Lost in Translation

I had a new student in one of my classes yesterday. A very nice girl, about 16 years-old, from Colombia. The young lady is in France for one of the same reasons as me: to improve her French. Apparently she's here with the Erasmus Programme, which I thought was only for European Union citizens, so maybe she has dual citizenship, but I didn't dare ask. (And yes, I wrote Programme with that -me given that it's a Euro program, so I imagine the only Americans involved are those lucky few with two passports.) There is one thing that all the teachers learned quite quickly: she doesn't really speak much French at all! Being that we're out in middle of nowhere (or as one of my French colleagues described, un trou paumé, or "a god-forsaken hole," but I think that's a bit harsh), it's a bit difficult to get by without knowing a lot of French, as I have learned. But being that I'm forced to speak in French outside of the classroom, I know that she'll pick it up better this way probably.

For the mean time, she only speaks Spanish (obviously) and some pretty good English, but it's not quite all there yet - sort of like my French. So in class yesterday, while the students were doing research on a project for their trip to Ireland next month, my colleague asked me if I knew any Spanish. I said warily, "Sí, un poco." So we were speaking to her first in English, but then I saw that look on her face that I recognized from the muscles in my face when I get confused or just plain tired of speaking in a second language so much. So she switched to Spanish and I translated to the teacher for her, which actually worked out pretty well.

I felt so useful! But I don't know if I'm ready for that translator job with the E.U. yet. I continued a conversation in Spanish with her, more for my own advantage which I explained to her as I need to practice - especially given that I'm going to Spain this Sunday! (Vacances d'Hiver is the next two weeks. Yes, there are two separate vacations for Christmas and Winter in France.) My problem always seems to be the same though: mixing up words, either pronouns or pronunciations on the same words, when I switch between these two very similar, Romantic languages. If I concentrate and think in one or the other for a long time, I'm fine usually in that language. I guess we'll see how well I do este domingo.

Festival Des Soupes

rachel-king-festival-des-soupes When I bought my Let's Go: France guide-book a few months back (and after I noticed its serious printing press error of 14-pages about Spain instead of France), I came across a list of annual festivals in my humble village of Montreuil-Sur-Mer. While most take place in the summer, I happily saw one at the end of October: Le Festival des Soupes et des Pains (The Soup and Bread Festival). The book described it as a lively event in the town citadel, with admission set at 5€...all-you-can-eat soup and bread. While I was really excited about this, I wasn't sure how much other people would actually care to come up for it.

Apparently, plenty. After I mentioned it to several other American assistants in Lille, nearly all of them were ecstatic about the idea. Initially, about seven or eight assistants said they'd come up for it, but being the first weekend of the Vacances de la Toussaint (my first of four paid two-week vacations while teaching over here), naturally some people's plans changed. But Rachel, Pat, Marc and Rory seemed determined on the prospect of an endless supply of soup.

I sent out a confirmation Facebook message a few days in advance to see who was still coming, as I became nervous about how many people I could actually fit in my tiny studio. On Friday evening, I received a very mysterious series of text messages from Marc, first asking for my address. I sent it back, also asking what time they planned to arrive on the train. He said that he and Rory wouldn't be taking the train, and I'd see them the next evening. While they had previously joked about biking from Lille to Montreuil, we all thought they were kidding. The two towns are 68 miles apart. But no, the pair seriously conducted their own mini Tour de France, eleven hours from Lille to my studio. More on their arrival later...

While the two of them were probably up and getting ready to leave down in Lille early Saturday morning, I received a text message from Paul around 7:30 AM. It wasn't really a problem as I was getting up at 8:00 AM anyway, as Nathalie was picking me up at 9:00 AM to drive me to the weekly morning marketplace in Le Touquet. But I've found that California and France are the perfect distance apart for receiving drunk dials and texts, at least on my end. As it was around 10:30 PM in San Francisco, the roosters were chiming "cocorico" (or, how the French hear "cock-a-doodle-do") on my end. After chatting for about 30 minutes (who knows how much that cost him...), I got up and ready for Le Touquet. It was absolutely dismal outside, finally pouring for about an hour straight while we were at the marché. I ended up getting a pair of ankle-high flat grey boots, which Nathalie negotiated in French down to 20 € for me. She also very sweetly bought me a handful of noisette (hazelnut) chocolates, which I ate for lunch.

Shortly after arriving back at my studio, I embarked on the first of several trips down the hill to the train station, first to collect Rachel, who was coming in with the two Lance Armstrongs' stuff. Then a few hours later, we headed back down to retrieve Pat, who was arriving from Paris after staying there for a night. While we were down at the station, this time at about 7:00 PM, we received calls from the biker boys that they had arrived in Montreuil and were waiting outside my apartment. After an 11-hour journey that involved popped tires and a Google Maps mistake that said there was a bridge over a river where there clearly wasn't (I said they should have tried to caulk the wagon, but whatever), there they were: exhausted, sweaty and throwing back some beers, which turned out to be 7 € each - only 2 € less than the train ride would have been from Lille. Oh well.

After cleaning up and stocking up on beverages and snacks at the Shopi (a mini-mart) downstairs, we headed back into the bistro downstairs where my Paraguayan friend, Jean, is a waiter. For the first time ever, I ordered a seafood dish as my main course: mussels and fries. Probably the only seafood I can stand, it was very good, but I realized I'm not ready for a full seafood meal yet. I shared my mussels with the rest of the table and concentrated on the fries. As the boys were tired, and the weather wasn't the best, we passed the rest of the evening in the studio playing cards and drinking French wine and beer.

When I awoke Sunday morning, aside from a headache, something that Julia said to me on Friday suddenly passed through my head: time change. I'm not sure when the time changes in the United States this year, but daylight savings time ended in France on Sunday morning, giving all of us an extra hour of much-needed sleep. My iPhone (with the Orange France Telecom carrier) changed the time for me, but my American Motorola didn't.

After much-needed coffee and orange juice, we headed out for the weekend's main event: The Soup Festival! There were over two dozen different kinds of soups, prepared by local farmers and chefs. Some of my favorites included spinach, pumpkin, Saint-Germain and, an oldie but a goodie, Lentil. Unfortunately, I missed out on the tomato garlic soup, and I wasn't too impressed with the garlic or onion soups. But all the bread was amazing. However, I wasn't quite prepared for how much of a mob scene it would be. People were pushing everywhere to get to the front, go to the bread station or over to the drinks tent, where sodas and du vin chaud (hot wine, which is divine and tastes like cider) were being sold. But it was so crowded that at one point, someone bumped into me and knocked the lens cap off of my camera. Rachel and I then spent the next five to ten minutes trying to find a tiny black, Canon lens cap on the ground covered in hay. It was useless, so I'll have to buy another one at some point.

We made two trips to the Soup Festival, as we could re-enter for free for our tickets. In the middle of the day, we toured the ramparts of the village, as the weather was much warmer and brighter than the day before (with the exception of a 30-minute downpour around noon). We also saw a re-enactment of the Battle of Agincourt going on near the Citadelle, being that October 25 was the anniversary of that fight. But I found it a bit odd considering the British won that battle, not the French. After the second round of soup, we grabbed our bags and we all headed back to the train station. I was going with them as I'm leaving for the south of France from Lille on Tuesday, and there was no point in staying in Montreuil another night. Plus, its nice to make the two-hour journey with others when I'm usually by myself. But on the way down the hill, the boys had to stop and grab some souvenirs: two Festival des Soupes signs, which prompted many stairs when we were walking through the Metro station at Gare Lille Flandres later on. It was also extra nice as it was a rare direct train to Lille, although the train itself was an older model, one that Rory said "should have been retired after World War I." A bit harsh...but true.

At the moment I'm at Rachel's apartment in Lille, but tomorrow morning, us two plus Liz and Amy will be speeding southward on the TGV to Bordeaux. Tout à l'heure!

The Studio

Finally, one major problem solved: I found an apartment. Up until 5:30 PM on Monday afternoon, I was headed for a place where I seriously didn’t want to live.

There aren't many options to come by in a village with a population somewhere between 2,000 and 3,000 total residents. On my first day in Montreuil last week, Laurent and Nathalie showed me a room for rent in the flat of an older woman. While it was very clean and furnished, I'd be losing a lot of freedom. But as my problems were at a stand-still without an address at least and it didn't look like there were any other options, I gave Laurent the go-ahead to call the woman and say I'd take the room. She said she could welcome me on Monday evening at the earliest.

Thus, we had the rendez-vous set for 6 PM on Monday, October 6. But around 3 PM that afternoon, Laurent showed me the contract he received from her. He didn't seem happy with it. Neither was I. Considering I'm 25-years-old, she was treating me like her child. According to the contract, I couldn't come back after 10 PM (since she didn't want to hear me coming in later), I couldn't ever have any guests over night, I could only have one or two friends over at a time before 10 PM, and I couldn't use her laundry machine. Rather, she would prefer I left my clothes in a bag for her to do at her convenience. I really don't like the idea of anyone touching my dirty clothes. Nor do I like being subjected to such rules. While I understand it is her home, and naturally there would be rules, hers were too draconian for my taste. But with time pressing and no other options, I resigned myself to the fact I had to take it.

That was, however, until Deborah, one of the teachers at my school who is my age, told me there was a studio for rent next to hers. She finished up with class at 5:30 PM, and that she could take me to see her landlord and the studio then. With Laurent's recommendation, we sped off at 5:30 as I had an appointment with La Madame at 6. The downside I already knew was that the studio was at least €100 per month more than the other room. But even on the walk over, I was telling myself if its decent I should just take it. And as Deborah told me, at least I'd have my freedom.When we arrived (after the five-minute walk from school), her landlord greeted us warmly and showed me the room. It was clean, slightly furnished (bed, microwave, table, desk and mini-fridge), the bathroom was clean and the landlord was very nice. He even said I could pay half my security deposit this month and the other half in November. I was sold. Normally I'd never take a place on the spot, but I think it called for it in this instance. Deborah and I then ran back to Chez Madame where Laurent was waiting under a canopy as it was raining heavily by this point. I told him my decision, to which he seemed very happy, stating all that's important is that I'm happy where I live. He went upstairs to inform the woman of my decision and it was settled. After one last night in the Internat, I moved in on Tuesday evening.

With my new address, I was ready to change my address at the bank and get all of my other paperwork rolling. Most especially, getting an iPhone plan. I went into the bank on Thursday (as I was in Lille all-day Wednesday for orientation). My card was all ready for me, but when the banker asked me if I had my pin number, I looked back at him questioningly. He said I should have received it in the mail by now...but I hadn't. All I had received in my school mailbox in the teachers' lounge were two letters with codes for accessing my account online. But nothing with a pin number. The banker told me there was nothing that he could do, and that he couldn't look it up or call anyone. He said he couldn't try to reset it for at least another week, which at that point would take 1-2 weeks to mail to me as well. I couldn't believe it. I had a bank card in my hands, and it was useless.

I walked back to the school, sulking the whole way. I checked my mailbox again when I got back, but nothing. Nathalie saw how sad I was and said she'd call the bank's customer service center for me that afternoon after her classes. I thanked her, and after my last class at 1:30 PM today, I went back to my apartment to bring my laundry to the laverie down the street and meet up with my landlord who was taking me to buy renters' insurance (which is compulsory in France). But the laverie trip didn't go as smoothly as I hoped. I was already rushing (I'm the only person in this town who probably is), but it piqued when the laundry machine ate my money (€3,50). I was so frustrated that I had to sit down and calm myself down. After all of the logistical problems I've had in the last two weeks, I couldn't stand one more thing. But then I realized that I was an idiot, not realizing that the exclamation point button on the machine meant "start."

After finishing my laundry (which actually was quite fast once I figured it out) and picking up my insurance, I returned to the school, first checking my mailbox. And there it was: a big, fat, white envelope. It was like I was accepted to college all over again. I've never been so happy to see anything from a bank. I made my way over to the bank and deposited some Euros since I had to use my card at an ATM first to activate the card. I didn't realize at the time this meant I had to make a withdrawal...

Now that I had my card in my hand, I was ready to head for Orange France Telecom. The closest location is in Berck, about 20 minutes by car. Julia sweetly offered me a ride, and we got there at about 6:15 PM. I walked in the store knowing what I wanted, and as soon as the saleswoman came over to me, I told her. I explained I wanted the iPhone plan with unlimited texting, one hour of minutes per month and, in this country, you can get free TV on your phone. Totes wanted that. Plus, they said I could just end my plan when I leave the country without penalty, rather than having to pay a fee to cancel the subscription early. Thus, I was almost all set with establishing my phone plan, when the woman hit a snag: my bank card didn't work.

My eyes nearly popped out of my head when I saw "carte refusée" on the computer screen. I said it should have been activated since I made a deposit earlier. She said that I needed to make a purchase to activate the card probably. Panicking, I asked if there was any kind of phone accessory in the store I could buy, and apparently there was nothing. I asked if I could go buy something and come back, but she said I'd have to be back before the registers closed in 20 minutes. I grabbed my ATM card and passport off of the counter, and Julia and I bolted out the door. We ran down the street but I couldn't find anything to buy. I suggested a boulangerie, but they didn't take cards. Julia grabbed me and we ran into a store reminiscent of the dollar store (but not the Euro store), and I grabbed the first bunch of long black socks I could find. They were €4 for three pairs. Fine. I ran back to the register, where I waited for the cashier to walk back. But my card still didn't work. At this point, I realized I probably had to make an actual withdrawal to activate the card. Julia asked the woman where the closest branch was, and she said it was a few blocks down the street.

Not jogging for about a month caught up with me. At every corner I hoped it would be there, but it wasn't until the fourth block (pretty much the English Channel), until we finally found the street. I ran down one more block and thankfully there wasn't anyone there. I could barely breathe anymore by the time I reached the ATM machine. I fiddled around with the card in my bag, stuck it in the machine and withdrew €20. It worked. We ran back up the street, where I had to pause every block and a half to catch my breath. By the time we reached the store, the back of my neck was covered in sweat and I could taste blood in my mouth. But we had eight minutes to spare. This time her colleague took over since she was helping another customer at this point. I wasn't sure what I would do if it didn't work. I think probably go crazy. Or find a ticket on the next flight back to America as I've been getting fed up with things in this country. But, within a few minutes, he was printing out papers for me to sign. I literally jumped in the air with joy and everyone started laughing. But this time, I was laughing with them. I was so happy. Not just about getting iPhone service again (but trust me, I'm very happy about that), but just that something finally went right. It just seems nothing goes right in this country without a lot of effort.

Un Compte d'Argent

In France, one can't get a bank account without detailed proof of an address. But, quite often, one cannot get an address without a bank account. There in lies the problem that faces the American Assistants de Langue. But, as I am admittedly an iPhone-aholic, my bigger concern was getting a French phone plan. My preference is Orange (France Telecom) since they are the official iPhone plan people in this country. I had my phone unlocked (with AT&T's permission and even at a place they recommended with a coupon in San Francisco) before my departure. However, when I went to The Phone House (a store that features all of France's biggest phone carriers in one store), they informed me that I would need both my passport (check) and a French ATM card (darn).

The French Embassy in the US (the organization that recruits the Assistants and very loosely facilitates the program) suggests that we open bank accounts in France as soon as possible. After the visa process, all of our paperwork (which is a lot) depends on our French bank accounts. As does my iPhone.

When I was back in Lille the first week, I quickly sent my school contact, Laurent, an e-mail asking if I could use the school's address to open an account. He said he didn't see any problem with it since I have a mailbox with a lock at the school. Thus, I set out on a fine sunny Tuesday morning in Lille to make an appointment to open un compte d'argent.

The receptionist at the bank at was very friendly. She noticed I didn't speak French like a local, but she didn't treat me any differently and attempted to speak a little English, but not much. Either way, the appointment was made and I returned that afternoon. After reading on the French Assistantship forums about how much trouble other American Assistants all over France had with opening bank accounts, I was nervous. However, the Lille bank agent proved to be just as warm as the receptionist. She asked if I spoke French, to which I said a little, and she asked for my documents. I handed her my passport, a letter from my bank in the US proving my account there and my arrêté de nomination (my official employment sponsorship from the Académie de Lille that has the address of my school on it). When she glanced at my passport, she exclaimed, "Oh! I thought you were English, not American!" This is definitely the first time I've ever gotten this remark. (So I heard from another Assistant more familiar with France than I am, most French speakers can't tell the difference between the two accents unless they've experience an extended period of time around one or the other. Bizarre.)

She asked if the address on my arrêté was the same as my home address. Since I knew I'd be staying at the school for while and my contact gave me permission, I just said yes. (Okay, so it was a bit of a lie.) Then she spoke on the phone with someone, very fast in French so I could only pick up bits and pieces. Then she spoke with someone else. Then her vocal tone dropped. I knew something bad was coming. When she got off the phone, she said that all of my documents were fine and that she really liked that I had a letter from my American bank, but that I'd have to return in two weeks to pick up the card. Thus, she said it would be better if I just waited to open an account at another branch in Montreuil. I relented since it looked like opening an account in Lille wouldn't get me an iPhone plan any sooner.

Exactly one week later, I found myself in the lobby of the bank branch in Montreuil with Laurent. I appreciated the fact that he took the time to come with me, as it is very evident that the teachers here are trying to help my stay be as pleasant as possible. That's not something I'm entirely used to after previous stays in France. He explained to the receptionist and another bank agent my situation and that I had to have a bank account open by October 1st to start on paperwork. He also explained the address situation, and they said it would be worked out. I had to return the following morning (or what is now yesterday).

So yesterday morning, foggy and early, I set out for the bank. However, it was neither the same receptionist nor bank agent there that morning, which made me a little uneasy. I wasn't sure if the bank agent helping me knew the urgency (not about the iPhone but the bureaucracy/paperwork stuff).  This agent seemed to like speaking to me in English right off the bat. However, most of the appointment took place in both languages, alternating at random times. He first looked at all my paperwork, glancing at my pictures in Xerox copies of my passport and visa. Then he looked back at me and said, "You look very American. Very Californian." Since I was bundled up in a jacket and scarf in the chair across from him as he smiled, I wasn't sure how to take this, but personally I think it is always a compliment to be considered Californian, so there. While glancing at my paperwork, typing in his computer, he made a few other strange comments, including mumbling something about America changing after the "Twin Towers" and how "America is afraiding the world." I heard "afraiding," thus I’m not sure if he meant we're afraid or we're scaring everyone. I guess it could be a bit of both.

After reviewing everything, he questioned me about my address. Since I am actually staying at the school until I can find a place to live and this time my contact instructed me to use the school's address, I said that's where things should be mailed. Even on Monday at our first meeting, the headmistress agreed that would be acceptable. But the bank agent wasn't buying it. He asked for the school's phone number to call and confirm. I quickly complied, but when he called, I guess the line was busy since he said he would call again later. Then he typed some more, and things started coming out of the printer, with the words "Ouverture Compte d'Argent" on top. It was happening! I was getting a bank account!

That happiness faded fast when he decided to call the school one more time. Whoever answered the phone told him I wasn't living at the school for long. He gave me the RIB form with a bank account number I needed by October 1 to get an advance in pay (if we don't do this, we don't get paid until at least the end of November), and he had me sign all of the forms necessary to open the account. But he also gave me strict instructions that I had to return within 10 days with a change of address or a formal letter from the school stating I was living at the boarding house permanently, or the account would be put on hold (causing lots of paperwork problems) and I wouldn't get that very much desired ATM card. I accepted this half-victory, half-defeat and returned to the school, where I told Laurent all about it.

I also came to conclusion that I'm going to have to take the room in the apartment with the older woman. I can't wait much longer on finding a permanent address, and the room is furnished and has Internet access. Laurent said she'd call her back again to see if I could still take the room, since apparently after meeting me (when I barely said a word in either language), she was afraid I'd cause a lot of noise. I'm not really sure where she got this from, perhaps my age. Either way, I just want to have somewhere to live soon. I can't live out of a suitcase (or three) much longer.

The First Day

rachel-king-montreuilI've moved from a city of eight million to a village of 2,000. And no one seems to want to let me forget that. My Motorola phone woke me up at 6:45 AM on Monday morning, giving me enough time to get ready and throw the last few things in my suitcases. Rachel helped me carry my three suitcases down the two sets of stairs, where I bid farewell to her and the Hôtel Moulin d'Or. As I stepped out the front glass door, pulling a big suitcase on each arm, fog was there to greet me. However, I barely noticed the temperature drop from the previous day after the sweat of carrying my bags downstairs. Luckily the trip to Gare Lille Flandres was short: just across the street. However, I overestimated how long it would take me to get ready and bring my suitcases down, thus was 45 minutes early. However, I noticed quite a few of the trains were delayed, including my 8:35 AM TER train to St. Pol-Sur-Ternoise, where I'd connect for the train to Montreuil-Sur-Mer. The train was five minutes late, which made me very nervous as I only had a 9-minute break between trains, and pulling my suitcases off a train and throwing them back on would not be as quick as it sounds.

The TER train system is far slower than the TGV, which stands for Train Grande Vitesse (basically, Big Fast Train). It's probably the equivalent of an express subway train in New York when it's going at its fastest possible speed. But it's still quicker than Amtrak. However, my train pulled out of the station very slowly, and as it slowly picked up speed and some sunlight managed to break through the clouds, I said tout á l'heure to Lille. See, the town where I'm assigned to teach is Montreuil-Sur-Mer, considered within the same school district or academie as Lille, but its 75 kilometers away, with only five trains per day, none of which are direct. So the minimum possible travel time is 1 hour and 55 minutes on the TER. I assume it's faster by car. And with the consistency and frequency that French unions strike in this country, I found out it would be impossible to commute. Thus my resolution has been to spend my weekends in Lille, at least, with my other friends in the program.

As the train made its way to the junction point, St-Pol, I became increasingly nervous (as usual) that I was going to miss my connecting train. We arrived at 9:45 AM, precisely when my next train to Montreuil was supposed to depart. As we approached the station, I didn't see any other trains. And there were only four tracks. The TGV has usually been on time for me in the past, I assumed the TER was the same way. Well, apparently not this morning. When I finished pulling my bags off the train, I asked the station agent where train to Montreuil was, and he replied by telling me it was delayed. "Quarante minutes." Forty minutes. I sighed, but was slightly relieved when I saw the elevator down to the underground walkway between the platforms. But when I reached the elevator, naturellement, it was out of order. Thus, I had to make two trips down the stairs with my bags, and then two very slow trips back up the next set, since that elevator, too, was out of order.

A gaggle of teenage girls were on the platform. One offered me help, but I foolishly said I could handle it on my own. I did, but it hurt. They all went back to laughing and smoking. If I thought the fog back in Lille was thick, it was nothing like that in St. Pol. I could barely see to the end of the platform, nor anything beyond a few trees past the station. If it were a movie, I'm sure a mysterious character dressed in a trench coat and a fedora would have emerged from the mist. But after 40 minutes, the train did.

After another 20-25 minutes, I arrived in Montreuil. While there were actually some patches of blue sky and the station itself looked a little more alive than past ones, it was certainly clear that I was far from any major city. Especially when I jumped off the train, only to discover by the sand already in my shoe that the platform was made out of gravel and sand, not cement. I pulled my suitcases off the train one last time, and two people, one man and one woman, approached me. Saying my name and speaking to me in English, it was definitely my two contacts from the school. Laurent and Nathalie both greeted me with smiles, kisses on both cheeks like any proper French people would and helped me carried my bags to Laurent's car. I apologized prefusely about the delayed train, to which they both simply laughed and said, "This is France." They asked me how I was able to carry such heavy suitcases by myself all this way, and I replied by saying there aren't many elevators in New York apartment buildings, so I'm fairly used to Europe.

By this time, it was close to 11:30 AM. First thing was they brought me to see an apartment. Well, it was actually a room for rent. Both of them insisted that I did not have to take it, and I should be completely honest with them about how I felt. When I saw the elevator, I was already a little pleased. The catch was that I'd be living in the flat of a much older woman, probably somewhere around 65 years old. It was a cozy room, a bit small, and facing a parking lot, but not bad at all. My only concern was how much influence or authority the landlady might want over me. Typically in French home stays, the owners of the home like to exercise parental authority over their guests. While I definitely understand that anyone would have rules over a potential tenant, I'm a bit too old and independent to take on a foreign set of parents. She also talked a bit, as even Laurent said to me on the way out that she was "a bit of a chatterbox." Nathalie informed the woman that I would have my decision in a few days, which I'm still not quite sure about as I write this post. The rent was fine, but I believe hosting any guests would definitely be out.

But I'm not really expecting many guests in this town. As everyone I met that day seemed to tell me in one way or another, Montreuil is a very small town with not much going on. Everyone also seemed to make a big deal of the fact of how long my journey to Montreuil was, starting in San Francisco to New York to Paris CDG to Lille and finally to Montreuil. I guess it didn't seem so bad or so long since I had so many breaks in between the major legs of the journey. Just the suitcases weighed me down. I tried to keep up a smile on my face, saying that the small town didn't bother me and that I was very excited to be living in France. But I was definitely lost on the inside.

Nathalie and Laurent brought me to the Lycée, which was already in the middle of the lunch break. High school was weird enough when I was a student. And I don't think I've been in one since I graduated. But walking into a crowded lunchroom in France isn't much different from one in America. They look fairly the same, and with the noise level as high as it was, individual accents were inaudible. But the food was certainly far better than anything I've ever eaten in any American high school cafeteria. Only €3 for all-you-can-eat. It was a reflection of the school in general: very modern and upscale. Once a monastery, it was now a very advanced school, with plenty of computer, engineering and science labs as well as clean classrooms and a large library as well. For being in the middle-of-nowhere, it is a fine educational establishment.

In that sense, I'm very lucky compared to most in the program, and compared to most of my friends who are teachers in the United States and the UK. I must also emphasize how nice and friendly everyone has been to me at the school so far. My contacts are both very helpful and kind to me. But I began to feel out-of-place quite quickly. My French isn't exactly up-to-par, precisely one of the reasons I came to France. I understood most of what was being said to me, but there was only so much my brain could translate at once. I smiled and nodded a lot. Hopefully no one was insulting me, but I really doubt it. But when other teachers asked me questions, I became very nervous and tense, and I couldn't quite think quickly enough. I kept apologizing for how poor my French is, and everyone insisted that it isn't a big deal and I'll learn, but I still felt pathetic.

The feeling was especially palpable by dinnertime. As I'm staying at the internat (boarding school) until I find a place to live here for the next seven months, I can have my meals at the school. Before dinner, I met up with the other assistante de langue at the school, a 23-year-old from Germany named Julia. It's very nice that I have at least one other person to commiserate with here. Around 5 PM, her school contact brought us to two other rental options, neither of which could fit two people. The first was a very cute, petite French house - but with an emphasis on the petite. This place could only fit one person, or perhaps a couple. While it is fully furnished and with a TV, the upstairs is a loft and the shower isn't private. In fact, it isn't a shower, but rather just a bathtub, and since the roof is slanted, there isn't enough room to stand up. The other option was at the base of the hill, closer to the train station. But it was two beds in one tiny room in an old French home, and the elderly landlady said there was no possibility for installing Internet there. Both Julia and I each looked at each other and left. Both of us need Internet, not just for work, but Skype is our only affordable way to call home. Inevitably, Julia took the small house, while I said I'd keep looking.

I returned to the school as I thought dinner was at 6:45 PM (it's really at 6:30 PM). I walked up to the ticket machine, flashed the new ID card I had been given earlier, but no ticket came out. I needed the ticket to be served, and I also noticed there wasn't much food out left. Thus, I walked back out the door of the building and across the courtyard, trying to comfort myself that I could eat the chocolate I bought in Belgium for dinner. When I got back to the front door of the internat, I couldn't unlock the doors. For some reason, my key kept jamming.

Out of the corner of my right eye, I saw a young woman approaching me. She was one of the RAs of the building, letting me know that I could still get dinner even though I was late. I followed her back into the dining hall, where I was able to get the last helping of steak et frites (fries). But since I was late, I had to eat alone. When the RAs and the students were departing for evening classes, they were asking me some questions. But by this point, I was so hungry and so tired; I couldn't understand a thing anymore. I was so embarrassed and kept saying desolée, to which they replied it was fine. But when they all departed and as I sat alone at the table eating my dinner, tears began to well up. I refused to let them out, as I would not be seen crying on my first day. But I just felt lost and completely alone, both in language and a new, very small town.

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.