Let’s Do Lunch

What a pleasure it is to be invited for lunch in France. These Wednesday afternoon (traditionally “off” days for school children) or weekend meals begin with drinks around noon and last well into the 4 o’clock hour, and are even more luxurious when held on the terrace of one’s garden. I might not be a garden- or home-owner myself (yet!), but the next best thing is having friends who are.

My choir bestie Annie, a gourmande for traditional french cuisine, has had quite a time coming up with vegetarian recipes for us to eat when I’m around. Each meal is a surprise and an adventure in one. We nibble on nuts or crackers while drinking our first glasses of cider or wine, then move on to an hour’s worth of entrées and main dishes. We’ve nommed our way through tomato tartes (reminiscent of southern tomato pie, but with decidedly less cheddar), veggie pizzas and lasagnas, stuffed roasted red peppers, and sweet potato soups. A natural pause in the conversation is the perfect moment to bring out the cheese board and homemade bread, and is also when I usually loosen my belt. Desserts and coffee come next, of course, and a quick shot of farm-fermented calvados (for health purposes) revives us for our promenades around town. We always stroll down the local trails, visit nearby châteaux, trespass on neighbors’ property to pet their horses and donkeys, and generally do whatever it takes to work up just enough of a second appetite to return home for a cuppa.

Strolling through a nearby village: Agon-Coutainville.

Strolling through a nearby village: Agon-Coutainville.

This past Wednesday, Annie and I laid in the garden hammock digesting while the clouds floated above us. Following Annie through her giant English garden always reminds me of walking around my grandmother’s backyard. She died when I was ten, but one of my favorite memories of her is the way she would guide me around the backyard, reminding me of the names of all the flowers, popping touch-me-nots, and watching critters flit around the nearby woods. Annie is a lot like her. She lets me attempt the French names of her beloved flowers, then quietly corrects me when I ask for help. She’s just lovely. 

After a few hours dozing in the grass, we sat around the teapot and said our goodbyes for the summer vacation; I’m heading back to the States tomorrow for six weeks en famille. It will be wonderful to be back home, of course, but I’ll sure miss the friends (and meals) I’ve made here.

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.

Great Expectations: Frequent Disappointments

For several weeks, I’ve been anxiously awaiting the arrival of the U.S. Consulate at my high school. Well, they came, they saw, and they rolled out before I even had time to pledge allegiance to the Consul’s flag pin.

Here’s the background: About 45 high schoolers from around the world are chosen each year to participate in a month-long conference in the U.S. that will remain unnamed on this blog. (Hey, I don’t want to get sued.) It’s a fascinating project that allows globally-minded leaders to get together to discuss current issues while getting a free summer trip to the states. Some kids at my school were tapped to take part in the application process, which includes a tête à tête interview with the regional American Consulate. These kids have to be not only engaged individuals with top grades and legitimate reasons to want to experience American culture, but they have to be able to express all of that in the program’s lingua franca: English.

So we’ve been practicing. I took some extra time the past few weeks to ensure that the seven candidates knew how to conduct themselves in an American-style interview (snappy business casual attire, shake hands instead of chest-bumping, etc.) and express their main points clearly (keep the main thing the main thing, don’t quote Breaking Bad unless absolutely relevant, etc.). By the day of the Consular visit, they were shaking like leaves on so many proverbial trees, and they were totally ready.

So the Consulate (which consisted of two people) showed up at about 9 AM and started meeting the candidates. I stood outside the interview space and acted as moral support the whole morning as each kid hyperventilated on his or her way through the door. As per usual with anything on a tight schedule, the interviews went waaaay over time and we were rushing to get the meetings over so the visitors could get to their next engagement- a conference on Franco-American relations with about a hundred of the high school’s seniors.

This “conference” ended up being a recitation of literally every single link between the US and France since 1776, facilitated by the worst Powerpoint presentation I’ve ever seen, followed by a blanket “thank you” by the Consul for everything France did to help make America da best kuntrie evarr. I was pretty disappointed. It was probably relatively interesting to the students, who hadn’t heard it all before and are likely less OCD than me about how images should be centered on slideshows, but for the cynics in the room, it was mostly disappointing, and felt more like an advertisement for the U.S. than a spontaneous exchange of ideas about international relations.

I was still hopeful, though, and incredibly psyched to be invited to a private lunch meeting with the consul, the school principal, and several other English teachers. I’d looked forward to it all day while I was standing outside waiting on other people and giggling through the American study abroad advertisement. Unfortunately, a bunch of other profs gatecrashed and basically made it almost impossible to speak to the consul or anyone else at the luncheon. I know I have some weird pet peeves, but it was beyond my intercultural abilities at that point in the day to empathize with the insane rudeness of inviting oneself to a private meal. Beyond that nonsense, we weren’t there just to nosh and chitchat, but to debrief on the students’ interviews and provide further details so that the consul could eventually make the decision for which kid will get to go on the trip of a lifetime.

I. Couldn’t. Even.

Meh. It was certainly an exciting day, and a very successful one for the students who worked tirelessly to prepare for it, but less than wonderful for the poor little English Assistant who had hoped to schmooze with the Consul so her pending State Department application would be well received. Let this be a lesson to us all. Or, at least, those of us who tend to get overly excited about events that have nothing to do with us.

Les Petits Bonheurs

While reflecting more about being blessed/lucky and the contentedness that I felt when listing out the reasons I have to be happy earlier this week, I decided it would an interesting exercise to actively document my happiest moments for the next month. Anyone who has a tendency toward anxiety or depression knows that it can sometimes be basically impossible to see the wonderful things about life that are right under your nose. Personally, I’m a heck of a cynic even when I’m not feeling low. It’ll be hard, but I’m hoping that writing down a positive moment or little blessing each day will remind me to be more appreciative of my world.

A quick Google search for “happiness counter 30 days record” led to tons of websites that invite users to upload testimonies and photos about the happy little things in their days. I won’t be using an official site; rather, I’m simply going to keep a computer file of mini-journals and photos to keep track of my own assignment.

Would you be interested in reading or even participating in such a challenge? Again, these daily entries will be very short records of at least one thing that made me smile during the day. Let me know in the comments below if you think I should make the most notable moments public by writing them on this blog!

Appreciating It

My apologies for the lack of posts lately! The days pass so quickly here, and sometimes it’s all I can do to get half of the day’s to-do list crossed off within twenty-four hours. 

Three weeks ago seems like yesterday, and weekends are a total blur. Some of the other assistants have begun counting down the days to our next vacation (which begins March 1st) and even to the end of our work contracts (April 26th). I’m quite conscious of the fact of tempus fugit, and I can’t imagine anything worse than this time ending so soon!

My problem is with individual days. I don’t want May to come so quickly, but I frequently find myself wishing for 11 PM so I can dive into bed. I wake up in the morning with a groan and a violent smacking of the snooze button, and I majorly stress over getting things over and done with during the day. Basically, sometimes I forget how good I’ve got it.

I’m living the dream!

I don’t even mean the dream of living in France-just the dream of living.

I have a family that loves and supports me, even from a few thousand miles away. I received an affordable university education that is recognized throughout the world. That lovely warm bed I’ve mentioned is there for me every night, along with multiple boxes of tea to choose from each morning. I have change in my wallet that allowed me to pick up the medications I needed last week at the neighborhood pharmacy. My eyes see (thanks to LASIK), my ears hear, and my tongue tastes the delicious food that fills my fridge. I have trouble deciding what to wear from my closet full of clothes. I’m twenty-two years old with the world at my feet and a million possibilities for the future.

You get the picture.

I’m going to try to do a little less worrying and a lot more appreciating in the next few weeks. It’s easy to savor vacations and parties, but remembering to be happy through the beautifully average days is just as important. I think it’s something we could all manage to work on.

 

 

What I’m Thankful For

Happy [day after] Thanksgiving!

As cheesy as it sounds, the best part of Thanksgiving really is being with loved ones. For many people, including myself, Thanksgiving is the only occasion I have to see most of my extended family during the year. Though it can occasionally be a little awkward to make conversation with the third cousins whose names I absolutely never remember, it’s still great. Plus, I love having an excuse to doze on the couch and watch a Law And Order: SVU marathon with my brother, pretending to help my parents in the kitchen, and taking the time to listen to my grandparents’ amazing stories.

So of course, I knew it would be difficult to be away from my family for the holiday. Luckily, I’ve formed a pretty wonderful family of friends in Normandy, and we managed to have a perfectly fantastic Thanksgiving all by ourselves. Two Americans, three Brits, and one Spaniard came to my apartment for an all-afternoon feast, and it was far more successful than I could ever have imagined.

Taking a page from my dad’s book, who has always taken great care to slice my toast diagonally before transferring it to the final plate, I went for decoration as the key to the meal’s presentation. I spent the whole morning spiffing up my apartment with my meager supplies and making the eensy kitchen suitable for a dinner party.

Each person had their own hand-drawn place setting.

Each person was greeted with their own hand-drawn place setting.

As previous posts have detailed, I’m no cook and have certainly never prepared a Thanksgiving meal, but the other two Americans and I took on the chief roles of organizing the menu for our almost-not-quite-traditional dinner. Confronted with the task of creating classic American flavors with French ingredients for a mostly vegetarian group, I’d say we did pretty well. We stuffed our faces with a meal for the record books: the aptly named stuffing, sweet potatoes with goat cheese gratin, melt in your mouth brussels sprouts, green bean casserole with mushroom sauce, fluffy mashed potatoes, caramelized sweet onion pastries…the list goes on.

The closest thing to fitting it all in one picture

The closest thing to fitting it all in one picture

It was nearly impossible to save room for dessert, but we managed to suffer through it. We spent several hours laughing around the table, telling past Thanksgiving stories and sharing jokes between sips of mulled wine. As everyone waddled to the door with their belts loosened and pants buttons popping, we decided that a reunion Thanksgiving dinner would have to happen in the future, no matter where we all may be living at the time.

Pumpkin, chocolate, and apple pies being cut simultaneously by professionals

Pumpkin, chocolate, and apple pies being cut simultaneously by true professionals

As I fell into bed shortly after midnight, having named my food baby (Patata) and planned her entire future (pastry chef and freelance caterer to the stars, married at 28 to a veterinarian with 3 cats), I couldn’t help but smile. The days of preparation were completely worth seeing the non-Americans taste their first bite of pumpkin pie. This year, even though I can’t be with my blood family, I’m thankful to have found a group of people with whom I can share some of the best things in life: food and friendship.

The best part: the Black Friday leftover sandwich

The finale: the Black Friday leftover sandwich, featuring French baguette

A Life in Ten Words or Less

NPR recently posted an article calling for all expatriates to submit their personal 10-word (or less!) statements on life as an expat. Of course, I sent in my sentence last night. You can check out the original post here.

Being the occasionally wordy writer that I am, ten words was a hard limit to stick to. Even more difficult was picking just one sentence to submit! Did the all powerful gods of NPR want profound or pithy; pop-culture specific or romantically vague? 

But what’s the point of managing your own blog if you can’t change the rules a little?  I thought it would be a nice exercise to limit myself to some one-line sentiments of life away from the States, and specifically of my day-to-day world in France. 

Here’s the brainstorm list of my ideas here, along with some photos from the past few weeks that I haven’t gotten around to posting yet.

The more alone I am, the more comfortable I feel.

I lie about never having tasted local delicacies so I can try them again.

Thursday drinks with the assistants

Thursday drinks with the assistants: my apologies for the iPhone picture.

I listen to This American Life when I’m homesick.

Aluna George concert

IS Tropical in concert

Jaywalking is my personal rebellion. America=freedom.

When no one knows my past, I create a new one.

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Roaming

If coffee is my lifeblood, then baguettes are my bones.

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Clouds and Light at the American Cemetery

I’m beginning to think in French.

Naps on top of radiators are a dangerous but cozy necessity.

Church seats in Caen

Church seats in Caen

And the final one:

Headphones on: This American Life and Sweet Home Alabama loop.

What do you all think? Could you reduce your daily life into ten words or less? Let me know in the comments!