There’s No Place Like It

Sometimes, going back home is harder than just staying where you are.

(For that matter, simply going anywhere can be difficult for this homebody. As much as I love traveling, I really hate getting out of bed.)

Besides the physical act of taking three trains and two planes about thirty hours to reach my hometown, visiting family is tough. Not because my mother and I don’t get along or because I have a bum for a dad, but because of the exact opposite. My parents are fantastic, loving, and always there for me. So why do homecomings sort of suck?

In between the cheerful family dinners and reunions with old friends, I go home and I cry. My parents make me cry. It’s not because they do their best to upset me, but because they ask the serious questions and push the buttons that no one else knows exist. An innocent conversation about the future suddenly produces uncontrollable waves of tears and BAM I’m crying in the middle of a Cracker Barrel, blubbering out incoherent fears and the particulars of a mid-life crisis at the ripe old age of 23.

In a WASP-y family where everyone is surprisingly stoic the majority of the time, I gasp out my worst nightmares until I feel cleansed of the emotions that have lain dormant since my last visit home. During those short weeks we have together, I ritualistically lay down all my troubles in front of my mom and dad, and they see the part of me that no one else is allowed to see. The worst. The ugliest. The rudest and most hateful. It’s not fair to any of us, but that’s the way family is. Family doesn’t necessarily bring the worst out in us, but, in the comfort of our own homes, we are convinced to let down our last defenses. The basic social graces that keep us from bursting into emotional flame in public fall away, and we become our simplest, most childlike selves.

Why do we act the cruelest to the people we love the most?

I guess it’s because they’ve known us the longest. If you’re as lucky as I am, your parents have seen you through thousands of diaper changes, puberty, broken hearts, and much more. They’ve seen everything, so we allow them to continue to see it all without fear of judgement or rejection. I won’t comment on whether this is a healthy or kind way to act, but merely state that it seems to be the case for me.

Still, one thing that’s worse than going home is having to leave again.

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Finding Family in France

Confession: I’m a choir geek.

I grew up on Solfege and considered sight-reading to be a fun afternoon activity. Most of my high school career was spent with my nose in a music score of one kind or another.

Professional choristers have no qualms about wearing all-black formal attire in any situation.

Professional choristers have no qualms about wearing all-black formal attire in any situation. The vast majority of my wardrobe is still entirely black.

For me, choir is home. I knew I would hate to go a year without music, so I set to work finding an ensemble as soon as possible when I landed in Normandy. More important than practicing the music itself, though, are the connections that are built out of that work. That’s why I’m so overwhelmed by the outpouring of love from the wonderful community choir I’ve worked with this year. On my first night at rehearsal, one of the ladies volunteered to carpool my car-less fellow assistants and me to rehearsal every week, and Annie has since become a great friend and one of the main reasons for my weight gain. Several members have invited us to the movies, fishing, to family meals. They were sweet enough to organize a little end-of-the-year party for us just before the other two assistants left France. 

These choir members, mostly retirees, have become like extra grandparents for me in a time when I really miss my “real” family. Yes, it’s cheesy, but music truly does seem to bring people together in a way that nothing else can. We spend our not-so-professional rehearsals giggling through difficult German pronunciations and kissing each other on each cheek. We seem to spend just as much time at our concert after-parties as at the concerts themselves. And, boy, can those retirees party! I’m usually the first to conk out at evenings where I’m the youngest attendee by 35 years.

No, it’s not the most talented choir I’ve ever been in, and lord, do we have vowel issues. But spending entire evenings talking about music and memories makes it a blast. I love chatting with my altos and sidling up to the warbling tenors. Sometimes I feel far more at ease with these people of “a certain age” than those of my own generation, and at these rehearsals, I’m allowed to be my hyperactive, happy self.

These wonderfully welcoming people, and the music we’ve made together, have been a highlight of my year.

She’s Back…

I’m not going to give you any dumb excuses. Suffice it to say that life has gone on here in Normandy, and this poor little blog has suffered greatly. All I can say is that I am back and I will be doing my best over the next week or so to catch you up as much as possible!

When I left you in mid-April, I was finishing up my official time as an English Teaching Assistant. Even though my contract expired at the end of April (the beginning of the two-week Spring Break), I decided to stay on in an unofficial capacity until the end of the school year in July. I didn’t want to abandon my students right at the beginning of the exam period! Since then, I’ve given countless exams, eaten delicious meals with my favorite Frenchies, and even gone back to the States to visit family.

So here I am, the last of the assistants. Now working even fewer hours than I was before, my days have been filled with one-on-one tutoring sessions, late night walks, and, honestly, a lot of Netflix. I’ve had a bit of time to reflect on the year and get in some solid naps. Now, it’s back to work!

The Best (and Worst!) Days of Foreign Language Learning

Every study abroader and expat knows the struggle: You work for years in school studying the language. You get to your “host” country and no one understands a word you’re saying. You study harder. You watch films and practice your new gestures in front of the mirror. You fail at a lot of conversations. You occasionally resort to miming. If you live in a larger city, people try to speak English to help you out. (pro tip: just keep responding in your language of choice until they get the hint.)

Then, the big day comes.

The day when you step on the bus, walk up to that shop counter, or encounter someone on the street, and they understand you. They’ll start out by asking where you’re from, or commenting on your “cute” accent, but then, one day, they’ll stop that, too. You can finally have a conversation with a stranger without mentioning your visa status.

Sweet, sweet victory.

For me, that day was when I asked for my usual Wednesday afternoon crêpe from the Touraine street vendor back in March of 2012, and he didn’t have to ask me to repeat my order. I still remember so many little moments in Tours like that one; fantastic encounters that lifted my spirits and made all of the exhausting work while studying abroad worth it.

That’s why we-the study abroad kids and the expats and the rest of this crazy group of world citizens-do it. We work and study and translate for hours on end and spend months not understanding the dinner table conversation for that one day when we can finally have a basic conversation with a stranger in a foreign language.

 

 

And then there’s that day when the jerk at the post office tells you your French sucks.

 

30 Days of Happiness: The Best Omelette You’ll Ever Taste

I came home from a workout earlier in the week and decided that eating everything in the fridge was a good idea. Behold, my mammoth tortilla omelette, inspired by the delicious Spanish tortillas I ate in Italy.

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You’ll note that there’s no tortilla bread in the photo. A traditional Spanish tortilla is not, in fact, the magical flat bread you use to hold your burritos together. Rather, it is a cake of fried potatoes piled high and held together with egg in a firm cornbread-like shape.

I started by frying two thinly sliced potatoes and some onion in a swimming pool’s worth of oil. After they were fully cooked and evenly spaced in the pan, I poured in two beaten eggs, added a handful of spring lettuce (this negates any unhealthiness in the rest of the dish), and piled on the emmental cheese for a bit of French flavor. I prefer my eggs runny, so I only cooked it on one side and ate it open-faced, allowing the top to remain deliciously wiggly.

And voila: a francophile’s take on the classic Spanish picnic food. This omelette was its own full meal, thanks to the potatoes. The crispy potato skins and slightly burnt onion bits added some texture to an otherwise basic breakfast. Seriously, I noshed down the whole thing in about five minutes and was painfully full but oh so very satisfied. Try it out and tell me what you add to make this dish your own. Buen provecho! 

Miming My Way Through Italy

Most of last week’s short trip to Italy is just a blur, quite honestly. Days softened into evenings and late nights as I traipsed through the streets with four of my fellow English assistants. Only stopping to tumble into a café or gelato shop when we were hungry, the hours melted into one unending day.

Each afternoon, we continued our unceasing stroll through the town called Salerno, about an hour from Naples. Confetti inexplicably filled the cracks of the cobblestones, like the beads that hang from New Orleanian phone lines year-round. Every night, we read books out loud to each other, one girl swiping through the pages of an e-reader while the others sipped from their wineglasses and snuggled together thoughtfully. We snacked on cookies and fruit in the afternoon, never minding the calorie content and whole-heartedly enjoying ourselves as we chatted and solved all of modern society’s problems. 

So there was obviously a lot of this.

So there was obviously a lot of this…almost every meal.

Southern Italians on the streets hollered, gesticulated, and stomped their feet to comment idly on the weather. I spent most of my time wondering why everyone was so angry with each other before I got used to the fact that we were just in Italy.

A fair amount of this.

A fair amount of this.

We trekked to the dark grey beach nearby, where the wind played notes on our beer bottles and whipped sand into every possible nook and cranny. It wasn’t exactly beautiful weather, but it was a heck of a lot better than what we’re used to in Normandy. We kicked off our boots and socks, and my tootsies saw sunlight for the first time since last September. 

Descending upon the port while our seagull drones complete recon.

The busses klaxon before going around each blind mountain corner, and there’s always a lady who makes the sign of the cross and kisses her crucifix necklace as all the other passengers lean into the turn. We spent quite a bit of time praying for our lives and our lunches on those wild bus rides.

When you see pack horses, you know you're in the country.

You know you’ve reached the countryside once you see pack horses.

A hike through the Sentiero Degli Dei  (literally the Path of the Gods) along the Amalfi coast provided some seriously gorgeous views. Italians have been farming and fishing against the steep, rocky mountainsides for thousands of years, and it shows from the moment you step outside. Modern graffiti painted on top of Medieval ruins stacked on top of Roman ruins-it’s everywhere. 

Becky and Stace are terrible people.

Becky and Stace are terrible people.

French civilization holds just as many claims to being “old” as Italy’s does (just look up the cave paintings of Chauvet and Lascaux), but this countryside seems so much more steeped in history than Normandy’s. These pictures absolutely do not do it justice, but I tried. 

We saw some nice views, or whatever.

We saw some nice views, or whatever.

There’s nothing like heading out of your comfort zone for a few days to get some fresh air, hear a new language, and eat obscene amounts of tomato sauce on carbs. Italy comes nowhere near France on my list, but you’ve gotta admit that it’s got style.

The #1 Way to Ensure Eternal Damnation

So, I may not have told you everything that happened during my trip to Paris last week. I left out a crucial part of my time in Sacré Coeur, and now I realize this story just can’t not be told.

Basically, I’m going to hell.

I lied to a nun, and I’m pretty sure that grants me a fastpass through the line to eternal flame.

Sister Jeanne Marie was so kind and welcoming when I first arrived at the basilica. She took down my name and showed me to my room, and as she glided along the hallway she asked my reasons for coming to the night of adoration. I told her that it seemed like a beautiful opportunity for meditation, and as I started to say more she stopped me.

“But, you’re catholic, yes? You believe in la présence réelle?”

I panicked.

She was asking me if I believed in transubstantiation, the catholic doctrine whereby the bread and wine of the Eucharist literally transform into the body and blood of Christ. Well, no. I’m not, and I don’t.

Images of being escorted out by armed monks filled my mind. Sleeping on a bench under a Parisian bridge was not what I had expected for the night, especially since I’d already paid 4 euros for the pre-mass breakfast. So, with imaginary sirens of Vatican police cars whirring in my ears, I did what I had to do.

I lied to Sister Jeanne Marie.

“Well, I was raised protestant, but I’m thinking of converting.”

A giant walkie talkie appeared out of nowhere, and the next thing I know this nun is calling a priest on what I can only assume was a Code Blue: Imminent Conversion case. Grasping my hand in both of hers, she urged me to spend the evening in prayer, and then scurried off to organize the troops for my initiation.

The next morning, Sister Jeanne Marie met me downstairs for a long discussion about my “conversion”. She was so sweet and excited I could hardly stand it. I tried to do what I could to soften my earlier statement and to say that I was “questioning”, but it was useless. I felt terrible (even protestant-raised agnostics generally try not to lie to nuns), but at this point it was impossible to stop.

It was going to take every bit of my 10th grade AP European History knowledge to get me through this one. Dates and names started flying out of my mouth as we discussed the schism, bible translations, and the traditions of the catholic church. She asked me if I had begun to pray the rosary, if I had been to confession, if I prayed with the saints. Trying to translate what mediocre knowledge I have into French and making it sound like I had actually been personally researching the topic was terrifying. I was winging the interview of my life, and it was very nearly disastrous.

I was super pumped when she asked me what I thought of the Virgin Mary, but apparently saying “I love her! What a fascinating icon of women’s strength and the inner goddess within a patriarchal society!” was not the proper response. Naming Joan of Arc, who is basically the definition of aggressive feminism, as an on-the-spot potential confirmation saint, didn’t seem to win me any points, either, but I was in survival mode and literally naming any saints I could think of by then. I vaguely recall quoting Latin excerpts from choral pieces at one point. The B.S. got that real.

Rising from her seat with a smile from one edge of her habit to the other, Sister Jeanne Marie gave me the phone number for her direct line and urged me to call her the next time I was in Paris. We walked together through the church, and she gleefully told me that the next step would be for me to discuss all of these things again with a priest. She escorted me right up to the confessional booth, where I paused just long enough to see her turn the corner before I hightailed it out of there so fast I bet not even Jesus saw me moving.

So there’s my story, the new #1 most awkward conversation of my life. Hopefully, publishing this post and doing good deeds for the rest of my life will keep me from eternal damnation, but if anyone else has a good idea of what I should do, I’m certainly taking suggestions. Clearly, I need all the help I can get.