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.

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.

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.

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.