Getting Dirty in the Woods

This morning, I went on a walk. It’s been raining a lot in Val, so my attempt to walk around the lake (yep, there’s a lake) was thwarted by multiple impassable mud puddles. In one of my attempts to cross a more reasonable one, I looked at my shoes and had a series of thoughts.

Oh, my new shoes are already muddy.

I never see French girls with muddy shoes.

Why can’t I keep my shoes clean?

Between this morning and now, I haven’t solved the mystery of why French girls don’t have muddy shoes, or at least not the ones I see walking around the city. They have city shoes and woods shoes, maybe?

Sort of in conjunction with this, last weekend I saw the movie version of the book Wild.

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Lille was showing it in VO (Version Original, aka not dubbed in French), and a group of friends and I went as our Saturday afternoon activity. I left the theater feeling inexplicably gutted. It was one of my favorite books of the summer; I read it while on my uncle’s family’s ranch in Montana, and I couldn’t stop thinking about it even when I put it down. I think the movie had such a profound emotional impact on me because Cheryl, and the movie itself, are from my neck of the woods. Literally, I have hiked parts of the PCT on family camping trips and regularly visit Portland, her last stop and current home, to see some of my best friends. Reliving the story reminded me of family and nature and extreme emotional journeys and personal growth.

When we were on that trip in Montana, we went on a family hike that ended with pouring rain and pelting hail as we madly dashed to the cars, soaking wet and covered in mud.

When I looked at my shoes this morning, I thought: I miss getting dirty in the woods.

I’ve been feeling persistently homesick since I returned from winter break. Maybe it was the holidays, maybe it’s the January blues, maybe it’s because this is about the halfway point of my adventure, but I feel like I’m in the “confronting deeper issues” dip of the culture shock curve.

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I’ve never thought of myself as a nature girl, but everything is relative. Relative to the extreme outdoor enthusiasts of Whitman’s OP, where nature is a temple and/or second home, I maybe don’t qualify for the “Nature Girl” title. Relative to my students and a lot of the people I meet in Europe, I feel like a total tree-hugger. I love the smell of trees, and moss, and rotting things in old growth forests. I love how fresh the air is. I love seeing the occasional slug sliming across the trail. I love marveling at things that sprung out of the earth that are so beyond humans, that preceded and will outlive us. I love getting dirty, and sweaty, and sore, and wearing my REI boots and bright green LL Bean fleece and ratty blue jeans.

And, more abstractly, my self-concept has always included deep roots. I pull everything I do and think from a central, grounded, internal source which I take care to cultivate. I am Anne, the tree.

Sometimes I think coming here was me branching out, and other times I feel uprooted.**

Being planted — putting down roots — brings comfort, safety, certainty. I miss my earth, I miss my ground. I don’t feel entirely like I can plant myself here, or, for that matter, anywhere. I might be floating around for a while. It makes me afraid to make connections, afraid to really mentally plant myself because I know I’ll have to uproot once again. I try really hard to cling to my center, but sometimes it escapes me. Right now, it’s much easier to feel lost than it is to feel rooted. I’m more unsettled than grounded.

As a personal development nerd, I read a lot about growing up. I think it’s supposed to feel like this.

And I guess, whether I can feel my roots or not, they are inescapable. I must be nourished, watered, and cared for somehow…and growing up and out from somewhere.

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** Isn’t it interesting that so many emotional metaphors can come out of the image of a forest?? Language is cool.

Getting Dirty in the Woods

Being a Teaching “Assistant”

I’ve now been in France as a TAPIFer long enough to have drawn some conclusions about being in France as a TAPIFer — namely, about being an “assistant,” and what that really means!

My school experience, first of all, has been about as excellent as I could have hoped. I know full well that not all assistants are as lucky; some are placed in schools which are unused and/or hostile to the idea of having an assistant. Mine was very welcoming, and my teacher reference is kind, helpful, and communicates well with me in regards to my responsibilities. Score 1 for my lycée!

So, instead of speaking about my school exclusively, I’ll explore the question:

What does it mean to be an assistant?

It means that you don’t control your fate, firstly and foremostly. It’s hard (/impossible?) to get your dream schedule, your dream classes, your dream location, etc. This is actually even true for French teachers; they get placed wherever they’re needed and not necessarily where they want. Accepting subjection to an alien system is part of living and working abroad, so just know that it will be alien and perhaps it will be easier to accept!

Almost everything stems from that first point: you don’t get control over how you’re set up, but you also don’t get control over your daily life. I would say that an average of two of my classes are cancelled each week, sometimes with no communication of that fact to me. This usually results in me working fewer hours, and spending more time sitting around in the staff room at school. This isn’t always a bad thing — I think that because I’m hanging around a lot in my time off, I’ve been able to get to know more of the teachers and been developing stronger relationships with them due to my ubiquity. I have had to learn how to “go with the flow” and make the most of the time I unexpectedly have to read for pleasure, plan for classes, etc.

It’s hard to plan for classes. First of all, they aren’t my classes, which means that often I will have a lesson plan or subject given to me to prepare, with specific instructions from the teacher. This was really helpful when I was first starting out, because I didn’t know the classes or their capabilities in English at all. Now that I’m getting an inkling as to their preferences, levels, etc., I’m starting to crave more freedom. It’s hard to teach something that I didn’t choose, because sometimes it doesn’t mesh with my style or interests as well as something might if I had planned it all. Here’s a picture of a worksheet I made up for my junior high class this week (I enjoyed it because I got to prove my freehand map-drawing abilities and also I got to be creative!).

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In case it’s not clear, it’s a map to fill in as a geography exercise and a list of stereotypes and/or recognizable monuments to match to some of the major cities that I labeled on the map. I’m hoping it will be entertaining enough to captivate and educate my 13/14 year olds.

One of the privileges and challenges of being assistants is that we aren’t full-fledged teachers. We are sometimes neglected or forgotten because of this, and sometimes we are given more than we can handle because many of us have never really been trained. But, this is also a privileged position. As a teacher, there are grades to give. There is a certain amount of relatively specific curriculum to get across. There are parents to contend with. There are more hours to work. As assistants, we’re basically given the best part of teaching : the inspiration part. Yes, it’s incredibly difficult to “inspire” a room full of jaded high school seniors to suddenly want to work really hard and learn more english. I have to count my little successes : the one student that comes up to me after class with loads of questions, the ones that I manage to engage for the first time with a new activity, the ones who are patiently and quietly watching me as I try to explain something difficult in class, and then the light turns on.

At the end of the day, if I have managed to make one student think that there’s a whole wide world out there that maybe they’ll want to explore one day, then I have done my inspirational duty.

The other thing I’ve learned is that it’s hard to constantly work to be satisfied with small moments of success. I am very often frustrated and exasperated, to the point where I’ve begun to think teaching high school in France is not going to be my thing forever. But I’ve resolved to learn as much as I can from it while it’s still my job, because I definitely won’t be here forever!

I miss my cozy liberal arts university classrooms, where learning was the common goal and everyone was engaged and invested. It’s an intellectual community like that that lights my mind on fire. Maybe (definitely) one day, I will return. Until then, I will cheesily conclude that the world is my classroom! It’s true, though.

Being a Teaching “Assistant”

Touring France for the Holidays: Part 1

I’m back!

Honestly I thought I’d have a lot more time to write on the road…silly me. I don’t think I got my computer out for more than ten minutes the whole time. That is FINE by me, though! Now I’ve got a lot of adventure stories so I’ll try to spread them out.

Part 1 : Enquête Exclusif à Rennes

My journey began on Saturday morning at 5 AM, when I woke up to catch my train from Valenciennes to Lille. In Lille, I caught my train to Rennes, for my first cross-France journey. Here’s an estimated map (because I took a train instead of a car!).

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Rennes is the capital of the Bretagne region of France, and a notorious student city. Roughly one fourth of the population is students, actually. It makes for a great night out — or so I’ve heard, but unfortunately I arrived the day all the students left for the holidays. Lise said that there was a marked difference between Rennes with students and Rennes without.

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The city wasn’t destroyed in the war like most of the North and some of the West…so there are still buildings from the 14th and 15th centuries everywhere! Historical charm: check! It was also misty and rainy and mild most of the time, which fit my image of Bretagne (I figured the west coast is the west coast everywhere…I felt right at home).

On my first full day, we did one of Lise’s favorite things — the Planetarium! There’s a science center in Rennes with a fully functional planetarium, and we watched a 3D tour of the galaxy. It was so unexpectedly meditative. I almost fell asleep, and when I got out I felt incredibly calm and peaceful inside. When you see the galaxy like that….it’s impossible not to feel like the smallest thing in the universe, and that’s a really relaxing thought. If we are small, all our problems are even smaller. Perspective!

We emerged from the pitch black peace machine to find ourselves in the Foire d’Hiver — the winter fairground. French fairs are much like American ones: total overstimulation. To go from drastic understimulation to drastic overstimulation so suddenly made us laugh. All we could do at the fair was people watch and stare at all the terrifying-looking rides…

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Later, we went to another of Lise’s favorite places… A Vos Mousses, a self-serve beer bar. Stick your card on the sensor, and you can fill your glass with as much beer as there are euros of credit (and as it will hold, obviously). What a genius idea for a bar, was my thought — you can imagine the money to be made when a bunch of intoxicated people get their hands on a self-serve beer card. We only had one, this time ;).

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We stumbled across a light show on the way home. This is one of the things France does during the holiday season: they have light shows projected onto buildings, usually the city hall, that are strikingly realistic. Lyon has a famous Fête des Lumières which I eventually hope to see, but apparently Rennes has one as well! They’re quite a spectacle.

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The next day, we went to the park! I love French parks. This one has been around for ages, and used to be the leisure activity scene for the bourgeois elite of Rennes. Its elegantly groomed grass and gardens and fancy fountains betray its high-class past. It was a lovely escape from the city!

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Now for the Enquête Exclusif  reference: one of the nights, Lise and I watched a TV program that was discussing American universities and the hazing, alcohol, and prostitution which characterize them. It went on for almost an hour on the seedy sides of university life, interviewing an idiot kid on spring break and numerous women who’d chosen to become escorts to pay for school. At the very end, it said “the university system has some positive aspects as well,” talked for 15 minutes about research, and ended.

I have two conflicting reactions to things like this: “wow, some things that happen in my country really make us look bad,” and “how dare they only look at the negative.” News is biased, but that doesn’t mean that these things don’t happen. It’s one of the challenges of being in a foreign country: you see your own with brand new eyes. My goal is to never become too critical of one or the other. All countries are extremely diverse and have good and bad aspects…and I don’t ever want to dislike the U.S. or dislike France. They’re just different.

I had a BLAST catching up with Lise! It’s been about a year since I’d seen her, but for foreign friends…we’ve seen each other once a year since we’ve met, which is pretty great. Sending our love to the former French house and friends, we missed you! And a big THANKS from me to Lise for being such a great hostess!

Next up is Part 2, concerning two friends and three Christmases in my new favorite region.

Touring France for the Holidays: Part 1

Study Abroad vs. TAPIF: A Comparison

Many things in these first few months have made me think about this question:

What’s the difference between studying abroad and doing TAPIF?

I think this question is relevant to a lot of people, so I’ll use my experience to answer it for myself, and maybe it will resonate with someone!

First, some important background:

Then: Paris, lived in a homestay, went through a program organized by an American university with 45 other students, stayed for one semester. Studied (12 hours of class + homework). First time abroad.

Now: Valenciennes, live in a tiny room-apartment, went through the TAPIF program (organized by the French Ministry of Education), staying for almost a whole academic year (7 months). Working 12 hours/week.

I’ll make this comparison in list format, because it’s an internet trend but also because it’s organized and pretty

Pre-departure Differences

  1. The application process: This part is actually fairly similar. Both study abroad and TAPIF require everyone to fill out an application with some of the same material listed. One of the major differences is that the TAPIF application requires you to essentially translate your CV into French, by listing all your activities and extracurriculars in French instead of English. TAPIF is also much more competitive these days.
  2. The visa process: This is EASIER for TAPIF than it is for study abroad. They didn’t require nearly as much paperwork, and the French government paid for the visa fee. Unfortunately the trip to San Francisco is still required for people from my neck of the woods.
  3. The packing/panicking process: There’s no “things to bring” lists or advice or people to talk to if you’re in a panic when you do TAPIF. There’s Carolyn Collins, who sends out some e-mails throughout the summer, and the Guide de l’Assistant de Langue en France. I read all the things, and none of them particularly prepared me or helped in moments of panic. In my study abroad program there were lots of helping hands in case we got stuck or panicky, between the study abroad liaison at Whitman and the directors of the Paris program.
  4. Leaping into the unknown: Nobody knows where they’re going or what it will be like before they leave. This was a HUGE difference, because with study abroad programs there are usually past participant testimonies, a general structure to the program that we know ahead of time, and we plan out things to do and everything before arrival. Including housing.

Lifestyle Differences

  1. Speaking French: In my study abroad program, we were required to speak French on school grounds, and also generally had to use French to talk to our host families and the professors and administration at our French schools. All of that goes away with TAPIF, depending on your situation. In my case, I live alone, hang out with English speakers, and most of the people I know at my high school are English teachers, so it takes a lot more effort to speak French. Sometimes it’s possible to find a host family, so if that’s a concern for you, explore your options.
  2. Helping Hands: With TAPIF, you are at the mercy of kind souls in your school who may or may not want to help you get set up, find a bank, find a house, get a phone, etc. There isn’t a conveniently located center for the program with advice and deals and all the answers. If there are no kind souls, you do it yourself! I was fortunate and my teacher contact helped me out a lot with the bank, but for most things I was on my own.
  3. Work vs. School: You are no longer a student when doing TAPIF. You have a job, and having a job means being professional, interacting with colleagues, and setting a good example for the students you teach. Living a student life in Paris, nobody was expecting me to be anywhere or do anything or interact with them professionally in a work capacity. Here, I definitely feel watched at school, and there are many expectations. On the flip side, I’m not actually in school very much, and I live in a different town so I don’t worry about running into students outside of class. And I like having a work life and a home life!
  4. Location: In study abroad, I was in Paris! And now I’m in Val. It’s like going from magical fairy wonderland to the woods. Magical fairy wonderland was a new adventure full of shiny things to see and learn every single day, and the woods are basically the same all the time. But the woods are more natural and teach me survival skills, so I’m happy with it. But: don’t expect the woods to be magical fairy wonderland! Appreciate them for what they are.
  5. The ex-pat community: There is a different community of people awaiting with TAPIF. In my case, my friends are not all American study abroad students…they are European, American, South American, Canadian lecteurs (English teachers at university level), assistants, and students. And even some French students, teachers, and families. It’s great for French sometimes, not so great other times…but in my case, I feel like I’ve found some people that share my passion for cultural exchange, just as I did during study abroad!
  6. Living conditions: In Paris, my friends and I were generally housed in home stays or student foyers. Now, it’s everyone for themselves, and the conditions range from single-room shared-facilities to 3-story house.
  7. Making a salary (!?): Now, I make money! In Paris, I didn’t. That being said, the salary is barely enough to live on, even in a less expensive area!

The most important difference to me personally is that before, I was going back somewhere — Whitman, my home away from home — to do something determined. So, the whole semester had a magical feel to it, my first experiences not at home and in a country that I’d dreamed of visiting for so long. I left feeling like I had unfinished business.

Now, I am officially launched into the world, so this is like my debutante ball. I am living MY life! And I’m trying to decide where it’s going next. Who knows where my business will be finished?

Anne in Paris, 2013!
Anne in Paris, 2013!
Study Abroad vs. TAPIF: A Comparison

Faux Pas

I have two best friends: mistakes and questions.

This post is advice and encouragement for language learners who decide to immerse themselves in their second language. It’s the best way to learn, because you will be put in situations where you will make mistakes.

During our very brief teacher training, our experienced teacher contact for TAPIF told us to make sure, when we give a lesson, that we leave room for students to make errors. She suggested that we tell them, “In this exercise, you must make at least five mistakes.” I hadn’t ever thought about making that explicit before, but the more I thought about it the more I believed in it. I’ve learned the most from my mistakes.

In my first week staying with my teacher host when I first got to France, I decided to use a slangy term that I’d picked up in Paris (le bordel) because it fit the situation I was describing. When I used it, both her and her daughter burst out laughing. I was understandably confused…and they explained to me that it just sounds bizarre to hear a non-native use it, and also it’s not as appropriate for the situation as this other word because it’s a little too slangy and a little too strong.

If I had used a different, safer word, I would have never learned that. I would also never have gotten laughed at.

But I think those situations are what’s built me a thicker skin, because I know that a brief moment of embarrassment is worth learning what you learn when you make a faux pas in French.

Asking questions is similarly humbling. To admit you don’t know something can be a huge challenge, especially when what you “don’t know” is the word for fork, or how to order food at a restaurant. We are used to knowing those things like we know to say “hello” and “goodbye” when coming and going…which, I hate to break it to ya, is also only applicable in our home country.

I was teaching a class last week and I could tell one of the girls had a question. She was asking everyone around her how to say something, and I couldn’t hear what the something was. I asked her if she had a question, and she said “no, it’s shameful.”

The only outcome of being ashamed? She didn’t learn the word. I have only empathy for her, of course — I know how hard it is to ask someone something that you think you should know, not to mention how hard high school sometimes is…but I had a moment of reflection based on what she said, and realized that most of my improvement was attained by not letting shame or fear hold me back.

I didn’t always do that, of course. There have been times when I haven’t asked or haven’t tried because I was afraid to mess up. It’s normal. But now I check myself when that happens, and I’ve cultivated a sense of humor about it. Laughing at yourself is a necessary part of learning. And, you can always choose to try what you’re trying again later if it’s not the right moment.

Especially in the first month or two of moving to a new country, it will be intimidating and disheartening to feel like all you do is make mistakes and ask questions. The rewards are coming, though, and they will always be worth it.

I’ll now point out the irony of the title. “Faux pas” is a word that we even use in English to describe something you shouldn’t do. According to wikipedia, “A faux pas is a socially awkward or tactless act, especially one that violates accepted social norms, standard customs, or the rules of etiquette.”

And I’m saying: make them. Make them all the time, learn how you did it, forgive yourself, and you won’t make the same one twice.

Faux Pas

Some Americans in Paris

In the middle of Thanksgiving week, my best friend from college came to visit Paris. I’d been looking forward to his visit for months; he found out he’d be coming during summer, and I knew that by November I’d be dying for visitors from home. By chance, last week was my week when I have Tuesday (and Wednesday) free, so after school on Monday I took the train to meet him in Paree.

It was a bit of a shock — in a good way — to be among Americans again, and to be in a family! John’s aunt and uncle and cousins were so welcoming, and I’m so lucky that they invited me to stay with them.

Paris still has a special place in my heart, and it was great to be a tourist there. We went up the Eiffel Tower (which I’d never done before) and splurged on a glass of champagne. 

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We also went on a boat cruise on the Seine, hit up the Musée de l’Orangerie, walked a LOT and ate many, many pastries. 

I had never been in Paris during the holiday season, because I arrived in January last year. It’s just as charming as you might imagine; every street is decorated with its own light display (this one says: “the businesses wish you happy holidays”). We ate dinner on Rue Cler:

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We even saw the president’s motorcade leave the Invalides the next day as we were trying to get across a bridge.

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Every time I go back to Paris, it’s with a different person and is a whole new experience. I think part of its magic IS that everyone experiences it in a different way. But now, when I go back, my favorite thing to do is just to wander. No plans means no expectations, which means no disappointment if things don’t go as planned (which they often don’t).

John and I also had a conversation about “France Anne” versus “American Anne.” When I originally came back from study abroad, the splitting of the Annes was how I dealt with the shock of moving between places and feeling different in each one. But I am forced to rethink that conceptualization of myself as I spend more time here, in a very different capacity. There is just one whole Anne; she is both French and American influenced, because she has “lived” in both places. But this time, I have no idea when I’m going back or what I will be going back to, so “France Anne” is not temporary — I’m being changed by my experiences in a more permanent way, because I’m learning how to live in the world as a non-student, as are many of my recent-graduate peers in the States. I’m growing up separately from old friends now, and that’s incredibly hard to come to terms with when it’s not something you’re used to.

But there was this moment — we were walking along the Seine talking utter nonsense to one another and overcome with laughter — when I thought, with an overwhelming feeling of gratitude and luckiness, that my best friends will always be my best friends.

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Some Americans in Paris

In the In-Between

I met with a professor from one of the local universities the other day, and he articulated something that I’ve been thinking about ever since.

We were talking about language teaching. When teaching your native language to non-native speakers, you are constantly being asked to explain why your language is constructed the way it is. To you, your language is constructed instinctively — you have a linguistic feeling that helps you choose which words to use when and in which order, and that’s why it’s so different to learn language in school than to learn it at the beginning of life. Explaining why that feeling exists to people who don’t already have it is one of the biggest challenges in language teaching.

But, this teacher put it so brilliantly — when you’re forced to explain it, you begin to examine your own language from a distanced perspective: you see it not as your community of native speakers sees it (because they never have to examine the linguistic systems that they’ve always employed), but as a community of non-native speakers understands it.

This distance, he argued, means that instead of speaking the way you have always spoken (out of instinct), you are more intentional about the way you speak. In other words, you start to form your very own language, which is not wholly determined by the cultural and linguistic community that surrounded you from birth.

I find this to be linguistically true (I’m picking up both British-isms and French-isms already in the way I talk, which people at home might find bizarre), but I’ve also been thinking about it as true of the Self.

When I went on study abroad, I envisioned myself as a living organism being plucked from its natural habitat and plopped in the middle of one that’s entirely new.  Everything that my identity depended upon in my Whittie, Walla Wallan, Washingtonian, Redmondite communities (what I studied, who my friends were, my extracurriculars and leadership positions and what people knew of or assumed about my personality) no longer applied. I could reinvent myself if I wanted, because I became the only one responsible for inventing myself and articulating me to others.

It was an incredibly scary step into the dark, to alienate myself from my safe, warm, and loving linguistic and cultural community. Just like I maybe am becoming estranged from Instinctive English, I became estranged from my old self. And I’ve done it again.

In Paris, my identity was somewhere between Tourist and Inhabitant, and it was my distance from both, being in-between, that helped me figure out where my niche lay in my life there. Now I’m sort of in one of life’s in-between spaces. I’m in between my educational career and my future as an adult in the working world. And there is no more congruous space to occupy, in this place in my life, than (once again) a linguistic and cultural in-between. I’m an American living in France, and I’m being forced to think about American-ness and French-ness, English and French, and who I’ve been and who I’ll be, all at once. I’m uncomfortable in almost all the roles — in one, and the other, and the in-between — but it’s when I’m uncomfortable all the time that I find I have the most to think about.

And I find that when I’m not in a community that I naturally know how to fit into, I begin to understand myself in new ways. Being distant from what I’ve always known gives me that same distanced perspective on myself that I have on my language.

Part of growing up is gaining a sense of identity, I think. Communities, both cultural and linguistic, give their members that identity, and mine has been profoundly shaped by where I’ve come from. But, where I am now is making me think about who I want to be next as only the destabilizing new identity of “foreigner” to a rich new community can.

And thus, as we’re all shaped by our language, finding my autonomy in my language is helping me find my autonomy in my identity. I’m growing into an Anne of my own intentional creation. And I will continue growing in this way, forever. So I guess it’s best I learn how to do it, right now. And how to never let it stop!

In the In-Between