a TAPIF language assistant blog / un blog d’une assistante d’anglais

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Sunday, September 30, 2012

Final Destination: Narbonne

As many of you know, I’m in Narbonne! It only took me two flights, four train rides, and a week of vacation to get here from Texas, but I’m here now! I got here Wednesday, September 26th by train (almost three hours from Marseille), and Jill, an English teacher from my school (with whom I’ve been in correspondence) picked me up at the station (merci beaucouuuuup)! We went to the school, went on a petite aventure to find my room, and finally found it. (As it was Wednesday afternoon, the school was almost empty; French schools close Wednesday afternoons).

the final test: The DaVinci Code
(not really... but I do have to enter a code to open my bedroom door)

ma petite chambre bleue

I'm on the 5th floor... which is actually
the 4th floor in France (ground floor, 1, 2, 3, 4).

I didn't have any sheets/pillow/covers when I arrived,
but Jill was sweet enough to loan me some, thank goodness!

a little welcome present from another English teacher, so sweet!

I have a little shower and sink combo, which I'm thankful for!
The toilet is separate (right next door) and I share it with
the two other girls on my floor. Also note that little button on the left?
That's how I get my shower water, but I have to push the button about
 once a minute in order to keep the water going (so the water cuts off
several times during the shower). Ha! But I'm just glad to have my own. :)

This is the best part... the view out my window!
(Granted, this is not a breathtaking view... I'm not in the centre-ville,
I'm out a bit in a residential area. However, in the distance you can
see the 800-year-old Cathédrale Saint-Just-et-Saint-Pasteur de Narbonne.
Forget saying that three times fast, say it once fast. That's enough!)

My first couple days/nights, I was a little bit… I’m not sure how to describe it. The problem was that I didn’t feel well – at all. Funny story, the first night I almost got sick. In front of high school students. Who will probably be my students. Nice first impression, eh? NOPE. I didn’t think so either, so I legitimately told myself “you will NOT be sick, you will not be sick” over and over again. It worked. That night and the next day, I noticed I was having cramps as if I’d been running (which I assure you I had NOT been running) that were so severe they prevented me from walking even a bit to go into the city. Great. Obviously I came to the only logical conclusion that my gall bladder (or my appendix) was failing immediately upon my entrance to France, and that I'd need a chirurgie (surgery), which is hard enough to pronounce let alone finance when my French insurance won't kick in for a month. So I did what any sane person would do and a) called my mom from a payphone to whine and then b) went back to my room and took a nap.

So you see, the first days were a little difficult. First of all, I thought I might be dying. Second of all, I had no access to the world at ALL. No phone, no Internet, no friends to hang out with (there’s a Spanish teacher who lives next door to me who is really nice but is a full-time teacher and as such is, of course, busy). Third of all, I was doubting my abilities in French. While trying to talk to the Spanish teacher and a few of the students, I was having trouble following all the conversation. Or being funny, at all (which is hard in another language, and something that makes me sad because humor is important to me)! Maybe it was because I wasn’t feeling well, maybe it was because it was the first couple days in France. But I was beginning to think maybe I don’t speak French? And with all these things happening to me, I thought about the fact that it would be eight months before I hug anyone who’s known me my whole life. It was a little sad. But I knew the whole time that this is the best thing I’ve ever done… and really, when you’re in France, and you can see an 800-year-old cathedral out of your bedroom window… well, you just know that everything’s gonna be alright.

So I read a little Pride and Prejudice and watched an old episode of Grey’s Anatomy I found on my iTunes and realized that I have plenty of time for things to be fantastic. And, by the way, everything’s much better now. More on that soon!

Also, a couple things before I go:

a) Figured out my mystery illness! First of all, I ate vinaigrette on my salad the first night. Well, I remembered I have a recently-developed vinaigrette allergy. Now I definitely will not forget. Second of all, I’m pretty sure the other part was a pulled muscle in my stomach due to “Munich-Narbonne: The Adventure” starring Katy vs. the 70-pound luggage.

b) I had a fantasy that my first Narbonne post would feature amazing pictures of my new home. Well, for many a reason (such as disgusting weather), that hasn’t happened yet. But it’ll come. Ne vous inquiétez pas!

Oh and one last thing (HA!) to leave you with: a happy little tidbit. Monday, October 1st is my first day of work officially, but as our orientation for secondary language assistants in my district isn’t until the 10th, guess who doesn’t start her actual work schedule until the 11th? Holler! Now I have some time to get situated. Quelle bonne chance!

Friday, September 28, 2012

from Germany to France

On Tuesday, September 25th, I took a ten-hour train ride from Munich to Marseille. I had a bit of a predicament as my train would not arrive until 9:45 pm and there would be no train out to Narbonne available until the next day. As I hadn't ever been to Marseille and didn't know anyone there, I had two choices: a) sleep in a train station (which is really NOT recommended in Marseille), or b) find my way at night (in a city I don’t know) to a hotel with my GIANT luggage by myself. Neither of these choices sounded that great to me. So, a few weeks ago (when I was still in Texas), I decided to try a third option.

I’ve recently been introduced (by people in my program) to the idea of couchsurfing. Through this method of travel (and the website, www.couchsurfing.org), you, well, couchsurf. The website has a network of people in cities all over the world willing to host surfers, willing to just hang out with new people, or trying to surf themselves. It’s a network built on trust, and there are services such as identity verification, location verification, and references, which you can plainly see on a person’s profile. The idea of staying with someone you’ve never met scares a lot of people, but if you do it the right way and are careful, you can meet a lot of really cool people (who also like to travel). Or so I’ve heard.

I knew I wanted to give couchsurfing a try (I set up a profile in June), but I didn’t think I’d do it so soon. I decided that the best way to go about my Marseille issue was to couchsurf! I put up my “want ad” for a couch for the evening, and I got a lot of offers. I ended up choosing a man, we’ll call him Julien, who has a daughter about my age and had been to Texas. He had all the possible verifications and over 40 positive references from people of all ages, so I decided I felt safest with him.

When I arrived Tuesday night, he welcomed me, helped me with my luggage to my apartment, we shared some tabbouleh to eat and talked a while about my travels in Germany and his recent travels to the States. I then had a bedroom to myself and got a good night's sleep! He gave me the option to sleep in the morning or to take a tour of Marseille by motorcycle before I went to the train station. Guess which option I took?

Like my chubby bunny cheeks?
Motorcycle helmets are obviously NOT my look.*

It was a kind of dreary morning, but I was lucky because it was predicted all week that it would rain that day but it didn't! Here are some picture highlights:

my first look at the Mediterranean :)

Les Goudes, a little fishing village just outside of Marseille

the Île Maire, an island just off the coast

Between the cities of Marseille and Cassis, there are
the Calanques, which are similar to fjords.

Callelongue, a tiny fishing village in a small calanque
(called the "Calanque de Callelongue," love that!)

a little view of Marseille from the gare (train station)

All-in-all, it was a great little visit! We took our tiny tour of the Calanques/fishing villages (he wanted to show me something I wouldn't normally see as a tourist) and stopped to have a coffee (him)/chocolat (me) in a café where he assured me I'd get to hear a native Marseille accent. It was a great first couchsurfing experience - Julien has hosted many, many people from all over and all ages, and he just likes to meet people and share some of his city (he's from Marseille, born and raised). He's a big fan of couchsurfing and is very involved, and he told me some of the "rules" of couchsurfing (such as never, ever to go with someone without lots of references/verification if I go alone). He's already contacted a woman in Perpignan who would love to host me for a weekend. He was very generous and friendly, and I couldn't have gotten from/to the train station without his help. I have no idea how I would have handled my little layover situation without someone friendly to help. I am very thankful to him, and I will definitely be couchsurfing again!

It was also really good to be somewhere where I can use my French! I would also love to go back to Marseille for a day to see the Vieux Port and more of the city; perhaps I'll take a little Marseille/Aix-en-Provence trip sometime during my stay in France!

*Note: I did NOT drive!


Now for the main event of my trip to Munich… Oktoberfest! I’m actually writing this as I pull out of the train station for my ride from Munich to Marseille.* I can’t believe my week in Germany is already done, but I truly had one of the most perfect weeks (and especially one of the best weekends) of my life!

First a little history/information about Oktoberfest for those of you who, like me, like to know these things. The tradition started in 1810 when Ludwig I married his wife, Therese, and they invited all of Munich to come eat and drink to celebrate. For 202 years now, Oktoberfest has been celebrated at the Thieresenwiese (Theresa’s meadow) and is now the largest festival in the world. There are six big breweries in Munich: Augustiner, Hacker-Pschorr, Hofbräu, Löwenbräu, Paulaner, and Spatenbräu. Each of these breweries participates in the parades and has a giant beer tent/hall on the actual grounds of the festival.

On the grounds, you have the main event(s), which are the festively decorated beer halls and their corresponding beer gardens. There are also stands where you can purchase all kinds of food and souvenirs, such as the Lebkuchenherzen (gingerbread hearts, which you wear around your neck). In addition, there are lots of different brightly-lit themed carnival rides.

Finally, because I was lucky enough to attend Oktoberfest’s opening weekend, I was able to attend two parades, a smaller, exclusively Bavarian parade on Saturday and a larger parade on Sunday which featured participants from all over Germany, as well as other places with German heritage.

Now on to my own individual Oktoberfest experience! :)

On Saturday, Niclas’ parents came to stay in Munich, so we had a nice big group to celebrate! While they went off on a tour of the Viktualienmarkt, Irene and I went to the smaller opening parade. It was pretty cold, but we were lucky to get really close and that it only rained a little. After the parade ends, the Mayor opens the festival by tapping the first barrel of beer with a hammer, and people migrate en masse from the parade route to the festival grounds. We met up with a couple of Irene’s friends by chance, and the four of us attempted to go to the festival. I say “attempted” because at this point, it started pouring. As in, I was about as wet as if I’d just stepped out of the shower. We tried to walk around a little bit, but it was so crowded, cold, and wet that it didn’t turn out well. This would have been disheartening had it been my only chance to see, but luckily, we would have two more days! So we took the opportunity to climb the tower of the church of St. Paul, which not many people know about (danke Sonja for the recommendation!) where you can get a great view of the Thierenwiese.

Have a look yourself! It’s huge!
On the left you can see the rides, and on the right the giant beer halls.

We went home, warmed up with some tea and lunch, and set out to meet Niclas and his parents for a little walk around Munich. I got to see a lot of places I’d seen eight years ago, and I remembered them so well!

the Theatinerkirche and a war memorial

the Opera and a statue of a Bavarian king
(I forget which one; if someone wants to tell me I'll update!)

the Town Hall in the Marienplatz (that tower houses the Glockenspiel)

Niclas and Irene then cooked a wonderful risotto for the three of us and his parents and we had a lovely meal. Afterward, I met up with Sophie, Irene’s sister, who would take care of me for the next few days as I stayed in her parents’ home in their town outside of Munich. Of course, Sophie, Oswald, and Beate (Irene’s parents) gave me just about the warmest welcome you can have. I loved getting to spend time in their home again!

On Sunday, we had a BEAUTIFUL day. Just gorgeous. All of us (Sophie, Irene, Niclas, Niclas’ parents, Sonja, and myself) met up to go to the bigger parade. We arrived JUST as the parade was starting, we were on the second row, and within a few minutes, I had a prime first row position! In the parade, bands play Bavarian marching music and wear traditional clothes (Dirndl and Lederhosen) from their regions. It was fascinating to see the variety in clothes and customs!

Hofbräu float

one of the traditional Bavarian marching bands

a group depicting the tradition of the Maypole

Augustiner is one of the big Munich breweries.

Afterward, we headed over to the Oktoberfest. But first, I will reveal to you an answer to the cliffhanger from my post from Thursday evening. (I know you’ve been on the edge of your seat!) The very generous loan from Sonja was a Dirndl to wear for the festivities! She had the sweetest idea that I could borrow one of hers because she has two. Luckily it fit well and it was beautiful, and I fit right in with everyone else! 

Danke schön, Sonja!
Also note that the other three ladies have their aprons tied on the right
and mine's on the left - you tie it on the right if you're committed to
someone and on the left if you're single!
(Cue "Single Ladies" - remake in a left-tied Dirndl, anyone?)

On opening weekend, it’s wayyyy too crowded to get entry into a beer hall, but we were extremely lucky to be able to get a seat at the beer garden at the Hofbräu hall for our lunch, which was fantastic. We all shared and it was wonderful! It was a beautiful day to be outside.

Hofbräu hall

This is actually Radler, which is a mixture of beer and lemonade,
which Sophie and I shared.
(Note: There is only one size of beverage (be it beer or Radler)
at Oktoberfest: 1 liter! This is why we shared.) 

with Sophie at the beer garden

Thank God that I was with Germans who know
what's good and know what to order! :)

After walking around a bit more on the perfect day with a beautiful Bavarian sky (white and blue, just like the flag), we took a walk in the English Garden. Here's some pictures from both!

some of the rides... look at that sky!

the Ferris wheel

in the gardens that belong to the Residenz, 
the kings' winter palace in Munich

in the English Garden

After our walk, Sophie and I headed home to have dinner with her parents. We had bread dumplings, goulache, and fennel, which were all a-mazing.

Seriously, be jealous because this was delicious!

I feel so blessed to have a friend’s family who welcomes me so and with whom I can feel at home. They even made fennel specifically because Irene told them I hadn’t tried it, and made my tea just as I like it without me even asking (green tea, not too hot), also because Irene had told them. We had a wonderful evening of conversation about all sorts of things; they all have so much cultural information to share with me and it really is just so wonderful for me.

Finally, on Monday, we had our last Oktoberfest day, and what a day! Sophie and I left to meet up with everyone in Munich, and she even braided my hair on the train so I could look extra Bavarian! It was so nice to get to know Sophie better; she’s spent two years in the States and we have a lot to talk about. She is so sweet and took really good care of me. Danke schön, Sophie!

We met up with Irene, Niclas, and some of Irene’s friends from university in order to get a table in an actual beer hall (quite a feat). We were lucky and got a table in the first one we went to. The atmosphere in the halls is extremely festive; there are so many people, and so much to eat and drink, and music (we were right by the band), and everyone is instant best friends! Near us, we met some people from Norway, Switzerland, and, of course, Bavaria. (I was definitely the one in our area who came from furthest away, though!) We spent seven hours total in the hall, sharing our food, laughing, singing, dancing (on the benches, NOT on the tables! Not allowed!), and generally having pretty much the best.time.ever. Both Irene’s and Niclas’ parents joined us a couple hours in and they were singing and dancing right along with us!

the Paulaner hall where we got a table

inside the hall

with Niclas

the parents

pretty sisters

(Click for video!)

Niclas and Irene :)

One of the Bavarian men near us, who had spoken some English to me (“Texas is almost the same as Bavaria; you must join in!”) tapped my arm near the end of the evening and presented me with a traditional gingerbread heart. He told me “This is a gift from me to you; this is a gift from Bavaria to Texas.” Of course I was delighted and put it on while saying danke schön, and he told me “You are so lovely, but so far away,” in a sort of dreamy voice. Irene and her mom were watching and we all thought it was just the sweetest thing!

The gingerbread heart, which says “dream woman” or
“woman of my dreams,” perfectly completed my Oktoberfest outfit.

After we left the hall (a good seven hours after we got there!), we walked around the festival at night and even rode the Ferris wheel and got an amazing view of the grounds and the city. It was a perfect ending to a perfect day, a perfect weekend, and a perfect week.

Oktoberfest by night

I truly have had an amazing time. Even though I’m excited to begin my adventure in France, I’m going to miss Germany and my friends/family there. I love Bavaria and the warm, embracing, jovial culture that I’ve found in my time there. This week was incredible; Irene took care of every single detail (as she does best; she even packed me a lunch for my train ride today!) and I have been in vacation mode to the extreme. No phone, no watch, no keys, no planning, just having fun, which has been amazing because starting tomorrow (Wednesday), I will be on my own in a world of new, trying to set up my life. This week was the perfect beginning to my stay in Europe. (We even had fantastic weather all but one day! Beate told me that there is a saying in German that says “When angels travel, there is always good weather.” I love it!) Seriously, try to imagine a perfect, interesting, beautiful week and the most welcoming, generous, friendly people in your mind – my week was better than that! I kept thinking throughout my week how blessed I am. The past couple of years have been rough, but I am so grateful for everything that’s happened to me, both bad and good, and all of the decisions I’ve made that led me to a point where, for probably only this one time in my life, instead of working in September I’m taking day trips to lakeside castles and Austria and experiencing the real Oktoberfest in Munich. My life is fantastic. I have no idea how to thank Irene, her amazing family, and her wonderful friends for my week, so I will just say one more time, DANKE SCHÖN! I’ll be back, Germany!

*Which was on Tuesday 25 Sep; delay in posting due to lack of Internet.

Friday, September 21, 2012

The hills are alive!

Today Irene and I took a two-hour train ride and went to Salzburg, Austria. Irene suggested the trip as something we could do together, and she had actually never been, so it was new for both of us! It was absolutely gorgeous. Her brother David has lived there and so he gave us suggestions on what to do, and we had a perfect day (beautiful weather and all)! Here are some pictures for you.

the gardens of the Schloss Mirabell with the
Festung Hohensalzburg (Hohensalzburg Fortress) in the background
(You may recognize these gardens/that fountain from
the "Do-Re-Mi" song in the Sound of Music!*)

closer view of the same fountain from the "Do-Re-Mi" song

the Salzach river and the older part of the city (Altstadt)
with the Festung Hohensalzburg overlooking

I love the way the street signs look,
as well as the hills in the background!

Mozarts Geburtshaus (the house Mozart was born in)

 You can see a carousel in the corner;
they were having a sort of festival and there was food, music,
rides, and people in traditional dress everywhere!

the Salzburg Cathedral

I loved how the wood carving and the warm look
of the interior of the cathedral made me feel like 
I was in/near the mountains/a forest. It really felt Austrian/Alpine.

There was a beautiful cemetery near a monastery in the back of the city
(nearer to the fortress). It wound along the pathways in a really
unique way that we thought was pretty.

climbing up to the fortress

Irene and me with the view from the fortress

Salzburg from the observation tower 
(which used to be the prison tower) of the fortress
(Click the picture to see a video of the view... apologies
for my annoying barely-there (sore throat!) commentary!)

the Marionette museum

the famous, beautiful, and tasty Sacher Torte (a chocolate cake)
Irene and I enjoyed at the Café Sacher on the Salzach river
with a beautiful view of the city while the sun 
went down over the mountains

Wait. What's that you say?! You can't see it?! Yeah, that's because I attempted to take this picture AFTER disaster struck. Due to carrying too many thing/being clumsy, I dropped my camera inside a (clean) toilet inside the fortress. FANTASTIC. Katy does Europe: Week 1. Thankfully it was clean but unfortunately it was still drowned. I immediately took out my battery and memory card to rescue them, and we've set my camera in a bowl of rice (that's supposed to help electronics after they've been drowned?) and we'll see how it goes. Not great news.

update: Irene saves the day! Here's her photo of our Sacher torte.
(Note that my drink was apple juice mixed with bubbly water, 
which is apparently quite popular. It was my first time to have it!)

To end our lovely day (well, lovely aside from my camera incident), we had dinner at Irene's apartment in Munich, and I got to (finally) meet Irene's boyfriend, Niclas, who has been working out of town this week. Because we've both known Irene for so long, it feels like we've known each other as well, and the three of us got to spend the evening talking, telling stories, and having a great time! (And I even fit in MORE clumsiness, so that's always good.)

Oktoberfest starts tomorrow - I can't wait!

*Fun fact: I discovered in Hollywood that Julie Andrews and I have the same size hands. Now you know.