Coastal Touring

One of the coolest things about traveling is the rare experience of meeting people who are both wonderfully proud of their region and interested in welcoming outsiders. These odd breeds act as the best sort of travel guides for people like me, and I’ve had the luck of meeting quite a few here in Normandy.

A few weeks ago, one of my favorite such tour guides invited several members of the crew to spend the weekend at his parents’ cabin in Portbail. Rather than drive directly to the village just 45 minutes away, he took us on a six-hour road trip hugging the coast of Northwestern France. 

Tucked into one of those go-carts that the French have the gall to call “cars”, we puttered to Cherbourg for a midmorning coffee, then continued on, singing along to 70’s funk and unfolding ourselves out of the car every few kilometers to line up on a different beach and stare off into the distance. 

A fellow traveler

A fellow traveler

I collected shells beside the tiniest port in Europe and stood at a safe distance from cliffs with names like “The End of The World” and “The Nose of Jobourg” (no word on who Jobourg was or whether his schnoz really was the size of a small peninsula). My tour guides force-fed me steamed mussels after they were collected steps away from us on the Omonville beach (not really worth breaking my vegetarian lifestyle for it, but an interesting cultural experience, nonetheless) and we washed them down with peach liquor.

The Portbail sunset.

The Portbail sunset.

By the time we finally reached our destination, we had just enough time to go on one of the bigger grocery-shopping trips of my life and start cooking before the sun went down. Half a dozen of us sat outside and passed around guitars while the more culinary-inclined barbecued up a feast. We noshed and sang for hours upon hours. Around 5 in the morning, as the sky lightened and everyone else was still jamming along to French classics of the 1960s, I finally waved my white flag and crawled into the cabin loft for a few hours of rest before we started it all again the next day.

Across the magical frontier of lower Normandy, where all the inhabitants seem to be on permanent vacation time, I had a ball. It’s wonderful to have friends who have taken it upon themselves to show me their wonderful country. They are proud of where they come from and happy to show it off, and I’m tickled to be able to see this world through their expert eyes.

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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.

 

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.

30 Days of Happiness: BIG Announcement!

A very exciting, very happy thing has come to my attention:

Kaycee En Route has 101 subscribers.

Never did I imagine that this little travel blog, created to assure my parents that I hadn’t been kidnapped while studying abroad, would be read by anyone other than my family. I’m pretty pumped about the fact that over a hundred people have elected to receive an email every time I post. Thank you so much for taking the time to read about my daily life as an expat and validate this crazy thing I put into the cosmos.

Writing for you all has turned my head into a constant brainstorming center for interesting posts, but it’s also become a fabulous way to organize and reflect on my personal thoughts. For the past two years, this blog has talked me down from a few mental breakdowns, encouraged my creativity, and been a happy reminder of all the friends, family, and complete strangers who support me. Even though we may not interact as much as I’d like, thank you again for being there, staring at your computer, and reading.

Merci mille fois et grosses bises à tout le monde !

 

 

 

 

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.

Bon Appétit: My American Lunch Experience

Happy Tuesday, dear Bon Appétit adherents!

For those of you who didn’t have the pleasure of knowing me as a child, I’ll first mention that I was  precociously decisive in terms of taste an insanely picky kid with no tolerance for anything with a sauce, cooked in a casserole dish, or green. I could survive for months on end on cheese roll ups and Frosted Cheerios. This was not the fault of my dear mother, who did everything she could to prevent my dad’s insufferable eating habits from rubbing off on me, but all my own. Sorry, Mom.

Add in the fact that I spent my entire adolescence running from one activity to the next like that proverbial beheaded chicken, and my high school lunch experience was probably somewhat atypical. Almost every single day, for four straight years, I ate a mini bagel with plain cream cheese, a bag of Bugles chips, and a can of Barq’s Root Beer. These foods could be grabbed quickly by bypassing the “hot lunch” line and going straight to the central vending machine area of my cafeteria, therefore allowing me to use my twenty-minute lunch break as “efficiently” as possible. (And I wondered why I started spontaneously passing out midway through senior year.)

Once again, not my mother’s fault or the fault of my school. I attended a private, religious K-12 school in an affluent part of L.A. (Lower Alabama, that is). The school cafeteria always offered a hot meal, though most kids went for the hamburgers, french fries, and chicken sandwiches that were on offer every day, or brown bagged it. Bags of chips and soda or sports drinks were the usual sides. My brother, for instance, was perfectly happy to eat the Pizza Hut that our school had delivered in bulk every day. Not the healthiest of foods, but at least he was getting in the necessary calories.

Kids don’t really have the choice to be that difficult here in France. Take a look at any restaurant menu, and you’ll notice a distinct lack of a kids’ section. If one does exist, you won’t see grilled cheese or chicken nuggets; you’ll find smaller portions of the kitchen’s regular dishes. People might have a preference for certain types of cheeses or other very specific tastes (i.e. I don’t like mustard), but I have yet to meet someone with the wide-ranging “pickiness” that so many American children have.

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Entrée: grated carrot and apple salad with vinaigrette
Plat Principal: puff pastry filled with rice, spinach, and egg; green beans and various veggies
Fromage: camembert and an apple
Dessert: applesauce topped with meringue

Today’s lunch was about as far from my high school experience as possible. I’m proud to have graduated from my mini bagels. From the salad dressing to the (heaven forbid) touching ingredients in the puff pastry and the slimy mushrooms, this meal would have been absolutely off limits not so long ago.

Let me know what your usual school (or work!) lunch is in the comments below, and don’t forget to read the questions that were posed under yesterday’s post!