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

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Monday, April 29, 2013

Onward and upward!

The goodbyes are a-rollin' these days, and it's hitting me hard. I can't believe the time I've spent in little Narbonne with my amazing group of new friends has drawn to an end. But more about that later...

Today, it's time for a... travel announcement! It's onward and upward for me, and I mean upward! I'm headed north this time, ladies and gents! More specifically, tomorrow morning (EARLY), I'll be setting off with my backpack to...

...where I'll see Silje, my housemate from my first summer in Quebec (2006)!

Not sure if you can see that, but I'll be visiting Emily & Lottie, two of my assistant friends, as well as Nicole, one of my best friends from my second summer in Quebec (2007)!

Then a quick stop back to the ol' Narbo to pick up my giant bags before heading to the grand European finale...

Where I'll spend a few days reflecting on my experiences this year while strolling along the Seine and eating pastries before catching my direct flight to...

I really didn't wear this shirt on purpose, but it worked out!

That's right. I'm going on a 3-week backpack tour to wrap up my year of European adventures! This is the biggest trip I've ever done by myself (if you don't count the whole "moving to France" thing as a trip) AND the longest time I've ever traveled with only a backpack, so it's gonna be interesting. I'll be mostly RyanAiring it (with the exception of one EasyJet flight), and that is always an adventure, you know. I'm thrilled to see friends along the way (two friends I haven't seen in forever, and two friends with whom I've just spent the last 7 months), and to meet new people! I'm doing a little Couchsurfing, a little hosteling, and a little staying with friends, and it's going to be a fan-tastic. I've also never been to Scandinavia (this will now be the furthest north I've ever been - up until now it was the Baltic Sea!) or Scotland (as I'm part Scottish (several generations back), I've always been interested in going). I spent three weeks in England in 2007, but only really London and a couple daytrips, and I'm thrilled to see where Em & Lottie grew up and to see a bit of real English life, not just the touristy stuff. :)

Stockholm - Oslo - Edinburgh - Oxford - Fakenham - London - Narbonne - Paris - TEXAS. Europe 2012-2013: Final Round. Y'all ready for this?!

Sunday, April 28, 2013

The day I became famous in French

My life for the past two weeks (since April 16th, my last day of work) has been basically a constant stream of fun things with my friends. You'll get the lowdown later, but for today here's a little tidbit: on Tuesday, April 23rd, Emily, Lottie, & I went to the nearby beach of Leucate to do something I'd never heard of called Stand-up Paddle. (It's called Stand-up Paddle in French, too!) In the end, I ended up being interviewed by the French tv station, TF1, for the national news.

Because, well, you know how it is.

Unfortunately, I'm kind of a mess and didn't really know what I was talking about. It's pretty intimidating to have a stream of questions coming at you in a language that's not your own. But they took a little clip of it and it was actually on the news!

I'm not sure how long the video will be up, but at least for a few days! Check out my ability to embarrass myself in my second language.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Things I LOVE about France

Well, yesterday I posted about the things I don't necessarily love about France. However, back to making people jealous, here are the things I love about France, in no particular order!

1) Pastries: No one in the WORLD can do pastries like France can. If you want a pain au chocolat or a croissant, or anything else in the flaky deliciousness department, COME TO FRANCE. The buttery layers cannot be properly replicated anywhere else on this planet. Why is that, by the way?! Why can't we figure it out?

2) Food Presentation: The French care a lot more than we do about food in general, but their presentation takes the cake. They just really care about the whole culinary experience, starting with visual appeal.

3) Appreciation of Beauty: This is linked to number 2. The French, in general, have more of an appreciation for beauty than we do. Much more of their decisions (what to eat, what to do with their free time, where to live, where to spend their vacations) are based on what is aesthetically pleasing, whereas in the States, much more of our decisions are based on convenience.

4) Pace/Appreciation of Free Time: Remember when I said I didn't like the pace here? Well, it's true. When it comes to getting anything done, I hate how slowly things go in France. However, I do enjoy that French pacing makes you slow down. It's nice to have an hour off for lunch instead of 25 minutes. It's nice to have two weeks of vacation every six or seven weeks. It's nice when the same timing expectations everyone else has apply to you too. I've mentioned this before, but a full-time teacher here gives class for 18 hours/week. HELLO. Compared to our 40+ hours/week at school... how amazing does that sound? It's nice to have free time. I practically forgot what it was over the past five years!

5) Good quality (yet inexpensive!) wine.

6) Attention to Food Ingredients: Honestly, French people are more into food than pretty much anyone. French people in general have an understanding of which ingredients complement each other, which specific (food/wine/spice/cheese/vegetables) come from which regions, etc. We are not that into that.

7) Fresh Food Emphasis: We just don't put as much emphasis on fresh food/markets, which is really too bad. French people love their markets. It really makes me want to be more supportive of my local farmer's markets when I get home!

8) Proximity to Interesting Things: For an American, the fact that you can just bebop on down to Spain for an afternoon or grab a 30 flight to Morocco or a 12 flight to Sweden continues to blow my mind. Despite the fact that France is the largest Western European country, it's still tiny compared to the US, and you can easily get around both domestically and internationally. Even within the country, you can easily get from the mountains to the ocean, etc. There's always something beautiful to go see, even if you don't have a long time. From Narbonne, the Mediterranean is 15 minutes away, the Pyrenees are an hour away, as is Spain. In the States, we have a lot of beautiful landscape, but it's just sooo spread out!

9) Public Transportation: Buses, trains, shuttles, cheap flights... public transportation is approximately 150,135,531 times better in France than in the States. It's better for the environment and it encourages travel. Win-win. I understand that the States are HUGE and our cities are so spread out and just laid out entirely different, but I wish we could get something cracking on this front, even if it's in our own way.

10) French people carrying around baguettes: Because it never gets old.

11) Dogs eating in cafés: Because who doesn't think that's funny/adorable.

12) History: It never ceases to be cool that I daily look out the window at a 1200-year-old cathedral, walk by a 2000-year-old Roman road, and live in a city that's been inhabited for more than 2000 years. It's humbling and incredible, and a lot of Europeans take it for granted, but Americans are generally continually impressed by history in Europe.

13) The word profiter, and how much I've used it this year: The French word profiter, which has no perfect English translation, is my favorite French word, and people use it all.the.time. I now use it even when speaking English. It means "to make the best of," "to take advantage of," "to profit from," and it encompasses so much of my French experience here. Il faut profiter!

Friday, April 26, 2013

Things I just can't stand about France

Alright. For the past 7 months, you've witnessed my picturesque adventures through France & several other places in Europe. Maybe you've been jealous. But I'm here to tell you that it's not all fun & games.* Here's the list of things I dislike most about France, in no particular order. Sorry, France.

1) Relative inconvenience: Okay, you have to remember that this is all coming from the perspective of an American. I live in the fourth-largest metropolitan area in the States, and my life in general is really easy. So keep that in mind. Also, some of the inconveniences in France were due to my personal living situation, and not France, so I won't put them here.

1a. Separate stores: French people really like to specialize for higher quality, so they have separate stores for things. (Butcher, wine store, bakery, regular grocery, pharmacy, etc.) They do, of course, have Carrefour and a couple other stores that are similar to Walmart or Target. But even in Carrefour, you can't get things like throat lozenges or painkillers, because they're in the pharmacy. So that means two trips, and when you don't have a car or live really near city center, it's just even more annoying.

1b. Store hours: French stores, restaurants, banks, etc. all have interesting hours. First of all, with very few exceptions, EVERYTHING is closed on Sunday. This is because in French culture, Sunday is a day for rest and family. People stay home, or take the car to go drive around or go on a walk somewhere nice. This is all well and good if a) you have family to spend it with b) you have a cozy, inviting home and/or c) you have a car to enable you to take a drive. Unfortunately, I don't have any of those things. Mind you, I've had some good Sundays with my friends, playing board games in Narbonne, watching a movie (not at my place, of course, as I don't have a TV), or on excursions with friends with cars. But there's always the panic when you realize on Saturday night at 8:30 that you somehow don't have any groceries and your life is basically over.

Here's a particularly horrible Sunday in France story:
1) No groceries (was busy Saturday and got distracted)
2) Plan B: Hot panini machine 10 minutes away. Out of order.
3) Plan C: Kebab shop 15 minutes away from the panini machine. Sign says open on Sundays non stop. Store not open.
4) Plan D: McDo 45 minutes away. I asked for a burger. They gave me a chicken wrap. I was too tired to stand up for my burger. Walk back home.

This whole ordeal took more than 2 hours and it was cold and really windy outside. And there aren't buses on Sundays, so I was on foot. Unfortunately, similar stories have happened on a few occasions. Moral of the story: Do NOT forget to make sure you have food on Saturday in small town France.

In addition, things close for lunch, so often things are just closed for 2 hours in the middle of the day. Which is annoying. Also restaurants often close at 2 pm to reopen again at 6 pm. Which is also annoying if you decide you want to eat after 2 pm.

Another example: A couple weeks ago, I needed to grab some aloe vera and some food before running to my friend's barbecue. It was about 12:20 on a Saturday afternoon. I didn't have any money. I stood on the corner where my ATM is, and I looked down one street and saw the pharmacy sign lit up. I looked down the other street and saw the grocery sign lit up. I quickly withdrew my 20, no receipt, a process that takes approximately 60 seconds. I look up, pharmacy light's off, it's closed. I look the other way, grocery light's off, it's closed. ARE YOU FOR REAL, France?!

To sum it up, I cannot even tell you how many times I've wanted/needed something only for my plans to be thwarted by French hours.

2) The pace: Holy cow. Take anything you would ever want/need to get done in the States, multiply it by at least three times, and that's how long it will take you to do anything in France. ESPECIALLY if it involves paperwork.

Would you like to get your insurance card to use during your 7-month contract? You can count on getting it 5-8 months in. That's right. Most assistants haven't even gotten theirs yet, and it's over.

Would you like to start working when your contract begins? Well, too bad. It's gonna take 3 weeks to get your schedule to you. That's right, my contract began October 1st, and I received my handwritten schedule on October 17th.

Would you like to do something like cancel a phone line or a bank account? You're gonna need to write a super fancy letter making sure to get all of the wording exactly correct, sign it in blood, send it with delivery confirmation via pigeon gram, and allow approximately 2 weeks to 2 months for anything to get done. Okay, that may be an exaggeration, but only the blood and pigeon part. Everything else is accurate.

Wanna get something done at the post office or the bank? Take the time you'd spend getting something done in the same facility in the States, and multiply it by three. At least.

I generally feel like I'm wasting half my time doing tasks that take much longer than they should. Luckily, I only worked 12 hours/week this year, so I had the time to burn. If I worked the same hours I do in the States, but lived in France, I'd have to give up sleep to get anything done.

3) General unpredictability: Wanna go somewhere? Maybe there's a transportation strike. Need to go to the store? Maybe it's closed even though it says it's going to be open. (We joke that our local grocer, called "8 to 8" because it's open from 8 am to 8 pm, should actually be called 8:15 to to 7:40, because it's never actually open at 8 am or to 8 pm. Seriously. Even the name is a lie.)

4) Customer service: In general, customer service is subpar at best. I will admit it's hard to compare customer service anywhere to American customer service. But seriously. One time, a server made a mistake about coffee (charging us for one extra coffee), and they (the waiter and the owner) proceeded to yell at us. In general, you can expect a "Bonjour" and then an "Au revoir" from a cashier, but sometimes you don't even get that. The customer is DEFINITELY not always right in France, and God help you if you have a complaint or if something about your transaction isn't EXACTLY as it should be. That said, I have met several really nice cashiers/servers/etc. It's just much more rare here than at home.

5) The general confusion about the fact that Americans SPEAK ENGLISH: Here are some real-life quotes from this year:

"How are you an English assistant if you speak American?" -people to me
"Wow, that's so cool that you can understand Katy, that you can understand American!" -one of our Spanish friends to my English friend
"Do you speak American or English, or both?" -people to me
"How do your students understand you when you speak to them?" -people to me

Honestly people. Americans speak English. This should not be news. It's always people who don't speak English who ask these questions... never a student or one of my teachers, but just general people in the community. For the love of Pete, this is ignorance.

6) Dog poo: People don't have yards. They walk their dogs. Dogs take care of their business partout partout. No one picks it up. It's everywhere. It's gross. That's it.


Okay, so there aren't THAT many things. But here are the things that drive me just nuts here. I may have forgotten something(s), but these are the main ones. Coming up next: Things I love about France!

*It's mostly fun & games.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Ode to Odette

I'd like to take a minute to give giant props (that she will never, ever read) to Odette. Odette is the ringleader of my Thursday night students, which includes Odette, Gilbert, Danièle, and Marie-Émilie. They're an older, very formal group who have taken English lessons together from me this year. They've been so kind and warm to me, and through them I've gotten to know even more about French culture.

I've mentioned them in a few posts, but they're featured in the posts about Perpignan and Collioure, where they so kindly took me for day trips.

Danièle, Gilbert, their friend who hung out with us for the day in Collioure, Odette, me, Marie-Émilie

Odette is the one who initially contacted me (through one of my teacher colleagues at school), and she's the one who always came to pick me up and generally served as liaison for the group. On our day trips, she'd find historical facts and information about our destination, print them out, and hand-number the pages. (YEAH she's that cute.)

Well, before I head off for my end-of-the-year travels, Odette wanted us all to go to dinner. Something happened, and the other three were busy (but we're planning on meeting when I come back in May) and so it was just Odette and me. Last Thursday (the 18th), she came and picked me up and we went for a promenade en voiture to the beach. We drove to Gruissan plage at sunset, and it was nice.

We then drove along the étangs at sunset, and it was beautiful.

That tower on the left is the Tour Barberousse, or Redbeard Tower, at Gruissan. It's all that remains of an old fort that used to watch over the harbor at Narbonne. It's named for (you probably guessed it) Redbeard the pirate.


driving along the Canal du Midi at dusk

Then, Odette told me that she was taking me to the Grands Buffets for dinner! Now, we assistants had always talked about going to this all-you-can-eat buffet attached to the Espace Liberté, but it was kind of pricey for us. Imagine my delight at being told that's where we were headed! Let me tell you, I did indeed eat all I could eat.

There's Odette!

You betta believe it.

It was so sweet of Odette to take me to dinner that night, and to arrange all that she did this year. I have so appreciated my time with these sweet Thursday night students, and all that they've done for me. They way they talk and interact and live is so different from all of the other French people I've known, and it was so interesting to be included among them. Un grand merci to Odette, not only for this lovely evening but for taking the initiative to find me and forge this connection with this group of people. I'm so thankful she did!

And let's not forget how Odette introduced me to her friends in Collioure: "Notre chère Kate, qui a illuminé notre hiver." ("Our dear Kate, who has illuminated our winter.")

I mean, come on with that. J'adore.

Monday, April 22, 2013

The things I miss the most

Before I left in September, I wrote a list of things I would and wouldn't miss about home while away in France. I'm going to look at the list of things I thought I'd miss and see how accurate I was, as well as make a few additions I didn't expect.

After 7 months away, here are...

The Real Things I Miss

1) Mexican Food (aka TexMex): Yes. All the time. It will be the first thing I eat when I get home. I can't even tell you how much I miss it.

2) Being able to get almost anything at almost anytime: YES. So much. After 7 months, I STILL occasionally forget about making sure I have food on Saturday (as France is essentially closed on Sundays).

3) Target: Not really that much. But I will be excited to go in May!

4) Turning on the TV/radio and being able to understand every word: Not really. I don't even have a TV here, and the radio I kind of like in French. However, I mostly listen to Spotify or 8tracks now (Pandora doesn't work in Europe), sooo I listen to what I want to anyway.

5) The chance that you just might see a man riding a horse in the middle of your regular life: Not really, that was kind of a joke. Though that is always exciting. :)

6) Texas sunsets: Yes. I mean, not that bad... I do love the sunsets here too, but I will be happy to see huge, million-colored, epic Texas sunsets on a regular basis.

7) Peanut Butter: YES. I can get it here, but it takes like 45 minutes on the bus each way (even though it would take 10 minutes each way in a car), soooo I don't get it. And I miss it.

8) DFW Sports: Yes... who's taking me to a Rangers game this summer?!

9) Two words: Magnolia. Mae.: YES, yes, yes. I can't tell you how much I miss my dog. There is no experience that replicates or even close to replaces the relationship between a person and a dog. Occasionally I Facebook stalk my own dog because I miss her so much. Oh my gosh, I just admitted that on the Internet.

10) Big girl paychecks: YES! I don't even have a job next year, so who knows when I'll be getting big girl paychecks again. But I need them. Gotta pay them billllllz.

11) All of the family and friends that I love in Texas (and other places in the United States, namely Louisiana): YES. Obviously this is true. I have been able to keep in contact with a lot of my family and friends (thanks Facebook, FreeMobile, email, & Skype), so that's made things easier, as well as the knowledge that it's only 8 months. But I'll be really happy to be able to be with/see/talk to/text/call my family and friends easily. Soon!

New Additions: Things I Didn't I Realize I'd Miss

1) Baths: Ohhhhhhhh my gosh. I miss baths so. freaking. much. I'm glad to have a private shower in my room, but what I would do to have a bath a couple of nights a week. What a luxury that I never realized was a luxury.

2) A Kitchen: Okay, let's be real, I've never been a Top Chef. Since for the past few years I've mostly lived by myself, cooking hasn't really been that exciting to me. But after this entire time of not having a kitchen, I long for a kitchen. I dream of the day when I have a fridge, and a stove, and an oven. Maybe this is the turning point in my culinary life?! Only time will tell. But I'm really excited to eat something else besides kettle couscous, for the love.

3) My Car: The convenience, the freedom, the feeling of driving, my ol' (mostly) faithful car herself, the built-in personal time... I miss it all. I don't, however, miss traffic.

4) Washer & Dryer: I'm tired of having to devote a whole afternoon to laundry. Just over it. Can't wait to be able to do laundry in a normal way (not have to leave the house).

5) My clothes: I'm tired of looking at the same clothes over and over again. Seriously.

6) MY BED: I haven't slept in my actual bed since November 2011 when it went into storage. I miss it. So much.

7) Singing: I love to sing. It's therapeutic. It's what I do when I'm sad, mad, stressed, happy, excited... If I don't have time to sing (really sing - loudly - with abandon), I get all stressed and not myself. I really do miss my shower, car, clean-up-the-apartment singing sessions. I don't really have my own private spaces where I can sing out loud at the top of my lungs. On more than a couple occasions, I've found myself singing in the streets of Narbonne along with my iPod. Imagine the French people's reactions when that happens. WHOOPS.

8) Books: Okay, it's not that books don't exist here. It's just that a) I'm not really excited about reading in French. I feel like that's all I did from 2005-2010, and I'm kind of over it for a while (or possibly forever). b) I don't have a library card. c) I don't have much disposable income. d) Even if I did, Narbonne's not exactly a mecca for English books. I have managed to read some thanks to my Kindle, but only free books (except for Room by Emma Donoghue, which I read thanks to my BFF Amy's awesome birthday present to me). However, my Kindle died a month ago sooo that's the end even of that. Anyway, I hope I'll have the opportunity to do a ton of reading this summer!

9) People being able to pronounce my name correctly: I don't understand why people can't get it right. There are four sounds in my name (two syllables), all of which exist in French. It is NOT that difficult. I feel like I don't even exist in this country sometimes. Get it together, people.


So that's there's the lowdown on what I really did end up missing. Aside from the obvious winner (people), the things I miss the most are the quotidian things, just regular ol' daily life stuff. It's funny how much you take for granted in your daily life. The things that you think are just normal and that you don't think about twice, that's the stuff you miss. I will have a new appreciation for all of these things once I return, and I hope to keep it. Can you imagine if you moved not only to an entirely different environment (aka a different continent), but also to, say, a developing country? How much do we take for granted in our everyday life? Especially as citizens of the developed world, where we have things so easy (and in the States, where we put more emphasis on daily convenience than anywhere else)? Are these things necessary for happiness? Could you/would you be happy, regardless of your environment?

These are the questions, my friends. These are the questions.

ps: I am and have been happy this year. Having free time, traveling, spending time with new interesting people... I have been in my element. The lack of these things does not ruin my life. I just, you know, miss 'em. :)

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Spain for the day, because we can!

A couple Sundays ago, on April 7th, I went with Emily, Anais, and Corentin to Girona, Spain, because.... why not take a daytrip to Spain while you still can? Girona's about two hours away by car, and so we all piled into Corentin's car and headed down. Girona is a Catalan city (you might remember Catalan culture from Barcelona and Perpignan), and it's also got a pretty intact set of old ramparts around the fortified old city.

the river Onyar

the Cases de l'Onyar (houses of the Onyar in Catalan), for which Girona is somewhat known

with Corentin & Anais*

This was right after Em accidentally touched some random Spanish guy on the shoulder and then told him (in French) to get into the picture, which was hilarious.*

I think that's what we were laughing about here...**



the steps leading up to Girona's cathedral*


Wikipedia just told me that Girona's cathedral, Santa Maria de Girona, has the widest nave of any Gothic cathedral in the world (and the second of any cathedral in the world to St. Peter's in Rome.) It was pretty huge, not gonna lie.

I learned that this is the flag for Catalan independentist flag - the regular Catalan cultural/Catalunian regional flag is just red and yellow stripes, whereas the independentist flag has the triangle with the star.

gardens within the former citadel

climbing up the fort


overlooking Girona

beautiful views, and such a nice day

the Great Wall of... Girona


Welcome to Spain, where life actually exists on Sundays. (Unlike in much of my current country of residence.)

In 1877, Gustave Eiffel designed a bridge in Girona. We don't really know why.


It really does remind you of the Eiffel Tower, n'est-ce pas?

No, churros. Just no.*

These adorable little brothers went running along, the first (older/taller) jumping over these balls, the second (younger/shorter) barely cleared them (and therefore waddle-scooted over them). Adorbs.


John Lennon Gardens... We never really figured out why John Lennon has gardens in Girona, but hey. You know. Go with it.

This is the point at which Em taught me how to make daisy chains and we sang "Imagine" in the John Lennon Gardens. #hippy #youmaysayimadreamer*

I wasn't joking that we sang.**

chicas in the garden*


where we stopped for a little snackypoo

Please notice the giant dog as well as the white dog sitting in checkered shirt guy's lap at the table at the café. Nbd. 

Em, friendless on a one-person bench


We had a great relaxing Sunday in Spain among friends. Girona was charming, it was a beautiful day, and the sun was out! Girona's got a lot of great green spaces, and so we spent most of our time garden hopping and laying down in the grass, soaking up the sun after a long, long winter. Sunshine, you make me happy. Also, this was the first time I've been to Spain and it hasn't rained! Score one for Girona.

*Stole these pictures from Emily!

**Stole these pictures from Anais!