Monday, December 28, 2009

Une creche

A creche is like a nativity scene combined with a Christmas village, except set in Provence. It's really just an excuse to make tons of rustic little miniatures. I've seen some with little mechanical devices, for example a well drawing water, or people moving.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Photodiary: December 27

Cats don't like to be photographed.

Cabbages do.

Blue is the new green

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Sing it loud; the three-month mark

If you look to your right, you will see my favorite verse from my favorite Bob Dylan song. It's there because I imagined this year as an adventure, a joyful adventure in which my long-muffled Soul would announce itself jubilantly from the hilltops. If souls grew as predictably as zucchinis, maybe things would have progressed as planned. As is, I haven't exactly spent this fall being the devil-may-care rebel that Bob probably had in mind. If you've asked me how things are going at any point these past months, the "it's a good experience" part of the answer (qualified praise that that is) is always accompanied by some "but" and some variation of "not easy."

Well, it's not. The three skills that would have been most handy -- teaching, speaking French, and making friends quickly, language barriers be damned -- have turned out to be ones that don't come naturally to me. I could also throw "herding cats" and "crowd control" on the list, but "teaching" should cover that, right?

Don't get me wrong; this is not a pity party post. I've turned a corner (we won't call it "the" corner), and I'm finally feeling more optimistic about this year. The thing is, it's good for me to be doing something I'm not good at. I've known this abstractly for a while, every morning that I gathered my courage to face down the flighty teenagers; each afternoon that I asked myself what I could do better next time, rather than throw my hands up in despair and count the days until vacation. (I'm being melodramatic and self-martyring right now, but not unreasonably so.) But it didn't feel like I was getting anywhere, and I wasn't getting better at teaching, and I still can't speak French beautifully, and, and.

And now, the moment where what I've learned finally clicks into place. I was in Ireland this weekend, playing chamber music. We were rehearsing, and there was something I wasn't quite getting. I didn't quite get it on the first try. I didn't quite get it on the second try either. And to be honest, I really don't think I got it in the concert, either. But in the moment where my group was politely listening to me throw tempo to the wind, I watched myself not get frustrated. Usually a failure to be perfect on the first try sends me into torrents of existential despair of the "I'm bad at life" variety, maybe even a little panic. You know, the kind of frustration that lets you walk away from a problem in disgust because you don't believe you'll ever solve it. This time, I watched the exasperation pass like a cloud and noted that I would have to dig in harder.

Christmas chowder

Red peppers & green peas.

On my return from Ireland

The raindrops were beaded like Christmas lights on the clothesline as the dusk fell pearly-grey; the wind shook the palm trees in the damp haze of the streetlights; the waves were heard leaping the beach to scatter detritus on the sidewalk; and I was in the glow of my lamp.

My trip to Ireland, to play chamber music and see friends, was so good, that I'm even happy to be by myself here in rainy Provence in my moldy apartment. As the train rolled closer to "home," the red roofs, scruffy flora, and jagged horizon looked new and welcoming. Not really new, since the land here looks old and the buildings tired, but new as if I was seeing anew. The homecoming that greets a long-traveling daughter, the voyage to a place seen only in the mind's eye never by daylight, the first time opening your eyes fully. "I live here," I told myself, here where walking through the hills feels like walking through an arid movie set.

What drug of new vision did my few days in Ireland give me? Partly that travel-rapture that has eluded me here in France. When I was a student in Paris, visiting Marseille, visiting Chartres, wherever I was, the slightest discovery was thrilling; returning this fall, I felt blase. I even went, very deliberately, to the particular cathedral that I once felt a certain kinship to. But no; nothing.

Now, Ireland. My excitement to go to Ireland was untempered and uncomplicated, and when I got there, I was as delighted as I had been prepared to be. The first day, I took a walk through the countryside. I was in such a rapture that I stopped to stare at chickens.

You may suspect that it would take something more than rain-rich pastures, or even cozy fires and unparalleled hot drinks, to cause such joy. You'd be right.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Friday, December 11, 2009

Another week of classes survived

There has been a slight uptick of successful classes lately. I still haven't gotten the hang of manipulating large groups of unwilling adolescents, and I may never, but when I can gather a few little students in a circle to chat for 50 minutes, things go well. More than six or so and you start getting into cat-herding territory. Not that I don't like cats, and in fact I have an adorable group of 15/16-year-old kitties on Friday mornings who are curious and playful and will respond however flittingly both to suggestions to be quiet and invitations to talk in English.* Yesterday I chatted for an hour with a charming group of five terminales (high school seniors) who, unless I flatter myself, were pleased to discover that English can be used to chat, not just to do grammar exercises, and to have a teacher sit and listen to them talk about themselves. The cool thing about teaching is that you have tons of kids in your life who you could potentially care about, and every so often you see them respond. Tuesday, two girls told me, "It's a good class, Madame!"

With one class, I had a worthwhile, if brief, discussion about multi-culturalism, via Kwanzaa. We worked through their confusion ("No, no, black people can still celebrate Christmas! And, uh, I guess white people can do Kwanzaa too?" I don't think we have segregated holidays in the US...? They were worried about the white people being left out of Kwanzaa) and they were impressed that we have a holiday to celebrate black heritage. They did tell me that they think US has more racism than France to which I say: Obama can take Sarkozy any day, and they know it. We got to Kwanzaa by way of the Muslim holiday of Eid. For my part, I made the mistake of assuming that that blond girl didn't celebrate Christmas because she was atheist or celebrated the Solstice or something. Turns out she was Muslim. Guess that goes to show that, Obama and Kwanzaa aside, we still have something to learn about stereotypes...

Of course a small group is no guarantee for success. For example, my terminales today who, when I mentioned that we were in English class to practice speaking English, told me "je parle pas anglais"** as matter-of-factly as if I had accidentally stumbled into a grocery store looking to buy a skirt, and went back to chatting in French until I was ready to get back on subject (whatever that may be). Luckily, I came to class armed with music, and they happily sang along (such as it were) to Winter Wonderland and We Wish You a Merry Christmas, and the class narrowly escaped complete failure.

Across the board, good kids or no, they all think they can get away with texting in class. They look embarrassed and surprised when I, smugly, swiftly and adeptly, catch them, but, really, what did they want me to think they were doing staring intently at their lap?

*I mean the cat analogy as affection rather than condescension; I think I respect my students.
** "I don't speak English."

Pretty food

To help you recuperate from the ugly cookies, here is the most delicious orange soup ever. It was beautiful.

December flowers

My landlady promises blooming mimosas in January.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Maybe I'll be a senator instead...

This is the batch I dropped.

This represents all the batches that started as cute, autonomous little stars and ended as blobs.

These are the success stories, to be broken into cookie-sized, if not cookie-shaped, pieces.
The most tragically burned were not photographed.


My nostalgia-driven baking adventure was for the benefit of a holiday gathering at Le Grand Portique. (These are cookies, by the way.) Le GP is an association in my town that offers opportunities for members of the community to glimpse the outside world; they periodically offer evening presentations by people who have done interesting things in interesting places. Among the 25 people there last Thursday night to share our holiday traditions were two Americans, two Italians, an English, a Mexican, a Paraguayan, a Russian family, and a bunch of French people.

It's nice to be reminded that even if America can export its blinged-out Christmas around the world, different countries are still different countries with different traditions. It's nice to be reminded that I still have plenty to learn. I told them about decorating our houses with lights, making gingerbread houses, and Yankee swaps; Yankee swaps, not because I've ever done one, but because I thought, correctly, that it would be something quirky enough to have escaped mass export. (Yup, you can count on Yankees for quirk.) Karima, the other American, explained Kwanza; I'm glad the French folk got to hear about the diverse, multi-cultural side of the US, and they received it well.

The best part, well, second-best to the hand-made Italian chocolates and whatever that cake was, was of course the singing. For all that America is the most dominant exporter of pop music, I often feel that there isn't quite enough spontaneous music-making in our lives. Not enough sitting around sharing songs. We the Americans offered Rudoph the Red-nosed Reindeer, which, as it turns out, uses a totally different musical idiom than the Russian, Italian, Mexican, and Paraguayan songs we heard.

My cookies, appearances aside, tasted fine, and were in good company with an impressive spread. The evening lingered late with dancing (salsa) and music.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Here and there

I've been getting a little mired in nostalgia lately. Did I tell you I was getting nostalgic for a particular midwestern bar? even though I have never once in my life been happy to be in any bar ever? Unreasonable. This trend is getting worse as we get deeper into the Holiday Season. I'm listening to Christmas carols, mooning over Christmas cookies, and obsessively wanting to make a gingerbread house. As far as I know, it's been at least ten years since any of those things even crossed my mind without being accompanied by due cynicism.

But here I am, here are the Christmas lights strung alongside the palm trees, and here I set out to make my American Christmas cookies: Translating ingredients, finding them in the store, converting cups to grams; in my damp, dark, slug-frequented kitchen, rolling out the dough with an empty wine bottle, baking the cookies six at a time in the toaster oven, and in the meantime nibbling bits of raw-egg infested cookie dough, something that never so much as tempted me as a child.

Next Christmas, when I'm in Mom's cozy kitchen with rolling pins and and tins of flour, I'll be nostalgic for department-store tinsel and make-shift batches of cookies, won't I.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

More revelations

My high school seniors were so, so not sold on the name "Santa Claus." "Ok, we have Saint Pierre, Saint Paul... Saint Cloos," they said. The sleigh, elves and North Pole toy workshop were all fine. But Santa Claus?

Let's not be reticent on good days!

Like many other teaching days, I woke up nervous today. Teaching is like giving a concert, which is cool, I like concerts, except I've been playing violin for 15 years and teaching for about a month and a half. Often enough, my worries are justified; I've had my share of unsuccessful teaching days. To be honest, I don't think I'm a natural at teaching, or the learning curve hurts, or I've been airlifted into an alien universe where nothing makes sense.

But not today! Today was gold. Teaching felt great. Thanks, I think, to the advocacy of one of the teachers, I worked with small groups today -- only 4-5 students at a time. With only 4 kids in class, we can sit together in a circle and have a conversation. It's hard to hide, so everyone gets a chance to bust out their English moves. So effective. So suited to my personality. (Have you ever seen me thrive amongst large groups? No, you haven't. And how do I like the "I talk you listen" model? I don't.)

This was one of the first times I've felt truly effective as a teacher. I felt like what I offered them was suitable and helpful and well-executed. After so many classes of feeling like I'm not doing anything for my students but confusing them, this felt so good. I do love those little punks, and I hate to let them down.

Some choice moments:
With the 10 year-olds: "What is dinde [turkey] in English?" "Dodo!" Exceptionally witty, that one. Faire dodo is a cutesy way to say "go to bed" in French. Yes, turkey makes you want to faire dodo. (Inadvertent wit, I'm pretty sure.)

At high school: We were analyzing a political cartoon, and one of my students came up with an interpretation that I had not thought of. Not that I have a monopoly on ideas, but using language to express abstract thoughts is glorious.

In the next class, we joked around about one boy's imaginary friend. Cross-cultural humor. Also glorious.

Later that class, I explained "sweat shop" to them. It's not a funny concept, but seeing them understand "sweat" and then trying to figure out what a shop of sweat might be... good fun. I'd forgotten how weird English is.

I have honed my plans for Christmas (Plan A was sitting alone in a darkened room drinking vodka and writing bad poetry). New and improved plan is an invitation from one of the teachers to have dinner at her house.

If good classes are my favorite thing, The New Yorker magazine is a close second (especially this). Thanks for the care package, Mom!

Out for a walk this afternoon, an elderly man fell on the sidewalk. No fewer than 5 people rushed up to help him, sit with him, and make sure he got home ok (it wasn't anything serious). It is deeply reassuring to know that even on a quiet, empty afternoon, there are still at least 5 people in this town who will help you if you fall.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Dinner in French

The English teachers from the high school hosted a dinner in my honor last night. I was impressed by how graciously they accommodated my vegetarianism. No one bothered me about why I didn't eat meat (tact or disinterest, I don't know), and their culinary flair didn't seem to suffer for lack of meat. There were three desserts, which surprised me, and no one seemed to mind how Americanesquely I (and others) tried all three.

There were a couple good moments of conversation -- nice to roll with a crowd who can walk the English Lit walk. There is also something very satisfying about talking about my country to non-Americans, which is my unquestionable authority (whether they know it or not). And when my French sounds the way a Calvin and Hobbes cut & paste ransom note looks, and what's more when I look like an unfashionable 16-year-old, a little credibility feels good.

Somewhere in the haze of the third glass of wine and a chocolate mousse I lost track of the conversation. No no, it was long before then. When I listen to spoken French, I have the impression that I understand. But really I don't. I assuage myself with the rhythm and the cadence that is becoming familiar; then I stop struggling to build paths around the words I don't know with the words I do. Unfortunately, the missing word is so often the punch line to the joke which I won't get, and I tie myself up in knots trying to understand. It's really hard to feel like a functional human when everyone is laughing and you have a perplexed look on your face (and possibly a quivering lower lip). This sort of situation can have complex side effects. For example, when I don't have the opportunity to laugh at normal, appropriate times, it comes out in the wrong places. For example, when someone starts throwing pieces of food at his colleagues.

This extreme gauchery reminds me of when I lived with a host family in Paris during my study abroad. Conversations were pretty excruciating. The up side was that when I returned to the US, my English had undergone a transformation. Before then I wasn't really fluent in English. I mean it's my native tongue and all, but I would stumble all over the place trying to find the right word at the right time. After three months of blaming my awkwardness on language skills, I refused to be awkward in English. And that was that.

I'm eager to see what transformations will become apparent when this year is out.

November flowers

So delicate to be blooming in November. Is that an autumnal shade of purple?

The flower vendors at the market are so appealing, and this grey morning I didn't resist.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

An expat Thanksgiving

Today, I'm thankful for friends and family worth missing and a home worth returning to -- and in the meantime, for a sunset walk along the sea, though solitary, and the dark-haired girl who didn't once stop smiling in class. I'm thankful for the chance to do something most people only wonder about, and I'm thankful that, difficult though it is, this is one adventure I won't have to regret not trying.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

My first strike

Did I ever tell you about the transportation strikes in Paris, back in '07? How we all got up extra early, packed onto one of the few trains that were running, walked miles because our connecting train wasn't running at all, and spent the whole day wondering if we were going to have to walk home or maybe there'd be a bus running for at least part of the way?

So that's one kind of strike. Then there's the teachers' strike.

My first reaction to a strike is to laugh. I mean, really? A strike? Medical, dental, retirement, and how many weeks of paid vacation? And I thought you weren't supposed to skip work when there was work to be done. (Although believe me, I am not one of those people who think teachers have it easy. Oh no. You try herding cats to prepare them for an exam.)

But. Who doesn't have complaints about their job, their boss, or their management, and good grief, all the more so when you work for the government, right? So really the only difference between us and them is that we complain at the water cooler and they complain and strike.

The idea of a strike is to annoy as many people as possible, one of the teachers explained to me, so that there's an impetus to change. But, as I grumbled to myself this morning, why must that mean annoying me? I called my supervising teacher last night, and she only told me that she would be striking, and that I should call the school in the morning to see about my other teachers. See, usually this is how my schedule works: A certain class has English with their teacher; the teacher sends me several (3-14) students from that class. So if the teacher is on strike, the students don't go to class, and I don't have to work. But if I don't know which teachers are on strike, I don't know which classes I have to be at. I called the school at 8:45 this morning to see if those teachers had showed -- they didn't know. I called at 10:15 (my first class starts at 11); they still didn't know.

So I went to school indignant, wishing I could know at least an hour in advance if I was going to be working. *grumble grumble grumble*

It turned out to be one of my favorite days yet. The school was dead quiet, with so many teachers and students gone. I did end up working for my full day, but it was actually a perfect working condition. In my first class, I had three students. We sat and chatted for an hour. The second class I had two students. The teacher and I spent the hour talking with them about Thanksgiving. Also amazing. It was also a chance for the teacher to see me in action, and, much to my surprise/delight/relief, she was really pleased.

Pedagogically, the small classes were brilliant. But we expected that. There was an unexpected effect as well. Since there were only a few teachers in the teachers' room at lunch, I actually had a chance to chat with several people who I'd never so much as exchanged bonjours with. While the other teachers are showing their solidarity in striking together, we back at the ranch had our own little solidarity going on.

Monday, November 23, 2009

French healthcare: Part I

I called the doctor at 2pm today and got an appointment for 4pm, same day.

Gave the receptionist my info and paid in full, to be reimbursed later. 22 euros (Three times my American co-pay, if you account for the exchange rate. Yes, we're comparing copay to full cost.)

Waited for about 10 minutes. Peeling paint and ugly furniture are not problems that can be fixed on a government-run budget, apparently.

Saw the doctor. She was certainly competent and efficient, and although I could have wished for a more cosmopolitan outlook from her, she was not unkind. I had a hard time understanding her, not so much because I was lost on the medical terms (I actually got all that), but just because there are some people who are harder to understand than others. I left her office feeling depressed about that, because I hate being the stupid foreigner who asks you to repeat yourself again and again. Let's face it, there's no way to sound intelligent while saying, "I don't understand." On the other hand, I'm a little proud of myself, because, while it was not gracefully executed, I did get myself through an entire doctor's appointment in my second language.

I left the doctor's office with my prescription print-out of four items, which I took to the first pharmacy I passed. The woman who helped me there was very helpful and patient about my foreignness. She collected the medicines, explained to me how to use them, explained to me how to get reimbursed by my insurance, made sure I had the proper papers, etc. The total cost for two things of antibiotics, anti-septic spray, anti-septic cream, and bandaids was 37 euros.

Because doctor's visits are reimbursed at 70%, some medicines at 65% (including my bandaids) and others at 35%, my 59 euros worth of healthcare will end up costing 23 euros.

What do you make of that?

Amping up the Frenchness

Guys, I'm really excited. I'm going to experience some profoundly, quintessentially French things this week.

Today I have my first ever French doctor's appointment. (Nothing serious. A problem that even the quackiest of quacky quacks has eventually cured.) Because, remember, I have French Health Insurance. If this goes well, I'm going crazy with medical fun.* I could get my teeth cleaned (yes, dental insurance!)! I could get regular check-ups! I could -- I could --

Tomorrow is a very special event in France, one that only occurs all the time. A teachers' strike! The government did something to the teachers (I didn't catch what, I was busy frolicking with my benefits package), and they're going to protest. The idea, as one of the teachers explained to me, is to annoy as many people as possible. So the students will all go to school, but without knowing if they'll have any teachers. I myself do not know if I'm going or not. I might be on a shopping spree with my health insurance.

Full report to follow.

*I should say, I've always been lucky to have great insurance coverage back in the US. It's just realizing that that ends by the time I'm 25, and then what?

Friday, November 20, 2009

A short reprieve

Here by popular demand, a full account of Lenny's visit to Provence.

It was sunny and we sat outdoors and drank coffee.

Yes, the whole day. Well, until it was time to sit outside and drink wine, and then time to sit inside and eat dinner, and yes there was time to walk along the seashore.

What better way to spend the day?

Thursday, November 19, 2009

A good day at the ranch

I've been struggling to write a blog about teaching for several days, with no success. No coincidence that the past several days have been a little rough (Monday excepted)? But I enjoyed myself at school today, so I'm jumping at the opportunity to write an upbeat entry.

The English teachers are throwing a dinner party in my honor. They've even set a date, and it's really going to happen. Some of them even talk to me now! And a couple days after this dinner party, I'm going to someone else's house for dinner.

I still have no way to decide if my classes are "successful" or not. Is our children learning? Who knows. But I'll settle for amusing myself. And I laughed plenty today. I had them invent biographies for these random people (mostly pulled off The Sartorialist), and later make up stories using five random words they drew from a hat. While some students were happy to chat in French and ignore their work, some got it together and came up with brilliant stories. Highlights were the politician who killed a fox at brunch with hairspray; something about Star Wars, time travel, and killer-bananas; and finally the guy from the photo who likes "sex, drugs, and rock and roll." I know I'm not supposed to laugh, but you have to understand, these kids do not have a sophisticated command of English, so when they bust out something like this, it just kills me.

And my classic ESL moment du jour: These kids were goofing around instead of working (yes, really), and I asked them reproachfully, "Are you working?" The one boy repeated slowly to himself, "are... you... working...", thought for a moment; then the lightbulb went off and he scrambled to look busy.

My supervising teacher gave me a CD of materials for the terminales (seniors), who have a major exam at the end of the year. On their exam, they will be given an image or a quote, and they'll have to talk for 10 minutes on that subject; my new CD has images that have been used in past years. (That counts as, like, an entire semester course of teacher training! I mean it's really not, but considering how little training I have, it's a bonanza. It was nice of her to think I might need help, too. Because, good god, do I ever.) I'll probably use images I find on my own (that represent multiple facets of the US, rather than just the one), but at least now I know what's expected of them.

So maybe there are undercurrents of snark here -- maybe I'd kind of hoped that everyone I met would leap at the opportunity to listen to me butcher French, that all the teachers would shower me with wisdom, and that every day at school would be a joyous occasion of language-making. But maybe I'm getting there.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Paper airplanes...

...are actually really funny. Please don't tell the teacher.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Autumn in Avignon

I haven't posted any pictures yet from vacation. And I know that's not right.

Walk out of the youth hostel, turn left and see: the Rhone River, the Pont d'Avignon (do you know the song?), and a little bit of Notre-Dame-des-Doms and the Palais des Papes.

Le Palais des Papes, 14th century home to the popes and their entourage.
It's mostly huge and stone, with cool features like secret underground coffers to stash their wealth.

Inside, looking out.

Less than an hour away from Marseille by train, yet Avignon looks totally different -- it actually looks like fall. The color of the stone and the particular quality of fallness made me surprisingly nostalgic for Paris.

I'm turning into my mother :-)

I've been meaning to take a picture of my adorable little French eggplants for ages. (Which is something my mother would have thought of and done weeks ago, hence the title.) Are they not the cutest little things you've ever seen? I can't tell you how delicious they are, sauteed in olive oil, with maybe some tomatoes, chick peas, and bell peppers for good measure.

They're posing here with my shopping basket, that I bought expressly for filling with fruits and vegetables at the market. Have I mentioned how beautiful the market is? It is probably the one thing I will miss the most about France. Unlike American farmers' markets, I don't believe the vendors are actual farmers; which means that the produce could still be imported from non-Provencal locations. (Not sure locavorism has quite caught on here...) But what amazes me every time is how much really high-quality produce is available for such low prices. I filled my basket with eggplants, bell peppers, clementines, kiwis, tomatoes; plus bananas and apples. At an American grocery store, would that not cost more than 7 euros? And would it not be a little difficult to find nice tomatoes and nice clementines at the same time? I don't know how they swing it, but it really seems a lot easier -- in terms of quality, availability, and cost -- to eat a ton of fruits and vegetables here than it did in the US.

Another observation on health. There are McDonald's here, and there are advertisements for McDonald's. And at the bottom of every ad for fast food, there is a reminder that, for your health, you should exercise regularly and eat at least five fruits and vegetables a day.

More on le mistral

Now that it's 10 degrees colder in the South of France than in my old northern stomping grounds, there's heat on in the school, and I got my shoes soaked through by the rain last night, can I complain about the weather?

I don't really want to complain. In a confusing, unfamiliar way, I think it feels like fall. When I walked out my door this morning to go to the (open-air) market, it felt even wintery. You know those bright winter days we have in NH, where the sky such a clear, icy blue and the air is so dry, and there's nothing stopping the sun from shining, but you can tell just by looking at the sky and the way the light falls that it's winter? It felt like that. Except, I must be losing my grip on reality, because it's really not cold at all. The wind can be fierce, as it is today, but it isn't needles to the face so much as chaos in the air. And when the wind stops, the air is gentle.

It's not swimming weather, but it's not bad. It is weird, though. It's weird to go out in the evening, at 6pm, when it's already dark, so it feels like winter is coming, and yet... by day there are palm trees, so it looks like summer. There's a strange cognitive dissonance going on. I am curious to see how it will feel to have a winter without snow. I'm guessing that I will be tricked into feeling normal. After all, we wouldn't want to subject even weather to ethnocentrism.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

My week in food

A culinary summary of this past week, eating on the cheap:
Default sandwich: Variations on a Nicoise salad, involving a half-baguette featuring tuna and olives. A little drizzle of Provencal olive oil and pepper really goes a long way.
Olives: These are REAL olives. I've walked past the olive trees. They are pungent and potent and ever so olivey. These beasts are not for everyone (and I'm only just now developing a taste for the little punks), but there is no arguing with some quality olive oil.
Fougasse aux olives: Some brilliant, delicious pastry with a shiny, slightly sweet patina, slightly sweet cheese filling and olives. I was not prepared for how delicious this was going to be.
The latest in ice-cream: Olive oil, honey and nougat (?). Still don't know what the nougats were, but for a relatively unsweet ice-cream, this was a cool experience. I have no idea where the ice-cream place was, though -- could be any one of millions of little streets in Arles...
Pistacio-apricot tarte. Creamier than an American fruit pie, and a beautiful shade of green. Why must bakeries put such pretty things out in the window to tempt weaklings like me?
Chausson aux pommes. Puffy pastry with apple compote (think apple butter) inside. At a high-end bakery (like a certain one in Nimes, near where my last sighting of that intriguing stranger took place...), this stuff is serious.
Coffee. It would still be delicious even if it weren't in those cute, cute little mugs.
Hot chocolate. In the cafe where Van Gogh used to hang out. And yes, for that, you may charge me that much for a little cup of ordinary hot chocolate. The put a little packet of sugar on the saucer, too.
Bread and cheese. I can't go long without this stuff.

Next week: Vegetables (have I ever mentioned how cute French eggplants are??) and lesson plans.

Avignon, Nimes, Arles

I just spent the last week all around Provence, seeing sights and thinking thoughts -- I can't decide what to tell you about.

The main points revolve around ancient buildings (including Roman structures from the 1st century AD and a 14th century papal palace); wandering through impossible tangles of French streets and stumbling upon places I may never find again; contemplating art from the 14th and 21st centuries; eating (yes, really); and talking with all sorts of nice people. We could also get into both the introspection I had time for, my renewed appreciation for my bathroom (toilet seats! you don't see those every day), and small epiphanies on language.

I walked through a lot, a lot of very old stone buildings. No sooner did I recover from the shock of a 14th century palace, than what should appear but a 1st century arena. It is impossible for my 23-year-old mind to grasp 2000 years old -- although my young viscera definitely got the "I know this tower has lasted 2000 years, but can this narrow winding stone staircase really hold up until I get to the bottom safely?" bit. So we must be impressed then by the size and grandeur of the structures -- but even that's out of reach. At its finest, the architecture is so perfectly proportioned that it doesn't feel huge and you don't feel small; but the people walking around in front of you do seem a little silly in their irrelevance. I wonder what it was like to be walking around these buildings not as a reverent visitor, but as an inhabitant? I'm talking about the Palais des Papes, temporary seat for the Popes when they were in Avignon (starting around 1309, I believe), a place that housed not only the pope but the hundreds of people who worked with, under and around him; I'm talking about the 1st century AD Roman arenas, where 20,000-30,000 people could watch machismo in its bloody glory. What would it be like to see all that lavish extravagance as functionality rather than a sacred cocoon of History?

History's overwhelming; let's talk about Art. I saw two art museums: One of medieval Italian paintings, one of contemporary photography and sculpture. I realize that my nerdiness really borders on snootiness when I get all excited about Art and Western Culture and the New Yorker magazine and all those fancy elitist things that people pretend to like, but, seriously, fusty old paintings are a big deal. Looking at what one man (or woman) decides to put in one frame that ostensibly represents one moment in time puts me in their mind like nothing else can. Because of course they couldn't possibly confine the meaning of the painting to only one idea, even if they wanted to. What informs their decision to choose those expressions, those colors, those gestures? Nothing less than the entire world they live in. And so in room after room of Virgin Mary and Child, we see not the same woman with the same child but dozens of different artists as people, the towns they lived in, the conversations they had, the qualities they valued... as many enigmas as insights.

Wandering through narrow, windy little streets, or across ancient stone floors, is the best way to mull over all these thoughts about art and places and the world and what I'm doing here. And none of these words looks quite the same on my laptop screen as it did floating above a ivy-shaded shuttered window somewhere in Arles. I'll try again later.

The writing on the wall

"Smoking kills."
In America, this would be to avoid a lawsuit. In France...?


"Long live the Pope."
What century am I in?

Sunday, October 25, 2009


I went on another hike today, again along the cliffs by the sea. I figure you're sick of all my sea & stone pictures by now, so I'll give you a break to show you some trees.

Above is an oak tree (chene, en francais). It's about two feet tall, if that, and the leaves are the size of my thumb and very sharp. More like dangerous shrubbery than a tree (dangerous, especially when trail blazing). It's surprising how fierce plants become in this climate.
Below is the shrub version of pine (pin); again, about a foot tall.
Hiking through patches of rosemary (romarin), fennel (fenouil), olive orchards (oliviers) and vineyards (vignes), by the way, is like a gourmet kitchen turned inside out and became the whole world. I cannot tell you how fragrant and delicious these things are fresh.

Ok... just one. I couldn't resist.

What I would have said to Toto

There are only two things that make me fully aware that I'm in a foreign country. They are not: That everyone around me speaks a language I still don't understand; the pink stucco houses with terra cotta roofs and palm trees in front; the bizarre bureaucracy; the sea, the mountains, the landscape; my permanent cluelessness; the strange cell phone plans; the inscrutable behavior of the young 'uns; the persistently warm weather; all of those things I can accept.

They are: seeing the French flag, and hearing someone speak about the United States as a foreign, even exotic, country. Those are the only two experiences that truly give me the vertiginous understanding that I am far from home.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

the scenic route and a sunset

My town, from above. Far, far above.
The following two are pictures of the neighboring town.
Again, in the first of these, I need to point out that that is a really steep cliff. Really steep.
Notice the lack of guard rails.

Deceptively lush.

More assorted thoughts on where I live

Lunchtime, for the shops, is from 12-3, maybe 3:30. Everything shuts down for a serious mid-day break. The whole concept of rushing around to do errands during lunch time must not exist here.

I'm finding that my Boston driving experience (such as it were) was not bad preparation for navigating French towns. Straight lines and square blocks are not the thing here. The map of my town is a fascinating tangle of streets, most named after someone. (Marseille is similar.) Less so in Marseille, but here the streets are very narrow and twisty, especially downtown. I'm often surprised to realize that what I thought was some seedy alley is actually a full-fledged road with real stores along it. What's more, these roads often look like pedestrian-only streets (think cobblestones and Church St, Burlington), but cars do drive on them and they do honk at you if you're in the way.

My cell phone is second-hand, not exactly the hippest new model, but I only just realized that the little icon that tells me I have a new voicemail is not a little robot face, it's a cassette tape. Cassette tapes and cell phones shouldn't mix, right...?

In chatting with some locals last night, I gleaned that the Pres. Sarkozy supporters around here are in serious hiding, if they even exist. (I'm just going to note that among Sarko's first presidential acts in 2007 was a visit to his friend George W. Bush. You get the idea.) It's interesting to hear how different people talk about him: The retired teacher who has taken us assistants under her wing complains that his French is embarrassingly poor; my students complain that he wants to raise the driving age.

The subject of my French skills is a broad and sensitive one; without getting into all the unpleasant details, I will just say I'm totally confounded by the use of formal vs. informal "you." I vouvoyer (that's the formal version) pretty much everyone who isn't clearly younger than me (which is most everyone, since most of the people I see are fellow teachers and I don't speak to my students in French). There's something a little uncomfortable about being so formal with people I see regularly, but I prefer that to being rude or presumptuous. Last week, one of the other teachers (the youngest one, as far as I can tell) told me I could say "tu," the informal "you," and laughed, not unkindly, but with a tone that suggested I should have known. So I'm still uncomfortable and confused. Probably time to play the Helpless Foreigner card and get someone to explain to me.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Comments about my town

I walked through the downtown today. Everyone was dressed like a pirate.

I must be the oldest non-baby-producing woman in this town. Seriously. It is very, very rare to see a young (like my age young) couple walking down the street without a baby or two. Tons of pregnant women, tons of very young men by themselves pushing strollers. Surely, there are some single people? Or are they all holed up in their apartments writing blogs? Oh, and I'm pretty sure those are engagement rings I've seen on some of my students. (Obviously, I'm skirting the main issue, which is that for every diamond ring, there is a French man who is not single. I'm going to need better odds here.) But anyway, maybe it's just my skewed perspective, but this is a striking trend.

This town is not as small as others I've lived in, but it does have the small town quality that I always see people I know when I go places. Mind you, I've only met about 10 people, counting only people whose names I remember. (Oh yeah, and like a gajillion students, and I never remember their names?) So it's amazing when I run into people I know. For example, at this lecture this evening I saw a good half-dozen people who I could greet by name. Amazing.

Ok, back to the pirate costumes. There's a 1720 celebration this weekend, commemorating the arrival in 1720 of the plague. The main road by the sea, where the market is, is all decked out in 18th century costume. They covered the pavement with dirt and hay, the restaurants lining the road have hay bales everywhere, there are tons and tons of people in full period dress (not just pirates), musicians strolling the streets, lots of street food (crepes and vin chaud! be still my heart!) and the usual market fare (cookies, cheese, sausages, crafts, clothing) but with a slightly 18th century feel. They may have had snake charmers, too.

It poured for two days this week (after they laid down the dirt and hay for the festival, unfortunately). After a month of lovely weather, I was incredulous to have jeans so sodden they took a full day or more to dry. The sun is back, though, don't worry.

Ice-cream. Oh my. Ice-cream. I never didn't like the stuff, but here, both my town and Marseille, the ice-cream is exceptional. Including: melon, pear, black-current, lavender-honey, and nutella. Every time I go out for ice-cream (I aim for twice a week), I can try a flavor I've never had in the US. The flavors are so elegant! There are some that are laden with candy, cookie-dough, all that good stuff, but mostly they represent one simple, beautifully executed flavor. There are actual pears in the pear ice-cream, actual honey in the lavender-honey. Except the one ice-cream stand that offers what I believe is Smurf ice-cream.

Along the same lines, I can't get over the eggplants that I've been eating. Mmm. Eggplants.

More to follow.

One month done: I only get eight of these!

And now I've been here a month.

I've started teaching, I have my little apartment, a library card (yeah, I'm on week 4 for this book, don't worry), the grocery store, bakery, and ice-cream stand that I frequent; all of which must mean I'm "settled in"? I don't feel it -- I'm still very much a foreigner. Let's not even get started on my French... I have a cell phone with no credit left and a land line whose number I still haven't memorized. Living abroad is definitely harder this time than last time, for pages and pages of reasons, I suppose. I realize that living five minutes from the Mediterranean in a town that has seen two days of rain in the past month limits my entitlement to complain, though, so I'll try not to wallow.

Teaching is making me think. I have left my classroom smiling most days these past two weeks (today being the exception). I love working with teenagers (god help me), and I love teaching my language. I'm fascinated by the personalities that emerge in the classroom, the things they'll say. I'm fascinated by the students' struggles to express themselves in English. Of course I relate to that experience, since I know all too well the feeling of having an idea and having no idea how to realize it in words (both when speaking French and when speaking English...). And I'm fascinated by the work that I have to do to make myself understood.

I don't remember relating to teenagers when I actually was one, and it's not easier now. I know less about the adolescent world, but on the other hand I come to school each day fully prepared to love each of my students (and I do). I just wish there was some way to reach all of them...

This is what's making me really think about teaching: I love my students, and they absolutely have it in them to speak English. But how to convey that to a whole bunch of kids all at once? and how to give them the opportunity to be successful in English? How to give them the confidence to speak strongly (in English)? Even in a class with just 12 students, there are a few who answer all the questions, a few who talk all the time, but never in English, a few who very politely but desperately tell you they don't understand anything you've said, and a few who slump silently in either boredom or despair. How on earth can I help each of them at the same time?!?!

I don't suppose I could fit the role of idealistic young bleeding-heart liberal rookie teacher any better. Let's hope I never see jaded.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Hiking by the sea

As you can see, we were intrepid little mountain goats, scrambling along rock faces like that (above). Below, please realize that there was a very, very steep, tall cliff between the hikers and the sea, and we had only a very narrow little path to walk on. Thrilling stuff!

The Mediterranean isn't exactly something you get sick of looking at . . .

Our hike was a guided tour, with a large group and a botanist and a geologist. As you can imagine, I didn't quite catch everything those sciencey folks were saying (non-technical French is hard enough!), but I did get that this region is the driest in France, but there are some 900 species of plants nonetheless (did I hear that right?). There are tiers of habitats, starting with the ones closest to the sea, where there's too much salt and wind for much to grow, and continuing until the other side of the hills, protected from the wind, where actual trees can grow. The trees facing the sea don't grow straight; they grow sideways, forced by the wind.

You probably think by now that I live in some vacation paradise where all is warm and sunny. It was shocking for me too, to realize that this land is actually quite rugged. The first I noticed that was swimming on a windy day, and I could feel the sea fighting back. That huge body of water - it wasn't just there to pamper me! It is a beast in its own right. The wind here too can be very fierce. It was after one especially windy day -- so windy it scared me, almost! -- that I started to notice how rocky and rough the land was, and how it resisted the power of the wind, and how it will continue to all winter.