Thursday, December 9, 2010

je suis de retour!

New Apartment!

It's been a good past couple of weeks-Ali and I finally found an awesome apartment in centre ville, conveniently located in right down the street from our friends' apartment. It's right by the Garonne (the river) and basically close to everything-so we're really excited about it. We move in January first! Only problem-it's not we have to completely furnish the place, which will be a bit of a hassle.


We had a great Thanksgiving, as well. A massive feast chez moi that Ali and I hosted -we invited all of our new friends and it ended up being at least 30 or so people in that one tiny room. A lot more people than we had anticipated. And the irony of it all? Ali and I were the only Americans! Pretty funny. Otherwise, there was a mix of French, Spanish, Turkish, British, Italian...etc.

Ali and I made mashed potatoes and chicken pot pie (it would have been pretty difficult to cook a turkey, so we skipped out on that...) and then everyone brought some food or drink. It was a lot of fun. But I don't think that my roommate was too happy about it, since he sleeps in the living room...he hung out in my room half of the time, I think it got a bit overwhelming for him. whoops.

I enjoy teaching a lot more than last year -the teachers are much more involved in what I'm doing, even requesting updates after each class. Last year, the teachers left everything up to me and there was no communication whatsoever - when I told them that the students misbehaved, they would simply respond with an "Oh well"- which was probably a main reason behind the students' misbehavior in class. After a year of teaching under my belt, I also feel like I'm better at disciplining the students and know how to be stricter when needed.

Most of the students are much better behaved than last year, for some reason, so I don't need to do much disciplining. Although one day, in class with a teacher, one of the students said to me "you have a bum." I wasn't sure if I had heard him correctly. I mean, would he actually have said that in front of the teacher? Well, the teacher pretty much shushed him and told him that was inappropriate, so I think that I did hear him correctly. haha. It was pretty funny.

After classes finished today, there was a Christmas party in the teachers lounge- all the teachers had brought something to feast on. And of Even though it was the middle of the day and most teachers have classes throughout the afternoon, french food is simply incomplete without wine. I laughed to myself, knowing that something like this would just never happen in the states-drinking wine during school? You must be of your mind to even propose such an idea...

Now I know that smoking is, in a way, part of French culture. While not all French people smoke, a large portion do and it is almost a way to be social more than anything else. At least, it definitely starts out that way. But what saddens me is when I see young kids, no older than 10, smoking a cigarette with a friend. I've seen this several times and I know I heard that many kids start smoking at age 12 or 13, but I guess I didn't really believe it until I saw it. I just went to yell at them to stop and say "What are you doing??! Smoking is NOT cool!" Unfortunately, somehow they have this idea drilled into them that it is. So that part of French culture...not so cool.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Cultural differences

For instance...
The other day I was walking down the street, somewhere in the center of town, and I saw a car parked in the middle of the street, blocking all other vehicles. There was no driver, it was just parked there –no emergency lights on or anything. And fellow passerbys did not even seem to blink an eye. Welcome to France. This type of thing is not unusual and is even common – I remember the same thing happened even more in Italy! Something to do with those Latin countries I guess…

Another subtle but evident cultural difference I’ve become aware of is the use of cell phones in France versus in America. In America, everyone seems to have either a blackberry or iphone that they are literally attached to the hip with – it really disgusts me how even 2 and 3 year old kids know how to work their parents’ iphone thanks to all the many kids-friendly apps. There needs to be a line drawn and to me, that’s crossing it. In France, it’s refreshing how, believe it or not, most people do not own a blackberry or iphone; cell phones are used as a simple method of communication and not much more than that. You walk down the street of New York and see a million New Yorkers on cell phones- it’s nice how here, people take pleasure in their immediate surroundings as opposed to being constantly in touch with the future.

Extreme Americans vs. Laid Back Europeans
I was watching the movie “Wedding Crashers” with my Italian roommate the other night and after Vince Vaughn’s character says something, he goes to me “you americans are so extreme.” He is absolutely right and that is a great way to describe us.

Whether it’s our diet and exercise (we seem to have many issues with both obesity and eating disorders), our consumption of alcohol, our 80 hour + work weeks, or the excessive use of tanning beds, I think that many Americans could learn a thing or two from the more relaxed, less extreme European way of living. Kids start drinking at an early age because they (normally) do not abuse alcohol the way Americans do. Don’t get me wrong, there are many young French people who binge drink as well – but you definitely don’t hear about many young Europeans ending up in hospitals or dying from excessive alcohol consumption. I understand that America is the most powerful country in the world for a reason-but France is smaller than the state of Texas, has much more vacation time than the standard American worker, and for the most part, French people do not overwork themselves-a 40 hour work week, standard in America, is considered almost excessive over here. And yet they still remain the fourth most powerful country in the world-to me, that is impressive.

Tanning beds – many of my friends go several times a week or at least several times a month, despite the obvious safety hazards that they pose. I just learned that in France, many doctors actually prescribe tanning beds to patients. I don’t think I have seen one tanning salon while here in France and definitely haven’t heard of anyone going – as many of us have witnessed from the cast of Jersey Shore alone, tanning is purely a vanity ritual that many Americans can not do without. In France, apparently there is not an issue with excessive tanning, and therefore doctors are able to prescribe them in a limited dose.

Another example of our extremity is the size of our houses, cars, food…well, everything…compared to European sizes. A wealthy American family is going to display their wealth with a large house and a nice big car…whereas a French family with the same amount of money is not nearly as likely to show off their wealth. A large house in France has several bedrooms, a dining room, living room and one full bathroom. In France, it is very normal for even a well-off family to share one bathroom. Perhaps I have been spoiled in my upbringing, but in America, well-off families would most definitely have more than one bathroom to share between a family. Obviously this is not necessary, but for some reason, many Americans seem to think it is.

In France, the houses are nice, but not overly ostentatious, as many are in America. What I find so interesting about all this, is that people drive smaller cars and live in smaller houses, yet somehow, they get (in my opinion) even more enjoyment out of life. Simple pleasures, like sitting down for a café, are enjoyed more - as opposed to the American tradition of running to Starbucks and barely having time to breathe in between. Wealth is not displayed in the form of a huge mansion or the latest Mercedes…people do not feel the need as much here to show off their affluence through materialism; as a result, the gap between the poor and the rich is much less noticeable. I’ve actually heard from many sources and various people, that when wealth is displayed in France), other people actually look down on that person for that; in direct contrast, is the US, where a display of wealth makes you more popular and gathers more followers. For example, I’ve heard stories about wealthy individuals who have had to buy a separate, less showy car to drive around town in –because if their clients or neighbors saw the nicer car they drove, they would completely shun them. A doctor, for instance, would lose all of his clients! The opposite is true in the US-if you drive a nice car or live in a big house, that is a sign to the rest of the world that you are successful-and American people want to follow successful people. It would be nice to find a happy medium between the two – I do not believe in showing off one’s wealth- but at the same time, one should be able to buy what they want and live where they want without having to fear being judged for it.

American Cooking vs Italian Cooking
Like I said, right now I’m living with an Italian guy. He’s really nice and laid-back but I know there are many things about my American ways that he just doesn’t get. For instance-he only buys Barilla (Italian brand) pasta and simply doesn’t understand how I can buy the cheap Casino brand (tastes the same to me!) – yesterday he said to me “the quality of what you buy makes a difference”-yes, this is true- but the fact that he is applying this to pasta, which to me, all tastes the same, just seems very Italian. And I love it.
When my friend Ali comes over to my apartment and spends the night, we never cook together- we make separate meals and normally even eat at different times, doing different things. This is in direct contrast to my roommate, who, the other night, had a friend over for dinner/to spend the night and they cooked together, ate at the table together and even got a bottle of wine to enjoy while eating. 

So when he witnessed our dinner exchange, he was very perplexed, saying that dinner is supposed to be a time to spend with your friends and he thought it was very strange that we ate separately and didn’t talk while eating. He said “that’s not dinner, that’s just eating.” He definitely raised a good point.

Tonight, we had a mélange of people come over for dinner that he organized- 2 Chinese girls, 1 French guy, 3 of his Italian friends and a Turkish guy. The languages were a mix between Italian, French and English-mostly French of course, though. So before the dinner, Marco told me that he wanted to show me how to cook –because apparently there are a lot of things that I need to learn. I made a tiny faux pas (like he told me to throw away the potato peels so we could put the newly cut potatoes on the same plate; and I came back with the same plate, clearly unwashed) and he told me “no one is every going to marry you if you do this.” HAHAHA. SO very Italian, I love it. He later said “every woman knows how to cook-sometimes they just have to be taught.” As you can see, he is very traditional in his ways. He said “You Americans do a lot of things well and you are the most powerful country in the world for a reason and you obviously work very hard-but you have NO idea how to cook.” So true- Americans don’t cook anything from scratch anymore! We all rely on frozen dinners, take-out and easy recipes. We just don’t have the same fresh ingredients and produce that are so integral to a good French and/or Italian meal. Marco then says “And what is more important than love and food?” Good point. 

Because when it comes down to it, the Italians definitely have it right- there really isn’t anything more important than those two things.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Here we go again!

Well I just arrived BACK in Toulouse yesterday morning to start what will hopefully be another wonderful year! This year I got lucky and got placed at one high school in Toulouse. No more commuting! As much as I enjoyed the train rides and having that me-time, I will not miss the 5am mornings and waiting around in Lannemezan all day for my next class to start.

Right now, I'm staying with a teacher from the high school where I'm going to be working-she has kindly offered up her guest room for me to stay in while I search for an apartment.

The good thing is that everything is SO much easier the second time around. Knowing how to do things, how to manage the French bureaucracy (what documents are needed, how to push your way to an answer) and having been through this once before, definitely makes things easier and less stressful. (Re)opening my bank account, getting a french portable - well, apparently I'm banned from joining in another contract after leaving in the middle of my last one (after thinking that I wasn't coming back to France, I of course had to cancel my 2 year contract-which I made thinking that I was going to be here for 2 years...then I changed my mind...twice). But I have a phone and that's all that matters!

Even though I've only been in France for less than 36 hours, I'm already being reminded of little cultural differences. Faire les bises (there really is no English equivalent-basically kissing someone on the cheek twice in greeting) when meeting someone for the first time-I met my teacher's partner and my first instinct was to stick my hand out as I said enchanté to him! Major oops here in France...reminder: the handshake does not exist.

I was in the Darty store today (an electronic store, basically equivalent to our Best Buy), getting my cell phone and as I was waiting, I was fiddling with the Ipad. I started scrolling under the notes section and saw some meaningless things written. Then I saw something that made me smile a bit inside. Someone had written: "Caro- Je t'aime du tout mon coeur" (Caro-I love with you with all my heart). Maybe that was the first time someone said I love you to their girlfriend- or maybe it was the 500th. But it definitely made me happy and was a true reminder that I am back in France - for better or for worse, the French are not the least bit shy when it comes to showing their affection for their loved ones. 

We Americans are so prudish to begin with, that anything more than a peck on the lips in public is frowned upon. Until you come to France, you ain't seen nothin' yet. Making out in public is the least of it. People will do everything but have sex (oh no wait, that has been witnessed once before) in full view of the general population. And no one blinks an eye. I must say, while some of the PDA I witness I could definitely do without, it is quite refreshing to see that here, love is always in the air. ahhh la France, c'est trop romantique! Sometimes...

On that note, the French definitely approach relationships in a very different way than Americans. In France, to be in a relationship, much of the time, really doesn't mean anything. While in the US, becoming "boyfriend, girlfriend" is a huge deal and one that must be "DTR"ed (define the relationship) until it becomes official, in France, you can meet somebody once and they will already be asking to date you. I experienced this firsthand last year - I met this 19 year old while waiting at the train station (from Lannemezan, going to Toulouse) -I say 19 because a) he was still in high school and b) he was too young for me. We talked, rode the train back to Tarbes and then to Toulouse together (he thought that we could maybe catch a quicker train out of Tarbes even though it was out of our way home) and later that night, he came to the bar that I was at (since I casually mentioned that I was going there that night - we didn't even exchange phone numbers at this point in time). At least we didn't until later that night...he ended up texting me after he left saying "Je suis amoreux de toi" (I'm in love with you) and other sweet French nothings...Oh boy. Clearly you're not in love with me-I met you once, hung out with you for no more than 2 hours...I mean come on! I don't believe I responded. 

A week or so later I recieve a text from him saying "Tu veux sortir avec moi?" (do you want to go out with me). I said I was busy that day/night and he said "No, do you want to be my girlfriend?" HAHAHAHAH. And so you see that being boyfriend/girlfriend really means absolutely nothing in France. This type of thing would never happen in the US. Of course, this is definitely not always the case in France either and perhaps in high school this type of thing is even more exaggerated- but bottom line: relationships are extremely casual here and there is no real fuss made about their development.

Intéressant, non?

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

NYE and life as an assistant

So just over 2 months later comes my next blog post...and needless to say, a lot has happened since! Came back to school from fall break, then we had Christmas break not long after and now back at school again...eager for our next break in February!

It was pretty upsetting having so little time at home (a total of 4 days) and so little time to see everyone, but now that I'm back in France, it almost feels like I never left-it was quite a whirlwind vacation. New years in Paris was so much fun and so good to see some fellow sorority sisters and Beverly- who I WISH lived in Toulouse instead of Paris!

All of us on New Years Eve!

It was only my second time in Paris- this time, I got to see a little more- but still not nearly enough! I spent an entire DAY in the Louvre (5 hours or so) and I was STILL rushing through the exhibits trying to see some of my favorite artists. If you want to know my opinion-the Mona Lisa? Totally overrated.

See what I mean?

Micaela and me in front of the Eiffel Tower-all lit up!

This is me, Micaela and Beverly in front of the Notre Dame-the line was too long so we didn't actually go time! I'm in no rush to see everything - this is the second of MANY future trips to Paris!

Me and Micaela in front of the Louvre, main entrance- Paris by night is just magical, there are no words.

Now I'm back in Toulouse and trying to accomplish some new goals I have for the Year (I guess you could call them resolutions...)

1) LEARN FRENCH (my number one)- which means taking a french course (starting that next week), watching videos in french every day (thanks megavideo for that), actually studying and SPEAKING french (which brings me to goal #2)

2) make french friends!! it's actually a lot harder than it seems, seeing as most people here are already set in their groups of friends. but i'm going to make it happen this year! I'm determined.

I won't bore you with the rest, but those are the top two goals I have for this year...

It's frustrating because sometimes I feel like my French is getting a lot better and then other times (like when I'm trying to listen to a conversation 2 french people are having), I feel like I have gotten nowhere! Il faut parler DOUCEMENT, sinon c'est impossible de comprendre!
Hopefully I will eventually start to get the hang of it...

On another note...

Being a teaching assistant is so frustrating sometimes, especially at a lycée where the kids mostly just screw around during class and talk French to each other the entire time. SO annoying. I try and do stuff that I think will be fun for them (jeopardy, playing songs, games etc) but they definitely have learned how to take advantage of someone who is not their real teacher. I think that's how it is for all teaching assistants (especially in the lycée) but even so...there are some students who are SO sweet and actually seem willing to learn and don't talk in class/actually do their work and listen. But there are always the select few (mostly boys) who make it nearly impossible to teach. Agh so frustrating! Especially since I am so bad at disciplining people (especially high schoolers) and do not know how to yell/be even somewhat of a bitch to them. Which I definitely should be seeing as how many of them behave..

Then again, at the collège (collège students are middle school age and lycée is high school) where I teach, I have one class with a few girls who are SO well behaved it's like eery..they are so obedient and if they talk, it's only to whisper about what I just told them to do. I love it. They are so cute too and speak basically ZERO English. Which means I have to translate everything for them and therefore get to practice my French :) At the lycée, I only speak French to them if they are misbehaving or being loud or need translation for something/don't understand what I said in English...but at the collège, if I tell them to do something in English (anything), they have no idea what I just said-so I have to translate everything into French.

I have another class at the college with about ten boys and girls and I have to say...this group is even harder to maintain than some of my students at the lycee. At first, I had only girls and they were very well-behaved. But then, about seven boys entered the class and now, it is a madhouse. The boys will be running around, chasing each other, drawing penises on the board in permanent marker (yes, that actually happened), and overall, just being difficult. They have their cute moments though. This beautiful little thirteen year old girl said to me, "je veux vous ressembler" ("i want to look like you."). It was very sweet. Moments like that help make up for all the craziness!

One class before break, I asked my collège students to translate some French sentences into English. Every five seconds, they were asking "comment dit-on ____ en anglais?" This is the result of some of their work...

Elle le lui a emprunté (She borrowed it from him) became: She the him have to borrow.
Je l'ai connu en Italie au printemps dernier (I met him/her in Italy last spring) became: I the have to know in Italie. All of the sentences were like this...complete, direct translation. It almost seems like they have not taken English at ALL before! Apparently I have a LOT to teach them...

I just wish I had more hours at the collège-I only teach there 2 hours a week and the rest of my hours are at the lycée. Quite unfortunate. It's also pretty funny because many of my students (and non-students) at the lycée have been friending me on facebook - I give them a limited profile (so they can't read this for instance!) but it's pretty funny regardless. It's definitely a weird relationship I have with my lycée students because I am not that much older than them (much closer in age to the students than I am to most of the teachers) but they still use "vous" with me and call me "Madame" (so I am presumably somewhat of an authority figure). But at the same time, they definitely don't act like it most of the time...Like shouting "I love you," "you are sexy!" (yes, they actually say those things. ha) or various things that are definitely not student-teacher appropriate!

Whereas at the collège, I am at least 10 years older than all the kids (weird! makes me feel really old...) so they actually see me as an authority figure (as far as I can tell..). It's also nice because all the collège students are only taking my class because they WANT to. It's like an extra curricular activity; they can choose to do a number of things, including sports, but they chose to take my class and learn English! Working in the collège is just a much better experience overall. One of the English teachers at the collège (who organized all my hours with me) is SO nice and speaks perfect English -I honestly didn't think she was French when I first met her! She has been so sweet, always asking me how I am and if I'm happy in Toulouse-and she even invited me over for dinner and to spend the night at her house on Monday night. She is the only teacher that has really reached out to me since I've been here - it was so nice to see a real French home and have a nice home-cooked meal!

Back to the students..It's so weird because in France, almost EVERYONE smokes in lycée- I walk outside the building and all the kids are smoking. It's disgusting, but for some reason, smoking is the cool thing to do here. Apparently a lot of them start with weed and then move on to cigarettes so I guess that's how it starts. But it's so weird seeing kids no older than 14 or 15 smoking already! After class, one of my students asked me "vous fumez?" and I almost felt really weird saying "nope." When I was asking some of my students what their hobbies were, one boy replied: "Girls, smoking..." - yes, smoking actually counts as a hobby here! Not sports, but "smoking." I thought that was pretty funny/kind of sad.

High schools in France are just so different from American high schools because the groups are much less cliquey and there is a LOT less division between the students. They all seem to get along with each other and I honestly can't tell the "popular" crowd from the "nonpopular" crowd. They all sort of look the same! I was explaining to some of my classes stereotypes that often exist in American high schools (goth, jock, prep etc) and one of the English students was asking me if it's just like the movies portray it and if there are that many cliques/divisions between American high school students. I told her that that existed to a certain degree...and she was just saying how that doesn't really exist much in France - that there are definitely some students dorkier than others but everyone really gets along and those stereotypes/divisions are pretty much nonexistent. I know that at least in my high school (and I'm sure many others), people were very concerned with labels and wearing designer clothes/having expensive things. She said that that sort of thing does not really matter and people are not at all concerned about labels or having expensive things-that doesn't make a student more or less popular. It was pretty refreshing to learn that outside of the US, that cliquey division between students and general materialism is not really present. Don't get me wrong-there are lots of things I love about American high schools - for instance: sports are much more important in high schools back home (no one seems to really play sports competitively here-it's so weird! I guess smoking takes up too much of their time...). But when it comes to high school social life, I think Americans could learn a thing or two...

JERSEY SHORE INVADES FRANCE. I'm sure most of you have at least heard of this's pretty ridiculous. Also not exactly the best portrayal of American society...Anyways, after making several facebook statuses quoting some of the ridiculous statements from that show, one of my French facebook friends goes "I just watched the jersey shore- is this what American people are like??!!" This was like 6 weeks ago. Then just yesterday, HIS facebook status reads "Jersey Shore-I love american people!!!" hahahah. Funniest thing ever. Just to imagine any French person watching this show - I can barely even picture it. I tried to convince him that the majority of Americans are NOT like that, I promise! Hopefully there are not many other non-Americans watching that show-that sort of trashiness should only be viewed by Americans, haha.

OK I'm off to go buy a baguette! Yes, I am in France.