TFH Part 2: The Three Christmases

On Monday the 22nd, my journey through the west continued via train to Vannes, where I met up with Solena, my second former native speaker friend! (For those who don’t know: I met both Solena and Lise at Whitman, where they were Native Speakers and lived with me in the French House).

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Solena invited me to spend Christmas with her family before I even knew for sure I’d be coming to France, and I was so excited to get to know her homes and families and experience a real French Christmas! Little did I know, I’d be celebrating three of them…

Christmas 1:

I spent Christmas Eve with Solena’s mother’s family in Elven, near Vannes (post on Bretagne to come). Here’s a breakdown of the evening’s festivities:

6 PM: Start getting ready by getting dressed in Christmas best

7:30 PM: Christmas Mass at l’Eglise d’Elven, full of songs and small children. The small children made it that much more entertaining, because we all agreed that it dragged on a little…but it seems like Mass is a pretty widely attended pre-Christmas celebration and I wanted to experience it firsthand.

9:00 PM: Get home from Christmas Mass, indulge the children’s fevered cries to open presents (Père Noel came while we were gone).

10:00 PM: Begin Christmas dinner with an apéritif — Martinis, vegetables and dip, and a variety of nuts.

IMG_060111:00 PM: BeIMG_0599gin the first entrée course — Fruits de mer (seafood) and vin blanc (white wine). This was a big vocabulary lesson for me. Pictured are some of the entrée options; there were shrimp, crayfish, spider crabs, oysters, clams (live), and some kind of sea snail. I tried everything!! I still love shrimp, and crayfish are delicious, but I had more trouble with the raw oysters. They tasted a little too much like the sea for me.

I think 12:30 AM: Second entrée course — Foie Gras on toast. I also tried some of this. I think foie gras  is really delicious, it’s just sometimes a psychological struggle for me to eat it.

Sometime after 1 AM: Main dish! — Poulet marron (chestnut chicken) and vin rouge (red wine). I had never tried this dish, a Christmas specialty, before, and it was DELICIOUS! It’s my new favorite. Unfortunately at this point it was getting really difficult to eat anything due to fatigue and stuffed-ness.

After that: Fromage — cheese! I skipped this course accidentally because Solena’s 4 year old cousin came to sit on my lap and I couldn’t reach the cheese (at least that’s my excuse…)

3:00 AM: Dessert — the traditional French Christmas dessert is ice cream cake, or Buche de Noel. It’s in the shape of a Yule Log. Ours was an atypical flavor: mango passionfruit! The most common is chocolate.

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4:00 AM: Not over yet! The last course: coffee and chocolate. I had hot milk for fear of never again being able to sleep if I ingested caffeine. Although I bet it would’ve been absorbed before it hit the bloodstream…

BEDTIME!

The next day, we got up and packed and drove to Port Louis.

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Port Louis will be featured in my Bretagne post as well, but here I will talk about Christmas meal number 2! This time, it was Solena’s father’s family, and it began around 1 in the afternoon. I’ll just briefly describe the menu:

Apéritif: a variety of toasts with mystery seafood spreads (her grandmother had us guess what was in each one), and champagne!

Entrée: Oysters for most people, but another woman and I split the cooked palourdes (clams) with garlic, parsley, and butter, because neither of us like oysters. They were delicious!!

Entrée: Coquilles St. Jacques. These are some of my favorite, favorite things. It’s basically a variety of seafood treats in a deliciously rich beschamel-style sauce, and it was served to us in a shell. Homemade by Solena’s grandma and grandpa!

Main Dish: Poulet Chataigne. The same dish with a different type of chestnut, and I liked this variation even better. I ate a lot of it this time.

Fromage: I ate this this time.

Dessert: Chocolate Buche de Noel!

Café and Swiss chocolate rounded out another delicious meal.

This meal ended around 6 PM, and Solena and I went for a walk by the sea for digestive purposes. A beautiful end to a beautiful day.

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The third Christmas dinner, I will be brief about, because the company was more important than the food. We dined with Solena’s family of friends the night after, for a soirée that lasted from 7 PM til 4 AM and was full of joy and laughter and friendship! To me, that is what Christmas anywhere is all about: family and family-like friends, coming together and eating and drinking and enjoying each other’s company. I was so grateful that I was welcomed with open arms into these families when I couldn’t be with my own! I have a hard time really putting into words how much I enjoyed the love and joy and Christmas spirit that I encountered on this vacation…here are some pictures of new and old friends instead!

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Merry belated Christmas to friends and family, near and far!

Next up: Bretagne, the tourist post!

TFH Part 2: The Three Christmases

Kebaby and Dragons: 4 Days in Krakow

As seen on Facebook, I’ve been spending my Toussaint vacation with friends in Valenciennes and Poland. Yes, we did only work for 2 weeks before getting a 2 week vacation. There is some evidence that suggests French workers are more productive when they do work because they get a lot more vacation time than American culture permits; we’ll see if that applies to me ;).

Last week, I arrived home after an outing with friends to find that the water in my building had flooded the halls, and in the process had leaked into the electrical box for the common areas. So I was without electricity and water, all at once. A kind friend offered to host me while it was repaired, so I bounced around houses until it was time to leave for week 2 in Poland. When I left, there was still no electricity, but thankfully the water got fixed super fast — it just wasn’t hot!

This situation could have been a million times worse…as it was, it was much fun spending time with friends in their houses AND it made me appreciate our hostel showers so much more.

Speaking of which, I’m in Krakow! one of my lovely new friends Dana planned herself a trip to Krakow, Poland, and invited anyone who wanted to to join her. Four of us hopped on board, and have been kickin’ it together like the best of friends for DAYS. Not even tired of them yet ;). In other exciting news, my travel buddy/best friend/twin Caro showed up to join us on our Polish adventure.

Here’s some stuff we did:

1) Lots of walking.

We began our trip with a walking tour of Old Town, in the middle of Krakow.

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We hit up the Main Square, the city walls, the moat-turned-park with walking paths, and the Wawel Castle. We also saw the oldest building in Krakow, a church built in the 1200s. We did another walking tour later in the week with a “macabre” theme, and heard some cool Polish ghost stories. Krakow is one of the cleanest cities I’ve been in. It’s also COLD! We walked many more places too — around the lake, through the Jewish Quarter, to and from the hostel, from bar to bar on the hostel pub crawls — good thing we also…

2) …ate lots of Polish food. 

Look, here’s my new favorite food. It’s called a pierogi, and it’s a meat and potato and many other thing – filled dumpling. We found many pierogi shops, including a 24-hour one by our hostel and a 50-flavor one across the street from that. I ate a lot of them, especially considering that you eat 10-12 at a time. 

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We also stopped at a Polish restaurant and ordered a bunch of food to split — Kebab, schnitzel, pickles and sauerkraut, blood sausage, etc. I still can’t stomach blood sausage but the rest of it was delicious! And they gave us free shots of cherry liqueur at the end.

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Our hostel offered free breakfast every morning, and a free home-cooked meal every night. Here’s where you should stay in Krakow:

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We made friends and had fun going on the hostel-organized pub crawls and outings. It’s also really clean and homey, and we were in agreement that we had an all-around lovely experience!

3) We took some day trips.  

On a more sobering note, part of the reason we came to Poland was to see Auschwitz, one of the most famous death camps of the Holocaust. This was a hugely important experience. I came away feeling absolutely gutted. I’m not going to talk about it at length here, because this is a too lighthearted platform for an incredibly heavy subject. I just wanted to say that I went, and will never forget how it felt.

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We also went to see the salt mines near Krakow. The salt mines used to produce a hefty percentage of Poland’s salt, but they used up all the pure salt a while ago. They still make salt, but using a filtration system and in much smaller quantities than before. We spent two hours in the mine, and saw a chapel made of salt, salt lakes that you literally cannot submerge yourself in (the salt makes you too buoyant), and I licked a wall. It was pretty salty.

4) We heard some legends.

Here’s my favorite legend:

Once upon a time, there was a dragon that guarded the castle gates to Wawel. Nobody wanted the dragon around, but nobody could kill it…until the town shoemaker had a brilliant idea. He decided to make a fake sheep stuffed with the spiciest spice of the village. He put this spicy sheep outside the dragon’s lair, and the dragon was fooled, so he ate the spicy sheep. He was already fire-breathing, so you can imagine how fire-y his stomach was after eating this spicy sheep. He decided to drink from the nearby river, but the sheep was so spicy that he drank and drank. His stomach capacity gave out before the river did, and he drank so much water that he EXPLODED!! That was the end of him.

We had an enjoyable hour in the ex-dragon’s cave. The dragon’s statue still guards the entrance (and breathes real fire).

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RIP, Cracovian Dragon.

I’ll leave you with one more tidbit about Poland (Polish, really) —

Kebab = kebaby

Chips = chipsy

Burger = burgery

Toilet = toalety

Saying these out loud made us giggle much of the time. It did also remind me of my love for languages, and maybe someday I’ll learn Polish…

Dziekuje (pronounced jin-koo-ya) means thank you. That was the word I retained from the trip.

A great big dziekuje for the adventures, Krakow and friends!

Kebaby and Dragons: 4 Days in Krakow

Anne Turns 22!

I don’t know ’bout you…but I’m feelin’ 22!

If you don’t know where that’s from, clearly you have not yet turned 22 in America. If you ask me, we really need a new anthem. Too bad I’ll never turn 22 again to enjoy one if it happens…

I LOVE birthdays because I get to say to my friends: “hey, thanks for being BORN!” It’s the most unconditional celebration of a human that I can think of. People didn’t have to do anything to deserve a birthday — they didn’t work for it ; they didn’t have to be pretty, or smart, or exceptional ; they didn’t have to “fit in” or live up to anyone’s expectations — nobody even knew how they would turn out on their day of birth. And we get to throw a party to thank them simply for being in the world. I think we forget that everyone was a baby miracle to someone, at some point, when we get bogged down in the expectations (/insecurities) of Life After Birth.

In foreign countries, birthdays are bittersweet. The ingredients of my perfect birthday in America are as follows: Baskin-Robbins ice cream cake, lots of friends and family love, maybe a present or two, a lot of nice cards, and some celebratory dancing + tunes + friends to dance to them with. I’ve had a lot of fantastic birthdays, thanks to some amazing loved ones.

But when you’re far from home, all expectations must be thrown out the window. Nothing will be as expected. Three weeks ago, I had no idea if I’d even have any friends to celebrate with!

But I do. GREAT ones!!

First, I made some food for them. I love cooking for people, and I’ve discovered that people really like eating. [Left: Tartiflette, Right: Falafel night!]

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I also discovered the loveliest Queen of Cakes there ever was, my friend Natalie. She surprised me with a beautiful strawberry tart in the morning, and a chocolate tart + marzipan penguin at night.

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And candles too. And a traditional birthday song! (You may have heard of it)

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I also got a card + candy and my own DVD copy of Bienvenue Chez les Ch’tis! I can FINALLY become hip to the Ch’ti cultural lingo that everyone has said I must learn about. (THANK YOU FRIENDS!)

Then we went bowling! Yes, there is a bowling alley in Val! Complete with American diner. I’m going back for milkshakes someday. The selfie queen made an appearance.

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And tonight, it’s party time!! I am fortunate enough to share a birth month with a lovely British gentleman named Josh (pictured above), and we have joined celebration forces! It’ll be great. The bête de fête from Paris has returned.

To all who sent me bday messages, mail, FB posts, texts, etc…they really, actually mean a lot to me! Thank you!

Love & bisous,

Anne

Anne Turns 22!

Do you like ‘amburgerz?

As assistants, we have a mandatory 24 hours of “observation” before actually starting to teach. And thank goodness we do. Most assistants have not had a huge teaching career before coming to France, so throwing us in front of the classes to lead lessons would just be cruel.

Throwing us in front of classes to be interrogated by the students, however, is common practice. At our orientation, they iterated and reiterated and REreiterated the fact that we are not supposed to be anywhere near the front of the room during observation, not even to introduce ourselves. Despite this rule, most of my first and second week has involved both introducing myself AND answering many many questions. I actually don’t mind this, because I feel more conspicuous when I sit in the back and everyone wonders who I am than when I get a chance to tell them right off the bat. But I’ve never had to answer so many queries into my favorite things, my activities, my age, my home city, etc. etc. etc.

Some highlights: 

Do you like hamburgers?

Do you love the Walking Dead? (not just like, love…there was palpable disappointment when I said I’d never seen it. Now it’s on my list.)

Have you met any stars?

Are all Americans fat?

Do you have children?

Do you want children? (I refrained from answering this one)

What do you think about guns?

Are you REALLY an American person!?** (Yes.)

** It’s worth noting that very few students in Somain have extra money to travel, and especially not to go as far as America, so many of them have never actually met an American person. 

And of course, anytime I mention Walla Walla, I have to write it on the board, and then everyone in the room has to murmur it to themselves and exclaim about what a weird name it is (French also doesn’t have a w-sound…). And then I explain the origins and meaning and it turns into an interesting discussion.

One of our teacher-mentors at orientation said, about fitting into our school environment and being good role models, “when in Rome, do as the Romans do…but pick the best Romans to copy.” All of the “Romans,” (the teachers at my school) whom I’ve encountered are simply lovely. I’ve gotten offered rides home and advice and travel offers and coffees and had lots of good conversations, in French and English. Usually, when I’m at school for the day (2x-ish a week so far), I eat lunch in the cafeteria — this gives me time to socialize with all kinds of teachers, whether or not they speak english, and it’s incredibly good French practice and a lot of fun! (Also, French teachers get beer, wine, sparkling water, and coffee for free at lunch…can I stay?) I’ve noticed especially that I have a lot in common with the English teachers — we’re all interested in cultural exchange and all linguaphiles, and most of them spent time as an assistant abroad (in Britain…their neighbor, ergo easier to get to than the USA).

Students respond to me being in front of the class in one of 4  ways: there’s the pie-eyed look of shock and awe, the I’m-too-cool-for-you shrug of the shoulders, the eyes-on-the-paper look of fear and/or shyness, and the eager hand raiser who is totally unafraid to make mistakes. The first three aren’t particularly talkative, as you may imagine. The fourth type of student is the one that I’m most looking forward to working with. They seem to get less interested the older they get — the junior high schoolers have hardly any english and so many questions, and the older students probably have questions but aren’t always comfortable sharing them.

I think most of what I’ve observed about my job, in being in front of the students and watching them from the back of the class, is that I’m there to jump-start their imaginations. They’re most willing to participate when they have something they’re dying to communicate, whether that’s because they’re inspired by the subject, or particularly full of energy, or engaged in a heated debate with their classmates. My job seems to be planning activities that inspire that excitement. I know I’ll never get that out of everyone. But as long as they learn something from talking to me for an hour or half an hour or however long we have, I’ll consider my mission accomplished.

Oh, and since most of my commute is done in the dark, wee hours of the morning…here’s the pretty sunrise I saw today 🙂

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Do you like ‘amburgerz?

Sunday Fun Day

HAY!

Important announcement: I now have weefee, the elusive French equivalent of wifi, in my place of residence. This means that I’m writing this from my room, in my PJ’s, while drinking some coffee made with my new french press and listening to my favorite tunes and eating cheese. Doesn’t that sound nice?

Last Sunday, I woke up dreading the day a little bit. I’m sure I make it sound pretty fun, but being an assistant can sometimes be a hard spot — I know a few assistants who are struggling to find their place in their town/school, who miss home, who got placed in inconvenient situations from the start. Some people even go home! Or want to. It is definitely one of the most stressful transitions I’ve ever been through, and last weekend I was feeling understandably unsettled by all the big changes, and tired after my first half-week of school.

I ended up spending the day at the house that a few assistant friends live in, right outside the center of Val. Here are some of the activities we did that day:

— Joshua baked us a cake. It was originally cookies, but as we had no recipe, no conceptualization of French grams and centiliters, no measuring tools, and some linguistically ambiguous ingredients (maybe it was baking powder…but was it baking soda?)…the cookies became a cake. It was actually delicious, especially the uncooked goo in the center.

Caramel Surprise Cakie (cookie-cake)

— We danced around the kitchen. Josh and I are now collaborating on a spotify playlist. It will be a masterpiece.

— We made a “Sunday Fun Day” jar, which is full of ideas of things to do when we’re bored in Val. The plan is to pick a thing when we need something to do, and spend the day doing it. “Make a music video,” “international dinner party,” “decorate mugs for each other,” and “go to the Black Diamond” (the only discothèque in Val, purportedly sketchy) are some of our ideas…there are probably at least 20 in all.

— We played the Hat Game/Time’s Up, a game I first learned at Whitman. It’s basically a more difficult form of charades which is played in rounds and one of the rounds involves only making noises to represent things on the cards…needless to say it was 2 hours of nonstop laughter.

— We watched one of my new favorite programmes, the Great British Bake-Off. What it lacks in ruthless drama (à la American cooking competitions), it makes up for in proper English wit and charm. It also has a host named Mary Berry. Many thanks to my lovely friend Ellen for sharing this little gem of her culture with us. We are now hooked.

— We ordered pizza. At 9:30 PM. We had no way of knowing it would take an hour and a half and that the delivery man would accidentally go to another town instead of Val and thus our pizza would not actually arrive until 11 PM…the plus side? France makes 7-cheese pizza, which puts 4-cheese U.S. pizza to shame. We ended up ordering a 5-cheese and an “Al Capone.”

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Needless to say, I went home feeling thoroughly cheered up. This week I also went to some group dinners, had lots of coffee and chats, spent the day in Lille yesterday meeting other assistants who work in high schools, and planned dinner with a new French friend who I met while doing an English conversation night! I also anticipate making friends with some of the teachers at my school. I love teachers, and these teachers are no exception — everyone is so nice, and many people have volunteered to show me around, lend me household supplies, etc.

I think in times of transition, it helps to be able to laugh a lot. And that is what this new community is providing: endless laughs. But also, serious connection over interesting discussions. It’s been bringing out a lot of sides of me, and I am so thankful to have met so many multi-faceted people in my new home, completely by chance. It helps me remember that this year is about many things, but especially having FUN! As is life.

Here’re some fun photos from a night out in Val:

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Can’t wait for the next 6 months of adventures. 🙂

Next up: a little about my school aka work life!

Sunday Fun Day