19 Days.

My hiatus from blogging has been due to my Intensive TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) Course actually being quite intense.

I’m currently in Toulouse, France, where I signed myself up for school again — teacher school! I’m learning methods for teaching English to those who don’t (yet) speak English. We’re in class from 9-7 every day, learning pedagogical methods and grammar in the morning and practicing teaching in the afternoon.

It is SO nice to have a lot of work to do. It’s not just any work, either — I love planning lessons, and I love teaching them. My creative energies feel focused and my workaholism is coming back. I keep kicking myself, thinking about how much more smoothly my year would’ve gone (in my head) if I’d had all of this planning practice and all of these teaching and classroom management tools. I think it went fine as it was, but now that I know what was missing I can’t quash my urge to go back and do it all over again.

Luckily, I’ll get even more teaching experience next year, as an assistant teacher at the French-American School of Puget Sound! I’m so excited that I get to remain in (bilingual) education and use my French… and be back in the Pacific Northwest!! Though it still doesn’t feel entirely real that I’ve got a job…I keep imagining them taking it away from me due to some mistake in the hiring process.

I only have 19 days left in France. When that hit me, I felt…torn. Really, it’s my heart that’s torn. There are a lot of people in Europe who I love and who I’ll miss, and there are a lot of people at home who I can’t wait to come back to. There are a lot of things I love about France, and there are a lot of things I miss about the states.

But above all else, I think I’ve reached my traveling limits. One of my new Toulouse friends said, wisely, that we all have limits. Reaching a limit doesn’t mean that we can’t push ourselves past it: sometimes we want to push ourselves past limits… and sometimes we don’t want to. There’s nothing wrong with not wanting to. I’m a lover of challenging oneself, but if I’m pushing myself in a way that doesn’t feel right, I’m no longer loving myself, or trusting my own gut.

It feels bizarre to admit this, but I’ve reached a limit with Being Abroad — one which, for now, I don’t feel the need to push myself past. I feel more isolated from my fellow expats, I more often feel depleted of energy, and all this makes me less willing to engage deeply with an environment that I know I’m going to leave. They’re all feelings I can compartmentalize, but they aren’t feelings I can ignore.

One of my least favorite things that people do when they’re “travelers” is when they judge people who “aren’t.” Traveling (and living abroad) is something you do, it’s not something you are. Some people don’t travel, and it doesn’t make their life experiences less cool or important. Knowing the judgment that exists makes me afraid to admit:

I don’t want to travel anymore. 

I might get back to the U.S. and decide that next year I want to jet off again. I definitely will be driving all over to see my friends and family in different states when I’m home. Basically, it’s not because I’m incapable of starting over somewhere new, where I know no one and their language is not my first language. I’ve done that, and loved it. Twice. Three times, if I count this move to Toulouse. I would never trade away any of my Being Abroad experiences.

But at the moment, there’s something I love and miss about the familiar.

When it’s as easy as breathing to smile at people in the street, when you have to order food and know exactly what to say, when you’ve got old friends around to remind you of things you forget about yourself. When you walk into a place you’ve been a million times before, and the known-ness of it makes you feel at home….all of these are the things I miss when I say I miss the “States.” I want to swim in the lake and hike mountains and wine taste in Walla Walla with my very best friends. I want to cuddle with my cat, and hear about my mom’s work day, and get ice cream at Mallard’s with my sister, and sail in the Sound with Dad.

I know I’ll miss France. But, I can miss France and appreciate home at the same time. I can miss home and appreciate France at the same time. And I feel beyond lucky to have all of these things to love.

19 Days.

“Why the life?”

I like TV Shows, especially on Netflix, because they’re like a movie that never ends. I can climb into bed and slip into a world of familiar characters and places. I know their inside jokes and I know what’s going on in their lives right now, and that is comforting for me — especially when I’m far away from my familiar places and friends. Gilmore Girls and Dexter have provided innumerable (well, 8 seasons x 22 episodes + 8 seasons x 12 episodes) hours of comfort and entertainment for me overseas.

Unfortunately, I exaggerate: TV Shows do end. All things eventually end, especially when you’re a young person finding your way in the world (aka the Era of Temporary Jobs). What’s different is that in real life, endings get personal.

It’s all well and good to finish a TV show. It is, after all, a carefully constructed universe in which all resolves itself. The good guys come out on top and the bad guys get what’s coming to them. Even if you don’t like the ending, there is no alternative. Maybe there were some shocking moments, but if they were too much to handle you could always turn it off and watch Parks and Rec for a while instead. It’s also a nice, clean break. I can finish Dexter and never think of it again. It doesn’t particularly influence my self-concept or personal narrative or future. It’s someone else’s life, accelerated through all the important parts.

But an experience like this one…all escapes are temporary. No pause or refresh or replay buttons exist. And more importantly, everything affects my self-concept, my personal narrative, and my future. It’s MY life, and it shapes who I am in the most profound ways. And I feel gutted by it sometimes. 

If I had a choice, I’d keep things as they are right now, April 2015: endless laughter-filled picnics entr’amis, cute little “‘ello Anne!” shouts in the hallways, lunch in the cantine with my favorite teachers. But this feeling of desperate longing for sameness is familiar. Every time things are good, there’s some desire for them to stay the same, or to live them over and over again. If I could replay Whitman, for example, I might have done it then — but I wouldn’t do it now. I’ve laid it to rest in my memory, and there it stays forever.

It’s time to do the work of laying this experience to rest forever. As I wrote to myself the other day, “I CAN’TTTT! But I must.” I must remember that even though some good times are past, others are yet to come. Who knows where I’ll be a year from now? (If you do, give me a hint plz? thanks). Who knew where I’d be last year at this time, when I was finishing up my thesis and getting ready to graduate?

The title of this post is one of the questions I got on my second to last day of class this week, carefully constructed by a particularly philosophical 12 year old. Why the life? Indeed. As my friends and I joked on our last night together in Val, we wish we hadn’t made friends, we wish we’d stayed holed up in our separate apartments and never interacted and been miserable…then, we might be happy to go home. I still reflect on the beginning of the year, when I arrived and knew nobody, prepared to go it alone for as long as necessary. Then people materialized, and those people became some of my closest friends.

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I am not happy to be leaving Val. I am excited for my next adventure. My situation is going to change. The contract for my job in France is officially almost terminated. My lease is up. This post is almost complete. I’ll soon be leaving France. I feel like someone has reached inside me and twisted my guts, permanently, at the thought of all my new friends scattering. I’m saying some goodbyes without knowing when I’ll see a friend again. They might be the hardest goodbyes ever.

And yet, I wouldn’t have it any other way. I only have trouble saying goodbye to people who have really wormed their way into my heart. And whether they reappear in my life in person or not, they’ll still be in that heart and in my mind, warming me up from the inside out.

Why the life? Because it’s full of love and surprises…and even when it’s sad, it’s the bomb.

“Why the life?”

My (Shattered?) French Dream

Once upon a time, I had a grand and beautiful dream. It probably was planted in high school French class as I sat at the back and lovingly caressed the colorful, cartoon-filled pages of my textbook, falling in love with le Français for the first time. I said to myself: Someday, I will be in a café. I will have to order a pain au chocolat and a limonade and I will have to ask for l’addition, s’il vous plaît.

I chased the dream to college French classes, and it evolved with my language proficiency. Someday, I then said, I will not only go to a café, but it will be the one where my authorial and artistic predecessors sat and thought their great thoughts, spoke and wrote their great words. I will live in the birthplace of this fabulous literature, and by osmosis I will become equally as world-wise and articulate as they were.

So, I went to Paris for my studies. I studied literature inside my classes and pilgrimed it up outside my classes. I visited my favorite author’s graves, journaled beneath La Tour Eiffel, and ate plenty of pain au chocolat, although I paired it with café. I got lost, and sought, and found inspiration in the labyrinthian streets and time-worn gothic churches. And when I left it, it left me wanting more.

The dream became: Someday, I will live in France for longer. This time, I’ll insert myself into a community. I’ll start a book club. I’ll make best French friends who I can have 5-hour dinner parties with, and I’ll have French housemates. I will acquire the taste of even the stinkiest of cheeses, and I will finally be able to eschew peanut butter in favor of Nutella. I will speak French with a perfect accent, no trace of twangy vowels and every liaison in its precise place. I’ll find a sexy French boyfriend and seduce him with my linguistic capabilities and intimate knowledge of his country’s artistic canon. Eventually, I’ll figure out the secret to “being French,” and be it.

That was the dream for this year. Instead of a mid-life crisis (I’m hoping to live past my forties, after all), I had a mid-January crisis: I realized that my dream would not come true. I had visited my French friends over break and seen their lives. I’d partied with their friends and eaten traditional meals with their families. I’d seen a new region of France, which reminded me of home in all the best ways and France in all the best ways. And then I came back, and realized that it wasn’t my reality, and maybe it never would be. That type of crash was totally new to me. I haven’t had my dreams collapse around me very often, and if one did I’d been able to see around the obstacle and get it back again. This time, the obstacle was circumstance. I can’t make friends just based on nationality, I realized. I can’t control where I am (aka, not in a place where it’s particularly easy to “make french friends”), I can’t control how much time I have (because work), and, ultimately, I can never be French anyway.

It was then that I realized that my dream was to have grown up here, to have been a native speaker, to have family and friends and roots around me because it was their place too. I wanted both a past and a future in this foreign place. Basically, I had been setting myself up for Personal Disaster. An Identity Crisis. I had also been grossly undervaluing my own origins and upbringing and my own present and future, which was the most shameful of shames.

And then I asked myself as I sat there, raw and naked, stripped of this absurdist dream:

…then what the heck am I doing here?

This is a crisis of the highest order. I realized I just “was” somewhere: completely without purpose. It became a waste of time, I was a waste of space.

What the #$!* is the point of it all?

I figured it out again. I did it right this time: I thought about my experiences, I thought about my feelings, I thought about how much I’d already changed and grown in 4 months (plus the 5 ones in the past), and I thought about the relationships and community I’d cultivated, at home and abroad. I decided, once and for all, that I’ll never give up peanut butter (you literally could not pay me to do so). I laid out all that I had lived.

And I decided:

I may not be living my specific, absurd dream of the past…but I sometimes feel like I’m living “the dream,” even with all the ups and downs of rootless expat life.

So I reshaped my dream to match reality, and I discovered that my reality this year has been mostly a dream come true.

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Valenciennes: where dreams come true. 😉

My (Shattered?) French Dream

What’s an American?

Paradoxically, I have thought more about “being American” in the past few months than I had in my entire life.

It’s what I introduce myself as. As such, it’s become one of my most well-known identities.

“Hi, I’m Anne! I’m American.”

It’s usually replied to with a comment about Americans. I can’t say that everyone I’ve met has had the same opinion on the United States. I can say that everyone I’ve met associates something with the U.S. and its people.

Some people assume I own a gun. Some people ask me if we only ever eat hamburgers. Other people think I spent my college days partying away in a dirty frat house, like the ones in the movies. Some people revere our pop culture, expecting that I meet celebrities in the street on a regular basis. Some people might assume I’m arrogant and entitled, overenthusiastic, naive, or that I didn’t learn French before coming here because “everybody speaks English.”

I have been met with all of these reactions, communicated to me in various forms. What this tells me is nothing conclusive about the views of Europeans on America, other than everyone I’ve met seems to have a view on it. What that tells me is that we have a privileged (or maybe not) position on the world stage, in that many people are watching us (but many others aren’t, let’s not get too assumptive).

There are, in my mind, two extreme approaches to process an incident through which one discovers a stereotype of the U.S., neither of which are all good or all bad:

A) Reject the USA, or its role in the world, and send everyone back home the message, “we need to improve our reputation abroad.” I have adopted this stance once in a while. It’s tempting for critical thinkers who enjoy reflecting on identities and the issues facing our nation/how we can eliminate them to work toward a better society (aka, liberal arts future grassroots movement champion kids). This position leads to becoming an expatriate and/or extreme political activist and/or considering oneself “basically French” at heart.

B) Reject everyone else and decide that life in America is better, compare everything to it and become immensely dissatisfied, count down the days until home. Argue that nobody sees the true diversity in America and that therefore their conclusions are untrue. This person moves back and criticizes the “other countries” that don’t have it as good as we do in the US of A. There is value to this viewpoint as well, in that the person recognizes what our privileges are as US citizens. (However, just so y’all don’t get me wrong, I do find this 2nd view pretty problematic.)

Here’s the approach I’ve eventually settled on:

There is truth in stereotypes. Question it, without rejecting or accepting it. Where is the truth? What does it say about US culture? What does it say about French culture? How can one inform the other?

I find myself staunchly between the two camps, trying constantly to see both sides. Maybe Americans think French people are rude because they try to give a French person a hug (like we do back home), not realizing that French people reserve hugs for intimate and familial relationships. Maybe French people think Americans don’t speak French because they’ve only met Americans who don’t speak French. Even if a stereotype has become generalized and extreme, it must have arisen from some primordial stereotypical act that someone witnessed at some point, and that analysis by an external source could be a window for us, as we travel, into what it means to be “American.”

We are all our own kinds of American. Sometimes my particular kind might confirm a stereotype, and sometimes it will disconfirm it for some unsuspecting Frenchman. But I’m not worried anymore about being or not being American, I am using how people analyze me to figure out my kind of American.

I do think that, back in America, we think that French people eat baguettes and cheese all the time, drink copious amounts of wine, and that rudeness and snobbery are somehow more common in France (but so are romance and sexiness). In short, all of France is reduced to Paris. There’s truth in that too, and falsity. They do eat a lot of cheese and baguettes, but most of the French people I’ve met have been just as warm and friendly as we’re used to, maybe even more authentically so sometimes. It’s all complicated.

The most important thing, to me, in coming here, was not to confirm or disconfirm these assumptions, but to gain a richer understanding of how and why we’re different. Sometimes I encounter the illusion (in Americans) that Western Europe is culturally the same as us, and that in going there we will not encounter as much difference as we might in a more exotic place. This is true in that our lifestyle was at some point based on theirs, and a lot of us have ethnic roots in Western Europe so we look similar. This is false in that even countries within “Western Europe” are, culturally and linguistically, vastly different from one another. Different languages bring different cultures with them. Different aristocracies, histories, roles in world wars, political and economic systems, culinary traditions…all of these make “Western Europe” vastly diverse, and totally different from the United States of America.

It is so fun to think about why those differences exist. Being here is about encountering difference, for me, for one reason: it makes us reflect on “the other,” reflect on ourselves, and come to new understanding of both. We can be more informed people about both sides. Being here is precisely about “thinking more about being American than I ever have in my life.”

And my identity conclusion? I’ll keep my “American” enthusiasm. But I could do with being more choosy about my cheese. 😉

What’s an American?

Le Carnaval de Dunkerque

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In the above photo, the mayor of Dunkirk is tossing shrink-wrapped fish out of the window of town hall, into a cheering crowd of intoxicated, disguised Dunkerquois (and their friends). As far as I know, fish-tossing is an exclusively Northern France tradition. Out of the whole weekend in Dunkirk celebrating Carnaval, this was the moment when I realized that I was seeing something I would never see anywhere else in the world.

A little background: my housemate Dana works at the Language Resource Center at the university where she also teaches English. The director of that center invites all the lecteurs who work with him to Dunkirk every year to experience Carnaval with his family and friends. His mother has a huge and beautiful house where everyone gets a bed, and his sister’s family hosts a party (une chapelle) before the ball. Because there were extra spots, Dana invited Laura and I to come with them!

The unlucky few who had to take the train (me, Laura, Dana, and Jeff) left at around 3 PM, to arrive in Dunkirk around 5 PM. We had some preparatory Ruby on the train.

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When we arrived at the house where the pre-party would be, we donned our costumes and put on make up (after a last minute run to the costume store, which was teeming with shoppers).

Here are some before and after pictures.

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Our man friends were required to respect the Dunkirk fishing village tradition of men dressing like women for Carnaval. As the story goes, Carnaval was a celebration before all the fishermen went out to sea for a very long time, and they disguised themselves as women to avoid having to go. We decided to dress as men in solidarity. A trip to the Ressourcerie in Val before leaving was all we needed to acquire 50 cent crazy ties and a 6 euro blazer. Our artistic lectrice friend did all the makeup.

The chapelle was full of dancing and eating (croque monsieur, yum) and drinking and merriment. There were a large dog and several small children running around, which made it sometimes hazardous to be on the dance floor, but everyone had a blast. I was surprised to see some teachers from my school amongst the family friends of our host’s sister! Turns out, his sister’s husband is one of the teacher’s brother. Crazy coincidence, crazy small world…

Around midnight, we left for the bal de Dunkerque, which was in the exposition hall of the town.

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As you can see, it was quite the party! Everyone was dressed up. Like Halloween plus. 

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Here we are, sweaty and tired mid-ball!

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We were dancing in one of the rooms when suddenly a different tune started to play, and everyone linked arms and started walking around a large centerpiece in the middle. We got caught in the crowd so we turned with the rest of them, and almost got knocked over and trampled in the fray! Eventually we got out and watched. This tradition is called le rigodon, and it happens at every carnaval.

We left the ball at the respectable hour of 4:30 AM, returning home to eat onion soup (another tradition) and sleep for a few hours. 1 PM was the official wake up time on Sunday, and we had a feast of meats and patés and cheese and bread and nutella and jam. And lots of coffee. Then, we took to the streets to see the daytime festivities.

The streets were covered in costumed people. There were thousands of them, just as there had been at the ball. We were a little more conspicuous this time, having not re-donned our smoky, sweaty costumes from the night before. Touristes!

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We also walked by the port, which was beautiful. The air was full of the sea and crisper and cleaner than air I’d breathed in other parts of France. It brought me to tears with how homey it felt.

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Every so often, I have a weekend that reminds me why I came here. Carnaval was a huge moment of “I wouldn’t rather be anywhere else in the world right now,” and that is one of my favorite feelings. I couldn’t help but grin stupidly in the crowd as I reveled in the ambiance, and tried not to get hit by a fish.

Le Carnaval de Dunkerque

New Year, New Home!

I’m sorry the adventure stories (TFH 1-4) are over…but not as sorry as I am that the adventures are over. The first week back (la rentrée) has been a little bluesy. I’ve heard tell that January is the hardest month to be abroad if you’re away for a year, and I can sort of maybe see why already?

However, one great thing about coming back is that I moved!

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Here are some shots of my room, which is nice, plus I also have a kitchen, a living room, and two lovely housemates! IMG_0663

Essentially, the friend who had my room decided to move to Lille, and I seized the opportunity to get out of my tiny, moldy, noisy apartment-room and into this beautiful house with two of my favorite people!

I’m happy that I moved but also happy that I waited until the perfect situation arose. I think had I moved into a colocation (housemate situation) at the beginning, it would’ve been more risky because i wouldn’t have known my housemates first! In this case, it was a no-brainer considering how much time I spent at their place anyways. I am also convinced that my old place was bad for my health. There was actually black mold on the window, and the two nights I spent there when I got back gave me a cold…

My advice to future TAPIFers: if you want to move mid-year, do it! It’s not nearly as difficult as the first time, and 4 months is a long time. I’ve got more time left in France than I’ve already spent here!

Oh, and one more update — I’ve been accepted to a month-long intensive training program to become a certified TEFL teacher (teaching English as a foreign language), so I will be living in Toulouse for a month after my contract ends. I’m excited to experience life in yet another part of France, even if it’s only for a short time!

Bonne année à tous!

New Year, New Home!

TFH Part 4: Ringing in the New Year in Lyon

The fourth and final installment of Touring France for the Holidays (TFH) is about New Year in Lyon! Here’s a map of the continuation of my journey…yes, I did indeed basically cross France, again.

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I arrived in Lyon to find my two friends, Dana and Jeff, who had just come from Christmas in Caen, in Normandy. We were all exhausted, so after meeting at Starbucks (of course), we headed to our Air BnB and ordered some Dominoes pizza for dinner. In fact, American brands were everywhere in Lyon, so we got our Burger King/Apple Store/Starbucks fixes in before the next 4 months in the North. Starbucks even had Lyon-themed mugs!

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The next day, and the two days after, we did some city exploring with Matt, who had invited us in the first place. It was COLD. Here are friends on a bridge:

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One of my favorite sights was the Basilica Fourvière, on the top of a hill. We took a special little metro car to climb it at night (the Funiculaire), and were rewarded with a stunning view of Lyon by night!

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The cit by day was also pretty lovely. Atop the hill is the silk weaver’s district; Lyon used to be a textile city, and it shows in the architecture. In particular, all the houses have little chimneys sticking out to air out the factories, and the weaving quarter is full of narrow staircases used for transporting textiles while sheltering them from the elements.

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They call Lyon a mini Paris, and even from looking at the pictures I bet you can see why! Aside from the Paris-like bridges and Rhône river, it was also very culturally cool — it is quite obviously a young people city that has been home to many cultural movements.

Matt and I went to the Centre de Déportation, which is a museum of the Deportation of Jewish people from France during World War II, and it shed some light on why Lyon is a culturally rich city. For a portion of the period of the occupation of France, Lyon was unoccupied. It became a haven for those fleeing Nazi rule, who gathered to write and discuss and artistically render their wartime experiences. While it did eventually become occupied, Lyon remains a center for discussion and creation today!

Our other French cultural adventure was getting stuck in an elevator. Pro tip: don’t even try getting 4 people into a 3 person elevator. We were getting in at 1 AM after a lovely dinner with friends, and the elevator moved a whole 2 inches off the ground before jamming. All went dark. After a minute or two of trying fruitlessly to bang the doors open, we called the emergency service for the elevator to get them to send a technician. 30 minute wait. We waited 35, then called the fire department. Their response? “Oh, that’s not our job. Call the elevator people, they have a service for this.” Oh really, fireman? DO they???

We eventually got out (45 minutes later), and refused to take the elevator for the rest of the trip. It was cramped. Here’s our selfie:

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The hit French party song Les Sardines has never been more appropriate.

We welcomed in 2015 with some of Matt’s old friends and some new friends, all of whom gathered in Lyon at the home of a Lyon lectrice (a university english teacher, like Matt and Dana). We had a blast getting to know one another, sharing champagne, and dancing the year away. Here we all are, dressed in our 2014 finest.

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And, here’s a summary map of my break!! Lyon marked the end of my great tour of France, which only grew my enthusiasm for the country I call my temporary home.

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Happy holidays to all!

TFH Part 4: Ringing in the New Year in Lyon