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going somewhere soon

Hi, I’m Jessica. I will be going somewhere soon.

That sentence lacks a certain…well, it lacks a lot.

My plan was to have my teaching contract in hand two months ago. I’d have a flight, a place to stay, and an idea of what my life will be like over the next year. As it is now, I have none of these things. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned for sure in this past year of travel, it’s that rarely do things go according to plan.

What I do have: the conviction that I will move back to France in less than two months (it will be somewhere near Nice. How near has not been determined). A job (though if the documentation for this job yet exists, I haven’t seen it). Heaps of newly-acquired language, teaching, and life experience that keep me from being a nervous wreck.

I am a recent graduate of the University of Missouri and hold bachelor’s degrees in English, French, and Linguistics. An eager francophile and language learner, I went abroad last fall 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.”

My experience, from teaching to surviving in a lonely town in the Auvergne, was hard, weird, and frustrating.

And when the time came to figure out my next move, I sat down and thought about it and decided to do it again.

 

I like a challenge. If nothing in my life scares me, it’s time to do something else. So while I’ve been enjoying the summer in my Midwestern town, working a myriad of jobs and writing about the past and present, I am eager for the next scary, uncomfortable thing.

This summer has been marked by midnight career path epiphanies and long phone conversations with my mom and good friends. A summer Bible study for twenty-somethings really helped me cut down the stress, refocus on my priorities, and find friends to share the struggles with.

Peace Corps? Publishing? I don’t know. After a lot of thought and prayer, one thing became especially clear: I want to travel and I want to write about it.

Follow along as I do just that.

One of my biggest writing values is honesty. I strive to tell the truth, even and especially when it’s unflattering or disappointing (See “Humble Pie in Lemon Land“). That way, there’s more to learn from and laugh about. There are lots of great blogs full of information about particular places: restaurants, travel advice, what have you. Though I have my own particular niche (France, language, teaching), my focus is stories. I thrive on serendipitous encounters and the beauty of cultural exchange.

I am on a mission to fight idealistic travel writing tendencies: I went through my waxing poetic about Paris phase and I vow never to return. If you see the words “hidden gem,” “breathtaking,” or “friendly locals” in my posts, please feel free to slap me.

Welcome to Round 2. Will I successfully integrate into francophone community? Will I learn to surf? Will my pedestrian luck avoiding mopeds finally run out?

Your guess is as good as mine.

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kicking it in cannes

I will be living and working in Cannes, France, home of the eponymous film festival, through next spring. My new city feels classic “South of France” with its brightly-painted houses, palm trees, and abundance of signs advertising moules frites. Yet, considering its element of celebrity, Lonely Planet questions if it still has a soul. Posters and paintings of movie stars from Marilyn Monroe to Brad Pitt stretch across the sides of buildings and dot the interiors of restaurants. Wealth and glamour live here (or at least play here).

It’s beautiful and surely complicated and I’m eager to, well, find its soul. Since I’ll be patronizing small cafés and corner markets much more frequently than the Casino Barrière le Croisette, this shouldn’t be much of a problem. (Though I’ll admit I did pack a brunch-with-a-movie-star dress.)

I have never lived somewhere with beauty like this. Somewhere that people choose to be. It makes me giddy. When I turn corners and see surprise views, or even step outside or see the pink sunset outside my window, I get a feeling in my stomach like the liftoff in an airplane.

On the train from Cannes to Nice, I stood with my substantial baggage, feeling a bit carsick and tired. Two women were mumbling about something and I heard a man interject: On est bien ici, hein? “Listen, we’re pretty good here.” He gestured grandly.

“To the left, we have the sea. To the right, the mountains.” He paused.

Et on va se plaindre? “We’re going to complain?” Oui, c’est vrai, the women agreed. Oui c’est vrai. 

I smiled. That charming French regional pride. Also the fact that I get to share in this. Those crashing waves, those mountain peaks. Whichever way I look, the reminder that I am small. There is freedom in that.

I have moved from a French town economically depressed, default color gray, cafés filled with unemployed men drinking in the daytime…to a town of color, sun, and warmth.

Each day so far has been filled with charm and surprise: Sunbathing in October. A huge piece of watermelon to eat on the beach. Hidden passages. Olive trees. Turning a corner to see a crew in the middle of filming a movie scene. Sitting there enjoying a piece of tarte tropézienne. Pure sunlight and a constant breeze. img_0601

Knowing firsthand how difficult moving to France can be, I didn’t expect all this. I expected the worst, and was ready for it. And I know I can handle the worst: I did that last year. But it’s looking like I can let my guard down a little bit.

When I arrived in Nice, I was warmly welcomed by the owner of the Le Petit Trianon, a charming little hotel in the city center. Manuela told me about the hotel and how she had decorated each room herself. She asked me about my situation, and upon learning that I’m looking for long-term housing in Cannes, gave me her phone number and told me she would call friends to see if she could help.

For at least a few weeks, I’m staying at an AirBnb in Cannes la Bocca, about a five minute walk from the sea. The two-story house with a big garden and blue shutters is also home to a cat named Mirabelle and an ancient pooch, Loula.

My host, Antoine (name changed for privacy), is the father of three kids about my age. He’s a math teacher, which means we both have the same vacation time. And he’s really kind. I purposefully chose to stay in an AirBnb with a stranger rather than by myself, and it has worked out even better than I imagined.

When Antoine welcomed me to the place, he gave me a beach towel and snorkel mask to use. I promptly ran down to the sea, looking for rocks and shells and swimming with schools of white translucent fish. Another day, he drove me around Cannes so that I would have a better idea of my bearings. I had mentioned I like to read, and on Saturday he drove me to a book festival in a nearby small town where I got to listen to French authors speak and even talk with some authors myself, including Cuban author William Navarrete. Being that neither of us is currently living in our country of birth (and we were both speaking a second language to communicate), we had a good conversation about cultural exchange.

After that, Antoine drove me to Gourdon, a tiny, 800-year-old town, to see the view. And last night, he invited me to dinner with his family. There were five of us and we sat crowded around a wooden table, talking and laughing and eating homemade lasagna. I could keep up with the jokes and the subtleties. It has been effortless talking to people this time around, and believe me, that was certainly not the case last year. I don’t take it for granted, though, so I’m really enjoying it.

I am spoiled by the beauty of my surroundings, and by this kindness. I am luxuriating in anonymity while also enjoying all these petits interactions with strangers and new friends. I am remembering why I travel.

 

 

chasing the wind in bordeaux

Good things come in light, white pastry boxes that we open on the steps of opera houses and city halls and eat in the stretching late afternoon sunlight.

Bordeaux is fine food and lively squares and leisurely bike rides. My friend and I partake in all of it with the bleary-eyed stupor one acquires on city vacations. The fatigue is unavoidable: Bordeaux is our third stop. In April, it’s finally warm enough to wear the clothes I jammed hopefully into my suitcase–heels and dresses and shoulder-baring tops–but just barely. My packing job was no match for the winds in Lyon or for Paris gloom, so my trusty black blazer and I have been seeing a lot of each other. It’s the only thing resembling a jacket I have brought and by now must bear the microscopic evidence of everywhere we have gone together, hundreds of kilometers in dust and cat hair and croissant crumbs, like a map of Pilgrim’s progress. 

When Taylor and I walk we dodge shadows–the temperature dips within them, anyway–that beg a change of outfit. There are a lot of shadows in Bordeaux. Named a UNESCO World Heritage City in 2007, 1,180 hectares of the city fall under the designation. That makes for a lot of tall old buildings. 

The fiercest shadow is near our apartment on the Quai Sainte-Croix facing the Garonne. A short walk takes us to the stately Basilique St-Michel, behind which towers the Flêche St-Michel, a 114-meter white stone arrow to the sky. The angle of its shadow determines where we stop for breakfast or an afternoon coffee. As the sun rises or sets we jump tables to stay a clumsy half-step ahead.

We start the days with coffee here or nearby. I find a new favorite pastry in the Jésuit, a huge, flaky almond-filled thing that leaves a telltale trail of powdered sugar.

Sometimes in the afternoon, exhausted of our ability to appreciate more art or culture, we seek out more “dessert” pastries. I eat vanilla cream tarts stacked with wild baby strawberries the size of the first joint of my thumb. I eat pistachio and raspberry macaron sandwiches: Alice in Wonderland-pretty as if plucked from a cookbook. I eat ice cream on chilly days, mouth numb from cold sweet cream and dark caramel. I eat cannelés, small cakes with vanilla and rum, a Bordelais specialty. 

I watch my funds dwindle.

Somewhere we’ve replaced moderation with excess: of caffeine, wine, and artful sugar. It’s a curse: I am bombarded with beauty and can only respond with a bleary-eyed “oh.” 

I thought I wanted this freedom. I’ve been looking forward to this trip for months, but if I’m honest with myself, I am no longer satisfied. I am less free than I thought, for I am bound by restlessness. It turns out there is a limit to my ability to appreciate all this beauty, history, and almond flour. I experience a longing–not for more macarons or views or fun–but for things like work and responsibility. 

This summer I read Rick Steves’ Travel as a Political Act. Early on, he describes the kind of trip in which you “see if you can eat five meals a day and still snorkel when you get into port.”  That’s not travel, he says. That’s hedonism. 

That clicked with me. True travel should challenge and provoke. It should be marked by a willingness to observe, listen, and participate. It should lead to the paradoxical conclusion that the world is both bigger and smaller than it once seemed.

By that definition, this part of my trip isn’t quite travel. I am greedy, grabbing handfuls of material happiness and stuffing my face. I have lost sight of moderation. It’s participation without much thought. Is there any sort of challenge, or is it just fun? Fun is, well, fun. But not sustainable.

I am glad to be here but I am also too full. I have spooked the skittish horse of happiness and it has bolted.

a room of one’s own

The house in France hid behind a tall gate in a suburb of Lyon: Champagne-au-Mont-d’Or. With a name that promised champagne and gold mountains, I hadn’t known what to expect. Fresh flowers and gilded windows? Really, the house was modest, modern French. It was small and white and square and very clean. Everything in its place, and so on. I had never before lived that way.

Stuff was a comfort, always had been. I’d amassed nests of books, notebooks, sweaters–one in every color. I had never lived simply. Up until then I had had two rooms, a bright aqua childhood bedroom and a dorm room filled with colorful paraphernalia. The constant clutter, piled in boxes and pushed behind doors, meant I had always had choices: what to read, what to wear, what to look at.

Now I had a third bedroom, sparse and scrubbed clean, bright white with a small skylight. I had a yellow lamp, a twin bed, a small bookshelf that held, I noticed, a French translation of 50 Shades of Grey. I had a large suitcase that lay on the floor, stuffed with dresses and skirts I’d bought at the summer soldes, weighted down with a heavy leather-bound copy of Anna Karenina.

The room was not much of a solace. It was always too hot. I never got used to the absence of air conditioning, and would wake early most nights in a tangle of sweaty sheets. For another, I wasn’t to eat in my room. This wasn’t an instruction my host family felt they needed to impart, but something I intuited. At particularly stressful times throughout my stay, I wanted nothing more than to lounge in my small bed with a filched baguette and the jar of Nutella from the pantry. I knew, though, that my crumbs would find me out. I managed just a couple of covert summer apricots, wrapping the stones in old receipts from Carrefour.

The room and I developed a complicated relationship. It was where I fled to scribble madly about the day’s events, to cry when necessary, to stare up through the skylight, paralyzed with pain from the headaches the heat gave me. Where I went, in short, to cope with the occasional frustrations and troubles of being an exchange student.

But it was a last resort. Most days, I rather resented this little room, which on moody days I would compare to Jean Valjean’s cell.

Luckily, a house is more than a room; a family more than a house. The more time I spent with my host family, the less time I needed the escape. I stopped missing the piles of stuff I’d always had at my disposal. A rich freedom: to instead begin collecting moments, new words, photographs.

A camera, a battered notebook, a comfy pair of jeans. The objects I began to truly treasure had something in common now: they took me out, away from a world of introspection and solitude trapped between four walls. Home became portable. For the first time, I understood that.

stranger things: the hitchhiker’s guide to the auvergne

It’s a dreary early-spring day in the Auvergne region in France. At some unknown stretch along the highway, I sit at a rest-stop cafeteria table eating bad baguette sandwiches with two strangers.

We sit and chew hard bread and wilted lettuce in companionable quiet. Cold rain splats against the windows and I shiver in my damp jacket and jeans.

I have no idea where we are. I wonder what I would do in the event of separation: just me and my purse and my portable that is dead.

But I am unaffected. I am bold.

(Really, I’m desperate).

I’m a BlaBlaCar rider.

Much like raw milk cheese, BlaBlaCar is a French invention unlikely to appear in the United States. Less delicious than Mont d’Or but certainly more practical, BlaBlaCar is a service that connects riders with drivers in a searchable and safe incarnation of hitchhiking. BlaBlaCar meets a real need as a cost-effective way to travel long distances, say one to ten hours of routemont-dor

The website and app are available for free. Drivers set the price per journey, which includes one seat in the vehicle, and BlaBlaCar takes about a 12% cut. BlaBlaCar now has a presence in 18 countries, but the US is not one of them. As a Business Insider article explains, BlaBlaCar’s effectiveness depends upon a strong public transport infrastructure, making it a brilliant fit for France and Germany, while hypothetically leaving American users stranded.

Unlike Uber, which has exploded in American cities, BlaBlaCar doesn’t work like a taxi service. Drivers input their routes, say, from Paris to Lyon, and mark four or five stops they could make along the way. Rarely do they stray from meeting points, which could include a major train station in each city they pass through. Users can take a bus, tram, or metro to meet the driver and then to hop to their final destination.

This wouldn’t work well in the US, where the meeting point could be miles away from where you are; the drop-off point miles from where you want to be.

Living, as I do at the time, in a quiet corner of the already-quiet center of France, I use BlaBlaCar to fill the gaps in train schedules. Montluçon is already under-serviced in terms of transportation, and I’ve watched resentfully over the year as routes to and from major cities have simultaneously decreased in availability and risen in price.

Today, I’m using BlaBlaCar to get home from Lyon. The rest-stop sandwiches mark the halfway point.

In the morning, I sent my mom to the airport and headed with my bags to the Croix-Rousse. Traditionally the silk workers’ neighborhood, it offers a nice view of the rest of the city–or it does when it’s not pouring buckets. After several metro changes, my wet hair plastered to my face, I drag my suitcases into an old-fashioned belle-époque café where everyone knows each other, even the dogs in their raincoats, and the day’s newspaper is thrown around with cheerful abandon.

Cyril, who I know by first name and through a few staticky phone conversations, told me to meet him around the mairie of the 6 arrondissement. A BlaBlaCar truth: he who possesses the vehicle shall make the rules. Instead of meeting him at the Part-Dieu, Lyon’s major train station which is conveniently located just down the street from my hotel, I lug my bags through metro stations, across a halfhearted market, and up a hill. There it is, the city hall: I think. I inhale a couple of cappuccinos and try to warm up.

Cyril is late. He calls me every twenty minutes with updates–something about a bouchon. Finally, he arrives, driving a sinister and decidedly un-French white van. He is thirtyish with a lumberjack beard and cold-weather gear. He helps me with my bags. From the outside, it seems I’ll have plenty of room to stretch out and sleep during the trip. But when Cyril opens the door, I see that there are only three seats in the cab. As the latest addition to the van of strangers, I am relegated to the middle, feet necessarily perched on the raised platform, knees practically to my nose.

Cyril’s van and his route are highly in-demand. As we drive, Cyril makes and answers phone calls and negotiates exact pick-up times with other riders. We let a girl out in a Flunch restaurant parking lot and pick up one guy on the side of a highway.

I am still in the middle feeling like an oversized child, but I am just glad to be going home and saving fifty euros doing it. I don’t exactly have money to burn. Today’s ride was a third of the cost of the only train that would get me from Lyon to Montluçon.

Road trips are good for thinking. One thing I think about: I am not used to depending on strangers. That’s what I think, anyway, before I realize that is a totally false impression cultivated from an American sense of possibility and individualism. I am not used to depending on strangers–overtly. Really, other people make my coffee and grow my tomatoes and fix my car, yet I still maintain a sense of independence that has been stripped away while I live in France. I become very quickly aware of how often my well-being depends on the kindness of a bus driver or waiter, a random dog walker or fellow diner. And when it comes to travel, I now depend on this updated, tech-based version of hitchhiking.

I’ve ridden with Cyril, Dominic, Valérie, Fred, Karim, Arthur…sometimes Mary and I ride together and we talk about our plans as if these people are our friends. Wanna stop for espresso? Dominic’s running late. The fact that we know them only by first name points to the strange intimacy of road tripping with strangers.

Do you sit in the front or the back? Should you sleep or maintain polite conversation? How likely is it that you and your conducteur will be belting out show tunes and exchanging emails by the end of the ride?

The answer to these questions is not évident. An easy way to start a conversation is by asking about the driver’s motivation. Sometimes it’s simply money; a way to help them justify the expense of weekend trips to see a boyfriend. Sometimes it’s company, a way to spice up an eight-hour drive.

Company comes at a cost: it’s both good and awkward. There’s a strange self-consciousness that comes from the fact that the rider and driver will be publicly rating and reviewing each other after the trip. Sometimes when I scatter croissant crumbs on the seat or fail to really engage with the driver, I scramble to atone for what could be perceived as poor company. No one wants to lose at this game of Rent-a-Friend. BlaBlaCar feels a lot more personal than Uber and other comparable services.

As such, BlaBlaCar does its small part to prepare users for possible personality differences. When users create a profile, they are urged to designate their preferred level of chatter: from Bla to BlaBlaBla, or, it might be stated, the likelihood that you will annoy the person sitting next to you.

Your rating on the website could prove important: drivers can reject ride requests, and some days there might be but a single BlaBlaCar leaving from your location. There’s a small element of personal marketing when you’re competing against others for transportation rights.

Ooh, he’s cute. Mary and I discuss potential drivers (which fully illustrates the lack of thrilling activities available in our town. We joke that we’ve become really boring). Why did they reject me?!” Personal.

I wonder how often two people have met and fallen in love over the course of a BlaBlaCar ride share. It would make a lot of sense, I think. People have clicked for less than similar music tastes.

I certainly did not find love. I did, however, find a not-so-secret admirer, a good fifteen years my senior, who wrote me a review on the site. In it, he praised our belle and enrichissante conversation. I was a person both interesting and sympathique (to borrow the French syntax). And he wanted to get dinner sometime.

When I saw it, I snorted. Beautiful and enriching? He must’ve been talking about the sound of my snoring. The car was crammed with four twenty-something girls, and, sitting in the back, I could barely hear his eager questions. He tried to make eye contact in the mirror, not paying as much attention to the road as I would prefer, so I decided to feign sleep until Lyon. Still, and much to the annoyance of the very-awake Mary beside me, he wasn’t deterred. Is Jessica cold? Does she mind if I smoke? Does she have enough room back there? 

She’s asleep, came the flat response.

You won’t always click with your BlaBlaCar driver. You probably won’t find love.

But for the frequent, tired traveller, the service offers an element of humanity unmatched by the TGV. With a ride-share, you will not be spit out on the train tracks in an unknown city. You will have a chance to hear someone’s story, learn about a new region, get advice and restaurant recommendations. Unless they would rather shut up and drive. And that works too.

In a time when technology has the troublesome side effect of isolating humans into tiny virtual worlds of our own creation, I am cheered by this opportunity to, quite simply, talk to strangers. It meets a real transportation need, and a subtler need too: the need to connect with people. As a lonely American transplant, I appreciated these miscellaneous encounters.

Sometimes they were awkward or embarrassing. They were boring, or else really pleasant. They were human.

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