Les Lillois

rachel-king-lille-englishI've been to France before, so for some aspects, I know what to expect. But those trips were for studying abroad or vacation. Nothing so long term or intense as actually living and working in another country. After leaving the train station on what was then Friday afternoon, I headed for the flat that three other American Assistants de Langue (language assistants) and I were sharing for four days in Lille. I am really glad that we went this route for two reasons: 1.) I got to know other people in the program right off the bat, so the first day wasn't lonely, and 2.) it was very cheap. For four nights, it was €200 total for a furnished flat with cable TV, silverware, and (something rarely found at somewhere so affordable in Europe) a clean bathroom. When I first showed up at the flat, the French landlord was friendly, but immediately he asked me, "Would it be possible if we only spoke in English? I want to practice." I laughed a little and said that was fine.

While getting my bags up and down Stephanie's five-story walk-up apartment building on the Upper East Side was a feat in itself, getting all of my bags up the narrow passageway that resembled a staircase was a new task altogether. But with the landlord and my new temporary roommates' help, we all made it up. After the landlord departed, the four of us plus one more assistant headed into Centre Ville (downtown) to check out somewhere for dinner. (At this point, it was almost 7 PM Central Euro time, and I hadn't eaten since I left America.) Mussels are a specialty in northern France, and thus, our first dinner was at Aux Moules.

The next few days were quite relaxed, at least for me, since I can't search for an apartment until I reach Montreuil-Sur-Mer next Monday. (For those Victor Hugo buffs, yes, that is one of the towns mentioned in Les Misérables.) Plus, it was the weekend, and since things are already pretty relaxed in a 35-hour-work-week-country, the weekends are even more about just sitting back and enjoying a peaceful day. Since we lacked Wi-Fi (pronounced "wee-fee" in France), most of the next three days were spent at the McDonalds in the Place de l'Opera. Turns out: All McDonalds around the world except the ones in America are supposed to have free Wi-Fi. Thus, both the McDs in the Place and at Gare Lille Flandres looked more like a local college cafe rather than a crowded fast-food joint filled with overweight tourists in big T-shirts and shorts.

What I've enjoyed most about Lille so far are her inhabitants. Nowhere in France have I met such friendly people. (To be fair, I've only been to Paris, Lyon and Nice, with some Autogrills along the road here and there.) But no one here frowns when they hear my (very poor) French accent, people smile and greet you when you walk in and exit a store and most of all, I don't feel like anyone is judging me here. I don't know if that is because of the differences in America between now and before. (Then: Bush, now: Obama. Really, on day one when we walked into a mobile phone shop, when the store owner found out we were Americans, he smiled and screamed, "Obama!")

I've also noticed the Lillois are a bit of an eccentric bunch. I don't know if that's because this is a very large college town (there are over 100,000 students at the several universities here), or because its an industrial town (they've been hit very hard by the recession), but either way, its a bit grittier than other French cities. I haven't been outside one day without seeing some group of people (at least 50 or more each time), marching together in a group, chanting for/against something. And it's not always political. Yesterday, on the way to McDonalds (Yes, I said that, but I swear I only go there for the Wi-Fi), I saw a group of people smiling and yelling about a hugging contest. I'm not sure I understood it completely, but there was definitely a lot of hugging.

Although, it hasn't just been locals who have seemed a little off. While walking home on Sunday (yes, from the McDonalds), an older man with his white hair tied back in a ponytail started walking without his flip-flops on. His three friends didn't really seem to notice. He looked at us and smiled, and since he seemed a little weird (He was walking without shoes on!), we didn't really reply. Then he said to us with his Kiwi accent, "I know all of you speak English. I heard you!" Turns out his flip-flop broke, but they were almost at the car. The four of them (1 New Zealander, 2 Englishmen and 1 American) were in Lille for the weekend and driving back to Calais to catch the ferry back to England. He asked about our program, and we told him we're here to teach English, to which he replied that we must be corrupting French kids. Then one of his English friends asked with a hint of attitude, "What are you doing in Lily?" (Lille, by the way, is pronounced "leel.") It's always nice to hear people speaking your native language when far from home, even with a different accent.

Election Night in America

I am truly proud to be an American again. I feel privileged to have been able to not only witness, but to vote for history and see an African-American become the president of the United States of America. This is not only a message to the world that we want change and to repair our image, it is a message to Americans on how far we have come and that anything is truly possible in this country. It reaffirms every value of this nation. And I'm especially glad that I was able to experience the night in Berkeley. Telegraph Avenue went absolutely insane! There were people crowded on the streets, people hanging from street lights, jumping on to the sides of buses. But it was all peaceful. Not to mention it was the only time I was happy to see a tree-sitter. (Video below soon...) I saw so many of my friends I haven't seen in months. Everyone was cheering "YES WE CAN" and "OBAMA" and "USA! USA!" as if we had just won every gold medal at the Olympics. The only thing that would have made me happier would have been to see Sarah Palin board a one-way flight back to Alaska. Or maybe to Russia.

elections-berkeley-telegraphUnfortunately, the evening was bittersweet. While I am proud of my country, I am ashamed of my home state. While even at this moment (9:51am PST), the San Francisco Chronicle still won't call the Proposition 8 race, it is clear that California will write hatred into its own constitution and literally divide us into first and second class citizens. It is applalling from the state that has a reputation and prides itself on being on the forefront of social change and being one of the first states to repeal laws against inter-racial marriage. Now it's a sham. I am not as proud of being a Californian as I was even just yesterday.

Nevertheless, the United States is on the right path again. For the last eight years, while I have always loved my country, many people including myself questioned the direction it was going in. I am very aware that the problems we face now will take years to repair, but I am confident now that it will get done.

And despite my renewed love and pride, I am leaving -- but just for two weeks -- as I'm boarding soon for Manila, via Tokyo Narita Airport. Unlike past trips I've taken outside of the U.S. in the last eight years, I'm not longer afraid of people heckling me. Peace out, America!