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.