Monthly Archives: December 2012

Reverse Culture Shock

Home musings…

You’ve all heard of culture shock.  Moving to a new country where things are done differently, where they speak a different language, where cultural norms and social mores are so… different.  Some people get it really bad (and these are the people who don’t end up staying for long), but others get in a serious of sudden, spontaneous homesicknesses.  Not because the new is bad, but because you miss the old.

There’s also something called reverse culture shock.  Potentially more lethal.  When you come back to your home country, you start to miss all the things that you liked about living abroad, and sometimes you had no choice about coming back.  Your visa expired.  You ran out of money.  You don’t have the same rights in your foreign country, or maybe you find it impossible to be with the person of your dreams unless you come home.  In that case, reverse culture shock can be severe.  You are in the place you grew up in, but it’s all these reasons that prompted you to leave that are digging that thorn even deeper.  When your home away from home is no longer your home.  And home isn’t really home any more.

I feel somewhat blessed, in the way a chameleon is blessed in turning green and yellow and brown.  My culture shock has always been minimal, and I re-adapt to living in the United States without a second thought.  Is it weird to be back home? I am asked.  I mean, I guess it’s weird to do your shopping a bit differently, your cooking, your (non)walking, your talking.  But, as I’ve lived in Switzerland and then the United States, France and then the United States and then France again – visiting again in the United States is like traveling to see loved ones, camping out there for a week or two, and then moving on to the next destination.

But then again, I don’t really know what settling down somewhere is like.  I have perpetually been a student, studied abroad as a student, moved here and there as a student, but I have not yet worked somewhere abroad, picked out my apartment, and truly made a life.  I’d love to have that opportunity arise, but whether that will be soon or far off is hard to say.

My Christmas presents from my oldest, dearest friends? Arm & Hammer baking soda and cake mixes.

I don’t think I’ll be missing home anytime soon.

Categories: Daily Life, Immigration | Tags: , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Home for the Holidays

Well, I did it.  I made it home.  I suppose I can say that the curse has been lifted, because after three times in a row of missing my connecting flight and having to spend the night in a hotel, I finally made it home the day of my TransAtlantic flight. The night of Christmas Eve, to be exact.

That’s not to say that my trip was without incident.  When I travel, something bizarre is always bound to happen.

Christmas ’11

To give you a better idea of my 24-hours of travel, here’s a brief portion of my travel log:

“It’s been a long day. First, I had difficulties falling asleep last night and had to wake up at 5:00 am on less than five hours of sleep. Hedi and I rushed to the train station in order not to miss my 5:35 am train to Lille, but it turned out that there wasn’t any train heading to Lille.  Apparently there had been a planned grève ponctuel and no trains were coming or going to Lille on December 24.  Very sweaty and starting to panick, we ended up at l’Escale of the Amiens train station where the most organized, efficient Frenchwoman I’ve ever met instructed us to take a train to Paris Nord (us being myself and a Lebanese girl also trying to get to the Belgian airport), from where we were supposed to catch a TGV to Brussels. Unfortunately, once we got to Paris, the men at l’Accueil had no idea what we were talking about, despite the fact that the woman had called ahead and given our names.  Luckily, every time we explained our situation to the conductor and ticket inspector, they let us pass without an issue.  (Perhaps it’s good and bad to travel on Christmas Eve!) We ended up sitting in the wagon-bar, where I ordered an espresso and a pain au chocolat. All good so far.

Upon arriving at the gare Bruxelles-Midi, we asked how to find the train to take us to the airport and buy a ticket.  Once at the airport, I said good-bye to the Arab girl and went to the United check in, which took forever, as usual. The security was really intense: even before reaching the counter, they scanned my passport and asked all sorts of questions. Much worse than the grilling I had previously experienced in Lille when trying to board the Eurostar for London. At the check-in counter it was very straightforward. Baggage, passport, boarding passes, instructions, gates.  Unfortunately, I had to pass through border control, and I definitely chose the wrong line. The woman checking the passports took her sweet time, holding everyone up for who knows what reason. Either super serious about border control or bitter about working on Christmas Eve. The Lebanese girl was in front of me, ironically, and I heard her arguing with the woman in French (I wonder whether she realized that I wasn’t French, as we spoke French to each other the whole time – she tutoyéd me, and nous avons fait la bise before parting).  When it came my turn, the Belgian woman point-blank asked me for my residency card.  Which, I might remind you, I don’t need to have my first year in France, since I have both the visa de long séjour and the vignette OFII.  I pointed this out to the woman, but she mentioned some nonsense about how I couldn’t travel in and out of Belgium without a residency permit or something like that (her English wasn’t making much sense to me at this point).  Oh well, I just hope that I can get back into Europe through Belgium on my way back in.

After Border control, I had to go through Security, which was a pretty intensely long line.  Luckily I had plenty of time and found my gate.  On my Transatlantic flight, I sat next to a Belgian woman who only spoke French, which made things sometimes difficult for her when asked what she wanted to eat, drink, etc.  I asked for a halal meal, so it’s hard to compare the quality of the food with what the rest of the plane ate.  I really enjoyed the main dish, some sort of beef in biryani rice.  I was so tired that I slept a good deal on the TGV as well as on my two flights.  I also took advantage of the touch screen on the international flight.  Ha, I played maybe 2 hours worth of “in-flight trivia.” I dominated the Geopolitics category.  How many of you can name the only country to have a square flag? (Hint: it’s Nepal).  I also took advantage of the movie selection, finally watching 2001: A Space Odyssey and then an indie writer-themed love story called Ruby Sparks.

Like all other passengers, I had to fill out the customs declaration form.  No to animal products, time spent on a farm, valuable merchandise, or more than $10,000 in cash on my person.  At the Washington international Dulles airport, we had to pass through immigration and then take off our luggage (thank goodness it took less time than in NYC, I’m never traveling through JFK again if I can help it!).  Then we had to re-check our luggage, deliver our customs form, and repass through Security.  They are now starting to do a random sampling of “chemicals present on your hands” in addition to the full body scan, metal detector, and screening of luggage.  My plane to Saint Louis was tiny.  I’m happy to say that I slept for most of the flight.  Unfortunately with my contacts on.”

It’s great to be back.  Back with the two dogs and cat, my three brothers, my parents.  Spending some quality time, eating, running, watching our cult family musical/play/movie, Les Misérables.  Eating Creole shrimp gumbo.  Exchanging gifts and IOUs.  Drinking a lot of coffee.

Merry Christmas, everyone!

Categories: Belgium, Seasons, United States | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

La fin du monde

Ok, so I admit it, I apparently had the date wrong for the End of the World.  It just appeared so much more logical to me that it would fall on 12/12/12, but today is, according to the same individuals who got all excited about Y2K, the end of the Mayan calendar and thus, obviously, the end of the world.  So far the signs haven’t quite materialised, but I do live in Picardie and am thus used to random spurts of rain every thirty minutes.

Bref, what I actually wanted to write about was celebrating Christmas here in France in a strange combo European/commercial way (since I don’t celebrate it as a religious holiday).  But I thought la fin du monde would be a catchier title ;)

Here in Amiens, as elsewhere in Europe, little chalets are set up at the end of November for what is known as Le Marché de Noël, a monthlong Christmas market.  So far, I have only visited Paris’s and Amiens’s respective Christmas markets – Paris has white chalets and Amiens red.

IMG_0676In Amiens the vendor stands run along the entire length of the main throughway that was designed to serve pedestrians only – La rue trois cailloux.  You can find holiday fare such as Alsatian choucroute, tartiflettes, vin chaud (mulled wine), chichis (churros), gaufres (Belgian waffles), crêpes, and a variety of other specialities, including Vietnamese nem.  I personally spent some time at the French-Canadian stands, where I bought the best maple syrup I’ve ever tasted and an assortment of cranberry infused items (all at outrageously expensive prices, which, if it weren’t for the encouragement of the Québecoise woman and my nostalgia for all things cranberry, I would have refused).  I haven’t done much shopping myself, due to my incredibly restrictive budget, but I ogled many a display of leather bags, perfumed soaps, French cheeses, and wood carvings.  I’ll probably benefit more from the Marché de Noël next year, when I have a real job (fingers crossed), but I still have two days to do my Christmas shopping.

At one end of the street you come to a large Ferris wheel erected specifically for the Marché de Noël, and at the other end, you find a miniature roller coaster and a darling carousel, probably the same one that sat in front of my apartment until the end of August.



I’ve got to admit, I’ve been programmed to love the end of the year that accompanies the changing of seasons and the coming together of family members.  The way Hedi recounts it, this time of year in Tunisia is more characteristic of the end of the summer, when all the expats come home to the pied-à-terre where their grandmothers or aunts and uncles live, basking in the heat and the relaxed way of living that is even more détendu than the French.  For me, it was so important to come home this holiday season as I begin living abroad for an extended and indeterminate amount of time.  I wasn’t sure when next I’d see my three brothers and parents, and I hoped to take advantage of a short trip to the U.S. to touch base with a few of my friends.  Nothing helps more in creating enduring friendships than meeting face to face every now and then.

I have been blessed by the generosity of my family, which will allow me to head home on December 24.  I have to pass through Brussels and then multiple airports, but it will be worth arriving the evening of Christmas Eve in order to share some of that togetherness that is so sacred at this time of year.

Here in Amiens, I have been so fortunate as to build a little family, a community of friends and colleagues, that have helped me readjust to living abroad, through times of homesickness and all the difficulties of grad school in France.  I am hoping and praying that I will have succeeded in passing my first semester, but whatever comes, I am grateful to have spent a beautiful, full four months thus far in Amiens.


Amiens in its Christmas best

Besides working on my various papers, I’ve been organising with my friend Anna another atelier de cuisine for my locavore group, Les Tombés d’la Charrette.  This entailed visiting the Saturday farmers’ market for the past few Saturdays and doing our best to come up with a palatable recipe for winter root vegetables.  We ended up with galettes au panais (parsnip pancakes), which, although sometimes difficult to make, turned out great, complimented by my dégustation of various underused vegetables – including purple carots, turnips, celeriac (also known as celery root), and a rutabaga – roasted in the oven and tossed with olive oil and herbes de provence.  Yum!

Last Saturday, to celebrate the last weekend where my group of six friends would all be together, we had an evening for making German and American Christmas cookies.  It was slightly chaotic, as we attempted to make six different varieties of cookies along with a black sticky gingerbread (see 101 cookbooks for the recipe), but we managed to successfully finish mere minutes before being kicked out of the Residence hall kitchen (which technically closes at 11 pm).

Work in progress

Finished product

Finished product

Merry Christmas to all those celebrating! I’ll see you on the other side of the ocean to update you on my travel adventures…

Categories: Amiens, France, Seasons | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

Saying Good-bye

When you know a lot of foreigners or are a foreigner yourself, saying good-bye becomes part of your everyday existence.  You, or they, might be passing through, but they touched your life, they shared their culture, and became part of something you still cling to after their departure.

I first experienced the good-bye syndrome when I myself had to leave my adoptive countries, twice thus far in my life.  In one sense, it feels like a relief to leave an existence that, in some way or another, is difficult simply because you are foreign, be it the language or the culture or the fact that nine times out of ten you’ll miss the punch line of a joke because you don’t get the reference.  Culturally speaking, you’ll always be somewhat dépaysé while living abroad.  But it is the people you meet that really tug at you, especially when knowing that your stay abroad was supposed to be temporary and that you won’t be able to maintain such constant and consistent contact with your new friends and family once you go home.  This happened to me two times already.

Except that the last time I didn’t want to say good-bye to certain individuals, to the point that I became obsessed with the idea of returning to France, to my friends and my new home.

It becomes trickier when you befriend foreign students, knowing all too well that they have a train ticket that will take them away at the end of a few months’ stay, that your wonderful new group of friends is only temporary.

Saying good-bye is never easy.

Categories: Daily Life, Travel | Tags: , | 2 Comments

Round One

Can it really be nearly four months since I’ve moved back to Amiens? Is it really minus 2 degrees Celsius outside? Am I really starting to think in Celsius?

I suppose you could say it’s the beginning of the end.  After all, today is the end of the world, according to the Aztec (or was it Mayan?) calendar.  I’m starting to think in weird English constructions, such as “arrived to the seashore” or “he has the same age as me.”  The French is leaking into my very pores, creating a weird hybrid American-European.  Soon I will no longer be able to speak English or French like a native speaker… I keep wanting to shout “la relation predicative est présentée à l’interlocuteur comme définitivement acquise, non suspectible d’être remise en question,” but then I know that people will think I am really bizarre, even French people.  It must be an effect of too much studying and not enough time sleeping.

I am now done with the first round of exams for my first semester of my Master’s.  Normally exams take place after the Christmas holidays, but as my research-based Master’s overlaps with the teaching-focused Master’s (the one I should have signed up for if I knew what I was doing upon arriving), we are mostly graded in the form of contrôle continu, that is to say, various small exams or oral presentations both during and at the end of the semester, instead of one final exam.  Moreover, the teaching-based Master students are all doing a two-week practicum during the “official” exam session in January, when I myself will be taking two more exams on theoretical approaches to research.

I really do feel like I have finished the first round in a boxing ring.  After months of attending classes, preparing each week’s translation, and bustling to and from the university, I finally had a string of graded exams and presentations all in a row.  First I had my two cexams for translation, one for which I still don’t know the grade and the other a complete disaster (in translating from English to French I got a 4/20, which I consider to be the equivalent of an F–). I then gave an oral presentation about the prologue to John Dos Passos’s USA trilogy, all in English, in a very strict form of literary commentary.  The teacher really liked what I had done and would have given me a 16-18/20, but alas… I’m only auditing this class (it’s a class specific to the teaching-focused Master’s and thus won’t factor into my grade, although it will give me an idea of what to prepare for the CAPES in June).  This week, it was intense: two translation exams back to back on very complex vocabularly (would you know how to translate terms like “shoreleave” “tour of duty” or “cooing babytalk at someone” in another language, or recognize the word for “dragonfly” and “sheepfold”?)  Tuesday evening, I had a two-hour exam in which I had identify the invariants (basic unchanging definition) of all the modal verbs in the English language (shall, will, should, would, can, may, could, might, do, must) and correctly translate them in context (I keep failing to identify the “resultatives” – i.e., when you express two sentences in one, in ending with a result.  He wiped the blade clean, being the equivalent of “He wiped the blade” and “The blade became clean” – you’d think it’d be easy as a native speaker to analyze my own language, but I simply speak it without bothering to question why…).  Finally, this morning, I had to write a commentary on the idea of translating “accurately” and “faithfully” as well as the difference between this and that (a lot more complicated than it appears!) and the differences in meaning between the imparfait (in French) and the BE + V-ing form in English.  These types of classes definitely make you question your own language as much as the foreign one.

On another note, Amiens is absolutely gorgeous at this time of year…

Me and my brother

Me and my brother

There are lights up everywhere, as well as the Marché de Noël (an annual Christmas market that takes up the whole shopping district right near where I live), which will continue until January 1, 2013.

Next up: Round two (aka as a series of long essays in English and French about various literary/ linguistic topics as well as an outline of my thesis on Harry Potter



Categories: Amiens, Daily Life, Education, France, Seasons | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

Exam Season

It’s clearly exam season.  I have two translation exams today, an hour and a half in thème (French-English) and an hour and a half in version (English-French), back to back.  Tomorrow I have a two-hour exam on linguistic analysis of a translation, all three of these exams resembling half of the required teaching examinations in June.  Then on Wednesday I have a two-hour commentary on the linguistic aspects of translation, as one of my four required seminar classes this semester.  For my other three, I still have an oral presentation in linguistics on the English-words found in French gastronomy (there aren’t too many) and a 5-10 page paper to write on the same subject; a  5 page paper on Children’s literature in Great Britain; and a 6-8 page paper on the motif/metaphor of the sea in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening.  Not to mention my first outline for my 30-page thesis on the translations of Harry Potter 1 & 2 from English to French.  And then when I come back from Christmas break, I’ll have two more exams to take on the theoretical approaches of research, both an hour and a half long.

So I must beg you to forgive my tardiness in updating my blog.

All my best,


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Thanksgiving à l’amienoise

This past week, my oldest brother visited me in Amiens.  He arrived, groggy and exhausted from two long flights, in time to attend my first ever Thanksgiving in France.  I had organized an elaborate meal with my German-American friend, basing our recipes on family traditions and the offerings of local Picard farmers at the Saturday market.  This was only the second time I had missed a family Thanksgiving, traditionally held in Arizona, where the dusty red landscape and prickly cacti vont de pair with turkey, stuffing, cranberry relish, and pumpkin pie.  Desperate to hold onto my favorite holiday and cherished traditions, while making room for the multicultural, multi-national reality that is my life, I sought to create the best of both worlds.

My German friends have been so gracious and eager to prepare meals in my apartment, making it almost a weekly habit.  The weekend previous to the Thanksgiving extravaganza, at my request, we had made Kartoffelpuffer (potato pancakes), Apfelmus (apple purée), and American apple pie.  It took us hours to grate and peel a kilo and a half of “firm-fleshed” potatoes and to fry them in a pan, while we boiled down and baked a crustful of regional apples.  The following weekend, myself and my fellow-foreign American were back at the local farmer’s market, where all the market gardeners know us by face and frequently banter with us.  On the menu for my first French Thanksgiving:

  • roast halal chicken (courtesy of Amiens nord)
  • pumpkin pie, made from scratch (canless, with a homemade crust)
  • baked sweet potato fries
  • green bean casserole
  • mashed potatoes
  • vegetarian stuffing
  • vegetarian herb gravy
  • glazed carrots

Thanksgiving dinner

The meal was delicious, a true success.  While Brian slept, the rest of us chopped multicolored carrots, peeled potatoes, cut up green beans, and tried not to be overwhelmed by the many different and strange dishes (for some) that we were preparing.  The pumpkin pie turned out wonderful, even better than the from-the-can staple that most households make.  Nothing can beat my grandmother’s cooking, but the conviviality and esprit de corps that my group of friends shared this day was worthy of the original event.  Thanksgiving is about coming together, being present in the moment, giving thanks, and sharing food.

Brian invited us all to reflect on what we were thankful for, and while this idea might have struck some as funny, it stuck with me throughout the week and throughout his visit.  I’ve decided to look back on his trip through the same lens:

I am thankful that Brian arrived safe in Amiens, without losing anything (besides a glove!), and that he got to spend a wonderful week with me, getting to know my life and friends here, and sharing with them his own experiences and culture.

I am thankful that I was able to sit for my translation thème exam on Monday, despite the fact that I had to walk forty minutes in order to arrive on time.  I hope that this exam will help me pull up the disastrous grade I received for my translation version exam on Tuesday.

I am thankful that I am able to do a Master’s in France, no matter what grades I get or how I do in the long run.  I am thankful that I speak French relatively fluently, that I am able to communicate with others and share almost everything I have on my mind.  I will be mindful to keep working on my French and try to do my best to succeed at my Master’s.

I am thankful that I am part of such a wonderful group as the Tombés d’la charrette, and that I was officially “adopted” into the community over a week ago.  I will do my best to contribute to our different events and group meetings, in order that others are both educated and empowered to make a difference in their local community.  I am thankful that Brian was able to attend both a logistics meeting and one of our sponsored events.

I am thankful to have received my vignette d’OFII, which allows me to stay a year in France on a visa de long séjour.

I am thankful to have been able to go to Paris to meet up with our cousin, Annie, who’s studying for a semester in Angers.  Even though I could only stay for a few hours, our trip to the Louvre and throughout Paris was totally worth it.  I am thankful to have a family that travels, learns about different cultures, and dares to go outside of its comfort zone.  My family is the primary reason I am the person who I am today.

Annie and Brian

Annie and Brian

I am thankful to be able to teach English, even if it’s only one hour a week.  Even the small things add up to big things, and you have to start somewhere… :p

I am thankful that I can walk everywhere in my fun-sized city, and that I am healthy enough to be able to walk around and up the five-flights of stairs to my apartment every day.

I am thankful for this beautiful holiday season in Amiens, where the marché de Noël tempts with its various regional and international boutiques, and the lights and songs and people everywhere add to the festive cheer.  I am thankful for the gorgeous light display on the Amiens Cathedral.

I am thankful for my wonderful friends here in Amiens.  You are incredible, and I am a better person for having known you.  Thanks for the delicious cooking, and the wonderful meal of Flammkuchen last night!

Categories: Amiens, Daily Life, Food, France, Paris, Seasons | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

La grève des bus

“Je ne suis pas en ligne…”

You could see the bright yellow lights on the front of the bus where normally the end of the line would be written.  Sorry, I am not in service… Bus not taking any passengers.  Yes, in what has become a disaster for the average, non-car-owning, bicycle-less, bus-taking college student and foreigner who knows no one who owns a car, la grève des bus me fait vraiment chier. (Pardon my French!)

It happened over a week ago: a bus driver attacked in the troubled North neighborhood of Amiens, a stone (?) thrown at her window, and who knows what else.  Starting on Friday, November 23, the bus drivers went on strike – either refusing to drive their buses or driving them around without taking passengers anywhere.  To make matters worse, you could see the odd bus still doing its job, but usually heading off to a godforsaken part of Amiens you have no reason to see or the very bus you need, but in the opposite direction, with you knowing that it’ll take another hour and a half to turn around.  One bus for every hour, and you see the very one glide away maliciously as you arrive a second late to the bus stop.  Or, even worse, the very bus you need, arriving on time to your bus stop, only to have it pull up beside you and the bus driver get out, with no replacement driver in sight.  To see the buses parked here and there around the city, when you have an exam that day and a forty minute walk uphill in the freezing cold.

It really hasn’t been as bad as I have made it out to be.  Generally, I am rather sympathetic with Socialism as a whole and with the efficacity of unions in France to make their voices heard when things aren’t as they should be.  France is known for its famous grèves, such as the complete shutdown of the university system in the Spring of 2009 (the last time there was a university-led strike; several French people have told me, “We are due for another one soon”), or the standstill of public transportation that can take place on a national or local level, with trains, planes, buses, and metro systems  halted.  It causes chaos, it’s particularly effective, and it gets the point across very very quickly.  If such a thing were to take place in the States, there would be cries of “anarchists” and less of an overall tendency to be in solidarity with those on strike.

The particularly annoying aspect of this strike is that it has lasted over a week, without a clear resolution.  This weekend, the bus drivers and the direction of the bus service (i.e. people in charge) are appearing before a judge.  If you were to have looked on the website concerning the state of our local transportation, the general “sorry, buses will be running again soon” would usually appear inaccurate or misleading, because what the employers wanted was not necessarily what the bus drivers agreed to do.  Over the past week, I must have walked over 25 kilometers.  I walked to pay my rent, walked twice to teach my tutoring session in English, walked three times there and back to the university for class.  I’ve walked to the train station twice, down to Saint Leu a hundred times, and up my five-story apartment (with no elevator) more times than I care to count.  Luckily Amiens is such a walkable city, with whole roads for “pedestrians only.”  But now I am seriously considering renting a bicycle…


To read more about Amiens on strike:

Courrier picard
Picardie 3
Categories: Amiens, Bureacracy, Daily Life, France | Tags: , , , , , | 2 Comments

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