23 October 2009

Halloween lessons... and drunk on the job... Oooh that's scary!

My Halloween lessons were a huge hit with my students.  And for the amount of effort I put forth the night before, I would expect nothing less. I painstakingly drew flashcards of a mummy, witch, cat, haunted house, pumpkin, ghost, werewolf, vampire, bat and skeleton. I must say, it felt damn good to have a marker in my hand.  Art projects work wonders on stress. 

Then I put my graphic design skills to work to whip up some worksheets to accompany my lesson on Halloween vocabulary.

Invariably, every class complimented my artistic skills, which made the hard work completely worth it.  After drilling the students with the cards, I let them listen to Thriller (although they pronounce it "Sree-lair," as fellow assistant Melissa mentioned in her blog).  It was adorable to watch them rocking out to the music in their seats as they filled out and colored their worksheets. Michael Jackson is highly revered among my kids, and after they completed their projects, they all rose to their feet to dance.  It didn't matter that I had prepared an entire playlist of Halloween music on my laptop, they only wanted "Sree-lair" over and over again.

Today, a celebration had been planned to celebrate the 50th birthday of the directeur at La Plaine. Although I don't typically teach at that school on Fridays, it was lovely to be invited. I'm well accustomed to workplace fêtes, and was expecting the typical pizza and pop in red plastic cups.  Au contraire, we're now in France! I arrived at the teacher's lounge to see a beautifully set table with real china, glasses, and silverware! Springing from the center of the table was a veritable forest of liquor bottles: wine, champagne, eau de vie, vodka, whatever you could imagine! The American in me allowed my jaw to hit the floor.  Alcohol... in school? I barely had a chance to process what I was seeing before a Kir Royale was placed in my hand. Everyone gathered around with aperitifs, playing U2 music, and suddenly it was your typical chic French party.

Keep in mind that the lunch hour lasts from noon till 1:45, so lunch didn't arrive for a good 45 minutes.  Everyone kept refilling my glass, saying "This is our regional specialty, made with the Mirabelle plum, you must try it! Oh, and this wine is the best in France, it's part of your education! Cheers!" Given that I had only a croissant for breakfast, I very quickly found myself becoming quite... besotted!  

Thankfully, the pizzas arrived, which helped me to soak up the euphoria. And what pizza it was! Not your typical American deep dish! This was thin crust, topped with fresh mozzerella and delicacies like salmon, artichokes, seafood, and even potatoes!  

I stumbled only once on my way to catch my bus, thankfully. Vive la France!

The "spirited" birthday bash in the teacher's lounge. 

21 October 2009

Out with the foyer, in with the chic French apartment!

This is a glimpse of the dreary room I endured at Foyer Carrefour up until now. Combined with the antics of my fellow residents (who engaged in 2am soccer matches in the hallway, bloody fist fights in front of my door that required the intervention of police and medics, and ear splitting French rap music at all hours), the questionable food in the cantine, and overall unfriendly vibes that permeated the foyer, it's clear to see why I could never bring myself to unpack my suitcases and call this place "home." 

Sunday, Hélène and her boyfriend Stéphan came to my rescue in his car to help me move my massive suitcases to the apartment from the foyer.  I felt bad for poor Stéphan, who was obliged to hoist my suitcases into his car, then carry them up three flights of stairs. They seemed to find it amusing that I had to ask him repeat himself whenever he spoke, since he has a distinctive accent from the south of France.  Just like the US, France has a variety of accents and dialects that vary by region.  Hélène and Stéphan make a gorgeous couple, as they are both very stylish, attractive and physically fit.  They just exude elegance... and well, France!

The apartment is charming, and Hélène did all the painting, remodeling, and decorating herself. Being French, she is interested in the tiny details that really contribute to the overall effect of the living space. Those 'petits détails" are found all over the apartment; for example, a lovely pattern of mosaic tiles carried throughout the bathroom, shower, and sink. The walls are bold, unexpected colors like purple, yellow, blue, and red, but they are done very tastefully, and harmonize beautifully with one another.  She has wonderful taste in art, and understands the importance of spacing pieces to let them truly shine.  The apartment has an abundance of unique light fixtures, mirrors, and curtains.  She seemed very flattered when I told her she could be a professional decorator. Even the cat, Dorine, is impossibly beautiful. She has the clearest blue eyes I've ever seen, and she's my favorite type of cat, since she behaves as affectionately as a dog.

I picked up a beautiful orchid plant as a thank you to Hélène for taking me in.  She has spent so much effort to make me feel comfortable, and I keep wondering why she's doing this! Obviously she has little to gain by the living arrangements, as the rent is low, and she's losing an entire room in her apartment.  I slow her down with my limited French, but she remains patient. Rather than switching to English when I don't understand something, she rephrases it in French.  She helped me locate the texts I need for my French class and leant me her library card to pick them up. She's taken me on tours of the neighborhood to help me locate the bus stops, supermarkets, post office, and shops.  I am so grateful and lucky to have met such a lovely person, and while I don't yet know how I will accomplish this, it is my sincere hope that I can make this experience as meaningful to her and Nicolas as it is to me.

Front room with multicolored walls


My room

Another view of my room, with Dorine the cat investigating my bed

The view of the Cathédrale Saint-Etienne from my bedroom window

The living room and dining room

Dorine the beautiful siamese cat

Breakfast nook

16 October 2009

My first French Strike!

Although my school week had been going significantly better, I was nevertheless delighted to receive an email last night which said all schools in Metz would be closed today (Friday) due to a massive strike by French farmers.  How very French indeed! And, I might add, how courteous of them to schedule it in advance!

Today, throughout France, over 70,000 farmers participated in the demonstrations protesting the plummeting price of their produce, demanding that Sarkozy keep his promises to offset their losses. Of the 7,000 tractors that formed convoys to disrupt traffic throughout France, nearly 2,000 were in Metz alone.  Public transportation in the downtown was crippled as the parade of tractors and protesters snaked their way through Metz.  

I joined fellow English assistants Kappes and Cole for a bit of 'tractor spotting' which involved mounting a hill in the park to observe the action below. From what we could see, the protest remained peaceful. Colorful banners denouncing French President Nicolas Sarkozy, effigies hanging from gallows, and even a woman dressed as a cow joined the masses who gathered. From our perch on the hilltop, a line of tractors extended as far as the eye could see.  These tractors came from all over Lorraine, which means many traveled quite a respectable distance to come to Metz.  Only in France are striking union workers provided a free lunch break!  At the beginning of their route, a huge station was distributing free baguette sandwiches, beer, water, and Orangina to the protesters.  Over loud speakers, protest leaders announced the arrival of each group of tractors from neighboring towns.  News crews also arrived on the scene to document the protest.  

I found the whole situation rather fascinating, as I have NEVER witnessed a strike on this scale at home in the States.  I had many errands to run throughout the day, and at various points in town I noticed scores of police clothed in riot gear, waiting behind shields in case the demonstration took a turn for the worst.  Thankfully, I didn't witness or hear about any violence, so I assume that all went well!  I continue to feel so fortunate to live in Metz, where all the action is... 

Mom, Dad, I'm really not trying to add more gray hairs to your heads! I'm safe, not to worry!

Tractor convoy lining up

Police awaiting the protest on a bridge over the Moselle River

News crew

A gruesome effigy says "Merci l'Europe!"

Sandwich and beer distribution in the gathering place for protestors

More tractors

15 October 2009

Teaching progress

I couldn't let this cuteness go to waste! This is a video of my CE2 students performing "The Numbers Blues." In regards to my dancing ability, if you can't say anything nice.... :-)

While my first day of teaching was off to a rough start, I must say that I kicked some primary ASS my second and third days of teaching!!! 

...and I mean that in the gentlest, most non-violent way possible!

Tuesday I taught at Ecole Elémentaire Van Gogh, which was an older age group (9 - 11 years old) and consequently better behaved, with the exception of the student who thought it would be funny to adorn his name tag with a vulgar phallic representation.  In the space of a millisecond, my face must have gone from horrified to amused to stern.  I don't know how I managed to swallow the fit of laughter, but thank God I did. For a few terrible seconds I had no idea how to handle the situation, but swiftly recovered, ordering him to copy the English phrase "I will behave respectfully in English class." 20 times on the board.  Such an old-school punishment, I realize that, but it worked! The rest of the class fell silent very quickly when they realized I meant business. Other than that, my four classes at Van Gogh were very successful. The kids seemed to take to me very well, and were eager to respond to my lesson.  I also showed them photos from my life in America, to which they responded enthusiastically.  When they saw the photo of my house with my six year-old Chevy Cavelier parked in front, the class responded with gasps of awe "C'est un Ferrari! C'est cool!" I didn't correct them.  Anyone who wants to think I drive a Ferrari is okay by me! They were also especially fond of the photos of my dog, Sherlock, as well as the photos of my family.  Without fail, each class wanted to know everyone's name.  I was also thrilled that I had decided to reinflate my globe and give it another go, because it worked beautifully, just as I had originally imagined it!

Thursday I was back at La Plaine, the school that had caused my Monday meltdown.  There, I unveiled a new strategy of using different funny voices when drilling my students, so they don't get tired of hearing the same phrase over and over again.  Suddenly, everyone was desperate to participate, because they couldn't wait to hear what funny voice I would come up with next, and they had so much fun repeating the phrases, they had no idea they were learning English in the process!  I also taught my CE1 students "What's Your Name," and my CE2 students learned "The Numbers Blues." These songs have a pop/rock feel, and seem much more contemporary than a lot of the ESL songs I've heard, and they were massively successful.  My kids quickly picked up the words, and were delighted when I invited them to stand up and dance it out. While I consider it a very successful day, this is not to say that I didn't experience difficulties with the students.  Gilles did have to come into my classroom again to quiet my kids down, and advised me to send problem kids out of the room, which I ended up doing twice.  The La Plaine kids, cute as they are, are a handful, and I hope I'll learn how to effectively handle them as they test their limits with their new teacher.

Overall, I feel like I've recovered so much confidence, and I'm actually looking forward to my next lessons!  Perhaps I can promise them rides in my Ferrari as an incentive for good behavior.

12 October 2009

First official day of teaching. . . Epic failure.

I find it truly amazing how the very things I feared the most about moving to France (getting a bank account, finding a place to live, setting up a cell phone plan, navigating the bus system) have turned out to be the simplest of tasks.  Likewise, everything I expected to accomplish with ease has proven without question to be the most challenging undertaking of my life.

Take teaching, for example.  

I arrived at Ecole Elémentaire La Plaine with all the confidence in the world.  After receiving the superstar treatment during my observation period last week, how could my kids NOT adore me? I had spent hours creating their first lessons, which were equipped with visual aids and an inflatable globe to engage their multiple intelligences (Thank you, TESL class!) I was smartly dressed in kid-friendly colors, even sporting a flower in my hair.

I was greeted with la bise by Gilles, the directeur, who led me to my own English classroom. The children filed in without a sound, but as soon as he left, they erupted into chaos.  By chaos, I mean they literally became a room full of monkeys, throwing things, talking over me, and sporadically falling out of their chairs.  Although I had prepared ample material, at one point I noticed I still had 15 minutes of class left, and honestly did not know how I would survive it.  At one point, Gilles returned to the room to admonish my class for being too loud, and I felt like a failure for being completely powerless to control them. I failed to win their sympathy when I told them that I was sick with a sore throat and that it was important for them to listen carefully to me. What happened to the lovable little cherubs I met last week? 

One of my activities involved tossing an inflatable globe to each student, so that each one could say their name and where they were from.  In my visions, I saw an orderly class who smiled gleefully as they gently tossed the globe to one another.  In reality, they tried to chuck the globe with all their might over one another's heads, cheering when their classmates had to chase it into the hallway.  It became a rather violent ordeal, to say the least.  

The four classes passed in the same fashion, with me about to pull my hair out during each 45 minute lesson.  Thankfully, for the last two classes, the teachers were still present in the classroom, which defused some of the talking and violent globe throwing.

After teaching them to say "How old are you?" and "I am ___ years old," they weren't able to grasp the link between the two.  No matter how much I drilled them or explained it to them in French, the exchange would go something like this:

Me:  Juliette, how old are you?

Juliette: How old are you?

Me: (in French) Ok, when I say "How old are you," you say "I am 8 years old." Do you understand?"

Juliette: (in French) Yes, ok! (in English) I am 8 years old!

Me: Very good! Now let's try it again. Juliette, how old are you?

Juliette: (with a huge grin) How old are you?

I felt rather discouraged after class, especially when the teacher who had observed my last class asked me if I'd ever taught English before.  I explained that I had taught catechism before for a year in America, and had gotten certified to teach ESL, but that was it.  She seemed exasperated by this, and went on to extol the virtues of the previous assistant, who apparently walked on water last year.  I told her I would do better, and that I had been trying to assess the class's level of English to get a feel for what material to teach them.  She replied that I had attempted far too much for the first lesson and advised me to contact the previous assistant so that I could learn the "correct" way to teach the students.  I thanked her, fighting back tears, and walked out quickly.

On the bus ride back to downtown Metz, I struggled to carry my bag, my globe, and my big binder full of teaching materials.  At one point the bus lurched, causing me to drop the globe, which bounced down the aisle of the bus.  As I went to retrieve it, I dropped several papers from my binder all over the ground.  Not one person raised a hand to help me.  They stared indifferently ahead, but there was no way they didn't notice me and my ridiculous balancing act. Flustered, I rushed about to collect my things, stuffed them into my bag, and slumped into a seat. I squeezed all the air out of my globe, feeling every bit as deflated.  I remember buying it in the States before I left, and how excited I had been to use it in class.  I never envisioned it turning out this way.  

My negativity began to bear its fangs.  It went something like this.  What the hell am I doing here? How am I supposed to last nine classes here, much less nine months? I am so out of my element. There is not a single day that passes where I don't make a complete fool of myself. Whether it's speaking the language, figuring out how to open the door on the bus when I need to get off, walking down the street without tripping on a cobblestone, trying to eat like a European, or even opening a normal door, I am bound to reveal that I'm foreign.  Even the most basic activities here are different, and I have never been so self conscious in my life.  And now I'm a failed English teacher. Oh, and I'm dying of the French Plague, cough cough.

As it turns out, my Australian friend Elli had an equally disastrous first day of class, and had also been chewed out by an instructor.  She was handling it much better that me.  It rolled right off her back.  Her rationale? "The schools didn't hire me, the French government did.  They knew fully well I had never taught before, and they still hired me. These are MY English classes, and I will conduct them as I see fit.  I'm not going to lose sleep over what they said, and neither should you."  She went on to tell me she was sincerely worried about me, and that I would probably suffer an anxiety attack if I continued to harbor such high expectations.

I did not enjoy hearing her say she doubted my ability to survive here for nine months, and a surge of rebellion filled my chest.  She's right, I wouldn't let a situation like this rattle me in the States, so why here in France?  Being here has been my dream since I was 12 years old. Now I'm finally here, and I'll be damned if I will allow anyone to ruin this for me.  Look what I've accomplished! I've found a place to live with a wonderful family, and am leaving this awful foyer. I've opened a bank account, started a cell phone plan, and filled out scores of paperwork... all in French. I've figured out the layout of Metz, where the best shopping is, and how to pick up essentials.  I've managed to accomplish all this while battling the worst flu I've ever had.  Thanks to the illness, I've learned scores about French drug vocabulary as well, having frequented several pharmacies. In a few weeks, I've managed to carve out an existence here in Metz, which is something to be proud of.

Today was my first day of teaching, but it seems the most important lesson today was mine to learn.

11 October 2009

Miracle in the Cathedral

I've officially decided that the Cathédrale Saint-Etienne has special powers. This morning, I was bemoaning the fact that I still had not secured housing outside of the god-forsaken foyer I've been staying in.  I had posted online inquiries and scoured the French colocation websites and housing sections of Metz newspapers.  

My entire reason for coming to France was to improve my fluency in French, my dream since the age of 12.  The best way to accomplish this would be to live with French people, and to speak it constantly.  I preferred a family to simply a roommate situation, because it could potentially offer a better chance for conversation and meals together, and a vision of the French way of life. However, I was about to give up and simply rent a studio for myself, since all the familial housing opportunities wanted either an au pair or someone to teach the children English, which would defeat the purpose of living with French speakers.  Some of the fellow assistants told me I was probably asking for too much, and I was beginning to believe it.

At breakfast, I met a French woman from Lille who was passing through Metz, and we ended up having a long conversation (regrettably, she wanted to practice her English, but I indulged her to be polite).  I explained my housing dilemma, and she replied that I should seek help from the church.  "Just introduce yourself to the priest, and he will definitely help you find something in the parish," she explained with confidence.  That idea had not yet occurred to me, but since I was already planning on attending Mass at the Cathedral today, it seemed simple enough.  

Quickly, I designed a flyer featuring a photo and brief description of myself and that I was seeking a family environment to improve my French and learn about French culture.  I stashed several copies in my purse, and headed off to Mass.  I introduced myself to the priest, and explained my situation.  He took one of my flyers and told me he'd look into it and call me if he found anyone in the parish.  I thanked him profusely and walked away, in my head saying: God, I know you're not simply going to drop this out of the sky... but I would really appreciate it if you could...

Just then, I received a tap on my shoulder.  I turned to meet a slightly familiar face.  "You're that American, aren't you?" The stylish French woman in her mid-thirties smiled gently.  I was still trying to place her face, so she continued, "I don't know if you remember me, but a few weeks ago, I stood behind you in line at the cell phone shop.  I really regretted not taking your information, because I know how difficult it must be in a new country and a new language, not knowing anybody.  Actually, I saw your name on the cell phone contract you signed, and tried to search for you on Facebook, but couldn't find you. There are so many Alexanders!"

It all flooded back! It was my first day in Metz, and I had been complimented on my French by the salesman, as well as the woman in line behind me.  She had encouraged me to stay strong and that I would be fine.  I too had regretted not taking her information, because she had been so kind to me on one of the most difficult and chaotic days of my life.  As it turns out, she sings in the choir at the cathedral every Sunday for 10am Mass.

"Can I do anything to help you?" She asked.  

"Well, I'm currently staying in a foyer, but would really love a family to stay with, if you happen to know anybody who might--"

"Why don't you come live with me?" She asked, without wasting a breath.

I laughed, thinking it was a joke, but she continued, "I have a room in my apartment you may like.  I'm divorced and live with my 10 year-old son.  I will talk to him today and see if we can work something out. You can meet him and see how things progress."

I replied that she was very kind, but that it seemed like a lot to take on, so I'd understand if she changed her mind.  She took my flyer, and promised to call.  At this point, I was still doubting that something like this could just happen, so I didn't hold out too much hope.  Perhaps she was speaking in the heat of the moment. But, sure enough, a few hours later, Hélène called me, asking me to meet her and her son, Nicolas, at the Café des Arts in Place Saint-Jacques.

We had talked over cappuccino topped with luscious whipped cream, while Nicolas sipped on an iced tea.  I brought a photo album as an ice breaker, and he went crazy for the photos of my dog, Sherlock.  "We have a cat!" he told me eagerly. "Can you meet our cat today? Her name is Dorine!"  In the same breath, he exclaimed "Maman, I'm hungry! Can we have Croque-Monsieur tonight?" A Croque-Monsieur is a delicious ham and cheese sandwich prepared with a panini iron.  Hélène eyed me with a smile, and asked if I'd like to come over for dinner.  "Oui, bien sûr!" I exclaimed. "Of course!"

They live about 25 minutes from the city center on foot, but are also connected by the bus lines, which would mean a convenient trip to work every morning!  A large supermarket is across the street.  The apartment is chic and lovely, complete with internet access. Hélène did all the painting and decorating herself, and the colors are warm and inviting.  She showed me the beautiful little room I would have, which has a striking view of the city of Metz, including the Cathedral!  "I hope you don't mind," she said, "but we'll be speaking French here."  I smiled broadly.  "This is exactly what I want!" I assured her.

Dinner was simple and delicious: Croque-Monsieur with tomato and fresh grapes for dessert. Nicolas scurried about the apartment, showing me his beautiful siamese cat, his keyboard, performing his part in the school play for me, and talking a mile a minute.  He kept declaring to his mother that I would be his grande soeur (big sister), and that I was very pretty. Unfortunately, my American accent (which I have been trying desperately to repress) is the most hilarious thing in the world to him, and he kept repeating my French with an exaggerated accent and cracking up.  I suppose this is motivation to improve myself!  Good-naturedly, I challenged him to pronounce the English number 'three', since French people struggle with the TH sound.  More laughter ensued. It really felt like I had a little brother!

When the subject of rent arose, Hélène said, "Since you're only renting a room, and probably won't be making much money as a teacher, I couldn't dream of charging you more than, say, 100 Euro, or 120 Euro at the most."

I almost fell out of my chair.  Since I am currently paying over 400 Euro at the foyer, this is an absolute steal.  I told her I could pay her more, but she replied that that was all she wanted.  I promised I would help out wherever she needed, if she wanted me to walk Nicolas home from school or anything like that.  She agreed.

They walked me back to the bus stop, and Nicolas hugged and kissed me goodbye, asking over and over again when I'd be coming to stay. I have to give my foyer 15 days notice before leaving, which I will do first thing tomorrow. Hélène told me I could come earlier if I wanted, so I may very well take her up on that offer.

Back at the foyer, I Skyped my family and Jim, who were celebrating my sister Liz's 19th birthday at a big gathering at my house.  My parents, grandma, aunts, uncles, and cousins gathered around the dining room table to talk to me on Jim's laptop, and I shared the good news with everyone. I also got to chat with Jim and my sister separately, which was lovely. Everyone seemed so excited for me, and it was just an enormous boost to my morale.

My dad, a believer in miracles, was convinced that this was no accident, and I'm leaning towards his opinion. 

When I look at the amount of coincidence at work here, I begin to wonder if there is such thing as coincidence.  What if I hadn't arrived in Metz that day, or chosen that particular cell phone store (seemingly at random) from the multitude of cell phone stores in Metz, at that particular time? Metz is a fairly large city! What if I hadn't met that woman at breakfast who encouraged me to go to church? What if I had attended the 8am, 9am, or 11:30am Mass, and not the 10am Mass at the Cathedral, or gone to one of the other beautiful churches all over the city? What if I had walked up to a different priest at a different part of the massive church, since there had been several walking around to choose from? It's amazing Hélène even saw me among so many people, or that she recognized me at all! Amazing how so much can change in the space of a few hours, and how sometimes, prayer really is answered by a gift falling from the sky... or at least, a choir loft.

07 October 2009

Almost Famous

Her bag. Her hair. Her shoes. Her smile...

Her every angle was scrutinized by throngs of fascinated citizens of France, several of which managed to break away from the crowd to throw their arms around her and express their undying adoration.

Who was this creature? Actress, dignitary, or supermodel?

Pas du tout! The object of the crowd's affection was none other than moi, the new American English teacher... and the fascinated citizens of France were indeed just that... although they were only 7-8 years old.

I only meant to sit in the back of the classrooms this week to acquire a feel for the four different grades I will be teaching next week in eight classes divided between two French elementary schools.  I wanted to observe the discipline techniques and subject matter covered in my future classes, in hopes to better prepare, and set myself up in the back, quietly jotting down notes. My presence was a great distraction however, and many children simply turned around in their chairs to stare at me throughout their class period, after which many proceeded to hug and (attempt to) kiss me, hold my hands, and basically treat me like a celebrity.  

Walking out into the recreation yard during recess, little girls waved shyly, shrieking with delight when I waved back and scurrying away to peek at me behind the cover of their other companions. I could tell some of the other teachers were none too impressed with the disruption my mere presence caused when they tried to march the children back inside.

The colleagues at the schools seem very nice.  At my first school, Ecole Elémentaire La Plaine, where I will teach 7 to 9 year-olds on Mondays and Thursdays, I was impressed by the discipline of the children. There is a very strong emphasis on penmanship, and the children diligently cut and paste little worksheets into their notebooks, which are periodically inspected by the teachers.  It seems strange to me that they are gluing directly over perfectly unused paper rather than simply putting their worksheets in folders or binders, but this is their way. They use special pens with ink cartridges, no ball points here. Even their notebooks are different! Unlike our lined paper, theirs is a grid pattern. Teachers are called "Maitre" or "Maitress" as a sign of respect.  In America, I don't remember seeing so many male teachers for such a young age group, but in my schools, it seems to be mostly men, which is interesting. The tactic appears to be overly strict, with brief moments of tenderness where the teacher will pat the child on the head.  

At my second school Ecole Elémantaire Van Gogh, where I will teach 9 to 11 year-olds on Wednesdays and Fridays, the colleagues are also quite friendly.  Two of the ladies (who I had met the previous day while eating in the cantine with my colleagues from La Plaine,) greeted me with la bise, the French custom of kissing friends once on each cheek as a greeting or farewell.  I wasn't expecting it, so I kind of mimicked their movements, and let them take over. I made the kissing sound with my lips, but my mouth did not actually make contact with their face. It was more like a cheek brush with sound effects. I was too startled to notice if my mouth was actually supposed to touch their cheeks or not.  I was delighted to be greeted this way, as it was my first time experiencing la bise, and I felt assimilated!  As an American, I don't think I will ever be confident enough to initiate la bise, but will definitely welcome it if someone else does.

Again, I was gawked at, but since this school is an older age group, the response to my presence in the classrooms was less overt.  The first few classes seemed well behaved, but the last class, which had a substitute teacher, looks like a nightmare.  I don't know if it is simply because the teacher was absent, or if they are simply that awful.  They were throwing things, talking over the poor substitute, dashing out into the hallway to disturb other classes, and some even walked brazenly to the back of the classroom, sitting down for a game of checkers.  After being so impressed by the French discipline in the schools, this class has proven to me that people are generally the same wherever you go.  Just like in the States, a substitute teacher is a prime target for abuse.

I officially begin teaching Monday... Honestly, I haven't a clue what I'm about to be doing.  Our orientation wasn't that informative, and I still don't have a clear guideline of what I'm going to have to teach my eight classes by the end of the year.  It seems like all the primary assistants are as much in the dark as I am... which I suppose is reassuring.  

One thing is for sure, I'll have my celebrity status on my side... at least for the first few classes or so!

03 October 2009

Nuit Blanche

Nuit Blanche (literally, "White night") is a French expression for "all-nighter," and is also the name of an all-night spectacle throughout the city of Metz, and other cities throughout France. It's a celebration of art, performance, music, food, and life, and completely unlike anything I've ever experienced before.  

Fellow assistants Kappes, Elli, Liz, Cole and I ventured out to enjoy the festivities, which included various modern art installations (including edible art, a wall of "anatomically correct" illustrations, and a house with various colored lights and animations in the windows synced to music) and performance artists (including ballet dancers, a scantily clad man writhing around in a tube of water, a trio of hairy, shirtless men jamming in a rock band while wearing gas masks and making bird noises, various rock and rap concerts, and even a kebob station operated by high school students and fashioned completely out of duct tape.) 

Sipping hot wine sold in the streets and snapping photos of our amazing surroundings, the we roamed the city late into the night. It was simply impossible to see everything, so we abandoned our maps and let chance be our guide, wandering wherever our fancy lead us.
The honey colored buildings of Metz gleamed against the night sky, and the illuminated Cathédrale Saint-Etienne dominated the night landscape of Metz, every bit "God's Lantern." Metz was on display for all to enjoy. The streets were amazingly crowded with all ages who flocked to the various attractions and participating local shops, schools, landmarks, churches, museums and restaurants, and it was a proud moment to witness this strong sense of community in such a beautiful city... my city.  Still trying to wrap my mind around that!

Cool art installation in the streets... It's like someone had dumped massive piles of Pick-Up Sticks at various places throughout Metz. Notice the intriguing shadows!

Chapel of the Knights Templar, 13th century AD

Interior frescoes, Chapel of the Knights Templar, 13th century AD

Saint Pierre aux Nonnains Basilica, 
the oldest church in France, 4th century AD

Sans Titre, 2008, a modern art piece by Anish Kapoor,
displayed in Eglise des Trinitaires

Dance performance in a lycée

Edible art in the Hotel de Ville. Pieces of this raisin cake 
were cut from the installation and served to the crowd.

Scantily clad tube man (a rather interesting performance artist who sang in Italian before stripping down while writhing suggestively in a tube of water, chasing a red rubber ball, accompanied by music.) You'd really have to be there to understand :-)

Cool modern art tents

The crowds of Messins

Cool art installation, benches strewn all over

02 October 2009

New friends

Today was a fun, productive day! I spent nearly the entire day with Elli, an Australian who will also be teaching English in Metz primary schools.  We located the Inspection Acédemique, where we would be having our orientation the following day, and enjoyed the lovely sights of the city on the way, pausing to admire the Cathédrale Saint-Etienne, the Esplanade, St-Pierre-aux-Nonnains (the oldest church in France), and getting a better feel of the city.  We also were finally able to locate a Supermarché where we stocked up on necessities. I had been looking for a supermarket in Metz for days, and no wonder I was unsuccessful; it's underground at Centre Saint-Jacques!  

We met Elli's friend Katie for a delicious lunch of exotic salads and tartes aux framboises (raspberry pastries!) in the picturesque park behind le Temple Neuf on Belle Ile in the middle of the Moselle River. 

We were able to secure a cell phone for Elli, and I was able to set up my French bank account at Banque Populaire, which was remarkably simple.  The people at the bank were LOVELY and so helpful, and Antoine, who set up my account, spoke to us for an hour afterwards about France, traveling the world, and encouraging our language abilities.  It's funny how the two things I feared the most (getting a cell phone and a bank account) were two of the easiest accomplishments so far!  

Dinner was superb! We met another primary language assistant, Michelle, for dinner in Place Saint-Jacques. At night Place Saint-Jacques is the place to be in Metz, and we enjoyed dining outdoors in a lovely brasserie, serenaded by street buskers. We splurged on a sumptuous three course dinner of traditional food in the Lorraine region of France.  In France, you need to budget at least two hours for a sit-down dinner, which is something I can truly appreciate, coming from the fast-paced USA.  The French take time to savor each course, to enjoy each other's company, and the bill doesn't come until they ask for it.  Food is not mere sustenance, but a way of life that must be appreciated. It was lovely to have conversation with other assistants, and it truly boosted my morale after feeling so isolated.  Afterward, we strolled past the brilliantly lit Cathédrale Saint-Etienne on our way back to our foyer for a good night's sleep before our orientation tomorrow!

Quiche Lorraine, a regional specialty made from egg, cream custard, and smoked bacon.

L'assiette Lorraine, consisting of potatoes, pâté, ham, and fresh cream

Tiramisù à la Mirabelle, which is traditional Tiramisù, 
but with yellow Mirabelle plums 

Elli, Michelle, et moi!

01 October 2009

Oktoberfest in Munich

View from Sankt Peter's belltower, overlooking the 
Cathedral and the Glockenspiel

The Glockenspiel at Marienplatz

Theatinerkirche or St. Kajetan, a baroque church at Odeonsplatz

Hohenschwangau Castle

Neuschwanstein Castle

Enjoying the view of Neuschwanstein Castle

Neuschwanstein Castle courtyard

Bavarian Wilderness

Sankt Peter

Oktoberfest Beer Tent

Oktoberfest Beer Tent madness

Oktoberfest Beer Tent

The best of Bavarian cuisine

Schottenhamel, supposedly the best beer tent at Oktoberfest

Inside Schottenhamel beer tent

The group!!!

My first European holiday since landing a job in France, and I haven't even started working yet! I just returned from Munich Germany with several fellow American language assistants from towns neighboring Metz, and the series of events over the past few days are so action packed that they're a blur! 

Overall it was a fantastic time, although I had a few unintentional pitfalls (getting kicked out of a Biergarten by a scary German cop who I could have sworn was going to arrest me... don't ask! Well, if you MUST know, I stupidly picked up someone's half empty stein, and set it down when I realized my mistake, but the cop thought I had drank half the beverage and tried to set it down discreetly without paying for it. I was physically escorted out, and made to pay a 7 euro fine! It was quite traumatic! My last day in Munich, I was nearly thrown off the train for stretching my legs onto the empty street in front of me, a big no-no, apparently.  The controller screamed at me, and although I apologized profusely and told him I didn't understand German, he continued to rant, making a motion like he was going to strike my feet with his ticket machine, even lifting his leg and shoving his shoe in my face to illustrate his point! Both experiences were results of unintentional, albeit stupid mistakes on my part, and one good thing about me is that I NEVER make the same mistake twice, so at least I know I can never get in trouble again for those gaffes.) 

Despite these experiences, I thoroughly enjoyed the beauty of Munich, and marveled at how precisely the city was rebuilt after being over 85% destroyed by WWII bombing.  Sightseeing highlights included a free three hour walking tour of Munich, the Glockenspiel, the Cathedral Church of Our Lady (Frauenkirche), climbing the bell tower of Sankt Peter for a fantastic view of the city, Nymphenburg Palace, the Englicher Garten (a 900 acre park that apparently permits nude sunbathing on Sundays, as we were surprised to discover) a gorgeous outdoor market selling fresh produce, flowers, and gifts, and of course, Oktoberfest itself! We also took a day trip to the whimsical Neuschwanstein Castle (which inspired Sleeping Beauty Castle in Disneyland). Although the trip to the castle was severely delayed due to various train issues, I adored the picturesque German alps, quaint villages straight from a fairy tale, and the sheer magic of the history of King Lugwig II, his mysterious death, and the legacy of his castle. It's definitely topped my list of castles so far.

The German people overall are very friendly. At the beginning of our trip, we were wandering the suburbs of Munich looking for the house we would be renting.  A woman pulled over to help us, and when the language barrier proved to be too much, she hailed another driver (who spoke English) to pull over and help us.  This girl, Sylvia, proceeded to ring doorbells and ask passers-by if they knew where our address was.  This lasted probably half an hour, and we were completely grateful to her kindness. 

The landlord of our rental house, Klaus, was a magical creature indeed.  While we waited for the previous guests to vacate our rental house, he welcomed us with a charming German breakfast complete with bread, cheeses, cold meats, Christmas cake, and coffee.  His home was adorned with his hand crafted mosaics, inspired by Gaudi, and surrounded by fragrant pear trees and gardens.  Even his little dog was perfect.  He was so helpful, giving us tips about the best times to go to Oktoberfest, free tickets to Neuschwanstein Castle, taking a sick girl in our group to the pharmacy, and the list goes on.

In the tents at Oktoberfest, the Germans were festively dressed in lederhosen and dirndls, no matter what their age!  It's quite adorable! They were very receptive when a few of us joined a table in a tent, welcoming us to dance on the table with them, singing German drinking songs, and toasting. The live music played a mixture of traditional German songs and modern pop music, but it seems that every other song was a repeat of an anthem commanding one and all to raise their glasses and drink! Every time it played, everyone stood, raising their glasses, swaying ceremoniously. The name of the song escapes me, but melody endures in my head. The beer was delicious, as were the pretzels, pastries, and brats.  

There were eight of us in the group, and while we split up at certain times, we managed to stay together a good portion of the time too, which ended up being the perfect mix.  The night train from Munich returned me to Metz at 6am, after which I proceeded to crash until noon.  It's so good to be back in France... 
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