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

20 June 2010

Laptop disaster in France

Those who know me are fully aware of my most prized possession, my MacBook Pro laptop. My most important equipment as a graphic designer, artist, and photographer, not to mention my sole means of communication with my family, friends and fiancé in the USA.  Equipped with the latest design software, webcam, and all of my artwork, this sleek aluminum cased machine is my baby. Even after vigilant care, my worst computer nightmare has occurred.  

After a brief trip to Toulouse, where I ended up signing a work contract, I headed back to the train station for the all-day trip back to Metz.  

I was about to head to my platform when I happened upon an older, rather overweight gentleman laying on the ground at the base of the escalator. Others walked briskly by, as if he was invisible. 

"Vous avez besoin d'aide, Monsieur?" I asked

He replied that he could not stand up.  Without a second thought I offered my hand, not realizing the degree to which the man had lost his equilibrium. He struggled to his feet, wavered for a moment, and then collapsed to the ground, taking me down with him.  His weight was enough to crack my back, but what concerned me the most was not my well-being, but that of my laptop, which had just been crushed on the floor beneath the both of us.  

A passer by helped stand him up, and I immediately opened my bag to inspect my precious MacBook Pro.  The screen had been shattered.

I promptly burst into tears and told the man how costly the repairs would be, and asked him if he would help with the cost

He seemed panicked by my words. "Listen, I'm sorry, but I have no money, and really, you were under no obligation to help me up. That was your choice" he replied. "I'm really sorry, but I have a train to catch, I have to go." 

I followed him, my voice raising, my French becoming more and more riddled with mistakes. "But you can't do this to me, Monsieur!" I cried. "You broke my computer, and now you're not taking responsibility!" Instead of using the formal 'vous' to address him, I called him 'tu.' My French typically goes down the toilet when I'm panicked or upset.

Passers-by stared, and paused to watch the scene unfold. My tearful theatrics worked; a security guard approached us and asked what the problem was. I explained what happened, and the security guard addressed the man. 

"Your insurance should pay for this accident, Monsieur." he said authoritatively. You need to give this Mademoiselle your phone number, address, and insurance name so that she can be reimbursed." 

Maurice, as I learned he was called, begrudgingly attempted to scribble his information on a piece of paper. It was complete illegible. The security guard had to write it for him.  The more I examined Maurice, the more confused he seemed, and he swayed, as if on the verge of falling again.  Could he have been drunk?

I took his information, praying that he hadn't lied about his phone number. There was nothing more I could do, since I was about to miss my train.

Back in Metz, I found out the cost of repairing my computer screen: 779 Euros! For my fellow Americans, that equates to $1,080.78. Roughly HALF the cost of my computer! Luckily the information, art, and photos were still intact.

The repairman told me that I would have to pay the bill myself, then turn the bill in to the insurance company for eventual reimbursement. This type of disaster was definitely NOT in my budget, and took a significant piece of my already dwindling savings

After paying the bill, I phoned Maurice. Several times. No answer. Big surprise.

I must be a magnet for catastrophe.

18 June 2010

Toulouse it is!

Although I had my heart set on accepting the job offer to teach English at a prestigious Parisian business school, something in me was incredibly intrigued by the idea of working in Toulouse... I decided to accept my invitation to attend the end of the year meeting with the language department, and get a feel for Toulouse to help make the decision.  If nothing else, I would get to discover the city for a few days.

As soon as I stepped off the train, I knew I was in the south of France... The clay tile roofs, ornate balconies, rose colored brick, and sculptured façades give Toulouse an undeniably Spanish feel. The city is vibrant, colorful, and bustling with a population of over one million people. 

The magic words that sealed my decision: 2 year contract. The business school in Paris was only offering a 10 month contract, and also paid substantially less.  Taking the Toulouse position means getting paid even during the summer months when I'm not working!

After meeting my future colleagues in the English department (an assortment of lovely people from Ireland, England, Scotland, Australia and the States, my feelings were even further cemented. I signed the contract. 

I never in my wildest dreams imagined this life in France as anything but a fantasy... But here I am, about to make it a reality... for the second year in a row.

15 June 2010

Impromptu Escape to Tunisia

Call me crazy, call me frivolous, call me what you like.

I'm an adventurer. . .

And I could not resist a criminally cheap flight to Tunisia for a long weekend.  So I set off for Paris... and two hours later, I landed in North Africa!  It was one of the loveliest flights of my life, crossing the turquoise waters of the Mediterranean, flying south over the islands of Corsica and Sardinia, crossing over Algeria, and touching down in the capital city of Tunis.

My first (of hopefully many) trips to French-speaking Africa has indeed cast a spell over me. The Tunisians are a very warm people, who speak French with a lovely, sing-song accent. The official language is Arabic, but most citizens speak French as well, due to the former french occupation.  

I spent hours wandering the maze-like streets of the Medina, exploring mosques, souks, palaces, roman ruins and the Muslim University.  The architecture is a glorious marriage of Arab, Ottoman, Byzantine, and Andalusian styles.  Unlike the slender, feminine minarets of Turkey or Egypt, the mosques in Tunisia are much more similar to those of Morocco; usually one lone minaret, geometric and masculine in appearance.  My senses were flooded by the aroma of jasmine sold in tight bunches by children in the streets, the chaotic exchanges of street vendors negotiating prices, the spectrum of colorful spices, jewelry, textiles and fruits in the souks, and the visions of arches, rainbow tiled walls and floors, mosaics, and narrow alleys. 

My favorite feature of Tunisia would be the charming doors found all over Tunis and beyond. The doors are usually blue (the Tunisian color of prosperity and happiness), although I also saw them in vibrant shades of  orange, yellow, green, brown and red. Against the bleached white stone architecture, the heavy wooden doors are dazzling. Each door is studded with large nails in traditional patterns, and always have three handles, which correspond to bells which inform the people inside of the nature of their visitor. Traditionally, the left handle is for guests, the right for the man of the house, and the smaller knob on the lower right for the wife and children of the household. Nowadays, the handles have lost their significance, but the beauty of these doors remains the trademark of Tunisia. It was impossible to resist the urge to photograph them.  They just beckoned to be opened, to reveal their secrets.

The village of Sidi Bou Saïd, about 20 km northeast of Tunis, was also an enchanting excursion.  The entire village is cerulean blue and white, crowning the cliffs that overlook the Bay of Tunis. There, I lost myself in the labyrinths of narrow streets which curve up the hills; visiting artisans of pottery, jewelry, furniture, tiles, and mirrors.  A visit to the legendary Café des Délices was also in order, in honor of the famous song of the same name by Patrick Bruel. There, I sipped mango juice and Thé à la menthe, humming the melody lightly under my breath, gazing across the bay, and the distant glittering lights of Tunis.  I watched teenage boys, each holding a tiny bundle of jasmine, sip tea and discuss with one another, occasionally lifting the fragrant blossoms to their noses. Across the terrace, a table of girls, knowing fully well that they were the topic of interest, giggled and whispered to one another behind their white
 headscarves... I sat there in between, smiling and imagining how magical first love must feel in a place like this... Sidi Bou Saïd at night is one of the most enchanting places on earth; the hushed sounds of the sea lapping at the shores below, the scent of jasmine and shisha pipes permeating the air, the moonlight reflecting off the gleaming white architecture, casting strange shadows across the cobblestone streets.

The ancient ruins of the Phoenician city of Carthage just outside of Tunis were also spectacular. At night, the columns of temples and amphitheater are lit in such a way that their details are visible even from the highway. I would have loved to spend more time exploring there.

My final day was well spent on the beaches of Hammamet, dubbed the "Saint Tropez of Tunisia" for its world class beaches and spectacular modern hotels.  The only refuge from the brutal African sun was to bathe in the cool waters of the Mediterranean, emerging occasionally to eat and wander the Medina.  On the beach, vendors sold figs, melon, and Brik, a Tunisian specialty pastry filled with egg, ground meat, or seafood. As much as I adored the beaches of Hammamet, I found the area less authentic than the city of Tunis and Sidi Bou Saïd.  As beautiful as the high rise hotels and tourist attractions were, give me the authenticity of a medieval medina any day.

As I gazed out the window on my flight back to Paris, the African coastline disappearing in the clouds, I struggled to find the one word to best describe this beautiful country... 'Welcoming' is the best description, because it encompasses everything about Tunisia... from the smiling, helpful citizens, to the inviting waves of the Mediterranean on the spotless beaches, to the tantalizing cuisine, to the exotic treasures sold in the souks, down to those irresistible bright Tunisian doors, I've already promised myself I will return one day. When that day comes, I intend to open one door... just one... and listen to the secret she holds inside for me.

Girl with a henna tattoo, Sidi Bou Saïd

View from Café des Délices, Sidi Bou Saïd

View of the Bay of Tunis from Café des Délices, Sidi Bou Saïd

Sidi Bou Saïd

Boy selling jasmine flowers, Sidi Bou Saïd


A mosque minaret in Tunis





Porte de France, at the entrance of the Medina, Tunis


The Medina, Tunis

Beaches of Hammamet
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