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:

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

Coup de foudre à Firenze


Okay, more of my wonderful week in Italy…unfortunately, my last full day in Rome I was sick. Coughing, achy, stuffed up, headache, the works. But it didn’t (I hope) prevent Sofie, Klaudyna, and me from having a full day. We had another wonderful grasse matinée (lazy morning), including a lasagna lunch made for us by Birgitta, Sofie’s mom. She apologized for what she insisted was the worst lasagna she’d ever made because she didn’t have time to heat it at the lower temperature it required…it tasted pretty darn good to me. Our first stop in Rome was the Spanish steps, which were decked out with huge pots of beautiful azaleas. It made me think of the azaleas at home, which are probably in full bloom by now.

Next was the Pantheon. While its interior isn’t as lavishly decorated as St. Peter’s or some of the other churches I’ve seen this semester, the Pantheon is an architectural wonder. How did they build such a perfect dome, and on such a large scale, so long ago? The measurements are incredibly exact. Not only is the bottom rim of the dome a perfect circle with the hole at the top exactly centered, but the dome, if reflected downward into the building itself, would make a perfect sphere. And this sphere would just barely touch the floor at the exact center of the structure. How’s that for precision?

We stopped for some gelato (when in Rome…) and then walked over to the Colosseum and Forum Romana again, to take a better look. It wasn’t great weather, but at least it wasn’t raining. Then, to finish up the day, we walked through the Villa Borghese to a place that Sofie promised had a great view of Rome at sunset. And she was absolutely right, it was incredible to see all the cupolas, spires, and ornate buildings in relief against an orangey pink sky. A perfect finale for a great three days in Rome.

I arrived in Florence by train the next day (Wednesday) and checked into my hostel. Not wanting to risk it with my cold, I rested most of the afternoon and really only ventured out into the city to find a very inexpensive, very good trattoria. By this point having lost my voice almost completely, I croaked out my selection for the prix fixe menu, choosing fettucine with pesto, chicken with a white veggie sauce, and a salad. It was excellent, and the tiramisu wasn’t bad either. The highlight, though, had to be the pesto, since French pesto, pistou, just doesn’t cut it in my opinion. How can you make a good pesto without pine nuts?

Anyway, the next day was full of walking, queueing, and gawking. My first priority was to see Michelangelo’s David, housed in the Galleria dell’Accademia (I hope I spelled that right). The entrances to the Accademia and the Uffizi are surprisingly low key, at least I think so. It took me a good ten minutes wandering around near the Galleria dell’Accademia until I happened to spot the line in a small street off of a square. But it was of course worth the wait. I actually am glad pictures weren’t allowed, because I would’ve been tempted to just take as many pictures as possible instead of taking my time to look at the statue. It was off on its own under skylight, so you could walk all the way around it. Every step I took, the expression on David’s face changed and so did his body language. Also, it never occurred to me before that David’s head is actually not proportional to his body, it’s too big. It doesn’t take away from the sculpture, it’s just funny that one of the most famous pieces of sculpture is not one of the most technically perfect.

Wandering away from the museum, I made my way down to the Duomo. I love the colors, the pale pinks alternating with dark greens, and the painting on the inside of the cupola is one of the most beautiful ones I’ve seen, I think. It’s not the sunniest subject, the progression from Hell to Heaven, but again the colors are striking and it’s beautiful even from 30 feet below, kind of spiraling up away from you. The rest of the inside of the Duomo was simple, but still impressive because of the size.

Before committing to the wait in the line at the Uffizi, I walked over to St. Croce Church, where I had read there was a kind of specialty foods market. The church was similar in style to the Duomo with its pink and green stonework, but I was really there for the market. Having scoped out all the stalls, full of pastries, cheeses, olives, and alcoholic beverages of all kinds, I gave in to my sweet tooth, though as usual it took some convincing, and got a cannoli. Not the most conventional lunch food, I admit, but completely satisfying. Now I was ready to wait for almost two hours to get into the Uffizi.

I’ve said it before, early religious art usually doesn’t interest me. Despite coming from a culture steeped in Judeochristian traditions I’m just not well enough versed in art history, Christian symbology, or the Bible itself to really appreciate that kind of art. There was a lot of ‘that kind of art’ in the Uffizi, but also a lot of Renaissance art, which I can understand better. My favorite piece is an obvious one, Boticelli’s Allegory of Spring, but I liked Judith Slaying Holofernes by the female painter Artemisia Gentileschi as well. The more I travel around Europe the more I understand why Europeans are so hung up on the fact that the United States is a “young country”. As I made my way to the most recent paintings in the Galleria del’Uffizi I made sure to see how many were completed after the founding of the United States. Not such a difficult task, since there were three.

After this busy, busy day I picked out a trattoria that was recommended by my trusty Let’s Go volume and a couple travelers’ forums and headed out, ready to eat. Apparently documentation of Florence’s streets hasn’t been as accurate or as thorough as I would have hoped. Twenty minutes after I had found the approximate location of Trattoria Anita according to Let’s Go, Google Maps, and the person at the front desk of my hostel, I found an annoyingly straightforward little sign that pointed down a tiny street “Trattoria Anita”. Still, another success on the food front. I would actually just prefer to eat the pasta and not even go on to the second course, which is usually a meat dish, maybe with a veggie on the side. It seems like the pasta is the main event, and all of the second courses I had were good but didn’t really compare with the quality of the fresh pasta and their wonderful sauces. Me and my crazy American ideas…

Before leaving Florence the next afternoon, I explored the Ponte Vecchio and the Oltrarno neighborhood on the other side of the river from the main drag. The weather was beautiful and the Oltrarno was much more peaceful than the very tourist-y center. I found a tiny but wonderful sandwich place run by two brothers and frequented by locals. You have to be quick with your order, just say the number of the sandwich you want to one brother, order a drink from the other, and then enjoy your fare squatting on a curb beside the tiny, tiny storefront. It’s kind of odd to see people standing in the street eating sandwiches and drinking from dainty wine glasses. But my prosciutto and mozzarella sandwich was awesome.

I was reluctant to leave Florence, and Bologna didn’t really compare to either Rome or Florence for me, but it was a lazy end to a very full trip. Bologna is called the “Red City” because a lot of its buildings are in red brick and apparently it’s known for its Communist inhabitants. I can’t speak for the number of Communists I saw in Bologna (how does one spot a Communist?), but its buildings are a charming dusty red color. I spent some time in the main piazza and grabbed my last pasta lunch in Italy before taking an overnight bus into Marseille.

So, enfin, I’m back in France, the blog’s updated, and I’m coming home in less than two weeks. I think I’ll update next with some jokes about French people one of my professors gave us. A plus tard!
Maggie B.

Missy, Maman, et Marie-Do

I promised to write a bit about Missy and my mom’s stay in Aix after we came down from Paris. Well, again we had rented an apartment, and it was perfectly situated. I don’t think my mom and Missy really believed me when I told them how small Aix is, but they soon found out since the farthest we walked was ten minutes to the bus station.

Compared to Paris, Aix is a lightweight when it comes to attractions and museums. So mostly I was on restaurant duty, and we found some excellent restaurants. I’m glad Aix didn’t disappoint my guests on the food front. I showed Missy and my mom around town a bit, the markets and the squares and the fountains. Also, my host mom, Marie-Do, invited them over for panisses and wine the first night we got in. Panisses are these little greasy biscuit things made from chick pea flour, and they’re a specialty of Marseille. Well, it was an amusing meeting. I was in translation mode, and I was kind of anxious about Marie-Do’s reaction to our American openness. I was in charge of somehow describing all three women’s dating histories, opinions on men and celebrities, and theories about my own lovelife. But it was a fun little get together.

The apartment in Aix was perfect, very charming and decorated in the Provencal style. Couldn’t have asked for a better trip, really. I did get bitten by bedbugs in the foldout couch, I think, but they’re almost gone now.

Okay, next post about Rome. Ciao,
Maggie B.