Monday, December 16, 2013

christmastime in excideuil

surprise! a quick little christmas post, just in time for the holidays. :) the festive spirit has really kicked in here in excideuil. there are lights everywhere – on lamp posts, strung across the streets, draped in trees, adorning the church. the village even set up three huge pines, strategically placed throughout the town, and adorned several of the drainpipes on my street with pine branches. my favourite decoration, though, are the cheerful paintings that many of the local business owners commissioned to brighten up their windows. my upstairs neighbor, christelle, is a wonderfully gifted artist, and she created personalized designs for each business – the shoe repair shop has a boot, the printer has a book, the appliance shop has santa delivering an electric heater… it’s adorable. i also was lucky enough to be included in the decorating committee for the café downstairs. we spent all afternoon a few weekends ago setting up the tree, draping lights and streamers around the room, and just generally adding christmas cheer to the already bright and lively coffee shop. it made me feel so much more at home to get to do something so traditionally comforting. check out my cute christmas village here!

now that i’ve gotten to enjoy the christmas-y atmosphere of the village for a few weeks, it’s high time for another break, if i do say so myself. amazingly, this semester is drawing to a close already.. and poor me, i’ve only had like 3 weeks of vacation so far! happily, i leave tomorrow for my christmas break. i won’t spoil the surprise, since i will surely blog about my experiences once i’m back.. but i’ll be in cambridge, england for the first week and hopping around ireland for the second week! as ever, getting there is half the fun – the rest of this week will be filled with reunions, as i stop off in a new place each day to catch up with old friends, before finally arriving in england on friday! at first, it seemed silly to take 4 days to get somewhere when i could go much more directly and be there in about 4 hours.. but i’m excited to be seeing everyone along the way!

as much as i enjoy my little idyllic countryside home, i can’t wait to spend time in places that have traffic lights and shops open past 5 pm!! …sarcasm aside, i am so looking forward to seeing some dear friends and celebrating the holiday season together. it’ll be my first one away from home, and i am so blessed to have such a great group to share it with. hopefully i’ll get to post from the road – if not, i’d like to wish everyone a merry christmas and a very prosperous and adventure-filled 2014!

Saturday, December 14, 2013

lost in translation

i just realized that i only feel the need to share something on this blog when i’m preparing for or have just returned from a trip… which is probably unfair of me, because this whole year is a trip, in many ways.

i’m finally feeling settled in here in excideuil - both a blessing and a curse. christmas break starts next week, which will bring my longest stretch of work (two and a half weeks straight with only my 3.5 day weekends to comfort me) to an end. with a job that’s only 12 hours a week, i’ve had loads of time… to go on walks, to watch tv, to skype, to think. and as someone who spends the vast majority of her time lost deep in her own mind, my thoughts have strayed all over the map (literally and figuratively). i find myself planning trips often; several i intend on carrying out, and many others that i’ll probably never take, just out of curiosity to see if it’s a feasible plan. i imagine where i’ll move next, and then the next place after that, and the next… the “what-if” part of me has had a serious work-out here the last few weeks.

of course, i think about language a lot. what it means to communicate, how language forms such an integral part of our identity. it’s incredible to realize how much of yourself is ingrained in the way you express your thoughts and feelings. in some sense, that’s all you are, since people can’t read minds (maybe?). you have to get your point across somehow. this revelation shouldn’t come as a surprise, but doing it in a second language is H-A-R-D. when you’re first learning to speak as a child, you pick up mannerisms and subtleties that are almost impossible to imitate from an outsider’s perspective. i’ve been lucky in that i’ve made friends with several wonderful people who have really helped me make my french into something comfortable and colloquial – i am much more at ease speaking french than i ever have been before. that said… i still feel like a grown-up baby sometimes. there are moments when i get so frustrated because i feel like i just can’t talk. i have a firm hold on my grammar skills and vocabulary, that’s not the problem. now, the goal is not just to say the correct words – it’s to genuinely express myself. and often, i just feel like the “me” that i think i am is lost in translation. i’ll hear myself respond to a question, and i’ll think “did i just say that? do i really think that??” it’s seriously hard to be yourself in another language – you lose a lot of the humour and idiomatic expression that you never knew you relied upon to communicate. the tone of a joke, the way sarcasm comes across, the subtle wordplay of linguistic ambiguity… it’s just not the same in a second language. if i stayed here for years and years, i’m sure i would be able to get to that point… but i’ve been learning lately that it takes much, much longer than i originally thought. and as much as i honestly do love speaking french nearly every day, being here has made me appreciate english again, which is nice.

the most challenging part of this process is feeling like people here don’t know the real me… as an introvert, it’s essential that i feel known by a core group of people or i start to feel completely isolated from humanity. and i have certainly felt lonely since arriving… i can only have so many surface-level conversations before i start itching for a topic that’s a little more substantial. after all, how can you get to know someone – really know them – without asking serious questions? i feel like i haven’t had a serious, face-to-face conversation in ages. i suppose that’s why i feel like people don’t know me here. but maybe they do. even if i can’t say exactly the words i mean with exactly the right connotations, i hope that my spirit is visible to those around me – at the end of the day, i think that being genuine transcends language. as cliché as it might be, a smile is the same in every language!

aaaaanyway, this post was mostly self-indulgent. i know that i’m not alone, and i am grateful for the support i receive from family and friends on essentially a daily basis. but it’s definitely been on my mind! stay tuned for a christmas-in-excideuil post, coming soon. :)

Thursday, November 28, 2013

thanksgiving, à la française

before i left the states back in early september, my mom went above-and-beyond the call of duty and made me a full thanksgiving dinner.  she was worried that i would be sad about missing out on the best meal of the year, so she pulled out all the stops. and i was truly grateful, because there is nothing like sitting in my dining room with my whole family and eating some seriously fantastic grub. and she was right, in a certain sense – today was a sad day, in a way. but the pang i felt in my heart when i thought about everyone gathering together back home without me was soothed in no small measure by the joy that i’ve gotten to experience during this season in france. not only did i get a bonus thanksgiving-in-august, but i got to celebrate it in three different ways over here in europe! so really, moving abroad just multiplies the festivity, if you can find the right people. and it certainly magnifies the sense of gratitude!

thanksgiving #1 - friendsgiving

this past week, i had the absolute privilege of sharing a thanksgiving meal with about 30 people, hosted by the home-church group that my friend devon and her husband attend in paris. the dinner was at the home of michael and sara, who live in a beautiful apartment in the marais district of paris and evidently have no qualms with welcoming all the waifs and strays! there were plenty of expats there, from all over the world, and a few native frenchies as well.. my friend jessie and i enjoyed getting to know several of the guests as we all chowed down on the standards – turkey, stuffing, potatoes, corn casserole, green bean casserole, cranberry sauce (!!!) – as well as some traditional dishes from other countries! and let’s not forget the desserts, which took up the entire table after the first round was cleared away. the atmosphere was lovely, the food was delicious, and the people were warm and welcoming – it truly felt like a family gathering, despite the fact that the majority of the group had never met. at the end of the evening, several of the church members made sandwiches with the leftovers and encouraged all of the guests to grab a few on the way out, so that we could share the bounty we had enjoyed with someone less-fortunate who looked like they could use something to eat. it was a really sweet gesture, totally in keeping with the attitude and generosity of everyone i met that evening. i ended up leaving one sandwich next to a woman sleeping bundle of ragged blankets in a little alcove down the street, and giving another to a man near notre dame, who sat under an umbrella with two little dogs tucked inside his over-sized coat. it wasn’t much, but i was happy to give someone a break from hunger, if only for one night.

thanksgiving #2 – chez moi

the sensation of immense gratitude carried over to monday, when i finally got home to my little village to find a thanksgiving package from home waiting for me on my doorstep! i knew it had been sent, but it was still such a nice surprise to see my mom’s handwriting smiling at me from my threshold the moment i got home. and the contents of that box were faaaantastic! here’s an inventory: poultry seasoning (for the stuffing!), jif peanut butter (per my request), cupcake baking cups, taco bell sauce packets, red sprinkles, a nature valley protein bar, turkey gravy mix and alfredo sauce mix from kroger, some christmas decorations, a sponge, betty crocker peanut butter cookie mix, some tea, airborne tablets, a turkey dishtowel, and a card. now, i know that some of those things might seem random or kind of meaningless… but it was so great. sometimes, it’s just nice to see things from home for novelty’s sake; i don’t even like taco bell, really, but those sauce packets made me smile! and i may live in one of the culinary capitals of the world, but there are times when absolutely nothing beats an apple and peanut butter. and the simple act of hanging that turkey-appliquéd dishtowel on my toaster oven’s handle made me feel like i was back in the kitchen at home. but i digress...

cooking for one is hard; i’ve said it before, but it’s never been more true when you’re cooking a meal that usually needs to serve a dozen people or more. i decided that i wanted to do a little thanksgiving meal for myself, just to get a taste of home, so i asked my mom to send my grandmother’s stuffing recipe (hence the poultry seasoning in my box). well! this morning, i made that stuffing, and let me tell you… it was great. i toasted, cubed, and staged the bread last night, so it was all nice and dried-out by the morning! the process itself was simple – sautée onions and celery, add chicken stock and seasoning, mix in bread cubes, put in oven – but the act of making it gave me such a feeling of nostalgia! granted, i’ve never been the one to make the stuffing before, but just having the smell in my apartment was enough to make me feel like i was back in franklin. i also made a teensy serving of mashed potatoes and got two turkey breast fillets from the supermarket – three cheers for a thanksgiving dinner for one! and as a bonus, i skyped my parents while they were at our big extended family dinner, so i even had the chance to say hi to everyone!

thanksgiving #3 – sharing the message at school:

as an english assistant, i’m somewhat of an ambassador between my american culture and that of my students. last week and this week, a few of my teachers took advantage of the holiday season to talk about america – in some of the younger classes, that meant discussing thanksgiving! i can’t explain how strange it was to hear a holiday that i’m so familiar with boiled down to the bare bones – “it’s a day where families gather to eat a turkey and pray to God.” i mean… that’s true for some people, i guess, so i couldn’t correct them. but i enjoyed the lessons, because it was a great opportunity for me to share what thanksgiving really means. the kids had basically no idea (short of the turkey/God thing), so i had a blank slate! after a little reflection, i told them that thanksgiving was a day where families gather together and shared a meal (had to keep the english level pretty simple..) in order to express their gratitude for everything they have. despite being a historically catholic country, france is exceptionally unreligious, so i tried to stay away from talking about thankfulness in purely a religious sense. also, explaining the concept of blessings was difficult. the story of the first thanksgiving was also challenging. historically, the whole “pilgrims and indians eating together” might not be entirely accurate… but at least it gives a better origin story than “we kinda just came and displaced and/or killed pretty much everyone, and then centuries later, the government arbitrarily decided to create a holiday about it for commercial purposes.” sooooo… pilgrims and indians it is. i focused more on the fellowship and quality time aspects of the holiday. :)

so, in summary, i am thankful for…
…a God who loves me unconditionally and never fails to provide for me, 
who lets me make mistakes so i can learn the way i learn best,
 and who blesses me endlessly every day.
…a family who supports me and encourages my insatiable desire for adventure.
…a job that allows me to pursue those adventures, 
while simultaneously providing new experiences in and of itself.
...coworkers and students who are supportive, engaging, and patient.
…a body that puts up with all the shenanigans i put it through 
and remains in moderately good health – traveling is hard, y’all!
…a wonderful apartment in a great community.
…the people i love who are spread out all over the world (literally).
…the miracle of technology, which lets me stay connected with aforementioned 
loved ones via various social media.
…peanut butter.

happy thanksgiving, everyone! :)

ps - i documented my little thanksgiving cooking experience here if you’d like to see it!


Tuesday, November 26, 2013

silver and gold

this entry is going to be a little more of a “captain’s log” style… too much to recount!

as i mentioned in my last post, i had a medical appointment on wednesday, in bordeaux. basically, the immigration office needed proof that i am, in fact, alive and not likely to cost them too much over the course of my stay here in france. so, i spent two hours on wednesday afternoon hanging out with several other assistants (we’d all been given the same appointment window), and intermittently entering various offices to discuss my vaccination history, strip from the waist up for a chest x-ray (no TB here, yay!), read a tiny line of text across the room, and finally get that long-sought-after OFII sticker in my passport. now, i’m a legal citizen! at least, until june…

one nice (read: incredible) part about my job is the flexibility. the principal had no issues with me taking wednesday and thursday off for this doctor appointment, so i made the most of my time and went up to paris for a long weekend! i was excited to see the city again, but i was more excited to finally get a chance to catch up with one of my closest friends from my semester in angers! jessie lived across the hall from me, and is basically the reason i stayed sane during my time abroad. she introduced me to several other international students on our floor, who ended up becoming like family to me. seeing her this week in paris felt like a true completion of my prodigal return to france! she met me at the metro stop near her house late wednesday night, and i’m pretty sure we didn’t stop laughing until i left eeearly monday morning. love that girl.

being back in paris was a little surreal – i’ve visited several times before, but it had been over two years since my last visit. it was also the first time that i’d gone primarily to visit friends (as opposed to going for touristy purposes), and i genuinely enjoyed the lack of pressure i felt to go, go, go all day, every day. i spent a lot of the weekend simply walking around various neighborhoods, soaking up the atmosphere and marveling at the beauty that i found in literally every direction. i did, however, do a few touristy things… i spent the better part of thursday afternoon meandering through the louvre, since i hadn’t been since 2008 and i can get in for free with my newly-validated residency visa. i was particularly blown away by several of the greek and roman scultures, but my favourite part was the decorative arts wing, which includes the napoleonic apartments. having just finished reading vanity fair, it was cool to see what the setting of the novel looked like in person. i really enjoyed walking through rooms that held such historical significance, especially since they’re not reproductions – real life happened in those rooms. or, as real as early 19th century napoleonic society could be. i love imagining all the women in their gowns and jewels and feathered hair ornaments, perching daintily on the crushed red velvet couches in the salons, and the men with their breeches and starched neckclothes and quizzing glasses. if i had a time machine, that’s definitely where i would go.

thursday actually was kind of a luxurious day. when i left the louvre, i walked along the rue de rivoli until i passed a fancy-looking bookshop (you know how i can’t resist the allure of a nice book display) and ducked inside… only to almost immediately and very nearly bump into karl lagerfeld, of chanel fame. he came in to pick up a few gifts, and you would have thought a member of the royal family had walked in, with the way the employees jumped up to help him. although, i suppose that he is sort of royalty in fashion-loving paris. i continued my walk all the way down to the eiffel tower, where i enjoyed a little picnic dinner and watched that steel celebrity sparkle for a little while. there really is nothing like it anywhere in the world. right as i was about to head back to the apartment, jessie called and said she’d gotten tickets through her university to attend a play at the “theatre de la ville” for free that evening! evidently, it was the play to see in paris right now, so i scurried over there and met up with her and her classmates. it was a packed house – there were even people standing outside, trying to scalp tickets! so, i guess it really is popular. i had no idea what the play even was called, let alone what it was about! as it turns out, it was a two-man show called “the old woman,” which is a sort of theatre-of-the-absurd work, based off of a russian poem, and performed by none other than willem dafoe and mikael baryshnikov! it lived up to its genre… it was certainly absurdly bizarre, but i enjoyed it purely as a cultural experience.

friday was all about friendship. i walked around a little in the morning, did some grocery shopping, and then had a big lunch prepared for when jessie got home from school around 2pm! we ate and talked for a long while, just enjoying the opportunity we had to finally catch up after nearly two and a half years! it was so lovely, and really felt like we picked up right where we left off. then, around 8, jessie got ready for a night out with her NYU classmates, and i got ready to go have dinner with another friend of mine in paris, devon! she was a french major at belmont who graduated my freshman year, so we never really got to know each other during college. however, since she had studied abroad in angers, she was always the person to whom  we were referred with questions about life as an exchange student. so, we’ve communicated on facebook intermittently for years. now, she’s living with her french husband (who she met while studying abroad, precious!) in paris. she is a true gem – we sat in her little studio apartment and talked for almost 5 hours; i only left because i had to get the last metro home! it was so, so great to finally have the opportunity to sit down in person and get to know each other – it already felt like we had known each other for ages!

saturday was much more relaxed. after the late night, jess and i both enjoyed sleeping in and making breakfast for lunch! one interesting thing about the holiday season over here is that, for obvious reasons, it goes straight from halloween to christmas… so paris was in full christmas mode during my visit! we spent the afternoon wandering through the christmas market that lines the champs-elysees, stretching all the way from the place georges clemenceau to the place de la concorde. jessie’s friend emily joined us, and we did a little shopping and a lot of eating – there is nothing like holiday fair food. from there, we headed down the seine to my favourite place in paris – shakespeare and company. i go there every time i’m in the city, and it never fails to make my heart skip a beat. i have dreamed of working there since the first time i visited, and that dream is still alive. one day! the evening was spent walking through bustling streets, eating crepes in paper cones and enjoying the festive atmosphere.

the grand finale of my weekend in paris was a wonderful ex-pat thanksgiving dinner, given by two lovely friends of my friend, devon... it was an absolute treat! devon invited me (and Jessie!) to join her home-church group for a big meal on Sunday. i’ll save my reflections about celebrating thanksgiving abroad for my post later in the week; suffice it to say, i have been immeasurably blessed with friends in this world, both old and new, and i thank the lord every day for those relationships!

as always, to see photos from this trip, check my facebook album here, starting at photo 25!

the title of this blog comes from the “friends both new and old” concept… but it also reminded me, indirectly, of a great christmas tradition in my family (and many others, i’m sure). here’s a sneak preview, to get you in the spirit. it’s that time of year again!

Monday, November 18, 2013

meeting in the middle

this week at school was eye-opening on a professional and cultural level. i had the opportunity to just sit in the back and observe a little more than normal (as opposed to taking small groups into the media lab to lead discussions) and i also got to speak with several of my older students about their opinions and pre-existing understanding of the usa. so, in a multitude of ways, i got a first-hand look into several parts of what makes this country the way it is… something i would dearly love to understand.

i’ve always toyed with the idea of teaching – to put it very simply, i love knowing things, and i love sharing that knowledge with others. i’m generally a patient and encouraging person, and i try to nurture learners in whatever way they need. i even started college thinking i was going to get my master’s in education and be a high school teacher. it took about 4 weeks of my first education class before i realized that i didn’t want to go that route. too much administration in the schools and not enough kids enthusiastic about foreign languages these days made for a less-than-appealing career path. i tutored french all through college, however, and i really loved it. my passion for imparting knowledge and the joy i feel when something finally clicks with my student… that never went away. the thought of coming here to france to teach english seemed like a happy medium; i always thought i would teach french, but i was afraid the years of standardization and less-than-enthusiastic teenagers would drain me of my love for it. here, as an english assistant, i’m sort of on my home turf, even though i’m thousands of miles away. being a native anglophone levels the playing field, in a certain regard, because there is no doubt in these kids’ minds that they could benefit from my help. so far, i’ve enjoyed the teaching aspects of my job – the satisfaction of helping students understand something difficult hasn’t changed a bit, and i’m learning a lot about teaching a foreign language (even if it isn’t foreign to me). for example, sometimes, when you ask what you expect is a very simple question, it might take the class 15 minutes to arrive at the answer – some of the subconscious connections you make in your mind just aren’t natural outside of your mother tongue. i certainly feel that way in french a lot of the time! while it can be frustrating to be patient and let the kids arrive there on their own, the final result is all the more exhilarating.

today, i got to have several short one-on-one discussions with some of the “terminale” students, who are in their last year of high school. at the end of this year, when they take their enormously important final exams, they are supposed to be able to comfortably and coherently express themselves in english, on a multitude of topics. part of the evaluation involves a 5 minute presentation, followed by a 5 minute question-and-answer session, which can be incredibly daunting, even in one’s native language. in an effort to get the kids used to speaking, we do these interview sessions, speed-dating style. today’s questions all centered around the usa, which made it even more interesting for me! i got to ask the students questions such as, “what do you know about american history?” and “what do you think about american culture?” not surprisingly, all of their answers regarding american history were about the world wars, and they told me they thought americans were more friendly but more concerned with superficial things (and ate lots of macdonalds). in return, i was challenged with questions like “what do you think the usa will be like in 50 years?” and “what do you think the average american is like?” it was an exceptionally interesting afternoon for me, both in hearing their points of view and trying to critically examine and express my own.

anyway, remember how i said i was living in perpetual vacation? well, tomorrow after work, i’m heading to bordeaux so i can be there for a mandatory, visa-validating medical check-up on wednesday. aaand, since i wouldn’t be able to get back to excideuil until thursday afternoon (thanks, bus schedules), i asked off for wednesday and thursday… therefore granting me a 5.5 day weekend (i live in opposite land). i’m taking advantage of my long weekend to go visit some friends from the states up in gay paree. since bordeaux is a major city, it’s very well-served by the train system – just under 4 hours on a high-speed train to paris! i’ll get there late wednesday evening and leave eeearly monday morning, getting back in time for work at 2pm! :) blog about that to follow!

Monday, November 11, 2013

vacation life.

hola amigos!

it’s been far too long since i’ve posted on here – but, i’ve been busy (read: on holiday in spain)! here in franceland, vacation days are plentiful. usually, schools go for about six weeks, and then the students get a two week break. this pattern continues from the beginning of september to june. as a teaching assistant, i have the pleasure of benefitting from this lovely little schedule, which means i get 8 weeks of vacation this year (fall break, christmas break, winter break, spring break). the halloween break snuck right up on me… i felt like i’d only just started work (because i had) and then boom! two weeks of vacation. being the proactive little traveler that i am, i had to take advantage of the time! i was pretty exhausted from the constant vagrancy of september, so i decided to go easy and plan a trip to see two of my friends from nashville, who are living and teaching in madrid for the year! it was much simpler than planning a big tour through scandinavia, which was my other idea.

before i left, however, i did have a very interesting teaching experience. as the only english assistant in the school, i was offered the chance to teach an optional english camp during the first two days of the vacation. the school puts on this program each semester, and they usually find a native english speaker to plan the lessons and run the two-day camp. this time, i had 15 high schoolers, ranging from 10th-12th grade, to entertain for a total of 10 hours. i was exceedingly pleased with the lesson i created, which centered around a “roadtrip across the usa” theme and touched on all aspects of language acquisition (reading, listening, writing, conversing, public speaking). in theory, it was great. in reality….. it was alright. some things just didn’t work in practice like they had in my head (ie – group vocabulary research, roadtrip itinerary creation). if i had known that the students expected these camps to be mainly focused on speaking practice, i would have planned differently… however, considering the fact that i was given literally no guidelines or instruction, i thought it was pretty successful. the first time trying something is always going to be awkward, and now i know better for next time!

the moment my camp was over on tuesday, i hit the road for my vacation! since excideuil is so far out into the country, it’s kind of a process to even get to an airport. i’ve found that the best thing to do is get into bordeaux for the evening and then fly out the following day, so that’s exactly what i did. plus, i got to hang out with my friends in bordeaux for a night, which is always, always a plus. :)

europe is so fun, because international flights can be amazingly short! we crossed a mountain range and completely changed cultures in less than an hour… i’m not sure we even got up to full altitude. but anyway, i got to madrid in about an hour and fifteen minutes, and promptly got to partying! the friends i was visiting, mitchell and nicole, met me at the airport, brought me home to drop my bag, and then led me to this fantastic area of madrid called lavapies. this particular neighborhood just haaaappened to be in the middle of a week-long event called “tapapies,” in which dozens of bars were offering signature tapas for 1 euro each. convenient. we ended up bar-hopping through lavapies for a couple nights of my stay, because it was just too good for one visit.

the majority of my time in the city proper was spent walking (as is my habit in new cities), visiting some seriously fantastic art museums (mostly for free, thanks to the handy free-admission hours that most museums offer throughout the week), and eating. my lord, did we eat. here in excideuil, it’s hard to cook for just one person… i invariably end up making the same couple meals, because they’re easy to make in small quantities. but in madrid, we got to cook for four, which led to some wonderfully creative dinners and snacks. it was great to get to see my friends and spend some quality time together in such an exciting and vibrant city!

consequently, we did get out of town on two separate day trips, which were both fantastic. one of the days, we took the train out to avila, a medieval city with a giant wall surrounding the old town. we did a little taste test of the typical pastry of the town and then walked along the top of the walls for over a kilometer. it was interesting to see how closely it resembled the walls of the chateau in angers, where i used to live. they were constructed around the same time, so i guess that was just the style back then! our other day trip was to toledo, another town about an hour south of madrid. we went on a sunday, so it was pretty quiet, which meant fewer tourists but also earlier closing hours. we saw a lot, but i definitely want to go back one day and see all the churches and museums that were closed! even so, it was great just to walk around and see the tiny streets and hidden plazas.

my last day in spain was halloween, which was so fun. i went with nicole out to the school where she teaches, so i could visit her classes and help spook the kids in this haunted classroom experience one of the teachers had set up. it was so entertaining, because the kids immediately came up to me and started asking questions and trying to figure out who i was. i even bonded with one of the girls when i told her i was from the same town as taylor swift. i was particularly interested in seeing the differences between her school and mine here in france – the educational systems are really quite different! all in all, i’m happy with my decision to teach middle/high school… as cute as the primary school kids were, i just don’t have the energy for that kind of mayhem every day!

if you would like to see photos from my trip to spain, check out this facebook album, starting at picture number 77!


after i got back to excideuil from vacation, i worked for 4 days (for a grand total of 10 hours) and then had a 4 day weekend, thanks to armistice day. #france. my upstairs neighbor, mathilde, invited me to her house for the break, which was super kind of her. we left friday afternoon and made the 5 hour trek up to her town, which is called ‘les sables d’olonne.’ it’s a beach town on the atlantic coast, and it’s so lovely! luckily, we had a few hours of sunshine on saturday and sunday, so she got to show me the beach, the boardwalk, the harbor, and some of the more rugged coastline. the weekend was filled with exceptional food (oh, how i missed home-cookin’) and lots of french practice for me (note: conversations in loud bars and comedy shows containing political satire are even harder in a foreign language). mathilde and her parents were so hospitable and fun – i had a great time. (for pictures, click here!) and now, somehow, my christmas break is only 5 weeks away. so, naturally, i’m already planning. that’s pretty much how things go here… finish one vacation, start planning the next! 

Saturday, October 19, 2013

what's in a date?

all day, i’ve been contemplating the concept of time and the significance of its passage. and the irony of this post is not lost on me… a reflective post about reflection, how very meta of me. but truly, how strange a process it is!

today, more than other days, i’ve been preoccupied by the passage of time. it’s a topic that is never far from my mind; i’m an exceptionally nostalgic and sentimental person. i’ve always had a thing for dates, like birthdays, anniversaries, or just significant events. i know what day i donated my hair for the first time (april 25, 2002), i still know all of my would-be anniversaries with boyfriends-of-old (today being one), and i go out of my way to make countdowns and mark my calendars for future events. part of this obsession comes from an innate desire to see cycles completed. it’s not necessarily a compulsion, per se… but i really, really, really like to see things come full circle. for example, i began and ended my job at the public library in high school on august 7th, 2006 and 2009, respectively. moments like that make my soul feel like the universe is working properly. i might have a psychological problem.

as i sit in my little french village, one question in particular has been plaguing me on this sunny fall day; is it more important to look back on your past and honour where you’ve  been, or to leave it behind and just look to the future and what lies ahead? as someone who is simultaneously extremely nostalgic and notorious for playing the “what if” game... how do i reconcile this contradiction in my spirit?

i want to learn from my past, of course.  and, even on a bigger scale, i love history. i love knowing that hundreds and thousands of years have rolled by, and that people have lived and worked and loved and died through them all. that’s why i have always wanted to live in europe – the history here is palpable… hell, the town where i’m living was mentioned in writing in 572 ad. richard the lion-hearted slept at the chateau. i’m living in history – i’m reminded of that every day, and i love it.

but at the same time… i’m a planner. i like knowing how things will play out – or, if i can’t know, i like to at least think about it. part of my INFJ-ness is that i like to think about every single possible outcome of any given situation so i can know all my options. (thanks, mrs. v, for teaching me about myers-briggs. changed my world!) that trait translates into spending hours looking at various travel options, researching tons of different potential career paths, browsing every aisle of whatever shop i might enter… it can be both a very rewarding and very frustrating tendency.

so, how do i break my habit of obsessing over dates? do i even want to break it? more than anything else, this year abroad was a way for me to ask myself some big questions and start working through the answers. is it better to just cut all ties? do i want to be the kind of person who holds on to the nostalgia and the history as the years go by?

at the end of the day, what’s more important… october 19, 2010 or october 19, 2016? even on this smaller scale… just a few years backward or forward. deciding which way to look is hard, especially when i’m trying to be here and live in 2013.

Monday, October 14, 2013


bureaucrazy: (n) the ridiculous number of administrative hoops one must navigate in order to legally reside in a new country; the gladiator games of paperwork

they say patience is a virtue. here in france, it’s more of a condescending expectation. if you think anything is going to happen here with any sense of urgency… you’re wrong. however, if you think that anyone else is going to get your paperwork done for you… you’re even more wrong. i’ve been trying so hard to maintain a healthy combination of persistence and patience since i’ve gotten to france, because it takes both to come out of the soul-sucking, nerve-frying, catch-22-riddled machine that is french bureaucracy with any modicum of sanity intact. i’ve been dancing an exasperating tango with the bureaucrazy here – one step forward, two steps back, side-step, complete spin, forward, back…. it honestly feels like i’ve made no progress at all, and it’s starting to get overwhelming. there is always some form missing from the application packet or some mysterious bank god that needs to approve some other form before the payment can go through or another step to complete before you can get that stamp on your visa… the list goes on.

it’s exceptionally challenging for me, since i’m someone that likes to be prepared. france has thoroughly unarmed, frustrated, and humbled me in this respect.  i suppose i shouldn’t be surprised – the only reason i’m here at all is because i had the rug pulled out from under all my carefully-laid plans last year, which prompted me to apply for this grant. so, i probably could have looked at that experience as an indicator for how this adventure was going to be. when little things add up, i sometimes have the tendency to let it get to me; i’m a pretty on-the-ball kind of girl, and i do well taking care of myself and what i need to get done. but if i get too far behind, or if the inefficiency of a process is too glaringly insurmountable, i can feel the panic start to settle into the pit of my stomach. i hate when things don’t work well and i can’t make it right. but, over the last few weeks, i have had a crash course in patience, humility, and just being able to let frustration slide off of me. with the way things are here, sometimes there really is just nothing to be done but wait. ugh.

if each governmental system in the world were to be represented by a famous architectural icon, france would be the coliseum. it’s renowned for the unbelievable detail and complexity of its structure; it’s run by a network of state officials that all take great pride in acting completely unconcerned with the needs of the plebeians they serve; it looks nice and pretty and organized from the outside, and the inside is a vicious labyrinth of dead-end websites, incomprehensible hours of operation, enough forms and paperwork to redecorate versailles, and a few man-eating beasts (probably). you can only do so much to be prepared – you can have every single form listed on the website (multiple copies), your passport, extra passport photos (the french need a passport photo for everything), your work contract, your lease, your bank account identification information, your second grade report cards, your dog’s immunization records….. it doesn’t matter. they’re going to need something you don’t have on the first visit. and then, once you do have everything they need, you have to mail it to them. and then they mail you something back saying they received it. and then, later, they mail you another form which tells you when your next appointment will be. and then, after that appointment, you get a stamp which allows you to move onto the next step. my point is, the process is literally never-ending. sometimes, i use that word as emphasis (and not in its original sense) – but this time, i mean that i’m pretty sure this process has no endpoint. there will always be something else. always. (i’ve had this confirmed by french friends, so i’m confident. and thoroughly disheartened at the thought.)

when i take a mental step back and look at the last few weeks, i can see that i’ve definitely have made some progress. i opened my bank account and received my card. i submitted all my forms for the immigration office and my dossier for my insurance. i’m on my way to having all my accommodation paperwork done (damn you, electric company) and my paychecks are set up for direct deposit. so, yay! i keep reminding myself that i am not the first person to ever go through this process – it can be done, it just takes time. and, ironically, time is what i have the most of here. today was the first day that i really felt the downswing of expatriation – the part of the process where the nice, shiny veneer of novelty is wearing off, and everything is just kind of wrong and annoying. but, those feelings are all part of the game, and having them means that i’m doing it right. so, instead of crying to the woman in the post office (who saw me three separate times today) like i wanted to do this evening, i just ate half a pan of apple cake and watched french game shows. that’s productive, right?

Thursday, October 10, 2013

back to school

let’s talk about school a little bit, shall we?

first, the basics. the school where i’m working is called cité scolaire girault de borneil. it’s a combination lycée (high school) and collège (middle school) - the equivalent of grades 7-12 in the states, or ages 12-18. there are about 600 kids in the school, many of whom get bussed in from neighboring villages/hamlets/bumps in the road. i’m still kind of unclear on how many teachers there are… but i’d guestimate about 40. maybe. anyway, out of those teachers, there are maybe 7 or 8 who teach foreign language, and i’m working directly with 4 of them. the school building itself is pretty complicated, with lots of corridors that branch out into random directions, and some split-level action. thankfully, most of the english classes are in the same hallway, so i don’t have to move around too much. there is a small library and a nice, bright cafeteria, and a really big courtyard where the kids hang out during breaks.

the class structure and schedule is mad confusing. kids are separated into paths (focusing on literature, or science, etc), and then grades, and then sections. so, for example, on monday afternoon and thursday morning, i work with a class of 1ère ses  - essentially, they are in 11th grade, on a track that focuses on sciences and economics. so… not too keen on the foreign language. but i digress. so, there are different groups of kids, and they all circulate around together during the day. each class is about 30 kids, and each class period is 55 minutes long. so, that’s exhausting. these kids go to school from 8:15am to like 5:15 every day. imagine! and some of them have to travel into town and then home again on the bus…so they end up pulling 12 hours a day for school. meh.

my schedule is SIGNIFICANTLY less arduous…. like, criminally so. actually, let me break it down. 
          i have a 7 month job contract (october 1 – april 30), during which i cannot be 
          asked to work more than 12 hours a week (yes, twelve). i have four separate
          two-week-long breaks (so, that’s 8 weeks of paid vacation) – and i’m getting 
          paid preeeetty well, considering the amount of work i'm actually doing. 
you can all stop trying to punch me through the computer screen now. each week, i don’t have work monday or tuesday mornings, wednesday afternoons, or fridays. at all. so, that’s nice. my contract is for 12 hours a week – 9 with high schoolers and 3 with middle schoolers. i think i’ll end up being at the school for more than 12 hours a week out of sheer boredom  - i’ve kind of offered to be a tutor whenever i’m available (which is often) for one of the other teachers. i did that for an hour today, and had a great time helping two younger boys with an english worksheet. generally, though, my job entails helping the teacher of whatever class i’m working with, in whatever capacity i can. at various points this week, i’ve observed from the back of the room, been interrogated by classes, offered up as a topic of conversation, served as a floating question-answerer, led a video-viewing and discussion about environmental innovation, been taken on a tour of the village, led a discussion about modern signapore, helped a prosecution team prepare for a mock trial of edward snowden, and helped moniter an independent research session in the media room. all within about 10 hours of actual classroom time. so, versatility is the name of the game. i’m pretty sure i’ll be doing something completely different every day. yay? i don’t always love change, but i think being kept on my toes will be a good experience for me.

digression – during the edward snowden trial preparation, i tried to explain –in french – the meaning of the saying “your rights end where someone else’s begin.” talk about digging myself a hole...

anywho. as far as the kids go… there’s a wide spectrum. on a whole, i think they’re more culturally well-behaved than american students. they respect the system, and they go with it pretty much inherently. that said, there are some things that are just universal, and teenagers are a great example. i think that no matter where you go in the world, you will pretty much find that 14 is an awkward stage of a human’s life, and that 17 year old boys will always try to show off in front of their buddies (and more importantly, in front of girls). i may not have any actual teaching credentials… in fact, my only credential for this job is that i speak english. however, i am a human, and was once (much to my chagrin) a teenage human. being such, i feel like i know what to expect certain regards. the nice thing about being an authority figure in a french school is that i can act like the french teachers do.. which is much more sarcastic than i’ve ever seen an american teacher act. you can honestly just get sassy with the kids, and it mostly works. i’m looking forward to exploring that power in the coming weeks. i’ve already detected some landmarks, as far as teaching goes: the first crush on me (super sweet 10th grader who never takes his eyes off me and always helps me move chairs back at the end of the lesson), the trouble makers (mainly kids whose parents are anglophone, therefore making them bilingual and total snots in class), and the ones who feel like english is way out of their league (my favourites, in some cases). i can’t wait to get to know these kids throughout the school year and, hopefully, see how far they come!

the rest of the faculty are super nice – i’ve made friends with several of the teachers/administration already, and it’s only been 2 weeks. i’m hoping that as the year goes on, i’ll start getting invited to teacher-y things on the weekends, so i don’t sit in my apartment for 3 days straight! we’ll see with time, i suppose. the year is young. :)

all in all, after a week of total ambiguity and then another of only partial ambiguity, i think i might have an idea about how this school year is going to be. i love that i’m in a place where i can recognize kids in the hallways, and get an enthusiastic “hello!” from them, instead of some giant school where no one really knows me. i’ve got a great feeling about this year!

Monday, October 7, 2013

it's a quiet village

after a week of the country life here in excideuil, i feel like i’m starting to get the hang of it. during the week, i was forever going back and forth between my flat and the school, each time in the hope that the teachers would have a schedule for me. (no luck.. maybe tomorrow?) it's so great to live this close to my work... whenever i have a free hour, i can go home for a little snack or a catnap. love it. i also did some administrative-y stuff, like opening a bank account and filling out/mailing infinite forms. i spent most of my free time either in my apartment, watching french tv and trying to figure out how the heck the timetables are organized, or down in the café, chatting with vicki and the other patrons. there was a lot of free time…

the biggest day of my week was wednesday, when i went back into périgueux for the departmental assistant orientation day. the entire morning, we were inundated with information regarding our moves to france – how to get our visas validated, how to sign up for the social security system, how the complementary insurance system worked, how to get our rent subsidy… it was enough to make me want to give up, by the end of it. there are just so many administrative hoops… and i’m only going to be here for 8 months. ugh. but the afternoon was great – we were split up into groups, based on the languages and grades we’d be teaching, and then a teacher walked us through how to plan our lessons and gave us a bunch of tips and activity ideas. all in all, it was a great orientation… just very overwhelming. that actually kind of describes what moving abroad is like… great and overwhelming. i’ve been gone for over a month – time is flying!!

anyway, if the slow tempo and relative calm of the work week is any hint to you, weekends here in excideuil are verrrry peaceful. in that, unless you have a car, you can’t leave. happily for me, my upstairs neighbor / new friend mathilde does have a car, so the two of us got to escape the village for a few hours on saturday and head into a town nearby called trelissac for a little retail therapy. there’s not much happening in trelissac, but there was a nice little shopping center. i got a few things that i’d been passively needing (a pair of light tennis shoes, a clock, a yoga ball) and we browsed a few home goods stores (i’m just as obsessed with them here as i am at home). it was really nice to be able to leave excideuil (in a car!) for a few hours, just for a change of scenery. and then today, the weather was absolutely beautiful, so mathilde and i went on a walk around the village and took some pictures. we also watched a rugby match down at the little athletic center… where i learned that some things, like obnoxiously passionate fans of amateur sports teams, are universal experiences. the rest of my evening was spent skyping with my family and planning my upcoming trip to spain!

basically, the point of this post was to let the blogosphere know that i have a new facebook album, filled with photos of my apartment and the village in general. check it out!

Friday, October 4, 2013


well, i’ve passed my first week here in the countryside of southern france, and let me tell you… it’s lovely here. i’m definitely living a charmed little life here!

let me back up a little bit, just to explain how it is that i got where i am. when i was applying for the TAPIF program, i chose “small town / rural area” as my preference, because i wanted a better shot at true immersion.. sometimes, in bigger towns and definitely in the major cities, assistants will just flock to each other and you pretty much end up speaking only english. not what i was going for this time! so, when i received my placement back in june, i found out that i’d been placed in a rural village called excideuil (ex-cee-duh-yuh, sort of). all in all, there are about 2,000 people who live here… which is only slightly larger than my high school. soooo… small town. but, even with all the reservations i had about my remote placement, i knew that it would be the absolute best thing for my french to be as immersed as possible. and i was excited about the prospect of my own beauty-and-the-beast-esque village.

in researching the town, i came across the facebook page for a café in town called ‘kitsch kafé,’ owned and operated by a lovely british ex-pat named vicki. since i was curious about the village, i looked through the photos on her page and noticed that they also rented the apartments over the café… an idea that appealed greatly to me. i reached out to vicki, just wanting to introduce myself and learn a little bit about the village. we continued our correspondence over the summer, and in late july, she told me that their studio apartment was going to be available at the end of september… exactly when i would be arriving in excideuil! too perfect. having my housing worries taken care of before i even left the states was a huge weight off of my shoulders, and made my transition into france life much easier.

so, i arrived here in excideuil on monday, september 30th. vicki even sent one of the café regulars, a philedelphia native named richard, to meet me at the bus stop and help me get my bags to the café (a whopping 200m walk down the street). when we walked in the door, vicki immediately greeted me with a smile and the bisous (the french kiss-kiss greeting) and showed me right upstairs. my apartment is TOO cute. it came totally furnished, which is an immeasurable blessing… she went above and beyond and provided bedding, towels, dishes, even hangers. pretty much everything i needed except for food. i can’t express how rare this type of accommodation is in france, and especially for the rent i’m paying, which is half of what i paid in nashville. it’s a studio, so all one room, but i have a little sleeping nook with a double bed, a decent bathroom, a kitchen with hot places and a little countertop oven, and even a couch and small tv! everything i need for a sweet life in the countryside. (pictures to come this weekend!)

i’ve spent my first few days here just settling in. i went to the supermarket down the road my first evening here and then again the next night, just to get my pantry stocked with the basics (pasta, cereal, madeleines, nutella, etc). i also stopped by the hardware store next to the market for a little plug adapter the first night, and a tv cable the next night. it’s fun to learn the little idiosyncrasies of a new place. for example, the woman at the hardware store really likes exact change… the first night, she was really short with me when i only had a 5 euro note and she had to give me change back, but the second night, i gave her exactly 3.20 for the cord, and she chatted with me about my job for about 5 minutes and wished me ‘bon courage’ as i left. i also learned that it’s way better to bring my backpack to the supermarket, instead of lugging shopping bags back home. and that’s even more true now that i have a bike!! richard, the philedelphian, is in the middle of a decade-long saga of renovation in a 15th century home just behind the café, and he had a bike up in the attic that he’s lent to me! i used the pressure washer behind the supermarket to wash it off, and it works like a charm. so, instead of walking with giant bags like i did the first night, i can now bike with my backpack to the supermarket! much easier.

i think i’ll cut myself off here and do a separate post about my school – don’t want these suckers to get too long, or even i won’t want to reread them! :) x

Thursday, October 3, 2013

sweet reunion

coming back to ireland from scotland truly felt like coming home. i had my vacation, and then i had a lovely place to come back to, with great friends and plenty of time to relax. i spent those two days pretty much just recuperating from constant motion – doing a little computer work, catching up with my friends, packing my bags for the “big” flight to france.

coincidentally, i was in dublin for the 4th annual “arthur’s day,” which is a commercial holiday celebrating arthur guinness’ birthday. all the bars in town had music and specials, and the whole city was packed out with people wearing guinness paraphernalia and toting pints. i went in search of a bar that wasn’t full of tourists singing along to “wagon wheel” or “don’t stop believin’” in order to have my obligatory pint of guinness, but i was ultimately unsuccessful. i landed in in a pub called “the old storehouse,” which i had visited the night before, when they had two awesome trad musicians and it was great fun. but on arthur’s day, it was full of tourists, and i sat with my guinness, crammed between two very intoxicated middle aged couples and listened to the whole bar sing along to “zombie” by the cranberries and a really weird arrangement of “get lucky” by daft punk. cheers, arthur. the rest of the evening was nice, though, because i went to a pub near to our house with the rest of my friend shane’s housemates – it was much quieter, and we had a great time chatting and trying to flip coasters onto empty pint glasses. (shout out to shane for being such a doll and letting me invade his house right as he was in the middle of finishing his thesis! hero. and also the the rest of the house!!)

the month of september was funny, because i was in this sort of vacation-y limbo. when i left on the 3rd (a month ago!!!), i said “i’m moving to france!” – except i didn’t go to france. i floated around for three weeks, posting pictures from various castles and cobblestone streets, until my friends on facebook started saying, “will you please just go to work already!?” my whole “job” kind of seemed like this excuse i had given to my friends and family, in order to escape to europe. (hint – it was.) however, friday, the 27th, was the day i’d been waiting for – i was actually going to france! my flight from dublin to bordeaux was pretty uneventful. i did have the chance to surprise my step-grandmother at the dublin airport, which was just the universe smiling on me. my mom had told me that she was arriving in ireland with a group for a ten day tour at the exact time that i was leaving! so, i checked my bag and went up to the arrivals door to see if i could catch her. sure enough, not three minutes later, she walked through the doors! it was great fun to see the surprise on her face when i called her name. we chatted for just a minute and then i gave her a hug and sent her on to meet her group. so, that was fun. :)

i felt my heart skip a little beat when i finally touched down on french soil – i can’t believe it’s been almost two and a half years since i was last here. i was even more excited, however, to finally see my friend emma again! we had lived on the same hall back in angers, and she quickly became one of my most cherished friends. we kept in touch over the last two years over skype and facebook and sweet handwritten letters, hoping that we’d be able to figure out a way to see each other soon. in fact, when i applied for this program, i chose the aquitaine region because emma was here working at the university in bordeaux. when i found out i got the job, i was ecstatic – partially because i was going to france, and partially because i would be so near to emma for a whole year!

my return to france was marked by a weekend in bordeaux with emma and her boyfriend pierce. she was sweet enough to come meet me at the airport, and i was so excited to see her!! we immediately fell back into our normal, comfortable rapport and it just felt so right. her apartment is in the nicest part of bordeaux (just around the corner from cartier!) and it is so charming. we had a great weekend, catching up and cooking and going out. we even made the old angers classic, pasta bolognese, and then i made pancakes and eggs for breakfast on sunday. i got to meet several of the other language assistants that emma works with at the university, and they were all so nice! it was a great way to transition back into french life. on monday morning, pierce helped carry my bags to the train station and saw me off, because he’s an absolute legend!

so, nearly one month after my departure, i was finally on my way to my own little village in the french countryside. :) more on that to come!

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

couchsurfing and ceilidhs - scotland, week two.

one of the best parts of my entire trip was the train ride from stirling to fort william – it took about four hours and genuinely left me speechless several times. the route went right alongside loch lomond through the mountains, before splitting off to the west, straight into the highlands. it was absolutely breathtaking.
i spent two nights in fort william, which i was initially apprehensive about (tiny town, traveling alone) but it ended up being so great! when i arrived at the hostel, i met several fellow wanderers in the common room. i chatted with two belgian girls before offering an open dinner invitation to the room, and two australian guys took me up on the offer! so, i made two friends pretty quickly… which is weird, for me, but i’m kind of a different person when i travel. more on that another time. their names were ryan and kris, and they were on a two-month european tour before they headed to western canada to work at a ski resort for the season. ah, the vagrant life. we had dinner and pints, and then stayed up and chatted for a while. once we got back to the hostel, the universe smiled on me – my roommate for the evening was an older french woman who spoke pretty much no english. we talked for a long time, and since it was kind of a trial-by-fire surprise to me, i didn’t have time to get nervous about my french. it was a great practice session, and reminder that i do actually speak french with some level of ability. anyways.

the full day in fort william (friday) was actually not in fort william, per se… i had gone to fort william with the intention to ride the jacobite train (made famous by its use at the hogwarts express in the harry potter films!), but the night before, ryan and kris offered to let me tag along with them to the isle of skye for the day… i really wanted to go to skye, and the thought of having some friends to hang with the day was very appealing. basically, the decision came down to riding a really awesome train through some awesome scenery alone for 33 pounds, or riding a bus through the exact same scenery and then getting to go on the ferry to the island with friends for 20 pounds. so i went with the second option, and vowed to come back for the jacobite train with mary lyn or colleen or someone. (that way, i’ll have someone to quote the books with and not look like a crazy person.)

the trip to skye was gorgeous – i can’t explain the landscape. it’s so rugged and natural, and i had the distinct feeling multiple times that a group of tartan-wearing highlanders was going to come running over the hills at any moment. there’s something about scotland that really makes you feel like you’ve gone back in time. not just because everything is very old – it just has this spirit of longevity, like the land is inextricably tied with the history that has taken place on it. those mountains have seen things, man.

the next four days went by in a sudafed-enhanced blur – the cold, wet weather and constant traveling finally caught up with me, and i woke up preeeetty sick on friday morning. so, the continuation of my trip to inverness and aberdeen was a little fuzzy. however, i did tough it out enough to make my afternoon at loch ness totally awesome. i left my backpack at the tourism office of this tiny village and walked 2 miles up to urquhart castle – totally worth the visit. talk about history feeling alive! i was unsuccessful in my hunt for nessie… but i know she’s there somewhere. after the walk back to town, i had a nice little scone before hopping on the bus to inverness. as luck would have it, i recognized one of the castle employees at the bus stop, and we got to talking… turns out, he’s from virginia, but has spent the last 4 years at university in aberdeen! he told me about both inverness and aberdeen, and even pointed out a few key spots to check out once we got off the bus. thanks, craig! unfortunately, i was pretty much incapacitated the minute i arrived at the hostel… i laid down around 7:30pm – “just for a  minute” – and ended up sleeping until 8:30 the next morning. considering i usually can’t sleep for more than 9 hours, i was pretty sick.. but the rest did wonders, and i was able to enjoy a lovely day of exploration around the city. i had tea and a scone at an incredible bookshop called ‘leakey’s’ and then walked around for a while before stopping in a ceilidh bar to listen to some traditional music for the arfternoon. all in all, inverness was kind of a wash (thank you, medicated haze), but i definitely enjoyed the parts i did see, and it was well worth the stop, just to see loch ness on the way.

aberdeen was equally medicated, but i was lucky enough to land a couch with some really sweet couchsurfers who showed me around the city and introduced me to several other travelers and students! i got to see the beach, which was beautiful, and also a lot of the architecture around town. aberdeen is called the silver city and/or the granite city, because there were so many fires in aberdeen's history that the town council decided a while back that everything would be made of local granite... and they weren't joking. all the buildings are this sparkly grey... which is absolutely lovely in the sunshine, because everything glitters. but i hear it's pretty morose in the rain - grey ocean, grey city, grey sky. meh. i had a great first day with merle, a german girl doing her erasmus year in aberdeen, and then the next night, i met with another couchsurfer for drinks! it was a really fun few days, and i was definitely blessed to have such great accomodation and company - and weather! it was gorgeous and so not scottish both days i was there. i'm afraid i didn't really do aberdeen justice, but that just means i'll have to go back and enjoy it properly. :)

potentially the best day of my entire sojourn in scotland was the last day.. i got to see several sides of scottish culture, all within 12 hours. if you look on a map of scotland, my trip thus far was about 80% of a big circle-ish shape – all i had left was the finish the circle by getting back to edinburgh, for my flight back to dublin on wednesday. so, tuesday morning, i left aberdeen and headed south. there is a small town called stonehaven, just an hour or so south of the city, which ended up being one of my favourite places in scotland. i got off the bus about 2 miles south of stonehaven, in order to visit the coolest castle ruin ever, dunnottar castle. even the pixar animators thought so! i had brought a picnic along, so i spent part of the afternoon eating my lunch on a very, very old stone staircase and wandering around the rest of the property. from the castle, i walked along the coastal trail back to stonehaven – a beautiful pathway, right on the cliffs and through cow pastures. there’s even a wwi monument along the way. when i finally got back to stonehaven, i had the best scone and tea in scotland (and coincidentally, of my life) and then made my way to the train station!

once i finally got back to edinburgh, i went to drop my stuff off at my couchsurfing friend marlies’ apartment, where i would be staying for the night. i had a pretty quick turn around before i was scheduled to meet up with ryan and kris (remember those australians from earlier? they were in edinburgh for their flight to germany on wednesday!) to head to a real ceilidh! yay! a ceilidh (pronounced cay-lee) is a traditional community dance, where giant scottish men in kilts fling girls around the dance floor. well, not all the time, but that was the dream! in typical small world fashion, cameron and carly had befriended a local named jonathan, one of the employees of their bed & breakfast from the week before, and he had mentioned the ceilidh club that meets on tuesdays. since going to a ceilidh was #1 on my scotland list, i couldn’t refuse… and i even dragged my new friends along! we arrived at the dance hall and met with jonathan and his friends. the universe was smiling upon us, because with my two friends tagging, we were a perfect group of four couples! the rest of the night passed in a loud, sweaty, accordion-accompanied spinning blur. i don’t think i stopped laughing for two hours straight! ceilidh dancing is like a combination of jane-austen-esque country dancing and line dancing, but on crack. i had so, so much fun, and i am so grateful to jonathan for organizing that experience! thanks, jonathan! :)

the evening went by so quickly, and by 11pm, i was about ready to fall over. the group parted ways at the dance hall, and then i said goodbye to ryan and kris after our walk back to the grassmarket. 6am came much too soon, but i did eventually make it onto the airlink bus and out to the airport!

all in all, i had an absolutely unbelievable time in scotland. i made so many friends and even more memories – castles, walks through the countryside, new cities, all manners of transportation (train, bus, rental car, taxi, boat… if only i could have ridden a sheep!), lots of scones…. so much more. now that i’ve gotten a fairly extensive entry-level introduction to the country, i can’t wait to go back and spend more time in my favourite places!

i took over 700 pictures in scotland, but you can see my favourites in this facebook album, starting with picture number 43! (this post starts at 104!)

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

castles and cattle - scotland, week one.

oh, where to begin. time passes so strangely here; i feel like i’ve been gone for ages, but at the same time like the hours are just flying by… already, i’ve been in europe for a month. which means that i’m basically 1/9th through my wanderyear! ach! i’m doing my best to enjoy each moment and not think ahead too much, but that can be a challenge for me. but, i digress.

my silence in the blogosphere over the last while was due to the fact that i spent two magical weeks in scotland, traipsing around the country and just generally having a great time. after that, i had a whirlwind few days in dublin, a quick flight to bordeaux and a weekend with friends there, and theeeen i got to my village. but i’m here now! and i can blog again! so, without further ado… phase one of blog catch-up: scotland!

week one:

i spent the first week of my fortnight in scotland (relevant use of fortnight, win!) with two very dear friends from back home. cameron and carly have been in my life for years – we became friends back in middle school / high school respectively, and have been blessed to share quite a few fun times together. (probably the coolest of which, until scotland, was that one time i was a bridesmaid in their wedding.) cameron is in seminary at sewanee these days, and was lucky enough to get accepted into a semester-long exchange program in cambridge, england! so, we got to plan a little friend-adventure for their first week in the uk.
i flew into edinburgh from dublin late on the 11th , and had the hilarious experience of having an international flight be shorter than the bus ride from the airport to my host’s flat across the city (50 minute flight < 1h15m bus ride). the next morning, i met cam and carly in the city center and we did some errands before heading to explore edinburgh castle! it was my first major “sight” in scotland, and it did not disappoint. hundreds upon hundreds of years of history, overlooking a beautiful city from its perch high up on a hill. the sheer cliff drops on three sides made it even more dramatic. after a long walk around the area, we stopped for dinner at a pub called ‘the last drop’ (so named due to its proximity to the gallows which used to be nearby…). i tried haggis for the first (read: only) time and had my first (read: not last) scottish whiskey of the trip. for dessert, we treated ourselves to hot drinks at the elephant house, where j.k. rowling wrote the beginning of the harry potter series! the magic was palpable – the view from the window of the castle up on the cliff really gave away the inspiration for hogwarts! the bathroom walls were absolutely covered in hp-graffiti – i spent several minutes reading different quotes and smiling at the thought of how many people had come to pay homage to the site.

friday was pretty laid-back – we pretty much just wandered around and went inside any place that took our fancy. the national library was really beautiful, and we found several gorgeous churches! the highlight of the day was the choral evensong we attended at st. mary’s – a beautiful service, in an even more breathtaking location. the evening was spent chatting with new friends and listening to some traditional music!

our biggest day in edinburgh was saturday – i can conservatively say we walked a half-marathon over the course of the day! my sweet couchsurfing host, marlies from amsterdam, came with us for most of the day. we started at the holyrood house, which is the queen’s official residence in scotland,  where we learned about the history of the crown in relation to scotland. from there, we walked up, up, up to the very top of arthur’s seat, the legendary location of camelot. the hike was steep, but the view from the top was worth it!! once we descended and had a little lunch, marlies went off to work and the rest of us walked alllll the way across town to the royal botanical gardens. once we finally got to a pub for after-dinner drinks, i really felt like we’d earned our whiskeys!

sunday morning was a treat – i taught marlies how to make pancakes and scrambled eggs! we had a great last breakfast together before cameron, carly and i headed to stirling. the train ride was short and sweet, but due to weekend construction, we had to take a bus for the last leg of our journey. we finally arrived in stirling, dropped our bags off, and headed right over to the castle for a  tour.

my favourite part of stirling was definitely the castle. scotland is full of beautiful, historical places, but stirling castle is probably in the top 5 most historically significant. so many battles took place around the castle hill, and so many political figures resided there or at least visited. we had the coolest, most passionate tour guide ever, too, so that made our tour even more awesome.

even though we had three nights in stirling, sunday was really our only day in the city. on monday, we picked up our rental car (mad props to cameron for driving on the other side of the road!!!) and took a day trip out to the eastern coast, stopping for the afternoon in st. andrews before heading back along the coastal route. st. andrew’s was absolutely stunning, and i got to go see several of the places my best friend told me about from her semester abroad there! so fun. the next day, we took another day trip in the other direction out to loch lomond (you take the high road, i’ll take the low road… etc). we drove around the entire national park, stopping when a view compelled us. we even hiked up a smallish mountain (big hill?), where we were caught by one of scotland’s famous weather changes and had to slip and slide our way back down, through the tall grass. i almost got in a fight with a sheep at the bottom of the hill. on the way home from loch lomond, we stopped in doune – famous for the use of doune castle in ‘monty python and the holy grail’… needless to say, we trotted around with our fake coconut sounds and shouted insults to each other in atrocious french accents for about thirty minutes. 

wednesday morning, we went our separate ways – cam and carly went south to oxford for a c.s. lewis conference and i continued on my own for another week of scottish adventure! but that’s a story for another post… :)

pictures from this post are available in my facebook album! just start after the dublin ones. take a look! :)

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

the luck of the irish

holy moly, you guys.

this first week back in europe has been so unbelievably wonderful; i am certain this blog will not come close to doing it justice. i’ve already gotten to see so much, and i’ve only been here for 6 days… yikes. in an effort to keep this blog from becoming a sort of daily log of actions, i’ll just focus on the particularly awesome bits of this last week!

my first day was absolute madness – i didn’t really sleep on the plane, so i arrived in dublin at 5:15am local time feeling very loopy. i knew that i needed to stay awake for the whole day in order to beat the jet lag, so i had a loooong day stretched out before me. meeting shane at the airport was surreal - it all kind of felt like a dream, especially with the soft morning light of the sunrise in conjunction with the after-effects of the sleeping pill! that first day was so full – we walked around the city for a long time and haunted trinity college for a few hours in the afternoon, where i finally got to spend some time looking at the book of kells exhibit. that evening, we went out to a port town called dún laoghaire (pronounced ‘dunleary’) and watched the sunset over the harbor. it was a wonderful day, and wildly successful in keeping me engaged and awake until bedtime!

the next day was a similar walking tour kind of day, except i was on my own.. shane had to work from 12-8pm, so i spent most of the afternoon wandering around to various public buildings. i admired the national library (it’s gorgeous), the exterior of dublin castle and the gardens, and st. stephen’s green (kind of like central park, but way smaller) until it was time to go meet shane. we grabbed some snacks and hopped on a bus back home to county clare, in the west! we arrived in limerick around 11pm, where shane’s dad was there to pick us up and bring us home to drimeen.

being home in clare is lovely – every direction you look, it’s beautiful, green rolling hills and farmland. and it’s always nice to be in a home while you’re away traveling, as opposed to just finding a place to sleep. homes are so cozy. we took two long walks on friday: one a few kilometers down the road to the local graveyard, which was perched on top of a hill and absolutely stunning, and another to the top of the foothill behind shane’s house, just in time to lay in a big field and watch the sun slip behind the mountains. there is nothing more peaceful and refreshing, i swear. all in all, it was so nice to spend time with the family and the animals and recharge!

saturday felt kind of like christmas eve, as the entire country prepared for the all-ireland hurling final on sunday. shane’s home county (clare) was playing cork in the championship match, so everywhere we looked, there was yellow and blue bunting and signs saying “up the banner!” and “up clare!” – the atmosphere was positively contagious. everyone was coming up to dublin for the game, so our drive on the motorway was peppered with honks and waves, as fellow clare supporters drove by in their decorated cars. several friends came to stay with us in dublin and we all stayed up late, catching up and just generally goofing off until the wee hours of the morning.

sunday was all-ireland day, and consequently one of the coolest days i can remember. the all-ireland match is the championship for the national hurling competition. here, counties have amateur teams (organized by parish, and consisting of regular people. not paid, not professional.) and they compete against each other throughout the year, in an effort to make it to this final match and win the cup. the sport itself is unbelievably difficult and entertaining – so fast-paced and physical, with ridiculously challenging skills involved. but the best part about the all-ireland is the build-up and the atmosphere. imagine the most passionate college football game you can, and now quadruple the lifetime devotion and sense of pride felt by the supporters… it’s absolutely electric. and, because this country is the freaking greatest, my wonderful friends found me a ticket. so, i pretty much got to attend the most important event of the year in irish sports, and also the coolest sporting event i’ve ever seen, hands down. if you want to know how the match went, read this article. fantastic day.

yesterday was a slow day, since we were all so tired from the festivities of the day before. i spent the morning lounging, and then finally made my way to the glasnevin cemetery for a walk around. the cemetery itself was beautiful, in a sort of haunting way (pun intended). the highlight of my day for sure was getting to rendez-vous with the "old man irish friend" i made during my first visit to ireland, donnchadh o’riordan. he came all the way into dublin to have afternoon tea with me at the gresham hotel. we sat and talked for over two hours, and it was so lovely. he is such a kind spirit. shane came to meet him as well, so they got to chat for a while about folklore and the ireland of old. when he caught the tram back to the train station, shane and i walked around for a bit before grabbing dinner and heading home.

today has consisted almost entirely of preparing for my trip to scotland, which begins tomorrow!!! i’ll be flying to edinburgh tomorrow evening, where i will kick off my two-week exploration. i’ve been looking forward to visiting scotland for ages and ages – feels like a dream come true! but honestly, being here has been wonderful enough. i just love this place, and i truly could stay here. might have to start looking for a way to come here once i'm through in france! who knows.. :)

(if you’d like to see pictures from this first week in ireland, check out my facebook album here.)

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

now boarding

well, the day i’ve been waiting 5 months (2 years?) for has come, and i can hardly believe it. it feels like three weeks ago that i was graduating and telling people my post-grad plans were to move back to europe in the fall to teach english in southern france. some kind of sorcery fell upon me, because the last few months absolutely flew by! now, my “d-day” has arrived. leaving nashville this morning was hard – i said goodbye to my parents, my sister, my dog, my town, and my car (it’ll be sold when i get back!) all within 24 hours… talk about upheaval. but despite the tears at the airport, today is a day of excitement and anticipation. like i said in my previous post, i knew the moment i came home that my time in france wasn’t over – i just didn’t know what the next trip would entail. now, as i look into the next few months, i can tell you that this trip will be absolutely amazing. i have so many great friends to go visit, some more friends to meet for the first time, an awesome job, and all the opportunity in the world to travel and see new things. i joke that i’m really just going on vacation for a year… but that doesn’t feel too far from the truth! sidenote - i just heard my first irish accent in the terminal, and got butterflies of excitement. i can't believe i get to do this. 

as for right now, i’m hanging out in chicago, enjoying the best kind of people-watching there is (airport!) and trying to get my mind in order. thanks to everyone who has called, texted, facebooked, tweeted, and instagrammed (you get the idea) over the last few days to wish me well – your kind words just add to my excitement, knowing that i have such a wonderful support group at home. i’ll do my best to keep in touch once i get to europe – if you’d like to get in touch with me, leave a comment and i’ll send you my info!

in the next 28 days, i’ll be moving around a lot. a week in ireland, two weeks in scotland, another few days back in dublin, and then on to france! this time next month, i’ll hopefully be posting from my new apartment. :)

three cheers for the wanderyear… next stop, dublin! x

Sunday, September 1, 2013


it’s funny how time works.. one second, you’re a freshman in college ; another moment, you’re leaving for a semester abroad ; one more, and you’ve been back for two years and just graduated. it would take a novel for me to honestly express how the last two years of my life have gone, but here’s the short version of how i came to be where i am.

when i came home from europe on july 13th, 2011, i was elated to be back with my loved ones. i had a joyful reunion with my parents, sister, and dog (he was probably the most excited). i finally got to actually be in a relationship with my boyfriend – we’d been apart for almost 7 of the 9 months we’d been dating at the time. i had stories upon stories to tell, and the world seemed so big and full of opportunities.

i started school that fall without really knowing how i’d react. my time abroad had an indescribable effect on me, and i already felt that i’d miss it desperately. however, i was excited to see my friends and professors and to get back into the swing of american university life. classes started in august, i mysteriously decided to join the new sorority on campus (an entirely different story), and the days passed quickly. but as september waned, things started to get tough.

if i could go back and have a conversation with myself during the months before my departure, i would say this: culture shock is hard, but re-culture shock is exponentially worse. i had been warned about the challenges of culture shock – the initial elation, the inevitable slump of homesickness and frustration, and the eventual balancing act that becomes everyday life as an expat. i went through all of those phases when i got to france – excitement for the first few weeks, a couple tough adjustment weeks, and then several months of relative normalcy. however, coming back home proved much more difficult… the timeline of my re-culture shock dragged on and on. the elation lasted long enough to fool me into thinking i would have no problems readjusting. but after two months, the sweetness of being home gave way to the bitter reality of having no dreams left.

i know how melodramatic that sounds, but it’s the honest truth. i had been dreaming of living in france for what seems like forever. i had spent my entire life, or at least what i could consciously remember of it, striving for that goal. i have had a passion for all things french since i was a little girl – it started with beauty and the beast, but it translated into me starting my french education at age 12, landing a job at the public library at age 15, continuing my librarian career until i graduated college, traveling to france multiple times on school trips and vacations… i even got a fleur-de-lis tattoo when i was 18. all that to say, it was my life’s dream. and i accomplished it! i am so blessed – some people never even come close to achieving their dreams that way. but i am a goal-oriented human; i need something to work towards, or i lose my focus, my drive. so, in september, when it finally hit me that my purpose was no longer there, i panicked. i had a genuine quarter-life crisis. i questioned everything, even my desire to stay in school. and coming from a grade-A nerd, that was a big deal. there are a few people in my life to whom i am forever indebted for carrying me through that semester. but at the end of it, as 2011 was drawing to a close, i finally settled down enough to take stock of my life and my priorities. i decided that, as crazy as 2011 had been – highest highs and lowest lows – i was going to take a deep breath and let it go.

2012 was going to be a new year and i needed to find my balance again. i took a couple classes that changed my life – particularly, i had a world literature class that focused on exilic literature, addressing questions about home, exile, and memory. that course was a god-send; it was therapy. i had time to endlessly reflect about what was happening in my heart, and through our readings and papers, i had time to heal a little bit.

at that point, i still wasn’t thinking far enough in the future to know when i would get back to france. i knew i had to go back, but i couldn’t tell what that trip would be – a permanent move? a couple weeks of backpacking? it wasn’t until the summer that the wheels of fate got turning again. change has always been something that unnerves me – suddenly, plans become irrelevant, and i do love a good plan. but when it became clear last summer that my plans were not the ones that mattered, i stopped trying to be in control.

on a whim, i decided that i might as well apply for the fulbright teaching assistantship in france. what could it hurt? i went through the application process, wrote my personal statement and statement of purpose, sent it off in mid-october, and settled in to wait. around january, i got the email saying i’d been recommended by the fulbright commission for the teaching assistant program in france (henceforth, TAPIF). this program is basically the french ministry of education’s version of the fulbright – english speakers from all over the world go to france to act as supplementary teachers for underprivileged school throughout the country. getting a recommendation from the fulbright commission is a big deal, because it pushes your name to the top of the applicant list. so, i applied for that in mid-january and waited some more. finally, on april 2nd, i got the email that i’d been accepted. i was in target with my best friend, and got a call from my mom, telling me to check my emails. i read the message on her phone, and started crying right there in the clothing section. i was going back to france!!!

that’s basically the rough outline of how i came to be where i am right now. as this post has grown long enough, i’ll cut myself off and write a separate one about the TAPIF program and my placement details. suffice to say, i am beyond excited and anxious about this next chapter, and i am endlessly grateful for the experiences that brought me to this moment. i had such a strong feeling when i came home two years ago that my time in france wasn’t over… and i was right. cheers to that!