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.

07 August 2010

Déjà vu...yet another housing disaster

A lonely, unliveable new room... A forlorn dinner in a fast food restaurant... crying my eyes out thinking I’ve made the biggest mistake of my life...

Sounds a lot like my first night in Metz nearly a year ago... But Hélas, this really is happening again.

This time, the city is Toulouse, about as far from Metz as humanly possible. The new language is French... with a Toulousan accent. The lonely apartment is really a studio infested with cockroaches, bedbugs (AGAIN !) and mysterious black hairs and a thick layer of dust blanketing every surface. I opened the fridge, greeted by a scurrying roach and the sight of mold. More friendly roaches are eager to make my acquaintance in the shared shower, which also boasts a mold laden shower curtain. The stench of urine dominates the alley where my apartment stands, looking more dilapidated than I remember only about a month ago. What was I thinking when i signed the contract to this dump ?

Oh yeah... 280 euros a month. Thisclose to down-town attractions and métro stop. And the biggest reason... MANDATORY address, copy of rent payment, and attestation of domicile in order to renew my visa to work in France this year... I had only two days in Toulouse to obtain my work approval and find residence... I did what I could.

Now my skin is crawling and I’m paying for it.

I scoured the internet (which of course is missing from my apartment despite my landlord’s promise.) for other apartments. Hours of searching and phone calls later, I have made no progress.

Everything is either already rented, too expensive, or the contact simply won’t respond.

Why am I sacrificing precious moments with my fiancé, family, and friends... to live here ?

01 July 2010

Au revoir, mes amis - Adieu, Metz

When you leave the suburbs of Detroit to live in a medieval French city of honey colored stone, of course the "real world" ceases to exist, no matter how much you say to the contrary. To go from driving everywhere to walking everywhere, from speaking English to speaking French, from obsessing about your weight to learning how food and drink are truly some of the best pleasures in life (even if they make you gain 4 kilos), from a stressful, joyless full-time job to the endless rewards of teaching children, from doing what everyone expects of you to do daring to do what you've always dreamed of... is enough to change who you thought you were... or perhaps just awaken the being you should have always been.

At any rate, my fellow assistants and I are dealing with the return of reality, as we begin our goodbyes, and prepare to scatter to new jobs abroad, or return back to our home countries of America, Canada, and Australia.

Dealing with the impending departure has made me question who I am, with this altered mentality. I am no longer purely American, nor will I ever be French. I'm trapped somewhere between. In France, I will always be a foreigner... but I fear that if I go back to America, I will feel like I'm from another planet. The only people who understand this are my assistant friends who were thrust into the same circumstances I was, nine months ago. The stress, joy, and common experiences could not help but unite us in an almost immediate, intense bond. Saying goodbye is one of the most difficult trials of my life.

Kathy, Jenn, Avi, and I gathered at dusk at our favorite meeting place, Vivian's Pub in Place Saint Louis, to bid farewell to Elli, the first of us to depart. As the sun set, the lights illuminated the gothic façade of the medieval covered arcade. We greeted one another la bise, as always. Jenn and I ordered Monacos, like normal. It appeared to be just like any other of the endless nights we sat en terrasse, discussing everything and nothing at all... except this was in fact, the end.

Elli stood to leave, and we all embraced. That hug held all the joy, laughter, fear, heartbreak, and experience that we had shared throughout the year. I don't know who broke down first, but suddenly we were all in tears. Jenn accompanied Elli away, leaving the rest of us in silence at our once convivial table. As I watched them about to disappear around the bend in the road, Elli buried her face in Jenn's shoulder, overcome with tears. In a few strides, I caught up to them, and we erupted anew into sobs, embracing again.

Unbeknownst to us, Avi had stepped back to photograph our goodbyes, tears and all. When we finally noticed he was there, we tried to smile for the camera, failing miserably as you can see.

I walked home that night, gutted inside, taking my normal shortcut from Place Saint Louis, to En Jurue, passing the house of the poet Rabelais, walking underneath a charming arch above the narrow, uphill street, until meeting rue des Trinitaires, where my studio was. My shoes clicked against the cobblestones, echoing in the still night air. I entered the courtyard of my apartment
complex, saying "bonsoir" to the two sculptures of strange old men, who I had come to regard as friends.

How many times have I walked this route this year? How many intimate home-cooked dinners and conversations at Kathy's studio? How many croque monsieurs did I share with Avi and his great dane, Roc? How many times did Elli and I go running around the Plan d'eau? How many Belgian beers with my conversation partner and friend, Patrick? How many English lessons turned therapy sessions with Anna, my adult student? How many tickets de 10 voyages did I purchase for bus fare? How many pain au chocolat did I consume when running late to school in the morning? How many cups of coffee did I consume with colleagues every school day at 10am? How many times did I give my students "the look" to quiet them down? How many more times did they win me over with their cuteness? How many times did I, as if for the very first time, stop in my tracks in awe and wonder of the Cathedral of Saint-Etienne, especially when standing on rue Taison, where the architecture beautifully frames her astounding flying buttresses? How many catastrophes has life abroad caused? How many joys? How do I measure how my life has changed this year, and how do I define the way I am feeling right now? It's difficult to imagine what my life will be from here, but even more impossible to imagine what my life was like before I lived here in France...

...avant que j'étais en France.

30 June 2010

Au revoir, mes enfants

It's hard to believe that the school year has ended

Between my two schools, I've been consumed by a flurry of end-of-the year picnics, vocal concerts, cocktails with colleagues, and goodbyes.

My last day of school, I fought back tears as my students presented me with a bound book of drawings, letters, and thank you notes.  They also had cards for my fiancé Jim, which they instructed me to deliver unopened! Even though they only met him once, they adored him, and had never ceased to ask about how he was doing, and whether or not I returned every weekend to the USA to visit him! (I wish, hehe!)

I handed out handmade certificates of excellence for their performance in English class, and received hundreds of hugs and bisous in return.  Several cried, imploring me to come back next year. Gently, I explained that I didn't want to leave them, that if my contract had been renewed in Metz, I would not be going to Toulouse. I promised them I would never love my university students as much as them. One girl, Manon, was sobbing inconsolably. Interestingly, she's the last kid I'd expect to react this way to my departure, seeing how she was quite the troublemaker this year

I already feel such a void for my students and colleagues. I would absolutely live for 10am coffee breaks in the teacher's room, where we'd share cake and swap jokes and stories about problem students.  Shortly after my arrival, I would sit back, struggling to understand the nuances of their conversations... and now, nine months later, I understand everything, and even contribute.  

My colleagues presented me with a large decorative candle and a beautiful silver necklace to express their appreciation for my work with the kids.  I was praised by colleagues and parents alike for 'working wonders' with the kids and for being dynamic in the classroom. But truly, the kids were MY educators. Unbeknownst to them, they  helped my French more than I ever helped their English. Every time they asked a question, tattled on one another, or simply spoke amongst themselves, my French vocabulary grew. They taught me to laugh in a way I never thought possible. They drove me crazy at times, but never would I have had it any other way. They are my living proof that love knows no boundaries, no matter what language or nation we hail from

I will never forget my first French teacher, Madame Boehmer, at Heritage Junior High. At 12 years old, my love affair with France and the French language began, thanks to her. Her passion and enthusiasm made the language come alive to me, and she will always dwell in my heart. If I managed to touch the lives of these children a fraction of the amount Madame Boehmer touched mine, I will have succeeded

I came to France because I wanted to live in the country of my dreams.  Nine months ago, teaching was simply a means to get here. Keep in mind my degree is in graphic design, not education. That was of no concern to me; I would have done anything to get here... 

I just never expected teaching to become the most fulfilling thing I've ever done.  I wonder if I'll ever be capable of doing anything else again.

My CE2 class (second graders)

Group hug!

Un bisou!

Balloon release 
(the kids attached their names and the school address 
and phone number to see where their balloons would travel.)

Up, up and away!

Some of my colleagues at an end of the year picnic

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