Walking and Wondering

I’m reading a book right now (actually three books, but this one is the coolest), and it’s about the history of walking. At least, that’s what it purports to be, but I know differently; really, it is about contemplation. As is walking.

“When you give yourself to places, they give you yourself back; the more one comes to know them, the more one seeds them with the invisible crop of memories and associations that will be waiting for you when you come back, while new places offer up new thoughts, new possibilities. Exploring the world is one of the best ways of exploring the mind, and walking travels both terrains.” – Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust

My favorite way to discover places and to discover things is by foot. The above quote is the most perfect articulation of why this is my truth: while I walk, I move. I move through the world physically, of course. I also move through my mental world. Like writing, it is my medium for wondering.

Many times, I have wondered about myself. As I explore a city, I wander the nooks and crannies of my psyche, analyzing and processing and curiously probing the dark and far off corners. Or maybe there is something in particular that rushes to the forefront of my mind and demands to be heard. Often I wonder about other people, gripped by my fascination about perspectives outside my own. As I walk through these thoughts, I walk through the world.

Sometimes I am pulled back into it, and instead I notice the squirrel crunching through the fallen yellow leaves. Sometimes there’s someone else on the road, and I feel compelled to shoot the fellow walker a friendly smile.

Often I am tracing paths on a mental map. When I explored new places, I got lost and found myself again, over and over, until I never really felt lost. After reading this part of the book, I realized that I will never again feel lost in those places that I’ve walked.

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I’ve worn a rut in my mind, and I will always recognize it. When I walk in Walla Walla again, I’ll get flashes of past walks, of the girl that walked those paths. If I somehow journey back to Paris, or even tiny Somain, the invisible crop will be waiting for me. I am inextricably linked to those cobblestones and the landmarks that line them, and they run like a map through my mind.

This is what makes me lusty, for the wander and for the familiar at once. I know that both are fruitful: one will lead me toward new corners of myself, one will lead me back to old ones. The one is risky and exciting, alluring and adventurous. The other is comforting and enlightening, reflective and revealing of forgotten truths.

I love them both and all. I walk through old and new with the same fulfillment, the same curiosity, and the same feet.

Walking and Wondering

Looking Forward

10 Things I learned as an assistant teacher in bilingual kindergarten

  1. Expect the unexpected. It’s a clichĂ© that very much applies in a classroom of 5 year olds. This week, one of my students came in from recess with her shoes tied together. Another recounted the tale of the rat skeleton his family found in the attic. You never know what’s coming…
  2. In kindergarten, kids contemplate the big questions (“Anne, how long will I live?”). I’ve heard them discuss gender and sexuality, marriage, politics, religion, and the weather. They make complicated things simple in the most beautiful way.
  3. Don’t wear white to school. Clothing must be fingerpaint -, cleaning product – , and snotty hand – proof.
  4. “Sit down and raise your hand” must be rule number one. Otherwise, I am accosted by small bodies with loud voices, all with the expectation that they are my first priority. If I could have more hands and another brain, please, that would help.
  5. In my class, there are children raised by the rules of one culture, of another culture, of a mix of cultures. There is an actual difference between children raised strictly in French and children raised strictly in American. Neither makes a perfect child (but they are perfect to me).
  6. Play. The best class is full of humor, and nothing motivates or pleases children of any background like games.
  7. Read. Books are the most important thing to child-brains. When I have kids, words will be magic and stories will be magic come to life.
  8. Smile. There is no better way into a child’s heart. Except perhaps candy, or showing animated films (such as these).
  9. I have made unparalleled use of my multi-tasking abilities. I can simultaneously pour paint, help someone spell a word without giving the answer, prep snack, clean countertops, and empathize with a child who’s hurting from a bobo.
  10. People who teach kindergarten are straight-up superheroes. The creativity, the energy, the organization, the patience, the people skills…I can’t think of another job I’ll ever have which requires the same level of each all at once. I will miss it.

Why will I miss it, you ask? I have a new job for next year. It may require very similar skills. It may be just as challenging, and will hopefully be just as rewarding. It’s an almost total change of gears.

I’m going back to my second home, my alma mater, to teach upper and middle school Latin. I couldn’t be more excited. I’ll be following in the footsteps of one of my favorite mentors and teachers, I’ll be in charge of my own subject, I’ll still be teaching language, and we’ll have a lot of fun bringing a dead language to life.

Au revoir aux enfants, and salvete discipuli!

As the sun sets on this chapter, I’ll be climbing new mountains.

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P.S. Seattle is beautiful.

Looking Forward

Aren’t there beds on airplanes?!

I have two neighbors. My building-mate Natalie and I call them “the chatty one” and “the angry one,” because one of them will talk to us for two hours at a time if she can, and the other will grunt and mutter and otherwise avoid talking to us unless absolutely necessary. The chatty one and I arrived home at the same time the other day, so of course we ended up in a lengthy conversation. Here’s a translation.

Her: “So, in the US, they live basically the same way we do, right? With marchĂ©s and the same rhythm of life and all that? It’s basically the same, right?”

Me: “Actually no, there’s a lot that’s different.”

Her: “really? There is? What are the differences?”

Me [struggling to answer this gigantic question but make it relatable to her]: Um, well… I mean, they don’t really have markets every day, and we keep our milk and eggs in the fridge (they don’t in France), and they also have stores that are open 24 hours”

“There are people that work at night?! To keep them open?” [shock and disbelief]

“Yep”

“How did you come here, then?”

“I came by airplane.”

“How long was the flight? About an hour, right?” [certainty]

“Actually it was about 10 hours.”

“Ten!? Ten?”

“Ten.”

We then ascertained that I flew overnight.

Her: “So they had beds for you to sleep on in the plane? So you could lie down?”

“No, they don’t have beds on planes…”

“How did you sleep, then!? The seats must go back all the way?”

I managed to convince her that some people can sleep while sitting up, then she asked:
“So, are there cameras and security to walk around and make sure no one steals from people when they’re sleeping?”
[Anne realizes that this is literally the first time she has ever thought about the possibility of thievery on an airplane]

“Um, there are flight attendants, but there’s really not anywhere to escape when you steal something on an airplane, so it doesn’t happen very often…”

[Change of subject]

Her: “So everything goes well in the U.S., right? Americans always seem happy and it seems like everything always goes well there.”

“Well, I mean, people are people everywhere…There are still things that people aren’t happy about.”

“Ah, so they hide things!”

“I guess so…”

For those who think traveling is unimportant, this is why it is SO important. I suddenly felt lucky (not that I don’t always) to have been on a plane to another country, to have been educated about the world, to have experienced life in another place. It’s a privilege.

I’m most pleased that at least she was curious. If you want to know more, there is always more to know.

Aren’t there beds on airplanes?!

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?

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

I Speak French

Being in a foreign country has a way of making my brain sloshy with new thought projects.

In this brand new place (which will soon feel old hat), I have re-become a sponge. I am soaking up everything around me like it’s my only purpose in life: a porous repository thrown out into the torrential Northern rains, just to see what happens. Actually, I am a porous repository who threw myself intentionally into the torrential Northern rains, just to see what would happen. And I do see it as my only purpose in life.

I just ascended from the dining area of the house I’m staying in to my temporary room on the third floor (in American floors… it’s the 2Ăšme Ă©tage, here) after eating the most perfect homemade crĂȘpes I have ever encountered (although ours were a close second and third, Marisa and La Maison 😉 ) with some Northern beet sugar and my host teacher, her two daughters, and her oldest daughter’s friend. They had what I’m sure, to them, was a completely ordinary conversation about people at school, clubs, extracurricular activities, etc. It’s the kind of conversation my mom, sister, and I would have around the dinner table every day, or with one of our friends, with two notable differences: it was in French, and in France.

The sponge analogy came to me because, even though I didn’t interject in their conversation nearly as often or as fluidly as they could, I was a spongy participant: I was soaking up how they construct sentences, how they shaped their mouths, how they pronounced words and what expressions they chose for each situation. And more deeply, I was listening to what they find bizarre and what they think is cool, what they notice about people and how they think about their lives. My impression, overall, is that there is so much that is familiar in a country/language halfway around the world.

Being a human sponge comes with certain responsibilities, I think, and among the most important is the ability to compare without evaluation. There is a this is better than that approach, and there is a this is here, that is there approach in which the evaluation to be made is how intriguing is this difference, or how revealing is this similarity. There is no value judgment, there is only noticing. 

And in my eyes, one of the ultimate purposes of cultural immersion (and learning other languages, for that matter), is developing empathy. In stepping outside and being a sponge, letting this new place fill me with new things, I am learning how to understand them — not understanding them, but learning how to understand them. Even more complex-ly, it feels like I’m learning how to understand them without ever fully “understanding” them; rather, I’m learning how to accept and integrate what I do not understand into what I think I do (or thought I did). I am being a point of intersection. And this experience of being a point of intersection, of developing intercultural empathy, will in some (unknown at this point in time) way enable me to be of service to the world. I am learning to be a global citizen, part of a larger community.

And I am acutely aware of one thing, one skill that is indispensable to my Important Mission: I speak French.

To be fair, I think that we all do this kind of work, intentionally or not, every day in every aspect of our lives, in English. We are perpetually encountering new things and people and situations that we hadn’t previously known how to understand, and LIFE is a process of learning how to do it.

The only thing that makes me feel it more acutely in this situation than at home or at Whitman is the degree of difference — I have been thrown into the deep end, into this town where only English teachers speak English. Maybe there are deeper ends that I have yet to experience, cultures and languages that are even more disparate than this one. But for the moment, I am trying to intensely engage with where I am. I am spongy but not passive. I am an observer-participant. And all this is made possible by viewers like you.

Just kidding. It is really made possible by having learned French.

If in some terrible black-hole-of-despair alternate future there is no use for French in my life, I have justified my 8 years of study with how much I am LEARNING from being able to communicate with French people.

And we all know how much I am a nerd about learning.

I Speak French