Sunday, December 21, 2008

That man is spitting on the sidewalk…

...but it's okay, because it's France.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

I’m wearing brown boots, black leggings, and a brown top…

...but it's okay, because it's France.


All right, so here are some scenes from recent weeks, with no relation to each other other than that they all made me happy.

A few weeks ago, Emilia and I were making our regular Sunday market trip and we stopped at the stand that sells yogurt and fruit juice and such for really really cheap to check what they had that week. The younger man who works there happened to be in front of the stall arranging packages, so he helped us put our juice in our bags (carefully avoiding crushing my chèvre) and generally made himself useful. As we were walking away, we heard him say to his co-worker, “Those are the regulars – they come every week!” So we were happy to be recognized and to have somewhere to be “regulars”. I’m sure it doesn’t hurt that we’re young and foreign and female, either…

And another market vignette: two Sundays ago, Emilia and I were accosted (seriously, we were walking by minding our own business and they started yelling, “Les filles! Les filles! (Girls! Girls!)) by two young men selling cheese, wanting us to taste their wares. So we did, and they told us that it was very good with wine, as an apéritif, and that if we were having a party it was perfect. Then they gave us another one to taste, and said that they really liked it, so we should invite them to the party, and we were all laughing and joking, and the cheese was quite good, so I said I’d get some. One of them jokingly offered me the whole huge chunk, saying, “If you get this one, you’d have enough to invite us over for drinks…” and it was hilarious. I ended up getting a pretty big piece, and since I hadn’t looked at the price per kilo (which was probably their plan) it cost 11€. Cue heart attack, but then “for me” it was only 9€. Which was still a lot, but hey, I got a good story out of it, and Frenchmen make me happy. Then, last Sunday, they recognized us again and waved bits of cheese at us to taste, and we both said that we still had the cheese from last week, but they told us to taste it anyway, we weren’t obligated to buy anything. So we tasted, and they told us it would be good as an apéritif again… So we thanked them and said we’d be back the next week. Next time I’m going to check the prices, though – no more being distracted by flirting!

And, speaking of Frenchmen… A couple weeks ago a French guy invited me out with his friends, telling me to bring Olesya too because “nous sommes de méchants garçons – we are very naughty boys” and he didn’t want me to be all alone. The conversation ranged over many topics, including French stereotypes, American stereotypes, “prudish” Americans (I managed to convince them that not all Americans are uptight), Sarah Palin, history, philosophy, travel stories, and of course sex. We ended up going back to his house and staying there until 3 in the morning, because we were having so much fun. I was absolutely dead the next day, though, because 4 hours of rapid French conversation with older Frenchmen who are only too willing to take whatever you say the wrong way is exhausting. It was hilarious, though, and now he wants me to teach him English. So that’s fun.

And the best English mistake my students have made so far: Michèle is having her classes write surveys about things teenagers are interested in (music, fashion, movies, cell phones, etc), give the surveys to their class, and then analyze and present the results. So I’ve had to listen to dozens of presentations of survey results, some interesting and some not-so-interesting, and help her grade them (grading is hard. I appreciate my own teachers so much more now…). In the Seconde 10 class, which is one of her favorites, a student named Julien, who’s kind of the class clown, was giving a presentation about fashion. He said something like “Zees survey shows zat the testes of teenagers…” The first time he did it, I didn’t really notice, but then he went on to say a few more sentences involving the “testes” of 15-year-olds and it was all I could do to keep from bursting into hysterical laughter. I didn’t want to interrupt his presentation, though, so I didn’t say anything. By the end, I’d kind of forgotten, so we went on to the next presentation. However, the other students had obviously decided that since Julien’s pretty good at English, he knew the correct pronunciation, and at least two other students also said “testes”. By this point I wasn’t sure what to do, so I decided to ask Michèle after class. When I explained to her what “testes” meant, she was shocked – not a word she had learned in school, I guess. Anyway, the next time I saw the class she asked me to tell them. So I wrote “tastes” on the board and had them pronounce it, then wrote “testes = testicles” and explained that that’s how they’d said it in their presentations. Cue about 5 minutes of hysterical laughter from the whole class, including Michèle and me, and Julien blushing beet-red but still laughing as hard as everyone else. It was actually a really great way to break the ice between them and me a little bit, because we could all laugh together about something. And I bet none of them will ever mispronounce “tastes” again.

Finally, a story that sums up the biggest cultural difference between France and the US: My chorale sometimes has all-day rehearsals – the last one was from 10 to 5, and we must have spent at least 2 hours eating lunch, because this is France. Anyway, at rehearsal last Tuesday we were discussing the next all-day rehearsal, and someone suggested starting later, to which there was a general outcry of “But then we’ll only have an hour for lunch! That’s impossible!” Emilia and I just looked at each other, then burst out laughing. Oh, the French.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

A Day in the Life of an English Assistant

So, I just had a really good day, so I thought I’d relive it by describing it, which will also give you an idea of my typical day. Well, kind of typical. I only teach on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays, so this is a typical day 3/7 of the time (well, usually I’m slightly better-prepared):

I wake up at 6:15 (Thursdays are my earliest day), get dressed, eat breakfast (yum Weetabix and yogurt yum) and head to the school, a 7-minute walk away. It’s raining cats and dogs, it’s cold, I’m sleepy, and I have no idea if the activities I’ve prepared for today are going to work, because I thought of both of them the night before… So I'm a little worried. I head to the réprographie (photocopier room) to print out the activities and make copies. Just as I’m finishing, the bell rings for my 8:00 class and I have to race through the rain, into a building, up 50 steps, back into the rain, and into another building, fighting crowds of students who stop the entire flow of traffic to do the cheek kissy thing. Oh, the French. Finally I get to the classroom, where I take half the class up more stairs to the little room I’m allowed to use. I’ve prepared a role play about planning a vacation to South Africa, so I explain it to them (all in English) and most of them seem to get it. It goes pretty well with this half, so I begin to feel better about it. Then I take them back down to the room and pick up the other half, who are much weaker. It takes almost twice as long to explain what they have to do, and even then I have to ask one of the better ones to explain in French to the others (which is my way of avoiding speaking French myself). But everyone eventually gets it, and two girls in particular are really getting into it, so I ask them to perform it in front of the class. They do it really well, amid giggles, and everyone gives them a round of applause at the end. I teach them how to say “Yay!” or “Hurrah!” instead of “Ouais!” which they seem to like. Then I go back to the staff room to touch base with the teacher and tell her how it all went. She’s pleased because when she got the group back from me, they were already excited about English and really thinking in English, so my mood is rapidly improving.

Then it’s back to the réprographie to make copies of the superlative pages of my yearbook for my next class, at 10:00. This is the Seconde 10, the class that brought you teenagers’ testes. I haven’t ever had them as a group yet, so I have no idea what they’re like. I get half the class for the whole hour – I’ll do the same activity with the other half next week. I troop downstairs with them to an empty room, they all file in and sit down, and I ask them to say their names (even though I haven’t a hope of remembering them, except maybe Julien). I do a mini-presentation about American high schools (all they know about them comes from High School Musical, so they have a lot to learn) and then tell them about yearbooks and superlatives. I pass around my yearbook so they can see the baby pictures of all the seniors and the senior pages, which is fascinating for them – French high schools don’t do yearbooks. Then I give them copies of the superlative pages and they are absolutely enthralled. After a bit, I do some superlative grammar, and we talk about the superlatives – “What does ‘tardy’ mean? and ‘gullible’?” “You were most studious?” and laugh about them. I also have to explain what “truest Vermonter” means, which is hard, because “hick” is not a word that transcends cultures. Then I ask them to come up with superlatives of their own, and they think of some pretty good ones – sexiest, truest Norman, most likely to be a movie star, best-looking, etc. I’m actually disappointed when the bell rings, because I’m having fun. This class has become one of my favorites – there’s a really nice vibe between them and me where they quiet down and pay attention when I ask them to, but there’s room for some playfulness and gentle teasing (like when I told them I was in Scholars’ Bowl in high school… Have you ever had 11 French teenagers laughing at you? It’s an experience, let me tell you.) And even when they’re joking around, they’ll often try to do it in English, so I let them – for one thing, it’s funny, and for another, every word that they say in English is a little victory. A lot of them also understand my little sarcastic asides, so they laugh and it makes me happy.

Then back again to the réprographie, where I photocopy my little Thanksgiving blurbs for my next class and chat with Martine, who takes care of all the photocopy/transparency/equipment stuff and who is really nice. Then off to lunch in the cafeteria with the English teachers, which is always fun because it’s a whole table of language nerds and they like to ask me how to say things in American (I am the only American in the entire school, so I’m the ultimate authority – bwa ha ha ha ha). As I’m cleaning off my tray, Bertrand asks if I’d like to have a drink with him tomorrow night to help him with his English, which of course I would, so he invites me to his flat.

Up more stairs, to a class that I only see every other week, which is why I’m doing the Thanksgiving thing a week after the actual holiday. Apparently they were disappointed last week to not see me, so they’re looking forward to me today, which is always nice to hear. I ask them what they know about Thanksgiving, which always brings forth shouts of “dinde! turkey!” and I tell them that turkeys say “gobble gobble gobble” in English, which always gets a laugh. Then we do my Thanksgiving activity, which finishes with presentations by the students on the little blurbs I’ve prepared (Pilgrims, the first Thanksgiving, football, presidential turkey pardon, etc). I show the students how to draw a hand turkey, and one of them does so and shows it in his presentation, which is surprisingly touching. The last presentation is the turkey pardon, which is always hilarious, especially since I found a picture where Bush and the turkey have the same expression. This class is also nice – they’re up for anything and have good attitudes for the most part.

Back down to the staff room – by this time, the skies are actually blue, there are white fluffy clouds, and it’s much warmer out. I plan next week with a few teachers and relax for a bit. Then I have one-on-one work with older students to help them prepare for the big scary test at the end of high school – I have different students every week. One has an amazingly good British accent – a little on the Cockney side (I fink, etc) but very natural, so afterwards I ask him why and it turns out his parents are both English. So we chat for a bit, and I curse the fact that dating students is frowned upon, because he’s really cute.

Then I go back home, have a snack, and read one of my French books (they’re meant for teenagers, but I’ve spent the last four years reading classic French literature and I think I deserve a break) before going to the gym for a “barre sculpt” class, which is weights and such. It’s a good 20-minute walk to the gym, but that’s why Ipods were invented. Also it’s more exercise, which is good because France doesn’t really believe in low-fat food. After the class, I depart, muscles shaky but feeling good, and come back home, where I have another snack and write this blog post.

So that’s a Thursday – Mondays are much the same, Tuesdays I only have two or three classes in the morning and chorale at night, Wednesdays I go to the teacher-training college for conversation groups with student teachers (half in French, half in English so everyone gets to practice), Fridays I stay in bed until an embarrassingly late hour, Saturdays I do museums or shopping or walks, and Sundays I go to the market in the morning and the internet café in the afternoon. Life is good.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

My 33-year-old colleague is hitting on me...

...but it's okay, because it's France.

(First in a series, the idea for which came from my brilliant and talented older brother. Thanks bro!)


One of the American assistants, Keri, graciously volunteered to have a Thanksgiving gathering at her apartment (which she shares with an Australian and a Brit), so on the Saturday morning after Thanksgiving I got up early to make squash with orange sauce (no Thanksgiving vacation here, remember – I had 5 hours of class on Thanksgiving Day). I’d bought something vaguely resembling a pumpkin at the market the previous week, and it looked sufficiently orange and squash-like, so I thought it would probably work. I had to buy a vegetable peeler and a measuring cup (which of course only had liters on it, so some quick work with the converter on my cell phone was needed) and my professeur référent, who is amazingly nice, offered to lend me a casserole dish. Thus armed, I began the process of peeling, cubing and cooking the squash.
You will perhaps notice the three different stages that the squash is at: this was because my only saucepans are the ones you see in the picture, i.e. tiny.
So I had two pots going at once and still had to do it in three rounds. Luckily, I had music and Nutella for fortification:
My ill-equipped kitchen does not, of course, have a masher, so I used a fork.
So it wasn’t the smoothest squash with orange sauce in the world, but hey, it worked. After cooking and mashing for a while, I had enough squash and it was time to make the sauce. I’d bought potato starch instead of corn starch because the box was smaller, and come on, how many times am I going to use any kind of starch between now and April? Thanks to a conversation with my wise and wonderful grandmother, however, I knew that potato starch would work. I also only had granulated brown sugar, not having been able to find anything else, but I figured it would all melt and make no difference whatsoever. Finally, I didn’t have a juicer, so I had to juice the oranges with a fork. Despite all the modifications, though, the sauce eventually thickened and I poured it triumphantly over the squash. Time to stick it in the oven for a bit. 350ºF, my mother said. Okay, that’s 175ºC. Now, to set the oven temperature…
Do you see any temperatures on those dials? I didn’t either. So I set it at about 4, which is right in the middle, and prayed. Here it is, in all its warm, fragrant, orange-y glory:
Then there was the problem of transporting it to the party, which was about 10 métro stops away. I covered it with plastic wrap, wrapped it in towels, and gently placed it in the bottom of a shopping bag, haunted by visions of the bag giving way and splattering squash, orange sauce, and broken crockery all over the street. It made it successfully to the party, though, and took its place among the other delicious things that other assistants brought:
Here are the turkeys (yes, there were two – there were more than 30 people at the party):
Dindes, they’re called in French. And they say “Glou glou glou” instead of “Gobble gobble gobble”. Here’s my overly-filled plate:
See the very-obviously-straight-out-of-a-can cranberry sauce? That doesn’t exist in France – cranberries barely do, and certainly not cranberries in the highly processed and indescribably delicious form of canned cranberry sauce. So one of the assistants had her mother mail her a can of cranberry sauce, which totally made my entire Thanksgiving. I went back for seconds on cranberry sauce and nothing else, actually.

Finally, a picture that doesn’t begin to capture how full the apartment was:
I can tell you that in that picture, there is a Brit, an Australian, and a German, and just out of frame there are more Germans, more Brits, some Mexicans, a Columbian, and some French people just for fun. Conversations were held in English, French, German, and Spanish, and all in all it was an amazing party. I was impressed with the cooking that people had done (most people just brought bread or wine or cheese, but there were also mashed potatoes, two kinds of stuffing, green beans with ginger, cranberry sauce, pumpkin cheesecake, pecan pie, and a few salads) and with the multiculturalism of it all. The non-Americans were all curious about Thanksgiving, so it was fun to talk about that. Also, at any given moment at least three languages were being spoken, so language-dork Lisa was happy. Afterwards, I went home with leftover squash, so I could also continue the Thanksgiving leftover tradition by eating that for a few days afterwards. No hot turkey sandwiches, though, which I miss. Still, it felt enough like Thanksgiving that I didn't miss it as much as I thought I would. Yay expats!

Sunday, November 30, 2008

London, Part Deux

On Monday, thanks to Emilia, we took a “Royal London” tour from the same free tour company (the guides live on tips, but that way you can tip only as much as you thought the tour was worth, which I think is a lovely idea). We met at Wellington Arch:
Where everyone on the tour had to go around saying where they were from, so instead of just saying the USA I said Vermont, because Vermonter pride goes deep, and after the introductions a guy about my age came up to me and said he was from New Hampshire, so we bonded. It also turned out that he’d done cross-country, so he’d been to my high school numerous times to run on the trail. Which is pretty cool. And then, as we continued talking, I discovered that he’s a language assistant in France too – he’s in a suburb of Paris. So we talked about French kids and how obnoxious they are–I mean, how much we love them.

By this time, we’d gotten to Buckingham Palace, where we were just in time to watch the changing of the guard. Having seen it once before, I didn’t feel like fighting my way through the crowd of tourists to climb onto the railings, as I did when I was 18, so I took a few pictures from further away and listened to the band (which played the James Bond theme again!). Here’s the palace:
The Queen was not in residence at the time, which you can tell because her special Queen flag wasn’t flying. We did get to hear stories about various people who’d managed to sneak into the palace, including a drunk Irishman who wanted to talk to the Queen about his problems. So he jumped a fence, got into the palace, and proceeded to wander around, setting off so many alarms that the security guard thought the system had gone haywire and restarted it (I’m pretty sure he got fired after that). Somehow, out of the hundreds of rooms in the palace, the Irish guy found his way to the Queen’s bedroom, where she was sleeping the sleep of a contented monarch, secure in the knowledge that she had two personal guards posted outside her door at all times. However, one of the guards had gone to the bathroom, and the other, in classically British fashion, had spilled tea on himself and gone to clean it up. So plastered Irish guy is free to enter the Queen’s bedroom, open the drapes on her bed, and sit down to tell her all about his problems. All of which he does. The Queen, meanwhile, is being unfailingly polite, but pushing her panic button surreptitiously. No one answers, of course. After about 10 minutes, there’s that awkward pause when someone runs out of things to rant about, and the Irish guy takes out a cigarette and asks the Queen if she’s got a light. The Queen, showing admirable cleverness, says “No, but I believe my guards outside the door do – why don’t you go ask them?” By this point, bladders and tea spills having been taken care of, both guards are back, and they grab the Irishman as he comes out of the door. No harm done. He was taken for a psychiatric evaluation, and is now in some sort of institution, I believe, with the best crazy-person story ever. After that, I think the palace security staff had a few more rules about when they could take breaks…

Anyway, I managed to take a few pictures of the ridiculous fuzzy hats of the palace guards:
And another as they were marching past us at the end:
Unfortunately, as it’s winter, they’ve got their gray winter uniforms on, instead of the red summer ones. This happened the last time, too – clearly I have to plan my trips better.

We continued to walk around the palace, and got to another entrance, also guarded. This was our opportunity to act like classic, obnoxious tourists, so we did:
We made sure to thank him afterwards, though. And to not touch him, because if you do anything that interferes with their (very real) job of guarding the palace, they are perfectly within their rights to elbow you, nudge you, or poke you with the pointy thing at the end of their big scary gun.

Then, as we were walking to the next royal destination, we heard the strains of “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” floating towards us. Lo and behold, some Monty Python demonstrators holding signs saying “There is only ONE Palin” (referring, of course, to Michael Palin). I slowed down to sing with them, and then had to run to catch up with the group, so my picture isn’t very good:
Still, though, you can see the lumberjack and the Spanish Inquisition guy and all in all it made me really happy.

One final guard in a funny hat for your viewing pleasure:

Then we passed the WWII museum, which sounded really interesting but we didn’t have time to go to it. We did learn that we were standing on the famous War Room, where Winston Churchill hung out and made all those decisions during the war:
If you happen to have x-ray vision, you can totally see the room itself. If not, it just looks like a paving stone, and I apologize.

On our way to Big Ben, we passed this building, which made me think of my engineering friends again:
Clearly London treats engineers better than the US does – you get gilt lettering!

Then there was Big Ben, which is really rather impressive. It seemed really familiar and I was wondering why, and then I remembered the 3-D jigsaw puzzle that I did of it a long time ago… So the way to educate your children about architecture is to make them do 3-D jigsaw puzzles of all the famous buildings in the world.

And I lied – one more London official in a funny hat:

Then the tour was over and Emilia and I went in search of good fish and chips, which we found at a restaurant called The Rock and Sole Plaice (haha). I got cod, I think, and it was delicious. Somehow I managed to finish my entire huge plate o’ fried things, and thus fortified we headed back to Oxford Street and Uniqlo so I could have company while spending far too much money on that coat, which I had decided to get. Emilia approved of it, so I bought it, and it turned out to only cost £72 with a student discount (and when I checked the exchange rate, that was only $115. So I’m really glad I got it). It’s beautiful and warm and elegant and very very European and I love it.

That evening, Jenna and I thought about going swing dancing, but it was rainy and icky and I’d been walking all day, so we decided to stay in the dorm and go to a showing of Caramel, a movie that took place in Lebanon (I think) and is about a bunch of different women and their love stories and stuff. It was really good, and there were Lebanese pastries, so I was happy.

On Tuesday, my last full day in London, I decided it was time to really see the British Museum, not just pop in for half an hour like I had last time (the joys of free museums…). Also, Emilia being the fellow language dork that she is, she wanted to see the Rosetta Stone. So here’s me being a huge nerd.
And the grin on my face is not because I’m being photographed, but because I’m next to what is quite possibly the coolest language artifact in the history of the world, since it allowed Jean-François Champollion (who was even more of a language dork than I am) to realize that hieroglyphs were an alphabet, not just pictures, and to decode them. Here’s a close-up of the cartouche containing the name Ptolemy that first clued Champollion in to the nature of hieroglyphs:
Champollion read the Greek on the bottom of the stone and figured that the three inscriptions said the same thing, then thought that the word in the cartouche was probably a name, and matched it up with the Ptolemy he found in the Greek part. From there, he basically did a giant, really really hard cryptoquip to figure out the rest. Seriously, how cool is that? If I’d been around in the 1800’s I would totally have been a Champollion groupie. “Jean, mon petit chou, how do you say ‘love’ in Egyptian?” with much batting of eyelashes. Okay I’ll stop being a dork now. Sorry about that…

After looking at all the pretty statues, we went to the mummy room, which was awesome. There was a whole group of Japanese tourists, so taking pictures without giggling schoolgirls miming mummy poses was difficult, but I did manage to take a few. There was an exhibit of a mummy that had been unwrapped in the 1800’s in one of those parlor demonstrations that were all the rage for a while, so all the organs were neatly laid out and labeled in this little box. Here’s the uterus, apparently:
And the pericardium:
Just looks like wrinkled brown leather to me, but then again, I’m used to seeing my organs a few centuries fresher.

Moving away from the gross stuff (I’ll spare you the classic explanation of how to make a mummy, which everyone learned in third grade anyway) there was this beautiful beaded drape (restored – wouldn’t you like to have that job?) made to go over a mummy:
Mom, I think that should be your next beading project – ought to keep you busy for awhile!

Then we wandered through the Bronze Age section, where there were so many shiny things I could barely concentrate on one at a time. Just call me a magpie. Here’s a necklace thingy:
And an awesome shield that was apparently only decorative, because it would have been far too heavy to carry into battle.
Finally, there was a display with all sorts of pretty little rings with various motifs on them, including this one:
I couldn’t quite make out what the image was, so I read the description, which said that the phallus symbol was apparently a good luck charm. Whatever floats your boat…

After the museum Emilia headed off to do her own thing while I went to Westminster Abbey, having decided that I could afford to spend a ridiculous amount on one tourist attraction, at least.
Unfortunately, you can’t take pictures inside, so that’s the only photo I’ve got. After shelling out my 9£, I took the included audioguide and turned it on, to be greeted by the voice of Jeremy Irons. Yes, the audioguide to Westminster is read by Jeremy Irons. Happy, happy Lisa. It was a very good guide, too – lots of interesting facts, and they even had a few recordings of the choirboys singing that you could listen to as you walked around. I particularly liked the Lady Chapel because the ceiling was incredibly delicate and intricately carved. I also liked the memorials of various famous people – they’re all over the walls and floors because there are so many of them, so you’ll be wandering around and suddenly realize you’re walking over Dylan Thomas, or some such person. The Abbey also has a little garden, near the small cloisters, where people who work there actually live. How cool must that be? “So, where do you live?” “Westminster Abbey, actually. Perhaps you’ve heard of it?” I also got to see the coronation chair, where the monarch sits to be crowned – it’s nothing special to look at, really, because it’s made of wood and really old so it looks rather chewed up. For coronations they cover it with fancy cloths. There were lots more interesting things, but I can’t remember them and in any case they’d be more fun with photos, so you’ll just have to go to London and see it for yourself!

After the Abbey it was back to Goodenough for dinner and election-watching, which was phenomenal and amazing and really really tiring. Then back to home sweet France, which I had missed. I actually felt more like a foreigner in London than I do in France, I think because in London no one’s impressed that I speak the language, so I’m just the silly American asking stupid questions, whereas in France they’re all like, “Ooh, cute little American trying to speak French! I’ll be nice to her!” Anyway, it was a bit of a relief to be back in France. Also I missed baguettes. French carbs just taste so much better.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

These Brits are Crazy...

And now, the post you’ve all been waiting for: LONDON! The home of posh accents, guards in funny hats, and most importantly mint Aero bars. Seriously, those things are like crack. See, the original Aero was lovely enough – it’s just a chocolate bar, but the inside has bubbles in it, so it’s wonderfully light and if you’re patient enough to let it melt on your tongue it feels awesome. So then the brilliant chocolate scientists at Nestlé had the brilliant idea of putting minty deliciousness inside, and the mint Aero was born and quickly took up residence in a special place in my heart. And my hips. But I digress.

So I took the Eurostar to London, which was fun, although since it was dark I didn’t realize we were under the English Channel until we were already halfway through, and then it was just weird to think of the tons and tons of water above us. As soon as we came out my phone started buzzing, and I thought oh no, someone’s trying to call me and I’ll have to ignore it because it probably costs about 8 € a minute to talk on my French phone in England, but lo and behold, it was a text message from my French cell phone company telling me how much everything costs in England! So, while slightly creepy that they knew where I was, it was nice to know how much I was actually spending to communicate with people. It wasn’t too expensive, either, which came in very handy for coordinating with people. London is a big city, bigger than I really realized, and sometimes even a street corner is not an exact enough place to meet someone.

My lovely friend Jenna met me at St. Pancras and we walked to her room, which is in a kind of a dorm called Goodenough College. Apparently some nice man named Goodenough gave lots of money to have these buildings erected so students from any university in London would have somewhere to live. There are common rooms, a cafeteria, and even a pub, so it’s quite a nice place. Also it kind of looks like Hogwarts:
That’s the central courtyard, where there is a plaque honoring the time Her Majesty the Queen came to Goodenough. I found little inscriptions everywhere, actually, each one for a different year, each one commemorating Her Highness. Oh, the English and their Queen.

I arrived quite late at night, so we just chatted and then went to bed. The next morning, Thursday, I didn’t get my butt out of bed for a loooooong time, because the siren song of free Internet called and I was weak. So finally, after checking all my webcomics and reading all my blogs (ironically, the fact that I don’t have Internet at home in France makes me more likely to write blog posts, but less able to publish them) I decided to walk down to the main shopping area near Jenna. I took advantage of the fact that there are American-style pharmacies in England (France still hasn’t caught on) to buy mascara and cold medicine and candy bars and Ribena (mmmm blackcurrant juice), all in one handy store. Seriously, France, join the club and start some real pharmacies, instead of those tiny little places where everything is behind the counter and costs the earth. Then I found a little place to get a jacket potato (baked potato, for those across the pond) where the cashier thought I was German, for some reason. Maybe because I still had euros in my wallet, or because I’m pretty sure my brain was still in French mode so I bet my English wasn’t the greatest. Anyway, then I wandered along Oxford Street, window-shopping, and found this store called Uniqlo.

Uniqlo is a Japanese brand with nicely made basic clothing, including a bunch of cashmere. I’ve been looking for an elegant single-breasted black wool jacket, with no belt or pleats or extraneous details, for quite some time, and it’s been almost impossible to find. So when I saw my dream jacket on a mannequin, I thought, Well, it’s pretty, but it’s probably going to end up being either synthetic or prohibitively expensive. So I looked at the tag, which said 79.99£. The pound is no longer quite double the dollar, but it’s close, so I figured about $150. So I looked at the label: 90% wool, 10% cashmere. I tried it on. It fit perfectly, looked amazing, and was so soft… But $150! screamed the sensible part of my brain. Warm and fuzzy! screamed the reptile brain. So I put it back on the rack and decided I would consult with Jenna before spending half of my monthly food budget on a coat. By that time I was tired and hungry and cold, and it was raining (you’d think I would have vacationed somewhere where the weather’s actually better than Normandy, but no, I had to pick the one place that’s just as famous for rain) so I decided to go back home. Not having a transportation card yet, I thought I’d just walk, because it didn’t look like a long way on the map… Forty minutes later, when I finally got back to Jenna’s dorm, about all I could do was sit there and watch House episodes online. When Jenna got back, we had a nice relaxing dinner in the dining hall and I got to meet some of her friends, who are awesome. Then we went back to her room for tea and stayed up far too late chatting, because we’re girls and that’s what we do.

On Friday, my fellow language assistant Emilia, who was also visiting a friend in London, found a free tour of Old London, so we went to that while our respective hosts went to class. The tour was great, and given by a very handsome young Londoner named Alex, so we thoroughly enjoyed it. We saw a lot of places that would have been really neat to go into, like the Tower of London…
St Paul’s Cathedral…
the London Eye…
But our friendly guide informed us of the prices of all those places and we promptly decided that we could do without them. I think that since most of the museums in London are free, the other tourist attractions decided that they could charge exorbitant prices so as to ensure that tourists spend the same amount of money they would in a different city.

We walked along the banks of the Thames (I seem to have a habit of spending time in cities with rivers running through them – I like it) and this beautiful bridge came into view:
“London Bridge is falling down, falling down, falling down…” I started to sing, only to be told by a smiling Alex that the bridge before our eyes was in fact Tower Bridge, not London Bridge. Oops. This is London Bridge:
Not much to write home about, huh? London Bridge has the more interesting past, though – I’ve forgotten some of the stories, but I do remember the one about why Brits (and all sensible people, as Alex reminded the Americans) drive on the left. So, many many years ago, when London Bridge had houses and shops and such built on it, there was very little room left for traffic, so they had to decide on some rules of the road. If, as you were riding your horse across the bridge, you met someone you didn’t like very much and fancied a bit of a duel, it made much more sense to draw the sword hanging at your left side to fight the man coming at you on the right. So the powers that be proclaimed the left side of the road to be the correct one, and so it persists to this day, albeit with fewer swords and bloodshed and such.

We then headed towards the one bit of London that still looks like it did way back in the Middle Ages – the reason the rest of the city doesn’t is that London has burned to the ground numerous times (you’d think that after the first they’d have learned to not build everything from wood…). On the way, we passed this street:
Which of course made me hungry for spotted dick and plum pudding and suchlike things. Anyway, here’s the medieval bit:
Cute little winding streets yay! It’s easy to forget how very old London is, because most of the buildings are new, so it’s nice to see some evidence that it was actually there many years ago. It’s not like Paris, where nothing much has changed for centuries and you can easily imagine yourself back in time.

Then we went back towards the Thames to see the Millennium Bridge, which wasn’t actually finished until some years after the millennium, and cost some astronomical sum to build. Then, on the opening day, as hundreds of people walked across it, it started to bounce and wiggle about and generally misbehave, because the engineer had forgotten to account for people subconsciously walking in step and so setting up sympathetic vibrations (right, engineering buddies?). So they had to pour more money into it to stabilize it. Even Alex agreed that this was typically British. The bridge is quite nice, though, and it doesn’t wiggle anymore – believe me, I tried.
Then we saw the Royal Courts, which didn’t have any funny stories attached to them, but they were pretty:
Then the tour was done, and since we’d been walking in the cold for the last three hours, Emilia and I decided to ask Alex where we could get a good pasty (as in a meat pie, not anything related to strippers). He recommended a place near Covent Garden, so we set off. Along the way, Emilia spotted a classic red London phone booth across the street, so we stopped to be touristy and take photos. I took about 5, and they all had cars or taxis or buses in them, so I gave up, but when I got home and looked at my photos on a bigger screen, I realized that one of them had come out, in a way:
See it? So you’ve got two of your London stereotypes in one – convenient, no? Anyway, we continued on to the Cornish Pasty Shop, where I ordered a steak and Guinness pasty and a pint of cider. It was delicious. Partway through, I remembered to take a picture:
See how much of the cider (it was called Scrumpy Jack’s, which just about made my day) is still there? A pint is a lot, and I was extremely giggly and happy when we got up to leave. I may or may not have actually skipped through Covent Garden…

We both had to get back to meet our hosts, so we walked back to the Thames and walked along it to the nearest Tube stop (I had bought a week pass, which made me very happy – the Tube is quite nice and there is actually a recorded voice that says “Mind the gap”!), occasionally pausing to take pictures:
Again with the Queen… Seriously, these Brits are crazy.

When I got back to Jenna’s room, I very quickly helped her pick out clothes for a party she was going to (only people from her program were invited, so I had to stay home) and she rushed off. After watching more House episodes, I headed out to try to find dinner and found a fish and chips stand. Mmmm fried deliciousness. The man had given me all sorts of condiments, so I did a taste-test of all of them: vinegar, tartar sauce, ketchup and mayo. The vinegar was the best, although I’m turning European enough that I like mayo on French fries now. After recovering from the grease, I got dressed up and headed out to meet Jenna and her friends. We ended up heading back to the apartment of one of the members of her program, which was really lovely. I had a great time meeting all of her friends, and we didn’t get back home until about 3 am.

We managed to rouse ourselves the next morning for brunch, where we organized a trip to the National Portrait Gallery. I wasn’t expecting to like it that much, because I don’t generally like portraits, but there are really detailed explanations of who most of the people are, so it was quite interesting to read about them. Especially the royal families, who were so inbred it’s a wonder more of them weren’t imbeciles. I also spotted this lovely bewigged man:
who happens to be Robert Boyle. Any chemistry nerds out there? Yes, this is the Boyle of Boyle’s Law, which states (as far as I can remember) that the more you squish a gas, the less space it takes up. Logical, yes, but if you lived in the 1600’s you got to state a lot of obvious things and stick your name on them.

There was a temporary exhibition as well – I forget the name of the artist, but it was to benefit an AIDS charity. It was a wall of nude black and white photos of athletes, and it was beautiful. Just the elegance and grace of the human form, without any distracting elements or tackiness or anything. I especially remember a female swimmer (I think) with long black hair perfectly arranged against her pale back.

After that, Jenna had to go practice (the life of a violin performance student is tough) so I went and geeked out in the Egyptian section of the British Museum for a little bit. And when I say geeked out, I mean that I almost completely ignored all statues without writing on them, going straight for any hieroglyphs and trying (mostly in vain) to remember my hieroglyph alphabet. I did remember ankh dja s, which is the abbreviation for “life, prosperity, health”, and a few letters here and there, but mostly I was just comparing the different styles of hieroglyphs. Then it was time to go home and make dinner – we’d bought lettuce, cherry tomatoes, mozzarella, and bread, and Jenna has a basil plant in her room, so we made tomato, basil and mozzarella salad and it was delicious. Of course, we had to take pictures, or “food porn” as Jenna calls them:
So pretty! And so yummy!

It was raining again, and we didn’t feel like doing anything special, so we went to the TV room with some other Americans to watch Back to the Future, which Jenna hadn’t seen (cue chorus of “What? Impossible!”, which is why I didn’t tell anyone that I hadn’t really seen it properly either… When you’re as pop-culturally challenged as I am, you learn early on just to keep your mouth shut in situations like that.) Anyway, it was nice to get some American culture for a change.

On Sunday morning, homesick for my regular French market (that’s going to be the thing I miss most about France – I can’t even go a week without it) I did some research and found the Camden Lock Market. Jenna and I set off to meet Emilia at the market. On the way, we passed the playground near her dorm, where sheep apparently just roam around. One was close to the bars, grazing, so we said good morning to it.
When we got to the market, we realized it was more for clothing and accessories than fruits and veg, but that didn’t matter. There were all sorts of stalls selling ethnic food, all of which were priced at 4£ a serving, making the decision much harder. I ended up getting lamb curry, which was absolutely delicious. Thus fortified, we plunged back into the confusion of stalls and shops built into the stone walls. Jenna found a beautiful vaguely-ethnic-looking top that we convinced her to get because it looked great on her, and then she had to go back and practice. Emilia and I continued to wander and found a stall selling Marimekko-esque handbags (not at all the quality of Marimekko, but the patterns were bright and lively and awesome) and I gave in, telling myself I needed a medium-sized bag:
Impractical, perhaps, but oh so purty. Emilia bought one as well – hers had cherries on it.

Continuing our wanderings, we came across a stall selling doughnuts of every variety imaginable. After taking close to 10 minutes to decide, I got a custard-filled, chocolate-and-nuts-topped one, and Emilia got a caramely one, I think. Here we are pigging out:

They were so good. Gooiness is next to happiness, I think.

We continued to explore the market, finding new things we coveted at every turn, then having to reason with ourselves (“No Lisa, you don’t actually need those legwarmers… or that scarf… or that shirt… and what makes you think you can fit it into your luggage anyway?”) so as to not walk out of the market with double what we came in with. Finally, we came across another stall with handbags, this time more elegant, and met our match. I got this one, which matches my turquoise scarf perfectly:
And Emilia got a really cute little one made of little bamboo slats, perfect for holding one’s cell, lip balm, and credit cards on an evening out.

Finally, we extricated ourselves, stopped at Sainsbury’s on the way back to the Tube to buy candy bars, and headed home for dinner. We had a date with a certain man of mystery that night, a man whose taste in women is as impeccable as his dress sense, who never loses his cool… Yes, James Bond. Emilia, her friend Sarah, Jenna and I all had tickets to see the new movie at Leicester Square, which was exciting because it was London and the movie had just come out and because, after all, Daniel Craig is an extremely attractive man. So here we are in front of the marquée:
The atmosphere in the movie theater was great – everyone was excited, they clapped when the curtain went up, all of that. The movie itself… I don't want to burst anyone’s bubble, but I would wait for it to come out on video. Also, make sure to watch Casino Royale (that was the last one, right?) before this one, because if you’ve forgotten what happened in Casino Royale you’ll be a bit lost in Quantum of Solace. The whole movie felt like one big long action scene, even more so than in most James Bonds (and I like Bond movies in general). There wasn’t enough plot to tie it all together, and even the love scene (yes, there was only one) was rushed and almost cursory. But it was fun to see it in London, in any case.

All right, this has been obscenely long, for which I apologize. The rest of London next week sometime, and after that tales of history teachers, mispronunciations, and getting hit on (always with the getting hit on, I know, but this is France. That's how life works here).