Thursday, October 2, 2008


I moved into my apartment on Tuesday evening. After Jacques, Céline’s husband, dropped me off, I sat down in my little studio apartment and cried. Just looking at all of my baggage and bags full of kitchenware strewn around my room, at my laptop, desperately trying to find a wireless signal, I was a little overwhelmed. Eventually I got up, and started arranging my room, trying to put a little order back in my life. I felt a bit better when I got all of my wrinkled clothes out of my suitcases and into my rather large armoire. A few days ago, I met another assistant named Karen. She is from Sheffield, England, and is teaching English at the Lycée (high school) that we are both living at. Having no groceries in my flat, we met for dinner on Tuesday evening at the high school cafeteria, which is open for dinner because of the students who board at the school. I have no idea what I ate that night. Well, I have an idea, but I am still not sure. In the cafeteria, you are given an appetizer (usually a piece or fruit or a salad of some sort), to “desserts” (yoghurt, another piece of fruit, or cheese), a hunk of bread, and a choice of entrée (the teachers can have a small carafe of wine, with lunch and dinner). On Tuesday, I grabbed a grapefruit, an apple, a yoghurt, and the only available entrée. There was a meat patty, and then a mound of yellowish glop next to it. Karen and I sat down, trying to figure out what we were eating. The meat patty was ground beef, totally unseasoned and (as is the French way) mostly raw on the inside. I can handle a rare to medium-rare steak, but there’s only one person I know who eats ground beef raw, and she is a million miles away in California right now (you might consider moving to France, Heather. They’ll cook your meat perfectly to your liking!). The yellow mound next to it, we determined, was some sort of curry-attempt, with potatoes, cauliflower, a bit of cheese, and then sauce. It had almost no flavor (we weren’t even sure if it was supposed to be curry), but the texture was enough to make me sick. I couldn’t finish it, and I promised Karen that neither she nor I would ever eat in the cafeteria for dinner again. She was quite happy to have a neighbor with a kitchen willing to cook, and I was quite happy to have someone to cook for!

The next day, I got up early to head to the teachers’ lounge, hoping to catch Ian online before he went to bed. We actually got to talk for a while, even though it was one in the morning in Bellingham! Initially I was really, really worried about the lack of internet in my studio, but I think I will be able to handle it. It’s only for less than a month, anyway. I can check my email Mondays through Fridays on campus. It’s the weekends that might be a little harder, but I’ll manage. I am thinking of getting an international calling card to use, just for this month, in case of an emotional emergency. In the afternoon, Karen and I went to a store called Carrefour—the French answer to Fred Meyer, but bigger and better. You can get anything at Carrefour, except for an air mattress (I looked). We bought the last few (hopefully essentials) for our rooms, and then groceries. We are probably going to split groceries, since we will most likely have two meals a day together. It’s easier to shop for two than it is to shop for one, so that should be convenient. We were at Carrefour for almost two hours. Turns out it’s kind of hard to find your way around a foreign store in another country. When we finally left, we looked at our seven or eight large bags worth of groceries, and had no idea how we were going to get them home. Luckily Carrefour is on a bus route, so we pushed our cart directly up to the bus, shoved our bags, in, and took off. Getting from the bus stop into my studio was a little more difficult. There were too many bags for us to carry at once, together, so I took as much as I could carry from the bus stop, into the high school campus, into my building, and then up the three floors to my apartment, while Karen waited outside with the bags, moving them about 40 feet one-by-one, and then another 40 feet one-by-one. It was awful! We were both incredibly glad to get home, and share some Nutella, a baguette, and some coffee in my studio.

It was really interesting to see what is more expensive and what is cheaper in France. We got a bottle of really good wine for less than 3 euros (about $5)—wine that probably would have cost around $15-$20 in the States. Olive oil was about 5 euros for a liter. Garlic, on the other hand, was two euros for 3 heads of garlic. I also managed to find some cheddar cheese at Carrefour, and I was so, so happy! Granted, I love all the French cheeses, but there is just nothing at all like a grilled cheese sandwich. I have been craving one for several days, and made one for lunch today.

This morning I went, again, to the Prefecture, to finish applying for my French residency card. I had all the paperwork in order, and so (if I understood the woman correctly) they will send me a letter when the card is finished, and I can go pick it up. I think I am done with paperwork now, but I’m knocking on wood just in case. I finished early at the Prefecture, surprisingly enough, and came home for that delicious grilled cheese before heading out again to go to Collège Marcel Pagnol, the other middle school that I am teaching at. The bus ride from here to Pagnol is about a half an hour, with one transfer. It’s quite a pain, really. It’s a depressing bus ride, as it goes through the worst part of town, and ends in a part of town that is not-so-good, either. The numbers of HLMs in Perpignan is astonishing, but makes sense considering Perpignan’s geographical location in the south of France. Both of the schools I am teaching at are in the center of some bad areas (so the teachers tell me), with several HLMs feeding into my student population. When I arrived at Pagnol, I met a very nice woman named Madame Turkington, who is head of the English department at the school. She took me to the staff lounge to figure out a schedule for me, and the first thing any of the English teachers said was, “this is a rather difficult school, you know that, right?”. That’s exactly what the teachers at Camus said, too. It seems like all the teachers I have met so far spend their time complaining about their students’ behavior, and warning the language assistants about how difficult the students are. As I haven’t interacted with the students yet, I really can’t say. I have my first day teaching at Camus tomorrow, starting bright and early at 8, so we will see.

I worked out a schedule at Pagnol so that I will be teaching from 8am-4pm on Thursdays (with a 2 hour break for lunch). With my other six hours at Camus on Fridays, I will have a five day weekend from Saturday to Wednesday. I am not sure what I am going to do with all of my time (considering that none of the other assistants have such a posh schedule), but I am quite excited for the liberties this schedule will afford. I have never, ever had so much free time before. I am so used to working at least two jobs and going to school full-time, working only twelve hours a week, not having any homework, and having two week vacations every other month is going to be a little hard to handle, I expect. Not that I am complaining! But I think I might have to take up some more hobbies…I feel like I am retired!

I managed to get myself completely lost in Perpignan today, which was a treat. I was taking the bus back from Pagnol, and apparently miscalculated the route. The bus just kept going, and I just kept sitting there, waiting for it to go where I wanted it to go. When I finally figured out that it wasn’t going where I thought it was, I got off at a place that I thought I recognized, assuming I could find my way, map-less, back home. After about 10 minutes of walking in the wrong direction, I found a place that I surely recognized, and continued for another 25 minutes until I reached home. Pretty uneventful, really, except for the guys in the dinky little blue car, blasting French HLM rap and yelling at me in slang I couldn’t understand. I think that, over them, I prefer the weird Spanish guy who asked me for a cigarette in broken French the other day in the centre square, and then told me to smile as he walked away.

This evening, three of the other assistants (all English girls…I can feel my dialect changing slightly, already!) and I went to the train station, to buy our discount rail passes (for being under 25. Woohoo!), and to see about train tickets to Montpellier. We have to go to Montpellier next Wednesday for an orientation, which starts in the morning around 9. Considering that the train ride is about 2 hours, none of us relished getting up at 5am to make it to the train station before 7 o’clock (the buses wouldn’t be running yet, so we would have to walk). We decided to go the afternoon before, and spend the night in a hostel in Montpellier. And what did the woman at the counter say, in response to our inquiry? “Non, il y a un grève.” No, there is a strike. There is a strike, planned, for Tuesday. We might be able to catch a bus (they operate buses to replace the train system for the frequent strikes), but the bus schedule isn’t available until Saturday. It might be the early, early train for us, anyway. After visiting the station, we walked around the city centre quite a bit, went into a Fnac (the biggest book/music/DVD store I have ever seen, in the loveliest old building), and found some other cool shops, too. I am excited about having people to explore the city with, and really looking forward to being able to go into the shops to buy gifts for all of you back home!

It’s been nice moving into the studio, making a home for myself, and meeting more people. I am still incredibly homesick, and still want to come home. Especially when I think about how long it will be before I have a phone or the internet. But I know that coming home now would be silly, and that I am going to enjoy this year so much. When I think about the year as a whole, when I think of the fact that I won’t see my family or most of my friends for eight months, when I think of all the things and holidays and events I am going to be missing back home, when I think of the tiny number of days I will see Ian in this next year, when I think of it in its entirety, it’s then when I feel the worst, when I think I won’t be able to do this. If I take it day by day, step by step (left, right, left, gauche, droit, gauche), then I think I can do it. It’s just putting one foot in front of the other.

I can't upload photos to Google, so you'll have to wait until I have my own internet connection.


BluheronWriter said...

Hey Ash,

I just figured out how to leave a comment........sorry, I don't read a lot of blogs.....let alone comment. Good to hear that you are adapting and that you've kept your sense of humor functioning...(very important when dealing with French bureaucracy, or anyone's I guess.....)Sorry I missed your call the other morning, I was reading t=in the bedroom listening to classical music (KING FM) so I didn't hear your call..... :(

I love you and miss you, please let me know how the teaching day went when you can....we haven't found a convenient internet cafe' yet?


BEQN said...

My friend Sol is from Sheffield and I visited there when I was in England.

That sucks about the greve but is also kind of funny in a crap way.

Lyla said...

I am thankful for the new friends that you've met. You sound good Ash..enjoying your new flat, cooking again (I made homemade squash soup yesterday...I am happy to be cooking again too), the company of others and now your teaching adventure begins.
It is October already, the leaves are turning color and falling here. That makes me think of Halloween and the other day I was remembering your Mermaid Fairy Princess costume we put together for you years back. You were so pretty...I love & miss you Daughter, Mom

Scar said...

what is HLM? is it a politically-correct term for "ghetto"? keep your head up shorty (as a wise man named Tupac once said...)