26 January 2010

Fashion Show

My CM2 (5th grade) students put their clothing and colors vocabulary to work today! Unfortunately, the music makes it a bit difficult to hear them. Enjoy!


19 January 2010

Metz: an old man's stories

After yet another day of battling the winter blues, I refused to surrender to the temptation of a nap, and dragged myself out of the apartment.  The last thing I want is to spend my future regretting not making the most of every moment in France when I had the chance.  

So off I went, exploring some lesser travelled streets of Metz, crossing the Esplanade, and finally arriving in the area of the Arsenal (a concert venue and art gallery), Saint Pierre aux Nonnains (oldest church in France dating from the 4th century), and the Chappelle des Templiers (chapel of the knights Templar dating from the 12th century). This area has long intrigued me, and I love wandering here.  I approached the charming, octagonal Templar chapel, hoping to have another glimpse of the frescoes inside, but as usual, it was locked.  I've only ever been inside once, and every subsequent visit, it's been closed to visitors.  I gave one last hopeful tug, only to be interrupted by a gruff voice.  

"Elle est fermée." an old gentlemen approached, his black Scottish terrier racing ahead to greet me. He wore a long trench coat and the brown leather flat cap that elderly European men tend to wear. He walked up quite close to me, suspicious of what I was up to. 

"Yes, I know it's closed, I was just hoping to see the frescoes-" I replied.

Noting my accent, he asked me where I was from, and what I was doing in Metz.  I started to reply, but he seemed distracted, and cut me off.  "You know, I was married in this church," he said, gesturing towards the Templar chapel."  He went on to recount the story of how his fiancée had agreed to wed him on the following conditions: First, that the pair would marry in the Templar chapel and nowhere else.  Second, the Franciscan monks from the nearby Saint-Croix would sing Gregorian chants for the ceremony.  Her demands were simple. No chapel, no Franciscans, no marriage.

He went on to elaborate the great lengths he went to petition to wed in the chapel, and how when the aging monks refused to sing anywhere but their abby, he implored the bishop of Metz himself.  Eventually, the stars aligned, a fantasy became a reality, and a fiancée became a wife. He fumbled in his wallet to produce a crumpled photo of their son, a professional ballet dancer in full costume.  He asked me my age, as if he was considering me as a potential wife for his son.  When I told him, he furrowed his brow, but said "That's okay, my wife is quite a bit younger than me." He then explained that he feared the ballet dancing would render his son homosexual.  "Not that there's anything wrong with that, it's just that grandkids would be nice." he added.  I nodded politely, trying not to giggle.

Arnaud led me to a plaque with the history of the Templar chapel, and read it to me, very slowly, as though each word was of the greatest importance.  He then suggested I ask the Mairie for permission to access the chapel, but rolled his eyes as he lamented the right leaning local government of Metz.  "Their solution is to lock everything up, but that won't keep the hoodlums away," he said, pointing to some splintered glass where a plexiglass door used to seal the chapel.  He believed that locking monuments only encouraged trouble, and that the true solution was to open them to the rightful owners, every citizen of Metz.

He then swept his arm in a grand gesture, drawing my eyes to the buildings that surrounded us. He began to recount his experiences as a young soldier, who had lied about his age in order to serve.  Pointing to the Arsenal, he explained that it was a workshop during World War II, that that building just over there was army barracks, and that he dined with a general in that building just there, and that the Nazis marched through just beyond there when the third Reich took Metz after the Battle of France in 1940.  

He described the moment he learned of the German occupation of his hometown.  Another soldier had asked him where he was from, and when he replied "Metz," the soldier said "So, Germany then?" "No!" Arnaud shouted. "France!" His companion persisted, "Not anymore."

"But even though the citizens were forced to speak German here, they were always French.  We never stopped being French."

His voice broke as he quoted this 70 year old exchange.  His eyes flooding with tears but never leaving mine, he paused. "Çava, Monsieur?" I whispered gently, not quite knowing what to do with this unsolicited narration, which even after so much time was obviously emotionally draining to this elderly man.  I had not asked for him to speak to me of the war, but this was possibly therapeutic, and I considered myself lucky to receive this treasure of a story.  I only regretted not having a better grasp of French to do his story justice.  

It was my duty and privilege to listen.

He continued, plaintively, slowly.  I was amazed that I understood practically everything he was saying, and I was able to figure out other words based on context.  His uncle served in Normandy, and narrowly escaped with his life.  He joined his uncle there, and described his first time parachuting from a plane.  It was at Normandy that he would meet and dine with future president of the United States Ike Eisenhower.  

The landscape in this particular area hasn't changed much, since he explained the significance of every surrounding building.  It came alive before me, in my head, I heard the resonant, metallic clanging from the workshop, the rhythmic footsteps of soldiers in formation, the sounds of war, of death, of eventual victory.  When he described the casualties of the American liberators of Metz, he again broke down in tears.  What was only a tranquil area of beauty to me suddenly took on all the meaning in the world.  

Eventually, dark fell, and the temperature followed suit.  He asked where I lived, and as it turns out, he lives in my direction, so we continued our walk together towards the train station. However, his rowdy terrier had other plans, bounding away, waiting until his master was just within reach with the leash, and frolicking away again, barking as though he was laughing at the plight of his poor master.  With the aid of some amused university students, we were able to corral the dog and secure him.  As we continued our walk, he'd would stop every few meters to point out a new feature I had never noticed about Metz.  Periodically he'd drop one of his gloves, and wouldn't have noticed had I not picked them up.  He seemed oblivious to the cold, even as my teeth chattered, his jacket was unzipped and he removed his hat.  

We stopped before the governor's mansion, a place he had the honor of dining multiple times.
Tonight, there was a dinner taking place there, and he greeted by name several of the well-dressed guests walking in.  I gathered that he and his wife are fairly known in Metz.  Finally we passed the old granary and a beautiful home that he wished he could have bought his wife.  He stared at it wistfully before naming all the people who used to reside here and there, most of whom were prominent during the war.

After nearly two hours, I was so freezing that I told him that I was sorry, but I simply had to go indoors to warm up.  The terrier seemed to look at me gratefully, as though he too had been suffering in the weather. He seemed surprised to see me shivering, and remarked that being at war taught him a whole new meaning of the word cold, and that he never notices the weather anymore.  He instructed me to stamp my feet to encourage blood flow into my numb toes, and we marched toward the train station.  Inside, we warmed up inside the bookstore, and he pointed out the section dedicated to the history of Metz.

At long last, Arnaud, as he finally introduced himself, glanced at his watch and said it was time to get back to his wife.  I expressed my gratitude for sharing his stories with me, and that I was very pleased to meet him. 

"Well, I'd love to invite you to dinner at our place..." Arnaud said, and immediately my mind was imagining my new adopted French grandparents and the memorable times we would be sharing in the near future over good food and wine... "But," he paused, a gleeful spark in his eye, "my wife, you see, she's a very jealous woman."

Bewildered and thinking I'd misheard him, I replayed his words in my head, and he continued, "But if you ever wanted to meet again, without her knowing, I walk my dog here at this time every day.  It can be our secret." Arnaud winked.

And off he went, with perhaps a little more spring in his step than before, leaving me not knowing whether to laugh or let my mouth hang open in shock.

Just as he said, he'd never stopped being French during the occupation. Why on earth should he stop now at 85 years old?

14 January 2010

Metz sous la neige d'hiver

I awoke Wednesday to the familiar sound of windshield scrapers.  For a moment I could have sworn I was back in Michigan! I opened my shutters to find my beautiful city blanketed in a lush carpet of white snow.  My view of the cathedral was completely obscured by fog and continuous snowfall lasting most of the day.  Below me, Messins skidded down the unplowed streets, struggling for balance as their dogs strained against their leashes.  Part of me yearned to race outdoors and have a snowball fight... but the part of me that shuddered at the cold and wanted to sleep in was stronger.  

I awoke several hours later to the same steady snowfall, sluggish but motivated by the beautiful photographic possibilities.  Armed with my faithful Canon, Hélène, Nicolas and I took a meandering stroll through the centre-ville, stopping for cheese and fruit at the covered market, and enjoying the beauty of Metz in her white coat.  True to form, Nicolas was as rambunctious as ever, splashing through one pile of slush to another as horrified women in sleek black leggings and boots daintily attempted to circumvent the slippery mess in the cobbled streets.  As we neared bridge to the Temple Protestant on the Moselle River, he shattered the tranquility of the scene by sending a gigantic snowball hurtling towards the unsuspecting swans below.  People in Metz don't smile readily, so it was amusing to see their façades crack as they smirked at Nicolas's antics.  At least until icy slush splattered all over their immaculate black peacoats.  

Working a full school year means experiencing Metz in every season, which is a true delight. However, as lovely as Metz is in her dazzling white attire, I certainly hope for an early spring. There is a bleakness to this weather, and the cold is positively draining.  The morning trek to the bus stop is now a dreaded ordeal, and I'm constantly fighting the urge to take afternoon-long naps. Although I now have time to paint, read, or plan exciting trips, I'm feeling surprisingly unmotivated.  I've also developed pronounced cravings for bread and sweets.  Already depressed from parting with family, friends and Jim after being home for Christmas, the weather definitely heightens the feelings I'm experiencing.  

After perusing Wikipedia, I suspect I may be experiencing seasonal affective disorder, better known as the winter blues.  A number of my fellow English assistants in Metz are struggling with the same phenomenon.  Thankfully I'm a month away from a whirlwind tour of Europe with one of my best girlfriends for my winter break, and three months away from a Parisian holiday with Jim.  These milestones help me through the winter blahs, giving me something to plan for, to look forward to.  

Of course, the best remedy of all is living with an energetic 10 year-old. 

Heading toward the river from the Cathédrale

Le Temple Protestant and the unsuspecting swans

The Gothic details of La Cathédrale Saint-Etienne 
are beautifully highlighted with white frosting.

La Cathédrale Saint-Etienne

Nicolas and his menacing snowball.  Two seconds later it splashed 
into the river, scattering a flock of frantic swans in all directions!

08 January 2010

Queen for a Day! La Galette des Rois

Throughout January, an especially delicious, flakey cake filled with almond paste is sold in French bakeries.  La Galette des Rois, known as King's Cake in English, honors the Epiphany of the three kings.  Baked somewhere inside the cake is a tiny porcelain figure (la fève.) Whoever finds the tiny treasure in their portion becomes king or queen for the day, donning the paper crown which comes with the cake.  That lucky individual is also responsible for supplying the next cake.  To ensure a random distribution of la fève, the youngest person present hides beneath the table and indicates to the person cutting the cake who should receive which piece.  

I remember reading about this tradition in French class in junior high, so imagine my delight when Hélène brought one home!  It is simply magical when adorable traditions I've read about since childhood come alive before my eyes.  Such is the wonder of France! 

Just as pictured in my old French textbook, Hélène brought home the lovely treat in a special paper bag, which helps keep la galette crispy in the oven.  It came with a shiny gold crown of fleurs de lis.  Although we got to talking and ended up forgetting it was in the oven, we were able to salvage it, and although quite well done, it was incredibly delicious.  After a few bites of flakey goodness, my fork struck something hard; la fève! Granted, between the three of us, plus one slice traditionally left for "God's share," the odds of receiving the treasure were pretty good.  
La Galette des Rois 
(Well done, but still delicious!)

Per tradition, Nicolas hides under the table, 
indicating to Hélène who should receive which piece.
And the Queen is... Moi! Nicolas wanted to be my king, 
but I told him he's only old enough to be a prince right now.  

Typical porcelain fèves to be hidden inside 
la Galette des Rois. Mine is the second from the right. 
The rest are Nicolas's from year's past. 

04 January 2010

"She's comin' home this Christmas Day"

Being home for Christmas was literally a shot of lifeblood.  My trek home began with a mile long walk to the Metz train station, a 50 lb rolling suitcase, a carry on, and a cuckoo clock in tow. After a 6am train to Paris Gar de l'Est, I walked to Paris Gare de Nord, clattered down two flights of stairs, and boarded another train for Charles de Gaulle airport.  From there, a shuttle to my terminal. After a delayed flight out of Paris due to snow, I narrowly made my connecting flight from Dulles to Detroit, which ended up nearly being cancelled due to snow.  I literally sprinted to my gate after clearing customs.  I was panicked by the idea of missing any of my few precious days at home, and was so relieved have beat the winter blizzard that crippled Dulles airport just after my departure.  

Jim picked me up from the airport. I saw him before he saw me, glancing anxiously in every direction, a giant welcome home Christmas wreath in hand.  I nearly collapsed in his arms from exhaustion.  He lifted me up and spun me around, my bags dropping to the ground, not caring who gawked at our joyful reunion.  How I survived three months without him I don't know... and how I shutter to imagine the six yet to come.  

After stopping at a National Coney Island and gorging myself on a monstrous mushroom and swiss burger with fries (I missed ketchup with a fiery passion after living in the land of mayo for three months), Jim brought me home to my family, and it was so lovely to be home.  

We shared a box of gorgeous homemade cookies from my colleague Jean-Marie, who had enclosed a lovely card for my family about how grateful he was to the Americans for liberating France from the Nazi tyranny of WWII, and that as Frenchmen, he and his family would always be on America's side of democracy.  
This international display of solidarity moved my entire family, and was sweeter than any of the delicious heart shaped "petits gateaux" lovingly tucked inside a Burberry box.  So much for any stupid notion about the French hating us.

That night I didn't even make it up the stairs to my own bed.  I woke up on the living room couch, still in my clothes.  I battled jet-lag most of my time at home, and my jam-packed schedule and late nights out didn't help matters!  The couch was a frequent crash zone despite a welcoming electric blanket up just one flight of stairs.

My two weeks at home were a flurry of activity. Highlights (which frequently involved eating) include:
A fondue and crêpe party with my girlfriends.

Celebrating my 26th birthday with my parents, my sister and Jim.

Christmas Eve jam session with my mom's side.

Christmas morning with the family

My Mom's face upon receiving the aforementioned 
cuckoo clock from Germany.

Picture-perfect Christmas Day at Uncle Bill and Aunt Cindy's

An annual tradition: 
The Trans-Siberian Orchestra concert with my Dad!

New Years toasts with my girls...

...and a New Year's kiss from my boy!

Seeing the faces of friends old and new: Fellow Scarab Club members (pictured) and also Jim's family, Haley, Genna, Nicole, Amanda, baby Cleora, Cathy, everyone from church, and my former work colleagues!

Saying goodbye from the security line at the 
airport was much harder this time around.

The two weeks flew by, leading to a familiar tearful goodbye at Detroit Metropolitan Airport.  I won't see Jim until April, and my family until July.  After clearing security, I could still see a glimpse of Jim, and kept blowing kisses and waving goodbye to him until an annoyed security officer sternly waved me away.  I trudged toward my gate, only to experience a turbulent flight to Frankfurt that ended up being diverted to Cologne for three hours before taking back off for Frankfurt.  I narrowly caught my train back to France, arriving close to midnight.  

"JAMIEEEEEE!" I was ambushed by an overjoyed Nicolas, who tackled me from a hiding place in the dark.  It was lovely to be so warmly received by him and Hélène... I missed them very much and am so happy to have their friendship ...but I'll never be as comfortable here as I would be at home.  

As I lay awake in bed, I wondered if it would have been easier to have not come home at all.  I had finally grown accustomed to life in France, not that I didn't miss people greatly.  Now, it's like I have to begin the process anew.  I reflected on everything I didn't get to do on my two weeks in the States, regretting things I wish would have gone differently.  I don't regret going home for a moment, I don't know how I would have survived the holidays otherwise.  I looked out my window, searching for the illuminated Cathedral, but her light was shrouded by fog and snow.  I realized that the bulk of this life in France is still ahead of me, and tears streamed down my cheeks.  I kept repeating to myself like a mantra "This is my dream, this is my dream."  
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