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!

30 Days of Happiness: Week 1!

Thanks so much for your input on the 30 Days of Happiness plan I proposed last week! Several of you seemed keen on reading about this gratitude challenge, so I’ve been taking daily notes and reflecting on the most meaningful parts of each happy moment all week long.

Without further ado, here’s a quick list of some of the things that made me smile in the past week:

Sunday, February 23: first time visiting the public pool with Virginie and Cristy. For a few euros, we had the distinct pleasure of trying out the lane pool, the kiddie slide, and even a delicious sauna and steam room for a couple hours. More importantly, we got to count how many males were wearing smaller bikini bottoms than me.

Monday, February 24: Cristy and I went on a walk along the river, and for the first time since forever, I was able to shrug off my jacket and enjoy the beautiful weather sans manteau! Spring is fighting hard to reach Normandy.

Wednesday, February 26: In an improvisation exercise with my secondes, I reached a personal goal of making the students think their English teacher might actually be insane. Teaching is great; classrooms make the perfect captive audience for this theatre-loving lady.

Friday, February 28: Last school day before the two-week winter break! One of the English teachers and I have become such brain twins that we are able to conduct an entire class, complete with songs, jokes, and choreography, without any preparation at all. Basically, we just goof off and the students respond with blank stares.

Monday, March 3: I ate the most delicious pain au chocolat aux amandes (chocolate croissant with roasted almonds) while walking in town this afternoon. There’s nothing like running errands with powdered sugar down your shirt.

 

Thanks again for your comments on this idea. Taking a few moments every night to scribble down the day’s highlights has made me immediately aware of my own tendency to dwell on the negative and my need to think positive! Feel free to take the 30 Day challenge with me, and tell me about your own happy moments in the comments!

Bon Appétit: The End Of The Meal

We have finally reached Day Five: the final day of our Bon Appétit series here on Kaycee En Route.

If you’ve made it this far with me, I congratulate and thank you! Seriously, it means a lot that so many of you have come back day after day to read and comment on this project.

This week, we’ve seen that the French live up to their stereotype of taking long, luxurious breaks for multi-course meals, even in school cafeterias. Old-fashioned dishes are still far more common than quick sandwiches and the like in the country of haute cuisine. Even though fast food has officially invaded France and obesity is slowly increasing across the country, the French still manage to be some of the healthiest people on the planet by staying loyal to their tradition of taking the time to enjoy real food.

Children learn that spending time with friends in communion is a vital part of every day. Students sit down to small round tables and face their classmates. They pick up real silverware at the front of the lunch line and serve each other from pitchers of water, the only beverage offered to the kids (teachers get wine and coffee, too). The setting and presentation of the meal is nearly as important as the food itself. All of these details add up to a more familial experience, teaching young Frenchies that les petits bonheurs of life really do matter.

As far as the content of the actual plates is concerned, your grandmother was right to say “In all things, moderation”. The majority of the dishes you’ve seen this week have been fresh, locally sourced vegetables and grains, but they were usually swimming in a fair amount of butter. (Keep in mind, everyone else’s plate had some form of meat, as well.) All but the strictest of dieters take a dessert every day. The French enjoy their meals-they don’t feel guilty about eating delicious food or taking the time out of their workday to do so. By allowing themselves that break, they will be happier and the rest of their day will be more productive. They take just as much time to walk around town with friends, spend time with family, and profit from all of the best of life, thereby maintaining a more positive state of mind and overall health. The perfect adjective for the meals and lifestyles that are promoted in France is equilibré: balanced. 

Here, it seems like you really can have your cake and eat it, too.

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Entrée: clementines
Plat Principal: mixed vegetables in soy sauce and multicolored rice
Fromage: brie and an apple
Dessert: coconut cake

In honor of the Chinese New Year, today was Vaguely Asian Day in the cantine. Yes, it looks as though the school must have gotten a great deal on carrots this week, but I really don’t mind. The rice was a wonderfully flavorful departure from my usual pasta, and the soy sauce was enough to stave off my Japanese-food-detox shakes for a few more weeks. More important than the food, though, was that I took the advice from the French and savored every moment. I spent a full hour sitting in the cafeteria, listening to my colleagues gossip about students and stacking each finished plate onto another with that satisfying little *tac*. After I pushed my chair back and wished the group an enjoyable fin de repas, I joined my fellow English teachers in the staffroom to sip on our usual tea like the geeky Anglophiles that we are. In the end, it’s less about the dishes served and more about the enjoyment of the most mundane of things: a meal among friends.

Again, thanks for taking the time out of your day to read this series. I hope you enjoyed it, and t’hesite pas to send me any suggestions or questions in the comments! And of course, don’t forget to take a moment to do as the French do and enjoy a bite with loved ones today; whether you include the camembert is up to you.

You Can’t Win ‘Em All

I missed my train.

I fell off my bike.

Twice.

In front of my students.

 

Nothing that couldn’t be cured with homemade cookies and a French movie musical marathon with friends, but still, not the best of mornings. Sometimes I have to remind myself (and my family and friends back home) that this is real life and it’s possible to have bad days even while “living the dream” in France. This isn’t a vacation, this is my real world, and even though most days are beautiful and I’m still enamored with the Normande way of life, it’s not always quite so Disney as it seems. There are days when I don’t feel like getting out from my cozy bed, days when there’s no food in the fridge, and days when I miss my train and fall off my bike. Twice.

Essentially, living here is just like living in the States. Except it’s France.

Wow, Kaycee, you’re such a good writer. You should do a blog or something.

In the meantime, I can now highly recommend that you make your own potato-chip cookies by adding classic Ruffles to your favorite sugar cookie recipe, crack open a bottle of wine, and watch The Umbrellas of Cherbourg the next time you feel down. I’m no doctor, but I’m pretty sure it’s a scientifically viable cure for a rough day.

Here’s hoping yours goes better than mine.