29 August 2013

Interview about my life in France

Yesterday a dear and talented friend of mine, Dean La Douceur, interviewed me for his radio show/ podcast "On the Dean's List."  Check it out! We discuss my dream of living in France and how I made it a reality.

22 September 2012

Three years ago today...

Three years ago today, I stepped onto a plane with two suitcases and a stomach full of butterflies. I landed on a new continent, without even an apartment arranged, without a single friend, and somehow managed to carve out an existence working in a career that had nothing to do with my diploma. It was terrifying, lonely, often painful... and utterly marvelous. What was supposed to last only nine months ended up becoming permanent. I look at the past three years, the amazing places I've seen, the precious friendships I've made, the love I've lost, the love I've found, the lessons learned... the evolution of my character. Here's to my beautiful, complicated, adopted country. Je t'aime, la France.

09 August 2012

What the French think of Americans

Like many expats abroad, I'm no stranger unprovoked verbal assaults on my nationality.  As much as I love my life in France and French people in general, there are the inevitable few that excel at verbal lashings of expats, and specifically of Americans. I manage to remain optimistic and positive most of the time, but I'd be lying if I said they didn't get to me sometimes.

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

Did I mention I'm a songwriter?

When I'm not teaching English or designing, I am also a songwriter for French soul singer Loretta (formerly known as Laure Milan.) This is the first single, "Miss You" from her upcoming album. Please share with as many people as possible!

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

France has spoken. Change is now!

Symbolic red roses
It's been a nail-biting two weeks here in France, but at last, my friends, colleagues and I can breathe a collective sigh of relief. François Hollande has defeated Nicolas Sarkozy 51.62% to 48.38% in the runoff election and will become the first Socialist president since François Mitterrand in 1995. 
Among friends May 6th, we sat on the edge of our seats, anxiously counting down the minutes until 8pm, and when the photograph of Hollande filled the screen of our television, we lept to our feet screaming in joy, and wasted no time popping the cork on several bottles of champagne. Sam lifted me up in his arms and whirled me around in a circle before placing me on the ground and whispering “This is good news for you... for us.” I could have cried tears of joy. He was right, I can feel it is the dawn of a new France.
A triumph for multiculturalism in France
After a round of celebratory drinks and bises, we took to the streets, a homemade banner and several bottles in hand. A very elated, multicultural crowd had gravitated to the main square, Place du Capitole, in front of the city hall to celebrate. Sam and I took off running, jumped up on a ledge of the majestic brick building, and unfurled our banner to be met by cheers and camera flashes. We later befriended two lovely Muslim ladies, who although born in France, confessed to being treated like second-class citizens. They complimented our banner, and we shared our mutual hopes that this president would embrace cultural diversity and women's rights.
The air was filled with blaring car horns, cheers, singing, and noise makers. It was the sound of hope restored.
Sam and I with our banner... We had a little help from Obama...
 Visually, Place du Capitole was a sea of blue, white and red flags, pro-Hollande posters, and of course, hand-held smart phones to document the historic event. For me, the most stunning visual element of the evening was the fresh red roses being waved in the air and carried through the streets. Not only is red the color of the Socialist party, but Toulouse is famously referred to as la Ville Rose. I found this beautifully symbolic. Although the red roses were used to celebrate the victory all over France, Toulouse is the only city able to claim this special double meaning. I felt so very privileged to be celebrating this event in Toulouse, la Ville Rose... And could not prevent myself from belting out Edith Piaf’s “la Vie en Rose” as we walked through town, a newfound spring in our step.
It seems as if everyone I knew was celebrating at Place du Capitole; my law students, my colleagues and several friends.
Of course, Sarkozy’s supporters tried to stir things up, driving by hurling insults at the crowd, waving French flags (and middle fingers), but for the most part, things remained calm.
As Hollande addressed the country after his victory, he acknowledged the 17 year gap since the last left-wing president. 
 "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.”
The day after the election, world markets plunged, and eurozone debt fears have been reawakened around the globe. The media is speculating that the election of Hollande is a catastrophe for the debt crisis. I remain optimistic about Hollande’s plans to focus on growing the economy rather than Sarkozy’s austerity policy. I think much remains to be seen and that we should give the president-elect his chance.

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.
Vive la France. Le changement, c’est maintenant!

03 May 2012

French Election Anxiety: Flipping off Sarkozy

It’s hard to believe that in three days, France will have elected its next President.

Nearly two weeks ago, I watched anxiously as the candidates were narrowed down from 10 to 2 in the first round of elections. Sitting on the couch among French friends, chills of anticipation rushing down my spine, I realized that I was as excited about the results as they were. I have been carefully following this election, listening to each candidate, and have come to realize that I am probably more excited about the French elections that the American ones… I suppose it’s normal, considering where I call home now. As the two finalists were announced, we all groaned in despair. We hoped to see right-leaning incumbent president Sarkozy eliminated in the first round, but alas, he took a close second to Socialist candidate François Hollande. We exchanged nervous glances. This is going to be a close one. How ever were we going to survive two agonizing weeks before the second election?

A few days ago, relaxing on the couch watching the news with Sam, my French boyfriend, we learned that President Sarkozy himself would be holding a rally in Toulouse that afternoon. Sam glanced at me and said, “We’re going.”

Already aware of his less than favorable views on Sarko, I looked at him as if he was joking.

He wasn’t.

The next thing I knew, we were crammed among thousands of Sarkozy supporters brandishing French flags and posters with the slogan “La France Forte” (A strong France.) On my tiptoes, I managed to steal a few glimpses of the president… Briefly his arm, a bit of his face, and then a full view of his stunning singer wife, Carla Bruni.

Several of my law students were present, some wearing Sarkozy stickers and distributing literature. They smiled excitedly when they saw me… I averted my eyes. I did not want to be associated with this man.

The atmosphere was tense. I have never been to an American Tea Party rally, but this is probably the closest thing to it. Sarkozy, in top form as a dramatic orator, cultivated an ambiance of fear and mistrust, proclaiming that France would become the next Greece should his opponent Hollande be elected. He then moved on to the subject of strengthening French borders and removing France’s participation in the Schengen Agreement.

From there, playing on the emotions of an eager crowd, he went on to discuss his plan to reduce the number of immigrants in France by half in his next term, to prevent immigrants from entering French territory without speaking fluent French first, and to protect the rich history of France. He went on to extol the virtues of French cuisine, history, language, arts, culture and of course, the Christian faith (odd to mention religion in a supposedly secular country.) He went on to explain how immigrants were threatening these core values, and that they were failing to integrate properly into the French way of life.

The crowd, pushing and shoving, a literal sweat box, jeered at the mention of immigrants in France. A man next to me proclaimed loudly “ François Hollande, president des immigrés!” (the immigrants’ president.) Every now and then someone fainted from the suffocating heat, and had to be carried out. Every time that happened, the spectators inched forward to take that person’s place. The tirade against immigration continued. He did not even try to mask his disdain for North African Muslims. I was simply appalled by practically everything that came out of his mouth, and even more by the exultant reaction of his supporters, who hung on his every bigoted word.

I dared not speak out loud, for fear that my foreign accent would provoke a mob-like reaction. I glanced at Sam, whose mouth was tightly clenched, eyes blazing with rage. It was all he could do to keep himself under control.

Tears brimmed in my eyes despite myself. The crowd was chanting anti-immigrant slurs, and Sarkozy seemed to be feeding off their energy, his voice soaring above the cheers. I looked around at the people in the crowd, trying to understand why they hated me so much, just because I was foreign. It was impossible not to take it personally.

The crowd occasionally erupted into orgasmic applause, frantically waving their flags. I stared at the tricolor flag I have come to know and love as much as my own stars and stripes, and suddenly, I didn’t recognize it.

“I know it’s difficult for you to be here, but you need to see that there is not just one France. There are two.” Sam whispered in my ear.

Indeed, this is nothing new. I have always believed in two radically different Americas, both considering themselves patriotic. I suppose it should be no different in France.

As the speech came to a conclusion, the crowd began to wave their flags and sing an impassioned version of  “La Marseillaise.”

One of my most cherished dreams is to sing the French national anthem after receiving my own flag at a French citizenship ceremony.  Becoming French… Just the thought brings me shivers of joy. That’s why it killed me so much to see the flag and national hymn hijacked in a way, and used as instruments of discrimination and hate. This is the atmosphere I would have imagined in France in the 1930s, not in 2012!

We trudged out of the arena, a bit deflated by the whole ordeal, when we were stopped by security forces. We were behind a barricade, and were told we would have to wait until Monsieur le President had left the venue before we could walk home.

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.

I turned to Sam just in time to see his defiant middle finger displayed in all its glory before the horrified face of the President of France. A few second later, the car had continued on, but there is no way the gesture went unnoticed.

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.

Last night’s televised debate between Sarkozy and Hollande was riveting. All I can do is wait and hope that the people with the right to vote will choose Hollande, which would make my life a lot easier.

Hollande will be speaking in Toulouse this evening. His posters and stage are already set up. “Le changement. C’est maintenant,” a party slogan reminiscent of Obama’s Change mantra during the 2008 campaign has me filled with hope. However, after seeing how Sarkozy excels at public speaking and mobilizing large numbers of supporters, I am unable to predict a winner.

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.

The longer I live here, the more French I become, the more I crave involvement in the country I have chosen out of pure love.

I hope Hollande is right.

Change is now.

 We managed to inch our way into this doorway, but never made it inside.

 The crowd listening outside the arena.

 Sarkozy's right-leaning slogan "la France Forte" 

 I managed to get this shot of Carla Bruni, but but unfortunately my shot of Sarko was blurry.

 The President's car leaving the venue.

 Sarko's right hand waves as his car pulls away...

11 April 2012

The Lost Year Recaptured

I realized recently that my life (and its recent unexpected series of events) is largely impacted by the existence of my blog, and for that reason, I should be taking better care of it.

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!

My 2011 and early 2012 (abridged version)

  • 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

My dreams came with a price in 2011

I haven't blogged in quite a while... That is mainly because the year 2011 hit me with a brick... more like an avalanche.

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

To bise or not to bise?

That is the question!

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.

The first time I was greeted with la bise was by a work colleague my second day of teaching primary school. I sort of froze when she leaned in, and I noticed that her lips never actually touched my face. She just sort of pressed her cheeks against mine and made kiss sounds in the air. She noticed that I stiffened a bit and that I had not actively kissed her back, and asked if we had this custom in the States. I told her no, but that I liked it very much. I was elated to be assimilated into this pillar of French culture immortalized in cheesy junior high French class videos.

In eighth grade, I couldn't wait to visit France and get "bised." It seemed so chic, so breezy, so effortless, so very, very French. Au contraire, I never expected how much effort la bise would require for an American expat.

Mass bising anxiety
Last year while living in Metz, a French friend took me out to meet her friends at the ultra chic La Place Café. We arrived in a low lit fashion bar with pulsating music and extremely well dressed clientele. I felt awkward enough already in my fluffy white sweater amid a sea of sleek black outfits, but when we arrived at our table where 15 were already seated, my heart skipped a beat. We removed our coats, and I smiled and waved at the table of French strangers and began to sit down, thinking my friend would introduce me. I received some very strange looks. I glanced helplessly toward her, but to my horror realized she was halfway around the table, giving la bise to each and every person present. I stood up quickly, but then wondered if I was meant to do the same, since I had never met these people. The answer was OUI. If you attend a function and are introduced by a mutual friend, it is usually customary to offer "la bise." Thankfully, one of the other guests at the table introduced himself with a light kiss on each cheeks. I then bravely made my way around the table. After the table learned I was American and not accustomed to kissing strangers, the mood lightened considerably. Before leaving, the entire table repeated the ritual again. I did some calculating. If each bise consists of two kisses, that means I gave out 30 kisses to the 15 guests before dinner, followed by another 30 after dinner when we said goodbye. 60 kisses at one dinner? How much can my immune system take? I wondered.

Selective bising
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:
-shake hands

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

Just in case you weren't already thoroughly confused by the intricacies of la bise, the French decided to complicate things even more by assigning different numbers of kisses to different regions. Depending on what region of France you visit, you will be greeted by 2, 3, or even 4 kisses. Living in Metz and Toulouse, I have had it pretty easy, administering only two kisses, but imagine my surprise, receiving a THIRD kiss when visiting beautiful Montpellier. Sound intimidating? Not to worry, even the French are confused by regional changes. To illustrate the complexity of la bise, I have included this adorable map which shows the number of kisses 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

Observations on French vs American Universities Part 2: FASHION

Dress is one of the most obvious comparisons I can make between American and French students. In American colleges, the "uniform" typically consists of jeans, t-shirts, sneakers, and backpacks. Many girls stumble out of their dorm rooms for 8am classes wearing pyjama pants, or jogging attire and no one raises an eyebrow. As an art student, my jeans were perpetually covered in oil paint, charcoal, and ink. I gave up straightening my hair or wearing makeup if I had an early class.

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 an
d 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...

My failed attempt at the messy French "top knot"

29 October 2010

Observations on French vs American Universities Part 1: BATHROOM BEHAVIOR

I've been teaching for a few weeks now in the French university, and have noticed a marked difference between college students from France and from chez moi aux Etats-Unis. While I have never taught university level students in the States, it's not that long ago since I myself was one of them, which gives me the street cred needed to make this observation...

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

Surviving my first week of teaching French University

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:

“What country are you from? Your accent is strange!”

“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.

“Zees is Jean-Claude, he eez twenty-two years old, and he would like to sleep with you zees night!” he said with a wicked gleam in his eye.

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

Update: Laptop disaster in France

Just a quick update, as many of my readers have pointed out I have left a cliffhanger in one of my previous posts. Many of you may recall my panicked post "Laptop Disaster in France" in which I detailed the latest catastrophe I've had to deal with...

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

Adventures in Andorra with the Mysterious Italian Bikers

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!

I donned a magenta helmet and climbed into the sidecar, Luigi revved the engine and cranked up Duke Ellington, and Cetina lithely mounted behind him, dressed in a miniskirt and black boots. We set off through the streets of Toulouse, passers-by staring at us. I must admit I enjoyed the attention. To be part of their world, even for one trip, was like being in a film. I laughed out loud at the sheer craziness of the situation. One week prior, I was friendless and windowless in Toulouse, crying my eyes out... Look at me know! Not only do I have a visa and a new apartment, I'm riding in the sidecar of a motorcycle, careening through the Pyrénées mountains with two mysterious Italian authors!

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.

After a long day of hunting for duty free cigarettes, motorcycle accessories, and fuel, we shared a lovely meal (and several sangrias between Cetina and I) in Andorra la Vella before heading back to Toulouse. While most bikers have a reputation for being speed demons, Luigi drove steadily, handling hairpin turns with grace. A gentle rain began to fall, but I felt secure enough to drift off to sleep, despite the blaring blues CD and roaring motor.

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

New Apartment in Toulouse

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

Apartment Hunting and the Mysterious Italian Bikers

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.

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