Tuesday, December 20, 2011

A Love Letter to... Life, I Guess

I wrote most of this a while ago and never posted it anywhere, because it seemed out of place on this mostly-not-super-personal blog--and because I was already planning to make an unusually personal post that covers some of what's in this. But it hasn't left my mind, and now that I am currently on an amazing multi-country trip with two of the most amazing new friends a girl could ask for, I figured there was no better time to express some of these thoughts.

Seven months and one week ago, as I was scrambling to finish one of the most hectic and stressful and WONDERFUL semesters of my college career--one where my readings were never quite done, where almost-all-nighters and dashing off short assignments just before class were commonplace practices, and where I was constantly frustrated not so much by the amount I had to do but by the fact that I loved absolutely all of it and just didn't have enough hours in the day to give any of it the devotion I wanted to--I learned that upon graduating I was going to receive substantial monetary awards from two of the departments in which I'd studied. It was the last day of classes and just a few days before my birthday, and I can't imagine a better present for either occasion. I cried tears of joy all afternoon, and I think my advisor must have thought something terrible had happened when I burst into tears AGAIN in her office at the end of the day.

Disclaimer: I don't believe that I deserved either of those awards. I don't think I excelled in either department. That's honesty, not modesty. There were always classmates who were smarter than me, and I never worked as hard as I probably should have at anything because I always wanted to learn and to do everything and was always spread too thin. I worked hard, but in the sense that it it took effort for me to do enough to get by in everything at once. I guess I was more successful at it than I felt, but I still think my professors let me get away with an awful lot.

Regardless, that money allowed me to pursue the internship of my dreams full-time, for the whole summer, without having to depend on my parents and/or kill myself finding and keeping a minimum-wage second job at night. I spent the whole summer dirty and sunburned and mosquito-bitten, digging in the dirt, talking to tourists, sorting through piles of animal bones in the lab. Even the bad days were good days, because I was surrounded by the most wonderful crew of people I've ever had the privilege of working with--people who made me feel included both on- and off-site, who were patient with my mistakes, and whose camaraderie and good humor never failed to make the time go faster even when I was already having fun. In my free time I went hiking, made the rounds of other historical sites, and yes, voluntarily studied eighteenth-century ceramics. My first two and a half months as a "real adult", post-college, were among the best in my life. I don't think I'd ever before been so consistently aware of how wonderful life is or so grateful for everything and everyone around me. (And it must have shown, because someone called me "perky" last summer for what I think had to have been the first time in twenty-two years.)

Now I'm a teaching assistant living on the Western coast of France. Everything about that sentence sounds ridiculous to me, but it's true. I write lesson plans, have awkward off-campus encounters with my students, and marvel at the irony of being an authority on learning a second language in a place where my mastery of my own second language is constantly (and rightly) called into question. And when I tell people I'm an archaeologist, or at least that I'm GOING to be an archaeologist, it feels like I should preface the statement with "Back in my real life..." In fact, I've even begun to consider following another path, at least for a while, making my life even more divided... but more on that later.

I guess in a way it's true that I've lived a bit of three different lives in the past seven months since I opened that award letter on a rainy Friday afternoon. Three dramatically different occupations in three dramatically different places, and I wouldn't trade any of them for anything else. As much as they feel like three entirely disparate experiences, they're all part of me and none of them would be the same without the others.

And a year ago, I had just returned from Ireland, where I simultaneously rediscovered a past self and embarked on an assortment of new adventures. I was still a student, was still trying to grasp the fact that I'd just applied to graduate this year, still hadn't decided yet whether to apply for a job in France or an archaeology internship for the summer. I was too busy learning to be self-reliant, pondering what it means to become an expat, and finding the nerve to do things I'd never even dreamed of doing, from going to pubs alone and talking to strangers to going zip-lining and learning to fight with a spear.

So, four lives. Four places.

I've known for a very long time that I was going to be a nomad. With four moves (and several road trips) in the last seven months and six in the last year (plus several more road trips and not counting the fact that I'd moved TO Ireland in the first place), I guess I'm there. I am practiced in the art of living out of my car, out of a suitcase, out of my backpack; the vast majority of my possessions are packed away in boxes in my parents' house waiting for me to be settled long enough to have a use for them.

Sometimes it's frustrating to think about those things sitting there waiting for circumstances that might not come, for all I know, for years. It's stressful to be always moving on, leaving behind what's become familiar and loved. It's painful not to see and sometimes not even to talk to my family and friends for long stretches of time. It's even more painful to lose friends in all the moving, and of course to feel alone, to be aware that if I needed help or a favor or a shoulder to cry on, there is not always someone physically close by that I could call. True, I am always meeting new people, but too often it's because I'm starting over somewhere where I don't know anyone. To be constantly uprooting oneself like that must be stressful for anyone; for someone pathologically shy and glacially slow to make close friends, it borders on masochistic.

I appreciate home more than I did ten years ago. I miss my hometown more than I could have imagined as a teenager. But it's not that simple. I also miss Oberlin more than I anticipated (although I did anticipate correctly that what I would miss would be the people and the atmosphere rather than the place). I miss the place I lived last summer, too. I miss Cork so much sometimes it literally distracts me from getting things done. Perhaps, next summer, I will miss Brest. I know I will miss the friends I've made there, probably for the rest of my life. It's the price one pays to wander. I can't stop, because there are too many places I want to see and too many things I want to do before I can think about settling down. But along the way I fall in love with everywhere. I meet wonderful people (and sometimes I fall in love with them, too). I amaze myself with new discoveries about what I'm capable of doing on my own. It's a blessing and a curse: the world is amazing and I want to know it all, but that means letting go of things I love time and again. Sometimes it doesn't even seem like there's a reason I should have to let go. Often, even usually, I don't want to. But there's always something else to do, somewhere else, and I can't stop until I've satisfied the urge to keep moving. Right now, I can't imagine when or even how that's going to happen.

I spend a lot of time walking. I walk as a simple mode of transport, to get from place to place. I walk to explore, because I think the best way to learn a new place, both to get your bearings and to gauge its personality, is on the ground. I walk because I like it, because a couple of hours of hiking brings me a kind of peace that nothing else does. And sometimes I walk simply because it hurts not to, because I need to walk until I'm too tired or my feet hurt too much for me to care anymore why I was sad or angry or upset before I started walking. Whatever the reason for a given walk, I have long held the philosophy that if you get lost, the only thing for it is to keep walking. You can keep walking forward until you eventually come across a map or a signpost or at least a bus stop and a way out. Or you can turn around and go back the way you came until things start to look familiar and you can find a different road to take. Either way, you have to keep moving. You can't just sit down where you are and hope that somehow you'll stop being lost. You pick a direction, and you put one foot in front of the other until you figure it out.

I couldn't have articulated it that way at the time, but I think that's why I started college at the traditional moment in time like everyone else I knew. I wasn't sure that was the right direction, but I didn't know where else to go, so I moved forward. It's also why I left college after my first semester, when it became clear that that was indeed the wrong path (or rather, the right path at the wrong time) and staying on it right then was going to get me nowhere fast. It's why I all but drowned myself in college when I went back the following year, after a friend of mine died and my world was turned upside down. It's [very consciously] why I started trying to build a new life for myself--new friends, new hobbies, new fearlessness--after my ex-boyfriend and I broke up (though there's no denying I did sit still and feel sorry for myself for a long time first).

And it's why I'm in France this year, doing something so far removed from everything else I was doing before. A lot of people observe that this teaching gig is not particularly connected to my original career goals. I've often explained it as being my plan to put off making plans--I came to France because I'm not ready to make big decisions about the future, and this temporary job is an excellent excuse to live abroad for a while before I have to make those decisions and then get too settled in my life to have another chance. It's something I needed to do. Maybe I needed a break. Maybe I just needed to prove that I could do this. Maybe I'm not exactly lost; I'm taking a detour. The scenic route to real life. Who knows, maybe it's going to end up taking me down a different road I didn't know was lurking there, out of sight. And maybe it's just going to loop around and drop me right back off where I started, but I certainly don't think I'll be any worse off for it. I'll have everything I saw and learned and found and became along the way to help me figure out which way to go next.

It's why I retitled my blog "Seeking El Dorado". "'Ride, boldly ride,'/ The shade replied/ 'If you seek for Eldorado!'" I don't believe this year is going to be the only detour.

I don't know what I'm looking for, exactly, but I do know this: I really do believe that every day is an opportunity, and when I sat in the lab seven months ago trying not to get tears all over my award letter from the history department, I was crying because I was overwhelmed by how lucky I am. Not just about the money or even the internship, but for the same reason I moved through my whole summer in awe and the same reason I sometimes pause on the sidewalk in Brest to cherish the cold wind off the sea or the smell of wood smoke in the air. Because life is awesome and I want to love every minute of it.

"Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it? Every, every minute?"

I try. I acted in that play (Our Town by Thornton Wilder) the same semester I applied to college, and every word of it rang true to me in the midst of my seventeen-year-old self's existential crises. And I started trying to do just that. Sometimes, I almost do.

Greetings From Not France

It's Christmas break! Huzzah!

I have a lot of back updating to do and will try to do some of it in the evenings over this break. It's more convenient than usual because I'm traveling and have unfiltered internet access--but it's also less convenient than usual because I'm traveling and have less time to sit around on the internet.

My itinerary is as follows:
Last Saturday: Brest to Paris
Saturday night to yesterday morning: Paris
Yesterday: Paris to Amsterdam via Amiens, Lille, and Antwerp
Last night to Friday: Amsterdam
Friday to Saturday: night train to Prague
Saturday to Tuesday: Prague
Tuesday to ?: getting back to Paris from Prague, somehow, sometime...
? to New Year's Eve: Paris/Etampes, where my friend lives
New Year's in Brest!

I'm in Amsterdam with two of the other assistants from Brest, an American guy and a Mexican girl. They're both going to Bruges for Christmas, while I'm making my pilgrimage to Prague, where I'll be meeting up with the assistant from Guingamp that I took the train out from Paris with on our first day in France. On the way back I'm stopping in Paris again to visit with my college friend, the one who went to Rennes with me in October, and see the sights, since I've now lived in France for almost three months without spending any time in Paris until this past weekend, which is just sad.

It's dinnertime here in our AWESOME hostel in Amsterdam, but I'll post more later about our adventures. This is my first time country hopping, and so far I'm having a fantastic time.

Thursday, December 8, 2011


(This is a work in progress for the moment.)

Life Lessons I've Learned This Week:
  1. Make travel plans in Europe well in advance.
  2. #1 goes double if you intend to travel with a Eurail pass. Why? Because the "limited number of seats able to be reserved by Eurail pass holders" on any given train must be about three. Two weeks out, they're all gone.
  3. That said, if you're very nice and look disappointed enough, the ladies at the train station will do their best to help you, even if it takes forever and they're less than happy about it. (Understanding French probably helps, too.)
  4. THAT said, where there's a will, there really is a way (even if the ladies at the train station give up). We are going to Amsterdam before Christmas, and we are taking the scenic route, and high-speed, mandatory-reservation trains be damned.
  5. Young women should not sit in the Place de la Liberté alone. Especially not in the evening. Two times now, and two awkward encounters. (The first time I was totally alone and the guy was much creepier, but it was still light out and I just told him off and moved away. This time I was with a friend and the guy was much drunker and we had a couple of big male friends coming to meet us, so I was a lot less freaked out.)
  6. There is no public place in Brest ideally suited for meeting with a tutee, at least not that I've found yet. This poses a problem as I am due to meet with my first tutee tomorrow.
  7. If you write a tongue twister on the board, your students will speak. They might just mutter it to themselves because they don't want to risk being laughed at, but they will speak nonetheless.
  8. Hot chocolate, spiced wine, and a cookie do not a dinner make. Especially not after a long, stressful afternoon/evening. They do, however, go a long way towards making one feel Christmasy.
Other Facts I've Learned This Week:
  1. It's impossible to be angry while looking at a penguin. (Allegedly.)
  2. There's a chocolate museum in Bruges.
  3. French Christmas markets close almost as early in the evening as everything else in France. What's up with that?
  4. It would be cheaper for me to get TESOL certification (the most widely recognized ESL teaching certificate) than it would be for me to go to bartending school, and wouldn't necessarily take any more time. What's up with that?
  5. English is a "timed-stress" language, while French is a syllabic language. And apparently pointing this out can improve the English pronunciation skills of native speakers of syllabic languages. It's really interesting, trust me. I can't believe I never noticed before how different the rhythms are. I guess it's less obvious going from English to French than the other way around.
  6. When everyone told me it rains all the time in Brest, they were not, in fact, exaggerating and/or referring to the drizzle that normally passed for rain during my first two months here. Sometimes it rains as heavily as it does in the tropics. Sometimes it does so for days at a time.
Two Related Lists:
Things I Had Planned To Do With My Wealth Of Free Time This Year:
  1. Journal religiously and write lots of letters and postcards to my friends in other places.
  2. Read lots of books.
  3. Write a book, or two or three.
  4. Figure out where I'm going to go from here.
  5. Hone my stovetop cooking skills.
  6. Drink lots of wine.
Things I Actually Do:
  1. Carry around a mostly empty journal, be constantly behind on updating my blog, put off answering emails, and buy postcards I don't get around to sending.
  2. Read lots of Wikipedia articles and entertaining blogs.
  3. Think about writing a lot. Mostly when I'm lying in bed at night or walking down the street by myself.
  4. Think about life possibilities that have nothing to do with going back to archaeology, and thereby induce entirely new existential crises instead of solving the old ones.
  5. Eat like a hobbit. (And only sometimes use the stove.)
  6. Drink lots of wine. (And coffee.)

Visa Adventures: Terminated

Last Thursday, I had to take the day off to go to the immigration office in Rennes for the mandatory medical visit that's the last step to validate a long-stay visa. This is a story that's been told over and over and over again by language assistants, students, and anyone else who's ever had reason to live in France temporarily, and I'm very glad to say that I don't really have anything particularly interesting to add to the ongoing narrative. I received my appointment within a few weeks of submitting all the ridiculous paperwork after I arrived here, in contrast to some people in other places and/or years who don't hear anything for months, or even who leave before the OFII ever actually gets around to dealing with them. Everyone at the office was very nice and friendly, and the appointment itself went smoothly, wasn't awkward, and didn't turn into any of the horror stories I'd heard. Really, the worst thing I can say about the experience is that the dumb timing (my appointment was at 1:30, and of course it also takes over two hours each way to get to Rennes and back in the first place) and the icky weather prevented me from enjoying the rest of the day in Rennes, and I couldn't stay because I teach at 8 o'clock on Friday mornings. (How I envy the people who had Friday appointments and could just take a long weekend and be done with it!)

Miguel, my Spanish-language counterpart and pseudo*-roommate, had the same appointment time as me, which was either a bizarre coincidence or an unusually efficient bit of organization on the part of the faceless French bureaucracy, so we were able to take the same train that morning and have lunch and find the office together after we got to Rennes, so that was nice.

Here's how the visit went down, for those of you who haven't already heard a dozen or more similar tales from other people, or who are just interested in how ridiculously different the same freaking process can be in different regions even though in theory it should be the same for everyone. As far as I can see, these visits exist mostly to make sure people are healthy enough to work, have had all their shots, and don't have anything contagious. There were a lot of HIV/AIDS awareness posters hanging around the office, but they're specifically really keen on making sure you don't have TB. I was asked once if I've been exposed to TB and twice if I've been vaccinated and/or recently tested, and of course, I had an x-ray taken of my chest. (I got to keep the x-ray. It creeps me out a little.) That's usually the highlight of the OFII medical visit story, especially for women, because you obviously have to strip to the waist, and you aren't given anything to cover yourself with—you just have to awkwardly stand around half-naked for a few minutes. Fortunately, I'm a lot less uncomfortable with nudity than a lot of girls I know, and I was also lucky enough to have a female radiologist, so it really wasn't that bad as far as I was concerned. And the fact of the x-ray made the inevitable “Is there any chance you could be pregnant?” a lot less irrelevant and invasive than it might otherwise have been. 

After I was allowed to put my clothes back on, I was escorted to a different room by a different person who asked me whether I'd had a series of vaccinations (note that I didn't have to provide even approximate dates or offer any proof, just answer “yes” to everything on her list) and then weighed me and gave me a vision test (I'm considering getting new glasses here while I have really nice health insurance...). Then my x-ray came back and I was taken to yet another room to see the actual doctor, who looked at the x-ray for about five seconds and asked me again about tuberculosis, then proceeded to collect some really cursory information about medications, whether I exercise, and whether my parents have any health problems, and then make small talk about where I work and whether I like it and the weather in Brest**. And that was that. I went back to the waiting room until I was called into a fourth office by a fourth person who looked at my papers, gave me the signed and stamped document stating that I'd passed the medical exam, and put the sticker in my passport that indicates I've successfully gone through all the necessary rigmarole to finalize the validity of the visa I first applied for almost four months ago.

So, I am now officially and 100% legally a resident worker in the Republic of France. For the next six months, I am free to come and go as I please, I'm entitled to take advantage of various government services, and other than straightening out a snafu with Social Security (either they don't have my birth certificate, which I don't think is true or is not my fault if it is, or they don't like the copy they got, so I think I'm going to have to have it professionally translated and send them that) in the next couple of weeks, I'm finally done with paperwork and stressful bureaucratic formalities. For the rest of my stay, I can [hopefully] be as carefree as the European assistants who don't have to deal with any of that crap.

* since we live in neighboring rooms in a weird sort of mini-dorm, rather than sharing an actual apartment
** Allegedly the worst in all of France. We have a city that's almost-universally viewed as ugly AND unpleasant. GOOOO BREST.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Mon Nouveau Monde

Here's another post that's been long delayed. I started writing it no more than a couple of weeks after arriving and have edited it bit by bit over the last two months, but always seemed to have something more pressing to post. So here, at last, are some observations about my day-to-day life in France.

I currently live in a place where wine is cheaper than Coke (yes, really), Nutella is cheaper than jam, baguettes and croissants alike can be had for less than a euro, and the tea selection at my small inner-city supermarket is as good as any I've seen elsewhere. Also, the ubiquitous ham sandwiches come with butter instead of mayonnaise, and the butchers' case at that same supermarket always has a stack of rabbits (I'm going to do it this year, I swear), and there's a whole section of shelves of hard cider to choose from (I intend to take a systematic approach and work my way through all of them). I buy soup not in cans, but in "bricks"—little waxed-cardboard cartons—and it tastes so much better. The biggest food-related drawbacks for me so far are the prevalence of mushrooms and seafood, the fact that the French do not seem to be as fond as I am of putting milk in their coffee (thank goodness I learned to drink it black this summer, if not to enjoy it quite so much), and an inexplicable preference for UHT milk over fresh—blergh. I suppose it's a little unfortunate that the amazing plethora of cheeses is mostly lost on me, but I am more than willing to sample the many pastries and saucissons.

There are more crepe restaurants than there are bakeries... and there are many, many bakeries.

I think I overestimated the extent of my food vocabulary, if I ever gave it much thought at all. That might even be the area in which I've made the biggest gains in improving my French in the time I've been here. When I first arrived to find that previous assistants had left behind some dry goods ("extra virgin", as in olive oil, is a literal translation, which I for some reason found kind of amusing), including an assortment of spices, it took me a while to go through them and figure out what everything was. My pocket dictionary was less than helpful for such a specific task, and I wound up identifying several bottles by taking off lids and smelling. Even that experience did not really prepare me for how overwhelming my first trip to a French supermarket was going to be. Now, I stand studying packages and reading labels without shame, but in those first days I was too awkward about being foreign and too horrified by how little I knew or understood not to feel like there was no way I'd ever learn to navigate the vast world of food in French.

I've got things mostly figured out now, but I still haven't quite worked up to buying, say, cuts of meat. I'm still working on sausages, which are a really big deal here and of which there are an astonishing number of varieties. I am proceeding cautiously in my experiments, however; one of the first things I bought here to actually cook myself was a pair of fat Andouille sausages that were the source of my first major disillusionment with France and nearly put me off trying to cook French food altogether. They looked and smelled and tasted like entrails (which they are, to be fair), and I totally couldn't handle it. I really tried and felt really guilty, but in the end I threw the first one away half-eaten and didn't even bother to cook the other. Black pudding any day, even if it makes me feel creepy, but no more organ meat ever again.

Anyway, other things I quickly discovered I didn't/don't have words for include kitchen gadgets/pots and pans, bedding, and toiletries. I assume that I will continue to cross those bridges as I come to them. Things I didn't/don't know how to find in French stores, regardless of having the correct vocabulary words, include greeting cards, computers, and yarn. It took me an inordinate amount of effort to find a birthday card for my father the week after I got here, and although I eventually found both a newsstand-type shop that sold some and an actual card store in one of the shopping centers, those remained for some time the only two places I know of. I've now seen them in some other newstands and have noticed that you can also buy them in grocery stores. As for computers, while I've found an Apple store and a couple of very small shops that sell and repair computers and accessories, I have yet to discover the French equivalent of say, Best Buy or Staples. Not that I need a computer at the moment, but it seems like it might be good knowledge to have, and seemed especially important earlier in my stay when I thought I might need to replace my laptop while I'm here. As for yarn, I've now discovered a few shops from which to buy it, but there don't seem to be any general craft stores here that cater to people with a variety of artsy hobbies. Not really a problem for me, exactly, but still very different from what I'm used to.

I have been a little astonished by the amount of English I've encountered—not just from people I meet who speak at least a little and are eager to practice and/or show off, but also on signs, in advertising slogans, in product names... it's everywhere. More on that later.

Breton is everywhere here, too. Not as much as I'd hoped, perhaps, but I knew once I was placed in a big city that I wasn't likely to hear it spoken. (French has been just as merciless as English, if not more so, in overpowering the other languages within its sphere of influence.) But many traffic signs and most informational signs are bilingual, and many businesses have Breton names or use Breton in their advertising. I understand very little of it, and forget pronunciation. One of the assistants from Britain told me his father speaks fluent Welsh and can often figure out what signs in Breton mean. That makes sense, because Breton and Welsh are in the same branch of the same language family and in theory are quite similar, but I was still impressed because when I first got here, none of it seemed familiar to me from my little exposure to Welsh. (Not that I remember much Welsh at this point, either, to be fair.) Now that I've had time to come to recognize more of it and to think more about it, I have started to see some similarities, but Breton seems to me to have a lot more Zs and Ks than Welsh, and a lot more vowels to go with its consonants. I still think I'd really like to take a Breton language class, or at least audit one at the university (although I've learned that the fee for auditing classes is pretty steep, so I'm still undecided). Imagine the linguistic havoc I could wreak armed with a Breton-French dictionary to pair with my French-English dictionary.

Meanwhile, it is blatantly untrue that there are no fat French people, no loud French people, that French people do not wear bright colors, and that French women do not bare their shoulders or shave the same places American women do. It is also untrue that they hate Americans (here, at least, it seems we're exciting) or speakers of bad French (most are very patient, and even those who might be somewhat annoyed are generally at least polite). Scarves are ubiquitous, for both men and women, but if you mention berets, the French will laugh just as hard as Americans would.

It is true that nearly everyone smokes, or so it seems. Men and women, young and old, native- and foreign-born. They smoke on the street and at the bus stop, in smoking rooms in bars and at the outdoor tables at cafes and in the doorways of their own shops and restaurants when business is slow. It also seems to be true that nearly everyone has a dog (or two or three). Not just fluffy little stereotypically French dogs, either, even here in the city where so many people must live in apartments or tiny little rowhouses, but dogs of all shapes and sizes. Some of the biggest dogs I've ever seen I've seen in the centre of Brest. I'm not sure I've ever seen so many dogs in one place consistently, day after day, before, and certainly not so many trotting along without leashes. I desperately need to find out if it's socially acceptable to ask to pet someone's dog, and how one would ask that in the first place. 

In the meantime, it unfortunately seems that cleaning up after one's dog is not a social mandate to the same degree that it is in the US. Poop everywhere.

It's also at least a little bit true that the French take themselves very seriously and aren't as willing to laugh at themselves as Americans or the Irish. (They'll joke about themselves sometimes; that's fine. And they'll joke about you. But if you try to joke with them about them, suddenly that's not funny at all.)

The greeting-by-kissing custom still confuses me. It varies regionally, for one thing. (I might have said this before, but I don't remember...) In Brittany, most people do one kiss, usually on the right cheek. It in other places, it might be two or three. All of the Spanish assistants (the ones from Spain, I mean) do two, one on each cheek, as does the occasional French person who's not originally from this region. This leads to many an awkward situation wherein I either go in for the second when the other person wasn't planning to, or pull away after the first while the other person is trying to do a second. I never seem to know what I'm supposed to do. Further complicating matters is the fact that many of the other teachers want to do the bises with me sometimes, but don't do it all the time, and the inconsistency means I'm constantly either being surprised by it or being poised to do it when we're not going to (I never, ever initiate it except very occasionally with other assistants or with French friends-of-friends my own age). I think at this point it's been long enough that I can say I don't like this particular custom, and it's not just because it's new to me. Despite the fact that I otherwise tend to be pretty reserved when it comes to physical contact, I much prefer hugging to bise-ing. And much like wanting milk in my coffee and wanting businesses to be open in the middle of the day, that's one of the ways in which I'm extremely aware of my American-ness and not really ashamed of it.*

On a partially related note, the French, or many of them, at least, have a very different idea from mine of what constitutes personal space. I think this is interesting given that they are also more reserved, in general, than I'm used to--although they are sometimes very open about topics that I think in America tend to be things you don't really discuss except with family or close friends, and certainly things you don't ask people about unless you know them quite well. Although generally polite, the French have a tendency to be incredibly blunt. The people of Brest are quick to call their own city ugly, and the teachers at my school did not mince words in informing me that the school across the river where one of the other English assistants works has a very bad reputation. Sometimes this level of honesty just makes me uncomfortable (as when I told my responsable, "You have a lovely house," and she replied, "Yes, it is quite nice." What do you say to that?). Other times it's great that everyone just gets right to the point. I saw a movie poster for the American movie "Friends With Benefits"; its French title is "Sex Between Friends." I had to venture into the shampoo aisle at the supermarket the other day, where I discovered that the word for conditioner is “après-shampooing”. So beautifully straightforward. When asked on my first day what I thought of the teacher's lounge, whether it was nice, I shrugged awkwardly and said "Oui," upon which the whole table started laughing and my responsable said, "She's polite. But then, it is nicer than her bedroom." On my introduction-to-new-classes days, when students won't speak up, I try to joke and ask them if I'm boring**, but their regular teachers have no qualms about telling them I'm going to think they're stupid if they just sit there and stare at me. Just this morning, in fact, when I was trying to explain a game to a group of fifteen year olds, one team seemed to understand, but the other was confused and all talking at once amongst themselves instead of asking me questions. The teacher's reaction was "What a stupid team, you don't listen to anything!"***

A cultural point that may or may not be related this straightforwardness: One of the first things of which I was informed by one of my fellow American girls, who studied abroad in France two years ago, is that if a woman smiles too much, she's assumed to be easy. Well, $#!&. I smile all the time, and if anything I'm inclined to smile more here—for me, it's an instinctive way of showing that I'm happy to be here and eager to try and to learn and to generally be agreeable. It's a way of trying to compensate for my poor language skills. ("I have no idea what you just said to me, but look, I'm cute and friendly and trying really hard!") As an American, it's ingrained in me that smiling at people, even strangers, is a gesture of goodwill and friendliness. Apparently, for French men it shows a little too much friendliness—and after the first unwanted advances I received from a French man seemed to have been a direct result of my forgetting the warning and smiling at a stranger as he walked by, I don't want to take a lot of chances with that particular cultural signal. For a long time, I tried really hard to cut back; mostly, I just avoided making eye contact with anyone outside the teacher's lounge that I wasn't not actually trying to talk to. Part of the problem, I think, is that I haven't really figured out what the rules are—is it just strange men I'm not allowed to smile at, specifically because it sends signals I'd rather not send? Or will old women at the bus stop and mothers of adorable small children in the park also think it's weird if I smile at them for no reason? Are there particular places or contexts in which it's okay? I'm sure that the old man who absolutely insisted that I go ahead of him in the supermarket check-out line deserved the big smile he got, as did the one who helped me with my train ticket when I couldn't get the stupid stamping machine thing to accept it. Maybe I'm overthinking this, but that's what the socially awkward do. We smile a lot, and we obsess over whether we're sending the right signals. So when smiling becomes not the right signal… #&@%. 

I'm not trying as hard not to smile anymore as I was at first. I've gotten less self-conscious about it, partly as a result of incidents like the aforementioned, partly as a result of my positive people experiences while hiking, and partly just because I've gotten less self-conscious in general. I'm going to stand out no matter what, and I'm going to do some things that seem weird to the French (and sometimes to anybody, for that matter), and that's just going to have to be how it is.

* Fun fact: There is no word for hugging in French. Also, as I'm sure you can imagine, the mixture of huggers and bise-rs among the language assistants leads to just as many awkward greetings as the confusion over how many kisses are necessary.
** In the first class where I did that, several of them smiled and said no(!), which made me really happy. But the next time I tried it, I got blank stares. Sigh.
*** Stay tuned for more on the joys of a French education.

Monday, November 28, 2011

For Your Entertainment: Laundry Woes

I have a story. It's a little old at this point; it's from a series of posts I wrote ages ago, before my vacances in October, and didn't manage to post because my internet situation is and has been ridiculous. But here it is anyway.

I still believe that no single seemingly mundane thing will make an American hate life in another country more or faster than doing laundry. And if I thought that the whole process seemed unnecessarily strange and confusing in Ireland, well, now it's a new learning curve and it's in a different language!

I don't really like doing laundry anyway. In the winter, sometimes if I can time it right, I like having warm sheets and/or warm pajamas at night. And sometimes I get into the domesticity zone and feel all “Look at me, I'm a grown-up!”, washing my own clothes and folding them nicely. But that's mostly only when I'm either really bored or avoiding doing something else that's probably more important. Mostly, I don't like laundry. It's time-consuming and expensive and involves carrying stuff up and down stairs multiple times.

Anyway. You may recall that I was befuddled by the detergent aisle in Ireland; now imagine that same nightmare with everything in French, when I didn't even understand it in English. I stood there reading packages just long enough to find something that specifically said it was safe for both whites and colors, and decided that would have to do. Now recall that I live in a school building, where there's not even a kitchen, let alone a washer and dryer as far as I'm aware. So off to the laundromat I go. Fortunately, there's one just a few blocks away, in the neighborhood where my bank and the bakery I usually go to are. It may or may not be the best or the cheapest in town, but I don't really care to lug my dirty clothes all over the city to find out.

I decided that rather than dragging my laundry bag around town, it would be less awkward to stuff all my clothes into my backpacking pack. I'm not actually sure that's true, but at least it's easy to carry. (I have since observed that French people all carry their clothes to the laundromat in a big canvas shopping bag, so perhaps it's time to invest in one of those. Then again, French people also bring their things to the laundromat, start the washing machine, and then leave and come back later to dry/collect their clothes. The American in me is just not comfortable with leaving my things unattended in a public place like that, even if it is just dirty clothes in a running washer.)

The first time I went, there was no one else there, which made me really glad, because not only did I not have to interact with anyone, there was no one there to see me staring at the instruction signs for minutes trying to figure out what I was supposed to do and in what order. Even more fortunately, it turned out to be less confusing than I anticipated, although I still don't understand this whole thing where different settings are associated with specific temperatures. In America, the dial says hot, warm, and cold. No numbers. I wouldn't know what temperature I want even if the Celsius scale made sense to me.

Also, my detergent tablets (more expensive than a box of washing powder but also much simpler for the girl who has never used detergent in powder form before) turned out to be incredibly fragile and I crumbled half of one all over the top of the washer trying to get it out of its wrapper. That would have been a lot less embarrassing had the owner not come in to do some cleaning while I was sitting there waiting, and had it not been REALLY obvious, since I was the only person there, that I was responsible for that particular mess.

I guess now that I'm telling it, it doesn't really sound as stressful as it seemed, the first time. It's just frustrating how something that seems so basic can become so complicated in a different place (Next up: buying a medicated face wash. HAHAHA... no.). And then I was thinking about how when I was in Belize, I COULD have lugged my dirty, smelly archaeology clothes into town to find a laundromat and let everyone stare at the gringa whose man-pants were getting the washing machine full of mud, but I also had other options. I could pay a small fortune to the proprietor of the lodge where we were staying to have my laundry done by some unfortunate maid and returned to me the next day... or I could grab a buddy with a tin of camping soap and head for the river. I've come to think that “developed” countries are overdeveloped in many ways, including that we've forgotten how to do things simply and that sometimes the simple (not necessarily the easy) solution is the most satisfying.

Unfortunately, it would probably not be socially acceptable to hand-scrub my jeans in the Penfeld. And here, it's a much longer walk to the river than to the laundromat.

But that brings me to the part where things really did get frustrating, and where I had some of the same problem when I washed in the river in Belize: how to dry wet clothes without a dryer, in a humid place. 

Dryers are not really a thing in Europe. They exist, but they're not necessarily a standard part of the clothes-washing process and not everyone has one even if they do have a washer. Laundromats have them, but they're expensive to use, and you don't pay for a full cycle. You pay for blocks of a few minutes at a time (at my laundromat, fifty cents for six minutes). I thought, okay, I'll dry my stuff a little bit, just enough so it won't be dripping in my backpack, and then I'll take it home and hang it up like the French do.

Except this is Brittany, and it was October, and everything is cold and damp all the time, even if it's a sunny day. And the heat wasn't on in my building yet at the time, and I have to hang things inside because of where I live. Do you know how long it takes wet clothes to air-dry in this environment? A long-ass time. Meanwhile, my room, as I may have mentioned once or twice, is very small, and there is very little in it that is sturdy enough to support a loaded clothesline that is also high enough off the ground for that clothesline to be practical. Space becomes very limited once there's a mostly waist-high clothesline running in multiple directions and more clothes are draped over every available surface. Plus, it can create whole new problems: wrapping part of the clothesline around the toaster oven door handle turned out to be a bad idea when the chair (to which the clothesline was also attached) shifted, which pulled the door open, which knocked over a [fortunately empty] olive oil bottle, which of course broke. No, “broke” does not do the situation justice; it shattered. I've never heard such a noise as breaking glass echoing on tile, and I had no idea just how much glass was in a less-than-1-liter bottle. And I couldn't get a broom and clean it up, because I couldn't maneuver through the forest of damp clothes, so I just had to wear shoes all the time until everything was dry enough to put away. During which time I also could not use the sink very effectively, because it was blocked by hanging clothes, or my desk, because the chair was being used as both a clothesline anchor point (which required it to be in the middle of the room) and a drying rack. 
The moral of the story is that air-drying is all well and good if you have more than one room in which to live, or at least a room big enough to hold a clothesline out of the way of your normal activities. And if it's warm enough and dry enough in that room for things to actually dry—the first time I did laundry, when I had the clothes-forest and no heat, most of it hung for over two days and was still damp when the heat finally came on and dried it out at last.

I have a slightly better clothesline strategy now, and the heater is a big help. But I admit I also run the dryer a little longer than I did that first day. I decided that even if humidity wasn't a bitch, I don't have the space to go around rejecting modern conveniences entirely just because I can.

Anyway, laundry sucks, and I want to go back to the jungle. The end.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Thanksgiving à l'étranger is Surreal By Definition

Happy Thanksgiving!

I'm sitting in the teacher's room eating "rotisserie chicken" flavored potato chips and preparing lessons for tomorrow, having just finished this morning's lesson in which I was not permitted to discuss Thanksgiving because the teacher preferred I work on something more useful to my students. Which I guess is fine. But he also said Thanksgiving would be a more appropriate topic for "younger" students, which was not a thought process I was able to follow. Does he think it's like Halloween or something?

This is the second year in a row that I haven't been able to go home for Thanksgiving, or even to spend it with my family away from home.* I miss it. I'm looking forward to the slightly belated, international Thanksgiving potluck the American assistants in Brest have planned for both ourselves and the rest of the assistants, but it's just not the same as sitting down to a real Thanksgiving dinner with one's family (or even a real Thanksgiving dinner with one's friends). It's not the same when there are already Christmas decorations in all the shops instead of turkey decorations, where there won't be any way of seeing the parade or an American football game, where cranberries barely exist and no one's ever heard of pumpkin pie (or if they have, they think it's the most bizarre idea ever). I'm actually going to attempt to make one for our sort-of-Thanksgiving party tomorrow night, but I have no idea whether the bizarre variety of pumpkin I found at my supermarket is even usable for pie, and it will have to technically be a pumpkin tart, as that's the only kind of pan I have.

Anyway. I think Thanksgiving is the saddest time of the year for an American abroad. To be fair, I have yet to face my first Christmas away from home, and I won't pretend I'm looking forward to it (although I stand by the decision). But Christmas is different. Nearly all of the teachers I work with have already been asking me about what I'm going to do at Christmas, and I think I may have to start fielding awkward invitations if I don't make my travel plans soon. Everyone in the Western world understands that it's sad to be away from one's family on Christmas. Thanksgiving, meanwhile, passes unnoticed. Most non-Americans don't even understand what Thanksgiving is—many even seem to be under the impression that it's something we do instead of Christmas, or that it's somehow bigger than Christmas.Which I think is odd considering they also don't really give any thought to Thanksgiving's existence until you bring it up.

So, as an ambassador of American culture, I tried to teach a Thanksgiving lesson to some of my classes the other day—and was deeply discouraged by the experience.

I began by asking them if they had ever heard of Thanksgiving. Some had. Then I would ask what they knew about it already.

Lots of silence. “A party,” I got from some (who apparently have not learned the distinction in English between “party” and “celebration” and “holiday”, all of which are covered by the same word in French).

“Good,” I would say. “It's an American holiday. What else?”

Silence. Stares.

“Big chicken,” some said.**

At this point I probably should have realized that vocabulary alone was going to be too much of a hurdle for this to work, but I was too busy being surprised that apparently either none of them had ever had an American assistant before, or else (more likely) they had retained nothing that past assistants told them. So I pushed forward and had them read aloud some Thanksgiving facts I'd put together, consisting of an extremely simplified history and a list of traditions.

Then I tried to ask them questions about what they'd just read. Sometimes it went okay; sometimes I got silence, or wrong answers, or completely off-topic answers because they didn't understand my question and just threw something out there. More or less par for the course, although somehow I think this was worse than usual. I don't know if they were really off their game or if I just perceived it as being worse than usual because I was getting so frustrated and discouraged even before the first class was done, because I'd thought this was pretty straightforward and expected it to be really easy.

Some parts were worse than others. Case in point:

Me: Now, who were the Pilgrims?
Student: A religious group from England. (Exactly the phrasing I'd used in my super-simple text, but I'll take what I can get from these kids. He at least understood the question!)
Me: And why did they go to America?***
Student: For persecute the native peoples.****

Let me tell you, that is not an easy conversation to have across a language barrier that was looking every minute more and more like the linguistic equivalent of the Berlin Wall. I didn't get very far into it, partly because of time and partly because I didn't see the point (see previous sentence), but I did try very briefly to explain that while that definitely happened in lots of places for most of American history, the first people at Plymouth are actually a very rare example of Europeans who were able [at least initially] to get along with the local Indians... hence the first Thanksgiving. I doubt much of that was understood.

I was less concerned about that, though, than about the fact that I had an inordinately hard time getting them to understand the most fundamental part of the lesson: what Thanksgiving is all about. “Guys, it's right there in the name of the holiday,” I whined at one group. “Just think about the word.”

Part of the problem, I think, is that there doesn't seem to be a direct translation for “thankful” or “grateful” that has quite the right connotation, which makes it hard to explain the concept of “giving thanks”. Most of them seemed to think it had something to do with saying thank you to people for various things. It was hard to get them to understand the idea of just being thankful in general or of being thankful FOR something, but not necessarily TO someone. More than one interpreted the story of the First Thanksgiving as the Pilgrims inviting the Indians to a meal to thank them for their help. I thought that was interesting, and I told them that it was probably true, but there was more to it than that. But even with further prompting they mostly didn't get past that to the idea of being “thankful” for the things one has and the good in one's life. Nor did they seem to really understand it when I tried to explain.

I hadn't anticipated that, and I've been thinking about ways to make it more clear if I do this lesson again (although it now doesn't look as though I'll be doing it again this week). I suppose I'm thankful that my students are forcing me to think about things in new ways and find new ways of communicating ideas that have always just been to me. I'm learning more about both languages, and it will, hopefully, make me a better teacher and a better writer.

I'd be more thankful, though, if I thought I was succeeding when I try to teach them. The group I had this morning could hardly answer any of my questions when I tried to review what we worked on last week, even when they had the article in front of them. And they had to be prompted none too kindly to take out the article in the first place.

Seriously, though: I'm a 22 year old American girl who was able to move to France within four months of finishing college. I live here rent-free, surrounded by kindness and patience, and I have a low-key, pretty easy job that's sometimes even fun (even if it's extremely depressing at other times) and that pays me like twice what I currently need to live comfortably. I have a degree from one of the best colleges in the US, the full support of my family, and friends both near and far. I don't know where I'm going to be six months from now or what I'm going to do there, but I'm okay with that, because every detour I take--or even plan to take--in life seems to lead to another, and they've all been pretty awesome so far. I am immensely thankful for all of that, and if there's a part of me that wishes I were sitting on the porch of a North Carolina beach house with my sister, anticipating our mom's cooking this afternoon, I think it's a pretty small part in comparison to the part that makes me feel like a total jackass whenever I complain about anything at all.

* And I'm hesitant to say to myself, “Well, I'll be home next year...”, because I'm pretty sure that's what I thought at this time last year.
** That was from the groups that at least try to speak English; from a third that spends most of its time speaking French to each other and offering French words to me as answers instead of English ones, I got turkey... but in French. And when I translated and wrote “turkey” on the board, they all laughed and said “Turkey is a country.” “Yes, Turkey is a country,” I said. “It's also a big bird that we eat.”
*** I was really trying to stress the concept of religious freedom, partly because they were having so many comprehension issues generally and partly because I think it's an issue that's never occurred to most young people growing up in an extremely secularized country where somewhere between 80 and 90 percent of the religious population is Catholic. The next biggest group, which is under 10 percent, is Muslim. Protestant Christians? Somewhere around 3 percent, along with Jews. So not only are people of non-Christian religious persuasions exotic, but the idea of different kinds of Christians fighting with each other is almost totally beyond the experience of the average French person. They might stumble across it in a history book or in reading about some faraway place (like America?). So “religious freedom” took some explaining for reasons I'm not sure are entirely linguistic, and it clearly does not carry the same resonance that I think it does for most Americans.
**** I'm not sure if he understood what was going on enough to try to be clever/difficult or if he just got confused because my history lesson included a statement about the Pilgrims being persecuted and also a note about how Thanksgiving is sometimes criticized because the traditional narrative totally ignores the injustice and brutality that characterized most colonial-era relations between whites and Natives. (It was phrased better than that.) It's almost funny that he might have stumbled upon that remark by accident. But not really.

Monday, November 21, 2011

More Adventures

First, une petite rant:
So that trail that winds along the coast of Brittany? It goes right through Brest, and leads west from here all the way to the Pointe St. Mathieu, which is close to the westernmost point in continental France, and boasts a neat lighthouse and a ruined abbey. I already did the section from here to St. Anne Plage, a few kilometers west of Brest. Now I want to walk the whole way to St. Mathieu. I looked it up in the trail guide at the bookstore; it'll be about a seven or eight hour hike, but if I time it properly I can either walk there and catch a bus back or take an early morning bus out there and walk back.

I don't teach on Wednesdays. I have the whole day free.

The last two Wednesdays, I've woken up early in the morning to rain. Not the kind of spotty, drizzly, on again off again rain that's standard in this region, but the kind of downpour we get occasionally that just goes on and on for hours (typically, until around lunchtime) with no sign of sunshine. Meanwhile, every other day of the week—of both weeks—had fine weather.

It's like Brest is determined not to let me accomplish this hike, and not only that, but to make the prevention as frustrating as possible.

To be fair, the first week I had pretty much already decided not to go, because I was getting over a cold and was still pretty tired, plus we had a holiday on Friday and I figured I could go then (which also didn't work, because on Friday I was getting over, well, something else, from Thursday night). So I was merely vindicated when it rained. But last week, I was definitely going. I'd already gotten a lunch and packed my backpack and set my muddy boots next to my bed to wait for me. Instead, I woke up a little late and was lying in bed trying to modify my bus strategy in my head when I thought, “What's that sound? Oh, look, it's France pissing all over my plans again,” and my boots sat and mocked me while I spent the morning watching episodes of Frasier on my computer and knitting a hat. (Because I'm so cool.)

Anyway, back to my vacation story:
So after my adventures around Erdeven (which were, for once in my life, perfectly timed—though the morning was dreary and overcast, the rain held off until I was back in town and sitting under the shelter at the bus stop), I spent a maddening number of hours taking multiple forms of transportation back to Brest, where I spent one night before heading back to the train station on Saturday to go to Rennes. I couldn't afford to go very far, because I hadn't been paid for October yet and did not arrive with as much money as most assistants because I spent last summer at an unpaid internship, but Rennes is just a little west of being a halfway point between Brest and Paris, and one of my best friends is living in a suburb of Paris, so we had agreed to meet there as a way of seeing each other and getting both of us out of our respective towns for a few days without it being too complicated for anybody.

And let me just reiterate: Even the very kindest of strangers are no substitute for a familiar face. When you've uprooted yourself and are starting over in a new place with no one you know anywhere near, being able to see and talk to someone you do already know is like a gift from heaven. As much as I truly like the other assistants in Brest, and as much as I hope that at least some of them will turn into real friends by the end of the year, being with people you've just met—even really nice, fun people—is just not the same as being with someone you've already known for years. After a month in France, during which I'd been mostly cut off from people back home because of my ongoing lack of reliable internet and the expense of international calls on my pay-as-you-go cell phone, I really needed those four days of companionship.

As for Rennes itself, it was love at first sight for me. Where Brest is a city of 1950s concrete and 21st century glass, covered in graffiti and littered with crushed cigarette packets and broken beer bottles, Rennes is France at its finest: canals and hanging flower baskets, wide plazas surrounded by Second Empire architecture and winding medieval streets lined with narrow half-timbered houses. The assistants in Brest have had several conversations about how les Brestois are too hard on their “ugly” city; Rennes made me think, “OH. THIS is why they're bitter... And also, I could just as easily have gotten a placement here. Damn.”

There's not a lot to *do* in Rennes besides walk around and gawk, and eat at multiple creperies, both of which we did, along with taking pictures of practically everything we saw. There is a Musée de Bretagne, which covers regional archaeology/history/culture as well as art, and which we did not manage to see because our timing was off. (We were there on a Sunday, when most museums are only open in the afternoons, a Monday, when most museums are closed, and All Saint's Day, when almost everything in France is closed and we spent most of the day sitting in a garden watching children throw rocks into the fountain.) It also has an excellent art museum, where we spent the entirety of Sunday afternoon. It randomly has an Egyptian wing, complete with Ptolemaic mummies, and some Greek and Etruscan ceramics, and then a small sculpture court. Most of the rest is paintings. Offhand, the only famous names I can recall are Rubens, Gauguin, and Picasso, but I'm sure there are others, and plenty of really wonderful works by lesser-known artists. For me, the highlights were a tragic, incredibly haunting painting of the Massacre of the Innocents (I didn't like it, but I thought it was amazing), a unique depiction of the death of John the Baptist in which a scantily-clad Salome watches from the background as a swordsman approaches the prophet (every other image of that story I've seen shows the moment after the beheading, not the one before), and a scene that shows Saint Luke painting a portrait of the Virgin Mary in a Renaissance studio. Both of us stood and looked at that one for a long time, and for me, at least, it was less because I liked it, per se, than because it was so unusual and intriguing.

I typically go to museums by myself (or sometimes with my parents, especially my dad), partly because I travel alone a lot and partly just because I always seem to want to linger when others are bored and vice versa. I also have a tendency to make fun of the art (it's equal opportunity mockery, mind you—pieces I actually like are not immune), which I was a little concerned would be an issue with my friend, who's probably more of an art lover than I am and definitely more educated on the subject. Fortunately, she didn't seem to mind my disrespect, or at least that's the meaning I am choosing to take from the fact that she very graciously did not insist on any more than a cursory walk through the modern art wing. I suppose it's also possible she was trying to spare herself from me, rather than me from 20th century art... But oh well. She spends all her free time in Paris surrounded by museums, so there.

On Monday, we went to Mont St. Michel. If you don't know where/what that is, Google Image it right now. It's just off the coast of Normandy, somewhere between an hour and an hour and a half from Rennes. The landscape itself is stunning; in terms of human modifications, the crowning glory is the massive abbey on top of the mountain. Below it is the medieval village, crowded together along the single cobblestone road that winds its way up the steep slope. Sadly, the whole place is today a massive tourist attraction. I don't think anyone actually lives there. The buildings hold hotels and restaurants and souvenir shops and a series of cheesy, low-quality historical museums. (We went to a house museum that was all right, but not very informative and apparently not especially concerned with the condition and care of its artifacts, and then we went to another whose original function I'm not even that sure of, where there was a bizarre assemblage of artifacts that, again, lacked identifying information and were not particularly well cared for, a laughable-in-a-bad-way little show about the history of Mont St. Michel, and a room full of mannequins depicting famous prisoners of the one-time dungeons of Mont St. Michel.) Still, crowds and tackiness aside, it was a great day. The views were beautiful, we had an awesome (if slightly expensive) lunch, and the visit to the abbey was almost worth the trip on its own—especially since France's generosity towards the young struck again and we were able to get into the abbey for free with our visas.

So, that's one more UNESCO World Heritage Site down. 15 and counting.*

* Embarrassingly,  this does not include the one that's in Philadelphia, an hour away from where I grew up.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Le Pays des mégalithes

I don't know if I mentioned this before, but when I arrived at my lycee I discovered that the previous assistants who have lived in my room have accumulated and left behind quite a few interesting and useful things, from the mismatched dishes and cooking utensils to a random assortment of books to a collection of partly-used bottles of dish soap and cleaning solution and the French version of Febreze. (There's also a trio of unframed prints of vegetables on the wall that I find very odd but can't justify taking down, seeing as I don't have anything better to put up.) One of the more intriguing and unexpected items lurking in my closet was a French press.

I'd never used a French press, but I do love coffee, and I was not about to go buy a drip coffeepot for the time I'm here even if it meant subsisting on instant coffee for seven months. (I actually don't mind instant coffee. My tastes aren't refined enough, I guess. I mean, I can tell that it sucks compared to “real” coffee, and given the choice I'll always pick something better, but coffee has to be truly terrible for me not to want to drink it, and even instant rarely falls that low on the scale.) I finally got around to buying some ground coffee last week (sorry, purists, but I'm far too lazy to grind my own even if I had a grinder at hand) and finally got around to trying the press pot over the weekend. And oh my God. Heavenly. Maybe it's only because all of the coffee I'd had in the previous six weeks had been either instant coffee in my room or espresso in cafes (because apparently ordering a coffee here always gets you espresso unless otherwise indicated), but I still think I may not go back to drip coffee once I get home.

But back to my story: There is also a Museum of Prehistory in Carnac that I wanted to visit while I was there, but my bus choices for leaving the following morning were approximately seven or approximately noon. Go France. The former was before dawn and would not allow me to make it to the museum. The latter was after check-out time and would force me to take my ridiculous backpack with me to the museum, and also would not give me the time to do my other hike at Erdeven. I chose the early bus, reasoning that the original intention had been for this to be primarily a hiking trip, and that there are tons of museums on my agenda for this year and missing that one wasn't the end of the world. Even if it sounds awesome.

So after paying my hotel bill the night before, because there wasn't going to be anyone at the front desk so early in the morning, I got up at an ungodly hour for the second day in a row and stood at the bus stop in the dark and the drizzle and was the only person on the fifteen or twenty minute ride to Erdeven, where I had to find my way through the deserted town and down a surprisingly not deserted country road to the trailhead in the dark. (It was pretty creepy, and one of the most anxiety-inducing things I've done since getting to France.) My route began at another set of alignments, which, like many megaliths in Brittany, are just hanging out by the side of the road like it's no big deal. There's a small parking lot for visitors and a little signpost with some information, but that's it. And it's a lot, compared to the vast number of sites that aren't acknowledged in any way whatsoever. Anyway, I knew I'd reached the right spot when I saw the stones rising up in front of me—big shadowy shapes slightly darker than the dark around them. I initially thought they formed a circle, which got me really excited (I love stone circles even more than dolmens, I think, which is interesting given my attraction to all things tomb-like), but once it was light enough for me to see beyond the nearest ones I realized they were in rows like the ones at Carnac. I need to read up on megaliths, because it seems that alignments are the thing here in Brittany and circles are more of a British/Irish phenomenon. I need to find out if that's true or if I've just made it up based on my very limited experience.

Anyway, the prospect of being there at dawn made the 6 o'clock alarm and the eerie, wet walk entirely worth it. I sat on the fence and ate an apple and waited for there to be enough light to start trying to take dramatic pictures. I started too soon, of course, and took many a failed picture*, but it turned out that dawn was anticlimactic anyway, because this is Brittany and day did not break so much as slink up unnoticed. It very gradually became light enough for me to see that it was going to continue to be a dark, grey day, and I didn't actually see the sun until close to two hours after it supposedly rose.

The trail away from the alignments led into the woods, and there it stayed for most of the three-hour walk, winding among dense trees and passing, meeting, or crossing an assortment of other paths. I was very glad of my guidebook, and even it wasn't entirely helpful—as well as being in French and using a lot of words with which I was unfamiliar, it occasionally did not give detailed enough directions, as when it failed to mention the crossroads at which I ultimately took the wrong path, ruining the loop and causing me to skip an entire leg of the hike so as not to have to backtrack any more than was already necessary. That was irritating. I like to think it got its just desserts when it fell into a mucky puddle later on, though.

Anyway, my short[ened] walk in the woods took me past an absurd number of megaliths, both more alignments and some awesome dolmens. Some of them were signposted (not informative signs, mind you, just names and arrows). Others were not. None of them were fenced or roped off or otherwise protected in any way. Anyone can walk among them, touch them, sit on them, crawl inside the tombs. (I do not do those last two things, because I have some respect, but I know some people do.) They're everywhere, and no one cares. It blows my mind. I don't mean that as a criticism, necessarily, just that I can't imagine ever thinking of freaking megaliths as just part of the landscape, no more worthy of notice than an oddly shaped tree or a hollow in the creek bank.

On a slightly different topic, I've been pleased to discover that walkers/hikers in France smile and greet one another in passing just as they do in America. That doesn't happen in the cities. You ignore the other people on the sidewalk, who stare at you with perplexed hostility if you try to make eye contact. But on the trail, whether it's on the cliffs outside of Brest or deep in the woods in rural Morbihan, people experience the same sense of friendly camaraderie as on trails back home.

Or maybe hiking just appeals to a certain kind of person. Maybe we all walk around town feeling awkward about avoiding contact with the people around us.

It's a little ironic that you find indifference when surrounded by people and warmth in the places you go to get away.

* I have a love/hate relationship with my camera, which is a Canon Powershot of whatever mid-range model was current as of the summer of 2010. I love that it's small enough to fit into a pocket, sturdy enough to tolerate being dropped now and again (a necessary feature for almost all of my gadgets), and good enough at what it does to take usually satisfactory and sometimes excellent pictures without the assistance of any real photography skills on my part. However, I hate my inability to manipulate it, which is partly a result of same lack of photography skills and partly due to its being a point-and-shoot. Obviously a point-and-shoot is all that's necessary for someone without photography skills, but it also simply cannot do some of the things a better camera could do. One thing in particular that it cannot do, that frustrates me endlessly because it's a feature I actually would know how to use if we had it, is to allow the shutter speed to be manually adjusted. I can adjust other things I don't even understand, but I am not allowed to control the shutter speed at all, and just that one simple thing would allow me to make good on so many more of the dramatic photos I see in my head...

Monday, November 14, 2011

Walking Into Prehistory

France is a hiker's paradise. It's big enough to have enormous variety in terrain and climate*, so there're plenty of choices. It's full of parks and protected areas of all sizes. And it has tens of thousands of miles of trails, from short local loops to long-distance paths across regions or even the whole country, all of them marked and maintained and many of them interconnected. You can almost-literally walk anywhere. There's a company that publishes guides to all of these trails, a set describing short hikes and another for planning trips along the long trails (or sections of the really long ones), both organized geographically. The guides fill an entire section of shelves in bookstores. It's frustratingly difficult, if not impossible, to find useful free information, but the guides are fantastic. They break down each leg of the trail with directions, give distances and time estimates, point out sights along the way and where to find hotels, food, bus stations, etc., and have tons of short side articles about the towns, landmarks, and local culture along the routes.

I bought two of them at the beginning of the Toussaint vacances: a guide to day hiking in the Parc naturel regional d'Armorique, which is only a short distance away from Brest, and a guide to the Morbihan (southern Brittany) section of the GR (grande randonnée) 34, which follows much of the coast of Brittany.

After marking all of the interesting-looking possibilities in the guide to the Parc naturel regional, I starting looking into how to get to their locations. It was at that point that I began discovering the limitations of the French bus systems. (See my earlier post about transportation.) Forced to concede that I was not going to be able to access some of the places I most wanted to and that others were going to require a lot of additional walking, probably along roads rather than walking paths, from the nearest town with a bus stop, not to mention the hassles of timing any trip to correspond to the severely limited bus schedules, I gave up and turned to the other book to plan a trip to Carnac. There I discovered still more transportation issues (though at least not the kind where I simply couldn't get where I wanted to go) and the issue of nonexistent budget accommodations. After attempting multiple itineraries, I eventually managed to settle on one that was a lot more limited in scope than I'd wanted, but was relatively straightforward in terms of transportation and involved only one overnight stay, in a reasonably priced (but definitely not cheap) hotel in the town of Carnac.

Here's how it worked: I got up in the dark on Wednesday morning of that week and left, still in the dark, a few minutes after six a.m. I actually really like being out that early, when I have a good reason to be. Everything is still and quiet and you can feel that you're right on the cusp of a brand-new day. And when you've just gotten up at that hour, as opposed to not yet having gone to bed (probably the more common reason I'd be awake two hours before dawn), the darkness and the empty streets are thrilling instead of threatening.

I took a seven o'clock bus, the first of the day, to Quimper, where I caught a train to Auray, the first train station beyond my ultimate destination. (Yes, I could have taken the train all the way from Brest, but I'd also have paid a lot more for it.) Then I started backtracking, by taking a bus a few kilometers back towards Carnac and getting off in a seaside town called Trinité-sur-Mer, 10 km and 2.5 hours, according to my guidebook, from Carnac by foot. And there I started walking.

My original lofty goals for the trip had involved a lot more walking from place to place and a lot less waiting for buses, but with all of the various time constraints I was facing I unfortunately had to prioritize my destinations over my journeys. I was determined to see the alignments at Carnac and get to the town of Erdeven the next day with enough time to do an interesting loop hike there, and to accomplish both of those I had to give up on spending the majority of the trip on the ground. But I was still determined to arrive at Carnac on foot.

The stretch of the trail from Trinité to Carnac is probably not the most interesting one, although some of it is very beautiful. Leaving Trinite, the shoreline was rocky and I watched people gathering shellfish, obviously taking advantage of the beautiful weather and, in some cases, of the fact that the kids didn't have to go to school. The small rocks gave way to boulders, and I stopped for lunch on a windy headland looking out from the tip of the point. Someone had been there before me and gathered up enough little white rocks to build a tiny model dolmen** surrounded by a little stone circle—which I thought was way cooler than a sand castle.

After rounding the point, the rocks thin out suddenly and the trail crosses over sand dunes and though a stretch of pine forest before eventually hitting a road, which crosses a lovely marsh and runs alongside a couple of nice beaches, but which makes for a long, dull walk on a sidewalk instead of in nature.

I should point out that the hiking guide was actually written for someone going in the opposite direction, so not only was I trying to decipher directions in French, I was trying to do it backwards, which would have been confusing even if they were in English. Fortunately, most of the trail was well marked or unmistakable or both, but I did have a couple of moments of uncertainty. I also eventually lost it entirely somewhere on the outskirts of Carnac, but since at that point I was on my way into town anyway, I just kept walking instead of going back to try to find the official route.

I should also point out that the French like to close up shop (and that's any imaginable kind of shop, along with banks, post offices, assorted other kinds of offices, museums, and anything else you can think of) for a couple of hours in the early afternoon. The French like their long lunches, and they take their not-having-to-work time very seriously, and it's all very frustrating to an American who's accustomed to being able to get stuff done in the middle of the day. Anyway, I arrived in Carnac around 1:30, which is exactly the wrong time of day to be able to do anything in France other than eat lunch or have a drink. Especially in a small town.

So I walked around for a bit just to see what might be interesting to go back to later, and then I sat outside the tourism office waiting for it to reopen, which turned out to be a waste of time (because I didn't find anything very useful there, not because it never reopened). Then I went to find my hotel, where I found the door locked even though I was well after the 2 pm check-in time (oh, France...), so I grudgingly continued carrying my backpack with me as I headed up the road towards the alignments, which are just north of town. In fact, they turned out to be closer than I thought—maybe a ten minute walk from my hotel.

And they're awesome, of course. I took far too many pictures, but else can you do? There is no photograph man could take that would encompass the scale of the place, but you have to try. And try. And try.

The stones vary in size from up to about my waist to several times taller than me, and they seem to get gradually larger from one end of the alignments to the other. The rows are very straight and all completely parallel. And they go on and on, as far as the eye can see. There are actually several different sets, and I only visited one and still couldn't believe the enormity of it. I just stood in the middle of the field and stared for the longest time.

And yes—I did just say “the middle of the field”. Because in the off-season, when the crowds are less, you don't have to pay for a guided tour to be allowed to go in among the stones. They just open the gate, and you're free to wander as you please.

When I couldn't look anymore, I went back to my hotel and then back into town. Carnac is divided into two parts, the town proper and the beachfront town a short distance away. (Archaeology and the beach all in one spot--what more could anyone want?) The beach had come to life since my stop in the afternoon, and felt just like an American boardwalk in the summer, which for me was both weird and really cool. I walked around watching families and looking at the arcades and carnival rides and peeking into tacky souvenir shops, and eventually succombed to the lure of an awe-inspiring snack stand where I bought a waffle covered in salty caramel (a Breton speciality) and white chocolate, which I ate on a bench overlooking the ominously rough ocean, watching the crowds that hadn't already hit the town packing up their cars. 

From the Neolithic to the epitome of modern tourism in less than two hours and no more than a few kilometers. France, my friends, is an interesting place.

Also, one of the fun facts I learned this past weekend is that the French for "time machine" is "machine à explorer le temps". I like that, but it seems unnecessarily complicated, if you ask me.

Like many things in France.

* France has four different climate zones, if I remember correctly. The US, by comparison, has about ten or eleven. That's not exactly a proportional difference considering France could fit into the US almost 15 times. (Yes, I did the math.) You could easily hit several different climates in France in the space of a couple of days, which would be considerably more difficult in the US.
** A prehistoric stone tomb.