Saturday, October 29, 2011

Little Things

Oh, the joys of central heating! Imagine being able to wear just one or two layers of clothes, to take a shower (in a mildly drafty, tile-covered room) without freezing to death, to have wet laundry and towels actually dry out when hung up for a few hours, even to wake up in the morning and be almost too warm under the covers... I had almost forgotten what such simple pleasures were like until the end of last week. It was a little chilly in my room, and a little more so in the bathroom, from the start, but it's getting colder now and by the last few days before the heat was finally turned on, I'm told it was getting down to 3 degrees Celsius (about 37 degrees Fahrenheit) in the early mornings. I was wearing two good pairs of socks most of the time, and multiple shirts/sweaters, and sometimes tights underneath my pants. I avoided showering and when I had to I tried to do it in the middle of the day. We'd been told the heat wouldn't be turned on until after the Toussaint holidays, and there wasn't really anything else I could do; I cooked in my room once or twice a day, so the oven gave off a little heat, and I could boil water for tea and then set the open kettle in the middle of the room to steam for a while, but mostly I just bundled up and shivered and dreaded the ten days of ever-colder vacation time with nowhere in particular to go and no heat at home.* So imagine my delight when I came back from class the day before the holidays and discovered that the radiator was hot!

I am now more determined than ever before that if I ever have a house of my own, my number one criterion is a working fireplace. I don't care if I end up in a beach house on the Gulf Coast; it will have a fireplace.

Despite the cold, there are still somehow insects hanging around, including mosquitoes. I think they must have superpowers, or perhaps be demons in disguise. They're driving me nuts, because France doesn't really do window screens and because there's no reason anything not warm-blooded shouldn't be dead or hibernating by now.

Anyway, as you might have gathered, I'm on a break now. There are four vacances scolaires in the French school year: ten or twelve days around Toussaint (All Saint's Day) in late October and early November, two weeks at Christmas/New Year's, and about two weeks in February and again in April. It's a pretty sweet deal for language assistants—almost eight weeks of vacation time for a seven-month contract, AND a monthly salary that's the same regardless of whether we have two weeks of work or five? Bring it on. But before you start thinking that French students have it pretty good, bear in mind that they may only have six or eight weeks of school before another break comes around, but their year starts at the beginning of September and isn't over until the end of June, and they may have much longer days when they are in school than their American counterparts do (classes at my school, for example, begin at 8 and finish at 5:30). So it all evens out somewhere. They spend just as much, if not more, time in class as American students.

I'm currently in Rennes for the next four days with one of my best friends from college, who is also an assistante and lives just outside Paris. I am waiting for her to arrive as we speak. It's fantastic to see her again after five months apart, and it's also fantastic just to be with someone familiar. I really like the other assistants in Brest and we all get along well, but there's still something to be said for being able to spend time with someone you've known for more than a few weeks.

In other news, I now have [limited and inconsistent] access to the internet from my room, though this blog, Skype, and many other useful things are blocked, because apparently censorship in French schools isn't just for porn. I also have my French bank card (as of a couple of weeks ago, actually), my French social security number, and confirmation that my immigration paperwork was received by the appropriate office, which means I should be done with administrative formalities until I get the time and place of my mandatory medical appointment. Assuming everything was done correctly, I should be getting paid any minute now—my first-ever paycheck in euros and also my first-ever monthly salary. I've never had a job that wasn't paid by the hour before, and it's kind of funny that this one isn't, because the powers that be are so much fussier about us working exactly the right number of hours than anyone was at most of the hourly jobs I've had.** 

I've noticed a little bit of an improvement in my conversation skills. There's still a long way to go. I still can't eavesdrop on other people very well, and I still get lost in group conversations (unless it's the other language assistants and everyone is speaking slow, badly-accented French), but I have more extensive one-on-one conversations in French with the other teachers and everyday interactions like buying train tickets and talking to my bank representative and checking into a hotel have gotten ever more successful. I'm not going to be ready to discuss philosophy anytime soon, but I'm a lot more comfortable with my ability to function in society without someone there to help me.

Also, in case you missed it, I shaved my head last summer, and my hair is now finally about two inches long—long enough to sort of lie down instead of standing straight up like a cartoon character. I still don't like it and it's still more work than is fair considering there's so little of it and the work yields such little result, but it's huge progress all the same. Soon there will be enough for me to just wear headbands and ignore it until the long, miserable growing-out process achieves a reasonable length. I know I don't get to complain, because I did this to myself (literally) and it wasn't even a snap decision, but if I'm not going to be bald or buzzed*** anymore, than I want my hair back and I want it now.

*And read. I spent most of my free time over the last week or two re-reading the entire Little House on the Prairie series (in eBook form). They brought up a lot of nostalgia, and some poignant emotional connections in the later books (which I thought were totally boring when I first read them as a kid) where she writes about teaching school for the first time and about growing up and leaving home, but they also just made me feel a lot better about the temperature situation.
** Bon-Ton was a notable exception, because they wanted to get as much work out of me as they could and not pay me for a second more than was absolutely necessary. Bon-Ton is also the exception to such statements as “I've been really lucky to have laidback employers who've treated me well,” “I've liked most of the people I've worked with/for,” and “I've really enjoyed most of my jobs.”
*** YES, I know how that sounds.

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