23.2.12

Remember that time the wrong cousins were selected...?


Uncle Bernie...

Uncle Bernie (related to the director of the program) bought this beauty several years ago for a few months-stint in France. Then he gave it to the program, basically. The thing has so many speeding tickets on it from over the years no one else will take it. It's a 1970-something Mercedes Benz. Drives like a tank, no parking break, can start her off in third gear just as easy as first, and reversing requires putting your entire body weight in to pushing down on the stick and shifting down below fifth gear. The radio only picks up the most cheesy and eclectic of all French radio stations. I love this car. 

22.2.12

Showered and shaved...

I have water. It is glorious. I never, ever thought I would be excited to shower in my closet of a bathroom stall, but today was magnificent. It's amazing what a hot shower and a shave can do for a girl, especially when she doesn't have to march down a freezing hallway to get to running water.

Staci visited over the weekend, just a quick trip to France for four days. It was tons of fun and exactly what I needed for a positive energy boost. I think she had a pretty good time too! We walked our buns off - literally, probably 10 miles our last day in Paris. Monday morning we hit the train back to Onzain where "uncle Bernie" was waiting for us - more on that in another post - and drove back to Pontlevoy. 

It's so great when people from "home" can visit me when I'm working one of our programs. It just helps everything come together, I think, for them and also for me. The things I talk about, the places I mention, the people I interact with while I'm "gone"...to be able to see it, meet them, it just paints a clearer picture for the people at home. 

And for me, well, it's not exactly a "normal" lifestyle I have been living the past few years, living in three countries a year. I suppose that applies to the majority of my life though, if you really think about it. I remember getting on the plane as a kid, leaving the US for whatever country we lived in at the time and it felt like I was traveling between worlds. Really, I can remember engaging my brain to revert back to how we lived in the world we were traveling to. Okay, as an adult it isn't as fantastical as that sounds, it's a much easier adjustment, there is less engaging of the brain in that sense, but I vividly remember those feelings as a kid. The only constant between the worlds I traveled between was my immediate family. 

So, when the people from these worlds visit the other it adds a little more sense to life. It bridges a gap somewhere. It's nice. 

Although there is a strange line that can be crossed which is difficult to explain, but a visit from people between these worlds can also feel somewhat invading, for lack of a better word. There was that one time a "significant other" was leaving on a plane to come visit me in France the very next day, but then he didn't come, long story. I remember the feeling was very overwhelming - for a lot of reasons - but part of it was me wondering whether I really wanted to let that person "in" as intimately as allowing them to visit me in one of my other worlds...[rolling my eyes] does this all just sound incredibly cheesy?  It's not meant to. And you might also be thinking, "well, Jessi, then why the hell did you let him book his ticket if you were going to freak out about it?" I'm not turning this post in to an analysis of previous relationships...

All I want to say is: it's incredibly satisfying to have friends/family visit me when I travel for work, because it puts it all together in a way that's not possible without an actual visit, but only the closest of friends/family can make that trip, I think, people who I have the right kind of connection with mentally, emotionally, etc. - or else it feels a little invading and/or forced. 

I just realized this post's title has little to do with where I actually took it. Eh.

video
Just some of the fun Staci and I made.

14.2.12

le brazza...

There's a bar-tabac down the street called Le Brazza that I try to visit for coffee before I open the office during the week. Except on Mondays, they're closed Mondays and I have to go to Bar de la Poste owned and operated by a mullet-sporting couple. Even their dog has a mullet, if you can believe that. 

A different couple owns Le Brazza, and they trade off mornings. This morning the man was there, and he reminds me of my Granddaddy Lamb. On the rare occasions my grandpa picked up the phone when I called home in college, we would talk about the weather. Always. That's usually what the Brazza man and I discuss. Today's conversation: The snow is melting, it's not as cold, how nice, etc. And then he offered me my grand crème at a discount!



I bundled up to walk down there and thought it almost felt warm! That's probably because my body is now adept at functioning in extremely-cold-below-freezing temps.

On the way to work I stopped at the boulangerie. Another daily activity. The hardest decision to make is what pastry to purchase for breakfast. A pain au chocolat? Or the even more devine pain au chocolat aux amandes...a pain aux raisins? A few days ago I tried something new, a pastry with apricots and cream worked in somehow. Amazing. Not too sweet, the perfect puffy pastry. Sometimes I walk out with a few options, and share with anyone who happens to wander in the office. 

Today I walked out with a single pain au chocolat - like a croissant filled with chocolate, and two chocolate hearts with a ribbon tied around them placed delicately in their own bakery bag to give my student coordinator, Brian and Nora:


I made those cut out heart cards myself yes I did. Happy Valentine's Day!

With the warmer weather I'm hoping for thawed pipes in the staff wing, and running water for me by the end of the week. It would be so fantastic to be able to use my restroom finally - and get some laundry done, there are only so many times you can re-wear wool socks...

10.2.12

Photos from the past few adventures...

...this is how cold it was at the airport.

Nora's first "Le Quick" experience waiting on our train at Montparnasse station.

View from the TGV en route to St. Pierre des Corps.

Greeted by the "grey ghost" in Montrichard.

Thanks Marianne for coming to get us!

Outside Le Commerce on la place first evening - super pumped and exhausted!

It's $%^#(@& cold!

The gardens in front of the Abbey - some of you remember more trees being there.

That's the little green door the students use to enter and exit the grounds.

Sunsets here are magnificent.

Fabulous - that's how awesome I look bundled up in my office.

Can you see the snow falling?

La vache qui rit...

I was actually hot last night under the covers with all my layers and hot water bottle. It was delightful. Unfortunately I still didn't sleep well, darn jetlag - and probably some anxiety over what's about to happen, and lack of exercise.

Now I don't have ANY water. So to shower: I layer up inside my room, in full winter gear, head into to the arctic hallway with my shower caddy in tow, and walk to the student wing to a condemned room that has hot water but will never have heat. Or something like that. It's like being back in college, really, only in Alaska instead of Mississippi.

I went to my former host family's house for dinner tonight. She called me and told me to come for dinner to "thaw out". I'd love to! We had real fondue, from the Savoie region of France. It was amazing. Her father is from around there - Italian descendants.

My host family first met me when I was 19, a student studying abroad on the Abbey program. I had a host sister too, Emily, I wonder what's come of her...

I fell in love with them immediately - he is one of the town doctors, very interested in everything, inquisitive, pensive, etc. She is warm (so is he, but she's the mom), loving, kind, an excellent cook. They are both very active and love to travel and explore new places. Their home is very warm and cozy.

When I left after my time as a student, in 2004, the only "French cheese" I could tolerate was La vache qui rit. Anyone who's been to my house has seen a framed vintage print of it hanging by the front door - if you paid attention.

News flash: The Laughing Cow Cheese is not considered a cheese in France. It's what you give children, you know, picky ones who can't handle the real stuff yet. My host parents laughed and laughed when I told them my favorite French cheese was La vache qui rit and from then onward she put a piece, wrapped in it's foil with that grinning cow on the cover, on the cheese plate that emerged after our meals.

When I came back in 2007 they were thrilled. And she remembered. We still chuckle about it. But that year I was ready for the real stuff, and although I relied on bread to accompany the stronger flavors, I ate (and enjoyed) all of it.

In 2010 and 2011 the foil cheese came out a few times, we still chuckle about it to this day, but they were SUCH proud host parents when they saw me go after the stinkiest cheese without any bread to wash it down. I miss cheese when I'm not in France.

There wasn't a cheese plate tonight, not after fondue. But there was soup to start, the fondue, and a home made tarte made from fruit from the garden - cerises blanc (white cherries) or meribel (maybe it's the same in english?), that was the discussion over dessert.

It all ended with a decaf espresso and chatter about my friend Staci coming to visit in EIGHT DAYS! They've invited us to dinner, for un vrai diner français. He speaks more English than he's willing to admit, and Staci speaks zero French - but neither did my parents when they came in 2007 and it was such fun. We'll see - I told her I'd confirm later this week, after I speak to Staci.

Look at that, it's 11pm again. Off to bed....

9.2.12

today's lessons...

1. Having hot water isn't always a blessing.
2. When the cold water pipes are frozen the toilet won't flush.
3. Don't warm your pajamas on the stove cover.


I've mentioned the Abbey doesn't have heat. The student wing will be fine. We think. The property managers have placed electric heaters in each room until the pipes thaw and the regular heat can flow through. Can the old Abbey wiring handle 17 electric heaters going all at once on one wing? We shall find out, shan't we?

I do have hot water. That is a blessing. However, I have zero cold water. It's not easy to shower in scalding hot water. I suppose I could do the ole: run washcloth through hot water, let cool a bit, wipe body down, trick? I suppose I shouldn't complain. I should have realized, though, hot water doesn't connect to the toilet. So after I flushed once, I can't flush again. The cold water pipes are frozen connecting to my room. Don't worry - nothing bad was left in the commode.

I moved my stuff in today. There are four space heaters and an oven warming my room. The ceilings are at least 20 feet high, and you know where hot air goes? Up. Yes, I said the oven is on. It's the stove, actually. I'll get to that in minute. Don't freak out, mother.

I haven't unpacked entirely yet because in this place you can't finish anything when you first start it. Nothing. Not even a text message. I'll be surprised if I even finish this entry! I've decided this place is an alternate universe, it's the only way to explain some things, and I will have to devote a separate entry to that topic another day. But just know the only reason I am even typing this, now, after I wanted to be in bed already, is because I left my only toothpaste in my travel-safe-size bag in the office. And the office is the only place in this building that has internet. And I was so frustrated that I even had to march down here to get my toothpaste through the freezing halls, I sat down to share these lessons.

Earlier I was so distraught at thinking about having to sleep in a room where I couldn't stand without shivering unless all my 12 layers were on and my two hats, I turned the stove on - KNOWING one is NEVER to do that. Let's face it, fires start that way, I KNOW this. But I stayed there and stood to watch it heat, and it felt great, okay? I turned it off to go to Michele's for dinner. I wasn't 100% on leaving, I sort of felt I needed a night on my own, I crave my alone time and it's hard to come by in this alternate universe, but I went to dinner. As I put the stove top down over the eyes, I had a thought: ooh! You could warm your PJs on this warm-metal-stove-top-cover-thing and they'll be nice and toasty when you get back. Again, the stove was cooling down, nothing was turned on. So I laid my lovely flanel plaid long night shirt and black stretchy pants on the cover, and took off.

Dinner was lovely.

My apartment was surprisingly warmer when I got home. Or maybe my body was just warm from walking up the four flights of stairs? I started to undress, filled the furry hot water bottle Michele has lent me, I have PLENTY of hot water, and then remembered my PJs on the stove top. When I picked up my flanel top, under it on the white metal stove cover was a dark brownish spot.

Hmm.

I looked at the flanel shirt. Seeing what was there on the side that laid on the stove cover made me think of crispy na'an bread you eat at middle easter or indian restaurants. You know those black crunchy flakey parts? Not what you want to see on your flanel night shirt. There wasn't a black spot underneath where my stretchy pants laid, so I hoped for the best. I haven't decided what to do with the shirt yet. The black bit comes off on your fingers at the touch.

Changing clothes in the cold should be an olympic event. It's an art mastering the perfect timing of slipping off one pant leg while keeping wool sock on and quickly inserting leg into stretchy-pant leg then immediately back in to house shoe. Success! Time for the second half of my lower body. Mind you I still have on a tank-top, sweater, pullover, vest, down jacket and hat on my upper body. Second leg was a success, time to pull up stretchy pants to cover exposed-and-getting-colder-by-the-minute bum. My left hand's fingers went right through that side of my stretchy pants. Like paper.

FAIL. I guess I couldn't see the part of the stretchy pants that turned into na'an like blackness because the tights themselves are/were black. They're in the garbage now, and thankfully I brought a second pair.

So currently I'm sitting in my office, no heat in here either, writing this blog. I'm in my fully dressed and layered top half - although I threw my flat hair up into a bun and have the hat over it, I really look fantastic - and my stretchy pants and wool socks and house shoes.

I better not forget what I came all the way down here for: toothpaste!

Goodnight.

7.2.12

I've never been so cold...

I made it to France. In one piece. A frozen piece. Didn't sleep a wink on the plane, and I even took a "natural" sleeping pill -whatever that means-  but it didn't do anything. My mind was racing through recent events. Everything is better now. I feel good.

When I boarded the plane with my carry-on, it wouldn't fit in any of the over-head compartments. Really? They were much smaller than I recall them being on any other international flight - so I had to check that bag. I will say this, though, if you want to avoid that second-checked-bag-fee, that's the way to go. Act like it's totally going to fit in the overhead, and then when it doesn't, act ticked off that you have to check it, they don't charge you!

Before she took it from me, the flight attendant asked if there was anything I couldn't live without in the bag, I hastily said no because I was flustered I had to check it at all - what international airline has overhead compartments that won't hold an over-stuffed, legally-sized, carry-on bag? The kind that doesn't have individual TV screens in each seat - that's who.

When the pilot announced it was -6 degrees Celsius over the intercom I immediately regretted forgetting that my jacket, scarf, hat, mittens, etc. were in that bag. The Paris airport is under a roof, yes, but there is a lot of open air space....

Both bags made it and I was out of baggage claim and at the train station waiting for Nora, one of my student coordinators, within less than an hour of de-boarding. This means I waited about two hours tracking her flight. Every warm article of clothing was on my body and still, I shivered. The Charles de Gaulle train station is not heated. And the doors constantly open with people entering and exiting the platforms. I couldn't have bundled up anymore. Still...miserably freezing. Even in the heated "waiting room", people wandered in the over-crowded room with glass windows and doors just to double check that there wasn't any more space, so all the heat wandered out - it was pointless. 

Nora wandered up without me having to search for her, which was great. I had contemplated panicking about not mentioning what I would be wearing, what my luggage would look like, that I'd have my tiger-print glasses on instead of contacts, why didn't I pin-point an exact spot to meet?! But she got off the escalator and walked right to me, waving like a crazy tourist (me, not Nora).

The train we planned to take from the airport decided not to run, which was not great. It would have put us in Montrichard at 12:30pm, just in time for lunch at Le Commerce in Pontlevoy. So while I shivered and waited for Nora, I researched alternative options.

Option A: Hang out in the freezing airport for another four hours, and then 2 hours in the St. Pierre des Corps station (a.k.a. butt-hole of France) and arrive in Pontlevoy around 5pm.

Option B: Take the RER B line in to Paris, jump on the metro line 4 to Montparnasse station, hop an 11:20 TGV train to St. Pierre des Corps and then switch trains (with our bags) within 10 minutes to get to Montrichard. Arrive in Montrichard before 14:00 (France tells time like this, get used to it if you're going to keep reading subsequent blogs).

We chose Option B, whatever happened we wanted to be moving, and get there as soon as possible. Nora slept on the plane and was up for seeing as much of Paris as possible her first day.

For anyone who has never been to Paris: be prepared for stairs in the underground. And pack light.

We made it through the first twelve 2-flight stair cases before we found an escalator (they are rare) and while on it, it STOPPED! So we picked up our 50 lbs bags and started hiking it up the tall stairs (you know the stairs are taller on an escalator) - I felt like I was in an ironman contest. I lost. 

Three Parisian boys wandered up behind us and picked up Nora's suitcase to hike up the escalator with us. How darling and helpful! Did anyone come to my rescue? No. Assholes. So, me and my two bags - one on either side of me - blocked up the whole walkway - it didn't matter that Nora had helpers, we were still going to be slow.

I got to the top and heard Nora say, "Hey!" and my stomach clenched. I turned around and everything seemed nonchalant. Nora was fidgeting with her bag, looking through it, face white. I asked if they messed with her, they had already vanished, she said she found one of their hands in her purse but everything was still accounted for. FAIL for that dude.

Shaken up, but determined to make our train, we kept walking toward the Metro line 4. I felt awful and wondered if she was okay, what an awful experience to have on your first day in France!

Right before we exited that part of the underground to find our line 4, a tall - somewhat handsome - man wandered up inconspicuously beside us flashing a badge. I'm always suspicious of a handsome man, as you may or may not know, but you should know that, and he flashed his wallet at me saying "Madame, police, est-ce que je pourrais vous parler?" I checked out the badge, it looked fake (what do I know?) but he insisted on talking to us. He asked if one of those three hooligans put his hand in one of our bags? Woah! How do you know that? He wasn't in uniform, what was I supposed to think?

Three undercover cops saw the whole shake down. One of the three cops already had the three crooks against a wall (I wondered how they vanished so quickly), yelling questions at them. "Who stopped the escalator?!" and "Who put their hand in her purse?!" Apparently that escalator is a "usual spot" for these guys to stop the escalator and rob unsuspecting tourists.

So, Nora and I dictated what happened for a police report, and we missed our train. It didn't matter that we were insistent with the police officers about needing to get to Montparnasse. You could tell they were so excited to finally make a bust. We missed the train big time. Lugging bags through the underground, escalator or not, takes forever.

So we waited 2 hours in a Montparnasse cafe for a while, until they started to set up for their lunch crowd and scorned us for not ordering off their over-priced menu. At that point we moved next door to the French equivalent of McDonald's (Le Quick). Fries and a Heineken never went down so well. Yes, fast food joints serve alcohol in France. Isn't it fabulous?

Yes, I had mayo with my french fries. And they were actually, really, French, isn't that fun? Ha. Give me a break, Elliot, I'm so jet-lagged.

We got on our train and discovered it was delayed. Did I already mention we only had 10 minutes to make our connection in the butt-hole of France's station? I guess the conductor who checked our ticket, saw my exhaustion, heard my ever-so-trying-to-sound-fluent French and felt sorry for us. Apparently he called ahead and they held our train for us. We didn't know this fact until we arrived to the platform in St. Pierre des Corps, breathless, and I yelled as we ran up and they were blowing their whistle  (because I wasn't 100% sure we were getting on the right connection) "est-ce que vous arretez a Montrichard?"

"Oui, madame, nous vous attendez" - MERCI, MONSIEUR CONDUCTEUR, MERCI! They were waiting for us.



Home-free. Marianne picked us up at the Montrichard station and it felt like coming home. To this home. Because I have so many!

Good day. Safe arrival. Julien offered us plenty of wine at Le Commerce last night -"to purify your body after travel", he said - and he asked the usual questions, "What weekends will the students most likely not travel? So I can host a concert. What professors are coming this year? Are there any cool ones? What ages are the students, what are they like? Will they party at my bar every night? Are you married yet? All the French boys have been asking again. Oh you're not? Hmmmmm. I have some friends you should meet, just for fun, you know. You have a stick up your ass and need to loosen up."

I really do think that he thinks I don't have enough fun. I like to call it "being responsible" and "having self-respect", yadda yadda. I love him anyway. And if you know Julien (the bar owner) this makes a lot of sense to you. If you don't know him, just don't worry about it. It isn't anything to get excited about. I performed my usual move, enjoyed the complimentary wine (who wouldn't?), and bowed-out early - it's safer that way, and I slept like a baby.

Wait - did I mention there is no heat or hot water in the Abbey? Maybe I forgot that tidbit. So we're currently staying at my friend Michele's, across the street. Nora will move in to her room at the Abbey tomorrow, Brian arrived today (another student coordinator) and moved in to his room tonight - because the hot water is working in their rooms, just not the "staff wing". Fantastic.

Also - have I mentioned how cold it is? Or that Brian had to wait in the butt-hole of France for FOUR hours today because of the weather? He, too, had a run in with the police - but that's another story.

I've only been here two days, one sleep, and already so much has happened.

And I've realized - after talking to Nora and Brian about it - it's different for the people we leave behind. We leave, and enter a whole new world, where everything is different. For our friends and family, a piece of their world leaves, and it constantly feels like something is "missing". Those are VERY different experiences that come with very different emotions. Some people can handle it, some can't - or they don't quite know how to handle it just yet. Some people are better with words than others, others are afraid to use them. For me, I'm always the one leaving, and I will always speak what's on my mind. I think that's something I've learned having to "leave" all the time. It's important to me. You're welcome. It takes guts sometimes, but I think it's easier in the long run. I don't know...

I do know this: I am extremely jet-lagged and exhausted. And I only hope whatever I wrote up there makes sense and you can follow it. Hopefully it made some of you chuckle at parts. It's freezing outside and HOW is one supposed to run in these conditions? I'm dying for a workout...I might just have to bundle up tomorrow and hope for no ice on my path....

Goodnight.

4.2.12

really, it's not a big deal...

It's only 2 months.

I've been away for much longer than that before, and everything's been fine.

Okay maybe not always, something always happens: relationships end, marriages happen, people have babies - but other than the usual life, why does anything else have to be different?

I think it's everyone else. I've done this my whole life, left. I'm always going somewhere. People handle leaving in a variety of ways. They handle ME leaving in a variety of ways. My friends like to start talking about starting up girls night again, the week before I leave, because we don't see enough of each other. It's true, we don't. But now we're really not going to - at least not me, and that's okay! I'll be right back. My cousin and I agreed we don't spend enough time in New Orleans or on the coast, they're so close and we rarely go. "Let's start going more!" Okay, when I get back.

I get all sorts of responses from people when I talk about where I'm going, what I'm going to do...I like to think that their reaction is a reflection of whatever subconscious issues they are dealing with themselves. That might not be the right way to put it, the word "issues" isn't right, but it's what I've got for now.

I get a lot of, "wow, that's awesome, you have the coolest job in the world!" And some of these people can't comprehend how it can also be quite daunting, yes -so cool, but everything has it's ups and downs and that's only me being a realist. What am I supposed to say, "yes, you are right, I have the coolest job in the world and am all the better for it."? I want to feel "normal" too, folks. I have challenges I work through and overcome, and yes, even in a foreign country! I like to think these people are just aching to escape their own reality. That they're tied down, or they feel like they are in one way or another, so all they can do is envy what I do and scoff at me for having anything but bunnies and butterfly feelings about my job.

A lot of women give me the whole, "gosh, that's cool but, that probably makes relationships impossible, right?" What's the right answer here? Yes? No? Who cares? Why is that the first thing that pops in to your head? Is that what I should be thinking/worrying about? Wtf? What these women are not saying out loud is, 'more power to you but thank God I don't have to do that, I'd never find anyone...'

There's a mixture of other reactions - it's like having the conversation about where and how I grew up all over again..."Do you like that? What's it like? Why? So you teach? Wait what do you do? So you go over there and party, oh I get it..."

Now I've lost track of my thought process and have little idea of where this ramble is supposed to be going.

But I think it's here: yes, I am leaving everyone. News flash: it's not my virgin voyage. I'm just going across the pond. Just for 8 short weeks. And I firmly believe they will fly faster for me, over there, than anywhere else - let's get real, I'll have 30+ college students to look after around the clock. That's what I do. And you know what else? There's internet in France too! Yaaaayyy!!! That means skype, facetime, emails, blogging - and let's not forget the good old fashioned phone call - or dare I mention snail mail? That's still my preference. I'm really good at being a long distance friend, I love to send long emails, I know they are read and appreciated and if all I get back is a short, "miss you, loved your update, keep them coming" that's fine - I'll take that about 3-4 times before I blow up your FB wall asking for an update of your own.

If you would like to reach me old school style, send a note to:

[my name]
The Abbey Program
1, place du college
41400 Pontlevoy
FRANCE

And don't fret, not that much will change in 2 months. And if it does, well that's L.I.F.E. I'm used to this part. That doesn't mean it's "easy" - clearly, I'm blogging about it. Why? Oh who knows... It's what's on my mind at the moment!

I fly in 13 hours. But I'll be right back. Keep in touch.