Dear Family and Friends,
I just got back to the U.S. after 7 months of teaching English in Rochefort, France. It was a really incredible experience and I’m so blessed to have had your support.
I hope you will enjoy reading about my travels. Since I got a bit wordy, I decided to separate it into HEADINGS and subheadings.
Some of you are in your golden years and others are just starting out, but I hope that however much or little you decide to read, you follow your heart wherever it takes you.
To France and Back Again
Since Beauty and the Beast and Madeline, France has been the country of my dreams. I never thought I would actually live here, and I am pretty sure I am the first woman in my family to cross the Atlantic since my family immigrated. I tried to teach myself French when I was 10 and got out all kinds of CDs and books from the library (obviously Belle has had a serious influence on my life), although I’d say I didn’t really begin speaking French till I was 13.
My ardor had cooled a bit and I wanted to take Italian when I could start taking a language in middle school. Due to a scheduling error, I got put in French class, which happened to be taught by a long time friend of my family. I guess I liked it because I never switched out and always enjoyed French. In high school, I had some really interesting characters as my French teachers. In freshman year of high school, there was extremely skinny, enthusiastic, and Francophilic Mademoiselle Haff. Next, I had Madame Chalupa who fled the communist takeover of Hungary as a child and moved to Belgium where she learned French. She sometimes had us sing chansons paillardes (dirty drinking songs), which we didn’t really understand that much. My French students were shocked when I told them about singing chansons paillardes, which is hilarious since they are exposed to sex and alcohol from a pretty early age. The first time I went over to my bestie April’s house, it was to study for a French quiz. After Madame Chalupa, there was the incomparable Madame Yonezuka-Brown, a woman said to be born in Paris who had us read existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre novels and wore leather pants at well past 50. She also told us stories from her colorful life, including her divorce from the world champion of judo (the Yonezuka part) and her current marriage to an American doctor (the Brown part), who learned French and changed his last name to Yonezuka-Brown so they would have the same last name once Yonnie consented to marry him after 7 years of asking. Thanks to these teachers, I was able to start college French at the 400 level. Their eccentricities also opened my mind in a way and their experiences inspired me. When Madame Chalupa talked about traveling around Europe by train and staying in hostels, my first reaction was, “I’ll never be able to do that, that could never happen to me.” About 5 years later, I am happy to say I was wrong.
France also helped me make one of the most difficult decisions of my life- breaking up with my first boyfriend, who I had dated since I was 16, not long before my 20th birthday. It took meeting a guy who liked French movies to realize just how much I didn’t have in common with my first boyfriend. This was the first time I really left the known for the unknown, and my confidence in myself grew after doing what I knew was the right thing. Although moving to France might seem like a giant leap, I have to say this first step towards being my own person was the harder at the time.
I was chosen as a team member for the Lafayette Initiative for Malagasy Education, the pilot stage of a program to help Malagasy students get admitted to college in the U.S, in no small part because I spoke French. I worked on the project througout the year and implemented the program by going to Madagascar. This was a really lifechanging experience too and before that, I really had no idea that I would end up traveling the world. if you are interested, check out this article: http://www.lafayette.edu/about/news/2010/04/16/a-life-changing-experience/
At Lafayette, I really loved my French professors, who were not quite so eccentric but extremely kind. I took classes on translation, medieval French literature, and the Francophone world. My French professor, Prof. Lalande, and the Dr. Erica D’Agostino, who was one of the directors of the trip to Madagascar, wrote my recommendations for the teaching assistant program. I spent my first day in France with Erica since we had an unexpected stopover in Paris on the way to Madagascar. I’ll always be grateful for their help in getting to France again.
Why did I take the teaching assistant position?
After graduating from Lafayette in 2010 with majors in French and Policy Studies, I didn’t have much luck finding a full-time job. I also wanted to see the world after going to Madagascar and also Russia during my senior year. I wasn’t really sure about my career choice and really regretting not studying abroad. When I heard about the Teaching Assistant Program in France, (www.tapif.org), I decided to apply. I was originally waitlisted but got off the waitlist when I told the committee I had more experience working with children from my job as a substitute teacher.
THE JOURNEY TO FRANCE
Somehow, I managed to get to CDG, the giant airport in Paris. From there it was a 5 hour journey by train to Rochefort sur mer, the small town on the Atlantic Coast to which I’d been assigned. Let me say that buying a train ticket, finding the train, and getting on it with all my worldly posessions has never been more complicated. I got almost to Poitiers, where I had to switch trains, by train when the ladies from Germany, Finland, and Sweden I had talked to in the car led me to get off at the stop right before, Futuroscope, a theme park. We called taxis and my taxi driver brought me to a hostel in Poitiers. I’ll never forget how friendly he was at a time I really needed a little boost. He introduced me to the concierge and made sure I would be well taken care of, since apparently I looked a bit lost. He said, “Taxi drivers give the first impression of a country, we are like diplomats. I take care of people, I don’t just drop off sacks of potatoes!”
My first hostel experience was very welcoming. I arrived too late (this is the French countryside) to buy dinner and was afraid to wander too far and I didn’t have any change for the vending machine. At the hostel, I met two other teaching assistants who were living in the region and they gave me wine and cookies. I hung out with Isabelle the next day and thought my experience was much more agreeable than staying in a hotel. Also, Nathan, the other assistant, showed me this clip, which I highly recommend: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GSeaDQ6sPs0
I spent a few hours wandering around Poitiers and availing myself of public transportation to and from the hostel. Small victories. I thought Poitiers was beautiful and took like 200 pictures in 2 hours (all on Facebook for your viewing pleasure). It also looked a lot like the town in Beauty in the Beast.
And to Rochefort
I met the English teachers I’d been put in contact with before coming and another other English teaching assistantwhen we got picked up from the train station. They were kind enough to bring us some groceries since everything was already closed. At first glance, when I saw the mini mall and chain restaurant right near our school/apartment on the outskirts of town, I was like, I moved to France for this? A suburb is a suburb, isn’t it? Time would prove me wrong on that one.
My apartment was a bit bigger than expected- the benefits of country France- although the water doesn’t exactly get hot in the shower. No washer or dryer, so I did learn a bit about hand washing. Not good for my delicate skin and not quite as clean as machine washing, so I hauled my things into town with my wheeled suitcase and pay 4 euro for a wash. Alas.
Before I came to France, I didn’t know how to cook at all. I picked up on how to make gnocchi a la broccoli, garlic, and olive oil and eggs pretty quickly. I did get to help some of the teachers who invited me for dinner cook a few times so those lessons, and my desire to eat more than pasta, really motivated me to learn a bit. Guess what? Mayonnaise doesn’t just come out of a jar! You can make it at home from eggs, oil, and a little mustard! Not that I’ve made it for myself, but I think this is a pretty relevant anecdote.
IMPRESSIONS OF FRANCE
Where did I work in France?
I taught at two different high schools, Lycee Merleau Ponty, where I lived, and Lycee Professionel Gilles Jamain, a high school where students learn a trade.
Lycees and LPs
In schools like Merleau Ponty, students choose which type of high school degree they want to receive. The choices are Science, Literature, Social Science, and Engineering. I think that not all schools offer all degrees and some are better regarded than others.
In France, about 35% of students go to an LP (lycee professionel) The choice of going to a lycee or lycee professionel depends on the student’s preference and grades from middle school. I think it is technically possible, but extremely rare, to switch from one track to the other. Once the student has been put on a professional track, the trade they learn also depends in part on their grades from middle school. The student will rank their preferences will be placed depending on how competitive the training program and their grades. There were students at Gilles Jamain who were studying fashion but actually wanted to work in a nursery, for example. It is possible to switch your track but your credits don’t transfer, so you may spend more time in high school. The students at the professional school also have stages, which are like internships where they get a chance to do the job they have trained for.
Boarding Schools and School Choice
Lycee Merleau Ponty had apartments for teachers because it was a boarding school. In rural areas like Poitou-Charentes, many students choose to live at the school during the week rather than take the bus. Also, students in France have a lot of choice of where they will go to school. I met students in the cinema program at Merleau from Normandy and Haute Picardie, for example. I’m not exactly sure how students receive their preference, but they do have a choice of where they will attend school and their grades are the main determinant. Merleau Ponty wasn’t a particularly prestigious school and didn’t have a great reputation in the area. Gilles Jamain had students from all over the country studying embroidery, since it is the only place besides Paris where that course is offered.
In France, students are encouraged to pick a career fairly early compared to in the U.S. While it is possible to change your mind, once you have your high school diploma it is difficult because you need to go and get the appropriate high school diploma. There are really no adult education options that I’m aware of and generally people who go to an LP will not go to university. Also, if you want to get a job in retail, you will be expected or prefered to have a degree in sales from an LP. In France, they want you to be ready to do your job from the minute you start and generally people train towards a job.
While everyone learns basic subjects, it is not really a liberal arts education. People in France are shocked to hear about philosophy majors going into business and computer scientists becoming teachers.
Extracurriculars and Schedule
Students go to high school from 8-6 every day. They usually have about an hour and a half or two hours for lunch and a 15 minute break in the morning and afternoon. They don’t have sports or clubs after school like in the U.S. When I had my students debate the merits of the French vs American education system, they really liked how American students have a shorter day and have after school activities.
With the idea of equality in mind, students are not separated into classes based off their ability in a particular subject. Instead, they rotate to classes with the whole group of students in their year in their program of study. The French students generally think it is mean that students in the U.S. Are grouped by level. They think that the stronger students should help the weaker students. Of course, there are special classes for students with real learning challenges.
Schools are not funded by local taxes as in the U.S. I’m not totally sure about how they are financed and I do think there could be some variation in school quality depending on the area.
Students can go to any school in France, depending on space in the program and their competitiveness. I think that local students are given preference, but I’m not entirely sure. I think this is also done in the name of equality. They can also receive money towards their living expenses if they live away from home. I also think that living in the boarding school is not expensive either.
University education is quite cheap compared to the U.S. I think public universities are generally less than $1000 per year. Young people are especially likely to get rent assistance and I believe that there are special funds available to help university students like in high school. Even at Rouen Business School, a Grande Ecole which is like an Ivy/Patriot League level school in the U.S., business school was about $17,000 per year. Other private schools are similar or less expensive
There are private high schools and universities in France too. Generally public universities are considered better except for Grandes Ecoles.
What did I think of teaching?
Like my previous experiences substituting and managing interns, I generally really liked my students. Now that I had to prepare lessons, generally on topics of my choice, I realy came to respect teachers. It really is a craft to know how to convey the information and keep students engaged. With the students at Merleau who had a high level of English, I could basically just have discussions but at Jamain, I really respected the teachers for how they really made sure students who weren’t that interested in learning English got something out of the class.
What I learned about France while teaching French students about America
Here are some of the more interesting presentations I made and what I thought was interesting about the students reactions
French students know all about American food. They think its fatty. They are shocked that we eat dinner around 6 or 7 since they will eat around 8 if not later on the weekend.
New Jersey Region Presentation
One English teacher was very excited that Bruce Springstein comes from New Jersey- she broke out into Born in the USA and told me she had a book about him.
Students like the idea of diners and how cheap fast food is.
American History and Patriotism
Everyone is shocked that we say the Pledge of Allegiance every day at school.
They also pick up on how many times you hear liberty and freedom in American patriotic songs and as a recurrent theme in my 4 slide quick and dirty version of American history before WWI.
French people also love cowboys and make comics and movies about them that are unknown in the U.S. Some students have told me that Chuck Norris and MacGyver are heroes in France too. You wouldn’t know that from the French guys I’ve met, but American action heroes are world celebrities.
French kids know the Marseillaise, which is actually a really scary war song. It talks about cutting the throats of the enemies and letting impure blood run like a stream in the fields to cleanse the country. They don’t really have any other patriotic well-known songs.
American Childhood and Childhood Images of France
Of course, I had to play the theme song from Madeline and Be Our Guest from Beauty and the Beast. Good times- everybody loves Disney. I explained how Lumiere, the “grand drageur” (big flirt) was a representation of French men stereotypes and how we think of elegance and romance when we think of France. Some of them didn’t realize that Beauty and the Beast takes place in France, so I took the opportunity to explain how American towns are just not that cute usually.
I also talked about the trend of wanting to copy French parenting. My students seemed to think, based off TV and movies, that American children are given more freedom and are a little spoiled. What shocked them all around is the fact that American children can usually eat whenever they like and can go fetch food for themselves. French children are forbidden from doing this until they get to be teenagers.
French people are generally nice and aren’t particularly difficult personalities.
They do wear colors, they don’t wear all black.
They do smoke all the time, even young people.
They are not all skinny, but it is rare to see a very obese person.
French people are generally pretty chill. It’s hard to make generalizations, but they are not type-A like Germans, for example.
Everyone enjoys good food and wine. It’s not uncommon to hear regular people discuss what type of wine would go best with a particular dish.
French people drink, but usually with meals. Even at a party, they don’t do shots and try to get drunk, they have a good time and got drunk along the way. They think the English are real drunkards, however the English think French people are dirty.
French Men (highly overrated)
Favorite horrible pick up lines:
“You aren’t from around here, are you from Holland? You are charming. Let’s have a cup of wine.”
“Where’s the tobacco shop?”
French men also seemed to think that I, as a silly American girl, would not realize when things were cliche romantic, leading to situations like:
“Look at this lovely view. This is a really romantic place for couples.”
“I ordered champagne. French men are so romantic, don’t you see?”
Yes, these things have actually been said to me. I’m sure you can tell how impressed I was.
French men also regularly break man laws. There are times it has been confusing to tell whether the dude was interested in me or my gay friend. Here’s a list of the things they have done that put them in a league of their own:
Slather on chapstick like its their job in the middle of trying to draguer. No, your cherry chapstick doesn’t tempt me.
Serenade me with Katy Perry’s “Hot and Cold”
Take shots without using their hands…
Dance on the stripper pole in the club. I found this out with guys from the Gendarmerie, which is like the police academy.
Drink cocktails adorned with umbrella through a straw.
Put flavored syrups like lemon or strawberry flavors in beer making a “Monaco.” One time I saw my friend Maxime, who’s a carpenter and isn’t usually very effeminate. drinking what looked like a Shirley Temple. It was beer with strawberry.
Kiss their besties on the cheek. It’s like a broshake, and you only do it with guys you are very close to.
Wear manpurses only slightly bigger than a wallet and definitely not of a messenger bag size. Definitely on par with a small purse.
Now, I am all about gender equality and I think that gender roles should be questioned. However, I can’t help but be a little put off when all of these things happen together, and the goal of this list is to make you laugh. There are manly French men out there somewhere, I’m sure.
The town where I lived had two main industries, oysters and the military. There are airforce, gendarme (military police kind of like National Guard) and navy bases. This might lead you to think they would be more masculine than the average French dude, but this does not seem to be the case. Considering the very nice but not at all scary guys I have met from the French armed forces, it is not terribly hard to judge the extent of France’s military power. As far as I know, they do not actually carry white flags though.
Food is amazing in France as a general rule. Even American classics like McDonald’s and chocolate chip cookies are better in France. This probably has something to do with the fact that the food regulations are more stringent and generally people will go out of their way to buy fresher food.
High fructose corn syrup, the sweetener found in pretty much everything in the US, is illegal, so all sweets taste different. They are made from real sugar and don’t make you feel sick after you eat them in quite the same way.
For all you diet soda fans, France has Coca Light, which tastes like Diet but has a sweetener that is allowed by the European Union and is probably healthier, and Coca Zero.
Dairy products, especially cheese, are delicious because they are unpasteurished and keep their full flavor.
Most French people avoid buying frozen foods and are afraid of preservatives and chemicals. Bread and pretty much everything you buy will say things like “All Natural” and “No preservatives.” I think this helps the French stay slimmer possibly.
What is a typical French meal?
Aperitif- usually a strong or sweet liqueur is served, and salty finger foods.
Olives, walnuts, pound cake with olives or bacon inside, crackers. Etc
Pineau (Wine mixed with cognac), cognac, whiskey, whiskey coke, and Kyr (white wine with crème de cassis or violet syrup), pastis (anise flavored strong liqueur).
Quiche, Salad (could have things like dried duck or organs in it), something small.
Plat (main course):
Pot au feu (like stew, but can have several types of meat like rabbit, beef, lamb etc)
Beef Bourguignon like stew also
So first meet is served with potatoes or something like that.
Then, there will be a vegetable afterwards, like celery with remoulade sauce.
Best one I had was apples with cinnamon, vanilla, sugar, and butter baked in a little bag made of flaky pastry crust. They are called Aumonieres. Of course, there are tons of other French desserts you probably know about.
France is divided into regions and smaller departments (what you see on the map).
It’s pretty rural and French people call it “cow country” since it is where the butter and cheese comes from. It’s are known especially for goat cheese.
It’s named for the two main rivers, the Poitou and the Charente and borders the Atlantic Ocean. You could call it “central western France,” since it is not really North or South. Culturally, it is more part of the South and the Latin heritage rather than the German and Belgian influenced North of France.
Department: Charente Maritime
Charente Maritime is about 1/5 the size of New Jersey. It has oysters, a few military bases, and farming. It’s not very prosperous and is pretty rural. I could look out on cows and ducks from one of the high schools where I taught.
However, we have great mussels, oysters, and pineau, a mixture of wine and cognac!
It borders the Atlantic Ocean and is about the same latitude as New Jersey.
Charente Maritime has some nice beaches. It is a vacation spot for lots of people from France and England.
La Rochelle is the major city. It universities and is a real student city. Lots of French politicians have summer homes there.
Rochefort was established in the time of Louis XVI, the Sun King who built Versailles, to be a new naval center. In the past, the construction of battle ships was a major industry. It also had a lot more military stuff going on.
During the wars of religion, it served as a Catholic stronghold to check the power of the Protestant controlled city of La Rochelle. Today, there are not a lot of Protestants in France nor a lot of practicing Catholics.
Today, the town has a lot of empty storefronts and it seems that is a shadow of its former self. However, it is classified as a City of Art and History.
The founder of the city, Pierre Loti, was a famous French writer and explorer along the lines of Marco Polo. His home, with all the treasures he brought from around the world, is a major attraction.
The Corderie Royale (Royal Ropemaking Factory) is another major attraction. It is a giant, beautiful 17th century style building that now serves several purposes, including the library and housing a museum.
The reconstruction of the battleship Hermione, the ship that brought Lafayette to the United States, is another major attraction. Building techniques of the time are being used and I always see lots of school trips there.
There is also the Naval Medicine Academy, an old building that shows how surgery practiced on ships evolved into modern medicine.
My favorite part of Rochefort is the area bordering the Charente near the Corderie Royale. I love to walk by there and see the river, with the cows grazing on the other side. It’s very nice place to spread out a towel to lay in the sun and read.
Not everybody is a fan of Sarko, Nicholas Sarkozy, the current President of the Republic who is considered center-right. A lot of people like Francois Holland, the socialist candidate which is the other major party. Yes, they really have both socialist, communist, and Green (environmental) parties.
The extreme right of French politics, led by Marine le Pen, is thoroughly anti-immigrant. This party got about 20% of the vote in the first round of the two round presidentail elections. Earlier this year, Sarko tried to kick out all the Roma/Gypsies in France as a way of appealing to right wing voters.
In general, “la crise” (the crisis) is a major worry as is immigration, or rather the large number of mostly Arab immigrations usually from former French colonies like Morocco.
Segolene Royale, the Socialist candidate from the previous French presidential election, is the president of the region.
Are French People Anti-American?
No, not at all. They listen to American music, eat American food, and wear American style clothes with gusto. A popular and expensive brand is Franklin and Marshall, which sells college sweatshirts and similar gear. There are many cheap imitations of American clothing also.
Do French people like the role America plays in the world? This is a trickier question, and depends on the person you ask. I have heard people say they think America should not have helped the rebels promote in the Arab Spring because Muslim parties got elected.
All French people know about September 11 and I have often been asked about my reactions to it. They are extremely sympathetic and felt very bad for America.
You can bet your bottom dollar that they hate George Bush though. Generally they like Barack Obama and were very happy when he won. They have trouble understanding why Americans can carry guns and resist universal health care.
I got 7 weeks of paid vacation during my 7 month contract. For the first long break, I went with a French friend to stay at her apartment in Paris. For Christmas, I came home for about three weeks. For spring break, I went to Rome, Krakow, and Madrid. For Easter break, which was after my last day but while I was still being paid, I went to the South of France. Most of the time I traveled alone- yeah, I’m a badass independent woman.
COMING HOME FROM MY HOME AWAY FROM HOME
I finished working on April 20. I got my students some peanut M&Ms as a goodbye treat and gave them my email and home address. I already have some new Facebook friends and I hope they’ll keep in touch!
The Lycee Professionel Jamain (the vo-tech) had a really nice reception for me with champagne and appetizers. They gave me a yoga bag that students from the school had made, some books about Charente Maritime, and postcards. I was very touched and almost forgot how to speak French to thank everyone. My buddy for the yoga class offered at lunchtime at Jamain, a Spanish teacher named Fabienne, gave me a necklace and earrings and one of the English teachers also gave me some cookies in a tin from the region. At Merleau, the English teachers gave me some cookies and caramels from the region and a nice necklace. It was really nice to know I’d been appreciated and would be missed.
I took a quick tour of the South of France, undoubtedly one of the most beautiful places in the world. I went to Toulouse, Carcassonne, Montpellier, Avignon, and Arles. It was a really great way to see a little more of France and make the most of my stay. Working on putting up my photos on Facebook.
I had to vacate my apartment by April 26, just after coming back from the South. One of the English teachers at Jamain, Catherine, was gracious enough to let me stay with her until my flight on April 29. I had been to her house for dinner a few times and we really got along well, so I was happy to spend a few days with her. She took me to see a few of the sights in the region I hadn’t gotten to yet and made delicious food all the time. She and her family were extremely kind to me and I can’t wait to see them again. I’m so lucky to have found a family in France! Mom even got to Skype with them!
On April 29, I got home with a new appreciation for my surroundings and my family. This past few days, it has been a little weird not speaking French when I leave the house. I think there will always be a part of me that will miss France and the particular chapter of my life I spent there. I had the opportunity to be extremely independent and to start over from scratch. I feel a lot more confident that I can “handle the seasons of my life” and find fulfillment. Besides, if I can sign up for a phone contract in French and travel all over on my own, I can do anything!
AND BACK AGAIN
I’m not really sure what this summer holds. I should find out this week if I’ll be interning in DC.
Around August 1, I’ll be starting business school at Temple University in Philadelphia. I am enrolled in a one year, tricontinent, dual-degree, program with ENPC School of Management in Paris to get my International MBA in one year. From September to December, I’ll be in Paris at ENPC. I’m hoping to live with a host family during that time. After that, I’ll spend the spring semester in Philadelphia and then travel for short courses of about 3 weeks each to India, China, and Japan. I am really excited and really grateful for all the people who helped me through the application process
What will I do after I graduate from business school in August? I want to increase international exchange and understanding by helping people work productively across cultures. I’d like to work for an organization like a French-American Chamber of Commerce, the International Chamber of Commerce in Paris, or maybe the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington. Or, maybe I will join the Foreign Service, start a think tank, or work for an international education company. I have a good amount of direction but also some wiggle room, and as I’ve learned in France, there’s a lot more to a person than the job you do so I am trying not to stress about it prematurely. I am sure that my business school experience will be transformative in itself and I’m excited to see what happens next!
Note: This was written about 6 months ago. Since then, I’ve started business school (awesome) and will be leaving for France again in about 10 days, which is what prompted writing this blog in part. The other part was having a bunch of big realizations of what I wanted to do with my life, including aiming for a career at a DC think tank rather than in the Foreign Service. More on that later.