Vichy France!

Yesterday, my roommate Jamie and I were disturbed by our alarms at 6 am so that we could get on the first train out of Issoire. We had plans to spend the day in Vichy, which is just North of Clermont-Ferrand.

When we arrived in Vichy at 9am, it suddenly occurred to me that I should have researched possible things to do in this completely unfamiliar place.  I could have at least looked at a map that would direct us to the town center. Without dwelling on my inability to plan properly for anything, we arbitrarily chose a street and started walking, hoping it would lead us to amazing things. Jamie suggested we go somewhere warm and heated for some coffee or food or anything at all that was inside. We soon found a Tabac, which wikipedia defines as “a store licensed to sell Tabacco in France.” You see them all over, and they are usually filled with men drinking coffee. They sell a wide range of candy and useful knickknacks, but they do not sell stamps. Without any contemplation whatsoever, we went in. I was still sleeping at this time, so I ordered a coffee and hoped the caffeine would have an awakening effect.

Anyways one thing led to another and before I knew it, I was sitting in a movie theater watching “Le Monde Magnifique d’Oz” at 10 am. For some reason that I have not yet determined, Jamie and I were the only people in that showing. This was good for me because I needed Jamie to translate the whole way through to give me the authentic English experience, and other viewers may have been frustrated by the disruptions.

After the movie we met up with two American teaching assistants who are in the same program, but quite obviously having very different experiences from us, in this city that has a movie theater. We had a great afternoon with the girls, exchanging horror stories from our classrooms and sharing our expert opinions on how to improve the English curriculum in French schools. We had crepes for lunch and afterwards they took us to a tea salon that served liquid chocolate. I don’t really know how to explain it anymore than: a mug full of chocolate that is thick enough to eat with a spoon, but can also be drunk straight from the mug. In short it was amazing.  They showed us where the American Swim team practiced for the 2013 Olympics, the schools where they taught, and the Promenade that runs along the river. We finished by touring through Vieux Vichy on our way back to the station. To add to the excitement, we saw a huge rat that looked like he had eaten a bigger lunch that I had. Obviously Vichy rats have it pretty good compared to the skinny Parisian ones.

Vichy is a beautiful vibrant city and I felt giddy with excitement all day long because it seemed like there was so much to do.  The architecture is pretty incredible, which I’m told is because it was never bombed during the war. Apparently Napoleon the third liked to go to Vichy regularly for Spa treatments, and ultimately took it upon himself to “modernize” the city where he bought a number of homes for himself. His first residence is now part of a hotel, and was built in 1861(!). I can understand how Napoleon III felt about his city, as I share similar sentiments towards Calgary. He once said: “I am more pleased here than anywhere else, for this is my creation.”

At the risk of completely stealing sentences off of the Internet, I will try to briefly convey the significance of Vichy during WW2. The Vichy Regime was the French Government, and as such Vichy was the official French State from years 1940 to 1944. This government is commonly referred to as a “puppet government run by traitors” (on wiki), as they willfully collaborated with Nazi Germany. The assistants told us that the history of the town is never discussed, which is why there is no museum or anything like that. They also mentioned that it is especially inappropriate to question how a family came by their wealth, as in many cases inheritance is a result of collaboration efforts.

I hope everyone had a really nice Easter weekend, and more importantly I hope they all ate at least as much chocolate as I did, preferably more, so that I don’t have to feel bad about it.

Just when you thought the blog was over..

Maybe someone out there has noticed that it has been a long time since I posted in my blog. I have been busy thinking of possible things to write about. Sometimes I think things are interesting, but then once I write about them, I worry that they are actually boring. I blame all of you who make fun of my “boring never-ending” stories for this psychological complex that I have acquired.

I do regret not writing about when Alex (my time-twin), Laura (my little sister), Ryan (my friend) and Veronica (my other friend) came to France for a week. I would have mentioned our meal when Laura was told they had run out of chicken. Rather than changing her order, they told us that they were going to substitute the chicken for an alternative “meat”.  It was worryingly unclear what kind of animal Laura was going to be eating, and even more so after she had tried it. The only information our waiter could convey was “It will taste just like chicken, don’t worry”. Laura, being a quasi-vegetarian who only eats chicken, did not like this secrecy, and did not think it tasted like chicken. Meanwhile, Veronica was encouraging herself to finish off the raw steak that was served on her plate. Now I like my steak rare. My mum tells me that my first phrase ever muttered was “More meat.” (This just proves that I am a meat-lover.) Veronica’s steak, however, was so incredibly uncooked that it was unsettling. Eventually, after bravely eating half, we sent it back.  As always, that was awkward.

Because I had so much fun at our other dinners, I took the train and met my siblings and friends in Clermont-Ferrand a few days later. They were so happy to have me there that we devised a plan whereby I would spend the night in Clermont at their hotel, and they would drive me to Issoire the next morning in time for my class. This was especially exciting to me even though the room had the unmistakable stench of sewage. Being a Tuesday night in February, in a random French city that no one has ever heard of, we naively assured ourselves that the hotel would surely provide an extra cot. Of course, it didn’t. Apparently all of the roll-away beds were being used, as the hotel was fully booked. I could tell Ryan was really happy when the three of us had to share the double bed, which was actually two single beds pushed together. This gap made for a restful sleep for all of us as we slept horizontally across the beds, using chairs and tables as extensions for our feet.  That was so much fun.

We’ve all heard people say, “I like a challenge”, even if it was just in action movies. Sometimes they also say it in romantic comedies, when one person is playing hard-to-get. I think I am at the point in my life where I don’t really like challenges (now that I have already won Chris Denton over, that is..)  because they seem really hard. That’s why this morning, when I met my new student, I felt nervous. As my roommate pointed out, being new is hard enough as it is, without any added factors. This poor girl, the newest addition to my class, has just moved to Issoire from Greece. She doesn’t speak English and she doesn’t speak French. This morning, my heart ached for her while she sat in a class full of little French kids trying to learn English, being taught by an amateur (I mean literally has no idea what she is doing) Canadian teacher. She looked so scared and sad, and I felt useless. I can’t imagine how isolated she must feel. I tell you this to humble you, because no matter how hard of a day you might be having, just think of this little girl and how many challenges she is facing. Things will get better for her, but for the time being, she is in a new school where she knows no one, and can’t speak to anyone because they don’t speak Greek.

Since I am on a role of sharing life lessons, I will pass on a very important word of advice. Do not, under any circumstances, book yourself on a 7 am flight the morning after your brothers surprise party. Especially not, if this party takes place at O’Sullivans, a karaoke bar that nobody walks away from sober, or even drunk. This is the place that you crawl out of absolutely smashed with all the other seemingly homeless people. Just kidding, it is a great place and obviously a lot of fun. Though I do think it attracts homeless people. And it probably will ruin the next two days of your life. Anyways, if you are going to stupidly put yourself in this position, try to ensure that you will be flying direct. Avoid stopping in three different locations, before your final destination. I am not exaggerating or complaining when I say; I have never felt so miserable in my life, and neither have you. After throwing up on the first airplane, I shamefully admitted to the flight attendants that I experience terrible motion sickness. The guy beside me just looked at me as if to say “You are disgusting”. I have a suspicion he could smell my rum and cokes from the night before. I wanted to explain that I was just bonding with my family, celebrating my time-twin’s 30th birthday.

Today, we were playing my favorite game- a variation of Taboo, where students must describe an English word in English, without saying it. They do as many as they can in one minute. One girl started her clue by saying “It’s like shit”. I thought, maybe she is talking about a sheet of paper.  Then she said, “She is how I go to Guatamala”. This really threw me, and I was the one who wrote the words. Somehow, someone guessed “Air Plane” and she said “yes, but she is a company.” So I thought to myself, ok, so I need to teach the difference between she and it, but more importantly, it seems the girl is describing a company of an airplane, that is like shit. Did I really write Air Canada as one of the words?? Surprisingly, the answer was Air France. Afterwards, another student asked her why she said it was like shit. In a know-it-all voice she said “Because shit means bateau (boat)”. Actually, it doesn’t, but the bell had rung so I thought I’d save that lesson for next week.

French Kids: Miss Honey vs. Miss Trunchbull

When I imagined what life would be like as the English teaching assistant, I frankly pictured myself as Ms. Honey from Disney’s Matilda. I was fairly sure that I would be known as the cool, young, fun, awesome teacher, and they would all love me. This morning, while I was trying to sound as mean and offensive as possible without yelling or swearing, this wistful thought flashed back into my mind.  How naive I must have been back then.

During our training day in October, we were told by the Director of the program that French kids are not like normal kids. As if he was trying to destroy my fantasies of being Ms. Honey, he bluntly told us “You can’t be nice to them. You can’t be their friends. Your North-American friendly, confidence-boosting approach will not work with these kids.”  He warned us to start off strict and mean, so that they know exactly who is boss. He offered other helpful tactics too. For example, always go after the leader, or the most popular kid. Try to embarrass them and make them feel stupid. Threaten to send them to the office. Send them to the office to make a show of them in front of the others. At the time, I thought this was an exaggeration and I couldn’t wait to tell my mum about the funny French man. Now, I know that he was not joking at all, but actually he is an expert on French kids and must have first-hand experience. This morning, I could physically feel the rage rising inside of me. Ms. Honey’s class never behaved the way mine do.

On day one, while I was picking out my “friendliest” outfit, they already had me down as the enemy. Now, four months later, I look for my most intimidating clothes. I never ever wear my British bulldog tee shirt or my hedgehog sweater.

The absolute worst feeling is when a student rolls their eyes at you. (It is also bad when they put their head on the desk and act as if they have never been so bored in their life. This happened to me today while I was showing a riveting video on the Calgary Stampede.) But back to the eye rolling… Last week, a female student with too much attitude rolled her eyes at something the teacher said. This teacher handled the situation exactly how I always do in my head. She went right up to the girl, slammed her hands on the desk and leaned in until she was just inches away from her face. “Oh what? You don’t like me? Well you know what, I don’t like you either. You don’t want to be here? Well I don’t want to be here either. I would prefer to be at home, and not with you- But I don’t have a choice, and neither do you.”  Then she walked away and continued with her lesson. I felt very uncomfortable, but it didn’t seem unusual to anyone else.

I have decided that I strongly disagree with anyone who says that teachers aren’t allowed to have favorites. In fact, I would be willing to get into a heated debate on the issue. The notion of unconditional fairness is just not possible, and there is no sense in fostering this myth in the classroom. I am starting to feel a little bit of compassion for Ms. Trunchbull and somewhat bitter and skeptical of Ms. Honey.

Just to clarify, so that you don’t think all my students hate me and that I am waging a war on little kids, you should know that I only feel this way about a handful of students in one class. For the rest of the day, I pretend to be Ms. Honey, and I’m pretty sure they buy it.

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*Notice the effectiveness of her intimidating wardrobe

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*Notice how fake this looks.

Pen-pal Letters

I am really excited about setting up a pen-pal correspondence with the Strath seventh graders and my cinquième class. The other teacher and I agreed that both groups would write half of the letter in English and half in French, so that everyone would benefit. Watching them read the hand-written letters was a great feeling. They were so excited. When they didn’t understand, many of them asked me what things meant. I think I was quite helpful until one girl put her hand up and asked me what her pen-pal had written in the French section. I told her that if she couldn’t understand the French, I probably wouldn’t be able to either. As a matter of fact, after reading it, I would bet that no one could. The kids were asking for phone numbers and offering their own, they were so keen to speak to the Canadian who had written to them.  Immediately, they came up with the idea of doing a video-conference call. Hopefully the STS grade seven class is willing to take the early-morning bus to school, because I did not have the heart to say no, despite the logistical impossibilities. If they can all get to the classroom by 7am, it might be able to work.

Anyways, I thought I would share some of the comments that I came across when reading their letters:

1. Have you got a lover?

2. I’ve got ovale face

3. I love chocolate and chips. I am not very fat.

4. I’ve got one dog and 12 rabbits.

5. My birthday 16 Febrwary  (I told him, I don’t think English people could even pronounce that)

6. Thanks. Answer.

7. What are your hobbits?

9. I like rabbits but I love dancing and quadding.

10. I love Inglish class.

11. I sleep around 21 hours at night.

8. I can’t wait to meet you. (this was written in French – I thought this was very forward of them, given that this is only their first time receiving a letter from their pen-pal)

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Today I gave my class a questionnaire with questions to ask their classmates. On one side, they had to decide if they like, love, don’t mind, don’t like, or hate each thing on a list. The list included things like cats, dogs, rugby, tennis, elephants, and frogs. When it came to frogs, I heard one boy say “I don’t mind eating frogs”. This was not an answer I was expecting. Another group got into an argument whether the question was “Do you like eating frogs?” or “Do you like looking at frogs?” I told them they could choose how they wanted to interpret ‘frogs’, so naturally, they chose eating them. I thought to myself, only in France would that even be a question.

On the other side of the paper, they had to come up with their own questions for their classmates. My favorites were “Do you have a turkey?” and “Do you don’t mind the hippos?”

Fr€nch Lyf€

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Since I’ve been back in France, my classes have been going unusually well- probably because I am so jetlagged that it is truly difficult for me to feel any type of stress or concern. Normally jetlag doesn’t seem to be a problem. The journey from Calgary to Issoire is a two-day feat, so by the time anyone gets here they are ready to sleep through the night. My mistake was that I slept on every single train. Now, I am daydreaming about sleeping all day long, and wide-awake between 2am and 6am. This is a great trick for those of you in a long-distance relationship though.  It makes the time difference issue disappear when you can talk on the phone at 3am. The worst part about my sleep cycle is that I always fall asleep at 6am, only to be woken up 40 minutes later by my alarm. I wake up so angry I want/need to shoot someone. I’ve seen movies where they torture people by not letting them sleep, and then if they do fall asleep, they wake them up. I totally know how those people feel. I only mention this trivial part of my life because I know you have probably experienced the same thing, and understand how frustrating it is. I was going to cut this paragraph out but I just couldn’t.

After a few terrifying weeks of teaching high school kids, I learnt a valuable trick . You see, it is very obvious when my activity is boring the students. They usually put their head in their hands and stare at me sideways, or they just talk to each other in French. Some of them actually sleep, which makes me feel insulted and also wildly jealous. So, when they start doing this, I say “When you’ve finished, you are going to act or draw your answers out for the class, and the others will guess what you wrote”. They love this. Also it takes about 20 minutes of the class, which is amazing.  This morning, my class of 16 year olds drew and acted out their New Years resolutions. One of them drew a picture of a pint and then crossed it out. The others guessed, “quit drinking” and he sat down. I didn’t know what to say.

There are some key differences between French students, and everything that I am used to.  Here are five examples:

1. Picture two tiny (very well-dressed) 11 year olds, one girl and one boy who spend all day, everyday, picking on each other the way 11 year olds do. At 7:55 am, they walk into school and see each other. Without saying a word, they delicately join their faces and do the two-cheek kissing greet before continuing on to their homerooms. Now picture all of the 11 year olds doing this.  It is like something out of a Broadway musical if you know what I mean.

2. Students wait outside the classroom in a line until the teacher invites them into the room. Once inside, they stand behind their desks, until you allow them to sit down. There is probably no better feeling than having this control. It is like playing Simon Says but I am Simon. If one of them sits down by accident, the others all freak out and tell them to stand back up.

3. When the bell rings, no one moves. They wait until the teacher dismisses them, and then they pack up their things and go. Though, to be honest, my classes stopped doing this pretty early on. Now they all just run out when they hear the bell. They probably just don’t want to be late for their next lesson.

4. High-school kids make-out a ridiculous amount, and I have a lot of trouble hiding my discomfort. In between classes, the halls are absolutely crammed with students. The worst is when you get pushed up against two of your students who are truly “french” kissing.  To make matters worse, the lights in the hallways turn off all the time. I really don’t know why, but I do not like it.

5. Whenever I say the word “sheet”, as in “sheet of paper”, I can count on all of the students laughing and imitating the word. It took me a while to realize that they think “sheet” and “shit” are pronounced the same. Likewise, if ever the word “beach” comes up, they all think it is absolutely hilarious.

A few weeks before Christmas break, my roommates and I decided to head into the “Big City” of Clermont-Ferrand to see a movie in theaters. I was extremely excited, because as you may already know, I love seeing movies.  At 4:30, we set off for the train station, which is a 15-minute walk. Our train left at 5:00 and the journey takes around 40 minutes, depending on which route it takes. This one was fairly direct. Once in C.F, the walk to the movie theater takes 30 minutes. Outside, it was absolutely pissing down with rain. The wind was so strong and the air was freezing.  As you can probably imagine, my roommates were starting to have some doubts on if the movie outing was worth the effort. I was absolutely positive that it was not worth the effort. It was miserable. When we finally got to the cinema, we were drenched and also very cold. I had straightened my hair for the special occasion and quickly realized it was a waste of time and hair-dryness (in case you didn’t know, the heat is supposed to be terrible for your hair). The most upsetting part about the situation was the concession. It consisted of a fridge with bottles of drinks (no fountain pop which is one of my favourite parts of my movie experience), and a big container of pre-made (stale), sweet, not-buttery or salty, popcorn. Beside this poor display there was one vending machine with chips and candy. After each of us complained about our food options for a few minutes, we found our seats and sat down in our wet, clingy jeans. The movie was a French film named “Populaire”.  It was set in 1958 and it was about a typewriting competition for females. My only complaint about the actual movie was that it was in French, and they spoke way too fast. I am sure that I missed a lot of key content, and did not know when anyone was joking or not. When the movie ended, we checked the train times. The next one was in ten minutes, and it was safe to say we would not be on it.  The following train was in two hours. To pass the time, we went to Quick Burger. If you are unfamiliar with this fast food restaurant, it is like McDonalds but 100 times less good. If you are interested in learning more, speak to Chris Denton about his pepper burger. Our train home was most definitely not direct, and the temperature outside was dropping. When we finally got back into our apartment just after 11:30, I thought about our excursion. According my calculator, this movie trip had taken us 7 hours in total, and that is not including the time I spent straightening my hair. Obviously next time we go into the city to go to the cinema, we will need to rent a car.

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This is a photo of a parking lot in Issoire.

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Alex, here is a lovely building made out of stone. You may want to add it to your blog.

Thoughts on a plane

I decided to write a blog. There are a few reasons for this decision. First of all, I just started reading Ellen Degeneres’s autobiography, and her first-person narrative really makes me feel like talking about myself. Also, my good friend Tom just recently sent out a link to his blog about his travels to India and his upcoming stay in Hong Kong. Reading about his life also made me want to start talking about myself. Since moving (if you can call it that) to France, a few people have suggested that I start a blog. I secretly wanted to, but I felt like no one would really care, so no one would read it, and then I would feel sad. Then I thought, if I read their blogs, then it is quite logical that they should read mine. Then I realized I should actually start reading my brother’s blogs on the oil sands and also his one about buildings (or other things) made out of stones. First thing I’ll do next time I’m bored in France is check those out. Based on my logical reasoning, I should have at least two readers/followers. Tom and my brother, Alex.

As I write my first blog, I am sitting on a plane headed to London, England. I am in a bizarrely good mood, and I am willing to accredit that to Ellen Degeneres. I would recommend it to everyone- especially Alex because I think you two have very similar humor. Also you are a quick reader so you have nothing to lose.

Two weeks ago, my journey home from France to Canada was so ridiculous it may have even been funny- if I was watching someone else experience it. It would have been great to write about in a blog, but I don’t want to focus on the past (Ellen advises against that), so I will not tell you about it. Instead I am just going to trust my instincts that the French people and their lifestyle will leave me with plenty more frustrating, noteworthy and potentially comical experiences.  This is actually more of an educated guess than an instinct.

Although Ellen’s book really is unusually uplifting, I think my good mood can also be attributed to my perfect holiday. How backwards it is to be calling my visit to Calgary a holiday from my life in France. I will probably feel the “post-holiday blues” soon, but until then I am excited to get back to France and start reading Alex’s blogs. I might also teach some classes if I get time. In five and a half weeks, my sister Laura and her boyfriend Ryan are flying to France for a holiday. I like to think this is because I will be there, but there is no way of knowing.  I think the anticipation of their arrival is also adding to my excitement. We can take some time, maybe 20 minutes, to see everything in my town. I can show them the store where a guy tried to shoplift a second bottle of Malibu, or the exact spot where I finally let my guard down and stepped in a pile of dog poo. I’ll show them the infamous Subway that plays the racy French music videos and the extremely dreaded Laundromat (“laverie”). The first time I left this particular establishment I carried home a bag of wet, dirty clothes, after spending approximately three hours analyzing the signs and trying to decide if I had pressed the right buttons. I can tell you now, that I did not press any of the right buttons. Since then, I decided to buy reinforcement underwear, and stow away my dirty laundry until my next trip to Canada. It seems the most practical solution given the circumstances.

On my last night in Calgary, I did what I love to do most. After cuddling wieners and nursing a slight hangover throughout the day, I went to see Django in theaters with Alex, Chris and our somewhat mutual friend Brent. It was kind of disgusting most of the time, but in general it was enjoyable. I hope there really was a Django like him. I think that all of my blog followers, and I do mean you Tom, because Alex has already seen it, should take the chance to see this movie because then we can quote Django when we see each other. I would also recommend that you both buy Ellen’s third book, called “Seriously…I’m kidding”.

My next blog will be less chitter chatter and more about France. If you know me then you know I tell GOOD stories, and you’re going to want to read them all. That being said, if you don’t know me very well, you might actually read my next post. Image