Archive for September, 2010

On my way back from the supermarket yesterday, I stopped in a park on the lake.

The weather was gorgeous, so I thought I’d sit down and read a bit. Since I got my Kindle a few weeks ago (despite feelings and accusations that such a device would be – for a bibliophile such as myself – totally selling out), I can nowvery easily take advantage when the urge strikes to read, no matter where I am. And now that professors are no longer forcing me to read 300 pages a night, I remember that it’s something that I actually like to do. Go figure.

I took a seat on a park bench right next to the water, and powered up to Oliver Twist, which I’ve been reading since the plane ride over. I find his crappy predicaments help to put the state of my apartment hunting into perspective.

After only a few moments, I came to the realization that with the screaming kids at the playground to my right and the high school kids, just out of school, taking up a familiar loitering stance to my left, I probably wouldn’t be able to get much reading done. Still, I paged on, both because it was so nice and because I am deeply stubborn.

Just as Oliver was being forced through a window to rob a country home, I realized the high schoolers on the bench closest to me were staring at me. I looked up.

“Bonjour, Madame.” (more…)

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What appears to be every tractor trailer in France is driving in circles through my town, honking their horns non-stop. This has been going on for at least the last half hour. I AM SO CONFUSED.

Edit (9/27): According to Sylvie, there was a Trucker Festival (which is how I’m going to translate “Fête des camions” because it sounds just as ridiculous). Honestly, France.

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In the still-elusive search for an apartment, yesterday was, in an almost comical fashion, an unmitigated disaster. I won’t dwell on it for long, because not only do I have better things to talk about, but it also still makes me kind of angry to think about.

Having met up with my roommate, Christina, I set out on a cross-town trek to find affordable housing in Martigues. I had made a few calls to individuals renting apartments, but despite my pestering, none of them had called me back, so other options had to be exercised.


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My arrival into France was heralded by some pretty stark reminders, both direct and indirect, of the French propensity for la manifestation, or protest.

In many ways which may seem foreign to outsiders, when the French are unhappy about something, they are not satisfied with blogging or complaining about the state of affairs on cable news. No, public dissatisfaction with lawmakers and governing officials can only be adequately expressed by taking to the streets. Or, by ignoring any attempts at imposing said regulations. (more…)

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After a surprisingly tear-free farewell to my sister and niece, and an absurdly nice airport employee who let me check a bag that was nine pounds overweight without paying a fee because I practically groveled and took a pair of shoes out and put them in my purse, I am on an airplane, ready to spend the next 28ish hours traveling.

People on this plane are super friendly for some reason: every person in my row has asked where I’m from and the plane door is still open. As I through first class, envying their glasses of water while still on the ground, I took solace at my comparative lack of legroom by the fact that they are all middle-aged white men, LITERALLY all of whom were playing brickbreaker on their Blackberries. Oh wait that just made me more jealous.

The upside: I have some great friends, and during my layover in Paris, I will be able to take a shower and perhaps a nap at an apartment in the 16th arrondissement, and will meet an old friend for coffee at our old and embarrassing haunt, the Bastille Starbucks. Assuming I am not still napping. Also assuming that I don’t miss my connecting flight, which is entirely possible considering my flight qout of Baltimore was delayed for nearly 45 minutes.

Fingers crossed.

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The countless employee handbooks, pamphlets and brochures the French ministry of education has sent me over the past three months have all aimed to drive home a single, solitary point: you’re on your own.

Nowhere is this more clearly demonstrated than in the dilemma surrounding my lodgings when I arrive to France. To clarify: I do not have them. I will not have them until after I arrive, and even then it might be days or weeks before I even have an idea of where I’ll be living for the next seven months. I am assured that this is not out of the ordinary, that hundreds of assistants arrive every year in the same situation, that it would be silly to sign a lease before I’ve seen the apartment or its neighborhood.

True though it may be, none of this is comforting for someone who will be arriving in an unfamiliar town with, oh I don’t know, about seven months worth of luggage.  And as a technology-addicted twenty-something, I am having a hard time coping with the fact that rural French villages do not, in fact, have an active presence on Craigslist. If you Google search “Martigues Craigslist,” the only results are real estate listings on Martigues Drive in Orlando, Florida. Although I have sent several inquiry emails to large real estate companies operating in the area, my best bet is almost certainly going to be to show up in person at a real estate agency in Martigues and request an appointment. Which is where the real fun begins.

As I learned from my six months in Paris, the French still possess a remarkable affinity for human interaction.  While charming in some ways, it is downright infuriating in others.  American services like Peapod or Fresh Direct would be inconceivable to the average French person, who knows his or her baker, butcher, grocer, sommelier and cheese expert personally. Sure. I’m on board with that.

There is no such thing as a toll-free number. If you are having trouble setting up your WiFi network, you have pay €0.40/minute for the privilege of customer service. Not so awesome.

When you open a bank account, you have to do so at a specific bank branch, and, if you ever need to make any changes to your account, you have to return to that specific branch to speak to the bank manager. Not so bad when you are a permanent resident of a place, but when you don’t yet know where you’ll be living, picking a conveniently-located bank branch can be tricky. Oh, and they won’t let you open a bank account without an address. Which wouldn’t be so bad except for the fact that most landlords will not rent you an apartment without a French bank account. You see my dilemma.

None of this, however, is news. I was warned about the never-ending loop that is French real estate, and, like a fool, believed that I had outsmarted it.  I contacted my school district, who graciously offered to open me a bank account before my arrival. All I had to do was sign some papers when I got there and everything would be set. Just got an email from them a few days ago, congratulating me, welcoming me, and casually mentioning that I could sign my bank documents and receive my essential account information at the training session in mid-October.


Now I must rely on the magic of wire transfers/traveler’s checks/my Austrian roommate’s European bank account to secure housing. I’m not sure if the latter trusts me, but she just broke her leg (falling off her moto while reading a Twilight novel in German, I imagine), so since she can’t come apartment-hunting with me anyway she’ll just have to accept it.

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After a terrifying period in which I strongly distrusted both the Consular Section at the French Embassy and Federal Express, I have received my newly visa-ed passport in the mail – complete with requisite terrible picture – and I figure now is as good a time as any to get into the blogging habit. We should start by pointing out how I’ve always found the act of blogging to be indefensibly narcissistic (not that that has stopped me from having a Twitter…and a Facebook…my point is I’m already a hypocrite), and my last blogging venture (circa 2005) turned out to be nothing short of an unadulterated WMD-grade life-ruiner. If four years of college taught me anything, however, it is how to justify narcissism under the heading of academic interest. So, with that in mind, I’m going to shamelessly argue that the eventual goal is to remove myself as much as possible from this page, and instead to be a lens through which I can share the experiences of the next seven months. While the jury is still out on how interesting I am, I am navigating uncharted waters, and it should make for moderately compelling storytelling.

Clearly my strategy here is to set incredibly low expectations that will most likely still be too high. Moving on.

If you don’t already know, I’ll be spending October 2010 to April 2011 as an English Language assistant in Martigues, a fishing village (pop. 47,000) just outside of Marseille in the South of France. I will be teaching the finer points of American culture and language to dozens of unruly high schoolers. Don’t worry America, I’ve already planned lessons describing the cultural importance of Justin Bieber and Tea Party politics; the world must know what it is that we value.

I’ve spent a while in France, but I’ve never spent any significant amount of time outside of Paris, making my conception of France terribly skewed, as if I were basing my understanding of the entire U.S. on New York City. Expanding one’s cultural horizons! Looking for real estate in small towns! Living in aforementioned small towns! Introspection! Getting to know my baker!

Clearly I have already failed at my goal of not being a self-obsessed wacko, but here are the facts: I fly to France in five days. I have no apartment, no training, and the mountain of paperwork the French bureaucratie already expects from me is laughably incomplete. Over the days before I leave, I’ll try to give a more complete picture of exactly what it is I’ll be doing, and the expectations I have for my time abroad, most of which will likely be immediately dashed upon my arrival.

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