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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 !

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rainy colors: a weekend in Strasbourg

Last weekend I traveled to Strasbourg alone. I am head-over-heels for this Alsatian city: its bright buildings that remind me of a child’s drawings, its lovely street art, its warm, filling comfort food, cobbled streets, and abundance of bicycles.img_7721

I got in around four p.m. and had time to drop off my things and walk through the storybook scene that is Strasbourg’s riverbanks before the sun went down. It was entirely freeing to stroll in the sun with no bags in hand; to compress after a stressful day of travel.  img_7763

From Montluçon I had taken a train to Bourges, then another to Paris Est. From there I took the metro to Paris Austerlitz, then took the TGV to Strasbourg. It wouldn’t have been bad at all (I had snacks, water, a good book, and leftover metro tickets), except that I almost missed my first train. I’ve never felt adrenaline like that as I realized my train, the one I had to take to catch the other two that I had already paid for, was about to leave and that I was, as they say, on the wrong side of the tracks. I waved to the conductor from fifty feet away, desperate and unashamed, and then I flew down the concrete steps at a speed unprecedented by my heeled ankle boots and suitcase. I came to a fork in the road and looked up one direction hopelessly, knowing if I chose wrong I was out of luck. Luckily I saw a train attendent’s face peering down from the top of the stairs. C’est bien par là, mademoiselle ! I raced up the steps and into the train and sat huffing for all of thirty seconds before the doors closed and we sped away quietly.

That little adventure had me sweating all the way to Bourges. I took out my notebook and wrote my latest travel tipassume nothing. Check everything. Ask questions at the first sign of a problem. The problem: I thought I was taking an autobus to Paris, on the opposite side of the station. It wasn’t until I was about to board the autobus, four minutes before it was set to leave, that I decided to ask other travelers in line. I only asked because I noticed, finally, that the bus didn’t match the number printed on my ticket. Luckily, one man was an off-duty SNCF employee who called someone, typed in a door code to get me to the other side of the station faster, and helped me wave down the conductor, then yelled after me that they were waiting. That was the hope propelling me as I flew down those steps. Lesson: learned.

Just when I was breathing normally (a good hour later), we stopped in Bourges and I noticed everyone and their warmly-dressed dog getting off the train. This was supposed to be a direct trip to Paris, so I had nothing to worry about. I sat back and closed my eyes. Yet, a worry tugged at me and, so, having learned from the near-disaster not an hour before, I asked one of the last passengers leaving the train, a portly older man with a friendly face. “Excuse me, I’m going to Paris,” I said. “Do we…have to get off?” My ticket indicated nothing about what I should do. “Yes!” He told me. My heart hammered. That was close. “Well, uh. Was that written somewhere? I didn’t see it.”

“No, it wasn’t,” he said. Naturally. “Follow me.” We boarded another train, this one old-fashioned with skinny corridors and close-together seats set in individual cars with overhead baggage storage and curtains for privacy.

I could finally relax. Travel tipif everyone is getting off the train, get off the train. Or perhaps: pay attention to your surroundings. If I hadn’t trusted my gut, I have no idea where I would have ended up. Certainly not Paris.

I needed to decompress, and a walk around Strasbourg in the cool air and bright sun was the way to do that. After the river, I walked to the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Strasbourg. It’s one of my favorites, jaw-dropping in its enormity, gorgeous in shades of orange and teal. It’s the sixth-tallest church in the world, described by Victor Hugo as a “prodige du gigantesque et du délicat.img_7715

In the next few days I climbed the 332 steps to the top twice, the view was so nice, and each time I could hear the cellist who often plays in front of the cathedral.

I stayed in an Airbnb studio apartment on Place Gutenberg, a famous square that was familiar from when I visited Strasbourg for the first time with Mary in December. We were there for the Marché du Noël, and this same Place was then home to the Portuguese section of the Christmas market. There I discovered pastéis de nata–sweet custard tarts with flaky shells–and hot orange juice, and went back for seconds…and thirds… The city was gorgeous, all lit up like a Christmas tree, but I loved it just as much here in February. What it missed in Christmas decorations it more than made up for in lack of tourists.img_7555

The apartment was charming. I could see the building when I stood on the cathedral’s platform, and I could see the cathedral from the front door of the building: it was a thirty-second walk away. I heard the bells chime from my balcony. Travel tip: when finding lodging, prize location. It was quite cold when the sun went down and the wind (which terrorized most of France this weekend) ripped through, but my uber-central location made it easy and enjoyable to get dinner or drinks every night, and I would have easily traded amenities for the treat of having the cathedral practically on my doorstep.

Strasbourg’s German history makes this city unique, and unlike anywhere else I’ve traveled in France, in Strasbourg I heard German spoken all the time, saw it on signs, et cetera.

As a linguistics nerd, I also find the Alsatian dialect really interesting. The French spoken in Strasbourg shows phonological differences from standard French but is particularly interesting in its lexical variety.

I was surprised to hear my Alsatian dinner date speaking conversational German with the server at a traditional restaurant we went to. “Everyone knows some German here,” he said shrugging. C’est normal.

I had munstiflette for dinner, the dish that may have been partly responsible for my return to Strasbourg. Who knew that munster cheese is not necessarily a lifeless orange block from the grocery store? Not I, until I visited Strasbourg. Other French-German specialities include choucroute (sauerkraut) served warm with sausages; schnitzel, Alsace wine, pretzels, apple strudel, and tarte flambée. Basically a thin-crust pizza with cream, onions, and lardons, tarte flambée is like other French foods in that, if you try one at an average restaurant, you’re likely to be unimpressed and wondering what all the fuss is about. If you find the real thing though…you will wonder how such a simple combination of ingredients leads to something so incredibly delicious.

Eating out was also a treat because of the service. Everywhere I went, people treated me with surprising warmth and familiarity. I’ve heard that Northerners are known for their friendliness, and based on my first encounters, I’d have to agree.

Strasbourg (or Alsace) seems like a good place to live, and it might be even be a reality. With the program I’m currently here teaching with, I have the option to request a contract renewal, and I have one choice for place preference. We’ll see if this gets my vote!

For now, I’m glad to have traveled alone like this. I never have before, unless you count taking a few flights and being picked up at the airport. The sense of independence it affords is exhilarating. Until the next, Strasbourg!

 

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all lit up: la fête des lumières

Last month Mary and I (and several million of our closest friends) went to Lyon for La Fête des Lumières.

We took a train (well, an autocar and two trains) to get to Lyon, and popping out of the Part Dieu metro and up into the city on a sunny Saturday, I realized I knew exactly where I was.

In college I spent a summer in Lyon studying French. Those few months represented a lot of firsts: first time flying alone, first time going to a foreign country to live with strangers, first time drinking wine and going out…oh, and my first time speaking French in France. louis-xiv

The trip gave me so many new experiences and several good friends. When I look at my sun-kissed pictures from that summer, that’s what I remember. There we are eating paella in Marseille, swimming in the Mediterranean, walking through lavender fields in Provence, climbing the winding steps of the Notre Dame.

But the reality was more complicated, filled with the kind of stuff you don’t take pictures of. There was a lot of getting lost, embarrassing moments, red cheeks, unintended offenses, and vows to never leave the house again. There were a lot of headaches, something that happens when it takes extreme concentration to follow a simple dinner table conversation. There were some tears. Oh, and a sinus infection.

So, despite les belles experiences, of which there were many, I never felt quite à l’aise (at ease, comfortable) in France or in Lyon.

It took some time, but I no longer feel like France is out to get me, so it was satisfying to be back in Lyon with French fluency, confidence, and an evolved sense of direction.

We walked from the Part Dieu to the Parc de la Tête d’Or, where I remembered Stephanie and I having picnics in the grass after class, me falling asleep in the sun reading Anna Karenina. We passed the lake where Florent and I would feed stale baguettes to the ducks and geese.

As we approached the rivers, all I could think about was how beautiful it was. How had I lived among this and not gaped at the beauty of the bright-colored buildings along the Saone, or the splendor of the Basilique de Fourvière jutting out high above the city?

I then remembered that I had. But I’d become accustomed, as one does to both beauty and hardship. C’est normal.  lyon-saoneimg_5347

The time away gave me the chance to see Lyon’s beauty anew, since my current “normal” is a small sleepy town; riding a bike by the light of the moon should I decide to participate in nightlife.

Throughout the weekend Mary and I played tourist, standing in lines for brioche aux pralines from a well-known boulangerie, talking at length with artists selling work along the river, hiking up to Fourvière for the view, eating quenelles in a cozy bouchon.

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But the main attraction, bien sûr, was Saturday after dark. It was the third and final night of the festival of lights, and the city was lit up like a fairytale world. Buildings glowed along the river, and cathedrals, bridges, train stations, and more were completely transformed by color and sound.
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There were over 41 light installations, little shows that played on a loop from 8 pm to midnight. There was a dreamy short film projected onto a ferris wheel, dancing robots, dinosaurs, lanterns, and a virtual sun rising and setting on the hill high above the city. Some of the pieces seemed to provide a kind of cultural commentary, some of them just seemed fun.

All together, the effect was that of a surrealist dreamworld, of getting swept away by neon lights, beautiful music, twinkling bridges.lyon-fete-nuit

Unfortunately, that also meant getting swept along by the crowds: the several million people I mentioned earlier. Lyon is one of France’s bigger cities, but typically feels quaint and cozy compared to Paris. Both population and tourist-wise, Lyon doesn’t come close to Paris. Except, I learned, during this festival.

We stood miserably pressed together, able to take a step or two every minute or so. I couldn’t help but think of the times I had a whole square or a whole street nearly to myself. The upside? All that body heat made the low temps a little more bearable.

It wasn’t so bad for the majority of the installations, where you were free to walk around as you pleased, but this was the “line” for perhaps the most popular installation: the projections on the front of the Cathédrale St. Jean, a work called Evolutions.

Happily, it was worth the wait. It’s fair to say it was one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen: bright 3D lights transforming an ancient cathedral into a moving piece of art. There were falling leaves and breaking glass, lace and waves, all accompanied by a futuristic instrumental piece that sounded like something by STRFKR. The anachronism between this structure, in the middle of the vieux part of a city deemed a UNESCO world heritage site, and the weird and wonderful things now happening on its surface, was a delight to see. There was even a point where the artist made the cathedral seem to “short out” and flicker off, like it was a TV station with bad reception. Such a playful way to question perception.

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It was hypnotizing and beautiful. I stared, transfixed, and watched the show twice.

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le retour

I wasn’t expecting my first week back from Christmas vacation to be filled with joie. 

Le retour is always difficult, and here there were two: the return from vacation, back to life in small-town France, and the return to teaching.

My first day back didn’t deserve to go so well. I’ve been there before. This time, though, I made the opposite mistake. Instead of turning up a day early, staring into an empty school like a lost freshman on the first day, I almost…didn’t show up at all.

I had planned for Wednesday. Wednesday I could do. It was Monday. I deep-cleaned my room, organized the kitchen, went on an epic grocery expedition, did my laundry. I eschewed nothing but lesson plans, which were to be Tuesday’s focus.

Another morning to sleep in, tranquille. And then I heard a voice from the next room. Mary said slowly, “I think we work tomorrow. Let me show you why I think that.” She had seen something online.

My heart dropped to my toes. I was ready to protest, but instead I rifled through my things with a manic energy for the deceptively casual paper I had again forgotten to consult: my work schedule for the year.

Retour : mardi le 3 janvier. 

Tomorrow. What a nice start to the new year that would have been: unintentionally playing hooky.

My neat, comfortable little plans flew out the window. The stress I felt doubled, which, unfortunately, had no affect on my productivity. What would I teach these children, all 250 of them? What could I plan with no plan? It was going to be ugly.

I procrastinated most of the day, did the faintest bit of preparation, and found myself at 10 pm before an early morning waiting for my glossy manicure to dry as I watched a Patrick Swayze movie.

I walked into school the next morning like a prisoner to the gallows.

My mood was lifted, though, as one teacher after another came up to me and wished me a bonne année. These wishes were surprisingly warm, not a throwaway “happy new year” but rather a list of meilleurs vœux: good health and good luck and a bon séjour in France, all delivered with a genuine smile. I was offered various pâtisserie and asked in detail about how I spent the holidays.

And then to class, the first of seven that day. After a ten-minute rocky start in which I wondered if I had completely forgotten how to teach, I got my groove back and managed to keep it up with every class: from the wriggling six-year-olds to the super-competitive fourth-graders.

Teaching feels to me like an athletic event. It reminds me of when I played tennis in high school. During long, tough matches, I would often manage to get in “the zone,” running after every surprise drop shot with energy I didn’t know I had. Sweat was running down my face but I just cared about the next point.

Teaching is like that. I may be exhausted, with the beginnings of a killer headache throbbing at my temples, but I stand up to start a new lesson and all of that slides away. When I get home I may crash, but in the moment I’m too busy solving the dozens of little conflicts that arise when working with children to think about myself for one second.

It’s kind of invigorating.

I was worried that two weeks away from the job would undo some of the progress I’d made, but it turned out to be a perfect refresh. The lessons, as a whole, went more smoothly than ever before, and I realized I’d really missed those French baby faces.

It’s kind of a relief to have a good start to the year. January to me usually feels like November Part II: the chill of winter without Christmas lights or anticipation. January is malaise, ennui, and other bleak French words. January is a good month for a crisis: existential or quarter-life, take your pick.

This week I saw a cartoon by an illustrator I like, Gemma Correll. She’s jokingly designed a paint palette for January, shades that range from gray to black with names like “Forgotten Joy,” “Frozen Puddle,” and “Broken Light Therapy Box.”

That’s how I might describe the “light” outside my window most days this week here in Montluçon, and most years, how I would describe my hibernal attitude.

But this year is different. It feels good to be working instead of pacing around the house and eating butter cookies on the too-long college break (though I do miss morning coffee and crosswords with my parents).

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how to speak to Santa Claus in French

We’ve survived a bleak November, and Montluçon is getting its Christmas makeover. bienvenue

Music plays and lights sparkle into the night. The festivities are a little haphazard: instead of one cohesive carnival, there are attractions scattered around the city. Bumper cars at the foot of the chateau, some food stands across the street. A five minute walk brings you to the main attraction: the little marché de Nöel in front of the Hôtel de Ville.

France loves its Christmas markets. Typically, they last all throughout December, and are set up like a little Christmas village. You stroll around and eat, drink, shop, and play games or go on rides.

I was pleased to find that Montluçon does one too. It’s small but quite charming, with little booths that look like elf-sized log cabins forming the perimeter of the space. At these booths you can buy wool scarves, fine chocolates, sausages, fondue cheese… There’s a tiny skating rink with a big Christmas tree in the middle, an oyster bar, and, my favorite, several stands selling cups of vin chaud, steaming hot and ladled out of huge silver pots.

Vin chaud, or hot mulled wine, is a magical drink, tasting more like Christmas than anything I’ve ever tried. It’s made with red wine, wintery spices, and something to make it sweet, such as honey.

My favorite café here does it best. The flavor is perfection and they give you a little spoon to capture the grosseille berries and orange slices at the bottom of the glass. The café is in the medieval part of town (a circular area near the Cher river). It’s called Les 12 Apôtres (the 12 Apostles) and is right next to a medieval church and across from a used bookstore selling ancient Tintin comic books. montlucon-dusk-moto

du-vin-chaudLast night we went to the marché to have a glass of vin chaud for Mary’s birthday.

The wine wasn’t as good as my dear 12 Apôtres, but the atmosphere was festive, and who did we see but Santa Claus.

It was definitely him, Père Noël, but his shoulders were stooped, his steps slow. He trudged around the festivities in a slow circle. Even from behind, he looked decidedly unjolly. And disconcertingly thin.

Still, we wanted a picture. I didn’t want to catch up until I had my approach. Typically, Santa does the work: well what would you like for Christmas? But I had a feeling that French Santa, probably unaccustomed to the demands of American consumerism, would stare at me blankly after my bonsoir. What do you want and why are you bothering me? No twinkle in his insouciant French eye.

We walked slowly behind him, waiting for the right moment. “This looks creepy. We have to stop doing this,” Mary said as I took a picture of him with my camera.

“Fine, let’s just go.” As we sped up, something came to me. “Wait! Do you tutoie Santa Claus?” Tu versus vous (informal vs formal form of address) is often ambiguous even for the French. There are some clear rules: you always use vous with strangers (unless, say, someone runs off with your purse), you never use it with children or animals (inquire after a cat’s well-being with comment allez-vous and look at the smirks you’ll get). Usually I do okay, not without my share of accidental tu‘s and hasty corrections, but this was one of those situations they don’t teach you in school. Does politesse entail using the formal form of address with Santa Claus, a Christmas character in a velvet suit?

Probably. 

We got our pictures, and as expected, he was not exactly full of cheer. No Joyeux Nöel, even. He did, however, leave us with a mumbled à bientôt (see you soon).mary-et-pere-noel

I won’t get my hopes up. While my list would include perfume, Chanel nail polish, travel money, a food processor, and a nice pillow, French Santa would probably just tell me to appreciate what I already have; eat more salad.

I’ll have to count on American Santa, if he can find me here. We don’t even have a fireplace.hotel-de-ville

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there are snails in the salad: adventures in renting

 

In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and lettuce. 

Had Benjamin Franklin rented from Monsieur C, his famous line might have looked a little different. I can rarely foresee what challenges life in France will throw at me, but I am always confident there will be lettuce in the fridge.

It all started with a simple question. One day Monsieur C asked Mary: tu aimes la salade ? 

Yeah, I like salad, she responded. The deed was done. Sentenced to salad without parole. Daily, Monsieur C knocks on the door that separates the two living spaces, shouting his classic âllo ? Je peux ? and offers us a big bag of fresh lettuce from the garden. C’est bonne, la salade ! It’s not a question.

Unfortunately, neither of us much like lettuce.

Bags of it crowd our fridge. It sits wilting, forgotten, on our countertops.

I tried to tactfully tell Monsieur C that, you know, we’re really doing okay on the lettuce thing. It’s more than we can eat! 

I know, he said. Vous mangez pas beaucoup! Vous mangez pas beaucoup!

(You girls don’t eat much!) 

He explained that that was why he had been giving us such small daily portions. An image of our fridge, home to scores of wilting green leaves, flashed through my mind.

Anyway, I’ll bring you some more tonight! Bon après-midi ! Conversation over.

I smiled weakly, the light surely gone from my eyes. What could I say but, merci. C’est très gentil. 

Sometimes, guilty, we do make a salad: a task which typically involves the setting free of a live snail or two. Open the window, set it on the ledge, send it on its way.

Last week we found a slug.

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The upside is that salad has become our measuring stick, a real source of motivation. If we’re waffling about going out and doing something, we put it to the salad test. Okay, we either get ready now, catch the 6:56 bus, or we stay here and eat salad. 

That’s usually enough. We’re running to our rooms and scrambling for our coats in no time.

The lettuce thing represents just one of the many little misunderstandings that are bound to happen, when you think about it, when you put together a traditional French man in his seventies and two lively American girls in their early twenties.

In early October, when Mary moved in, he said to me one day: Vous vous entendez bien, hein? (You two get along well!)

Yes! I said brightly. We do! 

I know, he said flatly. I can hear you.

What he doesn’t know is that his two renters are often awakened from sleep in the morning by the sound of him sneezing. From downstairs.

The generation gap is impossible to ignore. I think we baffle each other. Monsieur C thinks, for example, that we hang out in cafés in an effort to meet boys. A 4 pm pot of jasmine tea with notebooks out for lesson plans…and we’re there to flirt? His interpretation had me scratching my head until I realized that, with his particular values and no-nonsense practicality, he probably just doesn’t understand why someone would pay for coffee and tea when you could make it at home. But his idea becomes even more hilarious when you consider that rarely, in any of the cafés I frequent, do I encounter someone under the age of forty.

In any case, I am a happy renter. The house is lovely (and rent is unbeatably cheap). It’s pretty, with big windows and bright orange shutters, surrounded by roses, vines, and well-fed cats. We have the main floor while Monsieur C lives in the lower part of the house that opens out to the back garden.la-maison

I am unaccustomed to having a landlord who is so…present, but Monsieur C is a thoughtful man in many ways. If he knocks on the door to talk about rent, it’s usually with a few clementines in hand. Tiens ! One for you, one for ta copine. He’ll give us a bag of chestnuts and tell us how to cook them, or leave us a couple of ripe pears.

He’s thoughtful, yes, but I can’t say niceNice is too tame a word for Monsieur C. He’s the sort of man surely described by his friends as a rascal. Probably, too, by his enemies, of which I’m almost certain he has at least a few.

He is always yelling merde! Or calling someone a con, then asking if I know what that means. Sometimes he drives me places, to the bank or insurance office, and he’ll slow down in the middle of the street to yell at a friend he sees. Passing drivers then might honk, and he’ll yell at them to slow down, but if he’s the one in a hurry he’ll yell some version of, hurry up, Grandma! to someone taking their time.

Yesterday he gave me a ride home from town–I was carrying a bouquet of flowers and trying to catch Mary on her 23rd birthday before she left for work–and as we passed a house a a few blocks away from home, he slowed down the car and gestured to a tree. You see that? You see that cherry tree? Ça c’est un beau cerisier, ça. 

It wasn’t the innocent observation of an avid gardener. Monsieur C proceeded to tell me a story. He had once asked the man whose garden it was to let him have a branch, start his own cherry tree. The man refused. I offered to pay him, Monsieur C said, and he still said no! He wouldn’t take my money! 

So what did he do? One night, around three a.m. as the man slept, Monsieur C crept through the fence, snipped off what he wanted from the cherry tree and roared off in his car.

I laughed, incredulous. So did you leave him a bit of money in exchange? Ben non ! He didn’t want it.

So this accounts for that tree in our backyard…probably the most dramatic cherry tree story since George Washington.

All’s fair in love and gardening, apparently.