29 August 2013
22 September 2012
09 August 2012
Let's face it, as much as the French diffuse our music, TV series and films, being an American expat in France is not always à la mode. At dinner parties, I am often cornered and expected to answer the most unbearable questions. No matter how hard I study up to give the most politically factual or diplomatic responses, I know there is nothing I can do to convince them, because they have no interest in -gasp- broadening their minds!
"Oh you're American? You're certainly lucky to be here in France. Coming from Detroit and after eating McDonalds your entire life, it's a wonder you're not gunshot-riddled and overweight! You know, 99% of you are morbidly obese, right? How many guns does your family have? Is it true you can't locate Iraq on a map? If your schools spent less time praying and teaching you to love America and more time teaching geography, you probably never would have elected George W. Bush... Twice. Speaking of which, you know 9/11 was an inside job, right? I mean, you wouldn't really have me believe that a plane hit the Pentagon? Watch the YouTube videos! I have a friend who went to Las Vegas once, and he told me you are all extremely prudish and patriotic... oh, and you put ketchup on everything! I must say I have no interest in visiting the States... And besides, Americans don't travel at all. I read somewhere that most of you don't even have passports. Oh, excuse me, I forgot to offer you something to drink. Coca-Cola, I presume?"
These attacks very in length and intensity, but are always accompanied by a sweet (if not a bit smug) smile. If I'm lucky, I'm serenaded with their impression of American English, which usually sounds like "blahh blaahh blaahh waawaa" and resembles to what I imagine the Neanderthals might have sounded like. Now, to be fair, I have met a lot of French who love the American accent, but they are not always there to defend me.
Now, most social gatherings out with friends in France are wonderful... but every so often I am forced to spend an evening in fruitless discussion, and sleepless nights imagining how to come out on top of these debates. I now have accepted that I never will, and it is best to either diffuse the situation with humor or just indulge in wine and hope it will end quickly.
This morning, I was still left with the foul aftertaste of some recent nasty experiences when a most unexpected encounter really put things in perspective.
Monsieur Xavier is the darling octogenarian who inhabits the tiny ground floor apartment in my building. A grandfatherly soul, he often invites me for lunch, calls me ma chérie and is always asking for news when I come and go. Today he inquired about my recent trip to Normandy. I told him it was fantastic and so rich in history.
His eyes suddenly filled with tears, and he told me he had lived in Normandy as a child, and that on D-Day (The Normandy beach landing operations of allied forces on June 6th, 1944) he and his parents sought refuge in a trench as the sounds of battle surrounded them. The terror had been unimaginable.
"It's the Americans I love the most in this world, because they saved us. I remember walking the beaches after the invasion. I saw with my own eyes Americans lying dead on the ground, no more than 20 years old. They came and fought and died. For us. I cannot tolerate those who speak badly of Americans, because their memory is so short. I will not allow it!"
He walked toward me, overwhelmed by emotion and choking back sobs. I blinked back tears of my own as he took me into his arms and hugged me tightly. "Oh chérie, je t'aime, je t'aime, je t'aime!"
68 years after the fact, you'd think it was only yesterday. I didn't know how to comfort this man, who had seen more horror than I could ever dream of. Somewhere, he was still a 12 year old boy who needed protection. All I could do was hold him in my arms and search for something to say.
"Thank you," I finally manged to speak. "You have no idea how much it means to hear that. I love you too."
I then retreated to my apartment, where I spent some time drying my eyes and reflecting. I was greatly impacted by this brief but charged exchange.
I marveled at the power of words. How easy it is sometimes to be cut down by backhanded compliments and downright intolerance... how snide remarks have a way of lingering with us years after they were spoken, and how the positive is so quickly forgotten.
My 5-minute exchange with Monsieur Xavier should hold infinitely more power than every snotty comment I've ever received in France. It's up to me to keep it that way. While I know it's easier said than done, for my own preservation, I must choose which words have power over me, and which should be discarded like a piece of merde.
The next time (and there will be a next time) I am subjected to verbal flagellation for daring to be born a Yank, I have only to breathe in deeply, and reread this entry.
PS: Monsieur Xavier is only one of the countless wonderful French people who have touched my life in a positive way. Whether a chance five-minute encounter or a long term friendship, I've met enough lovely French people to give me a generally good impression of this country. I wouldn't be living here if that wasn't the case.
PPS: Special thanks to Master T and his fabulous blog Floating in France, for giving me the inspiration and courage to rant, and for letting me know I'm not alone! Check out his blog: http://frenchiflyable.blogspot.fr/
01 June 2012
Quand je ne suis pas en train d'enseigner l'anglais ou faire de graphisme, je suis aussi parolière pour la chanteuse de soul Loretta (anciennement connue sous le nom de Laure Milan.) Voici le premier single "Miss You" de son prochain album. Faites touner !
12 May 2012
|Symbolic red roses|
|A triumph for multiculturalism in France|
|Sam and I with our banner... We had a little help from Obama...|
"Many people have been waiting for this moment for many long years. Others, younger, have never known such a time. ... I am proud to be capable to bring about hope again. I know what many people feel -- years and years of wounds, of ruptures, and we have to repair, recover, unite. That is what we're going to do together.”
I am absolutely overflowing with pride for my adopted country. This is fantastic news for me, as an immigrant in France. Possibly next year, I will have the right to vote in municipal elections. And who knows, in five years time, perhaps I will be voting in the next presidential election, as a French citizen! My life in France has taught me that all is possible, and now that there is a president who will look out for my interests, I am all the more optimistic that the dream will continue.
03 May 2012
After nearly an hour under the intense Toulouse sun, biting our tongues amid the pro-Sarko chatter, a heavily escorted black vehicle passed by. In the back seat were the president and his celebrity wife, waving to the people behind the barricade, probably three meters away from us, close enough to make eye contact. I noticed a brief interruption in his plastered-on politician’s smile, and noticed a hint of confusion on his face.
After the barricades were removed, we chuckled the whole way home over Sam’s candid message to the president, but inside, our stomachs were churning with uncertainty. The idea of five more years of Sarkozy frightens me very much, as an immigrant, as a resident of France.
It will be a close election, and, not having the right to vote in France, I feel powerless… I hope one day to have this privilege.
11 April 2012
As I ease myself back into blogging after a year-long absence, I realized one of the big reasons I was so discouraged from writing was that I dreaded having to write all the "catch-up" entries... A daunting task to be sure, especially after the events that have colored my ever-evolving life in Toulouse. My solution to this problem is to chronicle my "lost year," but in one single entry, in bullet form, no frills, no fuss (that's really hard for me to do!) Here we go!
- I'm now officially a songwriter after meeting an up-and-coming French soul singer Laure Milan. Not only have I penned the lyrics for 5 songs on her upcoming album (sung in English), I've also done a fair bit of design (illustrations for one of her music videos, photography of rehearsals and concerts in Paris, graphic design for posters, web and CD covers) This gig literally fell from the sky, and not only have I been working on some great creative projects, I have found a tremendous friendship in Laure and her entourage.
- I worked. A lot. As much as I would have loved to chronicle my "American girl teaching French people" moments (gems which never fail to scandalize and delight,) I was simply too busy living my teaching experiences to write about them! Living in downtown Toulouse isn't cheap, even when you're teaching 17 classes a week. For two semesters, my life was literally "Wake up, make photocopies, teach all day, come home, prepare tomorrow's lessons while eating what's left in the refrigerator, falling asleep in the process, repeat." On top of my teaching responsibilities, I was also bombarded by freelance design projects, many of which were for the university where I teach.
- I reawakened my creative spirit, not just in my design work for others, but for myself. I painted several watercolors, and launched my new art portfolio website: www.jamiealexander.net
- I was supported by the tremendous presence of my marvelous friends in France. They made the good moments unforgettable and the bad moments bearable.
- I traveled a bit to preserve my sanity.... (Morocco, Spain, Switzerland, Italy, and pretty much all over France (lavender fields in Provence, the Basque country, the Loire Valley châteaux, the Alps, Le Périgord, etc.)
- I discovered my inner strength. Losing a close family member, separating from my fiancé, and being unable to visit the United States for a year and a half did wonders on my morale and self-esteem. I was forced to pick myself up from the depths of despair and start again. As time passes, I am more and more convinced I am where I need to be, doing what I need to be doing, and should make no apologies for daring to live my dream.
- I spent a life-changing New Years 2012 in Paris. If ever your life is turned upside-down, I suggest a week in the City of Lights. Monuments, museums, strolls in parks, red wine, champagne under the Eiffel Tower at Midnight....being carried home from the Eiffel Tower after too much champagne... It was a desperately needed escape from Toulouse, and reality for that matter. While there, I was reminded why I was living in France, and that I was exactly where I needed to be. Of course the company didn't hurt... see below...
- After 2011 had finished collapsing on me, I very unexpectedly fell in love with a Frenchman, despite the fortress I had erected around myself. He is a major reason for my positive start to 2012. I am starting to believe that I deserve to be loved again. Most importantly, I can laugh with him, which is something I hadn't done much of in 2011. For the first time in a long time, I feel like I can construct a future with someone.
I see change within myself. I'm for the most part more serene, back in control of my life, which for several months seemed out of my hands. My parents told me a few days ago that this is the happiest they've seen me in YEARS. As I reflect, I realize they're right.
In the US, I never experienced anything like what I've been able to live on a daily basis here in France. I feel like I have started to come into my own here. As my mother would say "blossoming." France has taught me that nothing is impossible. How else could an American graphic designer become a law teacher, songwriter, illustrator and world traveler?
It does not mean I'm not scarred or terribly saddened by the difficulties I've experienced. But it shows that I have hope, that things are gradually turning around for me, and that with each passing day I have every reason to smile.
05 January 2012
I buried my grandmother in early January 2011. I had the great fortune to be home in America for the holidays to be at her side before she passed. Nevertheless, the pain of losing her definitely set the tone for my entire 2011.
2011 would also see my eight-year relationship with my fiancé crumble. The agony of losing a relationship that I never thought would end left me feeling like the ground had collapsed beneath me. Without going into detail, the demise of our relationship was due to the fact that I saw my life in France, and he did not. While we both knew we were clinging to life support the last year or two, I lacked the strength to let go. He would be the one to walk away.
I admire his strength, because he awakened a greater strength inside of me, a strength I never knew I possessed.
I regret sincerely the pain we caused one another. He was and always will be a person who counted for me. The memories we lived together cannot be erased.
For awhile, I felt as if I was living a nightmare. So desperately I wanted to reclaim my "real life," the life I was "supposed" to have lived. There was a wedding dress hanging in my closet that would never be worn. There were dreams years in the making that had never been realized. There were children who would never exist now. For the first time in years, at 28 years old, my future is the blurry unknown. I felt like I had taken a train, and had gotten off at the wrong stop. This was never in the plan. I felt like a bird hovering near a broken branch. I didn't know where to land.
The reality of my decision to move to France has never been so cruel. Pursuing this dream has required countless sacrifices, but never like this. Was it worth it? I asked myself.
For months, my health suffered, my emotional state was plummeting, and my creative energy was crushed.
Walking down the street holding back tears was terrible. The people around me were oblivious to my torment. Even worse was standing before a classroom of students and pretending that everything was ok, even as they saw my reddened eyes and lack of passion as I spoke.
For the first time in my life, I spent the Christmas holidays in France, away from my family. Finances did not permit a trip to the States this year. If ever there was a moment when I NEEDED to be home in the States, this was it. But obviously life had other ideas for me, and this was simply not to be. I suppose crappy Christmases help you to truly appreciate the good ones.
I have never been so thankful to see a year end in my life. But, perhaps, all of this negativity signifies positive changes for 2012, changes that I do not realize yet. In the past few months, I have begun to see the beauty of the gift I have been given. I have a second chance at a dream.
Rather than seeing this as the death of what SHOULD have been, I am beginning to delight in the fact that I now have the chance to live the life I would have regretted NOT living had I pursued the original plan. The magical alternative. The unknown.
As of late I have had several friends telling me how much they admire my "avant garde" decision to take off for a new country and realize my dream, pursue my art, and live for passion, travel, and new experiences.
I have always been this way, since I can remember.
Staying true to myself has never been so painful, but I have a feeling that it has also never been this WORTH IT.
How can an artist continue to grow without heartbreak?
How can you appreciate true love until you've lost it?
How can you know how much your dream means to you until its been tested?
How can you know yourself if you sacrifice your dreams?
My optimism for 2012 continues to grow. And while that doesn't stop the pain, I know one day I will be grateful for the way things turned out.
It's a bittersweet feeling, but for the first time in many many months, I feel alive.
The Road Not Taken
Robert Frost 1874 - 1963
|TWO roads diverged in a yellow wood,|
|And sorry I could not travel both|
|And be one traveler, long I stood|
|And looked down one as far as I could|
|To where it bent in the undergrowth;||5|
|Then took the other, as just as fair,|
|And having perhaps the better claim,|
|Because it was grassy and wanted wear;|
|Though as for that the passing there|
|Had worn them really about the same,||10|
|And both that morning equally lay|
|In leaves no step had trodden black.|
|Oh, I kept the first for another day!|
|Yet knowing how way leads on to way,|
|I doubted if I should ever come back.||15|
|I shall be telling this with a sigh|
|Somewhere ages and ages hence:|
|Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—|
|I took the one less traveled by,|
|And that has made all the difference.|
27 November 2010
This article is beyond overdue! As an American in France, one of the most pleasing but perplexing customs is la bise. For you non-francophones out there, la bise is a greeting in which French friends and acquaintances exchange kisses on alternating cheeks.
One of the most unnerving experiences I've had with la bise happened with a work colleague at one of the schools I taught at last year. She was always very cold with me, and I never did figure out why. When we arrived at school in the morning, she would bise everyone but me. I developed all sorts of complexes, wondering if there was something wrong with me. I felt the sting of rejection each time she bised those on each side of me. I felt invisible... I would greet her and kind of lean a bit towards her, not sure what to do. If I received any acknowledgment at all, it was a curt nod and an expressionless bonjour. It wasn't until my last day of teaching at that particular school that I received a gracious bise from her as if we had been doing it all along... I never did figure out the reason for her selective bising, but I do know that it is a great way to alienate people.
Bising with strangers
Another awkward experience with la bise occurred when my American friend Kathy and I were photographing inside a beautiful gothic church. Although the church had been empty, a group of people soon arrived, to celebrate a baptism. We decided to leave out of respect for the event, and as we headed toward the exit, the mother approached me wither her baby in tow, and the next thing I knew, she was bising me like an old friend. She must have thought I was a friend of the family. I was stunned, and almost started to explain that I was not part of her group, but realized it would be easier to just bise her and get it over with. I glanced over my shoulder at Kathy, and saw her mid-bise with another person in the family. We smirked at one another and continued heading to the door, bising everyone between us and the exit. Many introduced themselves with warm smiles, and told us how great it was to see us. It really was lovely, and I almost wanted to stay and enjoy the dinner with them afterward. We smiled, continued bising dozens of complete strangers before eventually making it to the door. Safely outside, we collapsed on the ground in a fit of laughter.
Some wisdom on bising
After over a year of living in France, I can offer the following advice on la bise. ::DISCLAIMER:: I do not claim to be a professional, so be advised that I am not to be held responsible for any awkward situations that result from any bise gone awry due to my advice.
Gender roles of la bise
-Women and women bise
-Men and women bise
-Men and men do not bise each other unless they are close family or friends. They generally shake hands.
When to bise:
-when greeting friends and family
-when a friend introduces you to his or her friends, you should bise them (bise by association)
-when greeting colleagues (but follow their lead)
When NOT to bise:
-when the sleazy guy flirting with you in the street asks to (he will cheat and aim for your lips. ew!)
-when greeting your superior
-when you're sick
When in doubt:
Whatever you do...
Whether you choose bise or not, remember that you still must greet everyone individually when entering a home, party, or workplace.
La bise by region
How to approach la bise as a foreigner
I can attest that most of the awkwardness that comes from la bise is due to our tentativeness as foreigners to greet someone in such an unfamiliar way. Even if you're nervous, outward confidence is key. Hesitation will only worsen the situation. Approach la bise as if you have been doing it your whole life. It takes grace and swiftness. Offer your right cheek first, like shaking hands. Don't actually let your lips touch the other person's cheek. Lightly press cheeks together and make the kiss sound. Stay loose, don't freeze up.
Even if it's uncomfortable at first, trust me, it gets better with time and experience. Barack and Michelle can do it! so can you! Yes we can!
Happy bising, tout le monde!
02 November 2010
Now I, like many, assumed that college life, while not identical in various countries, had several... universal qualities. Well, as a teacher in a French university, I can now say that FASHION is not one of these shared traits.
I am in absolute AWE of my French female students, who work the hallways like a runway. Their enviably and impossibly slender legs sport sleek leggings under tunics or miniskirts, tucked into leather high-heeled boots or perhaps ballerina flats. Throw on an edgy jacket and an artfully tied flowing scarf (which is a science of its own right), and crown with a messy chignon on top of head. Allow a feel tendrils to fall around an immaculately made-up face. The aim of this hairstyle (which I will henceforth and forthwith call a "topknot") is to look as though it took 30 seconds to achieve, yet probably took hours of arranging every strand just so... Or perhaps it really does take them 30 seconds, due to their French blood and the inherent flawlessness it entails. Many throw on a pair of the geekiest, thick-rimmed glasses I have ever seen... and here is the weird thing: it AMPLIFIES their hotness! Backpack? ::raises a critical brow:: You must be joking. The most popular bag seems to be a Longchamp bag. Even the guys carry them! Accessory number 1, of course, is a cigarette delicately poised between two fingers and elegantly bent wrist.
As for the French guys, forgive me if I pay less attention to their attire. What I do know is that they always have extraordinary leather shoes, never scuffed or anything less than gleaming. Only a French guy can wear a V-neck sweater, slim-cut jeans, a purple scarf, and carry a longchamp bag and not at all be concerned about his masculinity. Men in the States would sooner jam all their belongings into a bulging wallet stuffed in their jeans than carry a "man purse," but French men seem to have no issues whatsoever with this concept.
What really gets me is the French and their effortless ability to pull together an outfit from an assortment of seemingly unrelated and mismatched articles of clothing. I firmly believe they can walk through their closet with their eyes closed, select 5 random articles of clothing, and still manage to look sexier and more put-together than I do on my best days!
It's really amazing how I can look in the mirror in the morning and think I am the epitome of style and class. I could have a new outfit, gorgeous leather boots that click deliciously on the cobblestones as I walk, flowing hair and a flattering shade of lipstick, but the instant I enter the classroom, I feel frumpier than your great aunt Myrtle at a Sunday afternoon tea party. It's like walking a gauntlet each them I enter the classroom. The eyes of the female students dart over me from head to toe, checking to see if my belt goes with my shoes, grimacing when they realize I am carrying a reusable plastic shopping bag. They murmur to one another, probably about what soirée they are attending Friday night, but the paranoia has seized control of me after witnessing their stares. Maybe they notice the 4 kilos I've gained since moving to Europe.
Expat ladies in France, take note of my words of wisdom: No matter how much you spend on French clothes, how much you practice walking the medieval streets all day in high heels, how many desserts you decline, how many cigarettes you smoke, how many hours you spend emulating the way they tie their scarves or their elusive "top knot," you can never, ever compete with the French and their natural finesse for fashion, their absence of cellulite, and their talent for turning a disgusting habit like smoking into the sexiest thing in the world.
What you can do is take comfort in the following:
A. French MEN will love you anyway, if for nothing more than your charming anglophone accent. As horrible as you think it sounds, the French think it sounds cute! Even if you butcher your conjugations, all the better. Tant mieux! (Think sexy British chanteuse Jane Birkin, who despite living in France for over three decades has kept her very pronounced accent. I think she does it on purpose.) I cannot count how many free drinks I have received simply because of my "accent délicieux." As much as I wish I could eliminate my accent when I speak French, French men beg me to "keep it forever," as their gorgeous French girlfriends scowl next to them.
Just remember not to get cocky, because if a French girl comes to your side of the pond, not only will she be better dressed, but she will also speak her seductive brand of English which sounds "like zeees."
B. They may have fantastically trim bodies, but you can enjoy the fact that you can consume more than cigarettes for dinner! That means you can actually enjoy the delightful cuisine France has to offer. Living in the Toulouse region, that means Cassoulet, Foie gras, Gaillac wine, Roquefort and Tomme cheeses, sausages and more. Ever wonder why so many of them look perpetually pissed off? They're jealous of you and your gastronomic freedom!
You know, writing this almost makes me feel better for my fashion and fitness, shortcomings. I felt inspired to re-attempt the famous top-knot, which, it seems, is yet another "top-flop."
Beautiful French women. If you can't beat them, join them. If you can't join them, blog about them...
29 October 2010
In America, where public restrooms are practically a constitutional right, university students enjoy the liberty of using the facilities at their own discretion... usually trying to slip out the door discretely, causing minimal distraction to classmates. It is generally not required to ask the professor's permission, except during tests or exams, of course... I even remember casually walking out of particularly dull lectures to purchase snacks from the vending machine or answer phone calls.
I had always assumed my students in France would follow suit in my class should ever nature call... Take last week, for example. I was in the midst of what I thought was a riveting lecture about affirmative action in the US with one of my masters classes. I was speaking passionately, even eloquently, and was proud of myself for having so thoroughly researched today's class. One student made eye contact with me as I spoke, his lips starting to mouth something. Convinced that he was moved by my dazzling teaching skills, I grew confident. I can do this! I am teaching and I am making a difference in these people's lives! He was raising his hand now, doubtlessly inspired enough by my lecture to contribute an idea! I nodded in his direction to indicate I was aware of his burning need to speak his mind on the subject I had so artfully presented, and finished my thought. Then I turned to him and said, "so what are your thoughts on the 14th Amendment, Mattis?"
"euhhh, actually, Madame, I must use... euhhh... les toilettes, s'il vous plaît?"
"Oh," I said, disappointed. "well, go ahead." Here I was expecting a brilliant response, and instead I get a half-hearted (and half-French) request to use the bathroom.
Since then, I have been inundated by bathroom requests. Today, in the midst of drawing a diagram (very artistically rendered, I might add) of the American court system on the board, I was again interrupted by the all-too familiar question. A beast inside of me raged, and I snapped.
"For goodness sake, if you have to use the restroom, just go! You are all adults, and I won't stop you! I know you have to ask permission in French schools, which I could understand if you were still in primary school, but you're in UNIVERSITY NOW! In my class, consider yourselves in America! PLEASE DON'T ASK! JUST GO!"
I punctuated my miniature rant with an exasperated sigh, and then noticed that I had quite possibly scared my class mute with my impassioned delivery. Thirty pairs of eyes stared back at me, and as I pondered how to soften what had already been said, in the back row, someone quipped "Yes we can!" A chorus of giggles resulted, and of course, I tried to keep a straight face, failing miserably, and eventually succumbing to laughter.
I must admit that as much as my students drive me crazy, they make me smile in equal quantity.
Next year, I am putting "freedom of bathroom use" in my class rules...
23 October 2010
Well, I survived my first day of university teaching, nearly intact. Although the first day of class is fairly simple, entailing distribution of texts, going over grading policies, and making introductions, I was all nerves; Nausea in the pit of my stomach nervous. My undergrad students range from 18 to 22 years old, and my Masters students range from mid twenties to forties. Since I’m close in age and sometimes younger than my students, respect is a serious concern. It didn’t help that each time I entered the classroom, the male students gawked at me, the females eyed my outfit up and down, staring disapprovingly at my scuffed ballerina flats, and a murmur of reaction filled the room... as if I couldn’t understand French!
“But she’s so young!”
“I thought it would be a guy... Jamie... isn’t that a boy’s name? Like Jamie Oliver?”
“No, silly, it’s like the tv show “Super Jaimie” (The French version of the Bionic Woman)
I smiled and introduced myself to the class, briefly outlined the goals of the class, and instructed them to interview the person sitting next to them, before ultimately presenting their partner to the class. I had them come up with their own questions, which were written on the board. To spice up the boring list of questions (What’s your name? How old are you? What are you studying? Where are you from?) I added my own question to the list: If you could be any animal, which animal would you be, and why? Of course this broke the ice and the response was generally laughter. Phew!
After the round of introductions, I let the students ask me questions... which included:
“Aren’t you rather thin for an American?”
“Are you single?”
I used this exercise for all of my 14 classes... and it was the final class on Friday where it took a turn for the worst. During the introductions, a male student presented his partner.
A hush of horror fell over my classroom, and I also struggled to believe what had just come out of his mouth. Jean-Claude, his partner, turned white, and shook his head vehemently, as if saying he had no part in what had just transpired.
A few long, terrifying what do I do? moment followed. Send him out of the room? Diffuse with quick-witted humor?
I always think of witty responses.... always a few minutes too late... The class was starting to murmur... I could not lose control of them. I’d better assert my authority!
“Excuse me? Would you like to repeat that?” I demanded. “This is your first and final warning. I will never tolerate this disrespect in my classroom, and if you behave this way again, you’re out of this room, and failing this class. Do you want to be in this class? Comprenez-vous? Est-ce que vous-voulez être dans ce cours?”
He bowed his head and mumbled an apology, but it was too late, the entire atmosphere of the class had been spoiled. The rest of the period, the whole dynamic had shifted, and I could not smile. I walked out, deflated. I could never imagine a student in an American university behaving this way.
I had been doing so well this week... what happened?
Interesting how one event can spoil a series of good ones. Off I go to drown my sorrows in a French pastry.
I can't help but recall my first day teaching elementary school last year in France. See my article, First official day of teaching... Epic Failure
This most recent experience is 100 times more devastating! What I wouldn't give to exchange the uninterested stares of young adults for the effortless love and enthusiasm of children. I miss those kids so damn much. French people start off so adorable and full of life as children... what turns them into the painfully thin, cigarette-dependent, indifferent fashion plates that now sit before me? I'm probably being unfair, I need to give them time to warm up to me, and me to them... I'm just going to have to work a lot harder than I ever had to with the kids.
I have to bear in mind that I am living in the south of France... in a gorgeous new city, and realizing a childhood dream... for the second year in a row! "This is my dream" is now written on a post-it on my wall. A mantra to be repeated in times of difficulty.
Let’s hope next week is better... at least now I know what I’m up against. Better start preparing my arsenal of ‘quick witted’ responses now!
15 September 2010
While staying with the Italians, I was ready to give up hope of ever being reimbursed for my damaged computer. The guy who fell on me was hanging up or simply not answering my calls. Cetina recommended contacting his insurance company directly... Come to think of it, he had mentioned the name of his insurance company.... Hmmm, interesting idea, but I expected nothing to come of it!
With Cetina's help, I penned an impassioned letter in French, detailing not only the monetary damage, but the emotional and psychological damage of having such a traumatic event befall both me and my computer. She told me to milk it for all it was worth. With the letter, I enclosed my repair bill and the receipt for my laptop.
I never expected to hear from them, but imagine my surprise today to open my mailbox and find a check from the insurance company for (you guessed it) 779 euros!!!
A triumph against what I thought were unbeatable odds, and a tremendous boost in morale!
Truly, I am in debt to the Italians for their help... it seems as though they were placed in my life for a reason... to straighten things out for me (my apartment woes, my computer repair fees, furnishing my new apartment, and raising my spirits with a fantastic trip to Andorra. Without them, I shudder to imagine where I'd be.
22 August 2010
Although I have spread my wings and left the Italians' nest after a week, we have kept in contact, emailing back and forth, making several shopping trips for the new apartment, and now, a trip to Andorra in the sidecar of their motorcycle!
Setting off from Toulouse, we were very soon in the mountains, a breathtaking sight to behold, even without snow in the heat of summer. We paused for a quick paella in a tiny French village in the mountains, and were soon in the tiny nation of Andorra.
Landlocked between France and Spain, Andorra is the 6th smallest country in Europe, known for being a tourist attraction and a tax haven. The reason behind our trip, I came to learn, was that Luigi wanted to restock on duty-free cigarettes. Catalan is the official language, although French and Spanish are widely understood.
I must admit that I was disappointed by the tawdriness of the cities of Pas de la Casa and Andorra la Vella (the capital.) The appearance of the shops and architecture was very cheap, and dare I say, UGLY. Framed by the majestic Pyrénées, these cities seemed ridiculously out of place. However, if you can spend as little time as possible in the cities, and immerse yourself in the savage natural beauty, Andorra is a paradise of jagged rock formations, green hills, and an abundance of precariously perched grazing sheep and goats wearing bells around their necks. This is easily some of the most dramatic scenery I have ever seen in my life.
The complicity of Cetina and Luigi is admirable. They have no need to communicate with words. They clearly are accustomed to spending hours and days at a time on the road, and of course conversation is impossible with the roar of the motor. And yet, observing them, they are in constant contact. A touch of a gloved hand, a pointed finger, a nod, a gesture indicating a desire to full over... they function seamlessly. Dressed head to toe in black, speaking French in rolling Italian accents, they truly belong in a movie. The sturdiness of Luigi is complemented by the delicate frame of Cetina, whose long curly hair is untamable even under a helmet... there is an artistic quality that I recognize in these two, and one of these days I will have to paint a watercolor portrait of them.
It's amazing the difference a few short days and a few amazing new friends can make for one's morale. I am feeling more confident about my new life in Toulouse.
Cetina and Luigi serve a much higher purpose than simply renting me a room for a week. Whether they realize it or not, they have saved me from my own self-doubts and despair. What may have been just a cigarette run for them has been one of the most beautiful experiences of my life.
20 August 2010
After three solid days of panicked apartment hunting, I am happy to report that I have found a new chez moi! The new place is steps away from Place Capitole, and a two minute walk from the university where I will be working. The new place is tiny, but not without a certain charm, that comes mainly from the enormous window that provides a view of the tower of Saint Jacobin, a 13th century Dominican church that houses the mortal remains of Saint Thomas Aquinas.
I wanted to reserve the apartment on the spot, but the landlord said he had a few more interviews to conduct before he decided. My heart sank. I wondered if my being a foreigner made me an undesirable candidate...
Two days later, I hadn't heard from him, and worked up the nerve to call him. "Excusez-moi de vous déranger, Monsieur. I know you told me you would call me back when you made your decision, but I just wanted to know that I really really want the apartment, and I will take really good care of it, I promise!"
After a long pause, he responded "OK," with a trace of amusement in his voice. I wonder if he waiting this long to make me squirm!
I breathed a sigh of relief that was audible over the phone. "Oh, thank you! You have no idea how hard I have been searching!" I prattled on senselessly, and somehow he got a word in edgewise to make a date to sign the contract.
My appointment for the signing of the contract was August 10 at noon.
Two hours later was my Visa appointment at the Préfecture.
At my appointment, the clerk smirked when she saw the date of my apartment contract. "Just made it, eh?" she said.
I shudder to imagine what would have happened if I had no address for my visa appointment...
That major hurdle out of the way, I can now concentrate on my enjoyable things, like decorating. The Italians took me shopping in their Sidecar, and helped me move my luggage as well. I cannot begin to express my gratitude to them!
The apartment is a tiny studio, yet I have managed to make it my own with an Indian rug, posters, and decorations from my travels.
To celebrate, the Italians have proposed a day trip to Andorra, in the sidecar, of course!
09 August 2010
After a single night in the god-forsaken apartment from hell, things are looking up. I could not stay there another moment, and spent the entire day scouring the internet for potential places to live. I have quite a deadline, considering my visa appointment is in a few days, and I absolutely must have a permanent address to prove residency! I haven’t found a permanent apartment yet, but I’ve found temporary relief in an Italian couple who rents out a room in their beautiful Toulousain apartment on a short term basis. From the tranquility of their apartment, I can sleep insect-free, and also search for an apartment with use of their phone and WIFI connection.
I’ve been with them a few days. They are a lovely couple named Cetina and Luigi. They speak a very sing-song French, rolling all the R’s in typical Italian style. From what I’ve gathered, they do not work. I noticed they sleep quite late, and never seem to be going off to work. I asked what they did for a living, and Cetina replied, « We’re authors. We travel the world on our motorcycles and write about our adventures. » I asked them how many books they had published, and Cetina declared “This will be the first one, when it’s finished.” I did not want to push the issue of how they could afford to travel the world on their numerous expensive motorcycles, live in an affluent apartment in downtown Toulouse, and wear exquisite leather outfits... so I smiled and told her how much I admired them as a couple.... they are in their mid-forties, too young to be retired... Their income is a mystery.
They have shown me photos of their numerous trips. They have travelled throughout Europe exclusively on their motorcycle complete with sidecar. Not just your standard Western Europe. We’re talking far-flung places like Bulgaria, Latvia, and Serbia, and the Ukraine. They’ve been everywhere. They have even traveled to tip of Southern Spain, where they took their vehicle on the ferry to Morocco, and travelled throughout Africa. It’s really incredible.
They’ve been very lovely in helping me find a new place... I was too shy to phone my landlord of the hell-hole apartment to ask for my deposit, so Cetina took the phone from my hand, and very eloquently informed him that his residence was in shameful unhygienic conditions, and that HER CLIENT must be reimbursed for her deposit in a timely manner. I expected a protest from the landlord, but he really must have believed he was speaking to a lawyer, because he relented immediately and agreed to pay me back.
Additionally, as we all recall with my recent laptop disaster I was dealing with an 800 euro hole in my pocket due to the repair costs I had to shell out. Maurice was not returning my calls and I had lost all hope of getting my bill reimbursed. I had phoned his insurance company, who informed me that because I did not carry my own personal insurance, I had no possibility of recuperating the expenses, and that they could not help me. Cetina advised me to write a letter to his insurance company, and assisted me in the wording, ensuring I express candidly the emotional distress it had caused. I have no idea if anything will come from it, but I appreciate the effort she took to help me in so many ways. I adore her persistent attitude. She’s just relentless!
I’m channeling her energy as I hunt for my apartment.
I’ve been searching like mad. My strategy:
1. Search websites like www.crij.org and www.seloger.fr for apartment ads. Go to local Crous office and edge your way into the crowd of fellow apartment searchers copying down the newest ads on the bulletin board and hope no one else is writing down the same ones. Mark ones with potential.
2. Phone and make appointments to see the apartments. Only a small fraction of them will even answer, as this is a competitive time of year to be finding apartments, as students will be starting university this fall.
3. Circle the locations on map, and hit the streets.
4. Meet with various landlords who will show the apartment, which most of the time is a big disappointment.
5. Start back at step 1. Rinse, lather, repeat.
Naturally by now, I have a very good understanding of the layout of Toulouse, seeing how I’ve been everywhere on foot in my search. made a lot of progress, I’ve looked at 10 apartments the past few days, and they were either in a dangerous neighborhood, too far away from the city center, or their was an OCD roommate who reminded me of Hélène and her endless demands for neatness beyond human comprehension.
In the meantime, I’m staying in one of the most beautiful apartments I’ve ever seen with a fantastic couple that I get along swimmingly with. I keep fantasizing about living with them, but I know it’s only a short-term rental...
The clock is ticking, the date of my Visa Appointment is nearly here, and I absolutely must have an address....
Doubts in myself are rapidly returning.