“On est bien à Gap”

If you’ve been kind enough to have read a few of my entries this year–though not if you only read my most recent entry–you will probably have noticed that I did not pass the year in solitude.  Mom and Dad, feel free to take your ‘I told you so’ moment.

Voilà, my fellow ‘gapençais” assistants, in no particular order.


Without this one, I surely would have eaten much less chocolate and drunk much less wine, which is to say, thank you.  I, on the other hand, probably convinced her that Americans put butter and salt on everything.  Sorry, Amurica.  Emily and I lived together in an apartment at the high school where we taught.  She studies French and history at the University of Southampton (I don’t think she’s been to Scunthorpe).  She will deny it to the bitter end, but she has quite the flair for telling stories.  I don’t know what I would’ve done without her this year—probably use even more butter and salt and definitely cry from boredom.


Besides being fun and smart and interesting, Colee reminded me of something that I all too often forget.  Colee has a very strong personal faith, and she regrets that many Christians feel the need to define what it means to be a ‘good Christian.’  As an atheist, I accept a label that’s not always used in a positive way for a group that is by no means homogeneous.  Being friends with Colee has made me think twice about generalizing, especially when it comes to something as personal as faith.

But besides all that crap, she’s just a ton of fun, y’know?  Plus, she’s from Cleveland, so we’ve got some serious Rust Belt solidarity going on.


It is in large part thanks to this guy, our sole Spanish assistant and a native of Sevilla, that I got to be so close with everyone mentioned in this post.  Juan makes friends everywhere he goes.  No, seriously, we were lucky to see him as often as we did considering how many open invitations he had going in the area.  Similarly, he rallied the troops in Gap in November and was soon organizing hikes, dinners, and foosball tournaments.  I wonder whether the creator of Couchsurfing actually got the idea for it after meeting Juan?

I also love Juan for his creative take on French spelling and insulting diminutives, including the classic ‘my little piece of fish caught in my throat.’


How could I separate Juan and Daniele, even in a blog entry?  If the non-English speakers learned one English expression this year, it was ‘bromance.’  And boy, will Juan and Daniele’s go down in bromantic history.  It was on pretty much from the beginning, but once they exchanged their ‘diarrhea in the presence of women’ stories, we knew this was forever.

Daniele, one of the Italian assistants, had a rough time this year, thanks to some vicious three-year-olds.  For the first half of our time in Gap, he had us chuckling at his emphatic ‘Il FAUT’ (‘You must,’ roughly), his very honest opinions and accompanying grimaces, and his similarly frank explanations for his needing to go to the bathroom.  For the second half, he gamely put up with us imitating all of these things.


Between her American roommate, Maggie, and her fellow British assistant, Maddy, poor Emily was doomed from the start.  Maddy joined Colee and me in Prague, when we discovered our shared love of ‘The West Wing.’  I can only hope that my constantly raving about it will soon have her devouring ’30 Rock.’  I, on the other hand, am in awe of the whirlwind trip Maddy took with her friends last summer through essentially every major European city, and some not so major, too.

Maddy is one of the few people I’ve ever met who willingly sat through more than one YouTube video of a certain high school marching band.  We also harmonize on Lady Antebellum’s ‘I Need You Now.’  Maddy, by the next time we see each other, I promise to have learned at least one song from ‘Les Miz’!  Meanwhile, you work on ‘Rent.’

Guesses, anyone? Comment! If you don't know who the unlabeled guy is, it's because he's not an assistant and disappeared after he got mono in December. If you don't know who the unlabeled girl is, I'm surprised you even made it this far. Number 10 is obviously going to kill me when she sees this.

Ha Nam

Another assistant who continually impresses me…don’t they all!  Ha Nam, our only German assistant in Gap, has lived in Berlin for most of her life.  Her family is originally from Vietnam.  Naturally, she speaks Vietnamese, German, French, and English, all fluently.  Okay, so she picked up a bit of the southern French accent this year from babysitting for a gapençais family, but we’ll let that slide.  Check back in ten years, and I probably still won’t have reached fluency in that many languages.

In any language, Ha Nam is fun and funny.  She’s the kind of person you immediately want to be best friends with.  I can’t wait to see her in Berlin in a few weeks!  Although, as the last assistant I’ll see before I go back to the US, she may be in for some tears.


Kate ruined any chance I had at having street cred for my dad working in New York.  She’s a New Yorker, born and raised.  But I’ll forgive her, because now when I visit New York, I’ll have someone to hang with.  That is, if she doesn’t escape to the West Coast.

Kate won me over one night when she asked me, “Has anyone ever told you that you remind them of Liz Lemon?”  My heart skipped a beat.  But I appreciate Kate even more for her openness.  She is upfront about who she is and what she thinks, and after seven months, I’d consider myself lucky if just a little of that has rubbed off on me.


Our second Italian assistant, Anna, isn’t one to start a debate.  She’ll more likely sit back and observe those who do.  Then again, I would not want to piss her off.  Behind this reserved exterior, she’s incredibly intuitive, and I have often felt as if she were watching over all of us, making sure our little family stays intact.  Even if I hadn’t seen Anna for years and years, I know she would greet me, same as ever: ‘Dis-moi, Maggie.’

Also, she cheats at cards.


Another American, Sarah definitely logged the most f-words out of all of us English speakers this year.  I know, I’m surprised too.  With her living in Portland and my having gone to school in Pittsburgh, we had a nice little East Coast-West Coast hipster bond going on.  Sarah loves food and is going to graduate school in Italy this coming year to study food science.  We are definitely staying in touch.

In addition to her filthy, filthy mouth, I love Sarah for her willingness to scratch my back (for real).  And even if she ends up living on a self-sufficient farm in the middle of nowhere, I will visit her, in the hope of curing her of her aversion to hugs.


Poor Shane.  As the only Anglophone guy around, Shane got a huge dose of girl talk this year.  He also put up with the same tired joke about his native Ireland’s favorite foodstuff AND with our referring to St. Patrick’s Day as his birthday.  Actually, don’t feel too bad for him, this kid can dish it out too (and he did get cake!).

When I was in Ireland in March, I was about to come to Shane’s hometown of Galway, by chance really, when he informed me he was actually leaving the day I was arriving.  That’s cold, Shane.  Just for that, I’ll conveniently not be around when you come to visit Lower Makefield, Pennsylvania.


‘Where the Hell Have You Been?’: A Retrospective

How do you say ‘my bad’ in French?

It’s not that I didn’t have anything to write about for the last few months, quite the opposite.  And now I’m up against it.  Eight weeks later and it’s time for another vacation.

So, to whet your palate, a Christmas newsletter of sorts.

Part 1

Thanksgiving in Gap (yeah, I’m takin’ it way back) was a family affair.  Teaching assistants all over town pushed their hotplates to the limit before crowding into the one private apartment between us, that of the very game Maddy and Sarah.  Wrangling chairs from desks and outdoor furniture sets, the Europeans waited as we Americans looked dumbly at a beautifully cooked, but frustratingly intact turkey.  With German assistant Ha Nam’s help, I stepped up, doing my best Dick Bohlander impression.

And then WE ATE!

In December, I visited my friend Alizée for a 30-hour stay in Paris.  No, seriously.  Alizée spent two semesters at Pitt on exchange from Sciences-Po and happened to sit next to me on the first day of a political science course.  After seeing her scribble something in French in her notebook, I decided I was not going to let my first French friend slip away.  Good thing I didn’t learn to keep my eyes on my own paper.

Arriving at her apartment on the Left Bank at 9am on a Saturday, it was really nice to see Alizée two years after she left Pittsburgh.  Her apartment is adorable, plus she is a great hostess. (This is my third stay in France, I really shouldn’t be surprised by this anymore.)

A good friend takes your picture in front of a beautiful tea salon. A great friend waits til you're off the phone.

Alizée wanted to know which parts of Paris I had yet to see.  And then she took me to see them!  We were unstoppable: the Eiffel Tower, the Marais (the Jewish quarter); Sciences-Po for the judging of a literary contest; Le Bon Marché, one of the fanciest and oldest department stores in Paris; and the Christmas displays in the Parisian equivalent of Macy’s Herald Square.  Then, Alizée invited me out to dinner with a few of her friends, all of whom were lovely and would have been perfect for a ‘fashion on the street’ feature in a magazine.  Oh, and I learned about Miss France, which is exactly what it sounds like and has secured a permanent spot on my radar.  Finally, we met up with a couple of Alizée’s friends for a drink.  What a classy place.  They could have handed me some PBR, and I still would’ve paid 5 euros for it.

Quick as it was, the trip to Paris was so worth it, and I had no idea just how serious Alizée was about showing me the Paris I’d never seen before.  Someday I hope I can return the favor…I wonder if she’s interested in seeing a side of the Philly suburbs/Central Jersey she’s never seen before?

Day off

Today is my day off.  Most people would be excited for a day off, and I am.  I’m excited in the same way that I am on Tuesday mornings and Thursday and Friday afternoons, not to mention on those mysterious jours fériés, national holidays.  Because I work 12 hours a week…in France.  The difference between ‘my day off’ and an average day is 2 or 3 hours of work.  No wonder I can’t help but giggle whenever a Republican throws the word ‘socialist’ around like it’s supposed to be a bad thing.  What other national government would hire a couple thousand foreigners to teach their native tongue, give them 6 weeks’ vacation in 7 months, and pay a decent stipend for working just a third of full time?

At a certain point, free time is less of a novelty and more of a burden.  I do have things I should be doing besides actually teaching, I swear.  But when you have 20 hours of free time a week, that starts to seem a lot better suited to learning Disney songs in French than writing an evaluation about a boy who likes to interrupt his classmates’ English with sexual remarks in French. (Je comprends le français, pourquoi tu dis ces choses??  I understand French, why do you say these things??)  So the actual work gets pushed back in favor of reading (optimistic), listening to French radio (slightly more believable), and slowly being sucked into my laptop to become one with the worldwide web (yeah, that’s about right).

On the other hand, this is the perfect kind of program for socializing.  We Gap assistants have really lucked out.  Gap is the largest city for miles around at a whopping 40,000 people.  There are 9 English assistants, 2 Italian assistants, 1 Spanish assistant, and at least 1 German assistant.  Not too shabby.

Plus, our Spanish compatriot is really a package deal.  I don’t think the assistants have gone one night hanging out without learning about yet another city where Juan has a friend.  He has a car and drove some of us to the nearby village of Embrun two weekends ago.  Three of us were sitting at a table at a café when we overheard Juan telling the Portuguese man the waiter had just introduced him to that they’ll ‘cross paths’ soon in Gap.  So that’s how it’s done, eh?

Also thanks to Juan and a French guy Juan introduced us to, 11 of us went on a hike outside of Gap this past Sunday.  I’m not sure we took the trail we meant to, but the important thing is we ended up back at the cars.  It was a beautiful day and great company.  My camera was at the bottom of my bookbag, so here are some photos I’m stealing from one of my hiking companions, Maddy.


My parents: "That's our daughter!"

Well, I’m going to find something to do with myself for the rest of my day off.  If you need any papers edited or French books translated or just some funny HuffPost links sent your way, I’m your girl.


‘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.”

Head-to-head: Gap vs. Grenoble

Here are a few pictures of Gap, though I need to get some more of the old city itself (I get a little uncomfortable giving myself up as, for now, a tourist).

My favorite thing about Gap, so far, is how unexpectedly the mountains emerge from behind the buildings

Gap is not really known for its charm, but it is a very active city.  We’ve been told over and over how ‘sportif’ its residents are, especially in the winter.  And, walking around, it’s very clear why this area attracts this kind of person.  I’m still not quite used to seeing an Alp appear, as if out of nowhere.  Sorry, Appalachians, but height-wise, you’ve got nothing on these big honkin’ things.

I’m not teaching yet, but my roommate Emily and I have been very warmly welcomed by all of the teachers and school staff we’ve been introduced to so far.  Actually, two nights ago, we had both of our burners going full blast when our electricity cut out.  After leaning an inadvisable distance out of our windows, we concluded it was not a building-wide issue, so we took to wandering around school grounds hoping that someone had stayed beyond the normal 8pm dismissal.  When we saw a woman who looked like she knew what she was doing escorting a student into our building, we approached her.  We demurely said the standard niceties, but the poor woman still looked a little taken aback.  As soon as we uttered the words “We’re the language assistants living in the boarding school” she immediately relaxed and directed us to a ‘Monsieur Pic,’ who came to our apartment, pushed a green button, and made us feel like fools for being so nervous about getting our electricity back.

Yesterday, some of the teachers at our school were faire-ing la grève (they were on strike).  Apparently the French government is hard up for cash (ring any bells?) and has gotten rid of a lot of teaching positions since last year.  The teachers we’ll be assisting have warned us that they’re overworked this year, some classes have as many as 35 kids.

Since they weren’t around, Emily and I took an early morning bus to Grenoble, the closest large city.  Grenoble seemed nice, though admittedly we went with no preparation and still don’t know if we really ‘saw the sights.’  Nevertheless, we walked around the centre ville (usually the oldest part of any city), had a decent lunch at a restaurant couscous (a restaurant that serves Moroccan or North African fare that’s probably been adjusted for French taste), and took a cable car to the top of a bluff overlooking the old city.  Sometimes Grenoble reminded me of the prettier parts of Paris and other times it seemed like a standard European city.  Regardless, we had beautiful weather and it could be good to go back for a festival or special event.


Bon ben, à plus!  MB

Welcome to Gap! Today jeans are 20% off


This is my first post from my latest experience in France (if you want, posts from my semester abroad are below…but seriously, don’t worry about it).  For the next 7 months, I will be an ‘assistante de langue‘ or assistant teacher of English in one high school and one middle school in the town of Gap.

Gap is the capital of the Hautes-Alpes département (like a state, but these divisions aren’t as significant here as in the US), but it is quite small, only 40,000 people.  Still, it is within a bus or train ride of cities like Marseille, Grenoble, and Nice.  I’m thinking weekend travel will be a must!  In the winter, though, we’ll be pretty close to some ski stations that are supposed to be of varying difficulty.  I hope to give it a try!

There’s not much to report so far.  I’m living in the boarding school section of the high school where I’m teaching for 7-8 hours a week.  My roommate is named Emily.  She’s from Essex, in the Greater London area.  We have our own rooms and sinks (and bidets…we’re both quite amused by these), as well as a kitchenette, shower, and toilet.  In France, and probably other parts of Europe, sinks, toilets, and showers are not necessarily in the same room.  It seems a little inefficient to me, but that’s just my American pragmatism.

The apartment is small, but very inexpensive, and we can come and go as we please.  Today our coordinator, Dominique, who is very sweet and helpful, showed us around the high school.  We met several English teachers, all of whom were similarly helpful and encouraged us to reach out to them with any questions or problems.  It’s very nice to know they’re there, especially since this is my third time in France overall, but the first time I’m without a host family.

We went to the market on Saturday.  Though the city itself couldn’t really be described as charming, the old town (centre ville) is very cute and a designated pedestrian zone.  The surrounding landscape is stunning, mountains are constantly popping out from behind buildings.  I haven’t had the chance to take pictures, but it’s very clear today, so I will post some soon.

More later, MB