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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 !

humble pie in lemon land

Scene: late February. A sunny day in the South of France. A garden blocked from outside view by tall barriers and security guards. Hordes of elderly people wielding cameras and smartphones crest the hill. It’s a viewing platform, actually, all the better to gaze at a lion made from citrus fruits. img_8923-1

“Circle of Life” plays faintly in the background and a breeze carries the delicate scent of oranges.

Mom and I both are younger than the majority of the crowd by a good twenty-five years. I am not, in the view of the retired French people passing me as I pose for a picture in front of a house made of oranges, dressed for the weather. It’s a bright 63 degree day, but apparently still too early in the year to show one’s shoulders. They mutter about how I must be freezing, how “the poor girl needs a coat.”

How did we end up here?

When I realized several months ago that I was going to get to take my mom on a tour de France of sorts, I was a bit overwhelmed and then excited by the possibilities.

France was our oyster. I wanted to show Mom where I’ve been living in the Auvergne, but transportation to and from the area isn’t very manageable. Eventually I counted it out, promising to take lots of pictures instead.

Scouring the internet for some lesser-known French treasure, preferencing somewhere with sun, I saw a large sculpture of an elephant, made from oranges. Different. I followed a few links and learned that the image was taken at la Fête du Citron in Menton, France.

A lemon festival in a small town on the French Riviera.

Sounds kind of cool, right?

I pictured a charming, authentically-French community, colorful and lively. Markets and gardens. The churning Mediterranean sea. All enhanced by a quirky small-town lemon-scented festival.

To be fair, it was all of these things. But.

As soon as we saw the heart of the festival: a rectangular garden filled with revolving citrus sculptures underscored by tinny Broadway music, I wondered if I had made a terrible mistake.

Scenes flashed through my head. The many times, recently, I had told a French friend or colleague: “yeah, I’m really excited for les vacances. My mom’s coming, all the way from the United States. We’re going to Menton, in the Côte d’Azur. “For,” I had said, and here was the kicker, “la Fête du Citron.”

Currently, or so I had told many people, my raison d’être was a garden of Broadway paraphernalia. img_0767

I was staring at a big slice of humble pie. Lemon-flavored. Naturally.

Mom and I were in hysterics. The horror dawned. We stared as a cheery Mary Poppins revolved on her platform.

Mom. I could hardly get the words out, gasping with sheepish laughter. I told people we were coming here. Just for this. 

So it hadn’t been just in my imagination. When we met the neighbor who let us into our Airbnb in the Vieux Menton, he expressed surprise that we were American. That my mom, who doesn’t speak any French (yet!), had found herself in such an out-of-the-way place.

Yeah, we’re here for the Fête du Citron, I had said breezily. As if, yeah, c’est normal, it’s every day that someone flies thousands of miles to look at a tribute to Singin’ in the Rain.

I burned with embarrassment now, remembering, comparing my ideas with what I was seeing now. I had the strange feeling of having aged too quickly (try fifty years) in a day.

“Wow, Jess,” Mom said, sarcasm on full tilt, a faux-dreamy look in her eyes. “It’s everything I dreamed it would be.”

“Yeah, well,” I said, snickering. “Yeah, well. It’s worse for you, Mom. At least I live here. You flew over from the middle of the United States to come to this.”

I took some pictures and realized that if I aimed away from the army of French tourists pointing cameraphones, the photos would come out pretty cool. I like pretty pictures. But then I realized I was obligated to write about it. Tell the truth. Or else a friend might see one of the photos, be spurred to action like I had been. They might never forgive me, or at the very least, question my taste. And see, I value my friendships.

Later, on a train, I heard some older ladies chatting and translated for Mom: “the festival was especially good this year.”

 

three-hour tour

I am lucky to live in one of the last true gardens in all of France.img_0714

Well, that’s what my landlord and neighbor would say. And did say, yesterday, on what ended up being an hour-long tour of the property followed by several glasses of Bourgogne.

Never did I ever know that gardening could produce such passion, such fervor, such urgency. And then I met Monsieur C, who, as I believe I’ve mentioned before, snuck onto someone’s property under the cover of night to snip off a branch of a prized cherry tree before racing away in his car. Hence the beautiful white blooms in my front yard.img_0748

He had been telling us for a week. You have to come see the garden! Now! Before it’s too late! 

My friend from the States, currently on a badass solo backpacking trip, was visiting for a few days. It seemed like a good way to show her la vraie France and le vrai jardin in one go. img_0702

Comment tu t’appelles mon petit ?! Monsieur C demanded. Je m’appelle Sherrell, she responded. Hein?! He looked to me. What’s the French equivalent? 

C’est pas très français, en fait ! I responded, repeating her name in a stronger French accent. After all, none of the sounds are foreign to the language. He shrugged it off. Hmm. I will call you…Suzanne ! He boomed. Anyway.

We followed him back to the garden.

So what exactly constitutes un vrai jardin? I wondered. There must be fruit trees, vegetables, and flowers! The flowers must be a certain distance from the vegetables! The fruit trees as well!  

He showed us around in what seemed a very intentional order, looking to me and Mary to translate to Sherrell when he said something he thought was particularly important. Here was the apricot tree, the apple tree, the white cherry tree that produces delicious fruit: filled with bugs. But c’est pas grave if you simply close your eyes!

Here are the tops of the garlic, the onions, the leeks that he keeps under a special screen to keep the flies away so that he can enjoy them for a longer season than anyone else.

He pointed out a baby pear tree with the fondness one reserves for a beloved pet.

He told us about the little birds–mésanges–that eat his asparagus, and about all the hacks he uses to avoid using chemicals in the garden.

With a kind of tenderness, he told us about his budding friendship with a crow he’s calling Coco.

We sat and had wine as he told us stories I tried to translate. Then it was time for his nap.

Au revoir Suzanne ! 

Maman + Lyon: our trip begins

In February, my mom came to visit me in France for a whole two weeks. My dad had told me about his plans months before and I could hardly keep it a secret, but waited to let Mom find out on Christmas day.

We started off our trip in Lyon. Mom has heard a lot about it from my travels, but had never gotten to see it for herself. I strongly prefer this city to Paris, having been to both recently. I made the mistake of going to Paris during prime tourist time (Christmas) and it was enough to put me off for awhile. Lines for the vestiaire, lines for the bathroom, lines for my favorite bookstore. Crowded cafés revealing disappointingly average bowls of onion soup: another tourist trap. 45 minutes on the metro.

Paris is better if you know how to plan, and honestly that’s not my strong suit. Lyon feels a little more sacred, unspoiled by the over-commercialization of the romance of France (a place that becomes decidedly less romantic when it seems like half the world is there). Lyon is colorful, lively, warm, the stomach of France.

Mary and I went to Lyon a day before my mom flew in and got settled in at the AirBnb. In typical AirBnb fashion, this required codes and keys and the finding of a surreptitious flowerpot. Once inside, it was spacious and cool with big windows providing a view of the Saone river. By far our greatest AirBnb success.Lyon river view

We met my mom at the airport the next day and we spent a fun couple of days around le Vieux Lyon, mostly, eating and biking around.

I took mom to Les Halles de Paul Bocuse, a big covered market now dedicated to the famous French chef (whose face can be spotted across the street, painted onto the side of a building). Paul Bocuse and the halles that bear his name are dedicated to the highest-quality ingredients. C’est où les produits sont roi (where the products are king. Things really do sound better in French, don’t they).

Mom was craving a croissant so we bought a few and then we bought a box of macarons from Sève, my absolute favorites after the famous Ladurée in Paris. macarons boiteVanilla bean, peach apricot, rose. The lady was patient, her gloved hand hovering over the pastry case as Mary and I scrambled to decide which flavors to order, each one individually. Deux roses. Non, quatre. Cinq, c’est bon.

Macarons are one of the few patisseries that taste as good as they look. They don’t look good for long, though, because they don’t last long. Delicate, ephemeral. If it sounds like I could write poetry about these little cookies, well. I have.

We got around almost exclusively by bike, and it was dreamy, although Mom may have a slightly different opinion. Me, anyway, I was flying. Lyon has a really nice, user-friendly bike system, and the bikes are big, with comfortable seats, baskets, lights, and working brakes. I had forgotten what it felt like to coast down a hill and feel adrenaline instead of terror.

One day we biked to the Parc de la Tête d’Or, where we pedaled leisurely around the zoo and visited the botanical gardens.

We ate dinner almost exclusively in bouchons, the traditional Lyonnais restaurants, and Mom had such Lyonnais and French classics as boeuf bourguignon and salade lyonnaise. img_8326-1Our unanimous favorite, though, was a place called Les Lyonnais.img_8346-1 We sat at communal wooden tables and ordered classic food a bit more originale (interesting, different), than other places we’d tried. The place has personality, largely due to the servers, one of whom, sixtyish, has huge black framed glasses and a white beard, always making droll, ironic comments in French (and a little English). He’s the kind of guy who’s always smirking, but you can tell he loves his job.

The menu itself has a sense of humor, promising such delights as the “Unforgettable Onion Loaf.”

Besides bouchon fare, we ate fair number of brioche aux pralines and tried fun ice cream at a popular shop. I had mascarpone and sheep’s milk yogurt flavors. Technically it was a little too cold to be eating ice cream cones outside, but I was also wearing four-inch clogs and riding a bike over cobblestones, so what do I know about practicality.

We went to the Musée des Beaux Arts just in time to see the last days of the Matisse exhibit. This was a real treat for me. I’ve gone to a lot of art museums this year, (including contemporary art museums in like five major cities), and I’m always on the hunt for the kinds of bold colors that Matisse prizes. So to have all this in one place was major eye candy.

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After a fun couple of days, we headed to the South of France, where we attended the cheesiest festival of all time.

To be continued, in other words.

kids’ stuff/next steps

I have five more weeks of teaching left, and it feels…manageable. Like successful organization might be possible.

I really enjoyed teaching this week; the time away made me feel like myself again, energy and optimism available in large quantities. It was a week where things got done. We talked about pets, we talked about objects in the house, clothing, new grammar. I was impressed by many of the students’ good memories even after the break, particularly one class that rattled off Robinson Crusoe vocabulary from weeks before. Parrot, gun, saw, axe, island, canoe! 

Color me impressionnée. 

I still get such a kick out of their faux-sophistication, the way they rattle off French phrases and verb tenses that took me years of study as an adult to master. The way a class of baby-faced 7 year olds clad in sweatsuits chide each other for not paying attention. Eyes rolling to the ceiling, that French sigh: pffftCan you believe this guy? He’s not even listening. 

At this age, it’s still cool to do what you’re told, to make the teacher happy, which is a relief for me. I make them laugh; they make me laugh, genuinely. It reminds me sometimes of my job this summer, where I watched a sweet “four and a half” year old and his baby sister. Not only was I getting paid, but I genuinely enjoyed hanging out with these small people. Their delight at a frog or a feather, their un-self-concious laughter and dancing. It reminds you what it is to be human.

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It’s the same at school. Almost never do the kids bum me out, on the contrary, they’re what I love about this job. They’re so cute, with huge personalities and creativity and curiosity in spades. I jive well with that.

We have fun together, like in our games of mime where I show them a flashcard of animal words we’ve been learning and they act it out for the class. This week, the enthusiasm was off the charts. They good-naturedly hopped across the room like a rabbit or dropped to  the ground, much to my surprise–you really don’t have to do that!–to wriggle across the floor like a snake.

They clearly don’t mind looking silly, which is an absolutely essential part of learning a language. It saves so much time. For example, French kids don’t tend to hear a difference between angry and hungry or teacher and tee-shirt.

Everyone say ‘shhhh.’ Now everyone say ‘ch- ch- ch-.’ We go back and forth for awhile. Teee-chur. Teeee-shhhhirt. And they get it.

There are so many little moments, little epiphanies: Jessica! ‘Turtle’ is like ‘tortue’ but backwards! It’s the same word!

I am summoned whenever there are questions or comments about other languages or places. I might be going to les États-Unis this summer, Jessica! Maybe I’ll see you there! 

Did you know my mamie lives in Spain? 

Is it hot in England? Do kids study French over there? 

At recess, I am offered a piece of homemade birthday cake by a grinning little girl (8 today!) waiting for a few teeth to grow in.

Two little boys come up to me as I’m reading a Margaret Atwood collection. On the front is a drawing of a crow. What’s that about? I’m pretty sure we have that book at my house. Oh really? I try not to laugh. Wow, she’s old! When they see the author photo.

I am asked to translate their little sweatshirts and backpacks adorned with inexplicable English phrases. Smile cat love! Always energy dream! 

 And so. It’s the stress, the planning, and the inconvenience of life here that occasionally get me down, but almost never the kids.

I wouldn’t do this job forever, but one more year? I think so. So, I’ve applied for a contract renewal for next year in a new académie in a new region.

As I’ve said before, this experience is not easy but it’s worthwhile; I haven’t regretted it once. I’ve complained, anguished, and stressed, and here I am, signing up to do it again. So that tells you something.

I also got into a French graduate program at Middlebury College that comprises a summer at the Vermont campus and a full year at the Sorbonne in Paris. This program interests me because it’s really intense, like a serious bootcamp for the language skills, and it would allow me to study things I’m really interested in (French culture, linguistics, instead of medieval lit, for example). Besides the skills boost, I would finish the year with a Masters in French. Is this private college and this degree worth the high price tag? I’m not sure yet. I’ve yet to figure out what I want to “do with my life,” but one idea is French-English translation. I want something exciting, challenging, useful, and conducive to traveling. If I want to be competitive in this realm, my French will need a serious upgrade, something I would get with this program.

For awhile I was stuck between the two options, but pragmatic Mary forced me to send a bunch of emails and I think I have my answer. I feel good about it, anyway. While Middlebury doesn’t offer an official deferment option, they will keep all my application information for two years. So, should I decide to go for the Masters next year, it seems I will basically be all set. In the meantime, I can research scholarships. That way, I don’t have to pay a hefty deposit (due this week!) for something I’m not totally sure about.

For now, I’m excited to hear back about next year: who knows where I’ll be then?

the real world: an honest account of teaching abroad, 5 months in

After a much-needed vacation, I feel refreshed enough to write a little bit more about my job. It is, after all, the reason I’m currently living in France.

Teaching here is one of the most stressful experiences I’ve ever had.

I haven’t written too much about my job here with the TAPIF program, mostly because when I’m not actually teaching, I’d rather think about something else. But after talking with several friends who have done this and have had (or are having currently) a very stressful time, I thought I’d put another opinion out there.

My opinion: this is a very worthy experience that’s very freaking hard.

The ups-and-downs are what get me. A few weeks ago, before vacation started, I went to my “Monday” school (my favorite). I had prepared a Valentine’s Day lesson. Mary and I had stayed up late the night before watching Twin Peaks and drawing the flashcards I needed, colorful images I’d use to elicit new vocabulary. Teddy bear. Chocolate. 

I walked into the school that morning and was greeted with a huge smile and an appraisal from one of the teachers. Qu’est-ce qu’elle est belle ! Qu’est-ce qu’elle est chic ! She demanded to know where I bought my skirt.

I prepared my materials: printed things and made copies, wrote out an introductory word game on the board, and waited for my first class, a well-behaved, quite charming group of fifth-graders. As the lesson came to a close, the kids were coloring away at their animal Valentines as I circled the room for occasional questions, when their full-time teacher, also the school’s directeur, approached me. He was full of good things to say. C’est génial, ce que tu fais. He said the kids are happy; look, they’re entertained, they’re quiet, they’re learning. He said he saw one of my lesson plans and it impressed him, that it was exactly what they do there, that he could pick it up and be able to teach the English lesson. He essentially offered to pick up the phone and recommend me for a contract renewal.

I tried to hold back a grin.

“I’m not saying this to flatter you, you understand. I’m saying this because it’s true.”

I had a few more lessons, all of them fun for me and the kids, no discipline problems to speak of. One little girl even ran up and hugged me after the lesson. “English with Jessica,” she proclaimed in French, “is the best English in the world!”

It was a Mary Poppins Day: one of those teaching days where I walk in and feel like an adored traveling governess. I even have the requisite “magic bag,” but mine contains games, books, funny pictures, and a laptop with songs and videos saved to it.

Kids came up and gave me the Valentines they’d made, asking first if they had to give it to a friend or if they could choose…someone else.

As they sat and colored, they were abuzz with good-natured questions and murmurings: I’m going to give the whale Valentine to my sister and the bear one to my dad! 

Come look, Jessica! 

Do you think I should color his nose pink or brown? 

How do you say crocodile in English? See, I told you! 

At recess, I stood with the teachers as we drank our tiny espressos. Someone had brought croissants. We talked about the upcoming vacation time and then they asked what I planned to do after this school year, so I told them about grad school and other possible projects. A teacher friend, Delphine*, who is about my mom’s age and gives me a ride to the school twice a week, told us about a book she’s reading. It’s about a young American woman who moves to France and writes about her adventures in French language and culture. She even marries a Frenchman.

“That’s Jessica!” Delphine said. “That’s all I could think when I started reading this: it’s Jessica!”

I felt hopeful, young in a good way, like I couldn’t wait to see what’s next. I felt loved and appreciated, the way it’s nice to feel around Valentine’s Day. I loved my job.

Then, “Tuesday school.” I don’t particularly want to rehash all the mishaps and frustrations that happened (that always happen) at Tuesday school. Suffice it to say that, when my lunch break hit, the first thing I did was pull out my phone calendar to see how many days I had to come back. This is the school that, as soon as I get home, has me digging in the back of the fridge for any beer we may have. This is the school that’s stressed me out so much that I have actual nightmares. If Monday has me feeling like Mary Poppins, Tuesday has me feeling like a depressed Disney hag, like I’m a thousand years old. The camaraderie, the respect, the feeling that I’m making a difference, all those important things that exist at Monday school don’t exist here, not for me. Tuesdays make me feel hopeless; Tuesdays are the days I actively dread.

As I was leaving that Tuesday–I made it, I survived, I have a killer headache–I realized I’d forgotten something, so I went back to one of the classrooms, where a woman I didn’t know was setting up an art project. I asked her about her job doing after school activities and she told me that this was the last day she was working at this particular school, thank God.

You feel that way too?! I asked, quick camaraderie. Oh yes, she assured me. I laughed; I could have cried with relief.

Much of the stress, you know, comes from never knowing if what I’m doing is right. In two of the schools, I feel that it is. In the other, all bets are off. I have no training and I work alone. I have one person I’m able to contact for advice, help, or problems, but this person cannot be particularly bothered to, say, return my emails.

It is very frustrating to me, because I know that my situation isn’t how this program is intended to work: I prepare up to seventeen different lessons a week (because the classes are at completely different levels) and I plan and teach each one alone. My job title is “assistant,” but I don’t assist anyone. I wake up, dreading school, having no clue if a lesson will bomb or not, and I long to be told what to do. That seems like the ultimate luxury at this point.

It’s stressful and it can be very lonely, as is this town. Complete honesty here. When I got back from vacation (which I’ll be writing about soon), I felt a kind of grief. Home alone in a drafty house on the outskirts of a dying town. Mary, who by now is like a sister to me, wasn’t home yet. I went to get groceries, which entails riding a shitty bike without working brakes down a long hill. My stomach was bigger than my backpack, so to speak, and I selected too many items to carry. I had to buy two bags and stuff them full of groceries as well as the backpack, leave my bike in the parking lot, and trudge up the hill on foot, a long, heavy twenty minutes. The moment I exited the store it started to pour rain.

I missed my car, but not just that. I missed having someone to call.

I don’t feel homesick, exactly, but I do miss things, lots of things. I miss the people in my life. I miss hot baths. I miss concerts. Indie movies. Hot mugs of homemade (real) coffee. I miss the library, road trips, having a dryer and a comfortable bed and a fireplace. I miss dressing up with friends and doing things, having a nightlife. I miss early mornings and lazy evenings at coffee shops. I miss comfort. I miss the sun. I miss the freedom that comes with having my own transportation (of the four-wheeled variety). I miss making friends with someone easily, in a couple of minutes.

There are parts of this I love: The travel part. The time to read part. The hanging out with Mary part. The Monday part. The vacation part. The kids, too. The funny things they say. Seeing them learn.

I’ve never been sorry that I’m here, so I’m grateful for that. But sometimes I wish I was somewhere else (if that makes any sense).

I am simultaneously enjoying my time here and counting down the days til I leave. I write this to express the two opposing and equally important aspects of my time in France with TAPIF: worthwhile. Difficult.

But you know what they say about things that don’t kill you.