I'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.