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.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

I live in France... Nope, that still sounds super weird.

So I'm way behind on updates. Without going into the details of my quest for internet, suffice it to say that I still don't have access to blog sites at home. It's super frustrating and I don't understand why a school should feel the need to block ALL blogs unilaterally, regardless of their content, but c'est la vie, at least ici.
(I spoke franglais to a student yesterday, too... but it was mostly on purpose, at least. It's very hard to be witty when no one even understands you being literal.)

Anyway, I'm still trying to sort out the internet situation, but it's going to take me at least a few more days.

In the meantime, here are some things that are awesome about France:

  1. French markets. I love markets. I delight in summer farmers' markets back home, and I thought the Christmas markets in Ireland were the most fantastic things I'd ever seen. But French markets? First of all, they're everywhere, all the time. There's hardly a neighborhood in Brest that doesn't have its own, and there's at least one somewhere in the city almost every day of the week—even Sunday, when France practically shuts down. And they have everything. If there's anything you want—from foodstuffs to clothes and shoes to housewares to books—that you can't find at the market, you're not going to have an easy time finding it at all.
  2. There is a bakery, a pastry shop, a chocolate shop, or (most often) some delightful combination of the above on nearly every block. In the main commercial areas of major cities, it's likely to be more like two or three. And they're all wonderful. And no one gives you a funny look if you walk down the street munching on pieces of plain baguette.
  3. Cheap wine is still good wine, and even bad wine is still pretty good. There's a shockingly pink sparkling rosé we buy sometimes that's surprisingly delicious—one of the British assistants calls it “the €1.60 bubbly of dreams”. Six or eight euros is almost kind of a splurge for a bottle of wine, and I can only assume it's delicious, because I've yet to spend more than about three euros, and most of what I've gotten so far has easily been comparable to the inexpensive-but-not-quite-cheap wine I might buy in America. That's not to say expensive wine doesn't exist here, just that I can't imagine why you'd ever need it when the price of quality is so much lower than it is where I'm from.
  4. Hardly anyone is hostile to me when I don't understand their language or have trouble making myself understood. (Granted, I'm not in Paris.) (And if you're an American feeling sympathetic about that, maybe you should think about it next time you meet someone struggling with English. Nobody can learn a new language overnight.)

But, there are some things that France needs:

  1. Better, or at least easier-to-navigate, public transportation systems. I've already ranted about this, so I'll leave it at that. And I'm not being hypocritical, because I make the same complaint about the U.S. Even though I do drive most of the time in America, there are definitely times when it's mostly because we have comparatively shitty public transportation options.
  2. Electronics stores. France is in dire need of something like Best Buy, or at least Staples. I know where there's an Apple store, and phone/internet providers often sell tablets and at least a couple of different laptops, but other than that I have no idea where the French buy things like computers and computer accessories. It certainly seems you can't get them and TVs and MP3 players and cameras and video game systems all in the same place.
  3. Coffee to go. I have definitely had days where this was what I missed most--even more than my car or American TV or being able to do business on Sundays. And yes, I know it's a wasteful habit. It's just that sometimes when I'm by myself and have time to kill, I don't want to sit alone in a cafe; I'd rather get a drink and take it with me to sit in the park or on a bench overlooking the harbour. In France, you can get the barman to put the rest of your beer in a plastic cup so you can finish it on the street, but good luck getting your coffee served any way other than in a little white cup with a saucer and a tiny spoon, with a single chocolate or a biscuit on the side. Charming, but not conducive to getting out and enjoying the sights.