Two months without a post is a tad longer than I had anticipated. In order to remedy the situation, I am typing vigorously to provide you all with a glimpse at the current chapter of ma vie française.
Baguette: check. Fromage (Pont-l’évêque): check. Vin rouge (Côtes du Rhône): check. Let’s get to work.
As is typical with short-term séjours such as mine, just as one begins to feel settled into a routine, something new and exciting comes along to shake things up a bit. The routine, by early January, had been established.
Mondays I spend at the food bank Restos du Coeur, organizing shelves in the morning, distributing food in the afternoon, and socializing with my favorite French sexagenarians in between. Another bonus to the gig has been getting my picture in Le Parisien, the most widely distributed paper in France. Tuesdays are full of class from eight in the morning to six in the evening. Both arriving and leaving work in the darkness of a northern winter can certainly prove to be a bit depressing no matter how much I enjoy my students. The remedy lies in the remainder of the week. Wednesdays I am teaching two new classes in the morning, which means all the students are still wide eyed and fascinated by having a real live twenty-something American who weighs under two hundred pounds and dresses in cardigans and dark wash jeans standing at the front of their classroom. Captivated audiences make for nearly incredibly well behaved and attentive classes. Let’s hope I can keep that up. School gets out at noon on Wednesdays in France, which means I head to a café in Chantilly, a neighboring bourgeois ‘burb, to meet up with my three favorite Americans in Picardie for an afternoon of good chats, good reads, and my French press Colombia Supremo. This in conjunction with my daily boulangerie stop for a baguette ordinaire and a pain aux raisins may be the closest I’ve ever come to being a regular. Thursdays, I have some light work in the morning prepping students for their upcoming exams to graduate high school, then I stop by the conservatoire to continue doing little justice to Debussy but enjoying my time in front of the keys nonetheless. I’m then off to the library where I check out my French films and albums for the week, then the supermarket to prepare for the weekly Thursday night dinner party (I like to call it a party anyway) chez moi. There is always wine, there is always cheese, there is always a post-dinner salad, and there is always a pear or apple dessert. What comes in between has ranged from my bold and I must say quite successful attempt at Boeuf Bourguignon to Alpine tartiflette and some good old American corn chowder. Before you know it, it is Friday and the weekend is upon us.
That something new and exciting that is shaking up the routine enters here, stage left. That something is one of my favorite past times and what some friends have somewhat jokingly called my post-collegiate profession. That something is travel.
Berlin, Rennes, Mont Saint-Michel, Lille, Laon, Nice, London, Oslo, Lausanne, Geneva, Strasbourg. When I write down all the destinations plus the friends and family coming to visit and the many weekend happenings in Paris to fill in the extra space on the calendar, I realize that while I may just be a bit “overbooké”, the smile that has quickly swept across my face assures me that the next three months are going to be the best yet. I’ll still have time to read, write, and contemplate life in France, just more so on trains and planes than nestling into my bed by candle light. And I’ll still be able to enjoy the generosity of the French and their delectable cuisine, I’ll just have to invite myself over during the week more than on the weekend. Some sacrifices are most certainly worth making.
Here’s to more frequent blogging! With this short summary of quotidian concerns complete, I hope to be dropping a paragraph or two on various topics of interest until my time in France comes to a close at the end of April. Be on the look out! I’ll be writing again soon.
This weekend, after a few drinks and a bit of dancing, an American friend and I strolled past Notre-Dame before heading back home. There she stood as she has for centuries, magnificently lit, stoic and calm in the wee hours before dawn. It was a moment to realize how fortunate I am to be here, to realize that not everyone gets such opportunities. I live thirty minutes from one of the great capitals of Europe, I enjoy my work, and I have immense amounts of free time to pursue personal projects and goals. In the moments where I want to gripe about another French train strike, let me simply close my eyes to find myself walking over the Seine and past the great towers and arching portals of Notre Dame. Let me remember that I’ve truly got it good.
The past few weeks have brought many autumnal explorations of the City of Lights. Thanks to a city-wide bike rental system, I spent one especially sunny fall day zipping from Gare du Nord to Le Marais, along the Seine to the Eiffel Tower and up to Montmartre…all for less than three euros. Paris’ relatively small and largely flat surface area combined with tons of streets with dedicated bicycle lanes makes the two wheeled option a simple, delightful, and sensible choice. Riding a bicycle through the streets of Paris with a cool breeze in my face and my Ray-bans on is another lovely experience I will not soon forget. My many other adventures in Paris have focused on a couple arrondisements (quarters/neighborhoods) at a time – checking out a museum or two (with free entry to all thanks to my age and legal EU resident status), writing, reading, conversing and sipping a café crème or vin chaud at a street side café, lounging in one of the city’s many parks, and of course doing plenty of window shopping. And with every visit comes some small yet unexpected piece of happiness. The guys who play accordion on the metro – I love them! I want every metro across the world to be equipped with overweight French accordion players. It always brings a smile to my face. Little French children decked out from head to toe in clothes that cost more than anything that I own playing cache-cache (the adorable French way to say hide and seek) with their father – another smile and I am oh so glad I am in France. Paris is a city of neighborhoods, each with their own unique feel and yet each undoubtedly Parisian. With each new trek into town I find out a little more and realize that there is still much left to discover.
As for life in Creil (the town where I work and live) I have more or less settled into a routine of teaching, cooking (quiches, tartes and crêpes are so fun to make and so delicious to eat), tickling the ivories, hanging out with new friends, and telling myself I should be running more than I am to prepare for the half marathon in Paris come March. Some things take time. On the horizon, I will be starting to volunteer at a local soup kitchen on Mondays which I am hoping will be a way to get to know the local community a bit better and meet some more French people. I will be sure to report back on those efforts. My students continue to be entertaining and insightful. We wrote and performed skits one day in class and the thespians came out of the woodwork. The assignment was for groups of three to choose a city in the English-speaking world to visit and create a scene between tourists and a native. We had a full on Britney Spears impersonation as two French girls visited Los Angeles and plenty of inappropriate innuendos as two French boys scoured Miami. At least they are speaking English. One nearly unanimous sentiment amongst my students that at first struck me as odd was their distaste for France. As I regale my classes with my newfound love of French food and wine, they are prone to remind me that the United States, in their opinions, is a much better place than France and I would be smart to move back after my year long sojourn. Whether this opinion is just a product of my particular high school environment, a student population composed of nearly all 1.5 or 2nd generation immigrants, is not yet clear to me. The extent to which my students seem to believe in the American dream has also been a surprise. As an immigrant in France, most of my students don’t see too much room for upward social mobility which may very well be true. Who considers themselves French? Who is considered French by greater French society? Who roots for the French soccer team when they play Algeria or another former colony? The concept of French nationality is much different than its American counterpart for a myriad of reasons. Given my work last year with immigrant communities in the States, I am sure that in the future there will be some more well thought out comparisons and contrasts of the American and French situations from my limited point of view.
Since I know you really just want to hear about good food and beautiful vistas, I will share a bit about my ten-day trip to Southern Italy late last month chock-full of Epicurean delights. After three weeks of work, the French decided to let me go on holiday for ten days. I was not going to protest. I met my parents in Rome and we zipped down a speed train to Naples, then Sorrento, Pompeii, Capri, Positano, Amalfi, and Ravello. Naples was the closest I’ve ever seen to a South American city this side of the Atlantic – a city quite chaotic, immensely dirty, and quite riveting. Capri is an island full of villas and blooming gardens, all with the Mediterranean peaking into the background. Positano is a city built, as Steinbeck put it, on more of a vertical plane that a horizontal one, literally built into the side of a cliff. Ravello is perched atop a mountain, bathed in sunlight, graced with music, and amazes with its 270 degree vistas. Everyone around the Amalfi coast we found lemon trees and grape vines, terraced olive gardens and chestnut groves. My mother and I consumed more mozzarella and tomatoes than I had ever thought humanely possible in such a short span of time and dad joined us for the wine. The pizza of Southern Italy is as thin as paper and baked in a wood-burning stove. We ate one nearly every day. As for desserts, my good friends tiramisu and profiteroles was never hard to find and I met a new sugary companion, cannoli. My previous remembrances of the ricotta stuffed pastries did little to inspire; however, either my palate has changed or I finally found what cannoli should be – decadently creamy with a bit of crunch and a drizzling of chocolate – nearly irresistible. Be expecting some gorgeous photos of the journey to be posted here soon. They will not disappoint.
Before I let you go, let’s return to France for just a moment, shall we? One topic that has come up often when speaking with French people is health care in the United States and here in France. Everyone wants to know what is really going on with Obama, if the US system will begin to look like the French system, and what I opine on the whole situation. Representing the American opinion on any matter is a tall order, but especially one so vast as this. I try to do more listening than speaking. This past week, I had my first personal encounter with the French medical system and I think it is worth sharing. After contracting an itch that refused to desist from some not-so-clean Italian hotel linens I was forced to dive in headfirst and begin to manage the French health care system. I am a legal French resident with a long-stay work visa and therefore have the right to benefit from the public system here in France. Without holding any private insurance, my doctor’s visit and prescription medication should cost me a total of 2 euros after I am refunded. Now of course, I do pay for this with part of the 200 euros that comes out of my pay check every month, but it did my soul good to know that what I was receiving was available to every French resident and citizen regardless of socio-economic status. Did I have to wait at the doctor’s office for nearly three hours? Yes. But aside from that mild inconvenience, the process itself was little different from that in the States. Although this was only one small interaction with the French health care system and I am certainly not begging for more, it was an important one. When I or a foreign friend received medical attention in Colombia or Brazil it was in a private clinic or hospital that only certain people could afford to utilize. The thought would not have ever crossed our minds to utilize the public system that does exist there. Here in France I have used it and it has worked. It is good to see another way of doing things.
Finally, I would like to wish a happy Thanksgiving to everyone! Just as all of you, I have a lot for which to be thankful. This will be my third Thanksgiving abroad and although I am learning how to deal with it a bit better, it is still undoubtedly the worst day of the year to not be in the United States of America. Although I shan’t be able to partake in the turkey, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie on Thanksgiving day in Wisconsin with the Cheadle clan, I do have two Thanksgiving meals planned the following weekend – one cooked by a group of fellow American teaching assistants and the other by a French colleague of mine who is graciously making her birthday party Thanksgiving themed just for me. The obvious question is who will be capable of making the better all-America meal. I’m afraid that the French may just beat us at our own game.