Archive | December, 2009

Joyeux Noël

23 Dec

France is in full Christmas swing — that is to say, everyone is on vacation or wishing they were.  I have to say, it’s great craic being a teaching assistant.  I work twelve hours a week, not including lesson planning, and get two weeks of paid vacation about every two months.  I wish this were my real life.

I am spending Christmas with my friend and her family in Gap, a smallish city in the Hautes-Alpes region of Provence.  The air is bracingly cold and dry, just like home.   After the cushy rolling hills and flatness of Poitou-Charentes, it is at once a relief and a nostalgic pinch to be in the mountains again.  There isn’t much snow, but we may try to go skiing or snowshoeing this week anyway.

To get here, I had to effectively traverse all of France from west to east.  If you can cross a country in a day, then I think you are justified in calling it a small one.  All the same, it’s an entire day of traveling.  I got a free ride most of the way from the high school’s proviseur-adjoint (vice-principal).  We left Saint Jean around 9 am, barreling south down the autoroute past Bordeaux and Toulouse, where the sun made a half-hearted but beautiful appearance.  We stopped to eat our sandwiches and imbibe un vin chaud (hot spiced wine) in Carcassonne, a small town known for its fortified center, complete with brooding gothic church and medieval castle.  One of those  postcard images that bubbles up when thinking of France from afar — my colleagues laughed at me, again, when I told them of how ardently I wished to see Carcassonne.  “All the Americans want to see Carcassonne.  Why?  Why?  We don’t understand.”  Reply:  Because it’s a castle and wicked awesome and there’s no possible way of seeing something like that in the States, unless you go to Disneyland.  That’s why.

We drove on through the pouring rain past Montpellier and Nimes to Avignon, where I was disposed of at the station to await my Gap-bound train.  It snowed about three fingers worth all over France this past week, and the event has brought the country to a crashing halt.  Since all railroads lead to Paris, trains are being delayed and cancelled all over like some cheesy apocalypse Christmas movie.  Luckily, Gap is on the regional train line — le TER, a slower and smaller version of le TGV, where most of the delays are happening— so I passed under the radar this time around.   I had an hour to wait in a small rainy village south of Valence, so had a pint in the bar of a hotel next to la gare (which was painted a cheery canary yellow).  I listened to French men talk about soccer, learned a new expression for cheers, “à la ventre,” and was earnestly beseeched to please come back if I was ever in town again, because “we’re here most every night.  There’s nowhere else to go.”  When it rains hard in France, there’s a delightful expression to describe the weather:  “C’est les vaches qui pissent.”  It’s the cows that piss.  I prefer this more colorful version to the English one about cats and dogs.

I will post photos as soon as I get back to Saint Jean, because I forgot my camera cord at home.  Same goes for the Christmas photos of Saint Jean and Gap both.  In typical Lindsay fashion, I managed to send only about a third of my Christmas postcards — the “I’m thinking of you…economically” option — on time.  So these are forthcoming as well.

Joyeux Noël and Bonne Année — Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.


C’est pas normale du tout

10 Dec

“C’est normale.”  It’s normal. “C’est comme ça.”  It’s just like that.  Expressions that fall often on the ears in France, usually at the times when I least want to hear them.  It’s normal, apparently, to wait two months for one’s carte vitale, which gives one the ability to take advantage of France’s renowned dirt-cheap health care — and it’s not cheap by the way, it’s called social security and twenty percent of my paycheck.  No one thought to give warning that without that magic carte vitale and its accompanying social security number, medical care in France is just as expensive, if not more so, than in the United States.

I find no redeeming value in this experience except for the opportunity to return obnoxious, stubborn behavior with the same.  Or, to put a more positive spin on it, the opportunity to practice persistence.  Bureaucracy and paper trails are as natural as breathing for the French; that doesn’t mean they have it any easier, but rather than growing frustrated after only five phone calls and six weeks of waiting,  they have wisdom enough to simply mumble, “C’est normale.  C’est tout.”  And they persist.  At least I am able to provide comic relief for my colleagues with my stories of trying to manage very mundane processes in their country:  finally coaxing the bank to send me my debit card and checkbook; prying my lost cell phone from the grip of a very irate train conductor; getting rightfully reimbursed for any number of bureaucratic expenditures.

You wonder why the French have a reputation for being stubborn, argumentative nit-pickers?  Frankly, they have to be this way, just to survive their own country.  A true accomplishment, I should think, to reach a ripe old age in France with one’s sanity and humanity still intact.

Speaking of sanity, here are the words in French I was wishing I knew today at work:

étincellement — glitter

pot à colle— glue pot

papier de bricolage — construction paper

flocon de neige — snowflake

It was ‘creative Christmas’ day at the high school — making Christmas cards with the assistant’s very limited craft materials (tissue paper, colored pencils, and recycled photocopy paper).  Imagine trying to describe the concept of glitter to a French person without knowing the word…and it’s not as if I’m a particularly crafty person and use glitter on a regular basis.  “You know, the little things that sparkle when you throw them on glue, on a sea of glue” (insert vaguely jabbing hand gesture here). I often feel to have regressed, severely regressed, to the verbal and sometimes emotional level of a five-year-old.  

Maybe I’m feeling younger because I’ve been spending a lot of time lately with a younger crowd than usual.  I teach at a collège in Matha, an even smaller town than Saint Jean, every Thursday morning.  Collège is the equivalent of junior high, while lycée is the rough equivalent of high school). I sang The Twelve Days of Christmas three times today, replete with hand gestures and dancing, much to the delight and embarassment of my usually blasé collègean students. 

Thinking on the subject of sanity and being normal:  the French have a slew of negative and double negative phrases that they wield generously and freely in everyday conversation. Pas forcement — not necessarily; c’est pas faux — it’s not false;  c’est pas grave — it’s not a big deal; c’est pas normale — that’s not normal.  It’s this last one that has me believing, in conjunction with the rampant use of its counterpart “c’est normal,” that there must be some subsurface cultural current, some engrained fear, of appearing to be anything but “normal,” whatever that means.  I don’t know what “normal” means in my own culture, let alone in a foreign one.  But in this small intimate place, where loaves of bread and peacoats and identical little pencil pouches can be dependably found in literally each small town across the country,  it wouldn’t be hard to draw conclusions as to how ‘normal’ is defined, if that is what one wishes to do.

I feel lucky indeed to have crossed paths with many atypical, or atypique, French people, and to have made them a part of my life. 

As I promised some more aesthetically pleasing photos of France, here they are, primarily from an October weekend in Bordeaux.  I haven’t taken too many pictures of Saint Jean yet; I am biding my time, trying to scout out the most representative and / or flattering images.  But autumn is on the wane, along with the foliage, and Christmas decorations have come out in full force — on my evening runs, I regard the sky over petite Saint Jean glowing orange with light pollution, the first time I’ve ever seen it like this.  So, I’d better get on the ball before the opportunity passes me by.


 La Cathédrale Saint-André, seen from the adjacent clock tower, Le Tour Pey-Berland.  The cathedral was constructed between the twelfth and sixteenth centuries, the tower in the fifteenth.  Being inside these huge European cathedrals makes me feel like I’m inside a human body, looking up at all the bones and crevices and ligaments.  Even from the outside, the cathedral’s tiled roof and flying buttresses look corporal, like limbs and muscle.

Bordeaux is a study in contrasts, and in terms of visual contrast, this one can be found all over the historic city center — a facade blackened by centuries of city grime and smoke, plumb next to its freshly-scoured-white neighbor.  Over the last decade or so, the city government has invested scads of money and time in its effort to revitalize Bordeaux; originally a bustling port town turned down in the mouth backwater, it now seems to be brimming over with rosy-cheeked tourists from all over the world.  My favorite, though, is turning off the main quai, with its grandiose ivory and rose bourgeois mansions, and on a narrow side street, running face-to-face into a defiantly dark facade burrowed into the wall, a grumpy old lunatic that has as of yet escaped the notice of the industrious municipal government.

Tram tracks

Gargoyle, la Cathédrale Saint-André

Petit ou grand café, à la gare de Bordeaux

Ugly things in France

5 Dec

Today is a dreary one in Charente – Maritime, and as I’ve been wanting for a long time to do something about dispelling some of the American myths about France, I figure today is as good a day as any to do so. 

The majority of people I know, once they learned I was going to be spending 7 months in France, immediately found it fit to regal me with their preconceived notions of what life in France surely must be like:  slow, sweet, delicious, romantic, historically and aesthetically fascinating.  Predictably, all the facets of French life that tourists, in their sheltered portable bubble of expensive, enchanting, typically superficial impressions, experience. 

Any French person will be glad to correct this misconception:  la vie en rose isn’t always lavender, coffee and kisses.  Between Sarkozy, taxes, les grèves (strikes), and paperwork for everything, down to buying a cauliflower at the marché (there are receipts for everything in France), life in France is pretty much just as annoying, boring, what have you as anywhere else.  To be sure, I have had my fair share of wonderful moments here ; but there are certainly some days when I wish I were back in Missoula, back in Bozeman, back in Yellowstone, where I understand the subtleties of the language, understand the street signs, and understand how the health system works (or doesn’t work, to be more accurate).

On that note, here’s a short photo essay on ugly things in France…I promise to post another essay on typically charming things in France, fairly soon…

Stunted, overly and incorrectly pruned trees in La Rochelle.

You can find this tragedy all over France:  philosophically, I’m sure it could relate to the warped relationship between man and nature, with the former yearning beyond all reason to control the latter. 

I took an urban forestry class last semester in Missoula, so now know that, when trees look like this, clubfeet and all, they may as well be dead…they’re ridden with disease, surely, and have been forever denied the ability to grow in a normal and healthy way…all because some French arborist thought it looked pretty.  An innocuous act :  “C’est juste pour faire joli.”  It’s just to make pretty.

I don’t think I need to explain the horror of this eyesore.  Apparently some kind of war memorial; why must history, even ugly history, be memorialized in ugly ways?


And just down the road from the most hideous war memorial in the world, a typical find in France:  advertisements on the sides of potentially historic, ancient buildings.  Granted, this house is nothing special in Saint Jean, let alone France.  But it’s old, it’s pretty…and look, a lovely neon advert for the French equivalent of Super Walmart on its side.  This is what   comes from having too much of a good thing:  we fail to appreciate it.

In addition, ugly things I didn’t take pictures of but which are  nevertheless extremely offensive to one or more of the five (six, seven) senses:

There are funeral homes everywhere.  Yes, it’s forward thinking and frugal, even considerate to others, to plan one’s own death — but a little depressing?  In Saint Jean, which has a population of about 8,000, I’ve counted at least three funeral homes already.

Perfumed toilet paper in various colors.  Mandarin spice is orange ; creamy yellow is vanilla ; powder blue is ‘marine,’ which I assume has something to do with the ocean.  There is also unscented toilet paper; you can choose between pink and green.  I do not like pink toilet paper; something about this concept seems perverse to me.  But for some reason, it’s much more expensive to buy plain white toilet paper here.  So I have found myself obliged to overcome my bias and buy the pink kind.

And finally, dog shit.  I would not deign to take a photo for this one.  I leave it to your imagination.  The rumours were all true.

Where I’m coming from

4 Dec

Having almost finished my undergraduate degree in history, I made the decision to take a year off from being a student and trade in the gloomy familiarity of Missoula, Montana winters for somewhere, anywhere…in France. I was posted as a high school English assistant in the small town of Saint-Jean-d’Angély in Charente-Maritime, a sleepy department at the northern edge of southwest France. It is from this lost corner that I write my observations and reflections on French places, French people, their language, their culture, and assorted experiences that defy categorization.

My blog title was inspired by the French proverb: “On ne fait pas une omelette sans casser des oeufs” — translated, “One cannot make an omelette without breaking some eggs.” In short, one cannot create something without first destroying something else. I destroy lots of things in my life — exercise regimes, relationships, writing projects I finally deem insincere or self-indulgent, my own personality. But I find this destruction to be, ironically, incredibly refreshing and nourishing. I could more aptly say that, rather than destroying myself, I am constantly recreating myself, reforging my life according to new influences and new people in it. Dramatically speaking.