Daily Life

Visa Vision

For all of you who have been following my adventures over the past few years, and those of you stumbling upon my blog at a later date, you might have thought that I disappeared into the abyss that is Danbury, CT. That is, I haven’t updated you on my trials and tribulations, my struggles and successes since arriving well over a month ago in the region known as New England.

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Eid al Fitr fun

I’m still alive. I even made friends. From my first few weeks of Spartan living to figuring out the new culture of the corporate world, I have thrived so far in Connecticut – I’ve managed to shape it into the kind of environment I crave wherever I choose to live : diverse, multicultural, full of language and culture and good food and great people. In the span of a few short weeks, I have learned more about Brazil – actually I have learned a ton about Brazil, from my Brazilian colleagues, the Brazilian language trainers I hunt for on the internet and interact with via telephone and email, and the Brazilian exchange student I will soon be big-sistering as a volunteer for my former high school exchange program – and Pakistan, Russia, Azerbaijan, small town upstate New York, Morocco, Egypt, Jordan, Spain, Italy, and Germany, from the lovely Germans with whom I interact (albeit virtually) on a daily basis.

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This whole time I have begun and finished the month of Ramadan, my third and the hardest yet physically. It’s a beautiful, beautiful month in which to meet people and to sample savory new dishes, to gorge yourself on rich pudding and basboussa. I feel so blessed to have met such wonderful people who invited me to break fast with them for a fabulous last week of Ramadan.

Time's Square... for all of 4 seconds (we're too cool for school)

Time’s Square… for all of 4 seconds (we’re too cool for school)

I visited a dear friend in New York, after seven months apart (despite our 10 minute conversation during my brief stop-over in New York City in June).  We walked everywhere – the High Line, through Central Park, along the Hudson (which I mistook for an ocean, silly me), back and forth throughout Manhattan.  We also witnessed this fun ensemble:

I had another friend drive all the way from New Jersey to come visit me… that’s the Midwesterner in me, thinking that passing through three states is far away – it was only a two-hour drive. We sampled Mediterranean food at a very strange kitsch restaurant. I have gone out with my coworkers, to a diner for delicious breakfast, numerous shopping excursions and trips to Whole Foods with L and M, farewell lunches for those leaving the company at a Chinese restaurant and a new Meatball place (Mima’s Meatballs, the vegetarian meatballs and frittes are fabulous!).

All of this new is somewhat filling in the hole where the old used to be. That is, somewhat. Come Monday, I will begin my first ever “school year” where I am not physically in a school building, listening to professors or grabbing a bite to eat with classmates. I’m still trudging through my MBA classes (economics this session, I’m actually really excited!), but online classes are a result of necessity and convenience, not because of preference or choice. For seventeen or more years, my life had been defined by the rhythm of the school year – summers, back to school, holidays, world travel, study abroad, exams. Now it is subdivided into quarterly earnings, sick leave, vacation time, and metrics.

The biggest aching hole, besides missing the culture, food, and people I left behind (you always leave someone behind somewhere), is what you could call my other half. What’s taking so long? When is Hedi going to arrive? What’s new with Hedi’s visa? Have you set a date for the wedding? The answer is no, no, I don’t know, I wish I did.  We are nearly 75 days into the visa process, with no news. For the K-1 visa, the agony is the waiting, the separation, the not knowing when or where or how. Five months waiting for the NOA-2, assuming we don’t get an RFE (request for evidence, the dreaded horror of all American+international couples trying to emigrate to the United States), probably a month to get our file sent to the National Visa Center and then sent onward to the American Consulate in Tunis, while trying to sort out paperwork, proof of financial sponsorship, medical visits, background checks, tax forms, all while waiting for THE interview that we have been dreading, which he has to do alone.  I’m hoping for a nice birthday surprise for Hedi in November, or an end of the year bonus in December, or a New Year’s blessing come January… the waiting has been driving me insane, and it’s only been three months since this whole journey began.

In the meantime, I’ve been keeping myself busy – two jobs, volunteering, learning Italian and eventually German, Arabic, and Portuguese, taking classes, meeting people, making friends, being an adult. Let’s hope the wait time is a period for growth and for savings, for deepened friendships and new beginnings. Insha’allah.

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Categories: Bureacracy, Daily Life, Repatriation, Visa | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

Back from Outerspace

My transatlantic journeys are always trying.  This one was no different.  As I am trying (and failing) to overcome jet lag, I thought I’d give you the latest update of my journey back to the States.

Yesterday involved Skype, a Yellow Cab, lunch with a close friend, and a five-hour delay.  And it looked a lot like this:

Got technology?

Got technology?

By the time my brother and father picked me up at the St. Louis airport, I was on the point of flaking out and hardly uttered a word at the back of the car.  Two days of travel plus two taxi rides plus two bags of almost 50 lbs each equals one very tired traveler.

And now it’s 7 a.m. in St. Louis and I am wide awake.  I might as well go for a run and enjoy the sunshine that had been absent from my life for the past ten months…

I’ve got a big blog project that I’m going to launch in a day or two, so keep your eyes peeled!

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When in New York…

I have a few hours to kill here in New York before making the next leg of my trip to Saint Louis, and while curing the aftereffects of a nuit blanche in a nicely ventilated New York apartment, I thought I would update you on my travels.

I slept on the plane, which resulted in a stiff neck that will take a few days to become fully functional again. And then I didn’t sleep until the equivalent of 7 a.m. Paris time, at which point I fell comatose onto a couch without bothering to remove or change a single article of clothing.  This persisted until around 9 a.m. New York time, 4 p.m. Paris time, because my close childhood friend who is kindly letting me squatter her apartment had to go to work at her big girl job in New York. Which reminds me… that’s why I’m here in the first place. I’m a grown-up now.

Transitions are hard, and I don’t necessarily recommend this one.  Gotta love an American apartment full of twenty-something-year-olds, including your best friend, but I went from a week spent with my belle mère – where everything was made from scratch, even the pasta, or came directly from Tunisia: mloukhiya, a deep green stew that takes four hours of preparation, coffee bubbling in a pot on the stove, cayenne pepper paste consumed a spoonful a day, spicy tomato-based sauces soaked up by crusty baguettes or round whole-grain bread or, even better, homemade flatbread and little cakes and Hedi’s semolina crêpes – to investigating a cupboard full of instant packaged food, “food in a box,” as I like to call it, in the hopes of finding something palatable.  I stumbled upon the remnants of Frosted Flakes at the bottom of a cereal box and a container of Folger’s Best.  Nothing like the intensely sweet “this can’t actually be food” flavor of the one cereal that I wasn’t allowed to eat as a child because it was so sugary, tempered with the industrially standardized flavor of Folgers Best.  Sugar and Caffeine, all you need to make it in the City.

Times Square 2011

Times Square 2011

For all my friends back in Europe who have never been to New York, you’re probably imagining episodes straight out of Gossip Girls, Sex and the City, How I Met Your Mother or Friends, but my experience last night was more along the lines of Seinfeld.  As I bought a last-minute ticket from an unknown French airline (XL airways, I wouldn’t highly recommend them), I had to suffer through a variety of experiences on par with my flight on Lot Airlines in 2012.  My very heavy second bag cost me €100, and I still had to stuff some of the books from my “carry on” book bag into a suitcase in order to avoid the over 5 kilo surcharge.  The flight attendants’ uniforms were very interesting, but their inability to read written English less so.  I mostly talked to them in French when having to accept my standard “hot meal” (they charge you for drinks! like $2 for an orange juice! and no peanuts :/).  Most of the trip, besides sleeping and reading a book a friend gave me for my birthday on the French language, was spent talking to the Russian man on my left and the French/Tunisian (albeit no longer identifying as Tunisian) woman on my right.  Both were U.S. residents, and the French woman was a U.S. citizen whose English was perfect.  Our conversation was interesting, to say the least, and most of it prompted by questions of who I was, what I was doing with myself, and why. (That’s as existential as I want to get on my blog without having gotten a full night’s sleep).

We waited a good thirty minutes in the plane before being allowed to get off, at around 10:30 p.m. New York time. Then, we waited to pass through Customs (no worries there on my part) and I had to declare that I hadn’t taken any plants or animal products (meat, etc.) with me into the country (just psisa, coffee, and crema, so that shouldn’t count).  Plus another 35 minutes waiting for my two bags, a good 25 minutes trying to figure out if my debit card still works, and another 30 minutes waiting in line for a yellow cab – altogether 2 and a half hours after landing before being able to sit comfortably in a taxi (don’t do the math, it probably doesn’t add up right).  Once I was in the taxi, it was smooth sailing, but the taxi line was ridiculous.  I spent most of it talking with a Frenchman about what he was doing in the States, where I learned to speak French, and how both Fresno, California, and Amiens are “des trous perdus” (don’t ask).  If nothing else, the experience convinced me of three things: 1) I love New York, despite how crazy it is; 2) I always want to live somewhere where I can interact with people of other cultures; and 3) I might want to move closer to New York in a year from now, if all goes well at my company in Connecticut.

Rule of thumb:

When in New York, try to find at least someone you know who lives there. It’ll make your life a lot easier.

Categories: Daily Life, Expats, United States | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

Hello, Goodbye

What a whirlwind of a week! In less than three hours I will be leaving Amiens, and in a little over that I will be leaving France.  If it all hadn’t happened so quickly, I’d have thought I was still dreaming!  Done with the French Masters, done with the English language school, the private tutoring, les Tombés de la Charrette (although I’ll still be an “honorary” member), the speaking French to buy groceries, the headaches and bureaucratic nightmares, the laid back rhythm of life.  For a good bit of time, I’ll go without seeing good friends and loved ones, and in many ways, my life as an Expat will be temporarily on hold.

I’ll soon be going through the shock of repatriation, and moving halfway across the country in the span of a few weeks, beginning full-time employment in a city I have never seen… in some ways you could say I am expatriating to New England and to suburban Connecticut, a land I had only known from its obnoxious spelling.  I have to find a used car and face a good number of months alone in a furniture-less apartment.  But believe me, I’m ecstatic about the prospect of a new adventure!

Leaving Hedi behind for a few months, on the other hand, is not at all appealing.  Back to the reality of long distance phone calls, Skype dates, and marathon emails.  This time, we know (more or less) what the future will have in store for us, and the total duration should be much less than the last time.  For those of you who have ever had to go through the process of filing for a visa (K-1 Fiancé visa in our case), I sympathize with your ordeal!

It hasn’t all been good-byes this week, even with the four-something going away parties I had attended scattered throughout the week.  I also got to know my future belle mère (such a lovely French term), to pick up a few more Arabic words and sample some delectable cooking.  Every week is a learning experience, every day is a hello to something new.  When you are used to packing up and moving somewhere else, the important thing to keep in mind is not to be sad you are leaving… you are probably going somewhere new!

To all my wonderful friends and family in Europe and North Africa, I will do my best to stay in touch (I am very good at it after years of experience) and I will come back to see you, sooner or later! Now that I’ll be making a decent salary, I’ll finally be able to travel a bit more frequently.  Gros bisous, vous allez me manquer tous et merci pour tout. 

The heart has reasons that reason cannot know

Voici mon secret. Il est très simple: on ne voit bien qu’avec le cœur. L’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux.

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Categories: Amiens, Daily Life, Expats, United States | Tags: , , , , , | 2 Comments

Big Changes

Leaving is not hard for me. I’ve done it six times already.  You’re a vagabond, you live in your suitcase, you pack up and go.  And you’ll always have too many books, more books than you can take with you, books you leave behind but try your hardest to get back.

Leaving people is terrible, however.  You want to take them with you but you can’t separate them from the place.  As you move and you leave them, they almost stay frozen in time, in that one reality where you met them.  2008 in Madame with the hyphenated last name’s French class.  I remember a girl called Georgia with a guitar.  I remember people from high school and mix them up with the people I knew from college.  I come back and they’re gone.  I grow up and move on.

But not always.  I draw together the threads of my life and make a multicolored quilt of my different experiences.  Each person holds a strand and is woven throughout my existence.  Like Hedi.  Meeting him and everything changed.  I can’t separate my idea of him from his identity in Amiens, but we are certainly going to try.

The big news, if you haven’t already guessed, is manifold.  More things have happened in the space of a few weeks than in the past year.

Hedi and I got engaged.  That’s to say, we are now finally announcing it to the world for all of you to share in our joy.  There are so many implications to that simple declaration, that simple promise, that of course my whole world is changing.  My work offered me these beautiful flowers to marquer le coup.

Lovely, aren't they

Lovely, aren’t they?

For many reasons, we also decided that it would be best if we begin our careers, make a real start, in the United States. Neither of us are French citizens.  Europe is having many economic problems, and France’s individual unemployment rate has risen for 24 straight months, whereas the United States’s has been steadily (but slowly) declining.  I’m a U.S. citizen, and Hedi could benefit from learning to speak English fluently.  It might not be for a long time, but it will certainly mean that my experience as an expat will be (temporarily) suspended.  That’s ok.  I’ll write another blog.  I’ll learn more languages.  We’ll have more adventures.  Returning to my home country will be an adventure in itself, because for the first time, I won’t be (primarily) a student.  I still want to take part-time MBA classes as I’m interested in economics and the corporate world.  But I’ll mostly be working, saving, living, and making a life for myself.

In Connecticut. That’s right.  In the space of two weeks, I discovered a wonderful company (see an earlier post about how small the world is), got offered a freelance job, applied for a full-time position, interviewed, and got offered the job.  It’ll use my language skills, my multicultural sensitivity, my experience abroad, and my experience teaching English as a second language.  And it begins on July 15, so I will be flying back to the United States in a short two and a half weeks.  Hardly enough time to say good-bye before leaving.

What will I bring with me? Two suitcases full of clothes that are my only possessions and a carful of books (once I arrive at my mother’s house, where I’ve been hoarding them).  Leaving behind a fiancé for seven months, as he plods through English grammar and patiently awaits the K-1 fiancé visa.  As I begin a new life in a new town in a new state with a new job, a new (used) car, in a new apartment.  To tell you the truth, I’m more terrified than when I hopped on a plane to move to France ten months ago.

Do I regret leaving France? Yes and no.  I’m one to seize an opportunity, to say “Let’s go,” and to begin anew.  I know this isn’t the end of my French/European/foreign adventure.  I’ll be helping others expatriate as a living! It can’t get any better than that!  And in the meantime, I’ll keep you updated.  I plan to travel to New York, to Boston, to Quebec and Montreal, to Washington D.C., and I’ll finally have the pay check that will allow me to realistically travel on a more frequent basis.  I’ll be within an hour’s distance of one of my best friends.  And within a few months, I’ll be getting married.  There’s a chance that you might even be invited to one of our three possible weddings.  So I expect you to stay in touch in the meantime.

Categories: Daily Life, Expats | Tags: , , , | 4 Comments

Let’s talk about the weather (and grammar)

It’s May 23, and we’ve been dealing with freezing rain, temperatures in the mid 40s, and nary a bit of sun… or when there is sun, you’d better snap a quick photo of it, since it’ll disappear fast.  It feels somewhat like a land of perpetual November, the Doldrums of the Phantom’s Tollbooth or the legendary Winter presaged by Winterfell.  Thinking back to the Snowpocalypse of March, I almost feel like we had things easy.  Never in my life have I experienced such wet, gray, and bone-chilling cold in late May!

The city is surprisingly still humming along nicely, as people dodge rain showers like they would bullets in a war zone.  The people I see coming into the center to work on English are mostly frazzled, or cold, as it’s certainly the end (or beginning) of exam season, depending on what type of program you are following.  In many ways, the bad weather is good news for the company.  More people are staying in the center listening to English dialogues rather than risk an accident driving home in the pouring rain.  Brian isn’t in the kitchen, he’s standing outside the center munching on his sandwich during lunch break, and he would be foolish not to bring his umbrella.

On a somewhat more random note, I’ve been discovering a lot of peculiarities about the English language – the more subtle differences between British and American English than just the accent and the vocabulary (we all discover what the boot, the lorry, the jumper, the car park, and the loo are after chatting a bit).  Here are a few examples:

 As past participles of get, the words ‘got’ and ‘gotten’ both date back to Middle English. In North American English, got and gotten are not identical in use. Gotten usually implies the process of obtaining something ( he has gotten two tickets for the show), while got implies the state of possession or ownership ( he hasn’t got any money).

There’s also the present subjunctive, which apparently the British no longer use but Americans (who have studied grammar in school) still do:

The main use of the English present subjunctive, called the mandative or jussive subjunctive,[1] occurs in that clauses (declarative content clauses; the word that can sometimes be omitted) expressing a circumstance which is desired, demanded, recommended, necessary, or similar. Such a clause may be dependent on verbs like insistsuggestdemand,prefer,[2] adjectives like necessarydesirable,[3] or nouns like recommendationnecessity;[4] it may be part of the expression in order that… (or some formal uses of so that…); it may also stand independently as the subject of a clause or as a predicative expression.

The form is called the present subjunctive because it resembles the present indicative in form, not because it need refer to the present time. In fact this form can equally well be used in sentences referring to past, future or hypothetical time (the time frame is normally expressed in the verb of the main clause).

Examples:

  • I insist (that) he leave now.
  • We asked that it be done yesterday.
  • It might be desirable that you not publish the story.
  • I support the recommendation that they not be punished.
  • I braked in order that the car stay on the road.
  • That he appear in court is a necessary condition for his being granted bail.

Note that after some words both indicative and subjunctive are possible, with difference in meaning:

  • I insist that he is here (indicative, a forceful assertion of the fact that he is here)
  • I insist that he be here (subjunctive, a demand that the condition of his being here be fulfilled)

Notice that the subjunctive is not generally used after verbs such as hope and expect, or after verbs that use a different syntax, such as want (it is not usual to say *I want that he wash up; the typical syntax is I want him to wash up).

Another use of the present subjunctive is in clauses with the conjunction lest, which generally express a potential adverse event:

  • I am running faster lest she catch me (i.e. “in order that she not catch me”)
  • I was worried lest she catch me (i.e. “that she might catch me”)

And let’s not even go into the [correct] use of the past subjunctive… If I were you, I would avoid that tricky bit of grammar.

We can also blame the French for a lot of our pronunciation differences:

For many loanwords from French where AmE has final-syllable stress, BrE stresses an earlier syllable. Such words include:

  • BrE first-syllable stress: adultA2,B2balletA2batonberetbidetblasébrevetA2brochureB2buffetcaféA2canardB2chagrinchaletA2chauffeurA2,B2chiffonclichéB2coupé,croissantdebrisB2debutdécordetailA2détenteB2flambéfrappégarageB2gateaugourmetA2lamémontageA2parquetpastelpastillepâtéprécissachetsalon,soupçonvaccinematinéenégligéenonchalantnondescript; also some French names, including BernardB2CalaisDegasDijonDumasFrancoiseManetA2Maurice,MonetA2PaulineRenaultRenéB2RenoirRimbaudDelacroixB2.
  • BrE second-syllable stress: attachéconsommédécolletédéclasséDe BeauvoirDebussydémodédenouementdistinguéDubonnetescargotexposéfiancé(e)A2retroussé

A few French words have other stress differences:

  • AmE first-syllable, BrE last-syllable: addressA2 (postal), moustacheA2cigaretteA2limousineB2magazineB2,
  • AmE first-syllable, BrE second-syllable: liaisonA2macraméRenaissance (AmE also final-syllable stress)
  • AmE second-syllable, BrE last-syllable: New OrleansA2

My British and Irish co-workers run into this syllable difference when discussing certain key words, such as mobile (which Americans don’t really even use, preferring by far “cell phone”).

Words ending in unstressed -ile derived from Latin adjectives ending -ilis are mostly pronounced with a full vowel (/aɪl/) in BrE but a reduced vowel /ɪl/ or syllabic /l/ in AmE (e.g. fertile rhymes with fur tile in BrE but with furtle in AmE). This difference applies:

  • generally to agiledocilefacilefertilefissilefragilefutileinfertilemissilenubileoctilepuerilerutileservilestabilesteriletactiletensilevirilevolatile;
  • usually to ductilehostile(im)mobile (adjective), projectiletextileutileversatile;
  • not usually to deciledomicileinfantilejuvenilelabilemercantilepensilereptilesenile;
  • not to crocodileexilegentilepercentilereconcile; nor to compounds of monosyllables (e.g. turnstile from stile).

Related endings -ility-ilize-iliary are pronounced the same in AmE as BrE. The name Savile is pronounced with (/ɪl/) in both BrE and AmE. Mobile (sculpture), camomile and febrile are sometimes pronounced with /il/ in AmE and /aɪl/ in BrE. Imbecile has /aɪl/ or /iːl/ in BrE and often /ɪl/ in AmE.

If you asked me, the weather is getting pretty weird (how’s that for a second conditional with an elliptical structure!)

Categories: Daily Life, Seasons | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

It’s a small world (after all)

my-evolution-love-world

It’s a world of laughter, a world of tears…

You all remember that obnoxious Disney song? (And perhaps the 50’s-esque theme park ride in Disney World, for those of you having been blessed with such a childhood experience). Well, lately, I’ve been starting to feel like it’s more or less true. The more you travel, the more people you know around the world, the smaller the world seems to feel. I remember a Swiss friend telling me once about a common habit the Swiss (who love Australia almost as much as they love Canada) have: when meeting an Australian, they have a tendency to ask him or her, “Do you know my cousin? He’s been there for about a year or two now,” as if there were only a handful of Swiss to know in the whole country. Surprisingly enough, this sometimes works in real life, as in the case of my mother eating out in a restaurant in Chicago only to find that the waitress was a high school classmate of mine, who happened to be following my blog.

You see where I’m going with this? I imagined the blogosphere to be some sort of benevolent void into which I sent blog post after blog post, testing my writing chops and working out the kinks in my long dormant reflects (and penchant for writing).  I knew that my relatives, whose presence on Facebook very much eclipses my own, would probably follow what I was up to, as well as some of my two hundred or something Facebook friends, an assortment of school acquaintances and close friends.  But I never expected to connect with someone, in a non-virtual way.  But apparently, not only are there too few English-speaking or American expats in Amiens, there are even fewer who have a blog (with the exception of your wonderful blog, Fliss).  Which makes me rather Google friendly.

To date, I have connected with one American couple, both virtually and in person, and I recently received a call from an international company who had found my blog, only to connect with me via Linkedin.  And what they asked me to do (it’s a company secret!) has required me to utilize my very limited but surprising networking skills: contacting friends formerly living in Amiens, friends currently living in Amiens, and current and former employers both residing in and outside of Amiens.  All in order to connect with three other countries for (hopefully) a virtual job well done.

I’m still not sure whether or not I feel like globalization makes the world more distant – you can just as easily “meet” someone in a virtual setting and never actually spend time with them in real life – or more connected.  Smaller or more technologically in tune?  I’ll have another opportunity to test the waters on this whole “global” thing by beginning an online MBA class with a university down the street from where my mother resides and next door to where I went to high school – a small, private university that happens to have campuses on three continents.  I’m even thinking, if this online learning works out, of taking the plunge with Coursera, in order to pick up a few valuable skills (Java?) and round out my repertoire.  Heck, if Duolingo can work for me, why not some other virtual classroom?  At least the teachers and classmates (all a million of them) are (theoretically) real people…

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The Visit

Welcoming the pilgrims

Welcoming the pilgrims

Remember that wedding I attended in August in the gorgeous Sand Hills of Nebraska? The (not so) newlyweds are finally on their honeymoon, backpacking across the Camino de Santiago de Compostela over a month-and-a-half period (crazy, I know).  But I was also lucky enough to have had the privilege of hosting my two friends over the past weekend.  They arrived last Friday, bringing with them beautiful spring sunshine and blooming flowers.  The entire day was absolutely gorgeous, and we made sure to take advantage of the Parc Saint Pierre in its full spring splendor.

When you have lived in several different places, be it a few cities or a few countries, one of the great rewards of life is to have a visitor from one of your “worlds” come and visit you at another.  I’ve had my Swiss sisters come to Omaha and see me in Amiens, and I’ve had multiple members of my family visit me in France and Switzerland.  This is the first time, however, that I’ve had close friends from the United States treat me to a visit, spending extra money and going out of their way to see me and my quaint little French town.  I felt like an eager kid showing off his preschool to his parents, everything from his playground friends to his favorite teacher, and I know that Hedi, long accustomed to living in Amiens, was able to view the city with the eyes of a tourist.  Wow, that Cathedral is gorgeous and look at all those old buildings!  Hedi was suddenly thrust into a world of English, and I kept speaking the wrong language to the wrong person.  Rarely have I had such an opportunity to constantly be speaking more than one language side by side, although I’ve already noticed a new stage in my bilingualism since working at a school where English is constantly spoken and returning home to speak and read in and listen constantly to French.

I had a bit of all my different worlds join forces together at My Goodness on Friday night: the old and the new, friends from College, from my Masters program, from my first study abroad experience, from my new job.  It was quite pleasant, especially to share stories about British English vs. American English, to talk about meeting one’s other half (and all the risks of the unknown), and to combine a bit of everything I have ever known.  We were American, English, Tunisian, and French, using a variety of languages and comparing the foreignness of our different experiences.

Time was spent in the Cathedral, walking around the city, visiting the beautiful floating gardens, playing Settlers of Catan, and cooking various delicious meals.  We went to the large souk-like market on Sunday and came back bearing halal roast chickens, more types of olives than my friends had ever seen in their entire lives, loaves of bread, and a variety of honey-saturated North African pastries.  We even got to Skype with a mutual friend to end a weekend of startling juxtaposition.  And off the pilgrims go, on their way through the Northwestern coast of Spain.  À la prochaine!

 

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

The Week to End All Weeks

Here I am on Monday morning, thinking about my killer of a week, on my blog when I really should be studying, writing my thesis or preparing for an interview.  That’s right, this week, not only do I have five hours’ worth of exams, eight hours’ worth of Masters classes, and eight hours’ worth of teaching English, I also have a job interview and a presentation of my Masters thesis – that’s to say, it’s current state and how I am going about things in my research and revision.

This week is the crucible: it will indicate to me whether or not I might have employment for next year, whether or not I’ll pass the second semester (the first time around at least, as make-up exams are also scheduled for June), and whether or not I’m very far behind on my Masters thesis (likely answer, yes).  Despite a profound lack of motivation, I have only to get through this week to have the better part of my first year studies under my belt.  As with every long and arduous trek, we shall be rewarded with a wonderful two-week Spring break (not to be confused with our one-week February break, our two-week Christmas break, our two-week October break, or the four public holidays in May).  I’ll finally have time to get back into running, to produce two eight-page papers, one in English and one in French, and to churn out the rest of my fifty-page thesis before the end of June.

With the horizon in sight, it’s so hard to focus, focus, focus.  Yesterday we had a gorgeous blue sky and a sun that could almost melt butter.  Today it is back to those cold doldrums of April that are neither winter nor spring, but an ugly gray in-between.  I might as well get this ordeal over with…

 

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

Riding the Bus

I wrote an earlier post on walking around Amiens (I have walked a thousand miles), but it doesn’t do justice to a full description of my three odd hours spent in the bus every week.  So I’d like to invite you to accompany me on a typical Saturday morning, when I take full advantage of the region’s public transportation system…

It’s eight o’clock on a Saturday morning…

and instead of sleeping in, faisant la grasse matinée (one of my favorite French expressions, which literally translates as “doing the fatty morning”), I’ve a steaming mug of coffee within inches of my face, as I think over my morning’s lesson plans.  Unlike with your average English teacher, my English classes are all a “plus,” meant to complement school, help prepare for an exam, or offer additional “speaking practice” with a native speaker.  I review grammar, correct pronunciation, and help with homework.  As a result, my teaching is rather idiosyncratic, reflecting a variety of individual needs, and often involves a lot of impromptu explanation or off the cuff teaching.  Nevertheless, I have to come prepared to each individual lesson, with the exception of a conversation class with a rather advanced student (where we’re literally just talking), and since I have around ten different students a week, I often find myself early in the morning reproducing my eighth grade English teacher’s verb conjugation chart or looking up obscure terms related to global warming.

This morning, I eat the last of a delicious homemade cake aux pommes (which ironically translates as “apple bread” in American English, although I’d call it a cross between fruitcake and banana bread, altogether delicious) offered to me by my Belgian classmate for helping her study for our upcoming Linguistics exam.  I take a quick shower, try to find a semi-presentable outfit (I really need to go to the laundromat!), and blowdry my hair.  It’s still in the forties here in the North of France, and I am happy to learn that today lacks the Siberian-like wind that nearly blew me across the street yesterday.  I walk the ten minutes to my student’s home, where I spend the next hour and a half teaching English.  To my delight, I discover that I will finally be “paid” today (both companies I work for operate on a coupon-based system, so now that my students have finally paid for and received their coupons, I can register them on the company website… I won’t get paid until the beginning of May for classes I have taught up till now, starting in the middle of March), as I receive coupons from both of my students, worth nine cumulative hours of class.  Once I finish, I idle over to my favorite sandwicherie on the main pedestrian-only shopping street that runs through the heart of downtown Amiens.  I have a good thirty minutes to kill before I need to catch my train.  I order my customary bagnat au thon (I don’t eat most French meat, so thank goodness tuna is ubiquitous) and splurge on a croissant aux amandes, my mother’s favorite French pastry, with its gooey croissant goodness and its flaky, powdered almonds.

I carry my bundle over to the train station, which is about an eight minute walk away from the sandwicherie/ pâtisserie. [French food vendors are typically designated by what they sell, which is why the same place can be called a boucherie/charcuterie (butcher and seller of cooked meats and pork products) or a pâtisserie/boulangerie (pastry shop and bakery), and France is known for its various specialty shops, from an épicerie (grocer’s), poissonnerie (fish shop), brasserie (brewery, but also often bar) to a chocolaterie (chocolat shop) and confiserie (sweet shop/candy store)].

I know the train station by heart, so I walk over to the automatic ticket distributor and begin my coded ritual: Départ immédiatAutresBov-Adultes 1, Cartes 12-25, Oui, [insert rewards card], [insert credit card], [enter pin], Non, [prints out ticket]. I then look up at the overhead screen where my 12:30 p.m. train is mentioned, to see whether or not my voie (platform) is indicated.  I am on the early side today, so I have to wait until I know at which platform my train will be arriving.  I then validate (composter) my ticket, which proves that I took my train at the indicated time.  If you forget this little “validation” step while in France, it can cost you a fine up to €25, even if you bought the right ticket!  (If you do forget, you can always look for the ticket inspector on the train as soon as you board, as he can “validate” it for you, without you having to pay a fee).  While waiting for my platform to be announced, I eat my round bagnat, made of a soft white bread with sesame seeds, unlike the distinctive crusty French baguette.  I save my croissant aux amandes for the train.  Once I know the platform, I can finally make my way to my train, a regional TER which stops at the nearby towns on its way to a bigger metropolis such as Lille, Reims, or Paris.

La SNCF et toute l’équipe TER vous souhaitent la bienvenue à bord ce TER à destination de Paris gare du Nord.  Notre TER desservira Longueuil, Boves, …

There’s always a group of students in the train from the neighboring towns, which heightens the feeling I get that Amiens empties in the evenings and on the weekend.  You can sit wherever you want on a regional train, unlike the TGV (train de grande vitesse, high-speed rail), and I rarely have my ticket inspected between Amiens and Paris, let alone a town ten minutes outside of Amiens.  It is the most direct and effective way for me to get to my next lesson, but unlike the bus, it’s not “free” (that is, I paid for an entire year’s bus access back in September).  There are few trains to and from Boves, a small commune in the department of the Somme with a population of about 2,600 inhabitants.  I settle down in my seat, munch on my croissant aux amandes, and arrive at my destination in the blink of an eye.  Not even enough time to read a full article of The Economist.

I have a ten-minute walk to the student’s home from the train station, which allows me to get a feel for small-town France.  There is one main street through the center of town, which I walk along, passing a cemetery, the town hall, a hairdresser’s and a few other shops.  I can see from one end of the street to the other, about a ten-minute’s walk in length.  In a way, it reminds me of small-town Nebraska, one of my only other experiences of small towns except that of Missouri, which is a whole different story, except here it is utterly devoid of the rugged and Western feeling of the Nebraskan Sand Hills.  I’m afraid of getting lost, so I tend not to explore more than this direct route to and from the train station.

Once the lesson is finished, I sprint towards the bus stop, one of two on this main street.  It is 14:12, and I know that the bus is scheduled to appear in two minutes.  I run on the opposite side of the street, into the incoming traffic, if there were any incoming traffic, so that when the bus turns the corner, the bus driver is sure to see me.  He sits at the stop for a full two minutes as I approach huffing and puffing. The doors swing open and I mumble a “Merci” for waiting and a perfunctory “Bonjour.”  I swipe my green and yellow bus pass at the scanner below the ticket feeder, and I make my way towards the middle of the bus, and am jolted forward as the bus takes off down the road, not stopping until I finally push the button “Arrêt demandé.”  I have to wait for a mere four stops (but too far to walk) before getting off the bus, as this is the only bus that takes me away from Boves.  I must next take another bus in order to get back to the center of Amiens.  Today, lost in thought, I almost miss getting off at my stop, but I get off at the following stop, which is on the other side of the roundabout from where I need to be.  It’s the terminus of this other bus line, so I always have to wait for a good ten minutes before the bus begins its next round. As usual, I am the only person on the bus, so I take out my Samsung phone and read through this week’s The Economist.  It’ll be another thirty minutes before I arrive back at the train station, compared to the ten minutes it took me to get out here.

Finally the bus starts up and we are circling around the periphery of Amiens, with its shopping malls and HLM(high-rise apartment complexes) and with its distinctly rural population and pronounced Picard accent.  I’m not used to taking the bus, back in the United States, although I have taken the Greyhound and Megabus several times over the past few years.  I’m familiar with the mixing of socioeconomic backgrounds that occurs on U.S. public transportation – that is to say, I am familiar with putting myself in a situation where most of the other bus users belong to an entirely different socioeconomic class – but I am not entirely sure what to make of the situation here in the North of France, in the department of la Somme, with much of its population rural, its unique infrastructure issues, and its less densely populated communes.  It serves in some regards as a commuter region, a cheaper almost-suburb to the sprawling, high cost of living that is Paris.  And yet it’s character is altogether different from the cosmopolitan, multi-ethnic melting pot of Paris.  Picards tend to stay in Picardie, and they are highly attached to their region, which is all the more surprising given its less than stellar reputation throughout France.

I once met a local who studied for a semester in Toulouse – you’d think that with its sunshine, colored rooftops and Southern France/north of Spain vibe, it would appeal to a French girl accustomed to partly cloudy skies and a chance of rain ten months out of the year… but she told me that no, Southerners were much more superficial, much less open and friendly than people back at home.  Part of this must have been due to a feeling of dépaysement, of being out of one’s comfort zone and away from one’s network of family and friends, but I have to confirm her description of the Picards people that I have met up until now.  Very friendly, somewhat loud, big drinkers, very community-oriented.

I get off the bus at the train station and walk the fifteen minutes back to my apartment, where I relax for the first time in what feels like a week.  Parts of speech are flitting through my brain as I try to forget about English grammar, about moving here and there and everywhere, and anchor myself to my bed, not moving anywhere.

Categories: Daily Life, Expats, Working in France | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

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