25 February 2010

Unexpected Obstacles

I've been blindsided by something I should have seen coming for over a month.  The only way to properly tell this story is to backtrack to the beginning of January, when I had just returned from my Christmas vacation in the states... 

Cue the flashback music and fog...

Hélène and I were preparing for a night out with her friends, when someone sounded the doorbell.  Thinking it was our friend, Yannick, who we'd been expecting to pick us up, I buzzed him up.  I opened the door to face Stéfan, her boyfriend, suitcase in hand.  He was trembling a bit. "Elle est toute nue," was all I could come up with, pointing to the bathroom door.  In my surprise to see him, I had just told Stéfan that Hélène was barenaked in the bathroom.  He stepped inside, closed the door, and they spoke in excited, hushed voices. When they exited the bathroom, I went in to finish my makeup.  Lying on the counter was his wedding ring. Now I understood, the ring, the suitcase.  He'd finally left his wife.  Transfixed, I stared at it, that simple gold band became the saddest thing I'd ever seen.  I imagined a wife tucking in her two daughters, holding back tears as she explained that Papa wouldn't be living at home any longer.

It had taken me awhile to understand the... intricacies... of their relationship.  I had asked too many questions, like "Why do you only see each other Friday afternoons? Why doesn't Stéfan go on your holiday to Tunisia with you? You're not planning to spend Christmas with him? Would you like to have a double date when Jim comes to visit me?"  Fed up with my naïve questions, Hélène finally revealed the truth, she had met the love of her life too young, and when they finally found one another again, he was married with two kids.  I supposed I was always programmed to automatically detest the "other woman," yet here I was living with her. I was her friend. I felt for her.  My perspective changed.  How could someone who had had the heart to take me in, who had shown me such kindness, truly be... bad? Not to say I agreed with her choices, but I was a supportive ear to her throughout, and did not judge.

Just as she had taken me into her home without a second thought, she prepared space in her closet for Stéfan's belongings.  In the space of three months, her household had grown from two to four inhabitants.  When she told me he'd be moving in with us, I had a sinking feeling inside. She asked me if it would bother me, and I assured her that it was fine, but within, I knew that the entire dynamic in the apartment was about to change. And change it did.  Nicolas's behavior plummeted, and Stéfan made no attempt to mask his disdain for his presence.  Hélène became a stranger to me. She was constantly occupied with Stéfan, whether it was arguing, cuddling, or discussing their new lives together.  The three started taking meals together.  I felt like an outsider.  I withdrew to my room often, because I felt uncomfortable, as though I was intruding on their new "family."  

I developed severe resentment toward Stéfan.  Now I had to wake up even earlier to have a prayer of getting into the bathroom before him.  I'd avert my eyes quickly if our paths crossed when he walked around in boxers, afraid he'd think I was checking him out.  Arrogant ass, he probably thought so anyway. He constantly mocked my accent whenever I spoke, causing me to become nearly mute in his presence.  He strode around with an air of entitlement, helped himself to my shelf in the fridge, walking into my room uninvited to check out the view of the cathedral.  He also took it upon himself to lecture Nicolas about his 'unacceptable behavior.'

Hélène seemed more anxious than ever.  She clearly would have preferred to have been able to openly date Stéfan as a normal couple after having to keep their relationship clandestine for over two years.  To go from hardly seeing him to living with him in a snap was taking its toll on her.  On our trip to the covered market, for the first time since knowing her, I watched Hélène purchase a gigantic slab of beef.  A self proclaimed disaster in the kitchen, Hélène normally only prepared very simple meals, but now Stéfan was here, and he demanded MEAT.  He did not help with the preparation or the cleanup of the meals, nor did he compliment the chef.

I digress. I could go on for hours about the discomfort of the past two months, but it simply doesn't matter.  The fact is, I was hiding inside my own home.  I was an outsider. Still, could I complain about the great location, cheap rent, and unlimited exposure to French language? Plus, the fact that she asked if I was okay with Stéfan's moving in implied that I was safe... right?


Fast forward to last week.  One of my best friends and I were three days into a two week whirlwind tour of five European countries. It was a dream trip we had been planning for years.  We had just enjoyed a fantastic day in Bruges when a text message from Hélène popped up.  "Hello Jamie, sorry to have to tell you this now, but you'll have to find a new place to live.  I need to recover your room as soon as possible. The sooner the better. Thank you. Have a nice vacation despite all."

I was already on an expensive trip I couldn't afford with tons of unforeseen expenses. I burst into tears.  I would never find another place with such affordable rent, and with the bulk of the trip ahead of me, I wondered if I should cancel and go back.  What really struck me was the cold tone of the text message. Why notify me by text, and why tell me when I'm on vacation, powerless to do something about it?  Trembling, I called her immediately, despite the obscene charges on my cell phone. I began in French, but after a few shaky sentences, I had to switch to English.  Over and over again, I asked her what I did wrong and apologized for whatever it was.

She remained completely expressionless, and quietly replied that there were too many people in the apartment now, that she needed to focus on her new life, and that it was too much for her.  It was so unlike her to be so cold, so heartless, that I wonder if Stéfan might have been sitting beside her as she received my phone call.  She said that there was a chance that Stéfan's children would be staying in the apartment as well, and that the situation was too stressful.  

Needless to say, the prospect of not knowing where I would live and if I would have enough money cast a shadow over the rest of my trip with Genna.  Not only the physical problem of housing, but the emotional aspect of knowing that I would not be seeing my supposed best friend in France, her lovely parents, her friends, and most of all, her son, Nicolas, again. To just disappear out of their lives like this, made me feel so... divorced.   

Genna was clearly distressed by my reaction to this situation, which she had a right to be. After all, she had spent a great deal on this extravagant trip as well, and my tearful anxiety attack definitely put a damper on it for her, and probably sparked one of her own. But at the end of the trip, she knew where she'd be living, she had a reliable income, she would go back to the states where she had loved ones around her.  What would I be returning to?  I tried to keep the pain and panic inside, for fear of upsetting her more.  But she definitely noticed when I became quiet and withdrawn for extended periods of time, or when I snapped.  Overall, I resolved to make the trip as enjoyable as possible, and succeeded most of the time, but I cried into my pillow every night, yearning to be able to talk about it with someone.  Limited contact with Jim and my family made me feel that much more alone.  

Just a few days earlier, I had wanted desperately to renew my contract for another year, but suddenly I've lost the will to stay in France altogether.  I know the actions of one person don't represent the will of an entire country, but I feel as though France herself has rejected me.  

So much for my "Miracle in the Cathedral." I guess the circumstances of our meeting weren't miraculous at all.  Visions flash through my mind of our weekend with her parents in the countryside, our long walks, our movie nights, the Christmas markets in Germany, our intimate conversations over Belgian beer, our shopping trips... it's over, our little international family.  I'm confounded. I don't get it. 

I'm feeling more alone than ever.

06 February 2010

Carnaval à l'école

In honor of Carnaval, a festival celebrated before the season of Lent all over the world, my students hosted a party at the end of their school day yesterday. Lured back to school by the promise of crêpes and good fun, I was greeted by a screaming array of witches, knights, cowgirls, princesses, a ninja, two of the Beatles, King Louis XIV, a genie, a soldier and yes, even Rambo!  It was like a Halloween school party in the States... except in February, and with crêpes instead of candy, which is okay by me!

A long table was set up with crêpe making necessities: batter, Nutella, a variety of jams, butter, and sugar.  An assembly line of frantic mothers churned out the crêpes, which were served on massive platters on another table.  Basically, for an hour, the children were free to gorge themselves on sugary crêpe goodness while frolicking about the courtyard in their costumes.  I was imagining all the sugar filled time bombs being sent home promptly to their parents, and couldn't help but laugh. My students quickly noticed my presence, and descended upon me in mob form.  "Meez Jamieeeeee!" They shrieked, unable to contain the combined joys of costumes, crêpes, and their prof d'anglais!  Those without weapons threw their arms around me, while those with guns and knifes fired upon me and pretended to stab me. Surrounded on all fronts, there was no escape from their Nutella streaked faces and sticky fingers, and I should probably seek out a good dry cleaner before my winter coat is seen in public again!  I suppose it was worth it, it was one of the most eventful Fridays I've had in quite awhile.

Glorious crêpes!

Courtyard costume chaos

A princess, a ghost, a leopard and a flamenco dancer

Ringo, Louis XIV, John and Rambo.
The coats detract from the overall effect!

05 February 2010

3 Sentence Story contest

To amuse myself, but also in the slim hope of winning a vacation abroad, I entered a story contest through a tour company.  The conditions: Your story should describe one of your favorite travel moments, cannot exceed three sentences, 75 words, and 450 characters. Simple, right? Au contraire!  What started as a lark became quickly agonizing as I brainstormed and realized that it was impossible to describe the wonders of Egypt in so few words.  Eventually, I arrived at a three sentence masterpiece... that was inconveniently nearly twice the character limit.  Back to the drawing board.  I managed to whittle it down to this more succinct version here.  74 words and 438 characters!  If nothing else, it was a nice creative exercise and fodder for my blog!

A childhood dreamunquenchable as thirst in the Saharaled me to where minarets mingle with skyscrapers, where businessmen battle traffic while Bedouins in flowing robes navigate by the stars. I didn’t lose myself in the saffron perfume of spice markets, or between temple columns, but on a common Nile felucca, where I danced with Nubian sailors. In this singular moonlit moment, I was lost to the outside world, but I had found myself. 

01 February 2010

Day trip to Nancy

Sunday was a delightfully rich day.  After an early Polish Mass at Saint Croix and my first chorale rehearsal for the Easter concert with Kathy, we met Katie and Sarah at the train station to embark on our day trip to Nancy.  

We were off to a rough start.  When Kathy tried to retrieve our tickets she had already paid for online, the ticket machine crashed and with only moments before our train was to leave, we opted to hop on the train and hope for the best.  Luckily, she was able to explain to the conductor when he came to check out tickets, and while he didn't seem all that pleased, he didn't fine us, but rather instructed us to resolve the matter at the train station in Nancy, which we did.  I was so impressed with Kathy's effortless French, and was inspired to be more articulate in my own speech!

About a half an hour by train from Metz, Nancy was the original capital of the Lorraine region until Metz was chosen in the mid 20th century.  When we arrived, I was struck by the architectural differences between the two cities.  While the buildings in Metz are warm and honey colored, the stonework in Nancy is more a mixture of cool grays.  Nancy is known as one of the birthplaces of Art Noveau, and its presence is found all over the city.

Of course, the architectural gem of Nancy (and also a UNESCO World Heritage site) is Place Stanislas, named for its designer, the former Polish King and Duke of Lorraine.  The place is absolutely splendid, linking the city hall, museum of fine arts, opera theater, and a triumphal arch.  The symmetry, the gilded lanterns hanging from the wrought iron gates surrounding the square, the fountains of Neptune and Amphitrite, the sculpture of Stanislas himself, the splendid view of each street that radiates out of the square... I was overcome with the beauty of the stone, gleaming brilliantly white in the sun.  Each graceful gilded arch magically frames an architectural marvel in the distance, no matter what direction you approach from.  I raced about, photographing the square from every angle possible, squealing with delight at each view I encountered.  The other girls laughed at me, and joked that it was easy to find me even as I disappeared to take yet another photo.  They had only to search for my bright turquoise scarf!

After exploring the city on foot and posing for photos, we stopped for pastries at a delightful little patisserie.  While the other girls ordered sensible things like flan and a brownie, I opted for an enormous slice of Tarte aux Myrtilles, topped with heaps of meringue.  Myrtilles are the potent little sister of blueberries, with twice the flavor and twice the staining power.  I had failed to remember my last experience with the berry, which occurred when I visited Hélène's parents in Abreschviller. Consequently, my lips, teeth, and tongue were stained a stylish blue-violet color for much of the afternoon.

Our next destination was the Musée de Beaux-Arts (Museum of Fine Arts.)  There, we enjoyed the collection of paintings from the 15th through 20th centuries, including works by Monet, Rubens, Picasso, Matisse and Modigliani.  The kind museum staff even permitted us to reenter the museum after a coffee break at a nearby café in Place Stanislas.  We conversed about art and France over frothy cappuccino and chocolat chaud topped with clouds of whipped cream before returning to the museum. We spent a good amount of time in the lovely and fascinating museum bookshop, which we admittedly enjoyed more than much of the museum. We gravitated toward books of our favorite artists and movements, every once and awhile sharing them with one another. We never did make it to the Ecole de Nancy, the famous Art Nouveau museum, but we all vowed to return in the future, perhaps when the weather is warmer.

We arrived at the station two hours before our train to Metz was scheduled to leave, and were able to charm our way onto an earlier, more expensive train with our existing tickets.  The conductor replied that he was only granting us this exceptional favor due to our beautiful smiles, and we giggled as we boarded the train.  For all the stately elegance of Nancy, I still feel I much prefer Metz, and was quite happy to be returning to my honey colored city on two rivers, and of course my breathtaking Cathédrale. We chattered happily on our brief ride to Metz, and while the conversation was light, I couldn't help but wonder how I can make this destiny with France more permanent than the length of my contract.

Well synchronized pose in front of 
la Porte de la Craffe

Just outside of Place Stanislas

La Cathédrale

Place Stanislas with a view of  la Cathédrale

Place Stanislas

Place Stanislas

Stanislas, Duke of Lorraine and twice King of Poland

l'Arc Héré

Katie, Kathy, Sarah, and I at Place Stanislas

Fountain of Neptune with icicles

Fountain of Neptune

La Porte de la Craffe

Palais Ducal 

Cathédrale Notre Dame de l'Annonciation de Nancy

Sculpture of Jeanne d'Arc inside la Cathédrale

Inside la Cathédrale

Basilique Saint-Epvre

Parc de la Pépinière

Place de la Carrière

Pastry delights 
(I'm not pictured because my tarte aux myrtilles turned my teeth blue!)

Nancy is the birthplace of mathematician Henri Poincaré. 
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