Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Blogging FAIL...part 2?

So apparently this is a theme with my abroad trips: I blog a big in the beginning, and then I fall away from it. Why?

It's not as if I am lacking in things to say; it's quite the opposite! I have so much to say at any one time that it seems kind of overwhelming to sit down and pick something to write about. Also, I've been lazy. Let's not sugarcoat it too much. Another thing I'm not lacking during these months in France is free time. I've such an abundance of it, I actually don't know what to do with myself sometimes. (I know, I know, you're thinking "You're in France, and you don't know what to do with yourself?!" But with a limited budget, you can only travel so much :-P )

Aaaanyway, I'll do a bit of a photo montage to sum up what the last few months have been like.
New Years in Paris - apparently we weren't the only ones with this idea.... 

Allie visited! So nice to see my cousin and do some exploring :-D
Liz, Maureen, Marissa, and Alastair on NYE!

Allie and I took a trip to the port town of Dieppe. It was beautiful, we had a wonderful meal, and we saw this amazing rainbow.

2nd trip to Dieppe with Marissa, Julia, and Alastair. Such a charming place!

This is the Panorama of Rouen, where Monet sometimes went to observe the city from above. The view inspired several of his paintings. It's about a 20-minute walk from my apartment!!

This is the view from the Panorama. It's not hard to see why Monet was so inspired. I love that I can find a quiet spot in an otherwise bustling little city. Nothing like a little perspective!

It snowed in Rouen!!! This is the view from my window. I'm happy to report, this is the only snow we got this year. I'm in the "one good snow per year is perfect" camp. One thing, though: Normans don't know what to do with snow. It stayed very much like this for about a week, until we had a few warm/rainy days and it melted. I can only imagine the lawsuits that would stem from such a situation in the States...
Jenn came to visit me!  The Sacré Coeur might be my favorite place in the city. Miss you Jenn!
Visitors always allow me to re-discover Paris and its many charms.
...visitors also serve as the perfect partner-in-crime for discovering yummy French pastries, YUM.
This demonstrates two things the French take very seriously: recycling and wine. Happy Sunday morning to everyone!
I spend the weekend at my friend Christina's house, and we made a traditional French scallop recipe for lunch, with a delicious wine-cream sauce. If you know French cuisine, you know that butter, cream, and cheese are usually involved, often simultaneously. And wine.

It's amazing how many people pack the cafés once there is a hint of sunshine breaking through. I would love if the US adopted this "café culture"! People just sit, chat, enjoy life, people-watch, and detach from their computers/cell phones for a little while. Above is the scene from me and Julia having a café one day: same phone, same café, and water! Side note: the stereotype that the French smoke a lot is most often true; the ashtrays are a permanent fixture on every outdoor table and not ours :-)
Smoking kills!

So that was the gist of my life until February vacation, during which I took a trip to Marrakech (Morocco), Madrid, and Barcelona. I had the time of my life, and I'll share that in my next update. There WILL be one this time!

A toute à l'heure!

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

I'm watching you watching me

One thing I have noticed during my time in France is that the French are observers. Not only are they extremely aware culturally and politically, they are incredibly socially aware. Let me explain what I mean by that.

I never noticed how anonymous I felt in America until I spent some time in France. Walking down the street, each person I pass by here gives me the once-over, sometimes almost undetectable in the split second that it happens. However, it happens almost without fail for every single person I pass on the street, in the metro, on the train. They just like to look! And if they know you well enough, they will almost certainly comment on whatever it is they've just observed.

If you have a large lunch one day, it's "Wow, you must be hungry today!" Drop a chickpea on your lap? A little giggle from someone across the table. Yawn slyly to the side? You'll probably get a, "Ooh, you're tired today!" I've since learned to yawn more stealthily while at school.

If you hadn't noticed, French cafés are set up with the chairs facing the street - because the street is a stage! Women passing by one another in the street will assess the other's outfit, shoes, and general sense of style (or lack thereof). People speaking or laughing too loudly will suffer the stares of everyone in their general vicinity. Oohh...did you drop something? Perhaps trip a bit on that section of uneven sidewalk? Look around - someone is watching you!

Now this may be a tad dramatic, but the point is, I am living in a country of observers. Keen observers. Undercover-agent-for-the-CIA type observers. Interestingly, when I went to Berlin for Christmas break, I realized that wonderfully, beautifully, mercifully, Germany seemed to be the opposite. They seemed to be a country of "do what you want"-ers.

I hadn't realized how much I missed that feeling of anonymity, of being able to behave how I naturally do without worrying about the social repercussions. I hadn't even realized I had been behaving in a socially acceptable "French" way until then. This phenomenon was especially observable when I observed French tourists in Germany, like a kid in a zoo; I could spot them from miles away. Everything they said to their friends was in a low voice, like they were telling a secret. They were always looking fabulous, because even dressing is a social activity. You only see sweatpants, hoodies, and sneakers in gyms here! And let's be honest, the French don't really do gyms.

Now this attitude has its charms, of course, and I really enjoy the old-world formality of the French culture.  I love chatting over a café and people-watching with friends. I love how anybody who passes others who are eating will almost always say, "Bon appetit!" I love how dinner and lunch are affairs, not just meals, meant to be enjoyed and lingered over.

Hot baguettes from down the street aren't too shabby either ;-) Nor are mussels caught from the English Channel, enjoyed a few meters away at an amazing restaurant in the beautiful port town of Dieppe.

And I guess dungeons peeking up from down the street are pretty nifty.

With that being said, I am really, really looking forward to grocery shopping in a sweatshirt and yoga pants when I get back to the US.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Berlin Blog part 2 – Arrival through Christmas

I am going to start off by saying that I absolutely loved Berlin. I met amazing people, saw some amazing things, and felt comfortable there in a way I can’t quite explain. Although I don’t speak more than 5 words of German, I was able to get around perfectly fine, mostly due to the fact that almost every German person I encountered spoke wonderful English. This also made me feel a bit guilty, but it is what it is!

We stayed at EastSeven hostel, and I cannot say enough good things about it. The staff was so friendly and helpful, it was impeccably clean, I met new friends, they made free vegetarian dinners twice a week for guests (plus one extra for Christmas), and the cost was amazing. I wish we could have stayed longer!

Markers of an escape tunnel 
After checking in, we walked from our hostel to the Berlin Wall Memorial. The memorial spans across West Berlin and is dotted with plaques describing it’s history, what happened in each area, and personal stories of those who escaped, or who had been victims of the wall guards. In several areas, there were small rectangular paths showing where escape tunnels had been. It still blows my mind to imagine a wall being built so suddenly, keeping me from leaving my town or seeing family and friends. Seeing landmarks like these made our trip to Berlin so educational and inspiring.

Next, we went to one of what would be many Christmas Markets! We spent a lot of our time during the week going to different Christmas Markets, shopping for souvenirs, people watching, drinking hot chocolate and Glühwein, and eating delicious food. They were wonderful and beautiful, and helped our trip to feel more like Christmas, as we were all missing being home with our families.

We then visited the Reichstag, which houses the German Parliament. The building itself was topped with a cupola that is beautifully and thoughtfully constructed. It is incredibly energy-efficient and was accompanied by a free audio-guide explaining the history of the building, its construction, and describing the buildings one can view from the top of the cupola. Thanks to Marissa for setting up our visit!

the Brandenburg Gate
Next up was the Brandenburg gate, followed by the Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe and its accompanying (free) museum. The latter was an incredible structure, and the museum was beautifully done, with heart-wrenching personal tales, letters, and images of families and individuals affected by the Holocaust. Some of what I read there will definitely stick with me, and I highly recommend going here if you ever find yourself in Berlin!

the beautiful Berliner Dom

On Christmas Eve, we went to a midnight mass at The Berliner Dom and enjoyed the beautiful views and music (while trying not to fall asleep… :-P). 

Christmas was a bit bizarre because it did not feel at all like Christmas. Perhaps it was the sushi for lunch? Or the lack of snow? Regardless, it was wonderful, and included a trip to the Pergammon Museum, a delicious dinner out with our new friends from the hostel, as well as dancing well into the night – Argentinian style! It was a bit like salsa, and though I was told I was not too shabby, I have a feeling they wouldn’t have told me if I was horrendous! It was so much fun, and certainly a Christmas to remember.

Our group at the hostel on Christmas!

That’s enough for part 2, I’ll let you rest before my next installment of Berlin, part 3 J.

Berlin Blog, part 1 – The Voyage

I apologize in advance for the lack of pictures in this post, there are none of our fascinating bus trip. But there are plenty of Berlin to come!

I spent from December 21 to December 28 in Berlin with friends Marissa, Liz and Maureen, as well as Maureen’s friend Catherine for several days. There is so much to say, so I think I’ll divide it into several parts (I’m sure you’re thrilled!). Let’s start from the beginning – the famed 14+ hour bus ride from Paris to Berlin.

Yes, we went on a bus. We saved 20 euro! You can decide for yourself if it was worth it…

The bus left from Paris at 7:30pm on December 20, to arrive around 10am in Berlin. We had one stop at 7:30am in Germany, and other than that, it was a straight shot. We arrived early in hopes that we would get to sit near one another, and that paid off! We had a section of 4 seats, and as we settled in and prepared to leave, we foresaw a quiet overnight voyage during which we could primarily sleep, leaving us refreshed for our arrival in Berlin in the morning.


We had the incredible misfortune of sitting directly in front of a family of 4 who seemed at first to be part of some candid-camera type show where they intentionally tortured us for the fun of seeing how long we’d last. It started off with an incredibly smelly meal, wrapped in what must have been 5 layers of aluminum foil, eaten on and off over the course of the trip, including at 2am. How they were hungry at that time, I did not know.

The man sitting behind me answered his loudly ringing cell phone about 8 times, each time having lively conversations. Even at 3am. He also had a habit of pulling on my seat to give himself leverage to readjust, but each time, he pulled my hair as well. The final time, I turned around and told him to STOP FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, and he waved me away with his hand. I was not pleased.

I also was not pleased when, in the middle of the night, I awoke to him resting his entire leg on my armrest from behind. With my arm on it. Yes, his leg was resting on top of my arm, his gross socked feet touching my hand. At this point, I forcefully shoved his leg to the ground, wondering of my fellow passengers would back me up should I choose to physically harm him.

We also discovered that this man was drinking some sort of liquor the entire voyage after we found it spilled over our bags, scarves, and shoes on the floor beneath us.  We also observed him purchase and drink a beer at our 7am rest stop break. Oh, the bus trip was stressful for you?? I’m sure. Not to mention his getting off to smoke when we dropped passengers off at various stops despite the captain asking everybody to stay onboard. And not to mention his wife playing angry birds until 4am (excuse me, ma’am, but have you head of the MUTE button? You should give that a go).

The bus itself was a bit cramped, and some of the reclining mechanisms were broken on various seats. Liz’s seat would only recline with constant backward pressure, so she attempted to sleep upright for the entire time. Maureen’s seat got stuck completely in the reclined position, rendering me unable to move for about 15 minutes while we tried desperately to lift it back up. We finally awoke the ‘copilot’ to help us (the “service please” button also was apparently useless), he fixed it in about 5 seconds flat; it was a tad embarrassing.

We arrived in Berlin ready to take on the world. And by that, I mean ready to pass out and/or stalk the man to his home and put flaming dog poop on his doorstep.

I am happy to report that the ride from Berlin back to Paris was lovely, and I slept in peace almost the whole way. And we had 3 rest stops to stretch our legs. And nobody had long drawn out cell phone conversations. I simply ask you, Eurolines, to please equip your bathrooms with toilet paper. That is all.

I felt the need to record that for posterity, and now that that rant is out of the way, it’s time to tell you all about BERLIN!!!

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Some random thoughts on being abroad

It's funny to me how quickly my life here became as normal as my life back home. I spend most days doing simple things such as preparing for school, cleaning my apartment, grocery shopping, making meals, etc... While this is to be expected, it's also for some reason disappointing for me. When I think about what people must think I'm doing, it seems less than glamorous. 

Is grocery shopping in France more glamorous? Not really, but it's fun to have a ton of new stuff to try ;)

Anyway, here are some of my random thoughts on living and working abroad - 

1. Everyone, even complete strangers, has the right to ask you what you're doing in their country when they detect your accent. Or when they realize that you're trying to speak French really fast but are in fact speaking gibberish. When did you come? How long are you staying? Even the man at the bank knows my story.

2. People here also expect you to be doing amazing, exciting things. At school, other teachers will ask, "So what did you do this weekend? Where did you travel to?" Uhhh..the farmer's market? I know I have a lot of free time, but money doesn't grow on trees, people!

3. When French guys ask for your number, they will usually text or call you later that night, or the next day at the latest. And then the day after. They mean business. Being used to American men, my first instinct is still, "Whoa! Someone's seeming a little desperate!" I can't help it! I've been conditioned that way. 

4. Freshly baked bread never gets old, and I mean that in both a figurative and a literal sense. I'm still thrilled each time I leave a boulangerie with a warm baguette. Said baguette also never gets old, because I usually devour it that day. I have imposed on myself a limit of two baguettes per week, lest the boulanger next door realize that he is my own personal crack dealer. 

5. Wine is cheaper than soda at restaurants, so the choice for me is obvious. I'm just tryin' not to break the bank, people. It's called being thrifty (although I don't drink soda, so I'd be getting water otherwise. But we can pretend).

6. One quickly starts to feel like a "local", and recognizes those who crowd the streets on weekends as "tourists". When I just want to get my farmer's market on, and I cannot move through the throngs of people taking pictures or being herded like cattle in their tour groups, I can't help but think, "Damn tourists!". Then I remind myself that I'm only here until May 1, and that yesterday I took a picture of a really cute medieval house. I'm pretty sure locals don't do that.

7. By the time I finish all the necessary paperwork, I will be back in the US.

8. People my age and teachers at my school are surprised to find out that I don't smoke, and quickly follow with, "Good for you! You really shouldn't." Being a smoker here is the norm, one of the few stereotypes that I've found to be mostly true. 

9. Lunch in France is a serious affair. At both of my schools, lunch is from 11:30 to 1:30, and a typical meal for a colleague would be some type of starch, such as rice, with fish or meat, a slice of bread with cheese, yogurt, and a piece of fruit. No lean cuisines here!

These are only some of the things I can think of off of the top of my head. There are many more, but for now, I'll leave you with images of baguette fairies dancing in your heads. 

Only two more weeks of teaching until Christmas break. Berlin, here we come!!!

Sunday, November 20, 2011

 So I haven't gotten any better at blogging, but that just means I've been busy enjoying myself (and lesson planning) in Rouen! Right? :) Not that I don't have a ridiculous amount of free time, or anything. 

A couple of weekends ago, my friends and I went to the France vs USA friendly soccer match. The energy was high and we had a great time, especially watching silly non-French speakers drink expensive non-alcoholic beer (the stadium is alcohol-free) and think they're drunk. Nice try! It was a bit sad to see my fellow Americans lose the game, though. I've never seen so many French flags waving at one time as when that goal was scored!

 After the game, I met up with my friend Christina and her boyfriend Arnaud and some of their friends for a night out in Paris! I met Christina in 2009 while studying abroad, and she is currently living in Paris - so great to see her! 

The six of us went out to a club as part of her birthday celebration, and stayed out until almost 5 dancing and sipping champagne. It was a great time and I was in great company. Later this month Christina is going to visit Rouen, and I can't wait to show her all the charms of our smaller city :)

The morning after the club (more like afternoon after, as we got to bed around 6am) Christina and I enjoyed an amazingly clear, gorgeous day in Paris and headed to l'Institut du Monde Arabe. It is a combined museum/bookstore/café with tons of information on the Arab world, as you might have guessed, and beautiful artifacts. The view from the rooftop was amazing. It's one of my new favorite spots in Paris, although we were forbidden from ordering hummus on the terrace's restaurant, so hummus-combined-with-beautiful-view-lovers, beware!

The hostess of said restaurant informed us we could sit on the outside patio if we only ordered drinks, but that we must sit inside if we wanted to eat anything. What's more, we must order more than just a hummus platter if we wanted to eat there. What was really confusing is that there were plenty of people with drinks and appetizers on the patio...hmm. We were directed inside to a small café, devoid of any view, where we could enjoy our hummus in peace. Bummer!

That's one interesting thing about dining out in France ; you do not have the right, necessarily, to order whatever you want. There is no going to a restaurant and ordering just an appetizer, regardless of time of day, and there is no splitting meals. You go out to restaurants to eat proper meals. If you want to snack, go buy a pain au chocolat, one of the few "socially acceptable" foods one may eat while standing/walking in the street, and then only at certain times of the day: early morning and 4pm-ish (the hour of the "gouter", or afternoon snack).  The French see eating as a social, shared activity, and mealtimes are rather formal. No eating in cars, no apples when you're feeling a bit hungry. Of course, you can do whatever you want, it's just a matter of whether you like people staring at you while you do it. 

Clockwise from left: Marissa, Alastair, Liz and Maureen
 Ok enough of that rant! I love Rouen more every day, and really feel that it's the perfect size city. It doesn't hurt that I have an amazing group of friends! I can't say enough how lucky I am to have found such down-to-earth, funny and kind people in this program. We gathered in a park yesterday to have a snack, drink some wine, play some cards, and take advantage of what might be one of the last really nice fall days until winter. It was such a perfect day, simple yet so fun. 

We're currently planning our Thanksgiving celebration this week, all taking responsibility for certain dishes. I am in charge of salad and the pumpkin pie! France does not have canned pumpkin (a travesty, as I am a bit of a canned-pumpkin addict from October through December), so I am using an actual pumpkin this year! I am so excited for this culinary adventure :) haha. I'll have to report back on how it goes!
Not a bad view, right? :)

Teaching has been going quite well, for the most part. Sometimes, however, I have this thought that I have virtually NO training to be a teacher, yet here I am trying to teach squiggly 7-year-olds a foreign language. Am I actually going to make an impression? Also, why am I in charge of this class?!? Once I get into the flow of things, however, I enjoy my classes a lot. 

I often feel as if my head is bursting with ideas for possible lesson plans, and I sometimes have trouble actually concretely getting my work done. I just spend hours googling this and that, perusing teaching websites, and suddenly it's 11pm and I have no lesson done. I always have been a procrastinator! It also doesn't help that I've started watching True Blood (an HBO series about vampires...all of the fanatic facebook statuses intrigued me so!) and that that show is an hour long, and sometimes I just can't help but sneak in an episode between lesson planning sessions. I'm only human! (...or am I?! muahahaha)

I am beginning to feel like a parent posting 8903
pictures of her child. Rouen is just so CUTE!
In other exciting news, Marissa, Maureen, Liz and I are going to BERLIN over Christmas break, and will be there during Christmas!!!!! I mentally jump for joy whenever I think about it, imagining the incredible Christmas markets all over Europe, and specifically in Berlin, that will soon be lining the streets. We'll be taking a (looooong) bus from Paris to Berlin, and staying at a hostel for 5 nights, returning to Paris in time for New Years at the Eiffel Tower. 

What is my life?

Also, even MORE exciting news, My darling cousin Allie will be joining us for New Years :-D. I think that ringing in the New Year in Paris is a sign of a great 2012. 

It's time for me to get to lesson planning now, so I have time the rest of the week to focus on Thanksgiving. It's not as easy to plan and make a massive meal when you have to work late on Thanksgiving and again early the next day! Maybe France should think about adopting the holiday ;) I'm sure they'd agree to another day off. 

I'll let you know how that goes. 

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

How is it November already??

So I have been horribly lazy about blogging during the past three weeks, and that stops here! It's been so long that I could probably write a novel right about now, but in the interest of not scaring away my few readers, I'll keep it short and sweet with mostly pictures :)

So my halloween lessons with the kids went very well! Since my classes range in age from 6 to 11, I adapted each lesson to the language abilities of the students. For the youngest, I read a simple book with pages such as, "My pumpkin has TWO scary eyes!!", to teach numbers and body parts. They enjoyed my interpretation of, "My pumpkin can DANCE!!!". One of the fun things about being with the littlest ones is that I can make a fool out of myself and they like it!

For the older kids, it was reviewing halloween vocabulary followed by halloween bingo. Some lucky winners even got reeses peanut butter cups all the way from the US. Sadly, however, halloween does not really exist in France with very few children dressing up and no trick-or-treating to be seen in my neighborhood. From what I've seen, however, Halloween for my friends and family on the east coast this year was not too great either with all that snow!

Vacation started on October 22, and I go back to school this Thursday. Not too shabby! Here's what I've been up to:

Maureen snapping the tops off of green beans
We've been going to the city's Sunday market every week, and this past week we decided to gather materials and have a nice late-afternoon lunch together!

It was delicious and I can't think of a better way to spend a Sunday. Especially when everything else is closed! Hopefully it becomes a Sunday tradition.

Japanese bridge in Monet's garden. Hi Maureen, Jordan and Marissa!
We (Maureen, Marissa, Jordan, Liz, Stacey, Loreto, Clare, Julia and I) took a day trip to Giverny to see Monet's gardens, where he painted his famous water lilies. 

It was gorgeous and such a nice day. Good thing, too, because we missed the once-hourly bus from the train station to the gardens, so we decided to walk the 6 km there and back! It took just over an hour each way and was a nice way to see the surrounding countryside. Giverny looks like what I picture when I think of "French countryside". Most of it, anyway!

The only downside to visiting Monet's gardens in late October is that most of the flowers were in the process of dying. Oh well!

Maureen, Jordan, Liz and I visited Paris for one night this past Saturday, and stayed in a structurally questionable hostel in Montmartre. We visited one of my favorite monuments, the Sacre Coeur. It is always bursting with life, regardless of time of day or weather!

Later that night, we met up with my friend Christina, who I met while studying abroad in 2009 and now lives in Paris, and had dinner in a fondue restaurant that serves wine in baby bottles. It was certainly an experience to remember!

Jordan and Liz goin' for it!

Look at that bubbling vat of cheese!!

Other than our couple of small trips, our vacations have been spent mostly wandering about Rouen and continuing to explore all of the little side streets, nooks and crannies. We went to the Musée de Beaux Arts, a 5 minute walk from my home, the Museum of Natural History, which was incredibly creepy and consisted of stuffed dead animals (the closest I'll ever get to a tiger!) and two-headed cat fetuses in jars. A nice pre-Halloween activity, if you ask me :)

 I've been drinking my share of coffee, espresso, and tea - the French love their caffeine. This Marilyn Monroe espresso cup was served to me in a bathtub-themed restaurant, Les Bains d'Bouches (I think that translates roughly to mouthwash?). There were showerheads hanging from the wall, pictures of people bathing, etc... The food was great too!

I am continuing to enjoy the views from my apartment window, completely aware of how lucky I am each time I look out and see Rouen. Now if I could only get time to slow down a bit!!!