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“This is the paper you have to sign saying there aren’t any children under 10 living in the apartment.”

“… Or are there?”

Even if a joke is the first thing that comes to your mind when presented with a legal document, it’s probably a good idea not to say it. After implying that my future roommates and I may or may not be hoarding small children in our new digs, I went on to talk about my extensive mug collection (I really, really just like hot beverages. Plus, half of my mugs are currently sitting on a weird shoe-rack-cum-storage shelf in my closet, and I suppose I was giddy with the thought that they might see the light of day), giggling all the way. This led to discussing hot toddies with the realtor, which led to him giving us his card after everything was dated and signed, saying, “Let me know if you have any questions — and make sure I get an invite to that hot toddy party.” Not happening, dude — but still, I wouldn’t have wanted an official grown-up meeting to have gone any other way.

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Within two days of ending my teaching assistant job and the appropriate celebrations that ensued, my mom was set to arrive at 6 a.m. in Charles de Gaulle and I was ready to meet her. We had planned her trip to France months ago and I thought playing tour guide and translator would be a welcome change from the normal town-wandering, McDonalds-line-waiting, flashcard-making schedule I had set up for myself. The year had been spent going around Evreux and France completely on my own or with like-minded friends who were my age, willing to pub crawl and line up for museums the next day. Bring on the family, I thought. I was excited to hang with people who had known me for longer than seven months (although I love y’all, Eure assistants! Shoutout!) and prove just how many curse words I had built into my repartee (years of education, finally paying off).

What I wasn’t prepared for was the sheer length of family vaycay time I would actually rack up by the end of my Euro-tour. After my mom bid au revoir after 8 days touring Normandy and Paris, I was riding the RER to find my dad and older brother a few days later to hang in Paris for a few days until my older sister arrived and we embarked for Berlin, Krakow, and Vilnius (in-between was a short trip to Bordeaux with my friend Megan, who had lived in Evreux, too. If France had become my home, in a sense, then the assistants I worked and lived with became my family, in a sense, so it isn’t a stretch to include this trip in family-vacationing, but still).

I had forgotten how different it was to travel with the people who raised you. More explaining buildings, more restaurants, more embarrassment when your dad asks for ice and beers with the same vocal speed and familiarity at his neighborhood bar, less lingering over a single coffee in a cafe, no need to walk around and around town so you get back to your hostel bunk at an hour late enough to fall asleep, more excitement when you see somebody else seeing Paris for the first time, more inside jokes with your siblings, more insulting each other over Google translate in a rented Berlin apartment, etc. It requires a reconsideration of how you typically move: alone, I could quietly haul my wheeled bag or hiking backpack among crowded trains and stuffy hostels without complaint. On my parents’ respective trips, I realized I should have scheduled less trains and more time for relaxing. I wondered if rented apartments, gloriously outfitted with kitchens and maid-free, were the best pick for everyone. I discovered how pleasing everyone becomes increasingly difficult the more people you have & the farther you get from your home base.  There were some surprises: I looked towards a 14-hour trip from Paris to Berlin in a 6-bunk sleeper car as certain doom for my six-foot-six father, but with creative seating, Polish vodka, and a deck of cards, the trip (the first half, at least) was a a hit.

As with most things, everything — that whole month from mid-April to mid-May— was totally worth it. Ending the year with my family in tow was stressful, tiring, wonderful, and the only way I could have seen myself out of this experience. It feels like it was a million years  ago already.

*the adjective foreign should be taken lightly, as France doesn’t feel like a strange place to me anymore. Snaps.

I get like one question every once in a while about how to apply for the teaching assistant program, and I always get super-pumped and want to type an essay back in response gushing about France, and going abroad, and adorable children. I thought I’d give an objective-as-possible rundown of the program I went with for any wayward Internet stranger looking to go abroad.

Learning about the program: The official website for the French teaching assistant program is right here. Applications are generally accepted starting the fall of the year before you want to go to France (for example, I applied in November 2009 to get in for the 2010-2011 school year). The application includes standard information, a chance to talk about relevant experience, a medical clearance form, and a letter of motivation (written in French!). I believe there’s a small application fee. To be eligible for the program, you have to be a US citizen (other anglophone speakers can apply! Most English-speaking countries have this program in some capacity), between 20-30 years old, and have completed at least 2 years of higher education — including 3 semesters of French. No teaching experience or TEFL certification is necessary, but I’m sure it can’t hurt.

Another amazing resource is the Assistants in France forum, where you can see what other prospective and current assistants are going through in terms of paperwork, money, spending their free time, classwork, etc. This is also a killer time-waster in those last, lazy weeks (months?) of senior year when you feel like you should be answering Life Questions and Deciding What To Do With Your Future.

Money: If you end up working in France, you’ll get about 780 euros a month — but you won’t get your first paycheck until the end of October, after having lived and worked there for a month. I would suggest bringing $1-2k in savings to pay for an apartment (most places that rent to foreigners might want a couple month’s rent in advance; at the very least, first & last month plus a deposit) and various living expenses until you get paid. After that, I found it manageable to pay for rent, food, and have a little left over for small trips. France is unfortunately not cheap, especially when you compare the euro to the American dollar, but you can make it work. Many assistants find babysitting jobs or privately tutor students to make the sting (“It’s 9 euros? Wait, for one gin and tonic?”) hurt a bit less.

Schedule: For Americans, France is the place to come to slow down and spend less time sitting at a desk. Even full-timers enjoy solid vacation time and a 35-hour workweek, but as assistants, we’re legally forbidden to work more than 12 hours a week. Yeah, seriously. Combine that with a 2-hour lunch break and Wednesdays always free (if you’re in primary schools, at least) and it may seem like you have more time on your hands than you bargained for. It’s easy to fill up, though, with private lessons, class preparation, meandering walks around town (a big fan), cooking for yourself, etc. I never got too bored.

Location: When you apply, you’ll be allowed to select from “academies,” which are large regional districts that include placements from large, bustling cities to middle-of-nowhere towns with nary a train station in sight. I got placed somewhere in the middle, in a smallish city in beautiful Normandy (although, talking to people from the south, most ask why I would ever willingly submit to living in the rainiest part of France) and I loved it. No matter what you get, most people find a way to love it. For all the glamour and intrigue that we imagine for our lives in a new country, it’s overwhelming and scary to pack up and move to a place where nobody knows you.  It’s something that’s hard to imagine until you actually experience it, and even in the hardest, most homesick moments, it’s worth it to keep going, to sign up for a library card, to go to that vaguely interesting club meeting advertised in the newspaper. Because you already bought your plane ticket, and you might as well take the experience for what it’s worth — whether your experience teaches you that you never want to keep a home address for more than 7 months at a time or that you never want to venture more than 50 miles from home again. Both options, and any in between, are totally fine — being able to figure that out while eating croissants by the dozen and scribbling journal entries during a winding countryside train ride, well, that’s what makes me recommend this program over and over again.

I’m back in America and I’ve never felt the weirdness of everyone speaking English hit me so deeply. It would be ridiculous to come back & act like I’ve never sat in automatic SUVs, gulped watery coffee and vegged out for hours during a Law and Order marathon (guilty, guilty, aaand guilty) because Europe has changed me so intrinsically I can’t even recognize myself, but — after so many days with my sister as my co-pilot and the beautiful, tiring places we visited as temporary homes, my dad’s ever-familiar Trailblazer and the road I’ve taken to his house so many times rang dissonant to whatever I was feeling then.

I feel changed, and its hard not to want to tell everyone and gush and bring up every minute story from a life you can’t ever really get back to again. The only thing, really, is to take everything I’ve learned in France and use it — not to act like an asshole, but to change the things in my life that were unsettling enough to want to move across the Atlantic for. Because there were people and things about New York that I missed so much & am so glad to have back & at my fingertips, but already I can feel myself slipping into the burrowing-into-my-childhood-bedroom mode.  The couponing-marathon-on-TLC-sign-me-up mode. Maybe I’m not giving myself enough credit. Maybe these are just symptoms of jet lag, and my magical European self will emerge, Angel of Uzupis-style, from nothing.

Family craziness in Berlin, Krakow, Vilnius, Kaunas and Paris to come!

Hey. you. guys. It’s been awhile, and it feels like eons since I ever thought of myself as an English assistant. It’s become a fun fact, small talk for hostel roommates and hotel receptionists. Maybe it will be easier to understand everything and attach a sane timeframe to it once I can look at it from the outside.

Ninety percent of the words I’m typing now are getting little red spellchecker slaps on the wrist from Firefox, because… I’m in Poland! Krakow, to be more specific, and with my sister, to be even more specific. And despite our best attempts to master the basics of the language (we made flashcards on the 10-hour train from Berlin, passing through beautiful countryside, charmingly old-school train stations, and abandoned building after abandoned building. It made me wonder what it looked like when everything was new. But anyway) we can’t get past a butched “Djen do-brei.” Which means good day, and isn’t even the right spelling, just my phonetic interpretation of it.

It’s been a whirlwind, nonstop four-ish weeks with the various members of my immediate family and there’s innumerable pictures and stories to come, maybe, but here are some things I’ve learned along the way (On my first flight over to France, I sat next to an old man who heard what I was going to do and told me, ‘You will be teaching, but you will also be learning,’ and I knew then that he was going to be right. But now I know he’s really, really right)….

  • You never realize how badly you need to shower until you’ve had one. This principle also applies to laundry. I’ve never been more excited for soft, matching socks.
  • Talking to people is ten times more fun than not talking. I thought this man in our hostel room was an unfriendly bro, until I realized he was listening to a French show on his ipod and finally worked up the courage to interrupt him. We struck up a chat and he became a friendly bro!
  • It is really rare to find ice at the supermarket in Europe, a fact that has escaped me for months and months until my parents arrived separately and asked for it on two separate occassions.
  • Berlin has been added to the list of places I could see myself moving to, as much of a pipe dream that is. Krakow is so beautiful, but it’s good to be moving on tomorrow (to Warsaw, briefly, before catching an all-night bus to Lithuania!). Being away from France also makes me realize how much more of that country I want to experience. I miss it.

I miss everyone I’ve met in the past 3+ years so badly. I miss having roommates. After all this, the thing I would want most in this world is a big couch and haphazard cooking and fun stories every Saturday morning. At least for the summer. Then we’ll talk.

I’m tempted to start this post like most of my handwritten letters start — It’s been awhile. I should have written sooner, but there was x and y that got in the way. Really, though, there’s no excuse. If you want to do something badly enough, it will happen, despite the obvious timesucks that are packing and cleaning and saying goodbye and going places (which is really what I have been doing! I swear). The days in which I can still pretend to be European are winding down. In 5 days my countdown will be in he single digits. Gulp. On my last night in Evreux I sat in a bar with a bunch of my friends and ordered a girafe. I was talking with one of my friends and explaining how I have to squeeze so much traveling now that school is over because I’m in a new place. At home — chez moi, I said — I venture less, feel less of that urgent need to see, to chronicle, to buy postcards. “Ici, c’est un peu chez toi maintenant, quand-même.”

Here, it’s a little bit your home, too. I can feel it. When I left Montpellier, I wasn’t sure if I could ever live abroad again, let alone when I’d be back to France. But last week, pulling into Saint-Lazare from Evreux felt exactly the same way as when the LIRR finally gets into Manhattan. It’s not an issue of getting back, of visiting some incomprehensible place…It’s a matter of time between homes, between selves. I’m not so worried anymore about when I’ll see everything again, only because I see it as inevitable.

I’m sitting in a hotel lobby because the wi-fi is free here.  I like watching the staff work, seeing people come in and out and ask questions. Also I realized that I’ve been wearing my sunglasses on my head and my actual glasses on my face, so I probably look ridiculous. Also also I’ve been Google-researching keywords like “potty training” and “fitted diapers” for my freelance job so anyone sneaking a passing glance at my laptop probably thinks this is weird. This is weird, you know. But it works.

I don’t feel quite as giddy or nervous as I normally would feel on a “last day of school,” but that’s what today is. The whole week has been a mix of teaching the words to the Beatles’ “Hello Goodbye” (which seemed appropriate), playing outside in the sunshine, and goûter upon goûter. My classes keep offering up cakes and adorable hand-scrawled cards that say things like “I am happy to know you!” surrounded by American flags. One school surprised me by interrupting a lesson and saying “Everyone needs to go to the CM2 classroom now! We broke a window and we’re being punished,” and then leading me into a classroom full of drinks, cakes, and all my students. Awww. I would have cried, but everyone who knows me knows that only happens after I hit my head on things or drink too much gin in one night.

I made Rice Krispie Treats for a few of my classes because it was the only homemade-esque thing that was vaguely “American” and didn’t require an oven, and the students and teachers were seriously blown away! They had never seen a Rice Krispie treat before! I tried explaining that it was a cornerstone of any good bake sale, but I didn’t know if there was a good translation for bake sale, so I let it slide. That’s what I’m here for, building cultural bridges.

Look how teacher-y I am now, guys. It only took seven months!

Today, on my last day in my very last school, it was Carnaval! I thought that happened around Mardi Gras, but apparently they do it every other year right before Easter. It was pretty much like Halloween with better weather. The big event of the day was trekking to the nearby park to walk up a path…and back down again. But hey, I will never turn down a walk, especially when I can do it behind a gardener and next to two Darth Vaders.