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from missouri to montluçon

Bienvenue! I created this blog to tell a story, and I hope it’s a good one: the story of the year I exchanged central Missouri for central France.

I am a recent graduate of the University of Missouri and hold bachelor’s degrees in English, French, and Linguistics. Ready for the next adventure, I’m going abroad as a language assistant with the Teaching Assistant Program In France. TAPIF is “a joint initiative of the French Ministry of Education, the Centre international d’études pédagogiques (CIEP) and the Cultural Services of the French Embassy. The program’s goal is to strengthen English-language instruction in French schools by establishing a native speaker presence, while also providing American Francophiles with excellent teaching experience and first-hand knowledge of French language and culture.”

Life is better in two languages. I wouldn’t be who I am were it not for a yellow Rosetta Stone box one Christmas, a passionate French 1000 professor, or the decision to study abroad. I can’t imagine my life sans français, without the people I met (and meet) because of it, people who comprise an enormous part of my life now.

I have French to thank for the memories, from watching a bluegrass band cover Kool & the Gang’s “Get Down On It” in front of a château in rural France to my first time bringing a dictionary along on a first date. Study abroad placed me with a family that I wouldn’t have been able to communicate with were it not for all those verb conjugations I’d been made to memorize. Not everyone speaks English. Duh. But it hit me then how much difference learning another language can make. It can turn strangers into friends and make the world more accessible and more exciting, both.

Donc, I want to share with children the joy of learning a second language. It’s fun and frustrating and wonderful, a truly worthy mess. Many thanks to the teachers I’ve had, who have helped foster this passion in me. I hope to use what they’ve taught me.

In addition, I hope to eat a lot of cheese, see a whole lot more of the world, and finally learn to read a map. Allons-y !

gypsy jazz

A lazy Saturday afternoon, some gypsy jazz, and flowing champagne. Taylor and I stand in la Chope des Puces, a tiny, ancient jazz club in Saint-Ouen in Paris’s 18th arrondissement. We are crammed against the wooden bar, standing-room only. The bar isn’t packed but it’s tiny, and several families and couples have already claimed the tables and are enjoying late lunches or glasses of wine. On the walls, the guitars of jazz greats share space with black-and-white photographs of Django Reinhardt, the French jazz guitarist with the Dalí mustache.

Following his tradition, two men play gypsy jazz guitar in a corner at the front. I lack the ability to speak deftly of arpeggios or ostinatos, to grasp the logic of this skillful improvisation. I know only that this music sounds like Paris, golden-age Paris, and that it is frenzied and joyful and fills up the space.

I shout our order to the bartender, a statuesque gray-haired woman who looks like she’s seen it all. She hands us our frosty glasses of white wine and sets down a cheese plate. The heavy wooden board is crowded with soft triple-cream cheeses, sharp semi-hard cheeses, and a hunk of knife-sharp Roquefort. Scattered handfuls of fruit and nuts fill in the gaps. There is jam and butter and a basket of bread.

As we eat, I look around some more. The club is long and skinny and gives the curious impression of being slightly tilted, like someone picked up a shoebox diorama and shook it, scattering posters and paintings, rippling the tiled floor.

I notice one man in his forties. It’s hard not to: he’s wearing dark sunglasses and a snazzy silk button-down, dancing and snapping his fingers and exchanging cheek kisses with everyone he sees. A loyal fan. He tips the musicians extravagantly between sets and keeps the wine coming, and he’s generous. I notice him holding up a dripping bottle of champagne, tipping it into the glasses of everyone nearby. I nudge my friend–”want some champagne? Hurry, finish your drink.”

I catch his eye (as much as is possible behind the dark sunglasses) and sure enough, he approaches. We shrug, laughing. Santé ! He orders another bottle for the room.

A few seats open up and we share a table with an older woman wearing a bright turban. She has her dancing shoes on and she twirls and shimmies in slow circles as the men play. When they take a break, she leans over the table, and tells me in French how this is her kind of exercise, this is what keeps her young. She has a constant contented smile and a look in her eyes like a Christmas character: “a twinkle in her eye” is the phrase that springs to mind.

Taylor, my friend from childhood, is visiting Paris for the first time. Though she’s new to the French language, she’s been ordering for herself in restaurants and bars and her accent is great. I rarely need to step in for simple interactions. She wonders if the musicians know a song that she likes, so I tell her to ask, pronouncing for her the conjugation of the verb “to know.” She does and they do.

We leave a big tip and say goodbye. I’m reluctant to go, but these melodies will dance in my head all day. We have a train to catch.

 

 

put that in your book

That’s going in my memoir. 

When I feel I’m playing a starring role in an indie comedy about someone with terrible luck, I do two things. First, I try to laugh at myself. If that fails, I remember something Mary told me, Nora Ephron’s philosophy: everything is copy.

No experience is wasted if it becomes material.

Combining the coping tactics of humor and inspiration, I developed a new joke over the year. My life in France. Take the frustrating daily dose of inconvenience and make it into a catchy or ridiculous title, stick My life in France on the end.

Voilà. My memoir.

We found it hilarious, this clash between typical starry-eyed French memoirs about the lavender fields of Provence or the patisseries of Paris and the titles of our imaginary exposés. If something annoying or pathetic happened to me, I couldn’t wait to tell Mary. Suddenly it was worth it just for that little bit of comic relief. me-scarf mary-chateau

When you put some of these “titles” together, it creates a pretty fair idea of the average daily experience. So, without further adieu.

Peeing in the Dark: My Life in France

Crying on a Train: My Life in France

Snails in the Salad: My Life in France

Backpack Full of Cheese: My Life in France

Soggy Baguette: My Life in France

Closed on Sundays: My Life in France

Encore du Vin? My Life in France

Singing in the Car with a Turkish Man: My Life in France

Uphill Both Ways in the Rain: My Life in France

Blisters & Bruises, or, My Ruined Feet: My Life in France

30 Uses for an Eggplant: My Life in France

Listen, We Have to Stop Buying Artisanal Jams: My Life in France

We Missed the Bus: My Life in France

Beans on Toast: My Life in France

I Accidentally Walked 17 Miles: My Life in France

Why Did I Buy Hair Perfume? My Life in France

Do You Really Need a Tutu? My Life in France

Accidentally Drunk at Lunch: My Life in France

Do You Know the Queen of England? And Other Questions I’m Asked: My Life in France

The Honey Cake And Other Regrettable Homemade Desserts: My Life in France

Bags of Vegetables on My Handlebars: My Life in France

shoebox in paris

Thoreau said, “I would rather sit on a pumpkin and have it all to myself, than be crowded on a velvet cushion.”  

It’s a fair sentiment, though with my budget, I’m more likely to be crowded on a pumpkin.

Using AirBnb, the glorious startup that connects travelers with private homeowners in the perfect meeting of supply and demand, I’ve had the comfort of a cozy, well-priced place to sleep in Strasbourg, Lyon, and the Riviera.

I’ve also found a few pumpkins: simple, private, and deathly uncomfortable.

The most memorable is a studio apartment in Paris.

“Apartment” is generous, “broom closet” somewhere closer to the truth. I think the ad, actually, described the place as A Shoebox in Paris. I respect “Olivier” for the honesty. While poetic, he did not use “shoebox” as a charming diminutive, but as a realistic description of the room’s actual dimensions.

The room was the size of a spacious American bathroom.

But it was Christmastime, and the idea of it all was irresistible. Despite arriving via a seven hour OUI bus from Strasbourg, it felt impossibly glamorous to be spending the week in the City of Lights. Given my history of misadventures, I should have known better, but once again I was starry-eyed. I pictured museums with no lines (and I’d get in free with my carte d’éducation). I dreamt of flawless French classics: buttery steak and perfect crème brûlée. There would be a light snowfall around the Eiffel Tower. 

It was so close: the perfect winter vacation, great escape from Montluçon. But first we had to lug our bags up six flights of stairs.

The task accomplished, the first problem we encountered was where to put our two suitcases. To give an idea of the available space, the bed was such that, should you share it, one person was effectively sleeping in the “kitchen” (a hot plate, a sink), while the other lucky traveler had an excellent view of the bathroom, sleeping nearly inside it as they were.

You had to step on the bed (and over a sleeping roommate), to access the bathroom, actually, which “closed” via a sad little accordion door and which contained a crusty bar of soap and an emphatic note in a rough English translation explaining how exactly to flush the cantankerous toilet.

There was one spot of glamour in the room, a small coffee table that accumulated over the course of our trip articles that advertised an entirely different sort of vacation, the kind that doesn’t involve freezing showers, the kind that might allow a bath towel in place of a washcloth.

The table held bright new novels from the Shakespeare & Co English bookstore, a bottle of pale pink Chanel Mademoiselle, and the creamy pastel boxes and bags from our visits to Ladurée for macarons that, temporarily, made me feel like a queen at Versailles instead of a mouse in a shoebox.

This wobbly balance between glamour and grunge became a theme for the week (and truly, for my whole life in France).

Christmas Eve, we wandered around looking for that perfect little brasserie. An hour and a walk through Montmartre and Pigalle later, we admitted defeat and had Christmas Eve dinner in a Chinese traiteur. We sat in our skirts and tights and heels and ate egg rolls and orange chicken, eight euros a person. The restaurant was empty, save for the family that owned it: the little girl playing by herself, the father watching a ninja movie in the corner. But we ate on fine, pretty plates and drank wine out of heavy glasses, leaving lipstick on the rim.

Then we went to Christmas service at the Notre Dame. Candles, the Christmas story in French. The organ music thundered through the cathedral and I felt stunningly small faced with all this grandeur, all that history, all those people.

Christmas Day we spent at the Pompidou, the quietest I’ve ever seen that place. My Christmas tree this year was a modern art piece: colorful bulbs that lit up suddenly every few minutes.

For Christmas dinner, wanting to avoid Orange Chicken Part II, we googled best Christmas dinners in Paris and booked one, a splurge. We ate at a beautiful place in Montmartre, feasting on oysters and foie gras and a fruit salad with lychees and the recommended wine pairing. The restaurant was full of non-Parisiens. The locals, we assumed, were home with their families.

The trip, like our AirBnb, wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. It was exhausting. Paris was cold, rainy, and gray, and there were more tourists than ever.

One day we went out of our way to go to a Christmas market near Nation. A far cry from the Christmas market we’d enjoyed in Strasbourg, this one was dripping and pitiful, on its last day. Most booths were closed, and still we got conned into buying expensive cheese. A lady yelled at me about gingerbread. We talked with a chef selling Portuguese custard tarts who disclosed his love for Merle Haggard and started singing “Okie from Muskogee” (definitely the best part of that day).

Overall we spent too much time in the dystopian underworld that is the metro, and we ran out of money and had to eat lentils for a month afterwards.

In pictures it is lovely, all pale sunsets and gold lights, but really it was cold and cramped and a little lonely in the way that Christmas without your family can be.

I know this, remember this, and still I am nostalgic. How was it that not so long ago I rented a terrible, memorable little shoebox in Paris with my best friend? Where are the croissant crumbs and freezing fingers, or, on fortunate nights, the oysters and champagne? Where are the endless espressos and afternoons free to wander?

Christmas in Paris was like the room’s promoted “Eiffel Tower view”: both sound a little more glamorous in the telling.

But we did have our shoebox view. It was there, if we stood on the bed to see out the high window. If it wasn’t obscured by the January clouds.

The trip, the view: awkward and uncomfortable and lovely still. There it was, if we were lucky: the top of the tower, sparkling brilliantly into the night.

 

neon future: thoughts on life in the liminal stage

Hello from the other side of the ocean. I’m back in Columbia, Missouri, beloved little college town, experiencing less culture shock than I expected to.

There was the initial whoa of the Baltimore airport: large people clutching super-large fountain drinks, families dressed in matching tee-shirts, the informality with which strangers spoke to each other.

But it’s not exactly difficult to acclimate myself to all this comfort, a lifestyle as squishy as my dream foam mattress topper. There is water everywhere. Bathrooms. Late-night food, clothing dryers, Wi-Fi. The strangest and best change is having my car back. I no longer have to plan my day around how far my tired feet or broken bike will be able to carry me.

I appreciate things more. Driving makes me giddy. Libraries a wealth of stories and information, all free and in English. Baths the perfect cure to a long day. Friendsimg_5168

My friend Josephine came to visit for a few days, and it was so much fun to see Kansas City again, on my own, as an adult with a car. While she went to a wedding, I explored the Power and Light District, went to the art museum, took some pictures and took the free tram around town. We went to my parents’ house in Clinton and hung out with them and the new puppy for awhile, lingering over long meals, making failed macarons, reading the Atlantic, talking law and politics and life choices.

On that end, it’s really good to be back.

But there’s a certain strangeness, too. The path I’m currently on, a path of uncertainty and last-minute decisions, doesn’t exactly invite stress-free living.

I keep thinking about my English Capstone course the last semester of college, The Black Bildungsroman. It was my first experience considering the coming-of-age genre as a form. We talked about Goethe’s “Sorrows of Young Werther,” then focused on African literature (Camara Laye, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie…). We talked about the advent of the teenager and about the elements of growing up: leaving the parents, embarking on a quest, taking an apprenticeship. We talked about liminal stages: the limbo transition period between childhood and adulthood. They can also exist between countries or cultures, and it’s a good place to get lost.

Maybe it’s a little silly, but my stint in France has me thinking liminal stage all the time. Here (the States, Missouri, the anglophone world, whatever) doesn’t feel completely like home anymore. It’s lovely and it’s comforting, but it’s missing something now. Some people assume that my time there has been just for fun, that I’ll come back to the States and stay and be a French teacher. But I don’t think I want that. I’ve worked so hard to integrate to a new culture, new life, new language. I don’t want to just forget that. But France certainly isn’t completely home either. Is that what you give up when you leave, ever having a home?

When I think of my future, my actual future, I see static, the black fuzzing of an old TV screen. The best I can do is conjure a vision of myself as I’d like to be: elegant and glamorous with great hair and a classic trench coat, working at a successful career in Paris, Chicago, or NYC, something somehow both stable and creative. In my free time, I’m going to shows and working on a cookbook and talking to interesting people from all over the world in two languages. Writing.

How do I get there, and where is it I want to go? I don’t have a real clue. My choices are endless, and that’s both a blessing and a curse.

I think that’s the mal du siècle of my generation in this century. We are paralyzed with possibility.

Already, I feel old. Laughable: I’m 23. But half of my peers (or so it seems) are marrying, moving, having children. The other half are working on careers. I am scrounging for a job at a sandwich chain.

I’m eager to start work on my own elusive career, but…I have decided to return to France in the fall. I have a contract renewal for the same crazy, fun, stressful, organizational nightmare of a job, this time somewhere in the south of France. That was what did it, the promise of so much sun. And I’m young enough and career-less enough and unattached enough to just go.

But sometimes here, lounging on a pool chair where I’m crashing at my brother’s place for a month, filling out applications for temporary jobs that fill me with dread, I feel like I’m hiding out from real life.

I have to remember, though, that this is real life. Mine. It’s just a bit different from what I ever expected. Messy. But it’s not like I’ve been wasting my time. My dad said something that helped me.

“I’m going to bet you learned more during your time in France than you could possibly learn in a year of college,” he said.

He was right. I thought out loud.

I learned how to teach. That was no small thing.

I read about 45 books, from classic thriller Silence of the Lambs to Gatsby to a nonfiction exploration of French cheese.

I learned how to stand up for myself, argue, and solve my own problems…en français.

I started learning Turkish, visited dozens of French cities, and mastered the metro.

I gave my cooking skills a real workout, talked to hundreds of strangers, applied and was accepted to a Masters program, and learned how to ride a bike in busy city traffic. The list goes on.

Now I’m spending the summer chasing around a toddler and a little boy (they are both so big now; it’s amazing) and I’m looking for another job. Fingers crossed it has some character. Like the coffee shop I’m in right now, Tom Petty on the radio and crowds of old men and hipsters smoking outside. I could be making Greek omelets and lattés and saving for that unknowable and glorious future.

war & peace & confetti

My shoes were full of confetti. My purse was full of confetti. My bra was full of confetti.

My heart was simply full.

It was April, my second-to-last week teaching primary school English classes. Early that morning, I had sat waiting for my ride to school, dressed professionally but staring blearily at my hot lemon water, willing myself to wake up.

Bleep. A text from my ride, one of the teachers I work with. “Did you know that today’s le carnaval?”

First reaction: I don’t have to teach today!?

Second reaction: what is le carnaval?

She continued: “I’m worried you’ll be bored.”

Far from it. When I arrived at school I saw clowns, princesses, and ladybugs. Cats, ducks, pirates complete with eyeliner mustaches. A tiny boy from the youngest class wore a Spiderman suit, muscles included. As he walked he beat his fists on his artificial pecs.

I sat at the desks with my fifth-grade class, English class disrupted for the day, as the full-time teacher handed out bags of confetti. I was the only one not wearing a costume, much to the class’s dismay. “Sorry guys, I didn’t know!”

“Eh ben,” one of my sweet students said. “T’es déguisée comme prof d’anglais !” (You’re disguised as an English teacher!)

After a quick ten-minute French lesson about language registers (I won’t lie, I took some notes myself), class was dismissed. The kids started whispering, making plans. “Jessica, will you help us ambush le maître?”

Uh, sure. I didn’t know quite what this entailed, but they laughed wildly. It wasn’t until later that I heard the term bataille de confettis.

Confetti war. Okay, I could get down with that.

We lined up the kids outside, un petit défilé, a parade march into a nearby park. There were fountains, evergreens, and bright pink magnolia trees. Hidden around a few turns five minutes from the school, I’d never seen this park before.

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I followed the teachers, some dressed like clowns or birds or pirates, all of us trying to keep wayward little costumed people in line.

We stopped at a square where a Thursday morning market was taking place and crowded around a large, colorful character on a float. She was called Carmentrau, I found out later, the official personnage of the festival. img_1471

A group of cool-looking guys in blazers and jeans played dance-worthy tunes in a brass quintet. The kids buzzed with excitement.

If there was an official directive to start throwing confetti, I missed it, but after my first face-full, the battle was on.

Students approached me slowly, with a gleam in their eye, as if I had any doubt that they were about to shower me in colored paper. I’m not a natural confetti warrior, I must confess. When I sensed an attack was imminent, I tended to shout oh lala ! which just gave me a mouthful of paper.

It wasn’t just children, either.

Le maître of fifth grade, who bears a resemblance to Dennis Quaid with his handsome paternal charm, who rides to school on his motorcycle and who commands respect from his class without ever raising his voice, grinned as he tossed handfuls of confetti into the air…or into the faces of students, colleagues, and passersby alike.

After a while, the band lined up kids to start another parade. They marched around the market three or four times, following the joyful flatulence of the tuba. img_1470

They marched around the farm eggs and the herbs in pots, the flowers and the salmon packed on ice. Mostly around. One child stepped–splaton a tomato plant ripe with fruit.

Kids–or monkeys, witches, and Batmen–starting scooping up fallen confetti, and with it, handfuls of gravel. That was about the time we headed back, just in time for recess.

I still had no idea what this festival was, so I went to chat with the directeur, who told me that this school event marked the beginning of the Bœuf Villé, Montluçon’s version of le carnaval that takes place all over France in late winter. Le Bœuf Villé isn’t just a small-town interpretation of the famous Niçoise fête, though. It’s actually unique to Montluçon.

Bœuf Villé takes place at the end of Lent, instead of before it. The name of the central character, Carmentrau, is a patois of the words carême (Lent) and entrant, so that she represents winter and the entering into Fast. The goal of this festival is to chasser l’hiver, faire renaître le printemps: to chase away winter and to welcome the rebirth of spring.

We hunt winter by hunting the poor Carmentrau, who is “caught” by the children on Wednesday, paraded around the town for several days, and finally burnt at a ritual crémation by characters who represent life. Her ashes are then sprinkled in the Cher river. img_0957

I was puzzled by the bœuf connection until I learned that the end of Lent was traditionally celebrated by eating a big meal featuring beef, a food prohibited during the fast. Montluçonnais today, then, celebrate the return of spring with a community meal of the no longer “forbidden” food.

Interestingly, the word carnaval is itself connected to meat. Since cows would be killed as a sacrifice to mark the end of Lent, carne comes from the Latin caro meaning “flesh” or “meat,” and carnaval, then, means “to God the meat.”

I went home for lunch, shaking confetti out of my hair, my scarf, my oxfords. I felt cheered by the music, the laughter, the joyful silliness of the morning, all of it unexpected.

Later in the week I would see the culmination of the Bœuf Villé, this crémation of Carmentrau, at a city-wide festival where I saw dozens of my students.

It was a beautiful day to wish winter away as we stood under la sourire du soleil (the smile of the sun) and watched Carmentrau burn. img_1473img_1472 img_1474

Goodbye to winter, to Montluçon, to these students who are dear to me, to a strange, dark, cloudy season that gave me occasional glimpses of great joy.