Optimization

That title actually made me think of something completely different than what I’m going to write about. Or is it different? One of the Roman emperors, in legitimizing his supreme authority, called himself “Optimus Augustus,” which basically means the BEST Augustus of all the Augustuses (“Augustus” being a title of a Roman emperor in the late Empire).

Why do I know this, you wonder? I’ve been taking Ancient Roman History this summer for funzies, and also for my new job as Latin teacher (which starts Monday!). I just finished up that class and another which I was teaching, and I’m officially on summer vacation….for two more days.

Anyway, the best of the best Augustuses, Optimus Augustus, relates to my post because I was going to write about this interesting tendency I’ve noticed in myself: the need to optimize.

I guess it’s both a larger societal trend and a pervasive social and cultural pressure in our nation of individualistic entrepreneurs. I mean, we are constantly under pressure to compete for the coolest “Insta”posts, the best vacations, the hottest body, the best job…you name it, we want to optimize it. I guess I knew this, but I’ve been realizing that I also do it in my head, to myself. I want to be a better person, a better teacher, set new goals and challenges for myself, succeed in new and different ways. I think this drive is super important for my future success. And yet…

Sometimes, I think there should be more said for accepting people, places, and things for what they are. The problem with wanting to improve everything is that the already-great things don’t get enough appreciation or credit for how great they are. I don’t get to enjoy the small moments of gratitude for what I have, if I’m focused on where I’m going next. I don’t get to appreciate what’s in my life for what it is, if I’m thinking of how it could be better.

Furthermore, who’s to say that there will ever be an Optima Anne, the best of the best, with the best life and the best people in it. I don’t even like to think that there’s an end to self-betterment, because that makes it a linear, rigid process. With that mentality, I guess I won’t be the best until I’m nearly dead…

So in the meantime, here’s to celebrating all of the journey – meaningful or not, pleasant or not, optimal or not. It’s all worth learning.

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Optimization

TFH Part 3 : Bretagne, the Medieval Land of Mist & Mayhem

As promised, here are some adventure tales from my trip to Bretagne with Solena, in between the Three Christmases.

Solena picked me up with her mom and little cousins from the train station in Vannes, and we embarked straightaway for some sightseeing nearby.

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First, Arradon, which is far less desolate and rainy during the summer sailing season, when it’s home to sailing competitions and becomes a tourist destination. This was my first glimpse of the sea, though, and it felt like home!

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Then, a special treat: Rochefort-en-Terre, which is a medieval village in the hills that has a fairy light display for the holidays. It was beautiful, and put me in the Christmas spirit more than anything else had. Magic, right?

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After Rochefort, we went back home to Elven, which is nearby the larger city of Vannes. I asked Solena if we could tour Vannes, so after a day of watching the kids we went to walk around on the morning of Christmas Eve! I was obsessed with the ramparts and medieval architecture.

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[The Porte de Vannes (the door of Vannes), and the ramparts (with a view of the cathedral in the background).] Entering the city, I could see how imposing it must have been when it was fully walled and the ramparts were still in use. I imagine it’s what much of France actually looked like back then.

Solena and I picked up a passenger for covoiturage (carpooling — extremely cheap, easy, and popular in Europe) named Claude. We showed up and she was wearing a full length fur coat, a red beret, and gold sparkly eyeliner. She looked to be in her thirties, and talking to her in the car revealed that she was a Canadian musician stationed in Vannes to go to the music school. She was quite a character — she gave me advice to deal with noisy neighbors in France, which was to be as cynical and sarcastic and creative as possible. Example: her upstairs neighbors in Paris would not stop throwing parties, so she showed up in pajamas and tried to join in once. They got the message. (Instead of taking her advice, I moved. But more on that later.)

We dropped her off and finished our journey in Port-Louis, Riantec, etc., the towns where Solena grew up. This is where all the Christmas parties happened. I was blown away by the beauty of this old port city.

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Our beach walk at sunset….it was amazing. Standing by the sea, I instantly felt calmer. Something about water soothes me like nothing else.

This was the endpoint of our journey, and I honestly have not seen or experienced a place quite like it. I was welcomed into Solena’s group of friends, we danced the night away, and I learned 4 or 5 Breton songs and dances, as well as just how proud the Bretons are of their regional culture. I knew that France’s regions tended to have regional pride just like we have state pride, but now I think that the North is not a great example of that. Brittany is. There’s even been talk about secession throughout history.

I also spoke in French for about 75% of the time throughout this week of adventures, and that was a victory in itself. Most of the people I met did not speak English, and every time I have a fulfilling conversation with people who don’t speak English I reaffirm my reasons for having studied French! Now I get to study it in whole new ways.

Touring the west made me want to live there. I’m exploring options for working there next year, and I’ll be super excited if that works out.

Yer’mat (cheers!), Bretagne. Until we meet again!

TFH Part 3 : Bretagne, the Medieval Land of Mist & Mayhem

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

On FOMO

My definition of FOMO:

n. (“Fear of Missing Out”) : the fear that there is a party going on somewhere that you haven’t been invited to; the nagging feeling that everyone is having more fun and crazier adventures than you are, and probably together

I think this perfectly natural form of anxiety has gotten much, much worse with the invention of social media (Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, Twitter, etc.). Suddenly, there’s a platform where you can show off how much fun you’re having to all of your friends and acquaintances with merely the post of a dolled-up selfie in front of the Eiffel Tower, or at a super cool looking bar with all your hot new friends (see other annoying* ways to use facebook). There are also far more ways to be subtly validated (getting 30+ likes on your profile picture) and therefore far more ways to be subtly invalidated (nobody commented on my link!?).

* I’m not claiming that I don’t do these things, most people do. It’s the nature of the beast. Most of us also occasionally post unannoying things ;). 

But, there are also versions of this phenomenon that have nothing to do with social media. FOMO is in the family of exclusion, loneliness, social anxiety, insecurity — these are all normal human things because we live in a society full of other humans and like to be accepted and belong. (I’ve been researching David Hume so I can teach my philosophy class this afternoon, so here are his thoughts on human nature and the need to be included, if you need some light reading).

This feeling has been on my mind a lot, because I’ve been thrown into a new group of people in a foreign country for a year. It’s easy to become obsessed with who’s forming relationships with who and what everyone is doing and with whom they’re doing it, because this community is tiny, and crazy adventure opportunities abound. I also find people and group dynamics pretty fascinating, and sometimes all I want to do is think about and analyze them.

If I really wanted to, I could also think about the things I’m missing out on in the States. A few of my best friends are all still at university being staff members together, others are spread out and finding jobs and hanging out with other former Whitties and going to Fall Release weekend in Walla Walla. There’s also my family, going to the Nutty Nutcracker in Seattle for Xmas and a family friend’s house for Thanksgiving.

The point of all this is: yes, all of us are always missing out on something that we’d like to do.

However, this FOMO lifestyle is unsustainable. All it does is make one think they’re never where the party is, which leads inevitably to the feeling of non-belonging, exclusion, and disparaging thoughts about oneself: the grass is always greener elsewhere.

So, here’s my new solution: be where the party is. Your own personal party, in which you find and do all of the things that interest you and invite others to come along if they’re also interested. This is a much more active/proactive response to FOMO, and that is sometimes the harder way to go when I wish things were easy. But I think the proactive method results in more moments of: I would rather be here right now than anywhere else in the world.

Ever since my semester abroad, this has been my gauge for whether or not I’m doing something worthwhile and fulfilling for myself. Especially in the past month, I have had a lot of moments of wishing I were able to be elsewhere — but it hasn’t made me globally doubt that I’m currently in the best place for my own personal growth. I don’t think you can ever always be certain 100% of the time that where you are is the only forever place for you, but the ratio of doubt to certainty can be low. I’m still striving for equilibrium, as are all the other people in the world (and especially in my age group).

But I mean, if we all were together doing the same crazy things all the time, we’d have nothing to talk about.

And the moments I’m not missing out on have been pretty fun. Let’s focus on those:

At a soccer game in Val!
At a soccer game in Val!
With fellow travelers at a hostel in Krakow
With fellow travelers at a hostel in Krakow
Eatin lunch in Camelot
Eatin lunch in Camelot
Frolicking at the lake!
Frolicking at the lake!
Touring Old Lille with a French teacher from my school
Touring Old Lille with a French teacher from my school

Here’s hoping that you, readers, feel like you’re where the party is. 🙂

 

On FOMO

En Train

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Valenciennes, my home, is three train stops (a ~20 minute ride) from Somain, where I work. When I first arrived, I told my temporary hosts how miraculous I think the SNCF (France’s train transportation network) is, and they laughed at me — “Wait ’til there’s a strike,” they said. It’s a terrifying prospect, because if there ever is a strike I’ll be basically done for, unless I can find a teacher to give me a ride; the train is my only way of getting to work.

There’s also the newly discovered inconvenience which is: there are no trains between 2:09 PM and 4:45 PM. This means that if I get off work at 2 or 3, I’ve got quite the wait until the next train home. Waiting is one of my very least favorite activities. I’m an incredibly patient person, except when I’ve had a long day and can’t wait to eat and crawl into bed and Netflix before sleeping. I need a commute book.

I’ve started to measure distance in trains, also. I am 42 minutes by train from Lille. I’m 1h45 by train from Paris. I’m a few hours away from London. I’m about an hour from Brussels. (My location is like, !!!!)

The title of this post is part of a French expression used to communicate being in the middle of doing something; Je suis en train de lire  = I am in the middle of reading, Je suis en train de voyager = I am in the middle of traveling, etc. It’s basically another version of present tense; it’s the idea of continuous movement, an activity that’s still going on. In French, the idea of this expression and the idea of being physically in a train would be distinguished from one another via prepositions — “in the train” is not en train but dans le train.

However, I like thinking about the intersection point between trains and this expression: the idea of continuous movement, and of being perfectly positioned to head off toward an adventure of my choice. My life goal right now is to put myself in a place that enables me to go where I want to. If I’m at the appropriate station, I can choose the train that’s hurtling toward somewhere I want to go.

So far, I think I’ve been pretty successful at that. I’ve picked things to do that engage me while I’m in the middle of doing them, taking me a station closer to finding my eventual route through life. I went to a fabulous school which my gut said would make me into someone I wanted to be (thanks, Whitman). And now in France I’m positioned to learn more about things I know I love — education, people, and French — and discover more things I didn’t know I’d love. New experiences are in close proximity.

There’s a lot of post-college nonsense about having a concrete plan for the rest of life, as if that is going to magically be handed to you with a degree in whatever happened to be your undergrad passion. But after surviving these first few post-grad months, and after talking to more seasoned post-grad friends, I think it’s much more about the present than the future. Yes, have goals. But have goals in order to inform your present, not predict the future. Have goals like “go here,” “learn more about _____ that I’ve always been interested in.” Be self-aware and reflect. Engage with new communities. I am a die-hard optimist (and a believer in people) who thinks that everyone finds their niche, but not without putting themselves in the ideal position to find it.

In whatever you are en train de faire (in the middle of doing), make sure you’ve boarded a train heading somewhere. And if you realize it’s not, hop off at the next stop and find a new one.

Sometimes, there will be a strike, and you might be stopped in your tracks. But the world (and especially Commuter Anne) needs you!!

En Train

Cats, Kindness, and Paperwork

Overdue skypes with Mom & Dad this evening reminded me that I have not posted ANYthing about my daily life this week!

Full disclosure: it is not all glamorous adventures.

In fact, there has been much down time, during which I’ve been mostly doing what I would do at home: Netflix (it works in France now! Life changed), books, or just lounging around with the cat.

In her defense, she is pretty entertaining. Meet Moon! (yes, Moon in English)

And she already loves my lap:

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Enough cat pictures. I do not need to make my adoration of felines more well-known to the internet world than it already is. (BUT ISN’T SHE CUTE??)

 

Somain ( hint: it’s not the second one in that wiki link) is a very small town in the North of France. I’m currently there, being hosted by one of the english teachers I’ll be working with! She is amazing. I (very unfortunately) can’t stay with her and Moon forever, so I’m looking for an apartment in a neighboring larger city, accessible by commuter train.

Looking for housing is one of the many administrative and logistical tasks that make up my to-do list at the moment. Here they are:

  1. Find a phone
  2. Find an apartment to rent (accomplishment of today!)
  3. Open a bank account 
  4. Fill out some school paperwork to get my salary on time (with my address and bank info)
  5. Fill out a transport reimbursement form
  6. Get some apartment insurance
  7. Validate my visa so I don’t become illegal in a month or two
  8. Apply for French social security
  9. Apply for French welfare
  10. Whatever else the government comes up with to put us through

As you can see, less than half of these are taken care of. Most of them can’t be done without the others, so it’s sort of a rat’s nest of stuff to keep track of. Real World Boot Camp, I call it. The first three days were the most stressful, as all of the scary looming things suddenly got really real. But I think the worst part is that most of it takes a lot of time (e.g. weeks and months) and is relatively out of our hands. No control = long lists without the possibility of checking anything off? So fun, right?

To pass the time between apartment hunting and other logistical things and sleeping and recovering from jet lag, I’ve been exploring.

Readers, meet Somain!

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Yesterday, I found the market (and my cheese man!!), and POOF lunch:

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I’ve also been wandering around in Valenciennes. Here’s the HĂŽtel de Ville, and a random cute house:

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Yesterday I attended the Language Assistants’ Convention for the Purpose of Acquiring Free Wifi, aka I was loitering outside of MacDo (French McDonald’s) and ran into everyone that I’d met from TAPIF and then some. New friends are exciting. So is free wifi.

Also, a somewhat unexpected and really beautiful thing about this place: everyone is SO NICE. I mean nice in the fullest sense of the word, encompassing kindness, warmth, generosity, welcoming-ness. The people at my school prepared a folder for me and went through each document in it explaining how to fill it out and what I needed for it. My teacher liaison went with me to my bank appointment to help me get things sorted out. One of the jr. high teachers I’ll be working with offered to drive me to school with him from Valenciennes. And my teacher host has let me live in her house and eat her food for a week, and is going to help me supply my apartment with some things. My gratitude level is off the charts. One of the stereotypes of Northerners is that they’re especially warm; it’s been proven. For other assistants too, it seems!

I’m moving into my new digs on Monday, so this weekend is all about laundry and photocopies and making lists of things to get to make the new appart feel like home. It’s a room — a furnished room — with a sink and a closet and shelves, and I share a kitchen and bathroom with the other people in the building, including an assistant/new friend who I live right above. And it is well below my anticipated budget! My landlady is the most intense person I’ve met here — in a super-efficient super-organized super-on-time kind of way, which are all awesome traits for a landlady so far.

This week, I get to go to the TAPIF orientation, in Lille, to meet all of the other assistants in the region and learn more about how to BE a language assistant. (Important?) Meanwhile, my teacher contact is working out my schedule for my “observation” weeks, which will start right after the orientation day (Thursday I think). I’ll be observing class and introducing myself to students and teachers, and finally getting a feel for what my teaching life will be like!

And, because a post from me would not be complete without a Reflective Thought:

It’s weird to be here and not be supposed to try to be French. In study abroad with Middlebury, it was all about blending in and cultural immersion and becoming part of “la masse” and getting intense French practice. This time, I am here to be American. I’ve been brought here to share my American-ness. So instead of asking myself if I’m French enough, now it’s…am I American enough? Am I representing it well? Am I being a good ambassador? Are people thinking something new about America because of me? This does not mean I am abandoning my goal of learning France. I’m just always asking internal questions. Like a good liberal arts grad 😉

Here’s a good summary of my life! In punctuation form.

!?!!!??:…

Cats, Kindness, and Paperwork

Tales from Travel Day

Phase one: complete! I’m sitting at the gate at Sea-tac, waiting for my flight to board. I need it to be very on-time in order to make my connection, so cross your fingers.

Next stop: LAX, the black hole of an airport where there is no wifi, which is why I’m posting this now.

I decided at the last minute to not allow my family to accompany me to the airport and walk in with me. There were enough teary goodbyes as it was, and at least they were in the comfort of our own home. I knew it would be way too hard to watch their faces recede into the distance as I joined the queues of shoeless passengers awaiting TSA approval.

I arrived and tagged my own bags no problem, but when I came to the bag check counter and weighed my bag…53.4 pounds! Like a savvy traveler, I had checked the limits of both Alaska and Air Tahiti nui for their checked baggage limits (50 lbs), so as to avoid exorbitant fees…the main difficulty being that I have no way to weigh my bags at home. So I made everyone in our family lift it and opine about whether it was 50 lbs or less. So, as I stood and waited for the verdict I was simultaneously proud that it was only 3 lbs overweight and indignant that only 3 pounds constituted “overweight” and they wouldn’t just waive the three lbs for me…where’s my A for effort!?

For a harrowing 10 minutes, I waited as they searched the overweight limits and fees, contemplating the 0 options I had if I couldn’t take that much weight with me at this point, my mother having already left the airport at my request.

They redirected me to another window when searching for baggage fees became too time-consuming (and the lady behind me started sighing in exasperation). One of the agents walked me there and chatted with me ever so pleasantly about how stressful it is to hold up a line of impatient people. Reinvigorated by the empathetic customer service, I managed to remove three pounds from my bag and into my carry on, and was saved from paying $75. Victory! (Also, major kudos from me to myself for managing not to have an overweight bag for 9 months overseas! As a chronic over-packer, I consider this the success of a lifetime. My crowning achievement.)

Enter the security line. A little stressed by the time that had been lost in the Great Baggage Fee Search, I tried to refocus on my environment and noticed that the woman in front of me was wearing two fedoras. Ah, traveling. I started prepping myself the minute I moved on from the passport checker, and as I finally got to the conveyor belt my stuff was all neatly loaded into plastic bins. The stylish man behind me complimented me on my security elegance, apparently dazzled by how efficiently I had distributed my things (and as my housemates well know, I am not normally an efficient distributor of things). If I can arrange my life when I get to France as elegantly as I did those bins, I will be so good to go. New life goal.

Tales from Travel Day