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.



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

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!


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Vacationless Vacation

I’ve got an hour to kill in the library, and it’s long past time that I update this blog.  So much has happened in the past three weeks, that I’m not really sure where to start.

I finally got that stable, permanent-contract job in Amiens, known in France as a CDI.  And I love it.  I’m teaching English to adults, following a specific method with a great staff and two fellow English-speakers, a Brittish girl my age and an Irish guy whose full-time passion is music.  The videos that make up the backbone of the learning method are pretty funny, and I’m learning loads about my own language in teaching it.  I have stable hours at a center not far from my apartment, stable (though very low) monthly pay and other job benefits.  Plenty of resources are available for me to use, and I’m gaining tons of experience.  There are nevertheless a few catches : I can no longer go to Italy this summer, as it’s a year-round job with few days of vacation until they’ve been accumulated throughout the year.  And, as a foreign student on a student visa, I am only able to work up to 20 hours a week.  I found a job I really like but am still not guaranteed the security to stay here in France, as in order to change my “visa status” from student to legal full-time worker, I pretty much need a Masters.  And my current Masters is becoming less and less interesting as time goes by…

The past two weeks were officially the semester “spring break,” two weeks without classes in which we were expected to advance on research, papers, or preparations for various concours, competitive contests or exams that pit you against the other candidates for a job.  Instead of focusing on my second semester studies or enjoying myself at the beach, I jumped head first into my new job, with insane 40+ hours the first week in doing both the new job and my old jobs (with various students around the city), and slightly more reasonable hours the second week.  I am starting to find my groove with the method and with how I explain things to students, while occasionally relying on my knowledge of French to explain grammatical points a bit quicker.  What I love about the method we use is that it’s based on communication, on hearing a language without understanding everything and about speaking as much as possible.  Which is pretty much the opposite of how English is taught in the French school system, which focuses on reading and writing instead of confident speaking abilities and correcting pronunciation mistakes.  Instead of being chastised for my “non-British” English and accent, I am valued as a member of the team who offers an alternative way of speaking, in an attempt to value diversity and a variant accent from the academic norm. Not that I don’t speak and write perfect English.  I got a 990 on the TOIEC (variant of the TEFOL exam to evaluate your English level) and always excelled at grammar and written expression.  But the whole point of the game is not to feel humiliated but to get your point across, then communicate – little by little – more confidently, more fluidly, more nuanced, finally assimilating cultural meanings and idiomatic expressions.  It’s what I’ve been trying to do for the past eight years in French, driven by an insane urge to perfect my second language, whether or not I can even advance past my current level (not for lack of trying, believe me).

In short, much of what I’ve learned this year has little prepared me for my current job: not the linguistic analysis of grammar, albeit fascinating in and of itself, especially not the complex literary translations into French in which my language level regresses and I feel like an incompetent idiot, and definitely not the specific points of methodology that are strictly applied to the writing of papers and summaries.  I think I’m a confident and competent teacher because I empathize with my students in learning their own language (French) as a foreign language, because I have spent hour after hour fine-tuning my explanations on specific grammar points and “language traps” such as the infamous phrasal verbs or faux amis, and partly because I stay calm and make it fun.  I’ve come to realize that part of why I dislike the French education system is because it’s an all or nothing deal – one grade you must pass or face redoing a whole year (in some circumstances), instead of a series of exercises that builds up your level, your confidence, your self-esteem.  It’s often about “being wrong,” being corrected as an example for the class instead of praised for your hard work, judged on the form and not the content.  It’s not about the learning process, the learning for the sake of learning that I have always loved about my teachers and my classes in school up till now, but that all-important diplôme that without which you are worth nothing.  You are put in a box : that slip of paper that tells that you are qualified to be a teacher, not because of your personality or your way with kids, but because you can translate from one language to the next without the aid of the dictionary.  And if you want to change careers… tough luck, you’ve got to start from scratch, because your diploma is for the wrong discipline.

Categories: Education, France, Working in France | Tags: , , , , , , | 1 Comment

I have walked a thousand miles…

For all the advantages and disadvantages of living in Amiens – it is a small city that few people have heard of, it rarely sees the sun, and it has the unfortunate quality of not being located on the French Riviera – one incredible attribute of my city, which is particularly important to me, is its walkability.  Partly for lack of trying, I can’t imagine being carless in either St. Louis or Omaha, but Amiens has allowed me to get by despite not being able to afford a car.  Once the clouds part and the sun comes out (sometime between now and July) I will consider renting a vélo vert, the really cheap green public bicycles, but for the moment I have survived the year thanks to a go-anywhere bus route that works 80% of the time and by wearing through a couple of pairs of sneakers.  As a student, I was even able to get a discount on my year-long bus pass, which I’ve probably got the value back on a thousand times over, what with the amount that I take the bus (for school and work).

When the weather’s nice enough, or the buses aren’t running (see La grève des bus or The Tempest: Snow Days in Picardie for two such occasions), or simply because I feel like I’ve been consuming too much cheese and chocolate, I book it on foot.  I live in the very center of Amiens, so I’m used to walking to get my groceries (5 minutes), to go to the bank (10 minutes), to head to the train station (15 minutes), to the Law library (10 minutes), to my favorite evening cafés (15 minutes), to my locavore meetings (15 minutes), to my classes (30-40 minutes uphill), to the park (15 minutes), to the south neighborhood of Henriville (30-40 minutes).  I don’t keep track of the kilometers I cover but the mere frequency of my walking is enough to give you an idea of my lifestyle. Carless, but then again… I don’t have to pay for car insurance, for gasoline, for a permanent parking spot, for the down payment on the car.  I don’t have to worry about finding a place to park it, about rush hour, or bad weather, or parking tickets, or speeding tickets.  For all the downsides and limitations of not owning a car, there are certainly many, many ways it’s “liberating” not to.

But I’ll probably have to invest in a new pair of shoes…

Categories: Amiens, Daily Life, France | Tags: , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Tempest: Snow Days in Picardie


That is what Amiens looked like and the surrounding Picardie region for a couple of days.  It started to snow Monday, but the buses were still functioning normally.  School was in session, shops were open.  Come Monday night, it started to snow without stopping, snowing into Tuesday morning with great gusts of wind that rattled my windows.  The snowpocalypse had hit.  Normally on Tuesdays (see my earlier post A+ Tuesday) I have six hours of classes – it’s my longest day of school plus I have a two-hour meeting with les Tombés de la Charrette.  I have class from 9 am to 5 pm and am unable to return home and relax until 8 pm at night.  So I found myself at 7 am, on Facebook, chatting with my fellow Masters students about the situation.  Many students, and professors, live outside of Amiens, as it is the only Masters program within proximity of Beauvais, Saint Quentin, and within reach of the major axes of Lille and Paris for those professors who teach at more than one institution.  The situation was epic: roads closed, buses no longer running, trains canceled, people stranded.  I was in my pajamas and not about to attempt the thirty minute walk uphill to find out whether or not my university was closed.  Luckily, a friend of mine ventured over to confirm for all of us waiting passively on our computers that the Campus was closed – not enough personnel had shown up and the scolarité, the administrative office that informs us of canceled classes, was locked.  We got the news an hour and a half later – the entire university system in the region of Picardie was closed for Tuesday and Wednesday, as were all the elementary schools, middle schools, and high schools.  We were faced with our first official snow days of the year.

You might have expected that I’d joyfully run down my five flights of stairs to make snow angels and snow forts, but despite the lack of vehicle circulation, there was still a lot of foot traffic. People were skiing down major throughways.  The snow had been cleared on sidewalks and roads, and the remaining piles of snow transformed into that ugly gray mess which resembles wads of chewed paper.  And as the day progressed and temperatures dropped, black ice began to cover the sidewalks and streets, turning walking into a very risky business.  I preferred to survey the scene from my balcony up above.  In the meantime, I’ve been watching TV, reading, and finally making progress on my Harry Potter thesis.  I just got an email this morning that my two hours of class on Friday have also been canceled, although the university will officially reopen this afternoon.  I have yet to determine whether I will still be teaching English tonight and tomorrow evening – the buses and trains might not yet be fully functioning.

I have survived the March tempest thus far and am looking forward to day light savings to finally come into effect here in Picardie – nothing like an extra hour of (hypothetical) sunshine to warm up though soul, à la chicken noodle soup.

View from the Tour Perret

View from the Tour Perret

Categories: Amiens, France, Seasons | Tags: , , , , , , , | 4 Comments


8050434766_b7d46aaec9_zHello there, my fellow Expats and bloggers, friends and strangers alike, I haven’t written in two weeks because, well, like any writer knows, sometimes you just need a break.  For me, this welcome respite came in the form of les vacances de février, one of the many numerous French school holidays scattered throughout the year.

Hiatus n. the pause or gap in a sequence, series, or process.

That’s exactly what I did.  From February 22 to March 1 I spent my days lounging around my apartment, occasionally venturing outside to buy bread and cheese and to participate in a lovely atelier pommes, that’s to say a cooking workshop revolving around apples with my locavore group “Les Tombés de la Charette” (our website is now operational,, if you want to see what we’re up to).  I watched more tv than I probably had previously during my entire lifetime (NCIS, “The Voice,” etc.) and I worked not one iota on my school work.  Not to say that I wasn’t studious.  I get antsy if I don’t have some “project” to work on, one I usually abandon within a few weeks, but I have been faithfully studying Italian on Duolingo and Memrise almost every day for the past two weeks.  Io mangio la fragola.  Grazie.

The weeklong holiday (those high school age and younger had two weeks off school, most of whom jetted off to the Alps for a colonies de vacances holiday camp to go skiing) was dark and overcast, the doldrums of the winter months in full swing here in Northern France.  And to make matters worse, very few students were around, most having gone home to their families, traveled to warmer milieu or worked as camp counselors.  I gave five hours of English lessons myself, but I mostly wallowed in my pajamas and woke up around noon every day.  I have tried several more adventurous recipes recently: tortilla española, bricks à la tunisienne, spicy chili, tarte aux poireaux avec une pâte brisée faite maison, crumble aux pommes, velouté à la courge muscadée

My most productive part of the break was the massive amounts of emails that I sent off to friends and the numerous “Skype dates” I initiated during this time.  I even talked with an American in Oregon, at 10 pm her time and 7 am my own! (I promptly went back to sleep afterwards).  It’s been such a pleasure to read all the responses to my emails (friends, you know who you are, and I am so lucky to have you in my life!)  And thank goodness for Skype and for the weekly “conference calls” my family does, which has allowed me to feel very close while being very far away.  I think I can say that I am successfully keeping up with my New Year’s pledge to email once a month and to maintain a good steady communication with my loved ones.

Since Monday, I’ve been back at school, with renewed vigor and focus (*cough cough*).  I’ve slowly stopped going to all those “extra classes” (you see my problem with resolutions and “projects”? I can never successfully audit anything for a full term) and concentrated on my job search and the classes I’m actually getting graded on.  I finally received my bulletin scolaire, that’s to say, my report card for the first semester.  To my delight, I ended up with a 15/20 moyenne (average).  Despite what you might think, approximately half of my classes were taught and evaluated in French, and I am proud to say that I did very well in them.  For my classes uniquely in French, I received 14, 15, 16, 16 and 17! My English to French translation class was my only shortcoming, but averaged with my much stronger French to English grade, I barely scraped past the passing grade of a 10!  What this all translates into is that I won’t have to “retake” any of my first semester exams in the summer, I’ve “validated” everything (grades in France are very different from what you can expect in the US, if you want more details, I invite you to browse through my previous posts commenting on the first semester).

And another “New Year’s resolution” to cross off my list: I got hired at a(nother) local tutoring company as an English teacher, the #1 centre de soutien scolaire in France if I do say so myself.  Between my various “employers” I should be able to generate much more income than what I was previously, enough to help me literally scrape by in these upcoming months.  With a part-time job for now, an exciting job opportunity in Italy for the summer, and a potential job for next year, all that awaits me is to discover what direction my career(s) will take me in.  Sometime in April I’ll find out whether or not I’ll be a language assistant next school year, and the results to the June CAPES (allowing me to be a stagiaire, or student teacher) will be posted in July.

All that’s left of my 2013 goals is to get back into running! I’ve run once this week and look forward to a slightly longer run tomorrow.  The sun is starting to shine more reliably, although it’s expected to plunge back into the 30’s and 40’s over the next few days.  Vivement le printemps…

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

What is French about France?

  • The shops all close at 7 pm, with the exception of Carrefour Market (8:30 pm) and Carrefour City (10:30 pm). At least in my city.
  • The city is dead on Sundays—I’m not even half sure where everyone goes.

“Almost every shop is closed on Sundays as well, so don’t plan a visit to a city you’ve always dreamed of seeing on the day of rest, because they do rest. It’s the law. Only shops that sell food are legally allowed to remain open in France, although countless boutiques do flaunt the regulations. I wouldn’t count on it, though. If you are visiting during a Sunday, and will need anything at all from a store, I highly recommend buying it Saturday.”  Hours in France.

  • Students flock in mass to the train station on Fridays, in order to pass the weekend at home. It’s very hard to hang out with French students on the weekend unless they live in your city, so it’s nice to know other foreigners.
  • Nearly every meal is served in a minimum of three courses—appetizer, main course, and cheese/fruit/dessert.
  • New Year’s Eve is rarely spent at a bar but at a private party at a friend’s home.
  • Presents are exchanged and gifts opened on Christmas Eve rather than Christmas Day.
  • All the holidays revolve around food.
  • The country stops working in the month of August—don’t expect to get anything done yourself.
  • Sometimes it takes asking ten different individuals in order to find anything out, and sometimes even then you haven’t the faintest idea.
  • When first attending a French university, prepare to spend an entire day going to various buildings of the university in order to “register” as a student. And be prepared to not know what classes are offered, with which professor, at what time, and in what building, until often the day of, and the same goes for exams. Don’t expect to be notified if a teacher is absent. Try to have at least one well-informed friend in every class. Or get to know at least one faculty member. Don’t even attempt to have the grading system explained to you unless you need to “retake” your exams.
  • You must always watch your register of language (including tutoiement and vouvoiement), depending on who you are talking to—emails included.
  • Always say “Bonjour” upon entering a room, restaurant, or store, and always leave with “Merci, au revoir” or “Bonne journée, au revoir”—a “s’il vous plaît” when ordering something is nice but not required.
  • Carambars and crêpes and more cheeses and fine wines than you can count on two hands. And pastries, and desserts, and baguettes, and…
  • Tintin and Lucky Luke (Belgian) and Titeuf (Swiss) and Astérix and Obélix and (until recently) Gerard Depardieu and Johnny Hallyday and Audrey Tautou and Marillon Cotillard and Édith Piaf, Les Enfants du ParadisLes Intouchables, Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain, Émile Zola, Gustave Flaubert, Voltaire, Victor Hugo, Charles Baudelaire, Jean Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Honoré de Balzac, Alexandre Dumas, Jules Verne, Marcel Proust, Stendhal, Molière, Corneille, George Sand, Simone de Beauvoir, Jean Jacques Rousseau, Paul Cézanne, Edgar Degas, Edouard Manet, Claude Monet, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, …
  • Don’t expect to get anything administrative-related accomplished before 9:30 am or after 4:00 pm. As a general rule, never expect someone to be in his or her office before 9:00 am.
  • The numerous Catch-22’s in France. Case in point: to get university housing, you need a French bank account, but to open a French bank account, you need housing.
  • Emails are seldom returned in a timely manner—the French take the separation of work and leisure very seriously, which extends to evenings, weekends (Sunday especially) and vacation days (notably winter and summer break)
  • French shops and attractions tend to be open in the mornings until noon, and many (if not most) close up to three hours for lunch. They typically reopen 2:30 or 3 pm. If you time it wrong, you could arrive at a museum just in time to wait for three grueling hours.
  • In those hours, the restaurants and cafés come alive. If you don’t catch lunch at lunchtime, you could go hungry for several hours (especially in smaller towns or even medium-sized cities). The French dinnertime is typically late, around 8 pm.
  • The French tend to go out to eat less often than Americans, especially in the evenings or on the weekends, which is primetime for most U.S. dinners out. On the other hand, most restaurants in the city center, especially near businesses, are packed at lunch hours, as the locals take advantage of the “plat du jour” and their two-hour lunch breaks.
  • The French love their system of concours, national government-entry exams for admission into élite schools and the various types of fonctionnaire (civil servant) jobs. There is a whole “prépa” culture that prepares for the Grandes Écoles such as the École Normale Supérieure and the École Polytechnique. Most government bigwigs and Parisian highbrows issue from these schools.
  • To get a job in France, they expect you to have a degree for everything—a degree to prove your competency at a foreign language (CLES 2), your ability to use basic computer skills (C2i2e), your general first aid (PSC1), your ability to work with children (BAFA) or adults (BAFD), to work in a professional field (CAP), to work in commerce or management (BTS), to become a teacher (CAPES or l’Aggrégation), to work in a technical field (DUT), etc. Not to mention your standard undergraduate (L1-L2-L3) or Masters (M1-M2) or Doctorate degrees.
  • The French love acronyms and other jargon known as “sigles”.
  • Almost everyone smokes in France. And I am not exaggerating. I must be the only person half the time not to take a “pause cigarette” in order to “fumer une clope” and I am often asked on the street, “vous avez du feu?” Luckily for non-smokers, smoking is pretty much banned in all enclosed areas, such as bars or restaurants.
  • The French like to drink, but there isn’t quite the same “binge culture” that you find in the United States, as a result of the absence of “campus” fraternities or sororities or other such rites of initiation that involve young people and heavy drinking. Drinking is allowed since age sixteen, and most French have had a glass of wine on occasion with their meal from a much earlier age.  The French highly prize their wines and enjoy beer and hard alcohol. There is a local alcohol culture that accompanies each region of the country, with corresponding stereotypes.
  • Dogs are allowed pretty much everywhere, especially in cafés. Therefore, be forewarned about what naturally accompanies dogs—doggy doo on the sidewalks.
  • In older cities when it rains, the sewage literally stinks.
  • Older apartments often have terrible ventilation and rarely have elevators. You are lucky if your heating is fully functioning. Living conditions are much more cramped, even for those who can afford good housing. Not everyone is a homeowner and few people are blessed with a front or back yard or a patch of grass if they live in a city.
  • You typically have to pay to go to the bathroom, unless you are a paying customer at a restaurant.  Even McDonalds isn’t a “freebie.”
  • Unless you are born French or in a French-speaking country, you will never speak perfect French. Whether by your accent or an out of context use of vocabulary, you will give yourself away. And once they discover you’re an American, they will proceed to talk to you about Obama (adored) or Bush (despised) or about American politics in general. Try to brush up your vocabulary for such situations (explaining the Electoral College is hard enough in English).
  • You don’t need to tip as it is already included in the bill—although many places take advantage of tourist ignorance. And whatever price listed on the price tag is how much you will actually have to pay—there’s no hidden “sales tax” that magically appears at the counter, it’s already been factored in advance and is the same around the entire country.
  • You basically pay half your salary in taxes, BUT parents don’t have to pay for preschool, worry about health insurance, or save for college.
  • Sex is absolutely not taboo—from high school age onwards, most people are expected to be having sex and talking about having sex, and even parents are fully aware of their adolescent children’s having sex—as a result, the pill is widespread and used.
  • Fewer French are getting married than ever before, and cohabitation is commonplace, especially once you are out of school (most French students live at home with their parents, as university campuses lack quality housing and a “campus” environment)—as a result, most marriages I see at the town hall across from my street are of the Arab-French population, amongst each other.
  • Almost all French children, at least those fortunate enough to get accepted, go to state-run day cares called “la crèche”: not only are these appreciated, but women often go back to work within months of giving birth and are not viewed as “bad mothers.”
  • You are never ever forgiven for getting fat. Having a baby is not an excuse, but rather, should be extra motivation to get back in shape to regain your sex appeal. No matter what age.
  • Both men and women dress well. While the “jock” look is still acceptable, most jogging pants or sweatshirts are worn only to and from athletic activity. Both genders spend a lot of money on clothes and are expected to look good at all times. Slovenly dressing is looked down upon, as if you are lacking self-esteem. There is no college culture that permits wearing pyjamas or sweatpants to class. Students can and do often dress as if going to a job interview every day of class. The French, to a lesser degree than the Swiss but all the same, frequently “repeat” outfits two or three days in a row, provided it is still clean and doesn’t smell.
  • The French take their laïcité (separation of Church and State) incredibly seriously—all talk or manifestation of one’s religion in a public setting, such as school, is absolutely forbidden, with the most extreme case being the prohibition of all religious articles in a public school including the Cross, the Jewish kippa/yarmulke and the Muslim head scarf.
  • For some reason, the French are the second worst at foreign languages in Europe, coming just ahead of England in the most recent study. I blame the strange emphases of school-run foreign language programs, but this also relates to national pride for speaking good French and a ferocious protection and support of their language abroad. And perhaps a “laissez-faire” attitude about the English language, after rivaling with England for the last several centuries as a cultural power in the region.
  • To graduate high school you have to pass the baccalauréat, which involves an exam in each subject, among which figure several oral exams. Like most grades in France, the results of those who pass are posted for all to see, often on a national level. In university, professors commonly email the entire class’s grades in one go, and you often only have one grade per class, which is usually a final exam or project. Hence the common occurrence of “make-up” exams or “redoing” your year. Each year is considered a separate degree to be earned independently of other years.
  • Make sure you are making eye contact with a driver when crossing the street at a diagonal-slashed cross walk.
  • The cross walk lights in France are both little men—the red one with his hands on his hips means “don’t cross” and the green man who appears to be walking means “cross.” In all cases look left then right then left and cross if no car appears to be hurtling at you.
  • It’s really hard to get your driver’s license in France. You have to be at least 18, go through a six-month program of driver’s ed, and pass a rigorous exam. After three failed attempts you have to repass driver’s ed. As a result, many people, especially youths, use public transportation or walk.
  • The French love to protest and go on strike. Within a month’s period, I’ve already witnessed two protests down the center of my city. Strikes of any form of transportation are incredibly annoying and likely to happen 1) at a moment’s notice or 2) on a major holiday. Be forewarned.
  • Getting a coffee at one of fifteen local cafés is more than just a social ritual—it’s a way of living.
  • La préfecture is the innermost circle of hell.  L’OFII is not far behind.

A fellow American Expat in Amiens wanted me to add this comment:

“I have one to add: dinner, even when just pizza at a friend’s house, is preceded by “l’apéro.” this is not optional. Buy peanuts or chips, and an alcoholic beverage of some kind on hand. You may think you have planned a dinner party, but even at thanksgiving, you will be asked “what about l’apéro?” (Check out Fliss’s blog here)

Categories: Daily Life, Expats, France | Tags: , , , | 14 Comments

A Crêpe-making Holiday? When in France

As most of the world is aware, France has a very healthy relationship with food, with its complex network of traditions and cultural practices tied up with special meals and desserts.  Each month has a corresponding holiday around food:  in January, it’s la galette des rois for Epiphany, in February you have both la Chandeleur and le Saint-Valentin, and this continues all the way into December, with the bûche de Noël among numerous other holiday traditions such as vin chauddes marrons, and the famous foie gras and canard or lapin for the New Year’s Eve Réveillon.

Yesterday while the United States was busy deciding whether or not the official groundhog had seen his shadow, France was busy celebrating la Chandeleur, a complex holiday that is tied to both the Catholic holiday of Candelmas, which celebrates the presentation of Jesus to the Temple as well as the purification of the Virgin Mary forty days after giving birth (a custom women still practice in Islam), as well as the Roman holiday of light, festa candelorum, which is the origin of the French name, from the French word for long tapered candles, des chandelles.  It also has its roots in Northern and Western European holidays celebrating the lengethening of the days.  Today the holiday is mostly remembered as a time to get together with friends and make crêpes, one of France’s most popular food exports.  It’s a seasonal, religious, and cultural/food-related holiday all in one. Summer, light, and crêpes!


Surprisingly enough, there is more in common between the very secular American Groundhog’s Day and la Chandeleur in France than simply sharing the same date:

“In France, Candlemas is celebrated with crêpes, which must be eaten only after eight p.m. If the cook can flip a crêpe while holding a coin in the other hand, the family is assured of prosperity throughout the coming year. The French though have a completely reversed view of the weather prospects. They say: “Quand la Chandeleur est claire, l’hiver est par derriere; Chandeleur couverte quarante jours de perte,” a rhyme that means, more or less: “If February 2nd is clear, no more winter to fear; if the Chandeleur is overcast, forty days winter to last.” But then again they also say: “Soleil de la Chandeleur, annonce hiver et malheur” which is “A sunny Candlemas will bring winter and misfortune”. Other traditions include “Si point ne veut de blé charbonneux mange des crêpes à la Chandeleur” which is “if you do not at all wish the wheat to blacken eat crêpes at Candlemas”, and “Celui qui la rapporte chez lui allumée. Pour sûr ne mourra pas dans l’année” which is “whoever arrives home (from church) with it (the candle) lit for sure will not die that year”.” Wikipedia

Luckily for us, the weather in Amiens was absolutely dismal.  It was dark, the sky a slate gray that makes me think more a muddy puddle than a Van Gogh-esque Starry Night, and it was spewing at various intervals cold snow-rain that melted upon touching the ground.  I’m sure hoping that our winter will be a short one, for I’m longing for the mild temperatures of spring and summer in Northern France, and the rare sun sightings in the past few months leave one longing for the gentle kiss of sunshine against your forehead.  I’m looking forward to relaxing in le Parc Saint-Pierre and having picnics and soccer matches and pétanque tournaments to pass the time.

I have been fortunate enough to share many French traditions with friends here in France, many of which I hadn’t celebrated the first time I lived in Amiens two years ago.  The benefit of knowing the locals is the possibility to share in their traditions.  This year, I had two delicious Kings’ cakes for Epiphany, another religiously-based holiday that is also celebrated in New Orleans in the United States and elsewhere in the world.  Unlike the very sweet and colorful New Orleans style Kings’ Cake, the French galette des rois is made of almond-paste frangipane and pastry, with a little fève (originally, a broad bean) figurine buried beneath layers of cake and which many collect.  Tradition has it that the youngest person has to crawl under the table and “decide” who gets what piece of cake as it is sliced in equal portions for family members or friends.  As I was the youngest among my group of friends, I stuck my head under the table.  Whoever has the slice of cake concealing the fève, which in New Orleans is a little figure of a naked baby (originally representing the baby Jesus), is crowned “king” or “queen” for the day, wears a paper crown, and, most importantly, escapes dishes duty for the rest of the day.  I also got to sample a homemade galette des rois with the four French girls I teach, although unfortunately the fève was hidden in one of the remaining slices.

“The cake traditionnally celebrating Epiphany in France and Quebec is sold in most bakeries during the month of January. Two versions exist: in northern France and Quebec the cake called galette des rois (which can be either circular or rectangular) consists of flaky puff pastry layers with a dense center of frangipane. In southern France – Occitania, Roussillon, Provence,Catalan where it´s called tortell – the cake called gâteau des rois or royaume, is a torus-shaped brioche with candied fruits and sugar, similar in its shape and colours to a crown. This later version is also common to Spain and very similar to New-Orleans king cake.

Tradition holds that the cake is “to draw the kings” to the Epiphany. A figurine, la fève, which can represent anything from a car to a cartoon character, is hidden in the cake and the person who finds the trinket in their slice becomes king for the day and will have to offer the next cake. Originally, la fève was literally a broad bean (fève), but it was replaced in 1870 by a variety of figurines out of porcelain or—more recently—plastic. These figurines have become popular collectibles and can often be bought separately. Individual bakeries may offer a specialized line of fèves depicting diverse themes from great works of art to classic movie stars and popular cartoon characters. The cakes are usually sold in special bags, some of which can be used to heat the cake in a microwave without ruining the crispness of the cake. A paper crown is included with the cake to crown the “king” who finds the fève in their piece of cake. To ensure a random distribution of the cake shares, it is traditional for the youngest person to place themselves under the table and name the recipient of the share which is indicated by the person in charge of the service.

Formerly, one divided the cake in as many shares as guests, plus one. The latter, called “the share of God,” “share of the Virgin Mary,” or “share of the poor” was intended for the first poor person to arrive at the home.” Wikipedia

I recently also had the opportunity to attend the birthday party of one of my closest French friends here in Amiens.  The small and intimate gathering was delightful, from the many delicious cold samplings of “finger food”, from delicate quail eggs to bread slices slathered with various spreads, a “savory” caky bread, and little chocolate muffins at the end of the meal.  We played a game that was perhaps as literary and nerdy as our group, which is called À la manière de (In the manner of), which takes a line from the work of a famous French author and stops mid-sentence, allowing those playing along to “propose” a sentence “in the manner of” the famous author. The goal is to sound convincingly enough like the author that when the person whose turn it is reads all the different sentences anonymously, including the “real” sentence the author wrote, everyone will be convinced that your invented sentence is the literary text.

For those of you who read French, here is a sampling of the “sentence endings” I wrote down, with a few “real” sentences that I read aloud at my turn.  Let’s see if you can guess the French author who inspired them :)

  • “…ma femme se rende compte que je veux coucher avec un homme.
  • … je vous tue.
  • … une affaire compliquée et pénible,
  • … tu me saoules.
  • … on a dû tomber du ciel,
  • …quelconque.
  • …périmé
  • … j’ai tout ce que j’ai désiré.”

My own Chandeleur party was incredible, as I get to spend it at a close friend’s house with all the other members of my locavore group.  We spent at least four hours playing a board game called “Zombicide”, which is a hilarious cooperative game in which you try to “shoot the zombies” and race against the zombie invasion while following one of ten different scenarios.



Oh, and the crêpes.  In the 24 hours that we spent together, I probably ate more crêpes than I have in an entire year. Curry-flavored crêpes with leeks and onions and goat cheese and tome de cidre cheese and sweet crêpes flavored with orange blossoms and stuffed with Nutella and Jonagold apples or spread with homemade jam.


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

La Chasse au trésor

Information in France is a precious commodity.  It’s worth its weight in gold.  It’s certainly not a dime a dozen.  [Insert clichéd phrase about how valuable and/or hard to get it is].


Over the last five months that I’ve lived in France, and to a lesser extent, my 13 months previously spent in Europe, I’ve discovered that to do well you not only have to know what to ask but who to ask.  Like most labyrinthine bureaucracies and red-taped governments, France has a lot of administrative paperwork and backlogged offices that prevent you from knowing what you want when you want.  Luckily, my information-getting goals have been relatively straightforward since setting my sights on life in France.  In 2011-2012, it involved figuring out how to move to France, via the complicated and long process of applying to Masters programs on the CampusFrance website.  Since arriving in France, I have been trying to figure out the somewhat complicated procedures for becoming a teacher in France and finding a job in general.

With the second semester rentrée de classe underway, I began my job search in earnest, trying to pick up tidbits of information right and left.  My first week back into classes, I responded to online ads for cours particuliers, tutoring, conversation classes, or homework help.  By chance, I had a response to one such ad from a company that sets tutors up with potential students, in a kind of Kaplan learning center.  The woman who called me the next day happened to work for such a company in Amiens and was interested in my profile in general.  Despite the fact that I had applied online to work for them at least twice over the past few months, I finally had caught the attention of someone.  A few days later and a couple of job applications filled out and resumes sent in, I received a phone call from the same company, offering me a one hour a week job teaching English.

On Monday, I stopped by the Center, expecting an interview or some other formality, but as far as the woman was concerned, I was already hired.  She went over procedures and expectations, and I strolled out of the office feeling slightly better about myself.  An extra 12€ a week isn’t much more than what I was making before, but it’s certainly a start.  The only obstacle I was facing was a phone call to the potential student’s parents, in order to confirm our weekly lesson (and I have a horror of phone calls).

I next ventured over to the Rectorat of the Académie d’Amiens, a maze of a building that houses everything to do with education in the entire Picardie region.  I had initially planned on getting information concerning my eligibility to take the CAFEP-CAPES, the teaching exam that allows you to teach in private schools. However, someone had previously mentioned to me that I should ask for an application to become a substitute teacher, which had slipped my mind completely.  I arrived in the massive building and immediately asked for directions.  The woman at l’accueil handed me a slip of paper showing a map of the building and the bureau I needed to find in order to get my answers.  I dutifully took the map and went up in the elevator, crossing the entire length of the building before arriving.  I gave a ten second spiel (“I’m a foreigner looking for info about the CAFEP-CAPES”), and they immediately told me to go to another office.  This office indeed dealt with private schools, and they offered me a job application for substitute teaching, but they had nothing to do with the concours and sent me off to a third office.  By the time I reached this office, I was convinced that I was on some weird and convoluted scavenger hunt – the third office immediately sent me two doors down.  At last, I had the right people to ask about the exam.  They told me, five seconds into my spiel, that I didn’t have to do anything else to take the teaching exam besides prove that I had my undergraduate diploma and was registered in the first year Masters.  No need to request a casier judiciaire, a background check, or any other nonsense until I actually passed the exams.  Furthermore, the “permission” to work as a teacher in France – the initial object of my search – was to be obtained at the Préfecture, not at the Rectorat.  I had walked 200 meters in a circle for no good reason!

Except, I must remind myself, I have obtained some very, very valuable information.

When I met later that day with my unofficial “adviser”, the director of the English teaching Masters in Amiens who’s been helping me sort all this out, she just scoffed – “That’s France for you.”

Q: What is European heaven?
A: The Germans look after administration, the English are the policemen, the French do the cooking and the Italians are the lovers.
Q: And what is European hell?
A: The English do the cooking, the Germans are the lovers, the Italians are the policemen and… the French look after administration.

Categories: Amiens, Bureacracy, France, Working in France | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

Let the Job Search Begin!

I often get so wrapped up in my schooling that I forget the whole purpose of my pursuing a Masters in France – to find a job!    It’s so easy to relegate everything else to the background when you are balancing a myriad of classes, activities, homework assignments, and thesis-related research.  My first semester, I made a valiant effort to find a job.  That’s to say, I submitted four different applications to the University libraries (already staffed by the time they looked at my application), filled out some information on babysitting websites, dropped off a couple resumes at the few English-language schools in Amiens, and randomly responded to an online ad for cours particuliers in English.  Only the last one ended up happening, but I was too busy worrying about my grades, my group of friends, and my Sunday night cooking extravaganzas.  Which is all good and well, but only a few trees out of the forest.

Since returning from the United States, I’ve had to think differently about my strategy here in France.  One glance at my bank account is enough to convince me that I am no longer a study abroad student, an Erasmus, an American on exchange.  I am living full-time in France without student aid, access to loans, or social benefits, neither from the United States or France.  Now is the time to begin the job search in earnest.

This past week, I’ve been running to and fro between classes and trying to figure out how to find a job – a part-time job, a summer job, and full-time future job, a job for now, a job for next year…  It’s not the easiest thing to do, let alone in a foreign country.  And so I have begun anew, scanning the online advertisements, making phone calls (how I dread that), dropping off resumes, networking with friends, emailing contacts, showing up for an infinitude of classes in the hopes that now or soon or later something will come my way.  And in the meantime, trying to do my best at doing everything well – school, friends, thesis, CAPES preparations.  Certainly a rather tall order.


For all my fellow expats/foreign traveler and workers, if you have any insights or ideas on working abroad, feel free to chip in your two cents!

Categories: Expats, France, Immigration | Tags: , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

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