The Cat in the Window

I had an unexpected visitor in the wee hours of the morning today: a furry siamese cat from down the hall. How did she get in? My window. The last few days in Paris have been very hot and humid, with temperatures hovering around 90 F/30-33 C. I live on the sixth (and top) floor of the building without air conditioning or even a fan. So it is unbearable to sleep, let alone breathe, without keeping the windows to my bedroom open.

There is a small plastic gutter outside of my window that extends the length of the building. I had seen my petite neighbor try to enter my living room window once before a few weeks ago. I was simply watching a World Cup match on my TV (can't remember who now), and all of a sudden, two big blue eyes were peering in at me. Taken aback, I immediately shooed her away from the window, without realizing I shouldn't scare her too much as we are on the sixth floor. I wouldn't want anything bad to happen to her. I also felt bad as she kept meowing, as if looking for a friend. If I had some milk or cat food, I might have let her come inside, but I don't exactly have a litter box here, so I don't want to be responsible for cleaning up after someone else's cat.

Since then, I keep the windows closed when I'm not home, but I have to open them again as soon as I return. Last night, I got home at about 2:30 AM, but with the heat, I must not have fallen asleep for at least an hour and a half. After drifting off into a sweet dream land (Ugly Betty was there, and that's all I remember), I was awaken with a start when I heard a soft thump on the floor.

There was the same cat, looking around my room. The alarm clock read 6:01 AM, but miraculously my head wasn't throbbing terribly. I got up from the bed and tried to point her back towards the window. She didn't seem as interested in me as taking a look around her new surroundings, rubbing up against the drawers and stretching on the carpet. Again, if it weren't for the litter box issue, I'd let her stay as she is pretty harmless. I tried picking her up,  yet she clawed into the rough carpet making it impossible for me to lift her. However, the cat didn't growl or hiss at me.

Finally, I managed to grab her (gently) before she could clench to the carpet, and I set her back outside the window on to the gutter so she could go home. I feigned closing the windows by drawing the curtains, but when I peeked back out, I saw her glassy blue eyes shining back at me, with a sadness and loneliness that made me feel horrible for abandoning her. Still, I was exhausted, so I went back to bed.

The King and the Frog

I've been living in Paris for over two months now, and with only four weeks left to go in France, I figured I should update. Some of my many adventurous endeavors in France have involved food. Up until a few years ago, I used to be quite picky when it came to my meals. But now I'm open to trying more things. In Finland this past April, I gave reindeer heart a chance.

And two weeks ago, I caved and ordered...frog legs.

It all happened when my lovely friend and colleague from Columbia J-School, Yvonne, passed through Paris on her European vacation. As she had never been to Paris (let alone France) before, I wanted to take her to some of my favorite spots and show her some of the best of French cuisine. This ranged from savory and sweet crêpes near Saint-Germain-des-Prés to Moroccan food in the Latin Quarter to fine hot chocolate at Angelina on Rue du Rivoli, which once attracted the likes of Coco Chanel and Audrey Hepburn.

Yvonne mentioned that she had never tried fondue before. Obviously, this is a Swiss national dish rather than French. But considering how close Paris is in proximity to Switzerland and how many Swiss nationals there are in France, delicious fondue is easy to come by around these parts.

At a small Swiss restaurant in the 6th arrondissement, we found well-priced prix fixe menu that included an appetizer, main dish and dessert. While my eyes (and my stomach) were immediately drawn to the onion soup first (it was a bit of a rainy day), I noticed something else: les cuisses de grenouille. Translation: Frog legs. I don't actually see this on menus as often as one might expect. Escargots (snails) are far more common on a typical French fare menu.

I've tried many new things in France, some dishes that I've liked and some not so much. Rabbit is actually quite tender, and I've really grown to love mussels with fries. (This coming from someone who hates seafood.) Paté reminds me of what the inside of a hot dog tastes like, and while I can't stand how it is made, foie gras isn't terrible. (But, seriously? How does someone come up with an idea of making a "delicacy" like that?)

Thinking I might not have many more opportunities to give this one a chance (and that I needed a witness to prove I did this), I proudly told the waiter that I would try the frog legs. When they arrived, the legs were much smaller than I imagined, and there was hardly any meat on the bone. The meat itself tasted a bit like chicken. Unfortunately, it was smothered in a less-than-appetizing cream sauce, which was actually the worst part of the taste. I would have preferred it dry. While the experience wasn't horrible and didn't send me running to the bathroom, the frog legs might have been the worst thing I've ever eaten - or at least second to the time that my brother tricked me into eating eel at a Japanese restaurant in San Francisco.

Above two photo credits belong to Yvonne (pictured below with me at Place Vendôme). Merci beaucoup!

Lille’s Top 12

As this is my second to last night in Nord-Pas de Calais, I'm sharing a bit about my favorite places that I've visited in Lille in the last few months. They're not in any particular order, and I've probably forgotten quite a bit. But here's my top 12, at least according to Four Square (so please pardon the informal punctuation and formatting. I've included photos where I've remembered to take them.

1. @ Hotel Le Moulin d'Or: Favorite hotel in Lille. Very affordable for singles/doubles with bath. In Centre-Ville and right next to the train stations (which is actually a safe area). Also includes free Wi-Fi and cable TV!

2. @ L'Empire: Cheap lunch menu and nice outdoor seating during the summer months. They also have a sign that says "Here We Speak English."

3. @ Gare Lille Europe: Eurostar/TGV station...basically the connection to the rest of Europe. Do not confuse this with Gare Lille Flandres.

4. @ La Piscine, Roubaix: One of my five fave museums in the world. The art-deco building itself is prob even more stunning than the collections. Formerly a bath house in the 1930s, now a modern art museum.

5. @ Palais des Beaux Arts de Lille: Beautiful on the outside, and the interior itself is nice as well. The collection isn't bad, but a bit on the gory side. See if you can go on a free admission day.

6. Palais de la Bière: Excellent Welsh Complet and Carbonnade Flamande (both Ch'ti favorites). Service is a bit slow, but ambiance is nice. Plus they serve food ALL DAY, which is rare in Lille.

7. @ Aux Moules: Best restaurant to bring visitors. They also have a large variety of mussels. (See the name...)

8. @ O'Scotland/L'Irlandais: Two of the most lively bars on Rue Solferino. Just don't get on the bouncer's bad side...

9. @ Le Furet du Nord: Best major bookstore in Lille. Huge selection of BDs, cookbooks, paper products and much larger English-language section than FNAC.

10. @ McDonalds Grand Place: Free Wi-Fi and plenty of electrical sockets. Enough said.

11. @ Kokoa: The milkshakes are amazing. There are over two dozen flavors that can be served as either ice cream or milkshakes. Plenty of other yummy desserts at this modern ice cream parlor as well.

12. @ La Citadelle: Beautiful parks and lovely settings for a picnic or kicking around a football on Sundays.

Visiting Normandy

After a month of solitude in a tiny village near La Manche, I finally broke out for three weeks, starting with two days in Paris when my brother came to visit France for the first time at the end of March. But it was our trip to Normandy, a site I've longed to visit for some time now, that I was looking forward to the most.

My brother and I boarded the train to Bayeux in Basse-Normandie (lower Normandy) from Paris' Gare St.-Lazare. Despite it being a local train (and not TGV), it was only a two-hour long ride as there was only one stop (Caen) in between Paris and our destination. And it didn't take long to notice the sharp differences in landscape and terrain in Normandy than that of Nord-Pas de Calais, which was surprising since it's only a few hours away by car.

By 8PM, it was already dusk and there wasn't anyone else really on the platform when I we disembarked in Bayeux. Yet, with two platforms and electronic screens, I knew this town was already a step above Montreuil-Sur-Mer. After about a 10 minute walk from the station to the town, we found our quaint and uniquely named hotel, Le Bayeux. At first, it looked like we were the only occupants in the hotel, given that all the room doors were open, revealing neatly made but empty rooms. Being in the countryside, this was a little spooky. But by the time we returned from dinner, there were several dozen English teenage boys causing a ruckus in the halls while in Normandy for a class trip.

Our main objective was to visit the beaches invaded on June 6, 1944. However, I failed to realize that spring (even early spring) might be a busy time, and I didn't secure tickets in advance. So when we called to see what was available that morning, none of the tours had open seats. We ended up settling on reserving two spots on a full day-tour the following day, which in hindsight was the best plan possible.

But first, we spent the day (which was half rainy, half sunny) touring Bayeux, notably with a visit to the Musée Memorial de la Bataille de Normandie (the Museum of the Battle of Normandy). The museum was quite well done, laying out all of the information clearly, both chronologically and by subject. It was informative, but not an overload. It was also one of the first spots where I began to notice the presence of more American tourists, some of whom I can pick out in Paris, but I hardly ever see in Northern France.

One of the aspects of visiting Normandy is sampling Norman cuisine. While we tried another restaurant or two, my brother and I ended up eating dinner at the same place for three nights in a row because it was just so delicious and had something that most other French restaurants don't have: good and attentive customer service. L'Assiette Normande (The Norman Plate) is located just opposite the gorgeous Gothic cathedral (pictured above).

Dishes incorporating camembert were obvious selections being that the smelly (but yummy) cheese hails from Normandy. My two favorite dishes were a tie between the tartiflette and the Norman salad, the latter being one of the few dishes I've found in France that includes corn. The waitress obviously remembered us, as on our third and final night in Normandy, we were treated with a few complimentary glasses of crément.

But it was our last full day in Normandy that was action-packed. Huddled into a mini-van seating nine, the Battlebus tour commenced at 8:30 AM, led by our very-knowledgeable and personable British guide, Dale. There were three groups of nine initially at the starting point, and it was broken down into two groups of Americans and a third group of Canadians. Our tour focused on most of the American-related points of interest before, on and after D-Day. 85€ per person might have seemed a lot to ask for a day tour, but in the end, it was worth every penny.

The first stop was a small church (in a tiny town of which I have forgotten the name and should have written down) that was used as a makeshift triage center/hospital on D-Day, staffed by only two American soldiers - both of whom survived the war. The church was more like the size of a chapel, and it was literally covered from wall to wall with injured soldiers, incidentally from both sides. But the church is kept up today solely by the funds of the local residents, including several expensive stained glass windows that were commissioned to commemorate the heroics of the Allies in liberating this village.

Stop two was in a larger town named Sainte-Mère-Église. The events of this town have been depicted in the film, The Longest Day. Being that I haven't seen the film yet, hearing the story for the first time myself from the guide was quite exciting. It's almost too bizarre to be true. In the wee hours of June 6, American paratroopers began landing in Basse-Normandie, farther inland from Utah Beach, some of whom landed in Sainte-Mère-Église. Unfortunately, at the exact same time, a house had caught on fire in the center of the village, drawing the attention of the town mayor, most of the residents and the German soldiers occupying the village. Upon seeing these paratroopers, the Germans opened fire, but a few managed to survive - one of whom had a parachute caught on the church steeple.

Just before lunch, we stopped at the first of the two beaches invaded by the Americans. The Allies took over a total of five beaches on D-Day, with the British at Sword and Gold, the Canadians at Juno and the Americans at Utah and Omaha beaches. While the pictures may look like it was a lovely day, it was brutally windy - so sharp that it could cut your face. I only pulled my scarf down from over my head and face to take the photo below. The guide remarked that I looked like a ninja. He also remarked that the weather on the day of our tour was similar to that of the climate on June 6, 1944. That would be sunny with mixed clouds, but very windy and a temperature around 7-8 degrees Celsius. I can't imagine doing much outdoors in that weather, let alone fighting in one of the greatest battles in world history.

After lunch in a local canteen owned by an English family, the next big stop was at Pointe du Hoc, a cliff top bombed repeatedly before D-Day by the Allies. It looked like the moon.

Omaha Beach was the second to last stop. What surprised me about Omaha Beach (and even Pointe du Hoc) is how these sites are depicted in films versus how they actually look. These are many steep cliffs, reminiscent of coastlines in California more so than two hours north in Pas de Calais where the coastline is pretty much flat.

But these beaches do not feel like anywhere you'd visit for some leisure time during the summer months. They are solemn, and you can instantly feel the heavy weight what took place on these sands just 66 years ago.

And only a kilometer or so away, you can instantly see just how much these soldiers sacrificed for their country and for the liberation of Europe. The American Cemetery in Normandy is the third military cemetery I've visited (after Manila and Arlington), and it struck me instantly how much this place looked like the other two. It was as if I had been instantly transported to the United States. There was a memorable but haunting scene in Saving Private Ryan that took place in this graveyard, which sparked in my mind while walking past thousands of white crosses. Many of those who died at the Battle of Normandy have actually been repatriated home, but so many still remain buried in France.

There isn't really much one can say or think after visiting this cemetery or even the beaches invaded on that fateful summer day in 1944, except how thankful we should be to those who heroically fought and gave their lives to defend freedom and defeat tyranny.

Basse-Normandie is one of my favorite locations in France that I've visited so far, and I hope to go back and see more in the future.

French Kids Say The Darndest Things

When you're learning a new language, you're bound to make mistakes - especially silly and even embarrassing mistakes. Whether it be using the wrong grammar, vocabulary word or even pronunciation, it can completely change what you mean to say. Sometimes it can be really bad, but sometimes it's just plain funny. I've found that geography words and names have proven to be a little sticky for my French high schoolers. Here's a few examples over the last few months:

Me: Which U.S. state is President Obama from? (no response) Me: It begins with an H and there are islands. Student: Haiti?

Me: Can you name some other cities in California (besides San Francisco)? Student: San Diego, Los Angeles, Sacramento... Another student: Chicago? Third student: New Jersey?

Me: Can you name the largest state in the U.S.? Student: Canada?

Only time will tell on the last one...

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.

Aller-Retour

On January 2, I walked out my front door in San Francisco at about 5:00 AM PST. I unlocked the door to my studio in Montreuil 25 hours later.

While my journey was long, exhausting and mundane at times, it was relatively smooth - especially in comparison to other winter travel/horror stories I heard from other assistants upon my return. I managed to catch every connection on time and my little brown suitcases made its way successfully to France (filled with 45-lbs. of toiletries, food and a few pieces of clothing I exchanged for things I brought home). Basically, it went plane-plane-train-train. Sounds simple, and since I knew exactly where I was going when I got to France, it pretty much was.

It didn't start out so certain though.

Aside from the fact I was nervous about the weather in Washington, D.C., where I was changing planes at Dulles International, I was also looking at a 30-minute connection time in DC between my flights from SFO to Paris CDG. My brother drove me to SFO about four hours before my original flight (and without traffic, it's only a 20-minute car ride from my house to the airport). We walked up to the United Airlines ticket counter, already busy with plenty of passengers there early, either for flights or because of long security line fears after the Christmas Day incident in Detroit. After flying solely with JetBlue Airways and Virgin America within the United States over the last three years, it was bizarre entering a different terminal at SFO, or flying with a different airline. But the employees of United turned out to be kind and friendly from start to finish.

I asked the ticket agent if I could get on the stand-by flight to DC that was departing an hour before my booked flight, and she replied that I probably could fit on the plane! Lo and behold, about 90 minutes later, I was boarding the flight and even got a window seat (albeit, the seat was in an exit row - a first for me - and directly across from the flight attendant in the jump seat). She also put my bag on the earlier flight, so even if I didn't make it on that plane and ended up being stuck on the later one, my suitcase would probably make the connection to France. (I thought this was a bit strange since I thought according to some of TSA's anti-terrorism rules, every bag that goes on to a plane has to have a passenger with it.) But, given that the flight got to DC on time (although there were some other delays at Dulles due to very strong winds, so only one runway was open for landings and take-offs), I got a nice 90-minute window instead of 30. I decided to use my time to buy a burrito for the last time for a while and read my new book (The Boleyn Inheritance).

With the time change and since the first flight (SFO to DC) was only four and a half hours, it was already 5:30 PM EST by the time my second flight departed from DC. I gave a last look out the window from American soil (pictured, right) and let out a big sigh. While it is always difficult to leave home, the murmurs of French voices on the plane already filled me with excitement to return to France. The part that hurt the most, however, was flying over New York City. By good fortune (and asking the gate agent up until the point where I was in line to board if there were any window seats left), I got a window seat on the left side of the plane. As the plane crept north over the Eastern Seaboard, I knew exactly when we would be approaching New York without even looking at the map anymore. And then I saw the Manhattan street grid, perfectly straight from my angle and glittering like threads of gold.

Then there was just darkness. For a really long time. And most unfortunately for me, the only flight I was able to get any sleep on was that first one. So for seven long hours to Paris, I was awake. It's time like that in which I really hate traveling alone. But as the tiny plane on the Google map flew over the island of Jersey, then Rouen and finally landed in Paris, I gained a tiny second (or third or fourth) wind.

I booked it off the plane. Given that I only had a purse for a carry-on, I knew where I was going, confident enough with the language, I felt like a local already. Getting to Immigration and baggage claim was a bit of a walk (with a moving sidewalk), and the baggage claim area at CDG Terminal One was the most bizarre room I've ever seen in an airport. (Maybe ever.) I thought I walked into a giant hamster maze for adults. There were tubes with escalators going every direction. Fortunately for me, there were again more EU citizens on the plane than non-EU citizens, so I zoomed through Immigration, and my bag turned out to be the fifth one to roll down the conveyor belt. After a few "excusez-moi"s, I grabbed my bag and power-walked for the AirTrain to take me to CDG Terminal 2, where the SNCF-TGV station is.

Turns out I didn't have to walk so fast since the first and next train to Lille wasn't leaving for another 45 minutes. Not to mention that since I now have a French bank card compared to when I first arrived, I was able to buy my ticket from the SNCF kiosk (since my card has a chip) and not have to wait in the INSANE line at the ticket counter. After waiting a bit to see which platform would be announced and checking my email on my iPhone (it felt so good to have internet on my cell phone everywhere again), the voie (platform) was posted on the board.

I was about to take the elevator down, when I ran into Liz Louie! France is turning out to be a small place. After a long voyage and leaving home after the holidays, I was already a little down-trodden, so it felt good to see a familiar, friendly face. She was taking the train back to Lille after a trip down south, so we caught up with Vacances de Noël stories while waiting for the TGV to approach. However, we had to sit in different cars since we bought our tickets separately. When I found my seat, it was the most bizarre part of a TGV train I'd ever seen. It must have been the first class car's coat or luggage closet before, since it was part of the first class car, but there were only a handful of seats, and most of them aligned flat against the wall like a subway car.

When I landed in France, it was still dark, at about 7:0o AM CST. Now that it was closer to 9:00 AM, the sun was rising over the snow-covered valleys and farms that I passed on my trip to the airport in December. Except this time there was actual sun. I dare say that it was one of the most beautiful days I have ever seen and experienced in France. Unfortunately for me, I was too tired to appreciate any of it.

After my train arrived at Gare Lille Europe, I dragged my little brown suitcase over to Gare Lille Flandres, where there was the one direct train of the day to Montreuil, leaving at 11:30 AM. I sat in the waiting area reading my book, while vagrants were walking in and out (out because the station guards were constantly checking on them). Considering it was freezing outside (literally), I felt really awful for them since they weren't causing any trouble and not asking anyone for money, just trying to sit inside and escape the wind chill.

Finally, my train to Montreuil was announced, I got up and on to the last part of my voyage. I had the hardest time trying to stay awake. My eyelids felt like hard stones and I couldn't lift them anymore. But I was more afraid of falling asleep and waking up at the train's terminus: Calais. (I'm not afraid of Calais; it's just really far past where I needed to be.) The sunshine was absolutely gorgeous, and I'd normally give anything to have such a nice view from the train. At about 1:30 PM, the TER finally pulled up to Gare Montreuil-Sur-Mer, after which I dragged my suitcase up the giant hill, past the ramparts, through the cobblestone village streets, into the very empty Grand Place and then up the stairs to my studio.

The bizarre feeling upon walking into my studio was: it was like I never left or went anywhere. I was back in some surreal dream. Is it because it's France? A tiny village in the middle of nowhere? Such a contrast from New York or San Francisco? I don't think there are as many contrasts between French and American cultures as some people might think (or like to admit, on either side), but maybe I've really adjusted to living here.

The downside to being back: I had jetlag for over a week.

French NYE Warnings

Last year, I celebrated New Year's Eve in Times Square in New York City. Luckily, my former roomie Sharon works right above TS, so I wasn't standing in my gold dress and suede heels among throngs of tourists in sub-zero temperatures. This year, I'll be in San Francisco, although I'm little melancholy that I won't be experiencing what NYE is like in Paris. Well, the U.S. Embassy in Paris has sent me a warning anyway. (I registered myself with them and the State Department that I'm living abroad, so I get periodic updates and travel alerts from both agencies.)

This Warden Message alerts U.S. citizens to the latest information on New Year’s Eve celebrations in Paris and other urban centers in France.

Outdoor New Year’s Eve celebrations in Paris and other urban centers in France can be boisterous. Last year, U.S. citizens reported that glass bottles were hurled, extensive public drinking and drunkenness occurred, and sporadic fighting broke out in Paris around the Champs Elysees, the Champ de Mars, and Trocadero. Parked cars being set ablaze is also a fairly common feature of revelry in France, occurring even in upscale neighborhoods.

Violent and boisterous behavior can be expected in spite of increased police and gendarme forces. U.S. citizens who venture out on New Year’s Eve should be aware of the potential dangers mentioned above and are reminded to maintain a high level of vigilance and to take appropriate steps to increase their security awareness.

Extensive public drinking and drunkenness? Sporadic fighting? Bottles being thrown? Sounds like any American NYE, or tailgate, to me. Vive la revolution!

Coming to America

Getting to Montreuil wasn't easy. Getting OUT was even more difficult. First off, I couldn't take the train to Paris' Charles de Gaulle airport and get there before my flight within the same day within reasonable hours. I could have left at 7 AM, changed in Arras and arrived at CDG 8 hours before my flight, but I preferred not. Thus, I left Montreuil for Lille on Wednesday (Dec. 16) and spent the night at Rachel's place. This turned out to be a great idea as it was quite a fun evening and picked up my spirits before heading home.

However, we ran into a problem with keys. She had class early in the morning, and my TGV to CDG wasn't until noon. Thus, we rushed to Euralille at 8 PM at night with the foolish hope that a key copy shop would still be open. Carrefour (France's Wal-Mart) still was, but as we soon found out, the key place wasn't. Rachel and I tried coming up with several different plans, but given the way her buildng is designed (you need a key to lock the front door, mailboxes are on the inside, etc.) we couldn't think of anything right away. We decided to ponder further over at her friend's apartment, quite close to Gare Lille Flandres. As we were walking over in the frigid weather, I noticed something falling on me. Something soft and fluffy, but it kept disappearing on my coat.

Snow.

I knew France's first snowfall was coming soon since I had just heard news about it hitting England already that day. While it was all lovely and romantic, I knew this wasn't going to be good for my travel plans. I tried to put it out of my mind, as the key situation was more pressing. After debating whether or not I should call someone we knew to meet up with me in the morning and take the keys, Rachel realized we could meet at Porte de Douai while she was taking the bus in between schools, and I could give her the keys there. That was settled, and we enjoyed the rest of the evening with some wine and snowflakes before one of her friend's drove us back to her apartment.

When I woke up in the morning, I wasn't as excited as I normally am when I see what I saw. Lille was a winter wonderland. The fresh and clean snowfall was delightful and a perfect touch to the already-decorated city, but it was not what I needed before my flight to New York. Our key plan worked perfectly, especially since I had a tiny roller suitcase. I took the bus to Porte de Douai, said a fond farewell and save travels to Rachel as she was going home a few days later, and then caught the train directly to Gare Lille Europe, where I waited just a bit for my TGV to the airport.

The landscape outside the windows on my 59-minute high-speed ride was quite the contrast to the one I had taken to Lille three months ago. Back then, the sun was shining, there was some warmth in the air and the fields were relatively green and bright. Now everything was covered in a shiny white blanket of snow. It was also far easier without tumbling along with three giant suitcases. Instead, I just jumped off the train at the very convenient CDG station, as the train continued on to Rennes.

That's when I saw the reality of the situation on the Departures board. A good deal of the flights were canceled, including all of those headed to England. So far, my New York flight was A-OK. I headed up to the Air France departures terminal and got in line to drop off my bag. Then, I hit a milestone in my time in France: for the first time at the airport (or any other place that deals with a lot of tourists in Paris), I spoke to the employee in French...and they replied in French!! It's usually always automatically in English. But I said in French that I printed my boarding card the night before, and she said that was great and asked where I was going, etc. in French! Then I placed my little brown suitcase on the conveyor belt and just hoped everything inside (especially two bottles of wine and a bottle of Ch'ti beer) would make it safely to America.

Everything continued to go smoothly, as I went through French border control, then security and then on to my terminal via shuttle train. I was amazed by how friendly all of the airport employees were towards me. I don't know if it was because of Christmas, the first snowfall, not too many travelers at the airport that day, the fact that I spoke in French first always, or the ridiculous giant grin on my face because I was so happy to be going to NYC. I had an hour or so left before boarding, and the flight was still supposedly on time. I got some spinach quiche, a glass of wine and some petite treats for my final meal and picked up the three very well-designed bilingual magazines published by Air France. (Would LOVE to work for one of those).

By 4 PM, I was just Twittering and waiting by the gate as that's when we were supposed to start boarding. However, we weren't. There wasn't even any indication by the movements of the employees by the gate that we should get ready. After a few minutes, a passenger asked an AF employee in a yellow vest when we would start boarding. Then he replied, in English, "Oh, well we think it might be delayed about five hours." My jaw dropped.

Five seconds before this, all was peaceful around the gate. After this sentence, all the New Yorkers showed their colors and bounced up from their seats, throwing questions at the AF employees left and right. They ranged from, "Are you serious?" to "You better tell us the truth right now" to "It's not even really snowing outside!" And that NYer was right: if that were JFK, we definitely would have taken off anyway. There are always crews going around, clearing snow from the runways and de-icing planes, 'round the clock. In Paris, there was pretty much no one outside doing anything. (And it was only about 28-30 degrees F.)

Normally, I'm quite embarrased when I hear Americans speaking so loud and acting this way in France. It's no wonder they hate us sometimes. But this time, I was proud to be a New York resident. Someone had to express our frustrations, and no one expresses frustrations better than a New Yorker, let alone a whole plane of them. Then one of the passengers asked if we could go up to the AF Elite Member Lounge since we were going to be stuck there for hours, to which the now-frazzled employee said "yeah, probably." So we headed up there, all ready to make up some story to find that the lounge front desk was pretty busy. So four of us just walked in. And it was like heaven. There was an unattended open bar with a fine selection of wines, beers and spirits, along with a table of free food, and a refrigerator of sodas, bottled water and other specialty drinks. There was also free Wi-Fi, free French magazines (I picked up French Premiere, with Natalie Portman on the cover) and free international newspapers (I picked up Le Monde and The Guardian, since I can't get those so easily in the U.S.). Plus, all the chairs were plush and leather, and there were HD flat-screens tuned to France 24, reporting on Copenhagen and then the poor weather at CDG. Of course. I even met a Columbia Journalism school alum who works for Global Post in Paris, and we shared a bunch of stories about professors who seem to never leave. I guess you really can find J-Schoolers everywhere.

After about an hour up in the lounge, there was an announcement that Air France Flight 10 to New York-JFK was finally boarding. I even got to board with First Class since they were just trying to get us all out of there. However, we were all shuttled by bus to the plane, which took about 45 minutes. Then, we sat on the plane for another hour before moving. Finally, after falling asleep for a bit, we finally starting moving, at which point I switched off my iPhone thinking we were going to take off. But then we just moved to another part of the airport where we had to de-ice the plane. This took about another 30 minutes. Basically, it was like going through a carwash. The two guys inside the truck took a hose to the plane and just went at it, as the snow began to fall every which way from the top of the plane to the bottom, and then flying off the wings. It's a good thing they warned us that the sights and sounds from this process was completely normal, or I'm sure we all would have been a little freaked out.

About a minute after this process and about four hours after we were originally supposed to take off, we were wheels-up in the sky. Considering I couldn't see a darn thing out the window until about 5,000 feet from all of the snowy clouds at 8:30 PM CST, it was a very smooth take-off, and so was most of the rest of the flight.

Despite the delays, Air France is truly a great way to travel across the Atlantic. The dinner was delicious (I almost licked the plate from the boeuf à la sauce de moutarde (beef with mustard sauce), plus there was free champagne for an apertif and unlimited free wine. Not to mention that their media library is also quite packed and useful (when it works...it stopped working somewhere over Greenland and they had to restart it). I finally watched The Hangover, which has to have been one of the best comedies I've ever seen.

Finally, after seven and a half hours in the sky, I saw the bright lights of Manhattan's skyline as we gently touched down at JFK Airport. And being near the front of the plane and apparently one of the few Americans in that section, I made it through Immigration almost immediately. Then I got my bag from the Carousel, all safe and sound. Upon making my exit from Customs, I was bombarded by shady taxi drivers asking if I needed a ride to Manhattan, and that big, ridiculous grin returned to my face. I was back home in New York City. I ignored them, and like a proper New Yorker, I got in a Yellow Cab and headed for Stephanie's apartment on the Upper East Side. I even got a very nice driver, and speedy one at that, getting me there in 30 minutes.

Twenty hours after I left Lille, I finally made it.

Bordeaux: Land of Wine and Macarons

rachel-king-Saint-Emilion On a very typical Lille morning (rain, cold, more rain) on October 27, four female American language assistants boarded a TGV with a final destination of Bordeaux. After only three weeks at work (and a total of six in France for me), we already had our first paid vacation. Life in France can be very good.

As the little blue dot on my iPhone Google map application treaded southward past Gare Marne-la-Vallée/Chessy (a.k.a. the station for EuroDisney), there were only blue skies for us for the next seven days. But, as we learned, there's a price to pay for nice weather. Namely, you're trading in friendly people for friendly weather. You can't have both in France. Nowhere is perfect. While we arrived in Bordeaux twenty minutes late, the five-hour train ride fairly pleasant. High-speed train is really the most relaxing way to travel long distance on a budget (Although I've never been on a cruise ship, I've never been fond of boats.). But I did make the mistake of forgetting to bring enough snacks along for the ride, and in a moment of weakness somewhere near Tours, I made my way to the Bar Car and ended up paying € 2 for a bag of Lays classic potato chips. I still can't believe I did that.

After taking the very sleek and futuristic tram into the center of Bordeaux where our hotel was, we got in a bit of sightseeing before the day was out. We started out at the Place de la Bourse, which has a huge fountain spraying pink water and the nymphs above the fountains had pink sashes draped over themselves for breast cancer. After that, we walked on water. Literally. Bordeaux has a giant, flat reflecting pool that tourists and locals mingle barefoot over, splashing about in the daytime and then admiring the brilliant reflection of the Parliament buildings at night.

After checking out the local carnival, we met up with Liz's Bordelaise friend, Veronique, who did us the great favor and service of showing us around Bordeaux each evening. But as we were all exhausted by the end of the first day, we passed Rue Sainte-Catherine (the longest pedestrian street in Europe), had a round of drinks and called it a day. Not without trying to find a local grocery store first though. However, we were five minutes too late when we got to the closest market to the hotel, which was actually open pretty late for France (9 PM). After deciding to walk another block, we passed a Chinese food restaurant, which prompted us to all swear to eating there for dinner the following evening as we all had gone into Asian-food withdrawal. A few doors later, Amy screamed at an appropriate American-volume level, "It's a liquor store!" There we were able to gather necessary supplies, namely wine and cookies. After we got back to the hotel and realizing being four girls in the "penthouse" (fourth floor) of the hotel and the week of Halloween, it was the perfect time for slumber party-style sharing of ghost stories. While I told my usual Unit 3 Computing Center "I saw a Ninja-looking ghost" story again (which is so true), Amy definitely won with her retelling of La Llarona, which might not have been the most pleasant imagery before going to bed.

rachel-king-bordeaux-macaronsThe four of us woke up fairly bright and early (for a vacation) refreshed and ready for a full day in Bordeaux. Most of that day consisted of drinking wine and eating macarons. After visiting a very sketchy flea market in the morning (looking more like a garage sale without any garages), and lunch on the steps of the Grand Théâtre à la Gossip Girl (I should have worn my sparkly headband), we first visited the Maison du Vin...then the Musée du Vin! The Bordelais have much to be proud of (please don't take that as sarcasm, I do mean it.) Bordeaux is a very beautiful, clean city. It's a mini-version of Paris, just less hustle and bustle. On our way to the Musée, we discovered we all like antiquing. Rachel walked out with a very pretty pair of gold earrings, I left with an old-fashioned (or maybe just old) poster of 19-century French fashion and a deck of cards, and I think Amy left with a bag. (I can't remember if Liz got anything at that particular antique shop.)

After touring the Musée and a few tastings of wine, I left with a few bottles that I can't discuss as they're surprises for people who might read this. But we stopped by the macaron shop again on the way home, where I got five macarons (blackberry, rose, pistachio, vanilla and raspberry) and two kouignettes (raspberry and apple). Then we had Chinese food for dinner, which wasn't too bad actually, and then drinks at Le Petit Bois (the little forest). Decorated with trees inside and wallpaper reminiscent of Versailles, it looked like an Anthropologie catalog. Thus, I liked it.

We set out for Saint-Émilion on our final full day in Bordeaux. Saint-Émilion is a tiny town in Bordeaux's eastern wine country. When we hopped off the train in the early afternoon, we were welcomed to very surprising warm weather (so much that I had to find a bathroom/corner to take my leggings off it was so warm) and absolutely no one at the train station. There wasn't even a town in sight. The station itself was closed an there weren't many signs pointing towards any civilization. And I thought Montreuil is petite.  But after a bit of dilly-dallying around some fields near the station, Liz stopped inside a vineyard office and asked where the town (and tourism office) was. We were pointed up hill (of course). After about 10 minutes of walking and just around the bend, there was the town. Extremely cute (and extremely touristy), we definitely made a good choice in picking Saint-Émilion to visit. At this point in the day, we really only had time for one winery, a trip to the Catacombs and possibly the Disneyland-looking train ride around the area. After finding the tourism office at the very, very top of the hill, we were pointed back down in the other direction to Château Le Chatelet.

When we arrived at Le Chatelet, we had to knock on the door a bit since it didn't seem like anyone was there. But then the manager came out to greet us and asked if we wanted a dégustation (tasting), to which we all promptly replied, "YES." Patrick, the manager, was extremely friendly, telling us all about his Grand Cru bottles, of which we tried the 2003, 2005 and 2006, and then the warm, smooth, fruit-filled 2007 Le Chatelet. While the last bottle was my favorite, it was € 60. So we all ended up taking a bottle of our second favorite for € 35 per bottle: the 2005. While the three San Franciscans of the group briefly flirted with the idea of shipping bottles back to SF collectively to save costs, we realized we still couldn't afford it (the shipping minimum was € 150 for 12 bottles...then the prices of the bottles). Perhaps we can go back in the spring. But, nonetheless, as there was no one else there besides of the four of us and the very hospitable Patrick, it was a lovely nice private tasting session. We even got a peek at the cellar, which as far as the winery goes, is five generations old. But the cellar itself is probably over 1,000 years old.

After grabbing our bottles and bidding farewell to Patrick, we headed back to the top of Saint-Émilion. However, as it was late afternoon, we had been walking all day and not really eaten much. Thus, the tastings quickly added up and we were stumbling but smiling all the way back up. We missed the only English-language tour of the Catacombs 4 PM that we bought tickets for by six minutes, but as we were all in an extra-good mood, we just said, "Oh, we can just take the tour in French! No problem!" By the time the French tour rolled around (4:30 PM), I was starting to become sleepy and I probably wouldn't have gotten much out of a tour in English. But with the tour in French, I was pretty much sleep-walking. After an hour and a half, we realized we didn't have time for the Disneyish wine country train, thus, after stopping for some yummy mushroom Quiche and hot chocolate, we headed back down to the train station.

There wasn't anyone else besides us, a few young French people, and a group of young Asian tourists. By this point, the wine had worn off and we were just ready to eat as soon as we got back to Bordeaux after the 40-minute TER (local) train ride. I don't know if it was because we were tired or it was close to Halloween, but even though we weren't standing that close to the tracks, when a train in the opposite direction headed towards the station at full speed (maybe 60 MPH), it literally looked like it was going to jump off the tracks. Thus, when it whizzed past us, we all screamed and jumped back towards the station wall. I even ran with my hands covering my face. We all clung close to the wall laughing so hard that the French people started laughing at us too, but I assert they were laughing with us. Whatever. Our train eventually came, and Rachel read us another passage from my our new must-read, Are You There Vodka, It's Me, Chelsea (by Chelsea Handler).

On the only morning with substantial fog and clouds we had outside of Lille, we went back to Gare Bordeaux-St.Jean for a seven-hour train ride to Marseille. They really need to install a TGV line in between those two cities. I'm a bit shocked there isn't already one. The Corail-TEOZ train was comfortable, but ran at about the same pace as Amtrak. Unacceptable. Passing many places I wouldn't mind stopping in the future (Toulouse, Montpellier, Carcassonne, almost near Perpignan...), the ride went almost without incident. But somewhere near Nîmes, a group of rowdy, greasy-looking guys started talking really loudly and asked if they could "buy" our table from us. Seating is assigned on TEOZ, and even though it was a joke, the manner in which it was delivered was so rude that it wasn't funny. If only we knew then what we had to expect when we arrived in Marseille...

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.

The Brooklyn of Lille

rachel-king-lille-fivesAfter having a very busy, stressful week, I needed to surround myself around friends and take a break from worrying about paperwork. So on Friday, I headed out of Montreuil back to Lille for the weekend. I even had a very special visitor, as Sharon visited me on her first stop during her French backpacking trip. When we first sat down for coffee, I spilled everything that happened in the past week and spoke a mile per minute as it was the most English I had spoken in five days. After heading back to Rachel and Pat's apartment in Fives (pronounced "feeves", which is pretty much the Brooklyn/Hackney of Lille, Sharon and I didn't have much to do as neither of the roommates were at home. But I had their keys since I was staying there for the weekend, so it was no problem getting in (except the 15 minutes I spent at the door trying to figure out the key). But without a TV or internet in the apartment nor a working toilet (it was fixed the following morning), it didn't help we were extremely tired. After about an hour of staring at the wall and listening to Disney tunes blaring on my iPhone, we walked up the street to the first bar or café we could find to use a bathroom. I don't think we were prepared for the place we walked into. Or perhaps they weren't prepared for us. The windows were open, the lights were on and there were people inside, so I made the assumption the bar was open. When I pushed the glass door open, the world stopped. The darts stopped flying, the old people stopped drinking and everyone in the room turned to look at us. It was as if I swung a saloon door open, and it was very obvious we were the new kids in town. I was also immediately surprised by the smell of cigarette smoke clouding the room, since its illegal to smoke indoors now in France. I asked (in French) if the place was open, and the big buff man said yes. Everything resumed as normal, so I walked over to the barman, ordered a coffee and sat down while Sharon went off to the restroom. After I finished my drink (quickly), I followed suit, and we bid them all adieu.

But after another hour of waiting back at the apartment, we were both exhausted, but hungry. There's not much open in Fives after 9 PM, as most people still out at that hour are probably in Centre Ville or near Rue Solferino. But we stumbled upon an open kebab place, where I ordered fries and Sharon got a vegetable sandwich. I would have gotten a kebab, but I was saving it for my 2 AM meal the following night (which I never ended up getting). While we were eating, a local French guy started talking to us, asking us about where we were from, why I was in France, etc. While I love the fact that I'm getting better at French with each conversation, after awhile, I was just too tired to talk in another language. And Sharon was tired from the fact that she had just arrived after a seven-hour flight from New York with only four hours of sleep, being that she had arrived in Paris about 12 hours prior at this point. We managed to squirm away politely after about a 30-minute conversation, and both went home to get a good night's sleep.

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.