lower level hyperactive kids, as well as the one student with autism who is not taking kindly to our new camp names. So now he has two names- French+ American Camp name. So far, so good.

Well, I faced my fear of teaching elementary frenchies. I first faced my fear of highschool students in Montbeliard, and now the part of me perpetually terrified of teaching such small non-native speakers is calm. All things considered, the class went really well today and they kids are pretty damn cute with their tiny French voices. I miss working with little kids. It’s nice to be reminded of the work I love.

Wed…
The days are getting longer. And more chaotic. Last night a kid peed himself and another one cried for home. Today several cried from dodgeball. And yelled. So. Much. Yelling. What a horrible game. I only have one more full day, but it seems like an eternity. My throat is sore from all the yelling over excited voices. All. The. Time.

I find it funny that instead of yelling “you can’t do that” to one another, the kids say, “tu n’as pas le droite” (aka ‘you don’t have the right!’). I’m glad I understand French.

All in all I’ve enjoyed this week- which is a testament to how much I love working with elementary kids. True they’re hyperactive little shits for a large portion of the time, but they’re also adorable little beings with giant smiles, and a genuine curiosity for learning about this world they’re in.

The day is done and all I want is silence. I don’t want to talk to anyone. Even laughing feels like effort. My throat hurts. My ears are buzzing. I fall asleep with tiny French voices in my head.

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ESL madness

Thursday- New Theme Day- Hit Music:

What am I supposed to do with this theme? These are kids not teenagers! We’ve been reviewing colors, shapes, and the alphabet. Oy vey this week is long.

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I’ve been working general store for the week- the place where we sell kid crack (candy and soda) and souvenirs for mom and dad. First thought- this is tedious and horrible and I really don’t see the point. But two days later and I see the benefit. It’s a good experience for the kids to be in charge of money, and have a real life situation of making transactions in another language. Well done AMVIL.

I feel like a goblin counting gold. I was locked away in General Store for over an hour on a beautiful day counting inventory and doing far too much math. I regret working General Store this week. Who knew little kids would buy so much more than teenagers?

Dancing with kids is golden. I love their energy and excitement (some of the times), but most of all their smiles. Compared to the teenagers last week, it was refreshing to open the doors and have the kids not awkwardly stand in corners, but descend on the dance floor in a sea of spastic and enthusiastic movement. One little elf (no really, that was her camp name), all round and ‘typically nerdy looking’, broke out of her shell and boldly asked the boys to dance. At the end of the night she gave me an impish smile as she held up her count of four fingers (four boys).

Friday-

We said goodbye to one of our new counselors today and it felt oddly sad. He was only here for a week, but you bond quickly in the trenches.

The sentiment was different for the departure of the kids. Some counselors literally did cartwheels as the bus full of kids pulled away.

Two more weeks.

End of Week 2- Weekend Adventure:

I hate the world. I’m sick. At least it took effect when the kids left. But I wish I could just not be sick at all! Going into town for some meds.

We stopped at bakery where Olive got a macaroon. It was quite the process as the baker walked around the counter and used little tongs to carefully pull the bright yellow pastry out of the fridge and place it on silver platter. Then she instructed us in French that we needed to wait 10 min for it too cool down in order for the flavor to be ‘top’. I love France.

At least sick meds, sun, swans, and tiny dogs that think they’re the swan commander, help with sickness.

Week 3- “Santa brought condoms to camp”

I had to work customs this week (confiscating snacks and electronics) and I was not a fan. Neither were the kids. They were pretty good sports, but it’s not the ideal first impression I’d like to make on kids.

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Also an 11-year-old camper, Santa Claus, brought condoms to camp. According to the teachers they’re probably his dad’s, but still…Santa brought condoms to camp.

The difference in their level is like night and day. This age is so interesting as they are on the precipice of teenagedom- but not too cool yet. 

As we sat around the campfire singing songs and roasting marshmallows, I realized how funny it is to teach almost teenagers how to roast marshmallows. Sharing my childhood past time of s’mores, something so normalized for me, and so bizarre to them was amusing as they quizzically looked at eachother and whispered, “c’est trop bon!” 

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Tuesday-Thursday: Activities

This is my first week working on Activities instead of ESL. It’s a lot of physical work but maybe beats lesson planning at 11 at night.

First time in two weeks getting a break- 40 glorious minutes and all I could do was try to sleep. My sickness wants me to sleep, but my brain is too wired from my internal camp clock. Eff. 

survival essentials

survival essentials

Being on activities means teaching a bunch of frenchies how to play baseball. Objectively this sport is pretty weird. Fortunately these kids were really excited about learning and got pretty invested in the game. Only one student cried- great success! 

Two camp essentials- hot water and health. When you don’t have either things get dicey. I’m getting real tired of Normandy. 

Spectacle
This is the worst thing ever. Being sick and in charge of the same kids all day is brutal. How can I get them to focus, write a script, memorize lines and block out a scene if I don’t have a voice? I want this day to end. 

Ok so spectacle felt brutal, but was ultimately worth it to see the smiles at the end of the night. My kids were so proud of their performances and said goodnight with giant, beaming, smiles. I’m such a sucker. 

It also didn’t hurt to have amusing counselor interludes. Laughing at your coworkers as they try to do tricks as an awkward caterpillar, and smashing shaving cream into your coworker’s faces as you imitate their arms and laugh cry into their backs is really quite wonderful. Laughter is indeed the best medicine. 

Friday-Saturday: “Day Release”

The kids left crying (some even sobbing). I guess that means we’ve done our job well. It’s always a mixed feeling saying goodbye. We want them to go, so we can have some quiet and enjoy our one day off, but it’s strange to think that we’ll never see them again.


But tonight we’re actually going to a real city! The counselors are trekking to Rouen for a night on the town. I’m excited to speak French again. Being surrounded by French every day, but not being allowed to speak it has been a bit torturous. I never thought I’d say this, but my mouth misses French.

Rouen is a really cool city. It was so strange to see night life, and restaurants, and so many people. The counselors didn’t know what to do with themselves. So they got drunk. 

As my fellow coworker Buzz said of the night, “it’s like day release from prison”. 

I think that about sums it up.

One more week.

The Camp Diaries: Week 1

Catnip here- yes we get camp names, and yes, long story short, my name is Catnip.

Whew. What a week it’s been (or actually more like a week in a half- time is completely warped here). I am bruised, muddy, sore, smelly, sleep deprived, on the verge of sickness, and so very happy. Yes, happy. Camp life is intense but so very rewarding.

Where do I begin? I tried to take notes as every day was adventure packed, and filled with events, characters, and experiences perfect for humourous short stories. And every day felt like five days rolled into one. But seeing as how today is my one day off, and my first day of nothing but blue skies in Normandy, I will try to keep this short and sweet:

Days 1-3: The Beginning/Set Up

Well I got placed in Normandy. The furthest site from Grenoble and one of the colder and more rainy areas of France. My room is a camp room- sparse, cold, (freezing at night), with nothing but beds and broken dressers (but I have it all to myself for the week!). The showers come in 20 second bursts, but at least the pressure is decent and the water is warm.

But all in all, I can’t complain. I’m placed at an old Chateau in FRANCE- the stuff of fairytales…or murder mysteries. There are so many birds singing and chatting in the morning, and fat rabbits running around at night. And a cherry blossom tree is starting to bloom right outside of my room. I think I can stay here a while.

 

What do you get when you put 2 Americans, 1 Canadian, 1 Irishman, and a Brit together? Don’t know, but we’re gonna find out! The counselors are finally all together and setting up the site. It’s a lot of work for 5 people (I set up an entire computer lab!), but I think we’re ready for the kids.

1st day with Kids: Immigration

This was only a half day, but man was it busy. I worked on passport duty (checking them in and helping them select wacky names), and then assisted with customs. It was pretty intense to search for and confiscate teenager’s phones and snacks. Most of them were good sports. It doesn’t hurt that their level is very advanced!

We divided into families and had one of the most polite dinners I’d experienced in some time. Not only did they say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’, but ‘may I please have’ or ‘may I serve you’. Some even got into it and started serving food like fancy waiters. I like these kids already. Continue reading

You Stay Classy, France

Last Sunday I explored the underbelly of French class- via my first wine tasting experience. It was wonderful to savor, taste, and learn about not just French wine- but natural French wine (we’re talking more pure than organic. These people still use horses instead of machines!) However, by the end, I couldn’t help but leave laughing at the contradictions of class that I had just witnessed.

You see, amidst the swirling of glasses and savoring of flavors, was the oh-so-classy spitting into buckets. The wine would dance and swirl in people’s glasses, and then moments later, out of their mouths, the spit sparkling on the rim of the bucket with just a hint of wine color lingering. Tres classe.

I know, I know. If you’re French, or a Francophile, or just a lover of wine, you’re probably getting all puffed up and ready to tell me, “It’s how true wine tasting is done!” You’re there to taste the wine, let the many flavors explore your palate, and then move on to savoring many more. I get it. I just couldn’t help but think about all the good wine that was going to waste. That’s the American in me-waste not. So what if you get tipsy and lose the full range of your wine tasting palate? You’re still drinking good wine! …or maybe that’s just the inculte in me.

As my stomach flopped in disgust (I’ll admit that I have a particular propensity for spit related nausea), I noticed some cheese. At least I could distract myself with some delicious…moldy cheese. Again, I get it- I’m in France, everything at this event is natural, I’m even a lover of strong cheese- but when it came down to it, I opted for the less fuzzy greenish blue ones. And yes, it was earthy and delicious.

When we returned to making our tasting rounds I couldn’t help but become spit fixated. I tried not to, but everywhere I looked people swirled and spit. The buckets glistened and saliva wine mixtures dripped on the tables. Swirl, spit, repeat. As I started to feel like a bucket overwhelmed Mickey Mouse in Fantasia, I witnessed the mother load- a giant spit barrel being wheeled out of the building. So much spit must’ve been swirling around that monstrous container. The thought was enough to make me woozy and take a brief tasting break- or maybe all the wine I had been drinking (and not spitting) was getting to my head.

I thought that maybe I was crazy, until I recounted the day’s events with a friend back home, “Ewww!! Whyy?,” she exclaimed. I started to rattle through the list of reasons- well it’s the real way to savor the wine, and truly taste a wide range, and the French really appreciate and value quality food and drink…but ultimately all that came out was, “I know, right!?”

I guess spit just isn’t for me. But you stay classy, France.

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Briançon and Hiking in a Winter Wonderland

Welcome to Briançon, a unique little city of medieval fortifications, strong history, hearty people, and stunning views, nestled in the French Alps. Surrounded by snow-capped peaks, it is apparently the highest city in the EU, and definitely one worth visiting if you have time in France.

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Getting there is a bit of a trek, especially in the winter time as the windy, icy roads, threaten to slide you off the side of the mountain. Just hold back any fear of heights or car sickness, and you’ll be fine.

But the destination is always worth the journey. Picturesque views don’t hurt either…

This was my third visit to the city, and I have to admit that the stressful drive was well worth the worry when I experienced the beautiful snow and sun on a special hike. Continue reading

On being broke and unemployed in France

When my TAPIF program ended 8 months ago, I looked ahead at my unemployment with wide eyes. I had a bit of savings left, a whole summer in Europe, and the world as my oyster.

…Until that oyster turned on me. A year after submitting my visa paperwork, and 8 months of waiting for the prefecture to grant me the right to work, and I could no longer deny it- Je suis a sec. I’m dry, or as we say in the States, I’m broke.

True, at times, being unemployed had its perks. I had the freedom, and flexibility (and privilege), to paint, to travel, to create my own schedule, to launch my website, take care of random tasks, wander the streets of Grenoble, and catch up on far too many American series. I was lucky to have a savings to fall back on. I lived like retirees- sitting in the park in the middle of the day; enjoying the sun as it warmed my skin, and smiling at the elderly women in their fancy coats. (I sound like an old bachelor). I verged ever so slightly on crazy catladydom as I snuggled up with my soft Sasquatch, and took far too many cat pictures. I read more. I cooked more. I did some yoga and generally failed at inner peace. But I also lived the life of a retiree- at 25– and there was something unsettling about that. Continue reading

Time of Thanks

As I’ve said before about Living Abroad, I find that my holiday convictions are especially strong when I’m far away from home. This year has proved to be not much different from the last. I’ve planned with fellow Americans weeks in advance, scoured super marches for items that could be feastworthy, and even requested a care package from home- which turned out to be a fully stocked surprise. Moms are the best:

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So much deliciousness

It’s amazing how at times like these, the smallest things bring me joy. When I discovered Ritz crackers at Carrefour, I could barely contain my excitement, or avoid the awkward isle stares of, “C’est qui- this strange cracker enthused fille?” But I didn’t care. I was one step closer to creating a real green bean casserole.

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They actually exist in France!

When I finally baked the pumpkin bread yesterday, I was surprised by how a simple taste or smell could instantly transport me home. And by how much happiness the delightful taste of cinnamon, nutmeg, and pumpkin could provide. This time of year Americans are inundated with pumpkin flavor and scents- pumpkin candles, lattes, breads, pies…I guess even commercial traditions work their way into your psyche. Because having pumpkin flavors and scents brought me far too much joy. I was happy to share with my student as we discussed thanksgiving traditions, and how the holiday has changed over time. And I was happy to come home to an apartment filled with the aroma of fresh-baked goods and spiced pumpkin. Oh the simple pleasures. Continue reading

Time of Traditions

Happy (belated) Halloween!

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Though Spring takes the lead for my favorite season, I must say that this time of the year brings me immense joy. It’s the time of traditions.

First of all, there’s Halloween (which is then followed by Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years). And while I generally don’t like horror movies, gore and the whole being scared out of your mind thing (I have an overactive imagination ok?), I LOVE Halloween. And what’s not to love? Gore aside, there are friends, fun, decoration, candy, and above all creativity. I’ll take any excuse to exercise creativity, gather with friends, and don a costume

…and binge on succulent sweets (the chocolate addict in me cannot lie).

I usually start brainstorming somewhere around summer, using the following months to piece the costume together, and adding details only an OCD person would notice. I blame my mom with all her infinite creativity. I had a homemade costume almost every year, and by 4th grade, I was making my own. Plus, my neighborhood was THE neighborhood for trick or treating. Haunted sidewalks, spooky backyard mazes, and webbed front porches became the norm during the weeks before Halloween. The bar was set high and I wanted to keep it that way. Continue reading

Snippets of delirium

I always thought you could judge a couple by how they travel together, until we became that couple.

You learn someone’s true colors when you wake up at 3am, having only gone to bed 3 hours prior.

And you can discover what a person’s made of when you bike to the train station at 3am, going off of 3 hours of sleep, with a 30+ pound backpack strapped to your back. Heck, you discover what you’re made of.

Antoine can’t function without coffee. Unfortunately I had to learn this the hard way. Traveling with him is like trying to motivate a grumpy, incoherent, sleep-walking child. And watching the effects of coffee on him is like watching a baby grow up.

Sweaty, delirious, 3 am bus ride- check. Now only 2 flights (one in the opposite direction), 1 bus, 1 train and hopefully a taxi left. Maybe we’ll throw in a boat to cover out bases. Either way, were headed to Portugal!

This, is exciting!

In my delirium (proof- I spelled prior as pryer), I decided that rather than writing a post, I’d relay the start of this trip in snippets. Aka the many beginnings I had in my mind but couldn’t choose from.

Grumpy start aside, I am on my way to Portugal! Finally getting a vacation with frenchie in a country neither of us have explored.

Tales to come.

It’s the little things

Today I’m feeling appreciative of the little things in life that make a big difference. Like:

  • The universe aligning to alleviate stress, reduce complicated factors and streamline a difficult process (is streamline to corporate jargony? is jargony even a word?)

Or more specifically:

  • The French administration not only being accurate about the arrival of important documents (for once), but actually being EARLY with said documents!!
  • Receiving my récépissé a week in advance, thus allowing me to purchase my plane ticket home and be there for my Grandma’s consultation.
  •  Buying a round trip ticket to the United States 5 days before departure and discovering a ticket $1,000 less than the original expected price!
  • The knowledge that my visa might actually be ready when I return. And due to French error it might be a working visa!

And more generally:

  • A wonderful support system all over the world.
  • And knowing that I can return to an amazing source of support here in France.
  • The excitement that comes with returning home after a year.
  • The happiness that stems from my Grandma’s happiness.
  • Sharing celebratory desserts to further appreciate these little things.
  • And of course- kittens. Kittens are always worth appreciating.

Come Sunday, one of these will be mine (…and Antoine’s).

What’re you feeling appreciative of today?

kittens!

Kittens!

Happy Friday Everyone!

On Living Abroad

It’s funny how living abroad makes you hold on to things from home more than you usually would. I’ve visited, backpacked, studied and stayed with friends abroad, but living in another country has created a shift in my mentality especially as my life becomes increasingly intertwined with something that was once so foreign.

More often than not, when travelling I would let go of my “americansims”, try to quiet down, blend in, learn a little language, taste the local foods, and do as the locals. When Bush was president, and I was backpacking through Europe, I didn’t dare utter that I was Texan. I almost told people I was Canadian in an effort to avoid the Bush shame. But when you live in a place and your idea of home starts to shift, you find pieces of your identity, pockets of your home and covet it like an irrational gollum creature.

“Damn right I’m from Texas!”

“Of course we’re celebrating Halloween…and Thanksgiving…and Christmas, and Valentines- ALL the celebratory American occasions!!!”

“What do you mean they don’t have triple sec? What kind of godforsaken land is this?!”

“I finally found black beans!! They actually exist!! Don’t touch! My precious….”

…You don’t want to imagine the greedy hoarding that would take place if I found refried beans. Continue reading

Adventures of Language Learning

I’ve said this before, but learning a language is difficult. So much so, that the other night I started having an existential crisis about conversation. Or dear god!- maybe I’m beginning the transition into Frenchdom.

language-barrier

thanks ilmkidunya.com for the visual representation of my emotions

As I sat there, lost in translation (aka French slang), my mind drifted from “what are they talking about?” to “why do we even talk, postulate, argue, discuss? What’s the point of it all?” I guess things can get a little grim when your confusion turns to silence and your silence turns to the wanderings of your own mind…

Needless to say, that was a bit of a wake up call reminder- learning a language is hard and I need to saddle up. Apparently for me, it’s easier said than done. Learning a language is not like riding a bicycle. The wheels of language knowledge don’t magically set in motion when you summon them. Unfortunately if you don’t use it, you start to lose it. I’ve plateaued with French before and apparently I’m doing it again. Continue reading

French don’t give a #@*! about being polite- Part Deux

After a particularly frustrating nonverbal couchsufring dinner experience, my return resulted in yelling at Antoine, “We have may have pride, but the French have pretension! At least we can be proud AND humble!!”

Though I wasn’t quite sure if that statement made the most sense, at the time it felt valid. Because I’ve said it once before, and I’ll say it again, the French can be rude. Or at least they could care less about being polite.

rude

Their sarcasm is really just blunt meanness, they take over public transportation (and won’t even try to make room for others), they don’t notice their surroundings and could care less about your personal space, and they blatantly make fun of your accent (but to be fair, Americans aren’t much better, and plenty of Frenchies have been nice and patient with my accent…so really maybe this one doesn’t totally count). Oh and they cut lines- oh my god do they cut lines. Maybe it’s because of my dad’s embarrassingly indignant dedication to the principle of holding your place, (and dear god I’ve become him already!) but it drives me crazy when there’s no respect for the line. Waiting for my visa feels like preparing for battle as I try to preserve as much space as possible to gain rightful entry into the prefecture.
Continue reading

How to take the SNCF (a.k.a. my love affair with the difficult French train system)

This one's special- so short.

This one’s- special so short.

It’s time to talk SNCF. This post has been in the making for quite some time, as I have had an intimate and frustrating relationship with the French trains over the past 7 1/2 months. But let’s go to the start.

My relationship with the SNCF began when I was a young, optimistic, 18-year-old backpacker with nothing but love in my heart. I was charmed by SNCF’s allure. It was so efficient, so connected, it could take me anywhere- places I’d only dreamed of. After all, I was a mere Texan, where trains transported cargo or cattle, not people. It was easy to fall for SNCF’s appeal.

But as I grew older, and spent more time with SNCF, it grew distant. It let me down. It was unreliable, inconsistent and resistant to providing the information I needed. I became frustrated and bitter, longing for the unknowing innocence of my youth.

Oh SNCF. How complicated you are.

Oh SNCF. How complicated you are.

So now I write. I write so you can know. And because in spite of it all, I still have love for the SNCF.

Step 1: If possible, get a pass. 

First and foremost, decide how long you will be traveling in France. If you are traveling around Europe, consider Eurail. If you are traveling to multiple destinations in France, look into the passes.

For example, if you are under 25, or even if you are under 30, get the carte 12-25. It costs 50 euros and gives you anywhere from 25-60% off of tickets. Buy it in person as the website is hellish (more on that later). Sometimes it goes to 25, 27 or even 30. It depends on the deals they are offering. Bienvenue a SNCF.

*Note- you will need a french passport style picture. You can come prepared, or take one in any of the ready photobooths at the train station.*

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This little guy has saved me so much!!

STEP 2: Decide how fast, and how much (and no, this is not a Boratesque proposition…) TER vs. TGV. 

Depending on where you are going, and how much you want to spend, you might want to take the TGV or the TER (or a night train, but that’s a whole other ballgame).

The TGV is a high-speed train that gets to your destination faster and usually more comfortably. However, it is more expensive and contrary to popular belief, can be a pain in the ass (more on that soon). Here’s what you need to know:

  • TGV can cut your train travel in 1/2, so if you need to save time, it’s worth the cost.
  • There are two prices for the TGV- 2nd class and 1st class. Don’t waste your money on 1st.
  • You have assigned seats on the TGV. Look on your ticket for voiture, your car number, and place, your seat. When the train pulls up, it will have the car number on the side and when you get inside, you will see seat ranges to find your place (ex. 61-80 to the right). If all else fails, there are usually conductors for you to gesture at your ticket and figure out the right direction.
  • More often than not, to get to your TGV, or to get into the center of town, you will have to take a navette, or shuttle service. It basically looks like a big tour bus that costs anywhere from 1.50-2.50 euros.

This is where TGVs can be a pain in the ass. The stations are usually located on the outskirts of towns, so you have to take a navette from the local train station to the TGV station. Ultimately you pay for the navette, and take more time, as you’re out in the middle of no where. I would recommend sticking with local trains, the TER, unless you are traveling to big cities like Paris or Lyon. They seem to have it down.

The TER is the local train that usually takes longer (as it makes many stops), but is cheaper. Here’s what you need to know:

  • Again. Don’t waste your money on 1st class. Stick with 2nd.
  • Pay attention to “période bleue” and  “période blanche” when buying tickets. Blue is usually more expensive as it’s during commuting time. White is cheaper.
  • Pay attention to the train as it pulls in. You can get a preview of what kind of seating you want. Each train is different, and sometimes each car is different. You can have anywhere from normal seating, to cabin seating, where 8 people fit in one cabin. Depends on how you like to travel and how many you are traveling with.
  • If there is construction, sometimes your train is replaced with an autocar- a bus that will take you to your destination.
  • In big cities pay attention to the name of the train station. Sometimes there are multiple stations.

Sometimes you take more risks with the TER- delays, construction, cancellation, but the trains are cheaper, the refunds easier and usually you don’t have to wait long to catch the next available train. Usually.

*Note- A plus of the TER is refunds. Should you have any problems, you can get a full refund before your train departure. If you want to cancel or refund a TGV, there is a small fee.

IMG_2361

The cabins even have privacy curtains

Step 3: Reservations/Buying the Ticket

Depending on how much of a planner you are, you have a few options.

  1. Buy tickets online
  2. Buy tickets at counter (speak to person)
  3. Buy tickets from machine in the train station

1. Buying tickets online would seem like the easier option. However, if you do not have a French card, purchasing can be difficult. Be warned that the SNCF website can be confusing to say the least. This can help you through the process:

http://www.seat61.com/France-trains.htm#How to use voyages-sncf.com

2. If you have questions, do not know the best option, or need help arranging travel plans, speaking to someone with access to all the train times can be helpful. Usually you can find some one who speaks English and is more than willing to help. Again, usually.

3. If you have an idea of the destination and times, the ticket machines in the station can be your friend. It also has options for several languages. However, yet again, if you do not have a French card, this can be a problem.

Step 4: Riding the train

IMG_2369

Once you have successfully purchased your tickets. It’s time to ride the train! But wait- it’s not quite that simple.

First thing you need to do- arrive early. Give your self time to figure out where to go and to find the voie, or platform.

In theory, your voie is displayed 20 minutes before your train departure. Most of the time, it’s more like 10 minutes. If it’s anything under 10 minutes, seek help. Even if you don’t speak French, gesture at your ticket, and you’ll get somewhere. I made the mistake of growing accustomed to SNCF’s delays, and thought 5 minutes was plenty of time. Turns out, my “train” was an autocar.

IMG_4499

I was taking the 9:50 Valance train. Note the time…

While you’re waiting for you voie, composte, or stamp your ticket in one of the many machines. But wait! It’s not that simple either. More often, than not, the lovely machine will reject you. ….or at least your ticket.

P1030374

It’s temperamental

Turn your ticket multiple times- try the front, the back, the other side- until the machine has been appeased.

Once your number or letter comes up on the screen, follow the signs for your train and hop aboard!

P1030143

STEP 5: Extra- Things to Bring

Just as a little tid bit, these things can be quite helpful:

  • a book and/or music
  • scarf (doubles as blanket)
  •  granola bar/snack as train food is expensive and you don’t know when you’ll be delayed
  •  water bottle
  •  tissues- doubles as napkins and toilet paper
  • patience

All things considered, the SNCF has been there for me. It’s been temperamental and we’ve had our fair share of fights, but at the end of the day, it’s taken places- places I only dreamed of.