Venice: City of Bridges, fo’ real

The Toussaints vacation isn’t over yet, but if I don’t write about Venice now, I never will.

If I sound a little less enthusiastic than usual, it’s because I’m in Prague, and as much as I enjoyed Venice, Prague is just kicking ass right now.  Look, I’m glad I went to Venice, it was a much-needed addition to my life list of European cities.  But–and this isn’t going to sound good–I couldn’t help feeling like I’d been lured into a tourist trap, albeit a beautiful, unique, and soon-to-be-swallowed-by-the-sea tourist trap.

Saint Mark’s was stunning and regal and the church itself quite different from other notable churches I’ve been to.  Then there were the pigeons.  Now, usually I’m up for making a fool of myself for the sake of the “insert city name here experience.”  But honestly…pigeons.  Hundreds of pigeons lured into the hands of dozens of tourists who, in any other city, would shudder at the thought of having a pigeon land on them, let alone perch on their shoulder, hovering over their clueless one-year-old in what I’m sure is meant to be a very poignant photo.  Needless to say, I didn’t buy any birdseed.  It was all I could do not to crouch in the fetal position on the ground every time one decided it had to get somewhere that was directly past my head.

Okay, I think my wet blanket moment has passed.  But more generally, while I loved walking around Venice and getting a small peek at a very different daily routine (do you take a boat to work?), I felt like I had fallen for some kind of trick.  No matter how hard Colee–my right-hand woman on this trip and another American assistant in Gap–and I tried, we could not escape the tourists, and after two days of extensive (no, seriously) wandering, even beyond the normally crowded neighborhoods, we were at a loss to find a restaurant or boutique that an actual Venetian would frequent.  Instead, we found mostly mediocre food at high-brow prices and heard more French than Italian (national holiday, remember?).

All in all, I don’t regret going to Venice.  It was almost consistently stunning because it’s just so different from other cities.  It reminded me of Mont Saint Michel, the abbey in Normandy that is an island at high tide and connected to the mainland by a thin spit at low tide.  The streets are so narrow that it almost doesn’t matter if it’s sunny out, you feel like you’ve stumbled into a city where it’s always dusk, the alleys lit from below by storefronts whose windows are filled with Murano glass and incredible carnival masks.

No pictures yet.  My camera is working hard here in Prague.  We leave for Vienna sometime tomorrow, and then it’s back to Gap for six whole weeks of work (horrors!).  It’s been a great trip so far, and I’m glad to have been able to do something like this for the first vacation.


Do you like France?

This week was my time to observe the classes I’ll be assisting this year (usually by taking out small groups to work on conversation and oral comprehension).  Most of the teachers wanted me to introduce myself and then wait (…and wait) for the kids to ask questions.  This went better in some classes than in others.  Some classes cut to the chase:

“How old are you?”–For the high-schoolers, “I’ll tell you at the end of the year, but I’m not in university anymore.”

“Do you have a boyfriend?”–“No” (Avoid eye contact with ANY of the boys)

We were told to anticipate these personal questions and also not to let them know that Emily and I are in fact living in the boarding school, a few floors below the girls who board.  That didn’t go so well for Emily, who was sold out by a teacher who didn’t realize our residence is under wraps and made a face when Emily vaguely referred to an apartment ‘in Gap.’  To be fair, it wasn’t a well-kept secret.  If the baguettes and cereal boxes we carried under our arms walking through the courtyard at midday weren’t obvious enough, we made an appearance the other night at a boarding school fire drill.  We came out sheepishly at 9:30pm, desperately avoiding looking at any of our pajama-ed (or shirtless, for some of the boys) students and laughing nervously when the principal asked us if we wanted to go join our camarades.  That would be a ‘no.’  (Thankfully, the principal realized his mistake.)

There were some questions that I didn’t expect, but maybe should have: “How do you feel about the World Trade Center?”, “Do you like Obama?”, “Have you ever seen a star?” (as in a celebrity, because I mentioned my dad works in New York).  Unfortunately, no one here, much less anyone under the age of 25, knows who Ted Danson is–“but I promise, I was so excited.”  Another favorite was “What words do you know in French?”, to which I so wanted to reply with either “All of them!” or “croissant…fromage…pain…rendez-vous…escargots…”

With my youngest students, 13- and 14-year-olds, I got to discuss my favorite athletes.  After saying my favorite tennis player is Rafael Nadal and acknowledging that he’s not well-liked in France, the teacher said “Really?  You think so?”, at which the class promptly began to grumble.  At least I know enough to mention my admiration for Gilles Simon and Gael Monfils…how do you say ‘pandering’ in French?  I was hesitant to mention how disappointed I was by the French showing in South Africa for the World Cup, but it turns out the French aren’t so different from Philly sports fans.  Just because you’re the home team, doesn’t mean you’re in the clear.

More later, vacation starts in a week!  MB

‘Orientation in Marseille’, plus ‘There is such a thing as looking too young’

Two days ago, I woke up at the crack of dawn (the two of us don’t get along) to catch a bus down to Marseille for my orientation.  While the Europeans got to come in a few hours later and leisurely take in the sights, us poor ‘hors de l’union européen’ folks got to hustle through a massive construction area to make it to a physical for the French office of immigration.  But hey, I did get a chest X-ray out of the deal (When the doctors were done with us, they just handed it back…what?  I think I’ll tape it to my window).

The first day was basically all administrative stuff, though the Americans were invited to the consulate for a meet-and-greet.  I took advantage of the location–and of some new acquaintances who had more recent knowledge of Marseille–to find a used bookstore I knew when I was studying in Aix.  It seemed like they were rebounding from some remodeling, so I’ll have to go back to see their fully-catalogued selection.  But I did pick up ‘Nana’ by Zola and a couple other things.  I’m on the lookout for some Tahar Ben Jelloun, who is Moroccan but writes in French and is the most-translated Francophone author in the world.  He has a cool (or disturbing) sounding book about a father who’s sick of having so many daughters and so raises his eighth daughter as a boy.

Anyway, I got dinner with my roommate Emily, two other British assistants from Gap (Maddy and Katie), and a German assistant, Lisa.  Maddy found us a good seafood restaurant near the port that had a formule for 15 euros, which is as much as the Académie will reimburse us for.  I had mussels for an appetizer and then a grilled bass (complete with head and tail).

Wednesday was only slightly less administrative, but getting to meet many more assistants tempered the tedious parts.  Most of the assistants in the district are posted in Marseille or Aix, so I had to explain that ‘Gap’ is in fact a city and that it’s in the Hautes-Alpes.  Besides coffee and lunch, we basically sat in an auditorium listening to people tell us how important it is to get all of our paperwork processed…gross.  I was exhausted by the time I got to Gap that night.

Back in Gap, I’m starting my week of observing classes.  This morning I had an extended introduction to one of my two classes in collège, middle school.  The kids seem very nice, and they are apparently the most motivated students, having opted for 5 hours of English rather than the standard 3 hours.  Next Friday, I’ll take about half the class (15 students…aah!) and work with them on English conversation.

Being at the middle school today was kind of refreshing, because I am clearly older than my students.  Meanwhile, over at the high school, when I try to cut in line at the cafeteria (we are allowed to!), I get a hairy eyeball from the aide at the door and a quizzical ‘Qu’est-ce qui se passe?‘ (‘What’s going on?’).  Even after getting through the line today, Emily and I were alone at a table that, until 12:30, is reserved for staff…only to be joined by 4 16 year-old girls who clearly had no clue we weren’t just older high-schoolers.  Same thing in the staff room, as we were leaving, a teacher we hadn’t been introduced to yet stopped us to ask which teacher had sent us in.

I almost wish they’d put up ‘wanted’ posters with our pictures–“Please let the ladies pictured below use the copier and the coffee machine in peace.  They’re not just students who don’t have a clue, they’re in fact teaching assistants…who don’t have a clue.”

Savines-le-lac: Tap water’s fine, thanks

Yesterday, my roommate Emily and I took a half-hour bus ride to see Lac du Serre-Ponçon, a beautiful lake to the east of Gap surrounded by mountains. We got off the bus at Savines-le-lac, a small village that’s probably much quieter now than it usually would be; we’re about a month late for the tourist season here. Savines is cute, but besides its unexpectedly modern church (I later read the town as you see it today was envisioned by an architect named Achille de Panaskhet…ring any bells?) it seems like a quiet summer destination.

After a quick stroll through the very small town center, we found a public beach. Besides the complete lack of sand in favor of a concrete block, it was really charming thanks to the views of the lake and surrounding mountains. After making do with some natural privacy screens (a tree, a closed-for-the-season refreshment stand), we carried our bags over our heads and walked into the slightly cold water to a dock floating a couple yards from the beach. Cue sunbathing, ‘swimming’ (wading), and picture-taking.

Several hours later, about 3pm, we had still not had lunch. So we ventured back to the main drag to see if we could find anything (really, anything). We thought we’d gotten lucky with a bar-pizzeria and sat down. The waiter asked what we’d like to drink, and I said I’d be fine with some tap water. When he returned with this and Emily’s OJ, he deposited the check on the table. After timidly asking whether we’d be able to order a pizza—no, you can’t order a pizza until this evening—I was mortified to learn that I had ordered (free of charge) tap water at what would be, until several hours later, a café. Well, good thing Emily actually ordered something he could charge us for. I left a generous pour boire (kind of a drinking tip for cafés) and tried to get out of the poor waiter’s sight ASAP!

That’s all for now, but just to prove I’m actually here: