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.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

The right side of the tracks

There's an abandoned railroad that passes by my house, and Nikki & I followed it one day.

The juxtaposition of railroad (industrialization, Global North) and palm tree (leisure, South) blows my mind. Time to be more open-minded anyway.

And the vegetation that one finds on a rundown railway that runs through backyards and other dodgy places. There were some stunningly large plants that I couldn't recognize.

And finally, an olive orchard! Now I really feel Mediterranean.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

If you'd be so kind...

I have a request. Should you feel inclined.

I brought absolutely no teaching materials with me to France (I mean, c'mon, I didn't even bring sunscreen, what was I doing?), and I'm wishing I at least had decent pictures of my country to show off. I will make do just fine with my friend the Internet, but I would love to have American postcards! If you would send me a postcard (with a message that you wouldn't mind being read by French teenagers) I would be SO happy, and I will send you a French postcard (with French stamps) in return. (I hope that's a fair deal... if only French ice-cream shipped well...)

Email/facebook me for my address, if you're down! Thanks guys. :-)

PS Why I couldn't pack properly:

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

boats for my bros

After two days of teaching

Getting to know dozens and dozens of new people in the next few weeks means that I'll be learning as much, or more, than my students -- about these students, about French and France, about teaching (I hope).

I learned that President Sarkozy is not popular amongst my Tuesday afternoon high school seniors (terminales), on the grounds that he wants to change the driving age from 16 to 18. (Guess which current president is popular?)

One student asked me, in all earnestness, what I thought about celebrating Columbus Day; another asked me if I was married (and offered to introduce me to some people).

All the high school students like music: Eminem, Bob Marley, Outkast, a French singer they were aghast to learn I didn't know. I told them I didn't know any French singers, so they whipped out their ipods. But one girl said she only listened to American music, another said she only had Arabic music on her ipod, and the third flipped through song after song 'til she found something that would give me a good impression of French music.

That was the high school. At the middle school, the 11-year-olds jumped out of their seats to ask me questions and show off their English (or really for any other reason). I opened my red moleskin notebook, and a girl exclaimed, sotto voce, "Elle a le journal de Bridget Jones!" That class has been studying English for less than a month, but they're eager to hazard guesses at what I've said, and they pronounce the few sentences that they do know very carefully. They ask me my favorite color, my favorite food, if I like purple ice-cream, if I have any pets. Purple ice-cream, by the way, isn't "purple cow" or some other American oddity, but lavender, according to their teacher. Bien sur.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Sea and stone

Do you remember when I was first assigned to this particular town in France, and I google-imaged it, and smirkingly showed off pictures of stunning rock cliffs jutting from the sea into the sky? That's where I went today.

The formation is called a calanque in French, and it's like a fjord -- a narrow inlet of sea surrounded by very steep stone cliffs. To visit the one we saw, you first walk through the botanical gardens. I don't think any of the plants I saw were native to both New Hampshire and Provence, and since it was a botanical garden, some may not have been native to either. One of the other language assistants, who I went with, recognized a few plants: one that's used to make tequila; one that can heal cuts; one that produces fruit.

You keep walking along a cobble-stone path that becomes surprisingly steep for something so civilized. The path is shaded, sometimes by trees, sometimes by cliffs. Along the path are caves -- perhaps old cellars, but some perhaps were natural formations. The area apparently used to be a river delta, and so the cliffs are years of sediment. Water is stronger than stone, here.

Finally you reach the top, a little notch in between two peaks. It's like this:

The little scoops cut away from the cliff are natural, as far as I know; it's like when you make a sand castle, and the waves start eating it, and chunks fall off the sides (except, in this case, in slow motion).


So that was not exactly a proper calanque, I think; it was just the nearby cliffs. We went to a real calanque next, where you could sit on the beach in between the cliffs and gaze at this:

Pebbles, most a bit too big to skip, cover the beach. If you stand where land meets sea, you will slip, wave by wave, 'til stones bury your feet and water splashes your knees. The waves are small, but you hear them move: The inhalation before the crest; the breaking against the rocks, or the hollow clap against the cliffs; then softer, the clatter of pebbles being pulled back out to sea.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

A day in Marseille

A day and a half, really. I can't tell you about all of it, because there's only so many interesting things that can be said about paperwork, and they've already been said.

I had to go in Friday morning for a medical visit at the immigration office, so they could be sure I don't pose a risk to France. I don't, but now that I'm getting a taste of my first government health plan, I may pose a risk to the US.

It took barely an hour to go through the waiting, the tests, the waiting, and the paperwork, and then I was set loose on Marseille. Marseille is a grungy, strange port city that I love. The buildings, which are simple or run-down to begin with, are painted pale colors that don't hide the dirt. There are touristy things to do and buy, but other than that, it doesn't seem as if the city has dressed itself up for visitors. There are plenty of magnificent buildings, but they grow in a shabby soil. When I first visited Marseille, discovering the cathedral and so forth was all the more incredible given the setting.

Despite the human efforts, the natural setting of Marseille is amazing. It's surrounded by cliffs and sea and blue sky. The buildings are low and the light constant; the city is dirty but not shadowed. My experience of Marseille is not so much what there is to do there but how I feel there. Marseille feels good.

Eating well feels good too. As a certain comrade in ice-cream connoisseurship promised me, there are tons of bars that serve ice-cream -- or ice-cream parlors that have a night life. It's true that the Vieux Port (the center of the city) is lined with restaurants that say both "glacier" (glace = ice-cream) and "bar" on the awning. Ice-cream is wonderful. Today I tried lavender-honey ice-cream (la glace lavande-miel), which was as exquisite as you could imagine. Plenty of other places to eat, too -- a creperie where the crepes (ratatouille-egg-cheese and orange marmalade-chocolate) were too big for even me to finish -- and, of course, a falafel place -- definitely a high point in my falafel-eating career.

I've been pondering -- agonizing -- about what I want to get out of this year, and what will make it feel like a success or a failure. It may not be worthwhile to decide that sort of thing this early, or it may have been something I was supposed to consider when I was applying for the job. But all I really want to do is sit in the sun on the beach with my ice-cream. Is that so wrong?

The sea and me

The glamour: What doesn't feel better In The South of France? There's the luxury of swimming in late September with barely a shiver. There's the gorgeous beaming sun. Then, the water feels softer; it's perfectly clear, and the color of a jewel. The water is salty but the waves are gentle, so swimming is no harder than sunbathing.

The sea near me

A day in Marseille