Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Démarches Administratives

Okay, time to talk about all that paperwork I alluded to, lest you think my days are filled with nothing but walking down beautiful streets eating baguettes.

Monday (Oct 13th) was the day the technician from France Telecom was meant to come, but I got a message saying he couldn’t come until afternoon, so I called him at about 9 to ask if he could come before 2 pm, when my X-ray appointment was. He said he probably could, so I was all set to expect him around 1 pm. My housemate Nikki’s parents were staying with us because hotels are expensive, and at 9:30 that morning I had just lent her father, Joe, my keys so he could go to the store. About five minutes after Joe left, my cell phone rang. It was the technician, calling to say he was at the front door and needed to be let in. I said I’d be down in a minute and headed for the door. Now, my apartment door is stupidly designed, and you need a key to get out as well as in, because there’s no knob to turn the deadbolt. I tried the door in the hopes that Joe hadn’t relocked it, but he had. So there I was, still in my pajamas, trapped in the apartment with no way to let the phone guy in. I called him back to try to explain, and he reacted in the time-honored French fashion by stating over and over again that it couldn’t possibly be true, that the situation was impossible, and that I was joking. (Seriously, all French people do this. No matter what’s happening, if it’s not to their liking, their first reaction is “Non, c’est pas vrai! C’est pas possible! Vous plaisantez!” I’ve actually started to do it too, hilariously enough.) I apologized a million times and begged him to wait 5 minutes until the man with the keys came back. He said he would, but after 5 minutes he’d leave, because he had other places to be and he was a busy man, etc. Then he asked me what the person who’d left looked like, so I had to explain that he was Scottish and didn’t speak a word of French, so would not understand why a strange man was following him upstairs to his daughter’s apartment. This whole conversation took longer than you would believe, because of the technician’s frequent interruptions to remind me how impossible it was, how busy he was, and how crazy I was. Finally there was nothing to do but wait for Joe to get back, so I took the opportunity to put real clothing on (it’s much easier to be firm with French people when you’re properly dressed). Finally, we heard Joe in the hallway, and right behind him was the phone guy, who’d obviously managed to communicate something to Joe. The phone guy came in, waved a little black machine at the phone outlets, looked at our phone and told us we needed to buy a converter to plug it in, and left, after saying that his 55 € fee would appear on our first bill. So that was that.

A little later, I headed out to buy a converter (and got hit on by the security guard at the store, who then proceeded to call me three times in three days so I cut him off after that – he wasn’t even that cute). I plugged the phone in, plugged the converter into the wall, and found that the phone (which was ancient) did not work. The saga continues…

So that afternoon, most of the assistants from outside the European Union had appointments to get chest X-rays. Olesya and I arrived really early because we were worried about finding it, so we were the first ones called in. We were both put in little rooms with doors at both ends and told to take off everything above the waist. Then the woman opened the other door and told me to come into this big room with machines everywhere. Remember, I was naked from the waist up. I stepped onto a platform and then had to face a screen while she put a lead apron around my waist. Then I had to flatten myself against the screen, head up, and hold still. After that thoroughly dehumanizing experience, I was allowed to get dressed and go back out to the waiting room, where I told all the other assistants what to expect. A little later, they gave me my X-rays, which were really cool to look at (I also got a piece of paper saying they were normal, so that was reassuring). They’re really only checking for tuberculosis, because apparently everyone in France is vaccinated so they can’t do a PPD like in the US.

The cattle call continued the next day, this time for medical visits. I could make a joke about the French and their love of paperwork, but I’m pretty sure it’s even worse to try to get into the US, so I’ll refrain. I had my height and weight measured (in kilos and centimeters) and my vision checked (in French, of course – I’m really glad there were no Gs or Js on the little card because I would have gotten them mixed up and then probably been kicked out of the country) and then had to go into a little room with a man who asked a few questions, then without so much as a by-your-leave hiked my shirt up to listen to my heart and lungs. (Insert obligatory crack about buying me dinner first here.) He then proceeded to tell me that I have scoliosis, just a little bit, and embarked on a long, detailed explanation with lots of comparisons to suspension bridges, despite my assuring him that I did, in fact, know what scoliosis is. Comparing notes with other assistants afterwards, it sounds like most Americans have scoliosis, so either our screening system in middle school doesn’t work, or French people are more picky about their spines being straight. Then we were all given appointments at the prefecture of Rouen to get our cartes de séjour, which are like temporary green cards. The amount of paperwork required for that is staggering, but we’re lucky, because they set aside a block of appointments for assistants so we all got one within a few weeks. If you miss the appointment or don’t have the correct paperwork, you can’t get another appointment until February, which means that after your visa expires in December, you will basically be an illegal alien. This also means that you cannot leave France because you won’t be able to get back in. So, no pressure!

After that ordeal, we went and got kebabs and sat in a park to eat them. Kebabs are basically Europe’s answer to fast food – there are little hole-in-the-wall kebab places everywhere. They basically spear a bunch of raw meat on a gigantic vertical spit, then let it sit there cooking all day, occasionally scraping the outer layer off to feed to their lucky customers. When you order one, they split a big ol’ roll open, put sauce and lettuce and tomatoes and meat and (this is my favorite part) French fries on it, and hand it to you, whereupon something invariably falls out. If you’re lucky it’s only a French fry. I hadn’t had one since Paris, and I’d forgotten how amazing greasy mystery meat is… Hamburgers don’t even come close.

On Wednesday, Emilia and Pepetonio (nickname for José Antonio, I think – he’s an assistant from Mexico) and I went to the Musée des Beaux Arts, which is only 2€ for students (my Tufts student ID just says 2008, so I plan on taking full advantage of that). The museum is lovely, and the best part was the Impressionist section, where they have one of the Monet paintings of the cathedral (of course) and that Monet painting of a street in Paris on a national holiday (celebrating the Exposition Universelle of 1878, as some quick internet research tells me), with all the flags so it’s all blue, white, red everywhere. I really like that painting, so it was great to walk around a corner and find it. We got museumed out before we’d seen everything, so we’ll have to go back.

Thursday was another training day, this time for the English assistants only. Mostly it was boring and not very helpful, but I did meet an English girl called Nicola who was very nice, so it wasn’t a total loss. Also, I discovered that most of the Brits, Australians, and New Zealanders who are assistants are actually in their third year of university, when people in their programs are required to go abroad (like Nikki, my flatmate). The Americans and Canadians, on the other hand, have mostly finished college and are doing this because it’s a cheaper way of putting off the real world than grad school… I mean, because France is a beautiful country, full of wonderful people that we want to get to know and intelligent students to whom we want to teach our mother tongue. So in general, the North Americans speak better French and know what they’re doing more than the others, which hopefully will combat some American stereotypes.

Thursday evening, Emilia had the brilliant idea to go see Giovanna d’Arco, by Verdi, at the Théâtre des Arts. Similar to student rush in the US, tickets can be had for 5€ right before the show. So we dressed up (I wore that lacy skirt that makes my mother call me a whore) and waited in line (where most of our fellow cheapskates were wearing jeans – Paris this is not) and got tickets! I hadn’t done any research beforehand, so I was quite surprised when a horse walked on stage in the first 15 minutes or so – this production was very livestock-happy (horses, goats, doves, chickens, and a dog all made appearances). There were supertitles in French, so despite not knowing the story I could follow along, and I enjoyed it. I did occasionally wish that the characters would just get on with whatever they were doing, rather than singing about it for 10 minutes, but that’s par for the course with opera, I believe. At any rate, I felt very cultured, and that particular opera was very appropriate, since Rouen is where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake (about which the city still feels guilty – there are all sorts of plaques marking where she was burned, where her remains were finally taken, and other things like that, as well as a gigantic church named after her).

Friday I had three classes with a professor who is very nice but hasn’t the foggiest idea what she’s doing. This is her first year teaching, so she tends to think that we can come up with something to do in the 15 minutes before class starts, which we can’t because I have even less idea what I’m doing than she does. Happily, I only have two classes a week with her ordinarily, Fridays being only when I want to. The classes weren’t a total disaster, and I did get the kids talking a little bit, but it seemed very spur-of-the-moment and I wasn’t totally comfortable. The students were supposed to talk about what they would like to say to Sarkozy, which sparked a lot of interesting and funny reactions. One kid wanted to tell him that all his promises were just a “pack of lies” (I don’t know where he learned that phrase, but I encouraged him to use it).

Okay, now off to London for a week! Things will get less chronological because I'm going to try to post about London while I'm there, then come back and fill in the missing week or so. I'll eat some fish and chips for you all!

Monday, October 27, 2008

Sunny Wednesday

Heads up: I posted two posts at once, so if you want to read this in chronological order, read the post below this one (called "Getting Settled, Part the Second") first.

On Wednesday (this is still going back awhile – October 8th, to be exact), it was actually nice out. I decided to en profiter (take advantage of it) and took a little walk. I found this little street called “Rue Eaux de Robec” which means “Waters of Robec”. Don’t ask me who or what Robec is or was, but the street is purty. I discovered very quickly where it got its name:
It reminded me of Freiburg, Germany, where there are little streams along a lot of the streets. Hurray bächle! The street also has a lot of antique shops with huge windows full of all things old and fascinating.

I got to the end of the street and turned towards home, whereupon I saw this.
I’m forever getting surprised by various towers and things in this city, not only because there are so blamed many of them, but also because I have an astonishingly bad sense of direction and can never orient myself in relation to landmarks. It’s rather nice, really – kind of like an Alzheimer’s patient getting to read the same books over and over again. This particular surprise is the Abbatiale Saint-Ouen, which I pass every day.
I really really like it, especially the spire.
There are signs in front of it warning you to keep off the grass, which is pretty common. What isn’t so common is the next sentence on the sign: “Danger of falling rocks”. I guess that’s why there’s scaffolding towards the back of the church…
That yellow thing is an elevator (I call them “lifts” more than half the time now, since I hang out regularly with a Scot, a Brit, and an Australian – by the end of the year my accent will be incomprehensible) and I really wanted to hijack it and go for a ride, but I thought the French would probably frown on that so I kept walking. As I got a bit closer I noticed that there were gargoyles, so I tried out the digital zoom on my camera and took a picture of one.
I really enjoy gargoyles – it always strikes me as odd that immensely majestic, solemn buildings like cathedrals have playful little carvings all over them.

I had a lunch date with my professeur référente, Anne, at her house. She lives in Mont-Saint-Aignan, which is one of those suburb-y things to the north of Rouen. I got there a bit early, so I took my time walking to her house and took some pictures along the way. There were some lovely brick houses with neat details around the windows.
I stumbled upon yet another church – it always cracks me up because French people are actually a lot less religious than Americans, but there are SO MANY CHURCHES here.
Finally I got to her house, which was lovely, and had lunch with her and her 15-year-old daughter. It was delightful, and Anne tried to get her daughter to speak English, but of course she wouldn’t. Afterwards, as I was waiting for the bus, a little girl and her mother walked up to the stop. The girl asked, in French, if the number 8 bus had gone by yet, so I told her I’d only been waiting for a minute and didn’t know. She and her mom sat down next to me, and the mom said something to her daughter in English, with an American accent. I decided to blow my cover and asked, in English, if they were American. As it turned out, the father is a professor for an American study-abroad program, so the family lives in France during the school year and goes back during the summer. The little girl is 8 and has been coming to France since she was 5, which explains her French, which was really good. It was nice to speak English, though.

When I arrived back at my street, there were trucks and busy-looking men all over the place – I guess one of the houses was being renovated. The cool part was this nifty rig:
I couldn’t get close enough to take a proper picture of the base without the men looking at me, but it’s got little stilt things that can be individually adjusted so it’s level even on a hilly street like mine. The legs have the added benefit of making the structure look like it’s floating, since its wheels are lifted off the ground. Cool, huh?

That evening, as I was making dinner, I was reading that book of short stories by Maupassant that I’d bought, having run out of English books in the first 4 days. The stories are all creepy (the technical word is fantastique) but they’re good creepy – lots of people going insane from fear and such. So I started reading one called “Who Knows?”, where the main character had come to Rouen to escape something horrible that was haunting him at home. He was walking around the city and came to Rue Eaux de Robec, which he described thusly (I’ve put the French in so those who speak it don't have to suffer through my translation):

Un soir, vers quatre heures, comme je m’engageais dans une rue invraisemblable où coule une rivière noire comme de l’encre nommée « Eau de Robec », mon attention, toute fixée sur la physionomie bizarre et antique des maisons, fut détournée tout à coup par la vue d’une série de boutiques de brocanteurs qui se suivaient de porte en porte.
Ah! Ils avaient bien choisi leur endroit, ces sordides trafiquants de vieilleries dans cette fantastique ruelle, au-dessus de ce cours d’eau sinistre, sous ces toits pointus de tuiles et d’ardoises où grinçaient encore les girouettes du passé!

One evening, around four o’clock, as I was walking down an improbable street where a river as black as ink called “Eau de Robec” runs, my attention, fixed on the bizarre antique physiognomies of the houses, was suddenly turned aside by the sight of a series of antique shops all in a row.
Ah! They had chosen their place well, these sordid traffickers of ancient things in this fantastic little street, above this sinister stream, under these pointed tile and slate roofs where antiquated weathervanes still creaked!

So that was Maupassant’s impression of my cute little street with the flowers… The man did in fact go crazy towards the end of his life, so perhaps we can forgive him some atmospheric exaggeration. Anyway, it was neat to see that not much has changed in Rouen since the 1800’s – I bet some of the proprietors of the antique shops are the great-great-grandchildren of the ones in Maupassant’s day.

On Thursday, I observed one of Michèle’s classes. She was working with terminales, so their English was quite good. Their accents are adorable, and I know I’m going to have to correct them, but it’s so easy to just get lulled into thinking that h’s are silent and “th” is pronounced “z”… I also had a meeting with the CPE, who is I think the equivalent of the dean of students. They deal with absences and punishments, but also keep an eye on the students’ general wellbeing, so if something goes wrong they can help. I learned what I can and can’t do to the kids (apparently corporal punishment is illegal in France – and just when I’d bought a nice springy ruler!) and saw how the attendance system works.

On Friday, I did the most teaching I’ve done so far, in Anne’s class. She didn’t tell them who I was or why I was there or anything, so they had to ask me questions to find out what they wanted to know. It was a good exercise because the “information gap” (language teachers love information gaps) was real, and they were genuinely curious. They wanted to know who I was voting for (the American election gets a lot of press over here) and what I thought about France and whether I had a boyfriend. It was a lot of fun, though, and the kids were cute.

When I got home, it was so nice out I decided to en profiter again, because here you never know how long the sun will stay shining, so I changed into my bright pink tights and black-and-white striped dress and walked to the park behind the Abbatiale to read my book. It was absolutely lovely, and the people-watching was good too. And there were, of course, Frenchmen to comment on my appearance, because this is France and I am a young woman.

That night a bunch of us went to O’Kallaghan’s again, where there was a live band doing covers of mostly American songs (Are You Gonna Be My Girl, Black Betty, Born to Be Wild… all hilarious in a French accent). It was fun, but we were supposed to meet up with some other assistants who never showed up. As it turned out, they were there, but there were so many people we just didn’t see them. This is why cell phones were invented, and why you tend to get left out if you don’t have one.

Saturday was a beautiful day as well (must have been some sort of record) so Emilia and I had coffee outside in the Place du Vieux Marché. I love French terraces because you can just sit there for as long as you want, chatting and enjoying the sun and people-watching. We were also enjoying the weird church (named for Jeanne d’Arc, who was burned at the stake there) in the middle of the square. This picture doesn’t do it justice, but I haven’t got a better one yet.

On the way back, I found the perfect idea for a Christmas present for me! I know you always complain that I don’t start my list soon enough, so here’s one idea:
How cute is she? And isn’t she a lovely color? She was almost small enough to stuff into my handbag, but that back wheel just wouldn’t fit in.

Getting Settled, Part the Second

And more explorations:

Saturday we went shopping again, although neither Nikki nor I wants to buy too much until we get our salaries. First we stopped at the cathedral to actually go inside. It was magnificent; all lacy carved stone and stained glass windows and gorgeous little details. There was also a little model of the cathedral, which not only made me happy but also gives an idea of the overall shape of it:
There were dozens of stained glass windows, all this size:
They depict various biblical stories, and they were all done by different artists, dating from the 1400s to the 1950s. One said that it showed Saint Nicholas, so I looked up expecting to see Santa Claus. I should have remembered what I learned in Tufts chorale:
Those boys in the barrel had been cut up and pickled, I forget why, and Nicholas brought them back to life (if any chorale members remember more of the story, please let me know – all I remember is that bit, and the cute little boys that sang the pickled boys’ roles).

There was also a cute little staircase, the bottom part of which was built in the 15 or 1600s, and the top in the 1800s.
It always interests me to see the dates that a cathedral spans – this one was started in 1205 and completed in the 1800s, with repairs after WWII (where it got pretty badly bombed).

Then we returned to shopping. Olesya bought a lovely white wool coat, and some boots. On the way back, I stopped at a bookstore near our apartment and bought a book of short stories by Maupassant (very appropriately, because he lived in and wrote about Normandy) and a book that seems to be the French version of Anne Frank, except this girl survived. Since I’m not taking any classes, for the first time in 13 years, I think I’ll try to read a lot of French books.

On Sunday, Nikki and I went to the market. It was raining, so there weren’t quite as many people as the last week, but it was still quite bustling. There was a tent with second-hand clothing, which as you know is like crack for me, and I found a light sweater:
And a cute little light coat:
For 3 € each. Nikki also found a really nice H&M coat for 8 €. Clearly this tent is going to be dangerous. We then went merrily off to buy vegetables, after first walking all around and seeing vegetables, fruits, flowers, meat, cheese, dried fruit, nuts, fish, shellfish… She likes markets just as much as I do, so we had a great time looking around. I also decided to buy some sausages, because buying meat has always frightened me and I want to get over that. I got some nice herbed ones that didn’t look too scary (staying away from the boudin noir (black pudding) – I’m not quite French enough for that yet). I cooked them that evening with zucchini and onion and they were quite good.

On Monday, I went to the school to sign papers, and ran into an English teacher who took me to lunch, then into her classes. We went to the school cafeteria, where we get to cut in line because we’re teachers (woo!). The teachers also get a special room to eat in, where in addition to pitchers of water, there is cider. The alcoholic Normandy kind. At lunch. In a school building. Where the teachers are going to have to go back to class in an hour. Hurray for France! I didn’t have any, because I was sitting with three French people I didn’t know and didn’t want to make an ass of myself. The conversation got quite animated, talking about the economic crisis, which I can’t even discuss intelligently in English, so I just watched, understanding maybe 6 words out of 10. It was interesting from an anthropological standpoint, though – French people are hilarious when they get really into a discussion, and it doesn’t take much to get them to that point. One of the professors also started teasing me about how much he liked Sarah Palin, and how she was such a good example to women everywhere. I was mostly sure he was joking, but I didn’t want to get into a huge argument with him just at first, so I didn’t say much. He came up to me later and assured me that he’d been joking, which I thought was nice of him, since I probably looked frightened. I was forgetting that in France it’s totally okay to disagree vehemently with someone one second and kiss them on both cheeks politely the next.

The teacher I was with has “secondes”, who are the equivalent of our sophomores (it goes troisième, seconde, première, terminale, confusingly enough). In the first one, I just watched from the back, but in the second I stayed up front and helped her answer questions, which was fun. A few of the students had the guts to ask me, in English, where I was from and how old I was and stuff, which was great – they seemed to be excited to have me there.

Afterwards, I went shopping to get some clothes hangers, finally, and something to organize the growing mountain of paperwork that I’ve just been tossing onto a pile. I also got four folders; I don’t know if you’ve experienced the joy that is a French folder, but they are magnificent. They’re really more like little portfolios – they have sides that fold in all around and elastic bands to keep them closed, so you can fit hundreds of pages in them without trying to stuff them into a pocket, like in the US, and nothing falls out because all four sides are closed. They are, of course, ridiculously expensive, but they make me so happy they’re worth it.

On Tuesday, the last day to turn in my paperwork (with a bank account number) in order to get paid at the end of October instead of the end of November, I still hadn’t opened a bank account (banks are closed Mondays here because they’re open part of the day on Saturdays). So I arrived at the bank at 9 am sharp, prepared to grovel, on my hands and knees if necessary, for an appointment. The man asked, doubtfully, if I had an identity card, so I gave him my passport. He asked for proof of address, even more doubtfully, so I whipped out my carefully-prepared “attestation de domicile” and gave it to him. He asked for a pay stub, which of course I don’t have, so I handed him my teaching contract. Finally, he said he was going to go photocopy my passport, but I handed him copies of the identity page and my visa page, whereupon he finally looked impressed and gave me an appointment later that morning. The woman I met with, with the unfortunate last name of “Rat”, which means the same thing in French as it does in English, was absolutely delightful. We ended up chatting a bit while she was setting everything up, and she asked me how to say “cathédrale” in English so she could direct the tourists who always come in. At the end, she gave me a little binder to hold my bank statements, a card-holder, a key ring, a pen, and approximately 4 million pieces of paper covered with teeny-tiny legalese, in French. I tried to skim it, and as far as I can tell I didn’t give them the right to take all my money or kill my first-born, although I couldn’t swear to it. Afterwards I got the best accomplishment high I’ve ever had – that’s the most complicated thing I’ve had to do yet here, and I did it completely in a foreign language and even managed to form a little bit of a relationship with the person.

This sense of accomplishment was short-lived, since I had a meeting with my professeur référent, Anne, right afterwards. She’s very nice, but she’s never organized the assistant thing before, so she has no idea what she’s doing and neither do I. A lot of teachers simply don’t have the time to work with me, since English classes are only 2 or 3 hours a week, so we might have to schedule things outside of class for me to get enough hours. I’m sure it will work out eventually; I would just like to get a clearer idea of what exactly I’ll be doing, and no one seems to be able to tell me. Everyone is very nice and welcoming, though.

After the meeting, I handed in all my paperwork, so hopefully I will get paid in a few weeks! I took the opportunity, while waiting for the secretary, to take a picture of the hallway:
Sometime when there aren’t any kids around, I’ll try to take a picture of the outside of the school. I don’t mind (much) looking like a tourist on the streets of Rouen, but I absolutely cannot be gawking at the school one minute and expecting the students to treat me with respect the next - I have enough trouble getting them to shut up as it is.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Getting Settled, Part the First

Okay, so now I’ve spent enough time on French keyboards (the top row goes AZERTY instead of QWERTY, the M is where the semicolon should be, you have to press shift to get to the numbers, all the punctuation marks are in different places...) that I’m starting to forget how to type on American ones, and my left pinky keeps going for the “Q” key when I want to type “A”. Qrgh!

Anyway, on to what happened during my first week (Sept. 30th and on). On Tuesday morning, around 8:00, I woke up to hear people in the apartment. After a moment of panic, I realized that it was probably just my new roommate. So I went out into the hall in my pajamas to greet her. What I hadn’t realized was that of course her professor and the vice-principal of the school would be with her, so there I was, in a ratty old T-shirt, hair sticking up, rubbing the sleep out of my eyes, and having to make polite French conversation to impeccably-dressed French people. Luckily, Olesya came out of her room at that point too, hair still in curlers, so I felt better. It was at that point I learned that the new assistant, Nikki, is actually from Scotland, not England as I’d been told. So her accent is charming and I could listen to her talk for hours. Also, she says “wee” instead of “little”, which I’d honestly thought only happened in books. Her French isn’t very good, so when it’s just the two of us, we speak English. I didn’t get to talk to her much that morning because she went straight to bed, tired out from traveling.

That afternoon, I met up with another American assistant, Emilia, to get some respite from speaking French constantly (which really tires you out at first). Using my handy-dandy Viking guide, we went to a tearoom called “Le Five O’Clock”, where we had orange-flavored hot chocolate and scones and pear-berry charlotte. It was all quite good, and just as we were about to finish, a woman at a nearby table came over and asked us, in very good English, whether we would like to go the cinema that evening. She explained that she had two vouchers to get into the theater for cheap, but they expired that day and she wasn’t going to have the chance to use them, and she likes English people, so she offered them to us. After thanking her profusely in French and English, we went to the Centre Commercial (mall) where the theater is. We got to take the métro, which made my little public-transportation-loving self very happy (tickets only cost 65 centimes if you’re under 25, which makes my little penny-pinching self very happy). We had some time to kill before our movie, so we went to H&M, where I bought some cute bobby pins and two pairs of tights, kelly green and bright pink. I don’t know if I’ll have the guts to wear them, but if nothing else they can be long underwear in the winter. The movie was called “La Fille de Monaco” (The Girl from Monaco), and it was… weird. Like most French movies. But I understood most of it, which made me happy. Then we took the métro back into Rouen proper (there’s only one line, so it’s very easy to navigate – the buses are where it gets confusing) and I walked home in the rain. Without an umbrella.

Wednesday, the three of us housemates decided that we needed Internet, so we girded our loins (well, I girded my loins – the other two were just moral support) and went into a store and asked numerous stupid questions of a very patient, very kind man. Our situation is complicated because we have to be able to call the US, Scotland, and Russia, which are not only three different countries, but on three different continents. The poor man who was helping us had to make all sorts of calls on our behalf, but by the end I had a nice list comparing two different plans for Internet, TV, and telephone. After that ordeal, we needed a reward, so we got hot chocolate and sat down for a bit. When I get back to the US, dealing with Comcast is going to be so easy. Then we shopped for a bit, and I finally got an umbrella, because in this city you literally might need one at any moment. I’ve seen the sky go from rainy to sunny to cloudy to sunny to rainy in the space of five minutes, and apparently it just gets worse from here on in. I know all my pictures have been lovely and sunny, but that’s just two days’ worth – a more accurate picture of the view from my bedroom window is this one:

We left the centre commercial (it was raining again) to go back to Rouen proper, to a stationery store. On the way there, I saw another Internet/phone/TV store, so I made myself go into that one too, just to check if it was any cheaper. This time it was a lot easier, since I’d asked all the questions already and I knew the vocabulary, and this one turned out to be cheaper! So I thanked the nice man and said I’d come back the next day with the appropriate paperwork. Then we finally got to go to the stationery store, where I could have happily spent hours. There’s paper, and pens, and markers, and planners, and stickers, and folders, and files… I’m a nerd, I know, but those stores make me so happy. I managed to restrain myself, buying only a planner and a wastebasket for my room. Then we all trooped home, exhausted, but with the promise of Internet and free calls home to cheer us up.

The next day, Thursday, I awoke to the gentle sound of raindrops tapping on the roof, a sound whose charm is rapidly fading. I had another Anglophone date with Emilia, and this time Nikki came too. We went to the Crêperie Mont-St-Michel, where for 10 € you can get a glass of cider (hard, a Normandy specialty), a savory crêpe, a sweet crêpe, and coffee. It was absolutely delicious, and served to us in part by the 10-year-old son of the owner, who was adorable. Afterwards, I decided that the time had come to buy a pair of rubber boots, because I was sick of having wet feet all the time. They’re not quite as common here as in the US, but I did see them in stores, so I figured it wasn’t a huge fashion faux pas.
They’re not cow boots, but they’ll do.

Next, I went back to the Internet store, armed with paperwork. The woman informed me politely that I would need to go to France Télécom to get a telephone line before I could get Internet. Grumblegrumblegrumble.

Next on my list to buy was a rod for my closet, which is huge but useless, having no shelves or rod or anything. Nikki wanted curtains, so we went to this huge fabric/home furnishings/notions store called Toto. It’s mazelike, with three different entrances and shelves floor to ceiling, but the people who helped us were very nice, especially when I was trying to explain that Nikki needed thicker material for her curtains because we live next to a middle school and there are wide-eyed little boys just across the way. I found a pressure rod that looked hefty enough, nodded my way through a half-understood explanation from the man who was helping me (I think he was talking about having to screw it in, but I’m not sure – he had a lisp), and then got to walk home with a yard-long rod poking out of my bag. I put it up, then realized that I had no hangers. Such is life.

On Friday, I awoke again to the dulcet tones of raindrops, but this time I was prepared. I put my rubber boots on, opened my umbrella, and shouted my defiance to the cloudy skies. Whereupon it stopped raining. It started again in a few minutes, though, so I was vindicated. It was the orientation day for all the assistants in the entire region, so Olesya, Nikki and I hopped on the bus to the IUFM, which is the teacher-training school. The first part of the day was mostly in French, with short speeches in each of the 8 languages being taught in the region this year (English, German, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Chinese, Russian and Arabic). It was really neat to hear all the languages, especially Portuguese and Russian, which I always think sound like the other one. (The trick is that Portuguese has a lot more zh-sounds, and Russian has a lot more k-sounds.) We learned that there are 5682 assistants in France this year, speaking 15 languages and representing 53 countries. In my region, there are 163 assistants (of which 110 speak English), speaking 8 languages and representing 26 countries. This means that the English speakers come from the US, England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand (I’ve probably forgotten a couple). Which means that the poor French kids, most of whom have only heard British accents, will have to decipher this mix of dialects. It’ll definitely be good for them, but it will be hard at first.

We split up into language groups in the afternoon, so we could hear about all the paperwork in our native languages. The French authorities ask for everything but your first-born child, and I’m pretty sure they’d ask for that too if they thought they could get away with it. It’s especially bad if you’re not from the European Union (yet another reason to be jealous of Europe) because you have to get a temporary green card to be here for longer than 6 months. It was during this session that we saw “concubinage” listed as a possibility for marital status, which made us nearly hysterical. I looked it up later and found that it meant “common-law marriage”, which is much less amusing than it should be. Afterwards, I made plans with Emilia and a Canadian boy named Alex to go out to an Irish pub. On the way home, I stopped by France Télécom to try to get a telephone line, but since there hasn’t been one in our apartment for a few years, they have to send someone over. I got an appointment for a week and a half later, which isn't bad, considering that this is France. The saga continues…

Olesya came with us to the pub, where there were snakebites and something called black velvets on the menu. The snakebite was half Guinness, half Kilkenny, and the black velvet was that plus blackcurrant syrup. Having been informed by a certain Jumbo with Australian connections that blackcurrant concoctions are delicious, I ordered the black velvet, as did Emilia. It was HUGE, so it took me about 2 hours to drink it, but it was very good. About halfway through, my French started to improve dramatically, or at least I thought it did… We walked home (well, I skipped part of the way – it’s embarrassing how much of a lightweight I am, and how hyper alcohol makes me) and went to bed.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Dieppe - First Sunday

My colleague Michèle invited me to go picnic at the ocean on Sunday, so I went to the marché to buy some cheese before meeting her. The marché was brilliant – I wanted to take pictures, but there were so many people jostling about I don’t think it would have worked. It’s in a big square, and there are flowers, fruits and vegetables, cheeses, meats, and even clothing, and everyone is shouting about how delicious their merchandise is, and it’s all very French. The man at the cheese stall was very nice and gave me little pieces of cheese to taste so I could decide, and I actually liked one that had a suspicious blue streak in it! Aren’t you proud, Mom? So I got a wedge of that, then trekked to a bakery and bought my first baguette. Baguettes are 80 centimes of pure happiness, especially if you have cheese too. Then I went to the school to meet Michèle. She’d told me that a Norwegian teacher, Nils, was also coming with us, so when I saw a tall blond man wandering around near the school entrance, I approached him and asked if he was waiting for Michèle, which he was. So we chatted for a bit, and I found out that my high school has a program where Norwegian students study here for three years, so there are a few Norwegian teachers to help them out. Then Michèle arrived, about half an hour late (welcome to France!) and we piled into her little car and headed for the coast.

The drive was interesting, and made me really really happy that I don’t have to drive while I’m here – everyone seems to know to the millimeter where exactly their car is, and they even drive over the curb if necessary to squeeze past other cars. But I haven’t seen anyone hit anything yet – it must be one of those skills you’re born knowing if you’re European, like dressing well and liking wine.

The beach at Dieppe was not exactly what I was expecting, although it was quite pretty:
Yes, those are rocks, not sand. And yes, they continue all the way down to the water. And yes, they are exquisitely painful to walk on.
Nils and Michèle stripped down to their swimsuits and hopped right in the water, but it was a bit windy and I hadn’t brought a sweater, so I just hobbled down to the water and waded for a bit so I could say I’d gone in. The trek back up to my shoes was less painful because my feet were numb from the frigidity – this is the English Channel, remember. It didn’t seem to bother Michèle, who stayed in the water for a really long time, while Nils and I watched in wonder from the shore:
When she finally came out, she didn’t even look cold – I think perhaps one of her ancestors was a penguin. She’d brought pasta salad, Nils brought a roasted chicken, and we had cheese and strawberries for dessert. Afterwards, we got back into the car, I thought to go home, but Michèle had other plans. Her family is from here, so she wanted to show Nils and me all around the area. Our first stop was a little church where Georges Braque is buried.
He was a contemporary of Picasso, and he also designed the stained glass windows in the church.
It’s a very simple church, not like the Gothic craziness of the cathedral, but I liked it.
Also, there were funny carvings on the columns, the significance of which no one remembers, although the little information booklet did mention something about a sailor vomiting.
This is a view of the coastline from the church – I think it would be nice to be buried in a place like this.

Michèle’s next idea was to climb down to the seashore. We found a path that led right up to the edge of the cliffs, where there were many signs indicating that those who valued their lives should not continue on.
But our fearless leader just kept walking, and I didn’t want to be branded a coward the first day (especially as I don’t know the French for “wimp”), so I kept on as well. Happily, the path was quite easy, switchbacking down the cliff into a little valley that led to the shore. This is a view from the shore back up the valley; we came down the right side.
We walked along the shore for a while, which became sandy pretty soon, much to my delight. I took off my shoes so I could wade in the little pools left behind by the tide:
Michèle hadn’t brought her camera (she doesn’t even own a digital one, so Nils and I teased her about being a dinosaur) so she made me take this picture, with the rock and the pool in the foreground and the cliffs in the back and the pretty sky (we were lucky – it rains ALL THE TIME here, because we’re just the right distance from the ocean that we get some weird weather pattern).
Then I went closer to the cliffs – they’re mostly made of white rock, but there are horizontal bands of a darker rock that must be harder, because it isn’t worn away as much.
Here’s Normandy in a nutshell: cows and cliffs. No need for a fence when you’ve got a huge drop-off, right?
We found another little valley, this time with stairs, to climb back up and find our way back to the church. Luckily, Michèle and Nils both have a good sense of direction, because I would have been utterly lost.

After we got back to the car, which smelled of chicken and cheese and strawberries, all slightly too warm (we opened the windows very wide), we drove off to see the cathedral of Dieppe. I swear, every little town in France has its very own cathedral, complete with stained glass and flying buttresses and everything. It’s mildly ridiculous.
This one had a little tiny staircase to get to the organ, which I really liked.

Michèle had one more stop planned – the ruins of a castle, probably built to protect against a British invasion (I’ve forgotten the name and the purpose – I was tired, okay?). We weren’t allowed to go inside because rocks still fall down sometimes, so we walked around the outside of the moat.
By this point, it was getting late enough that the sun was starting to set:
So we went back to the car, where I almost fell asleep, and drove back to Rouen.

On Monday, I met Michèle to observe a few of her English classes, which was interesting. She speaks with an English accent, as do her students, so it will probably be a bit hard for them to understand me at first, but it’ll be good for them to hear a different kind of accent. She was using Calvin and Hobbes comics in one of her classes, so that was pretty neat. When I got home from the school, my Russian housemate, Olesya, was there. Her French isn’t great, but it’s the only language we have in common, so that’s what we speak. She’s got a great memory for vocabulary – if she asks me about a word once, she remembers it and uses it well, so I think she’ll improve quickly. It’s also really good for my French, since I have to figure out alternate ways to say things, without resorting to English. We went food shopping, then wandered around Rouen at night – the cathedral is just as pretty when it’s dark out:
And, finally, proof that I am actually here, and not just lifting pictures from the Internet to trick you all:
More on the Internet saga (it’s going to reach epic-poem-length before it’s through, I’m sure) and my housemates and paperwork (alongside “single” and “married” and “divorced” there was an option called “concubinage”, which caused us no end of amusement) later on!

Sunday, October 5, 2008


So I finally found an Internet café with WiFi that I can use until I have Internet chez moi, which, given that this is France, might happen within the century...

Anyway, so on to what I’ve been doing with myself. First, what I brought with me:
The suitcases look awfully small, don’t they? Still, I managed to squeak under the 50-lb weight limit, even with the big one, which weighed in at 47 pounds. The trans-Atlantic flight was uneventful, but my Heathrow-Charles de Gaulle flight was delayed by about an hour (DO NOT FLY THROUGH HEATHROW until they’ve figured out what the heck they’re doing with their fancy new terminal), so I was a little worried about getting to my train on time… Which worry was intensified after someone told me you couldn’t buy tickets on the bus, so I had to get 8,90 € in change to use in the machine. After dragging my messenger bag, backpack, small rolling suitcase and large rolling duffel bag for miles around the airport terminal buying 90-centime drinks with 10 € bills, I had enough. So I dutifully bought my ticket and waited for the bus that would take me into Paris. In line for the bus, I noticed that the woman ahead of me had only a 20 € bill. Poor thing, I thought. She’ll have to do what I did, and what a pain that was. But no, she handed her bill to the bus driver, who gave her change and a ticket, and went happily on her way. Biting back swear words in at least three different languages, I handed my ticket to the driver and found a seat.

Once in Paris, I was planning to take the Métro from the bus drop-off to the train station, but the bus actually passed Gare St-Lazare, so I paid attention to the street names, and when I got off the bus, decided to walk to the station. I didn’t get lost at all (of which accomplishment I am inordinately proud, given that I’ve been known to get turned around in West Lebanon) and arrived about an hour before my train. My French colleague, Michèle, was at the train station to meet me, and she took me to my school, Lycée Pierre Corneille. The building dates back to the 1600s, which, as I pointed out to Michèle’s great amusement, is older than my country. The outside is beautiful; the inside, institutional and maze-like. I met various people whose names I forgot almost immediately, then met the woman who’s going to take care of my paperwork so I don’t get kicked out of the country. Her name is Sandrine, and she took me to my apartment, which is about a 7-minute walk from the school. It’s on a very quiet street:
with a church (Saint-Nicaise) right across the way, because this is France, and they have more churches than they know what to do with.
My apartment is on the 3rd American floor, but the building has an elevator (I think I would have cried if it didn’t – I couldn’t face lifting those suitcases one more step). Here’s the living room (with TV! I can watch bad French reality shows as much as I want!):
Kitchen (yes, that’s it, but there is a double sink):
Shower room (the toilet is in its own separate room, which is one of my favorite European conveniences):
My room!
And my room, cleaned up:
Sandrine left me alone for a few hours, then came back to take me to dinner at Michèle’s house. At this point, I hadn’t slept in about 30 hours, but I could follow most of the conversation, and they appeared to understand me just fine most of the time. Dinner was delicious, and it certainly got me thinking in French right away – there’s something to be said for plunging headlong into conversation. Michèle actually lives outside of Rouen proper – there were a bunch of little towns in the area that spread out and eventually ran together, so Rouen itself isn’t huge but its suburbs are ginormous. Her street is on a hill, looking directly down at the spire of the cathedral. After dinner, Sandrine took me home, whereupon I went to bed and slept like the dead for about 10 hours.

Saturday morning, I awoke and, still lying in bed, looked out the window, which made me fall in love with France all over again:
When I convinced myself to get up, I took this one:
Then I looked down into the street and realized that my building, which looks pretty modern in all other respects, has a slate roof. Repeat after me: J’aime la belle France! J’aime la belle France!

The first order of business was to buy a cell phone, since my apartment doesn’t have Internet or a phone line. I had no map, nor any idea where to find one, but Michèle had said that downtown Rouen centers on the cathedral, so I figured I’d just look for the tall pointy thing and be all set. What Michèle neglected to tell me is that Rouen is known as the “Ville de cent clochers” (City of a hundred bell-towers). There are a lot of tall pointy things in this city. Thankfully, near one of the many churches that is not, in fact, the famous cathedral, there was a map, with a tourist information office helpfully pointed out in red. This office faces the big cathedral, the one Monet painted about 60 billion times. I can totally see why:

In the office, I bought a few postcards and then asked the nice man behind the counter where I could find a cell phone store. He didn’t know off the top of his head, which turned out to be a stroke of luck because he had to get out this little guide called the Viking (Normandy is very proud of its Viking heritage), which he then gave to me. It’s meant for students, but I look so young everyone assumes I must be one, and it is probably the most useful thing I own right now. It has addresses for almost everything you could possibly need, as well as café, bar, nightclub, and restaurant reviews and prices. It also comes with a card that can get me reductions at certain places. Anyway, I took the guide and set off towards the cell phone store, but was quickly distracted. The cell phone store is, as I discovered later, on one of the main shopping streets in the city. I couldn’t go two steps without seeing something I wanted to buy, and I even tried on a few things, but my common sense prevailed and I didn’t get anything, figuring I’d better get my priorities straight from the beginning. So, after taking about an hour to walk 50 yards, I bought my phone and went back to the cathedral to try to figure it out. Here it is, in all its tiny glory:

And here it is modeling the fine handiwork of my father:
After window-shopping for a little longer (everything here seems so cheap after Paris – it’s nice) I went back to the little supermarket at the bottom of my street and bought mozzarella/eggplant/tomato tortellini for dinner, which I ate while watching bad French television. I tell myself that it’s okay, even educational, for me to watch French reality TV, because it’s all good language practice, right? Of course right.

I’m cutting myself off here, because how I do go on, but there’s more to come!