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.

And The Prom Queen Is…

I’ve been 23 for three whole weeks and have yet to talk about what a great birthday it was!

My first birthday present was an official contract for my summer job as an assistante d’education at the same high school where I’ve been working all year. Basically it’s a glorified resident advisor/gopher/receptionist job for the school during the end-of-the-year rush and the summer planning for the following year. Not too exciting, but I get to work with a great team and stay in France for the summer, and that’s what counts for me.

Back to the birthday.

Kids came in to sing poorly-rehearsed, adorable versions of Happy Birthday in English all day, and some of my favorite students presented me with TAGADA fraises (my favorite French candy), a stuffed frog (significant because of my well-known inability to pronounce the word “frog” in French: grenouille), and, most touching of all, a birthday card signed by the whole senior class. I had to suck in a few deep breaths when I first saw all the signatures. I was just totally blown away to see the clear visual representation of all the people who took a moment out of their day to write me a kind word. I love those students.

That evening, the entire school threw a huge dance party for me! Actually, it just happened to be Prom Night. I fell right back to my Student Government roots of blowing up balloons and taking tickets, and I was tickled to see all the seniors in their fancy outfits. The students strutted into the gym, mostly in groups of three or four rather than couples. They took unsmiling (too cool for school) photos with each other, head bobbed to the DJ, and sauntered around outside smoking. I’m sure they all had a fabulous time.

Our super romantic prom photo

Our super romantic prom photo

As the kids loitered the night away, the rest of the assistants presented me with my own bouquet of beautiful flowers and a packet of delicious black tea big enough for me to possibly never finish. We even popped a bottle of champagne to celebrate.  If there’s one thing that I love the most about working here, it’s that my colleagues never let a possible holiday, birthday, or anniversary go by without toasting it.

Gotta love bright flowers

Gotta love bright flowers

After I announced the prom king and queen (whoever decided it was a good idea to give me a microphone and a captive audience of high schoolers clearly doesn’t know me very well) I decided it was time to take my leave. Claiming “Birthday Girl” status, I left the after-prom cleanup to the others and drifted across campus to my apartment. Snuggly in bed with my new stuffed grenouille, I decided that my 23rd was one of the best birthdays yet.

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.

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.

30 Days of Happiness: A Happy Gift for You!

Last night, I decided that simply telling you “thank you” for reading Kaycee En Route was nice, but not nice enough. You’re all wonderful people and I’m very grateful, so to thank you all for your support of my baby blog, I’ve decided to give you a present. Yes, a tangible object delivered to your door. How exciting!

Here’s how the present goes:

I wanted to make this contest as fair as possible for all of you to win, so I’ve entered each and every one of your email addresses (by hand, because I love you and I didn’t know how else to do it) into a random generator. Each address basically counts as one “entry” into my giveaway. Next, because I believe in the power of ambition, I’m going to give you the opportunity to comment below and earn yourself a second entry into the hat.

I’ll draw a name tonight, email the winner to find out his or her mailing address, and then send the prize!

I’m off to the train station to meander around Paris for a few days, so I’ll be sure to pick you up something très chic!

Bonnes vacances et à bientôt!