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!