Monday, July 19, 2010

Adventure #25: Getting Back

(First of all, how cool is it that my “adventures” made an even 25?)

Two months ago today I arrived back in the states. Just as the previous eight before it, they went by pretty quick. With the help of my brother, his fiancée, and a few friends back home, I managed to pull off my return as a surprise for my parents. Totally worth it. I’m so glad to be nestled once again in the comfort of my family and friends and am enjoying being back in South Louisiana.

So I caught a lot of flack in France for maybe talking a bit too much about Louisiana, my family (especially my dad) and LSU, but being away has made me look at my home with new eyes. And guess what? It IS something worth talking about. Obviously I am biased and I totally admit it, but in all seriousness, Louisiana has so many things about it that make it unique from all the places I’ve seen so far. I’m very proud to call it my home and even prouder to actually have the heritage to back it up too. It's like a bonus.

People have been asking me if I’ve had the time of my life, and to be honest, I have no idea. I’ve never really liked that term, just as I’ve always had problems with the whole “Carpe Diem” concept. (You just can’t carpe every diem...) I feel as though calling one part of your life “the time” of your life means the rest, what? Sucks? Don’t’ get me wrong, I know this was an amazing, incomparable opportunity for which I’m incredibly grateful but does that mean the rest of my life will pale in comparison?

Granted, coming home was a bit bittersweet. Just as I felt a bit homesick about missing people and things while I was in France, I’m now a bit heartsick about missing people and things from France. Throughout all the things I’ve done and experienced, whether it’s schools, camps, organizations, trips, etc. what I always enjoy most, remember most, and miss most are the people I met during the doing and experiencing. This was no different. I was blessed to have met so many amazing people and double blessed to have so many amazing people to come home to.

And then there’s the whole job thing. And by “thing” I mean not having one, at least a real, big-girl job. But still, I think (or at least hope) that my life will just increase exponentially from here on out (or at least remain constant). I’m choosing to believe that figuring out what to do next will be exciting… am I naïve? Probably.

In fact, I’m reminded of a scene in the fifth season of “The Hills” (thanks again, Elizabeth!). Like myself, our heroine Lauren Conrad was at a pivotal point in her life and wasn’t sure what her next step would be. During a heart-to-heart, her boss Kelly Cutrone told her that some of the most special times in her life was when she didn’t have laid-out plans. She then proffered a quote in French (connection!): “Je voudrais flâner avec toi.” According to Kelly, and verified by, “flâner” means to stroll or wander aimlessly. So I might be wandering aimlessly for awhile… but if it’s good enough for LC then who am I to complain?

Monday, June 21, 2010

Adventures #23 & 25: Northern Ireland and Wales

Lucky for me two of my fellow assistant friends are British and don’t mind houseguests (or at least tolerate them) so I got a quick sojourn into Northern Ireland and Wales after I said my “au revoirs” to France. Not only was this a nice transition back into English-speaking culture before hitting up the states, it was a nice transition back into family life. Laura’s and Ben’s families were so welcoming and fun, if they ever want to adopt an American girl with two bachelor’s degrees and no job prospects, I just might know someone…

First, a quick lesson (this might be “duh” to some of you, but it was novel to my American ignorance): The terms “United Kingdom” and “Great Britain” are NOT interchangeable. GB refers to the big island including Scotland, Wales and England. The United Kingdom includes those three PLUS Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland is a complete separate country from Ireland though they share a land mass. Northern Ireland is the Protestant part, the south is Catholic. With my flights alone I touched all these areas, except Scotland, since I flew in and out of Belfast (Northern Ireland), then into Bristol (England), out of Cardiff (Wales), through Dublin (Ireland). But with the time between these flights, I got to see some of the actual countries with my lovely native tour guides.

Laura lives in a small village called Loughgall that resides in what is known as the Orchard County. Lucky me, the apple trees were blossoming and gorgeous. Equally gorgeous was the road trip Miss Debra took us on to the North Coast, home to the Giant’s Causeway and spectacular views of Irish farmlands. We got to also take a day trip into Belfast, the capital, to check out Laura’s university and the mall (where she probably spends equal amounts of time) and drink milkshakes. Mine had Skittles in it. It’s better than it seems, promise. Other highlights include playing soccer and tennis with her little brother, getting to see her father’s antique tractor collection (wish he could hang out with my dad, they’d SO be besties), and a traditional breakfast spread known as an Ulster Fry.

So Wales has Welsh, its own language, who knew? It’s pretty cool to see all the signs in two languages and I got the chance to use a bit of what Ben had taught us over the previous months. (“Wedi blino” = I’m sleepy.) Ben’s Wales included tours of filming locations of Gavin and Stacey, a British television show he shared with us (it’s kind of hilarious, the parts an American unfamiliar with Welsh culture can understand anyway) filmed in Barry, Ben’s hometown. St. Fagan’s (or in Welsh, “Ffffffagans”) is similar to the Rural Life Museum in Baton Rouge but way bigger and, you know, Welsh. Ben hooked us up food-wise as well: fish and chips, curry, full English breakfast, Welsh beer, etc. And he dropped us off at the airport, being the last friend I saw in Europe before heading home…

But other than these little bits and bobs, really the best part was just seeing their hometowns and meeting their people. I’m indebted to them and their families for their hospitality. Hopefully I’ll get to return the favor someday in their visits to Louisiana. Consider it a standing invitation.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Adventures #21 & #22: Mont St. Michel and St. Malo

Brittany was one of the last areas I hadn’t seen of France and even though I just saw a speck of it, I can now leave the country feeling as thought I saw all of it, more or less. A change of plans left me plan-less so I decided to go solo. Never having travelled alone before, save a weekend in Boston to look at Emerson or that day by myself in New York, I was a bit apprehensive but it couldn’t have turned out better and it’s a life experience I’m glad to have under my belt.

Visiting Mont St. Michel technically brought me back to Normandy, but I couldn’t pass it up since we didn’t get the opportunity last time. I remember a poster of Mont St. Michel in Madame Davis’ French III class. Never dreamed that when I did visit it, it’d be after living in the country for seven months. Built over the centuries on a rock ff the coast, Mont St. Michel is a hodge-podge of architecture, stairs, and windows built on top of each other, crowned with an abbey St. Michael apparently told some monk to build a million years ago. I pretended to be British to get in for free, but when it worked I felt guilty about lying to enter a religious building so I bought the audio guide to even things out. Nice views from the Abbey, really nice cloister. Cloisters are the little interior courtyards in abbeys or monasteries that the monks or miscellaneous religious would use to walk or gather thoughts, and so far, I’ve yet to see a cloister I haven’t liked. Something about the columns and the green space appeal to me. Another highlight of the day were these shortbread cookies that are apparently famous coming from the island. Every store seemed to give out free samples, of which I happily took advantage, nibbling my way up and down the mont. Pictures? Here!

When I first got off the train at St. Malo, the true Brittany of my trip, the sky struck me. It seemed bigger here, perhaps this is the Montana of France? And the WIND! Made the huge clouds move crazy fast across the sky. The old city center is surrounded by ramparts that make a nice walking track, I took a few laps enjoying the views of the architecture and the water. Food-wise, St. Malo, and Brittany in general are all about the crepe and I was pleasantly surprised to learn that caramel made with the local sea salt is also a delicacy. Again I’m not the hugest art museum fan but history is something I can get behind, it was one of my minors after all. The Musee d’Histoire in St. Malo is especially enjoyable since the area’s history includes so much nautical! I went in near closing time and practically had the place to myself, was a bit creepy but pretty cool wandering around an old chateau, even climbing up tiny stone spiral staircases to the watch tower. Click here to see my pictures of St. Malo.

General side note: The French use the word “chateau” liberally, nearly every town seems to possess one (along with a carousel and a fountains) but though the English translation is “castle” I find that to be a bit too liberal. I wouldn’t call just every big house a castle. It’s either due to the lack of a proper translation in my native language, or the possibility that my American idea of castles, largely shaped by Disney, is too limited. To be fair, the chateau of St. Malo did have turrets and arches and seems to be a castle by any definition.

To travel to a nearby town I opted for a bike instead of a boat (shocking). For 12 euros at the hostel I got a cute little red cruiser for the day. Wanting to make it worth the money, I biked to the nearby St. Severan and Cité Alet. Rewarded with nice views of St. Malo, a WWII memorial and a rose garden. Spent a lot of time sitting and watching the tides, by which a lot of the area seems to keep time. A fitting end to my time in France.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

"Goodbye Teacher!"

As expected, my last week of teaching proved bittersweet. I’m proud of the work I’ve done, especially considering my complete lack of qualification, and though I’m fairly certain it is not my future career path, I enjoyed it overall. The kids were a hoot and the teachers very kind and I think there’s something to be gained from working abroad that you can’t get from being a student or a tourist. Not to mention the injection of confidence the experience has given me. It’s in the same vein as the confidence I’d get from taking French classes alongside normal ones, as in: “Sure, I can write a 10-page history paper, I’ve written the same length but in French.” But now that application has broaden to be more like: “Sure, I can open a bank account or secure health insurance or start a new job, I’ve done the same thing but in French.”

My kids were absolutely adorable about my leaving, giving me cards and drawings and things (by “things” I mean shells and handkerchiefs and pens). One girl even brought me flowers and a mom made me cookies. They also very endearingly would use “I’m sad,” which I taught them earlier in the year as a response to “how are you?” So see? They learned! The teachers gave me this wonderful French cookbook that I hope to use out by cooking à la française for y’all back home. (OK, since I brought it up, you should all expect to receive your souvenirs in the form of food experiences. I’ve done badly on the whole buying presents for people thing… but I’ve learned firsthand from a coworker how to make genuine crêpes and I’ve got my new knowledge of cheeses and chocolates and wine. And partaking in this with me is better than some cheap key chain or refrigerator magnet, right?)

Not only did I have to say goodbye to my students and coworkers, but I had to start saying goodbye to the friends I’ve made here as well. Saying goodbye is always difficult and we all are saying goodbye at different times. It makes me think of all those high school retreats and summer camps when after a week or even just two days you have to write letters and affirmations to people to share how much they mean to you, blah, blah, blah. Here, I’ve met some FANTASTICALLY AMAZING people to hang out with and have shared incomparable experiences over a span of seven months and to part we just say “see ya” outside of a bar? I’m not a fan. Good thing I’m a terrific pen pal and take seriously all talks of future visits.

Pictures of my last weeks in Besancon can be found here. I officially am no longer a resident of Foyer Soleil and am now beginning my post-contract journeys throughout the European continent (or at least throughout the UK and a bit more of France). On doit profiter!

Mastering the Art of French Speaking.

Despite the fact that I’ve now lived in its country for seven months of my own free will, I’ve never exactly been a cheerleader for the French language. Honestly, I’ve always just thought of my French degree as an extension to my Mass Communication one since it enables me to communicate a little more massively (haha). I’m certainly no linguist, I’m lackadaisical about grammar (but who uses the subjunctive, really?), and I’m not in possession of a musical ear or whatever it is those adept at languages have. Becoming more proficient in another language was just a bonus to my living abroad, not a passion or an out-and-out goal. Also, it seems that the more French I learn, the more convinced I become of the elusiveness of fluency. After all my schooling and speaking I have realized the following: I will never become fluent in the French language. I have neither the talent nor the drive to do so. And I am fine with this. Happy even.

Obviously, I couldn’t help but improve my vocabulary and speaking ability over the past seven months and for that I am both thankful and proud. But mainly, I’ve learned to just have fun with the language. I love getting the chance to cry out “mais si!” to contradict a negative statement. (Hypothetical example: while teaching Christmas to little French kids who tell you Santa doesn’t exist, one replies with “mais si!”) I also have to check myself from automatically repeating things I hear in line at the grocery store or in the teacher’s lounge. I like the sound of them. I mean, how fun is it to go “baaaaahhh, ouais” and have it (kind of) mean something?

The French also sprinkle their conversations with plenty of overused phrases. “Par contre,” “c’est normal,” and “tout à fait” are among my favs, meaning (more or less) “on the contrary,” “it’s no big deal,” and… I don’t really know to translate “tout à fait,” but it’s fun to say. I guess you use it where in English you’d say “exactly” or ”that’s it!” Other French phrases seemingly have no meaning and are harder to grasp. “C’est déjà pas mal ça” literally translates as “that is already not bad, that” and one uses it to express some sort of apathy or slight disappointment with a situation. A coworker explained “c’est déjà pas mal” to exist somewhere between what you expected to happen and the worst that could have happened. Oh, French! You see why I never expect to become fluent?

But despite its stupid nuances, there are some things about that French expresses or describes better. Like using penible for an annoying and difficult person or situation, which consequently is a word one gets to use often in France. Also, to tell someone that you miss them you say, “Tu me manques.” that literally means, “You are missing from me.” I find that kind of sweet. And I love the verb profiter. Not really having a regular English conversation equivalent (at least with my limited skills) it means to take the best advantage of a situation or really exploit or profit from an experience. I like to think that I’ve “profited” from my experience here and enjoyed progressing a bit with my language skills, even if I wasn’t necessarily trying to do so.

Adventures #16-20: Spring Break wooooo!

While packing for the two weeks, I heeded advice from an InStyle article about packing with a color palette in mind to make mix and matching outfits easier. My color-coordinated vacay wardrobe turned out successful I think, but I was more pleased with the beautiful palettes of the places we visited. In general, I loved how Provence marries the colors (colours?) of the architecture with nature and more specifically, I really liked all the blue shutters.

Between the boats in Marseille, the beaches in Biarritz, the azaleas in Bayonne, and the bike ride in Bordeaux I’d say my spring vacation, and spring as a season in general, was more or less a success and boy, did I rack up on those butterflies. But despite all the things I discuss in the following paragraphs, the best part of the trip was definitely spending time with some of my fellow assistants… they are some OK people to hang out with. J

Adventure #16: Marseille

When I went to Marseille with an LSU group in 2008, a teacher compared it to New Orleans: kind of gritty, rebellious, and multicultural. And like New Orleans, I felt lukewarm towards it after my first visit. But this time around, I found it much more charming. The beaches, the boats (I rode on TWO. Chhhhheck!), the sun-bleached colors, the clothes strung on lines from windows, plus we splurged on a hotel overlooking the Mediterranean. (Unfortunately, I lacked my mother’s gene of taking pictures of the hotel rooms on this trip so no evidence exists…)

Highlight was the ride to the island of Chateau d’If of The Count of Monte Cristo fame (Apparently. I wouldn’t have known that if it weren’t for Donatellla). Just expecting an old castle or whatever, but I enjoyed the plants and views of Marseille’s coastline with the recognizable silhouette of huge Notre Dame de la Garde. Boat ride #2 was a success because the water was wonderfully blue with which the calanques contrasting wonderfully, though I wasn’t entirely certain as to what they are. I thought calanques were the white-gray cliff structures rising from the water but it turns out they are the inlets created by them. Or as Wikipedia calls them “Mediterranean fjords.” Whichever, they involved a boat.

Adventure #17: Aix-en-Provence

In post-trip discussions, Aix came out as the general favorite (favourite?). The town I most looked forward to revisiting, Aix just seems to embody everything you want in a French town: the food, the markets, the architecture, the fountains, plus the people were actually friendly. I thus hypothesize that Southern Hospitality must be applicable to all countries. Sud met South when we got a generous dinner invitation to the French home of some fellow Louisianans from the Boudreaux family’s Aloysius days. Another great at a place called Chez Grand-Mère, with a super nice server and such yummy food, it’s one of the few meals on the trip I can remember perfectly: a mushroom cassolette, lamb cooked with foie gras, and a taste of this caramel moeulleux thing that was served on a piece of slate.

Painters like Paul Cezanne, whose house we got to see, loved Aix and the Provence region in general for its light and colors. And I did see something different about it, the way the sun reflects the color palette of the area: wonderful orangey-warm yellows, the best blues you’ve ever seen in a window shutter, and the green green green. I find that most French town lack in the greenery (shrubbery?), especially in their centers (Besançon included), which I guess is understandable for the crowdedness of it but Aix works them in well, especially the plane trees lining the Cours Mirabeau.

Walking around Aix, you see market after market of vegetables, flowers, breads, olives, soaps, lavender, herbs, wood products, sausages… you also see fountain after fountain. France likes her fountains. They are even more ubiquitous than her carousels (I swear, every town has one). Aix apparently sits on a natural spring or something so the city took advantage of it and erected fountains everywhere.

Soft serve ice cream (whippy?) acquired: mango and strawberry.

Adventure #18: Toulouse

France likes its strikes and so far, I’ve actually found them more or less beneficial. Either my school was striking and I didn’t have to work or the buses were striking so there wasn’t a way to get to work. However, an SNCF train strike had the potential to really ruin our plans. Our train from Aix to Toulouse was cancelled and we had to choose between staying another night in Aix or trying to get a super late train to get into Toulouse the next morning. We ended up hopping on a train back to Marseille in hopes of having more options there. Proved to be a GREAT idea because we all got free hotel rooms out of it. As in, all six of us EACH got an individual 96 euro a night Hotel Ibis room for nothing. One less night we were planning on paying for! So as far as strikes go, I like ‘em… once I got used to sitting on the floor next to a trash can in the baggage car.

Color-wise I was disappointed in Toulouse. Hailed as being “La Ville en Rose” or “The Pink City” I was jazzed for seeing what that was all about. But either we missed the pink buildings entirely or whoever came up with that tagline suffered from some sort of colorblind. So. Not. Pink. But it made up for its lack of color in gardens. Plus, I made my sole souvenir purchase (other than the twenty, yes, TWENTY, postcards I managed to purchase and write from the trip, thankyouverymuch). A tapestry wall hanging thing… I’ve always wanted one and it will nicely fit the old lady image I have of myself, hanging on a wall in the guest bedroom to prove to my few visitors that I indeed had at least one year of excitement. The visit to Musée des Augustins cloister was the only time my expired ISIC card has failed to get me a student discount. I had to shell out the three euros to get in. Thankfully the garden and the architecture made it worth it. Really nice ceilings.

Highlight of Toulouse was actually leaving it for the day to go to Carcassonne, home of “La Cité” a castle on a hill with an entire little town, or “cité,” within its walls. Total legit castle. Moat and everything.

Ice cream acquired: passion fruit and lemon.

Adventure #19: Bayonne/Biarrtiz/Anglet

Though we were based in Bayonne, technically we stayed in Anglet, and did a day trip to Biarrtiz. Bayonne for the ham, Anglet for the hostel, Biarrtiz for the beach. Before French became the uber-centralized entity that it is, each area had its own language, Bayonne’s being Basque. Apparently, Basque is interesting linguistically (another informational tidbit courtesy of Donatella), but I just thought it was neat to see the signs in two different languages.

On the pebbled shores of Biarrtiz we engaged in your typical collegiate spring break activities (drinking on a beach) but we cultured it up a bit with having wine and having a few games of pétanque. Played all over the world under different names (bocci ball, boules), I’m just good enough at it to really hate it when I’m bad, much like I feel about badminton or foosball. But since I’m bad kind of often I guess that means I can’t really be good. But it turned out to be a great beach game.

On our last day in Bayonne before we caught our train we took turns sitting with the bags and sightseeing the super cute town, I’m always a fan of timbered houses and patterned cobblestoned streets. Food-wise, Bayonne is known for its chocolate and ham. We saw how the later was made and tasted the former in liquid form (liquid ham?). Not always on Team Chocolate, I thought it basically tasted like thinned out warm brownie batter. But I can see how that could be a selling point to many consumers. Also, turns out they never actually cook the famed Bayonne ham. They just hang it up and dry it out awhile with regional salt. Huh. Uncooked pork.

Pastry acquired: some regional thing with cherries.

Adventure #20: Bordeaux

Every time I glanced at the name “Bordeaux” I thought it was “Boudreaux.” Wonder if I’d get any special treatment if I somehow did share the same name as a town? Hasn’t ever worked back home at Boudreaux’s and Thibodeaux’s downtown…

Thanks to our Welsh friend (mate?), we had contact with some students and other assistants in Bordeaux, which came in handy when our hotel turned out to be inhospitable, as in no hot water. Not like the hot water’s broken or slow, but as in hot water wasn’t even an option. But this was the only flaw in the perfectly laid spring break plan (other than the million train strikes) and because of their unbelievable hospitality, we saved again on hotel nights and were able to experience Bordeaux from their point of view.

Bordeaux seemed to be more of an actual working city than most I’ve seen in France (if that even makes sense). I found the architecture to be very Parisian and it seemed to be much more urban and modern than Marseille or Toulouse mostly due to their tram system. Think Epcot monorail on rue level.

We spent a lazy afternoon in a beautiful park and I got to ride a bike along a river, the Garonne to be exact. And it being Bordeaux and all, we did the whole wine tasting thing. Other than enjoying the scenery on the bus ride, it wasn’t as much fun as the one in Beaune and we surprisingly tasted a majority of whites. But I did meet a woman from California whose friend is the owner of Corks and Canvas on Jefferson Highway in Baton Rouge… connection!

Ice cream acquired: Vanilla Bourbon.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Stay Tuned!

I'm having some tecnical difficulties with my internet and haven't be able to be very prudent with updating this or my pictures. But with stolen moments online at school, at wi-fi spots, and at friends' I'll slowly but surely get y'all informed of my spring vacation adventures. I have some pictures loaded already but check back in soon for the rest of them and for my oh-so-witty captions.
I'm in the middle of my last week of teaching and things are busy, getting prepared to leave and trying to spend time with everyone before we part. CRAZY that this is almost all over...

Accompanying words to come soon...