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.

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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.

 

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!

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!