Monday, September 28, 2009

Good morning, Teacher, please take out a sheet of paper... and another...and another...

Ostensibly, I'm here in France to teach English, so I took a break from strolling along the sea to make an appearance at my high school to fill out paperwork.

Both "high school" and "[French] paperwork" are places you don't want to go, but surprisingly, it was the most encouraging few hours I've spent yet this week. (Perhaps being the most relevant...)

I went with Elizabeth, who is a retired English teacher and, as far as I'm concerned, a superhero. She has dedicated herself to helping us language assistants settle in, and I haven't had to do much on my own yet, thanks to her -- she helped me open my bank account (THAT is an epic tale of paperwork in its own right), buy phone credit (omg, SO circuitous), and fill out forms that allow me to be paid. She's a kind woman and easy to chat with, which counts for plenty when all this is going on in your second language. It's encouraging to see her perplexed by the same peculiarities of French systems that perplex me.

The forms she walked me through at the school were not unduly complicated; the glory of French bureaucracy is in the photocopying. There are currently enough photocopies of my passport to wallpaper France, except of course you couldn't really, because each copy is in some very important government folder in some very important office. (The phone store has a copy, too.) The bank was even better. The clerk could sign those papers like nobody's business (it wasn't until the third page, when the official stamp came out, that I realized he wasn't just testing the pen; and believe me, he was barely warmed up by page three), and the pages kept churning out of the printer. For simply opening a bank account, I have an entire booklet of papers. Sorry, trees...

Lest it become Kafkaesque, everyone realizes the absurdity of what they have to do. It's not the bank clerks or the school secretaries who require book-length bank accounts, and, maybe self-conscious in the presence of a one-click-banking American, mockery flew freely as the photocopies.

So navigating all that at the bank last week and at my school this morning was no small victory, and I emerged unscathed.

Having taught for years at my lycee before retiring, Elizabeth showed me around a bit -- library, what seemed to be the teachers' room. It's quite high-school-like, but otherwise fine. I met a couple secretaries (one of whom kept referring to me as the "little American" -- is that a compliment, or to distinguish me from the rest as she imagines us...?), the librarian (eccentric, phew), and an English teacher.

I don't know if they were surprised that I could speak any French at all, but most of the people I met told me I speak French well. I know it's shallow to feed off of compliments, and I should have self-confidence independent of other people's opinions of me, iknowiknow, BUT I speak French ten times better the instant a real French person tells me I speak well. (Even if they're being polite... or just straight up lying...) I ended up being immersed completely in French for the entire morning, and it felt wonderful. Especially so, having understand as much as I did, and having left with the sound of French lingering in my ears.

And finally. In retrospect, the girl may have thought that I was a new student arriving at the school, but when the librarian showed me the shelf of English and American plays, one of the students nearby gave me a wonderful, sincere smile. ah. :-)

French flowers and Mediterranean Colors

Roses, from my landlord's garden, and morning glories on my way to the sea.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Cucumber-mint soup, from the grocery store

It's so pretty... I've almost convinced myself it tastes good too...

Thursday, September 24, 2009

The first meeting with my little French town

I nearly posted my first in-France entry last night, hours after arriving, but I'm glad that I didn't. Traveling here was interesting enough, but in my haze of fatigue, nothing looked even tolerable, and I couldn't be excited about living here.

But this afternoon's sun-, sea-, sugar-high made me feel at home. Nikki, my roommate, offered to show me around town a bit. The sea (that would be the Mediterranean) is just down the hill from us, and we followed the water until we got to the center of town. I'd forgotten how striking the landscape is here. When you're standing facing the water, you see not open water, but the rugged filigree of the coastline. The outline of the cliffs that rise up sharply from the sea were a bit hazy in the afternoon heat. The elusive distant peaks... some that have really craggy contours begging to be explored.

We wandered about town, Nikki showing me places I would need (bus station, post office, ice-cream shops -- ever tried melon ice-cream?), and stopped at a small cafe for a Coke.

And really stopped; stopped to talk with the proprietor and whoever that woman was hanging out. Somehow they started a conversation with us that ambled on for nearly an hour. ("You call the USA; call Barack Obama -- Barack Obama. Tell him to stop the war.") Along the way, little glass cups of tea (mint, sugar, and sugar) appeared for us to drink (later he showed us how he makes it -- 3 liters of water, 20 spoonfuls of leaf tea, 45 cubes of sugar, big handsful of fresh mint). Of course you can't have tea without something sweet to nibble, and voila, there were our pastries -- "to taste" -- light, fluffy almond and vanilla cookies, and something with I think semolina and dates. It was all lovely.

While he was on a roll, maybe because we complimented the tea glasses, he showed us each piece of artisanal crockery and decoration in the entire restaurant, most from North Africa, some that he had made -- a tile-mosaic tabletop with the name of the restaurant worked in. We eventually left, but not before he gave us each small ceramic mugs with the name of the restaurant written on them.

So I walked home in the sun by the sea with a very pleasant sugar buzz, and who could be anything but content?

Everyone has been very friendly and helpful from the moment I landed in Marseille. Stunningly friendly and helpful, really. The woman at the airport info desk was perfectly charming through several rounds of explanations about trains and buses and ticket-machines; a stranger at the train station helped me buy a ticket when my credit and debit cards weren't working (don't worry; I got that sorted); the cashier at the train station tobacco shop explained very slowly, meticulously, and repetitively the difference between the two types of phone cards; someone met me at the train station when I finally got to my town... that's not a complete listing! I could go on! So French people aren't snooty, aloof or unhelpful, agreed?

Tomorrow I buy sunscreen (after one day, I have more freckles on my arms than I ever have in my life; I'd just soon maintain my prestige as palest person in town), sign my lease (which I think is called bail in French... au contraire, don't you think?), and open a bank account. Maybe that will all be fun too...?

PS I miss you, my dear friends from home! All your Facebook & blog comments have been warmly appreciated, believe me!

My Little French House by the Sea

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Surely you've heard by now: I'm moving back to France. Late September through sometime in May will find me in a smallish city on the coast of the Mediterranean. If all goes as planned, I'll share a little vacation villa not a mile (kilometer[s]?) from the beach with another young woman who is in France for the same reason I am: to be an assistant English teacher at the local schools.

If you're wondering when I became a beach bum with a penchant for the pedagogical, don't worry, I'm not -- yet. There is absolutely nothing about this adventure that I feel qualified to do, and that is exactly why I'm going.

I will work with French high school (lycee) and middle school (college) students, mostly high school. As of right now, I like teenagers. Updates to follow.

When I was preparing to study in Paris during my senior year of college, I remember being so overwhelmed by the nausea of paperwork that I thought, "If I had known what this would be like, I would not be doing this!" Of course by the end of the first day, jet-lagged and full of wine and cheese, it was already worth everything. For the next three months, nearly everything fell on the "worth it" side of the balance. So I keep reminding myself.

Hopefully the visa form and the slew of mysterious-acronym forms will be canceled out in the bus ride between the airport in Marseille and my new hometown (the drive between Marseille and Cassis, a neighboring town, is stunning, and it won't be less stunning the second time). From then, each day will probably be a shifting balance between "worth it" and "not worth it," ending without a doubt on the "worth it" end. There's no chance this will be a wasted year; I just mean that it will be hard.

The balance is completely on the panicked side for now.

However, what could be so difficult it couldn't be fixed with some pain au chocolat (that is a chocolate croissant, my friends, and my undoing) or Mediterranean sun? I ask you.

I am excited to be speaking French again (such as it is...), and to be living somewhere different enough that every routine will have to be reinvented. I won't speak too soon, but I might enjoy teaching English (remember, I come from a family where debating the meaning of the word "runcible" is typical dinner conversation).

I leave in just over two weeks. You can find me here (often, most likely), or my other online haunts, and please be in touch!