Archive for November, 2009


Last week being Thanksgiving, my classes all did a food unit, building up to a party with snacks. True, gummy bears and chocolate cookies are not the traditional Thanksgiving fare, but my students didn’t seem to mind. There was some misunderstanding as to the meaning of the holiday. This year it fell right next to an Islamic feast day, so a good many of my students asked if it was the same thing when translated. Another kid, when asked why we celebrate Thanksgiving, responded very that, “Americans don’t get many vacations so you had to make up a special day to get time off from work.” The beauty of the Pilgrims and Indians coming together to offer thanks to God was perhaps lost on children intent on securing gummy bears. But, as is tradition, here are some things I am truly thankful for this holiday season, some important, some trivial, all little blessings in my life.

-When you happen to buy bread at a boulangerie just as it is coming out of the oven so you get to eat the crusty end off as you walk away and it is still hot.

-When the bus arrives just as I finish my mad 800 meter sprint from one of my schools to the bus station, getting me to my next school just in time.

-People to spend Thanksgiving with. This was my second Thanksgiving with the Fauveau family, a Franco-American family whose mother is a Wilmore native. I have gotten to know them through my church, and Thanksgiving with their family is a joy. No traditional item was lacking, and because the food was prepared by French women, it is all good. I don’t know what it is, but every French woman seems to be an excellent cook. In fact, someone told me this last weekend that on of the early tests for Alzheimer’s in France is to ask a woman how to make a béchamel sauce. If she forgets a step or ingredient, they suspect early dementia. A test like this would land most American women in treatment. But besides good food, our dinner had the sense of thankfulness, community, and remembrance of our many blessings that really make Thanksgiving what it is. Plus, babies make every holiday better, and little Thomas Kyle, the first grandbaby, obliged by sharing chubby cheeked smiles with everyone.

-Finally getting paid, after almost a month delay on my paycheck. Now that the Long Famine, as I like to call it, is over, I am reveling in being able invite people over, make them dinner, and buy things when they run out. I am also thankful for the wonderful friends who helped me out with toothpaste, groceries, etc. during the Long Famine.-Days when the RER B is not on strike and having no delays. I am being pro-actively thankful on this one, in hopes that it will assist this in becoming a daily blessing.

-When you come around a corridor in the Louvre and find a talented musician performing into the night. True, some French street musicians I would be more quick to pay to go away, but usually the musicians who frequent the arches of the Louvre play in a manner that augments the magic of Paris.

I think as Americans, we are quick to forget the point of Thanksgiving, a day where we are supposed to stop and be truly reflective and thankful for what God has given us, not just eat and watch football. It isn’t just a day to give us some time off since we don’t get 5 weeks of paid vacation. Physically, I was far from the land of Thanksgiving this year, but no pilgrim could have gone to bed that night more content . . . or more full, despite walking the last 4 metro stops and climbing the 8 flights of stairs.


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I am on a quest for the perfect pair of boots. This is nothing out of the ordinary, as most women are always on the search for the perfect something: black flats, pencil skirt, winter coat, purse, etc. You don’t really know what it looks like, you just know you will recognize it when you finally find it. Maybe the male equivalent is hunting. Everyday when my feet get cold (and frequently wet) I gaze longingly about at all the dry feet clad in chic boots that fill Paris. Thus, after finally getting paid, I set out to find The Boots.

My search brought me into a quintessentially French encounter. After a couple weeks of preliminary searching every time I passed a shoe store, I finally went this week to try on what I believed would be The Boots.
Saleslady: I am sorry Madame, we do not have your size in stock in brown. Would you like to try on the grey?
(I try on grey boots, which fit perfectly, but not The Boots as they are a different color).
Me: Do you think they might be available in brown in one of your other Paris Branches?
Saleslady (with look of pure insult): Madame, who would want brown boots?
Me: Well actually, I wear a lot of brown.
Saleslady: No no, you simply must get grey, it is so many times more practical than brown!
Me: I understand but —
Saleslady: Grey is in this year. Brown is out. You really do want the grey boots.
Me: I think I actually –-
Saleslady: And just think, they go with everything!
Me: Yes they are truly wonderful, but do you think you could just call another store to see if they have them in brown?

She did not, of course, call another store, but did finally accept that despite the vast superiority of grey boots, I did in fact want brown. Thus, she provided me with a list of all their Paris branches, and wrote down the style number, etc. True French service: Convince the customer they actually want what you have, not seek to have what they want, but eventually help them anyway. Next week I will take my list and set out afresh to find The Boots. If I fail, I can always go get them in grey, which goes with everything.

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En Automne

I love Paris in the fall. I should offer a disclaimer, that after 4 years of school in Michigan, I have pretty high standards for fall. Michigan falls are breathtaking, though you of course pay for them with Michigan winters, which are too cold to breath. Fall in a big city is different. Some days I will forget, then find myself caught in a swirl of leaves blown up from a garden. After a week of almost spring like weather, the sky has returned to a crisp cool grey and the air has that Christmassy feel. The other night I climbed up on my roof to see Paris stretched out before me. The orange tops of all the trees the Jardin du Luxembourg seem even more brilliant when contrasted against the endless slate grey roofs.

Hemmingway write that you expected to be sad in Paris in the fall, but I am not so sure I believe. I feel like fall has its own excitement and beauty, one full of expectation as every day shows a marked change in nature. I always feel a little sad when fall is over, but could happily live in multiple months of autumn. In Luxembourg right now they have finished raking all the leaves. This means that there are enormous piles of leaves everywhere just waiting for someone to jump in them. I realize that jumping into the leaves is like wearing a giant T-Shirt that says “Tourist” on it, but I just couldn’t help it, this mound was too large to be ignored. Shortly after I sailed through the air into golden splendor (which was very hard, by the way, not like I imagined), I watched two little girls do the same. I then watched two policemen reprimand them harshly.

Minus the leaves, the gardens are a starker sort of beauty, long rows of symmetrical trees with dots of color from the bright fuchsia, red, and orange mums that line all of the monuments. It is also easier to see all the people exercising in the gardens. By this I mean, doing various forms of yoga, tai chi, and marshal arts through the barren trees. It is like an eerie dream, seeing an army of middle aged well dressed Parisians moving stealthily through the trees with giant sticks. As I go huffing around the gardens on my runs, I am constantly having to dodge people realigning their karma or preparing to be ninjas. Perhaps someday I will jump into another pile of leaves under the pretense of avoiding them.

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Pont des Arts

Sometimes it is good to be reminded why I love Paris. These past two weeks there have been moments when I have forgotten it, as centralized French inefficiency has delayed my paycheck for 3 weeks. I walk past exciting places to eat, see shows that I would love to get tickets to, and basically I have whined a lot more than I should considering I live in the most beautiful city in the world. This past weekend, a Hillsdale student studying in Tours came to spend a weekend in Paris, and so I got to play tour guide and use my final funds as I was promised I would be paid on Monday (which in French means Tuesday, apparently). Nothing will remind you how blessed you are to live in Paris as showing it to someone else. There is an almost tangible magic that seeps from the old buildings and cobblestone streets.

We spent Saturday visiting a lot of my favorite places, especially ones that were free. I never tire of wandering the Musée d’Orsay, of visiting the paintings I like and meandering through new exhibits. After the museum, we enjoyed macaroons at Ladurée. For those of you who have never been to this perfect feminine paradise, imagine the most beautiful tea party in the world, where you dined on flowers that were magically transformed into little cakes underneath a painted ceiling and gilded mirrors. Needless to say, there are very few men in Ladurée. We then wandered through the cramped, dimly lit shelves of Shakespeare and Company, then climbed onto my roof to watch the Eiffel Tower twinkle, wherein we were so inspired, that we jumped on a train to go watch the special exhibit light show up close. The atmosphere was slightly disturbed by incensed youth protesting something or another (do they really think tourists who come to watch the Eiffel Tower light up care about what they are saying?), but this is France, and nothing adds local flavor like a little protest here and there.

Lots of the magical moments in Paris can’t be planned. As we were walking along the Rue de Rivoli Sunday afternoon, we came across a group of modern dancers performing by the Louvre. Now, modern dance must be of the utmost difficulty. At least, that is what I have always assumed since I am sure I have seen many failed modern dances. But this is Paris. These were students of a conservatoire performing to raise money to go on tour in Russia. American high school fundraisers consist of candy bar sales, the French take to the streets. At first we stopped prepared to laugh (or at least I did), but we stayed a good half an hour because it was beautiful, utterly perfect. Every line was graceful and complex, and all of it was improvisational. You can’t plan moments like stumbling across troupe of dancers in the Louvre on a blustery Sunday, but in Paris, you don’t have to. They just happen.

As we were walking across the Pont des Arts to head towards the train station, I noticed for the first time that the bridge’s chain link railing is covered in locks. Each lock has names on it, the people who came to this spot enraptured by the magic of Paris and a belief in their eternal love for each other. Vinca and Mikkel just left this lock there in the past weeks. Who knows if they will even know each other next time the come back to look at it (if they are the typical French stereotype, probably not). But even so, why not fix something solid to mark that in this most magical and romantic of cities, you were there and you loved?

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Tuil. collage

Yesterday some friends and I wandered les Jardins des Tuileries. A national holiday in honor of the armistice, the gardens were packed. True, everyone was just on vacation last week, but no one complained about another day off. I have been thinking about the different mentalities in regards to childhood, vacation, and work. In the states, children are to be children. We prize the importance of playing, of not having too much homework, of getting to enjoy precious years with no responsibilities. Here, childhood has lots of pressure. I hear nine year old kids fretting about doing well on their bac (a test given at the end of high school). True, the French get vacations, but while in school, they work with a diligence that you don’t always see in the states. It is almost as if the systems are switched. The French, once they start working, work a 35 hour work week with about 5 weeks paid vacation, plus random bank holidays. As Americans, we value playing as children, but sometimes forget its importance, or haven’t the luxury of remembering it, as adults.

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I realized looking over this blog that it looks like all I do is walk around and take pictures, and this is not actually true, so I decided to devote a blog entry to my job. I do nanny part time, but my actual reason for coming to France was to teach English. (Between teaching and nannying I work 27 hours a week, which is practically full time for the French!) I teach English in a suburb north west of the city called Aulnay-Sous-Bois. My students are approximately 2nd-5th grade, so some of them are just starting English. I teach in several different schools, trekking around Aulnay four days a week (no primary school is in session on Wednesdays).

Teaching in France is an interesting experience, challenging, but very rewarding (most days). My kids come from a very diverse ethnic background, as Aulnay is known for being a rather difficult immigrant melting pot. Most of them have unpronounceable North African names, with a couple Romanian and Polish names thrown into the mix. This diversity inevitably leads to interesting questions, like “Miss Hannah (prounounced Mees Annah, question asked in French of course as their vocabulary thus far is colors, school supplies and numbers), were you sad on 9/11 and why did Osama hate America?” This is very complex to explain to an eight year old, without offending half of the room. French kids are strong in different areas than American children. American children learn in a liberal arts manner. We do units, where you integrate all different subjects under the banner of “The American Revolution” or “The Rainforest” or something. The unit concept does not exist in French schools as far as I can tell and they favor rote memorization. American children are lucky to have legible handwriting when they leave elementary school, while French kids all exhibit exactly the same perfect handwriting. I spent almost a third of every class answering questions like “Do we underline this in red?” or “Should we skip 4 squares over for the date?” until I finally stopped and said that in the US, you sometimes don’t underline, or you may even do a squiggle line. Anarchy broke loose and they realized at that moment that the United States is indeed the land of freedom. History is not as valued in the French Elementary system from what I can tell, but current events, even on the international scale, are common topics of conversation for even a young child. Today one of my 4th graders asked me totally unprompted “Did you hear that that bill (healthcare) only passed 220 to 215?”

The teacher’s lounge is life to a scholastic culture that gets Wednesdays off and a paid two week vacation every 7 weeks. I spend some quality time each day in the teachers lounge, sometimes for my lunch break, in between classes, or often because someone forgot to tell me a class was cancelled. People think of wine as the French drink of choice, but after being here a while, I firmly believe it is coffee. When you eat out and you tell the waiter you don’t want coffee after dinner, he stands there dumbly looking confused, and when someone asks if you want coffee, it is often not a question. I have even choked down a couple cups since arriving. French generosity is at its finest in the teachers lounge where everyone contributes to makes sure coffee, tea, and little cookies are never lacking. Kids routinely come in with coffee orders for those unlucky teachers who have to monitor the playground. Today the director felt really bad that she hadn’t called me to tell me my class was canceled (meaning I got up way early for nothing) but then she suddenly beamed and said “ But oh! You can have a coffee!”

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Les Vacances II: Venice!

Venicewith wm
The second part of my vacation, I took a quick trip to Venice where I met Kelly, a friend from when I studied abroad. Yes, this trip was perhaps not practical in light of my budget. In my defense, it was planned under the assumption that I would be paid on time, instead of still waiting for that ever-illusive paycheck. Some trips, like my time in Oxford, are blessed through perfection: perfect weather, food, company, etc. Other trips, like my trip to Venice, remain in memory for having been wonderful in spite of a multitude of imperfections.

“Reasons I should have hated Venice: ”

– They say that Venice is sinking into the ocean. This is probably true, but it is also being reclaimed by water from the other direction. I think all the rain that usually is in England went to Italy just for my time there. Day one it drizzled all day (not too bad, just enough to slowly sink in and leave a chill in your bones) but then that night, it POURED. Furthermore, the rainfall coincided with my losing the umbrella, and getting lost, thus Kelly and I spent a good 45 minutes wandering in dark, wet, cold, streets that all seemed to dead end in canals with no bridges. Day two, cold again. Kelly and I both wore every single shirt we had packed, as our coats were drying out from the previous night’s dash through the rain.

– Venetian food is not very good, contrary to my cherished American belief that when you stop off the plane into Italy, everything you eat is perfect.

– Everything in Venice is expensive, and for me to state that coming from Paris is a big thing. In Paris, at least gardens and churches are free. For those of us not greatly endowed with funds at the moment, this should make being a tourist frustrating.

But I didn’t hate Venice, couldn’t hate Venice. Even though I logically knew that I was freezing, developing a cold, not getting the expected cuisine, and not being able to afford lots of things to do, my heart just kept on exploding with joy at being in this perfectly and ethereally beautiful city. Kelly and I adapted to each situation with laughs. There were about 30 minutes of pure agony with the cold and wet, but after that it became funny as we were wearing more (and slightly odd) layers, and blow drying all of our clothes in the mornings and before dinner each night to dry them out. After aptly assessing it wasn’t worth much to eat at over priced Venetian restaurants, we developed an intense affection for a little bakery near our hostel and. We also ate pizza for almost all of our meals. The final night we split a family size pizza that was pretty cheap, and about the size of a tire. No person in a fancy restaurant could have enjoyed a dinner more than we enjoyed our pizza in our hostel, eaten in our pjs and newly acquired Venetian masks. Venice may be expensive, but with only two days, Kelly and I just milked all the free stuff, which meant wandering about gaping at the beauty and taking a million pictures. You don’t have to pay a penny to feast your eyes on the delicate bridges, sleek gondolas, and colorful boats. The best part of our trip was going to the little island of Burano where we wandered fascinated by the colorful houses. Instead of a gondola, we used the water shuttle passes we had bought to treat ourselves to a late night boat ride. By this I mean we hoped aboard stop one and rode to the end of the line, the entire length of the Grand Canal, sitting on the back open section in the freezing night air. We followed cats in alleys, ran through pigeons in front of San Marco, watched glass being blown, crossed a million lovely bridges, stumbled on perfect abandoned streets and forgotten churches, and ate gelato strolling down a deserted canal.


Paris is magical, Oxford was lovely and serene. Venice is like an exquisite dream world of bridges rising from green waters, brightly painted houses reached by sleek boats, crisp gondolas gliding silently down narrow corridors, and a atmosphere that makes you forget that anything else exists, even cold wet feet and soggy shoes.

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