dimanche 22 novembre 2009
The lanquetot has stunked up our fridge to the point that anything that was refridgerated for more than 30 minutes smells like lanquetot. This is not bad. It just means, according to the French, that the lanquetot has "character." And character, chez les fromages, is a positive attribute.
So, when I pulled out my lunch at work the other day and someone across the room said, "Wow, I can smell that cheese you're eating," no one was surprised when I told them that there was no cheese in my lunch, this particular cheese had only sat next to my lunch. I told them about our plan to eat our way around the country's dairy products and that started a delightful conversation about everyone's stinky cheese preferences. "Oh, you should try such-and such! I'll bring you a sliver." "Oh, no, don't give her that, it would be mean to give that to a foreigner." And then another teacher, who is a young mother, sighed and confessed that she loves cheese so much that it was the only thing she missed while she was pregnant with her daughter (you can't eat cheese made from raw milk when you're pregnant because of the listeria risk). In fact, she admitted sheepishly, when she had just given birth and they put the squirmy newborn on her chest, she looked at the baby and sighed, "I can eat goat cheese again!"
I am falling in love with this country.
We were visiting Leeds Castle in England (pictured above) on a family trip and saw that the Dog Collar Museum was on the grounds, so we took a detour there. It was actually pretty cool, for as weird as it was. Some cool medieval and renaissance jeweled collars for noblemen's hounds...I'm not quite sure why this is the only picture I took:
But then again, why did I even take this one?
samedi 14 novembre 2009
vendredi 13 novembre 2009
If it's possible, it's already done.
If it's impossible, we'll start right away.
If it'll take a miracle, expect a slight delay.
This was on the wall (in French, of course) in an office I had to visit today at the University. I'd filed my fiche pedagogique wrong, which means I wasn't appropriately registered for classes.
Now, this sign may be cute and funny, but if you've been paying attention around here, you know that there's more to it than that. You know that here in the south of France, if it's possible, they'll tell you it's not, just so you leave them alone. If it's possible, it probably won't happen anyway, so you may as well give up and take a pause café. And miracles--we haven't seen those since before the French Revolution. We've got laïcité, remember? No religion involved in the public sphere.
I pondered over the paradox of this sign while the secretary looked hopelessly at my fiche pedagogique, then at her computer screen, and then back at the fiche. "It's not going to let me register you," she sighed. "You need to get a derrogation to be allowed to take this class."
Ah, I pointed out. I know. My derrogation was stapled to my fiche. She shuffled through my papers to find it and sighed again. "It's not the right kind."
And then, the miracle happened. She stapled everything back together and told me, "I'll take care of it."
Well, maybe I should call it a tentative miracle--as the sign says, miracles do take a slight delay, and so maybe I should wait a month to see if this one has really come through or not. In the meantime, it's Friday, which is a small miracle of its own.
lundi 9 novembre 2009
Good friends came to visit us and Josh explained to them the fundamental paradox of French culture: we will pay a third of our salary in taxes so that everyone can have health care, because we believe in solidarity. But our bathrooms are for customers only.
Most of the other hikers were pretty comfortable using the "green room" as my mom calls it. This was not surprising, since the last time we went hiking (on cliffs over the Mediterranean), we saw a few people decide to cool off with a dip in the sea. . . au naturale. What they say about French beaches? It's all true.
But back to the Gorges--we had a great time driving around the perimeter, and crossing the canyon at one point on a bridge being used for... bungee jumping!
It was a long way down.No, we didn't try it. Instead, we drove into the little medieval village of Trigance... with a public restroom! Yay! Mission accomplished.
Trigance was crowned by the third (and final) castle of the day. The first we had passed somewhere around Allemagne-en-Provence (Germany in Provence--weird name for a town that looked exactly like every other Provençal town).
The second castle was in the town of Aiguines, on a hill overlooking the lake made by the river Verdon after it leaves the canyon.
Yup, that's a soccer field in front of the castle there. After all the driving around, we finally found a good jumping-off point for a hike: "Point Sublime"--the name was promising.
Turned out we were not actually at Point Sublime, but instead about 900 feet below it in the bottom of the canyon.
It was, however, a fortunate mistake. The bottom of the canyon was cool and shadowy and we got to see the rock features close-up.
It was a great way to spend a fall weekend!
samedi 7 novembre 2009
Anyway, my euromullet grew out, and in the meantime, more people than ever stopped me to ask for directions, thinking I was a real madrileña. All in all, the euromullet was a good cultural experience.
And now it’s back.
Quick parenthesis: unlike people I know who have a great unique style—like my rockin’ hipster brother Steve, who will wear pretty much anything as long as no one else is wearing it—I just want to blend in. Not that, if given the choice between the ability to fly and the ability to become invisible, I would pass on flight, but I don’t like to stick out too much. So, to go down to the university here, I’ve stopped wearing colors (unless it’s one colored article of clothing and everything else I’m wearing is black or brown), and majorly upped the beige, black and grey content of my wardrobe, because that's what everyone else does. No joke--one day I sat in a class with about 40 people and counted how many of them were wearing a color other than brown, grey, or black. Seven. Seven people were wearing colors.
So once I had the no-colors thing down, all I needed was a trendy haircut. (And a scarf, but I still haven’t found one that I like.) I realize I sound completely superficial and trend-focused, but I hadn't gotten my hair cut in two years and it was so bad my mom was dropping hints like, "So, how do you like your hair these days?" when we talked on skype. So, when I had last Tuesday off, I meandered around town to choose a salon. I settled on “The New York Salon,” decorated with giant canvases of taxicabs and the Empire State Building (and of course, Marilyn Monroe), since they offer a good student discount. And massage chairs at the hair-washing sinks.
My conversation with the stylist was rather illuminating. Not only did I learn quite a bit about her self esteem as I watched her check herself out in the mirror the entire time she cut my hair, but I discovered one more reason the French have such a reputation for being stylish: it takes FOUR YEARS to get certified to cut hair here. And it showed: I got a gorgeous, trendy haircut. And then I asked her to make the layers an inch shorter. And then, as Marilyn Monroe smirked at me from above, I walked out with another euromullet. But that’s okay. It will grow out. And I really, really liked those massage chairs. . .
mardi 20 octobre 2009
Earlier in the year, Josh and I decided we would learn Old English for something fun to do in the evenings. We found a great online tutorial. . . but we haven't had much time to devote to such luxuries lately.
However, we can always spare a minute over the dinner table to read our food product labels in Dutch. Many big-brand (or off-brand) foods here are labeled in Dutch (which the French call "Neerlandais") and French, I guess because they're marketed in Belgium. So Josh and I get our Germanic-language fix by reading the labels to each other and making the other person guess what the words mean. Want to play? Here you go:
What's in the box of apelsaap?
And what am I eating when I take a spoonful of rijstpap, vanillesmaak?
Answers to follow.
mardi 13 octobre 2009
I am once more addicted to caffeine, there is a van blocking the alley, and Philippe wants me to run away with him. It’s been an annoying 48 hours.
I am too tired to do my job, too tired to go to all my classes, too tired to schedule all the tests the doctor ordered to figure out why I am so tired. A major contributor is definitely all the extra brain work required to speak French all day. I had eight hours of class yesterday with a half hour break. I took notes, in languages I don’t speak, for eight hours. I think the caffeine addiction is self-evident.
What is NOT self-evident is why there is a van blocking our alley. There are four or five apartment buildings whose doors open onto our tiny impasse and one of the apartments in one of the buildings is being renovated. Normally the alley is barred off from the street by metal posts, but the artisans (the laudatory French term for what we would call tradesmen) have convinced the owner of the art gallery next door to lend them the key to the locks keeping these posts in place. Their pretext is that they need to unload materials, but it turns out they just don’t want to pay for parking somewhere else. So any time you want to leave the alley or come back, you have to shout until someone hears you and comes and moves the vehicle to let you through.
I came home from my 8 hours of class yesterday, and I was, to put it mildly, not in a good mood. And there was a van in my way. And I shouted and shouted and no one came. And then, to add insult to injury, two very skinny college-aged French boys also living in the impasse managed to squeeze between the van and the alley wall. I did not fit. I was not pleased.
I knew the owner of the art gallery was somehow implicated, but he wasn’t there. He’d left his number on the door so I called and left a message that I thought was both scalding but also appropriately formal, asking him to please do something about the situation with the van. Before he called me back, though, one of the skinny college boys who had managed to squeeze through the breach found me a workman, who moved the van so I could get in, and then put it right back again.
After Josh too had gotten someone to uncork the alley for him and come home, I got a call back from the gallery owner. He suggested I stop by and he could explain the whole thing to me. I felt a bit chagrined. I was safely home again, and my anger had subsided quite a bit once I’d had a chance to visit the bathroom and put down my backpack. But I’ve read too many Anne of Green Gables books, in which leaving a nasty message for an unknown neighbor is always the first step to a beautiful friendship. So I went around the corner (managing to squeeze past the van, which was an inch further away from the wall this time) and met Philippe.
I started by apologizing for yelling at his voice mail. No problem, he said. I like being yelled at by women. This did not bode well. I apologized for being a bad example of American pissed-offedness, and, insisting I sit down and offering me a coffee or a coke, he waltzed me off on a conversation about cultural stereotypes. After about five minutes, for some reason I used the word “we” to refer to Josh and I. Oh, he said, you have a roommate. I’m married, I told him. 79 percent of French women have affairs, he responded. Ah, I said. Did I mention I’m Amish?
It was one of those conversations you just can’t seem to end, even though it’s strewn with suggestions that you leave your husband and run away to the Luberon with a French man who was in a movie playing Burt Lancaster’s younger self before you were even born. This does not happen in Anne of Green Gables books. Finally Josh popped in to see what had happened to me. I’d say the conversation cleaned up from there, but Philippe diverted his energies into trying to sell us a work of art. Any work of art. He seemed to think we’d be most interested in a nude. He also played my message for Josh, and they both laughed at how bad my French was. I thought you were Chinese! Philippe exclaims. I laugh too, but only because I'm really, really embarrassed.
But the van, you say, what about the van? Well, Philippe agreed that they shouldn’t use our alley as their parking lot, but it’s not his key to withhold—he’d borrowed it from the Mairie (town hall). I have to lodge a complaint with them. Considering what happened the last time I lodged a complaint at the Mairie—that is to say, nothing—I think I’ll save my breath. I’m going to need it to yell for the workmen to move the van again.
samedi 10 octobre 2009
jeudi 1 octobre 2009
Josh and I get really excited about how great our health care is here. Just the other day, he showed me the part of Sicko in which Michael Moore interviews French people about their government-run medical system. He talked to American expats in Paris who had nothing but praise for their sécurité sociale, or "Secu" as we lovingly call it. I’ve gotta say, it’s pretty great. I can usually get an appointment with my doctor in a matter of hours. (I called a few mornings ago around 9:30 am to get a checkup appointment and they had me in at 2:15 that afternoon.) There’s almost no paperwork to fill out at the doctor’s, you get care first and deal with insurance afterward. Minimal paperwork. Pretty much everything is covered. I needed tests (for nothing serious) and they were done the next morning, with the results in that afternoon. A month’s supply of medicine cost me. . . 37 cents. I pay, per month, just a bit more than what I paid in the US for catastrophic insurance with a $1,000 deductible.
Now, the point of telling you this is NOT to cast light on the current debate in the US over government-run healthcare. It’s to cast light on how RIDICULOUSLY STUPID so many other things are in France. Seriously, if they can get it so right with healthcare, why did it take us three months to get internet when we moved here? And, once more, Josh is on the phone with the internet provider. He just got a USB key so he can access the internet from anywhere in town, good for someone who meets people in cafés for English tutoring and wants to use youtube. Of course, the USB key works with a password. Of course, SFR (the internet company) hasn’t sent that password. Of course, they’re not going to. About 20 minutes ago I heard him getting mad on the phone with SFR and asking to speak with a supervisor. He’s been on hold ever since.
It’s a good thing our health care is so good and we can buy wine for the same price as soda, because we’re going to have REALLY HIGH BLOOD PRESSURE in not too long.
My biggest worry right now, au niveau administratif, is la rentrée – back to school. Let me tell you what back-to-school is like at a French university. I’ll give you a timeline.
Sometime in August:
The official start date of the Fall semester is announced (Sept. 25) Course lists/schedules are not yet posted.
Course lists/schedules are not yet posted.
Course lists/schedules are not yet posted.
I go to my orientation. The woman speaks extremely rapidly and mumbles. I understand almost nothing. She hands out some of the schedule. We have to get the rest of the schedule from the department secretary, who is only in the office from 9-10 am and from 10:30-11 am.
I try to go get the schedule. There is beaucoup du monde (a ton of people) in the hallway. The secretary brings us into the office one at a time to hand us the schedule. One at a time. On the door there is a sign saying, “WE WILL NOT GIVE YOU YOUR SCHEDULE BEFORE ORIENTATION ON SEPT 24TH.” I wait my turn to go in. I have a question about my electives. A secretary tries to answer. The electives are not on the schedule. There is a master list of all electives in all departments. I have to go to another office. Then I have to write down the electives I might want, and go to the department offering each elective to get the schedule for each course. While she is explaining this to me, she and her colleague get in a screaming fight over who should answer the phone. “I’m helping this girl,” she says. “I’ll answer the phone when I’m done.” They are clearly stressed out.
Sept. 25th afternoon:
Josh has found me outside my department office, the second third of my schedule in hand. All I need is the electives, now. That final missing piece. The rest of the treasure map. There is an “electives fair” in the courtyard so we head outside. Each department has a spot at one of the folding tables set up around the perimeter of the courtyard. Students wait in line to get the schedules for all the different electives they want. This saves us from going around to all the offices, all of which are open during different hours, closing frequently for coffee breaks. I look at my degree requirements and decide to wait and take an elective next semester. I don’t pick up any schedules. I realize later that I actually DO need an elective this semester. I have to go to all the offices. Josh didn’t fare any better. He waited in line for the electives he wants to take, but the departments still don’t know what times those courses will be offered. Classes start on Monday.
Sept 28th morning:
I have made it through two hours of Spanish classes, 75% of which were conducted in French. When the professors speak Spanish, they’re very slow and deliberate and repeat themselves often, using synonyms. Now I know why French people have the reputation of being bad at foreign languages. I go to the office where you pick up the master list of electives, only it turns out. . . it hasn’t been published yet. Not for 3rd year students, just for 1st and 2nd years. I ask the woman working in the office how I’m supposed to not miss my classes if the schedule isn’t available yet. She tells me she doesn’t know. Josh goes to class. His professor doesn’t.
My class today is taught by the woman from orientation. I can barely understand her French. She only speaks in Spanish about 5% of the time. Everyone takes furious notes except me. I try not to cry. Meanwhile, Josh’s department has re-done their schedule. Most of his classes now overlap by at least an hour.
Today I miss classes to take an hour-long bus to Marseille to sign more papers for work. I’m going to be teaching English in an elementary school again. I get up early to get my papers ready—social security info, birth certificate, RIB (bank info sheet). I remember last year when my friend Julia got her RIB hostilely rejected because she had torn it off the sheet instead of cutting it with scissors. My last RIB has been torn off the sheet, too. Oh, well, by the time they open my file I’ll be an hour away by bus.
I get up early and walk through town as the farmers’ market is being set up and the streets are still glistening from an early-morning spray-down. I take the bus to Marseille and walk to the Inspection Academique. The secretary at the front desk ignores me, more intent on looking for a box of ink cartriges she’s stashed somewhere. I’m supposed to wait until she finishes her current task and then she’ll give me her full attention. I don’t care. I’m American. I interrupt and ask where the assistants are meeting. When I get there, they say, “Oh, wait, you already signed those papers. You can go home again, sorry.”
I was not at all surprised by this. It was exactly what I had expected would happen. I stick around to get a copy of a paystub from last year that never came. I’m directed to a woman who takes me up to her office, squeezing with me into a two-person elevator that already has an occupant. Her office is full of pictures of foreign places. She frantically ruffles through files and then searches through her computer. She looks at me with sad and frightened eyes and tells me that the woman at their office in charge of paperwork for Language Assistants--the same woman with the aversion to torn edges--retired without training anyone to do her job. I feel so sorry for this woman in front of me, drowning in the avalanche of French bureaucracy while I complain that my feet are cold.
On the bus ride home, I feel another tension headache coming on. This makes me think of my great health insurance. I remind myself that I’m going to get a free pair of glasses. Cute French ones, and my insurance will pay for them, with almost no paperwork to fill out. I feel better. Sortof.
mercredi 23 septembre 2009
Last weekend we decided to do some exploring. My teaching post for this school year is in a town called Venelles, which is only 11 minutes away by car, according to google maps. So we figured, why not see if we can bike it?
Me + biking is, I should note, a somewhat surprising combination. I am extremely maladroite and shun most physical activity. Josh convinced me to get a bike. . . and now he's trying to convince me to ride it instead of walk alongside it. Which I did, for about half of our trip to Venelles. It turns out that to get from Aix to pretty much anywhere north of the city, you have to go up a huge hill. The local Gauls (pre-Roman inhabitants of France) lived at the top of the hill (the Plateau d'Entremont) and they definitely had a great view:
But they weren't trying to ride a bike up the hill, in traffic. You see, it turns out that all the roads between here and Venelles are pretty major thoroughfares. They're also lined with the plane trees that Napoleon planted to keep his troops marching in the shade as they moved around the country. This basically means that as I wobble along the shoulder of the road, I could either fall to the left and get hit by a car, or fall to the right and run into a tree. Strangely I find the trees comforting. The idea of crashing into one of these beautiful old trunks has a nice earthy warmth to it.
Well, we finally made it to Venelles, and it's a cute town.
There's a sign just outside town that marks Venelles as a "ville fleurie," which I guess means they have a lot of flowers. We didn't see many flowers, but we did spot grape vines hanging over fences:
These days I keep catching whiffs of a smell that's like a cross between wine, vinegar, and grape juice. And here's the cuplrit:
Crushed grapes rotting underfoot.
"Pardonez-moi, Monsieur le chien, savez-vous ou est le centre ville?"
lundi 21 septembre 2009
lundi 14 septembre 2009
A week before we left the US I took a box of books to the Paperback Exchange on Jonestown Road in Harrisburg to pick up some picture books for teaching here in France. I had a bit of extra store credit so I decided to treat myself to something for the plane ride. Well, I’d been wondering about this Twilight series . . . 24 hours later I was hooked. A huge chunk of the second book takes place in a town in Italy called Volterra. I assumed it was fictitious until I started thinking, boy, that name sounds familiar. . . and then I realized I’ve been there!
I don't have many pictures of Volterra because A) I was chasing Steve, who decided to take off on his own and didn't have a cell phone, and B) I didn't know that Volterra was the vampire "royal city." Why wasn't that in my guidebook somewhere?!?!
Here's the town square of San Gimignano--exactly what I'd imagine for the Volterra in the book:
But to be fair, the piazza in Volterra looked a lot like this, too (I had to check to see which town this picture was taken in). In fact, most towns in this part of Tuscany look pretty much the same. Here's the only shot I have of the main Piazza in Volterra:
And just as important to Twilight readers as the piazza is that tiny, shadowy side street. . . here's one in S.G.:
This is in a museum in S.G. that I was too cheap to pay for. Steve took the picture on his way up one of the towers. S.G. is famous for its medieval towers. But back to Volterra.
I think this is a distance shot of the town square of Volterra (the place where that pivotal scene takes place) but I'm not sure because I was so hopelessly lost wandering around the town. I ended up at another round tower . . . this one part of a prison still in use today:
samedi 12 septembre 2009
Oh, and yup, that's a folding bike in the picture. Our new plan for around-town (and close outside town) transport. We got folding ones since they'll fit in the apartment and on airplanes better. And, of course, they're both orange.
samedi 20 juin 2009
From the bus station, I walk behind a bunch of modern apartment buildings, then up through my ritzy shopping plaza (sorry, no pictures) and around the Rotonde.
Today we're taking a quick detour down the Cours Mirabeau, the main drag. On one side, we have old mansions.
On the other side, cafés.
And down the middle of the street are old fountains. I've heard that there was some law that they couldn't be blocked or destroyed because shepherds used them as they brought their flocks through during seasonal migrations. Now the only ones drinking out of them are puppies and pigeons. Several are thermal sources and grow plants year round!
Here we are at Monoprix, a department and grocery store. Tonight's dinner: frozen moussaka and salad, both found in the Monoprix basement. We'll also pick up a box of honey nut cheerios, which are just honey wheat cheerios here.
After we leave Monoprix and the Cours Mirabeau, we're on single-lane pedestrian streets. This means we are more likely to get run over by cars and/or motor scooters.
We'll meander past the house that found a way to compensate for the fact that the street cut through the corner of the property. It's next to the Natural History Museum.
By the way, we just walked past the store "L'Occitan en Provence." It's really from Provence. So is this great jewelry store, Saoya en Provence. Josh got my Christmas present there this year, and my brother bought his fiancée something there, too.
As we walk up the street, let's try to peek in open doors of old mansions. This one, which we've nicknamed "the puffy door" is always closed.
But sometimes the Aix-en-Provence city history museum is open.
We'll pass the boulangerie and try to ignore the tartes in the window.
My feet are getting tired! Now you see why I like to change my route--this is a long walk. Once we see the clock tower of town hall, we know we're getting close, though.
We go under the clock tower's arch:
And then we're on my street. Pretty soon we're at the place in front of the cathedral.
And then. . . Home!