Thursday, September 29, 2011

....from a land where wine is cheaper than diet coke

Today was another day of productivity as I work my way through my to-do list, most of which involves copious amounts of paperwork.

I had a late-morning café with one assistant who just arrived yesterday, and we talked about Rouen, our upcoming orientation, expectations, etc. There are so many people in this area doing the same program as I; I meet new assistants every day!

Side note: now that I write this, I realize that perhaps my day of productivity didn’t really start until after lunch … ;-)

After the café, we both went to the FNAC, which is essentially a giant bookstore/school goods store/electronics store, etc. There, I finally bought a sleeve for my poor MacBook, which I love dearly but have been toting around in my purse like a giant pack of gum, and being about as gentle with it. Now it is nice and cushy! Yet another good thing about having an apartment is that I won’t have to tote extremely valuable (both monetarily and inherently valuable) goods around with me all day long.

We then parted ways and I walked over to the local BNP branch to make an account-opening appointment, only to realize that all banks close from 12pm to 1:30 pm for lunch. How silly of me, trying to bank during lunch! Taking that as I sign, I headed back to my hostel to make a yummy lunch of my own, involving freshly baked bread from my local boulangerie and delicious Camembert.  I’d also like to take this time to point out that the man in front of me at the market bought a baguette, two bottles of wine, and a box of sugar for 5 euro. In case you didn’t get that, the wine he bought was cheaper than a big bottle of coke. I think I know what I’m choosing!!

After lunch, I headed back to the bank, mentally preparing to explain my situation and having practiced specific banking terms before heading out.  I was very happy that, while it is usually necessary to make an appointment for such banking needs, somebody right before me had missed their appointment, therefore clearing a slot for me.

The man with whom I had my appoint may have been the nicest French person I’ve met thus far during my trip (although, truly, most of them have been friendly). He was understanding of my situation and allowed my lease to serve as proof of housing, though a bill of some sort bearing my name would usually be required. There is also usually a charge associated with opening an account, but alas! He waived the charge saying that I might as well be a student, and student accounts are free. Woo!! Free is good. We even chatted about his favorite regions of France and about his young daughters’ travels in England.

I have been finding that if I put forth effort to make conversation with the French people I encounter, they reciprocate enthusiastically (or something like it), much like the woman working at the grocery store today when I asked her to recommend a good shampoo. I’m pretty sure French water is somehow different than what my American head is used to, causing my hair to look like it hasn’t been washed in days. Cute!

…Also, I literally never speak English with them, so that probably helps a lot. I am not here for that! Well, actually, I am. But only in the classroom J

Speaking of kind Frenchies, I have two French (female) roommates in my hostel who are also apartment searching. It’s been so nice to come ‘home’ and be able to talk about the process with them, as well as practice my French. However, I can’t wait to move into my apartment and have a real home of my own.

Tomorrow, I am going to go desperately searching for a laundromat before I get kicked out of the country for being too smelly. Traveling and carrying suitcases around is pretty rough on my limited clothing supply...

Hopefully I will hear from my landlord tomorrow about when I can move in. Friday I go shopping with my contact from my school to buy apartment supplies. Everything is coming together nicely so far!

Now, it’s about time for bed before another busy day tomorrow!

Or… semi-busy J

Monday, September 26, 2011

"Haayyloooo! Guuudddbyee!"

I am writing this from my 12:50 train from Elbeuf to Rouen. I caught the 7:40 bus to the metro to the Rouen train station this morning, and took the train into Elbeuf for the first time. Yay public transportation! Elbeuf was slightly more charming than Google Earth might suggest, but I believe the fact that it’s sunny (yet again!) today makes everything look nicer.

I also met my contact person, Nicole, who is basically seeing me through this whole process. To say that she is nice or helpful is a gross understatement. She met me in her car at the Elbeuf train station, to her office, and then took me to each of the schools where I will be teaching, introducing me to the teachers and the students. She even bought me lunch before I caught the train back to Rouen! I tried to insist that was not necessary, but she would not have it.

I met all of the teachers, about 15-20 between the two schools, and I introduced myself (in French, for now!) to “my” future students. They are no older than 11, some as young as 6 in some classes. I had imagined that I would spend my time in one classroom in one school, and in one classroom at the second school. However, the plan is that I will teach one day per week at each of the schools, meaning a full 6-hour day at each school per week. I will go around to each classroom and spend anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour in each of 5-9 classes.

This situation would be ideal because it means I only have to travel from Rouen to Elbeuf two times per week; the cost would add up quickly if the commute were several days per week. Also, if the teachers at the two schools accept my proposed schedule, I will be working in one school on Thursdays and the other on Fridays. This would give me a Saturday-Wednesday weekend! I could get used to that J

For the most part the students seemed receptive albeit a bit reserved at first, understandably so. They are excited to have somebody all the way from the U.S, and I hope I can be truly helpful in developing their accents and their confidence in saying simple English phrases. Some of the older students in the second school were raising their hands and demonstrating their English skills. I got many a “Hello!” and “My name is!” as well as colors, numbers, etc. This makes me so excited that they are already enthusiastic. I left to a chorus of “Gouuudd byeee!” in the last class I visited. I have a good feeling so far.

The teachers themselves were incredibly welcoming and happy to have somebody to help them in teaching English. I was worried that they might feel as if I was stepping on their toes, but it was quite the opposite; I even enjoyed a café in the teacher’s lounge while they took their post-recess break.

Back at her office, Nicole called several landlords for me and actually secured me a meeting with one of them for later this afternoon. Though I am confident in my French in casual conversation, a telephone conversation with a landlord is a completely different story! It’s all business, and if they feel that you are unsure of how the ‘system’ works, or sense a naïveté about you, you could get… hoodwinked, to put it nicely!  As I listened to her navigate her way through the conversation, I was immensely glad that she offered to call for me. I would have been lost.

Next Monday is the assistants’ orientation, and Tuesday and Thursday I observe one full day at each school, along with a half-day observations at each school on Friday. The following week, I officially begin my assistantship. This week, however, I continue my apartment search, open a bank account, buy my weekly/monthly/yearly (who knows yet) train/bus/metro passes, and generally get settled. Whew!

Knowing I have somebody to call if I need help is an immense weight off my shoulders. Nicole told me that if I have any troubles at all, or if I am unsure of anything about the apartment, to call her right away. As they say in French, “j’ai de la chance!” - I am very lucky!

I am crossing my fingers about this apartment viewing later, but I don’t want to get my hopes up. I guess I’ll know soon!

Edit: While writing this, I missed my stop to Rouen by 25 mins. Oops! So I got back on a train in the opposite direction and arrived in Rouen in time to see the apartment. It went well enough, we meet again tomorrow to go over all of the paperwork! Wish me luck again! :)

Sunday, September 25, 2011

...and the journey continues

Today was quite a long day, but a pretty good one! Bear with me, this is a long post. You might want to get a cup of coffee and get comfy J

I woke up this morning at 7 and began packing my things so I could be out of the FIAP by the 9:30 check out time, and still not miss breakfast. It’s included in the price, after all! I succeeded in all of the above, and started on my journey to the Gare Saint-Lazare. Saint-Lazare is a big train station in Paris that a lot of regional trains run though, including the train from Paris to Rouen.

I got to the train station around 9:45am, and started my trek to the ticket counter. Saint-Lazare is huge, with a lot of staircases both under- and aboveground, so lugging my suitcases and backpack-heavy body around the place was exhausting. I was having trouble finding the ticket counter, as there are different counters for different types of tickets. There is the SNCF office, where I bought my carte 12-25, and then there is a line for tickets for the metro and bus, and then a separate area for train tickets. I asked a man in the “ticket” line (for the metro/bus) where to buy un “billet” (implying it’s for a train) and he pointed to his right and said “Rouen? C’est par là”, indicating that I had just come from the area of the billetterie. I about-faced and headed back in search of a ticket to Rouen.

After walking around and down several flights of stairs, I finally found an automated ticket station that actually sold tickets to Rouen (the window where people might stand was closed), only to realize that I could not buy a train ticket without a France-issued credit card. French credit cards all have a microchip inside, so mine was definitely a no-go.

I went back in the other direction yet again, up lots of stairs, past the man who misled me, and into the area where the actual trains depart. This is also the area where I took a train every day from the center of Paris to my host family’s house when I studied abroad in 2009, so you would think I’d know that regional train tickets were also sold here. Well, I do now!

I bought a ticket, which was 50% off due to my carte 12-25, and boarded the train. Even second class is much nicer than a normal metro, each row with two sets of 3 large and cushy seats facing one another. I’m going to be a nerd now and say that it reminded me of the trains going to Hogwarts J

Beside the fact that I nearly killed a man trying to retrieve my almost 50lb suitcase down from above his head, the voyage went smoothly. However, I was supposed to meet one of my new friends at the Rouen train station when I arrived, but my cell phone had mysteriously stopped sending texts earlier that morning. I later realized (hours later) that while texting is free, it does not work unless I have credits on my phone. But I thought I had €5 worth of credit on my phone reserved for emergency calls? Au contraire, my friend. The lady at Bouygues failed to mention that my precious €5 would expire in 3 days if not used. Glorious! This left me incommunicado from the morning until about 3pm. Live and learn, and read the fine print!

I arrived at my hostel quite successfully, having gotten to the train station, taken the metro to a bus stop, and a bus to my hostel. I usually get lost merely finding the bathroom in a restaurant, so this was quite a proud moment for me!

I opened the doors of the hostel to find nobody at the front desk. I looked around, then hung out on a nearby chair for a while, figuring it was around lunchtime and, being Europe, the receptionist was surely eating lunch and would be back shortly. After about 20 minutes, I looked at my reservation again (another lesson – print out all hotel/hostel reservations!) only to read some more fine print stating that check-in time was from 6pm-10pm. What?! Since when is check-in at 6pm?? “Should I sit here until then?” I wondered. Yes, it was just shy of 1pm, but the thought of lugging my suitcases over more cobblestone roads was just too much to bear.

Enter my savior, la femme de ménage (the cleaning lady).

I greeted her and asked her in French if perhaps there was someplace safe I could store my things until 6pm. She was so kind and said, “Of course! Let me finish here and I’ll be right with you!” Hallelujah! She placed them in a big empty room and locked it up. “Voilà! Tell the owner when you come later that they are in room 4”. Hoping this was not all a big scam but not caring enough to babysit my luggage for 5 hours, I departed for the cobblestone streets of the centre ville!

I took the bus to La Cathédrale de Rouen, which is also a famous painting by Monet. It was as gorgeous as I’d imagined, and there was some sort of festival going on! I saw live dancing and also found a Bouygues boutique, where I bought €35 of credit that will expire in two months. I can handle that!

With my new phone credits, I texted several girls that I knew were already in Rouen, and we planned to meet up. Turns out, I was texting one from literally down the street, so I joined her where she was eating lunch to have a café. Then we met up with two other girls in town and walked around for a bit before deciding to head to their place (a cute vacation rental) for a cheap dinner! We each bought something simple and pre-made at Monoprix (French grocery store), a baguette from a boulangerie (bakery), and, with a €6 bottle of champagne, we toasted to our new lives in Rouen! We then chatted about apartment hunting, as 3/4 of us are still looking, ideas about teaching, and places we hoped to travel. It was a great night, and I think what all of us needed. It’s nice to know I already have friends in an area where I have been less than a day!

I got back to my hostel at the appropriate check-in time, procured my (safe) luggage, and headed down to my room. This is a shared-room hostel, so I could potentially have three roommates. As of now, at 9:30pm, it is just me in the room. However, check-in lasts until 10pm, so I guess I’m not quite in the clear yet… (10pm and still have my own room by the time I’m done writing, yay!)

Tomorrow I will go headfirst into apartment hunting, which is appearing like it is going to be a struggle. The girl who already has accommodation basically took the first place that didn’t require a bank account to rent, and it’s more student/youth housing than an actual apartment. At least it’s somewhere to call home! I hope I have some luck in that department J

So far, I really like Rouen. It’s a cute place, much smaller in Paris, and quite refreshing in that regard! In the center of Rouen, there is a lot of shopping, surrounded by tons of cute cafés and beautiful buildings. I can’t wait to show my pictures! Apparently it rains a ton here (as per my contact woman), so I will save that for a rainy day in the nearby future.

Wish me luck tomorrow!

Friday, September 23, 2011

Three days in Paris...

Today is my second day in Paris, and I am having a great time re-acquainting myself with the city!

Yesterday, after having slept past my alarm and gotten a full 10 hours of sleep (thanks to jet-lag) I was ready to get out and explore! I took the metro to see le Tour Eiffel (of course, I can’t not go see it!) and then walked around the area a bit until I met my friend Christina for lunch. I studied abroad with Christina in 2009, and she’s living here while attending school. I can’t wait to come to Paris periodically to visit her once I get all settled in Rouen!

After lunch, I met up with a fellow Rouen assistant Caroline for some ice cream at Le Berthillion, and we wandered around for a couple of hours and then headed to Saint-Lazare to get our cartes 12-25. A carte 12-25, indicating that one is under 26 years old, can get you train discounts for all trains within France. So, while it would normally cost €25-30 for a train from Paris to Rouen (or the other way around), it will only cost me anywhere from €7 to €12! Yay! While the card itself costs €49, it will more than pay for itself with a few round trips Rouen-Paris, as well as for farther destinations (Bordeaux? Alsace? I am open to recommendations J).

After this, we met up with yet another Rouen assistant and Caroline’s friend of a few years Adam, and their friend Celine (a France native). We had a café at a local…café, and then searched for a good restaurant for dinner. We chose one on Rue Mouffetard, where they served lots of raclette (melted cheese poured on any number of sides); it was a prix-fixe meal, which usually means you get entrée + plat + dessert (equivalent of appetizer + entrée + dessert) for a set price. Our meals were delicious and so rich and filling. I wish I had taken photos! I’ll have to remember for next time. We also shared a delicious bottle of rosé wine suggested to us by our Grecian waiter. We had ordered red, but he insisted that the rosé was wonderful. I usually don’t like pink wines, but it actually was quite good, and was a refreshing accompaniment to our otherwise heavy meals. That didn’t stop me from ordering crème brulée for my dessert option, though ;)

Today is my last day in Paris before I head to Rouen, and I have a lot of paperwork/preparing to do. I have to start looking for banks, as I have heard various pros and cons about all of them. I am also going to seriously start looking for apartments and emailing owners and possible roommates. I have decided to live in Rouen instead of Ebleuf, where I’ll actually be teaching, as it is a bigger city with more to offer. I feel like I might become bored in Elbeuf! What is more, when I mentioned Elbeuf to Celine, Caroline and Adam’s friend, she not so subtly implied that living there would be a regretful decision. Rouen it is!

This whole time, it has been in the back of my mind that in a couple weeks time, I’ll be teaching young French students! I have so much preparation and bureaucracy to deal with that I have not thought too much about what it will be like to be a young teacher (well, assistant) in a foreign country. I don’t want to speculate too much, as every classroom is different, so I will just have to wait and see! Either way, it will be an adventure.

I am also so interested to see how a smaller city differs from Paris. It has, for the most part, been my sole view of France and the French, which is like basing your idea of America and Americans off of New York City and it’s inhabitants!

I’ll try my best to keep you posted on my France adventures, although I’m not sure what my internet situation will be once I leave my Paris hostel. Hopefully it’s not too painful of a process!

A bientôt!

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Greetings from Paris...

I have arrived safe and sound in my hostel, and sadly, am ready for a nap! I might do just that and refresh myself before I go find dinner somewhere :)

It's all very overwhelming in the moment, and I can't believe I'm really here. I have a few days before I leave for Rouen, which will hopefully give me some time to figure out my housing situation.

A bientôt!

l'Heure est arrivée!

Tuesday September 20, 2011

I am sitting in terminal 8 in JFK airport, and I can hardly believe that my time has come to fly to Paris!

I have had the most amazing summer – better than any in recent memory. I had a job I enjoyed, I saw my friends often (or lived with them ;) ) and had a great time in general. While I’m sad for this part of my year to be ending, I am also ready for my next big adventure.

I will arrive in Paris around 10:30a.m, ready to begin a new day, and hopefully having slept on my 7.5-hour flight! I am so grateful that I have been to Paris before and therefore know my way around the city quite well. It is leading to much less arrival anxiety. Once I arrive, I spend three nights in a hostel in Paris and then head on to Rouen, where I spend four nights at yet another hostel, and spend time trying to find an apartment and working on the mountain of paperwork that I have to get through!

The assistants’ orientation is October 3, so I have some time to get down to business before I am thrust before a class of expecting, hopefully well-behaved and interested, French elementary students. It’s hard to believe that it’s all so soon!

I was telling my friend Erica the other day that whenever I thought about my quickly approaching trip to France, I would feel such a range of emotions that it was hard to even feel one emotion at once; It’s a mixture of excitement, apprehension, anxiety, wonderment, disbelief, and sometimes even calm. The proportions of each emotion would change from time to time, but very quickly! Right now, the sensation of calm is taking over – but something tells me it’s more the feeling of “calm before the storm”! I have prepared as much as possible, and it’s out of my hands for the next 12 hours. All I can hope for now is a safe flight and an easy journey to my hostel (and a successful check-in, as I have not heard back after my reservation confirmation request…).

I hope some of you who are reading this  (assuming you’ve made it this far down) will have the chance to visit me in good old France.  Once I nail down a place to live, that is!