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Welcome! Bienvenue !

Hello, and thank you for reading my blog! Bonjour et merci de lire mon blog !

I’m Whitney, and for the next seven months, I will be living and working in Angoulême, France as an English language assistant.

This blog will be a time capsule of my year in Europe. Happy reading. 🙂

Thanksgiving & Black Friday

Black Friday is now a thing in France. I learned this year when my roommates, Angelica and Luis, asked if I was doing any Black Friday shopping. Because I hadn’t paid attention and because I don’t need to buy anything else, I tried to ignore the Black Friday ads this year. And, for some reason, I felt kind of down when I saw these ads.

            I eventually realized that these ads reminded me of Thanksgiving which reminded me that this is the first time I’m away from home for the holidays. I value the time this season allows me to spend with my family. On top of this, I get to eat a lot and have a break from school. When I was in college, this was especially important as Thanksgiving and Christmas were two of the times where I spent more than a weekend at home. You can’t forget about football, either, as my dad and students reminded me. That is the name of the Thanksgiving game.

            Without my family, however, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to celebrate it this year. What was the point of eating alone? But, I wouldn’t be alone. In September, when I first doubted whether I would celebrate it, I hadn’t yet met my fabulous roommates. They were eager to have a Thanksgiving meal. It seemed as though they thought, Why wouldn’t we celebrate it? All you need is good food and friends. We all had long workdays on Thursday, but when Angelica came home, she said, ‘I’m going to start cooking.’ The result was a fantastic meal—chicken, curry, potatoes, salad, bread, l’opéra (a chocolate coffee cake)—and, of course, wine.* It has been one of my favorite Thanksgivings, and I couldn’t have asked for a better holiday away from home. The three of us talked, bonded, and ate very well that night.           

My middle school students asked me what I am grateful for this year. I’m grateful for them, the wonderful teachers I work with, my family, friends, and, finally, my roommates. All of the people who have helped me adjust and listened to me complain when things became difficult or compliqué. It was a great way to kick off the holiday season. Thank you to all of them.

*Are we really in France if we don’t have wine at dinner?

Dinner by Angelica
Dessert
Hungry

Touring around Tours

I took a trip to the Loire River valley to do some sight-seeing in Tours. I had initially thought of it as a larger, medieval city, similar to Poitiers. It would be a fun day trip, and then I’d return to Angoulême, satisfied that I had some traveling. What I had found, however, was a vibrant, underrated city that I didn’t want to leave. When I had told my colleagues I was going to Tours, they excitedly asked, “How long? Which châteaux will you visit?” They were disappointed when I responded that it was just a day trip to the city, but this will not be my last trip.

The cold, late-fall air hit me when I left the train station, and I set out in a random direction. This is my favorite thing about traveling alone: no plans, just a list of things I wan to do (but don’t have to do). I went toward the Hôtel de Ville (town hall) which is usually a promising direction.

I arrived just as the Christmas decorations went up. As I adore Christmas, I was in awe of the tree, the giant decorative animals, and all the lights in the circle in front the Hôtel de Ville. As I walked further into the commercial district, there were more shops, lights, and tourists walking around. There were the other basics, too: cafés, restaurants, shops, and Starbucks. I arrived at 10am, so they were also setting up for what I would find out is the Christmas market. I thought, “Another big city, more shops, markets, touristy things…”

Like a true American, I went back to Starbucks for a coffee after walking for an hour. I was tired and needed to do some more research on what to do in Tours. I had already seen the Square de la Préfecture, Hôtel de Ville, the commercial district, the tram, the Basilica of Saint Martin, the Tour de Charlemagne, and Les Halles. It wasn’t even 11:00AM. The museums didn’t open until 2:00PM, so I had to preoccupy myself for three hours.

I set off toward the Basilica of Saint Martin again. This time, I wanted to find the Place Plumereau, in the middle of Vieux Tours. When I entered the medieval quarter, I was absolutely blown away. It was spectacular, and in this moment, I realized that I would have to come back. I hadn’t known what to expect, but I felt like I was taken back in time with this neighborhood. I thought I would walk through it, take a couple photos and leave. I stayed for three and a half hours, had lunch, found a wonderful bookstore and enjoyed a photography session.

Vieux Tours is everything a tourist (i.e. I) could want. Medieval history, cafés, restaurants, and so many shops. I found an international bookstore with books in English, Spanish, Italian, Russian, and French and Le Petit Prince in almost every language you could imagine. My bibliophile heart melted when I entered. I read all the back covers I could and eventually bought a couple things. I found a Korean restaurant whose marinated pork was great and finally set off toward the museums after taking a few more photos.

My favorite thing in Tours was the Cathédrale Saint-Gatien. It sits next to the Musée de Beaux-Arts and just down the street from the Château de Tours, which are also impressive. The cathedral towers above everything around it, dating from the twelfth to the sixteenth century. Because it took so long to complete, it includes a mélange of architecture: Romanesque, Gothic, and Renaissance. It was fascinating.

With the rest of my time in the city, I visited the Château de Tours which is currently hosting exhibits from René-Jacques, Séverine Deslions, and Isabelle Sarian. They have three distinct styles: René-Jacques was a photographer documented French life from the 1930s to the 70s, Deslions is known for her superhero, ‘Speed Boy,’ and Isabelle Sarian takes inspiration from the elements to create abstract works.

I started back toward the gare, stopped by the Musée de Beaux-Arts, and then made my way to my first Christmas market. I was overwhelmed at first by the amount of people and Christmas stuff at each stall: anything you can imagine made from solid chocolate, jewelry, Christmas ornaments, and vin chaud (hot wine with spices). The next time I visit a Christmas market, vin chaud is on my list of things to try.

After just one day, Tours has become one of my favorite places in France. While it is a larger city, it doesn’t come with the hustle and bustle of Paris but has the history. Next time, I’d like to spend some time visiting more châteaux, what the region Indre-et-Loire is truly known for.

Hôtel de Ville, Tours
Left: Basilica of Saint Martin
Right: Charlemagne’s Tower
Cathédrale Saint-Gatien
Musée des Beaux-Arts
Vieux Tours
Vieux Tours
Marché de Noël (Christmas Market)

Culture Shock

I’ve been in France for almost two months now. Though this is my second time in France and my 10th year of studying the language, I’ve had a few culture shocks, bad and good. Here’s a list:

  • Saying ‘Bonjour’ everywhere, including to everyone in the doctor’s office waiting room and to everyone in a small shop. And sometimes to random people on the street because you think you recognize them.
  • Giving and receiving bises (kisses on the cheek). Do I start on the right or left side? Is it one, two, ten bises?
  • Needing an appointment to open a bank account.
  • Strikes, aka la grève.
  • Being fined 50 euros because I misunderstood someone who told me that I could use a train ticket at any other time . . . that same day.
  • Being told “Ce n’est pas possible,” but receiving no other alternatives (except a fine).
  • Universal health care—what a concept!
  • So. Many. Hills.
  • Waiting months to process administrative paperwork.
  • So many vacation days.
  • You can drive for four hours and end up in Spain. Or Lyon. Or Italy. Four more hours and you’ll be in Germany. Or Switzerland.
  • Not taking no for an answer. No, really. Talk, ask questions, argue, and you might get you what you need/want. Find out more here.

Voilà, a few fun and not-so-fun culture shocks that I have (re)adjusted to since moving to France. Bon dimanche à tous. 🙂

What are some culture shocks you’ve faced abroad?

Cancelled

When a train is cancelled in France, it is supprimé or deleted. This can be for many reasons: a technical issue, an accident, a lack of staff, la grève. Oh yes, you read me: la grève. The strike, one of France’s past times.

This is not a knock on France’s love of striking. The French have fought since 1789 for their right to strike and should take full advantage of it. However, when strikes are unanticipated, it can make things difficult.* Take, for example, my five-day-turned-week-long trip to Forbach** during All Saints Day. When I arrived in Metz on the October 21st, I was greeted with supprimé when I checked my train to Forbach.*** The train was cancelled due to la grève in Grand Est. The trip was supposed to take six hours, including layovers in Paris and Metz. I arrived 12 hours after leaving Angoulême, thanks to a car pool and the life-saving driver who accepted my ride request. The silver lining was that I explored Metz, a gorgeous city, and wasn’t stuck in the middle of nowhere for six hours.

The friend I visited was the best host. As a self-proclaimed Grandma, she really lived up to this title, and I was so happy to catch up with her after three months. We toured all “300 feet of Forbach,” as she describes it. We went back to Metz to visit again, experience IKEA, and wait two hours for a delayed bus. We even took a trip to Saarbrücken, Germany the day before I was supposed to leave. She offered her place to me when we were unsure as to when I could go back to Angoulême when another strike happened at the end of my trip. I spent six days in Lorraine and enjoyed German food as well as IKEA’s Swedish meatballs for the first time. My friend and I waited an hour and a half for a bus to arrive at IKEA to take us back to the Metz train station. I learned just how compliquée France could get while travelling. We received what should have been a paid tour of the Saarbrücken, Germany after making it back from Metz. I learned a few German words and phrases that day, and hopefully, I’ll get to go back to Germany one day to practice them. Among these was, “Ich spreche kein deutsch,” which I really need to practice if I do return one day. Thankfully, my deer-in-the-headlights stare was enough to say it for me.

Travelling can be messy especially when you take trains in France. However, I don’t regret it as I walked away with a little more patience and flexibility. I spent six hours extra in Metz (a beautiful city with a rich history) and even got a seven-hour trip to Paris as I waited for my overnight bus back to Angoulême.


*It should be noted that few things are ever difficult (difficile) in France. It is almost always complicated (compliqué). If there is one phrase to learn here, it is : « C’est compliqué ! » / “It’s complicated!”
**Forbach: a tiny town in the Grand-Est region, an hour east of Metz and twenty minutes from Saarbrücken, Germany.
***After 12 vacation days were taken away and an accident between a train and a truck where a wounded conductor had to walk nearly 2 miles for help, about 200 SNCF workers went on strike to demand their vacation days and salaries above minimum wage. Trains were cancelled, and train travel was brought to a halt. If you’re interested, you can read more here.

Forbach, France
Metz Cathedral
La Porte des Allemands, Metz
Schweinshaxe with a beer in Saarbrücken

Week 1: Jet Lag

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

— Laozi.

            I have officially been in France for one whole week. I’m relieved I arrived early, as I had no idea how difficult jet lag and adjusting to a new city, a new country, would be.* Right now, I’m doing what I would back home on Sunday evening: watching television. La Famille, a show that reminds me a bit of Modern Family, is my soundtrack as I write this. This isn’t going to be a romantic, fun post, but stay tuned for those. Things get infinitely better, I promise. 🙂

            One of the hardest adjustments has been being alone. I spent the past eight weeks with my parents, and my roommates don’t arrive until tomorrow. Even though I have been surrounded by so many helpful people, I felt off all week, particularly when I come home to an empty apartment meant for three people. It was, in part, a result of the jet lag. After sleeping 12 hours after I arrived, I got six or seven hours of sleep over a span of two days. Averaging three hours of sleep per night isn’t good for anyone, physically or psychologically. However, this is supposed to be my dream job and my dream of living in France being fulfilled. I shouldn’t cry, I should be traveling and meeting people and being cool. So far, all I have done is walk around town a few times and take trips to the supermarket to buy groceries, especially bread. So. Much. Bread. I feel pressure to live it up more, to go out, travel around the area, and post everything on social media. I need time, though–time to sleep, time to recover from jet lag, time to make my new home feel like home, and time to adjust to a new culture.

           I studied French for 10 years, but I have only spent a total of nine weeks abroad before moving to France. If navigating the language was difficult, navigating the culture has been like preparing for the GRE all over again. I don’t want to be too loud, too smiley, too Midwestern. There is only so much I can do, though—twenty-two years of living in one culture won’t melt away overnight. I’m definitely not from here, and many people in Angoulême have had no clue what I say when I speak. However, people have been more patient than in Paris. Some have even made conversation and asked where I’m from. It usually comes in the form of, “Quelles sont vos origines?” (“What are your origins?”) I understand a lot of it, but my responses aren’t always perfect or even satisfactory. But that’s why I’m here—not just to teach English but to live and work in France. It’s what I’ve wanted for so long, and now I’m finally here, in southwest France, between Poitiers and Bordeaux.

            It takes time to adjust, and I take longer than most to adjust to new spaces. Everything will get done: I have great teachers with whom I’m working, and I’m going to have two roommates who understand this adjustment. My teachers have invited me to do things, asked me about home, and have assured me many times now that no question is stupid. Personally, I need to do the things that I know help me cope—write, make to-do lists, and talk things over, usually with my mom. And ask questions. Lots of questions. I’ve made lists and lists of questions. And more lists on everything I have to do. Time, writing, and talking. TWT. I’m not the only person going through this, and I need to remind myself that the rewards of being here will heavily outweigh the challenges.**

*Despite hearing how hard it would be many times, I still learned the hard way.
**I’m editing this post on November 7, and I can already say that I’m beginning to reap the rewards of being here. 🙂