What a way to start the weekend

15 Jan

Feeling restless and vengeful tonight for  numerous reasons. I promised myself that, in starting this blog, it would not turn into some sort of  confessional distended epic poem—conveniently hung out to dry online for anyone to see.  That stuff isn’t professional and it certainly isn’t very interesting. Suffice to say that I am un peu bouleversée this evening. 

I used my angry energy to finally clear the apartment of the junk that last year’s assistants left behind in their wake.  I cleared the kitchen of its extraneous pieces when I first arrived, so all that was left was everything else.  In the laundry closet, which I never use and where most of the crud seems to have gravitated:  a giant papier-mâché pinata horned head; Christmas ornaments and Joyeux Noël wrapping paper; a black vinyl handbag big enough to stuff a toddler into; an empty photo album; too many half-used candles and dead batteries to count; a broken floor lamp; two pairs of running shoes; and a mini step machine, still in its garish orange box, with a price tag reading “ASS  59,99.” 

I didn’t exactly enjoy myself, but at least I now can say that I directed my anger towards a productive end on what has been an otherwise unproductive and frustrating day.

My initial culture shock has worn off, and since coming back from Christmas vacation, I feel I have passed through an essential phase of adjustment — one that I recognize from but never quite reconciled with on my three-month sojourn in Ireland in 2007.   France no longer charms me as it used to.  Gone is the “idea” of France that I nourished since my elementary-school-John-Lennon-glasses years.  On the other hand, I appreciate this country much more than I did before living here.  This may be the closest I’ve come to real love in my life—real love must mean coming to terms with one’s disillusionments and still finding desire and reason enough to continue.

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Unfinished

13 Jan

The two primary landmarks in my quaint French village are les tours, or the towers, a pair of dessicated stone behemoths that dominate the modest Saint Jean skyline.  I have observed in France that, even in the most miniscule of communities, the local tourist office — or, lacking one of those, the municipal council— produces a plethora of multi-lingual publications concerning the local patrimoine of the area — often very local, as in five hundred yards until, but not including, Monsieur Camembert’s westernmost cow pasture.  Even the smallest country bumpkin patches in this country have had some kind of say in French history (either that, or history has had an influence on them).

Les tours, Saint Jean d'Angély

According to the Histoire et Patrimoine brochure produced by the Saint Jean tourist office (l’office de tourisme),  there has been a church, or at least an attached holy significance, at the site since the fifth century CE.  Behind and entirely seperate from the towers are the vestiges of two flying buttresses and a chevet, or headpiece, of an earlier church attributed to the fifteenth century and destroyed in 1568 during the Wars of Religion. 

Flying buttress of the broken wing

Construction of the abbey associated with les tours began in 1741. And believe you me, this thing really was huge.  I feel like a snail on the road of Saint-Jacques-de-Compostelle when I stand underneath the arch of the would-be entrance (the historic route to the ancient pilgramage site in Spain passes through Saint Jean.  There are little gold shells all over France to mark its well-trodden meanderings).   Before the church could be completed, the French Revolution lit an ideological, social and literal fire across the entire country.  Everything traditional and Catholic and French was vilified, so the church was of course ransacked and burned to the ground, again.  The smoking  remants were converted into a jail…organized religion equals lifetime imprisonment?  A fitting transition, perhaps?

 

In 1899 the locals either came to their senses or were influenced by the mad ravings of concerned historians and finally restored what remained of the edifice.  When I look at the facade of the tours I cannot tell exactly what is older and what is newer, as in 100 years old new.  That must be a good thing. Today rain and moss are once again asserting their insinuating hold, but even in its decripit state I find les tours at once a magnificent relic of the past and a searingly relevant metaphor for the individual life.  They will forever remain unfinished, and yet they’re beautiful and endlessly intricate all the same.  What does fulfilled potential look like anyway?

eat this

11 Jan

I feel that I am falling short of my voice on this blog.  The niche of ‘teaching assistant in France’ has already been filled in blog world, much more technically and adeptly than I could ever hope to do.  See the Jennie en France link on the sidebar to connect to this past assistant’s blog and website on working, teaching and living in France.  Jennifer  has also made available a plentitude of tutorials for French and lots of other languages.  Although I have never met Jennifer, she has been my metaphorical lighthouse, illuminating the path as I grope my way over the urchin-clad rocks of this experience, even, and especially, before I arrived in France.

Speaking of lighthouses, this reminds me of a comment my friend Chris made sometime in April when we were sitting together outside the only carousel in Missoula, Montana:  “Don’t take this the wrong way…today, you look like a lighthouse.”  I still don’t know what he meant by that.

This is the thing about traveling:  you’re not stuck in a one-track rut, thinking only about the new place you’re in and new people and new tastes, smells, colors.  You’re also thinking about the past, and people from your past.  Living in a different culture so acutely sharpens your emotions and sensibilities, that forgotten memories snap together again with the help of entirely irrelevant triggers in your new environment.  But this time, you are reflecting on your past from an entirely different angle — from below, or around a corner, or through a sheet of green gelatin.  And this may nudge you into interpreting your past somewhat differently from how you were interpreting it before.  This is not to say that everything is suddenly clearer than before; far from it.  It’s just subtly, very softly, different.

My colleague and her family will be taking a roadtrip through the American Southwest in July.   This afternoon at her house, we leaned over a road map of the United States, running our errant pointer fingers across the paper in directions having nothing to do with the actual roads on the road map.  I showed them photos from my spring break trip last March to Moab and southern Colorado.  They asked if there was an REI in San Francisco and if food costs a lot more in the States (I said that it depends on what you eat…obviously, Reese’s peanut butter cups and ramen noodles are going to be cheaper than fresh produce every day).  I let them in on the “secret” about BLM lands—yes, you can camp anywhere you want in that orange blob—and couchsurfing.  Long live spendthrift travel.

I have stumbled across a couple links that I find fascinating for their focus:  edible art.  Food is like the the undiscovered medium in the fine arts world, the last frontier before we begin carving out virgin Brazilian rainforest in ornate patterns visible from the sky, in final protest against global warming.

http://laprochainefois.blogspot.com/  This blogger, who happens to also be an assistant in France, creates, among other things, necklaces and earrings out of dried fruit.  The photography is excellently tactile.

http://www.alicia-rios.com/en/food/edible-representations.html  Alicia Rios makes ‘edible representations’ for the public to enjoy both visually and gustatorily.  Her “Urbanophagy:  Eating the City” exhibit is backed by the intriguing premise that, Rios says, “we desire to devour our surroundings.”  Her culinary conquests include Melbourne, Madrid and London.

And finally, a photo from le marché aux puces (flea market) in Marseillan, France.  What does it make you think of?  Me:  bagpipes and the female as commodity.

La cuisine inconnue

8 Jan

My other new year’s resolution is to write more, including more frequent posts to this blog.  So while news may not be seen every single day on Casser des Oeufs, it will certainly come along more often than once a week.  There is a whole wonderful lot to experience and write about in France and too little time to digest and write it all.

Post-holiday winter is a tough time of the year, and copious amounts of good, heavy food are one of my methods for getting through it in one whole, unfrostbitten piece.  The French understand the importance of eating seasonally, and evidence of this is found in full delicious splendor at the marché.  Once the leaves fell about mid-November, strange tubular, whiskery and warty vegetables began to surface at the Saint Jean marché on Wednesday and Saturday mornings.  Well, maybe they just seemed strange to me because they were until recently nowhere to be found on my culinary radar.  But even in France, some vegetables really are classified as légumes anciens or légumes oubliés.  “Forgotten vegetables”…how’s that for an experimental theatre piece title?

A few delicacies to be found in the root cellars of history:  betteraves, like giant beets, slightly more bitter and a deep purple-crimson, sold either raw or cooked, the latter ready to be sliced up and tossed in a salad with goat cheese and walnuts.  You can also steam and eat the leaves, just like with beets.

Mâche looks like a character out of a Dr. Seuss book.   A winter green that tastes much richer and sweeter than lettuce or spinach, it can be eaten raw in a salad or steamed and served with regional seafood, like oysters or les noix de Saint-Jacques.

I’ve also been gulping down roasted panais, which look like stringy pallid-yellow carrots but taste like sweet potatoes.  You can put these in stews, salads, or just grill them with a splash of olive oil and salt and pepper.

You can still find tomatoes and lettuce in the dead of winter from some vendors.  But if I see even a splash of juicy red in a vendor’s stall, I generally amble off casually, politely in the other direction; chances are if they still have tomatoes after Christmas, the rest of their produce may also have suspect origins.  At least, that’s how I figure it so I can have an excuse to narrow down the choice of vendors, which even in Saint Jean is impressively vast.  Plus, my tastebuds have evolved to the point where a garden salad in February tastes slimy and musty, not at all a winter comfort food.   Or maybe my tastebuds have devolved — food in France is better, but worlds simpler than what I usually eat.  There’s less filler in everything, though you can of course find processed foods all over this country, it doesn’t cost you a lithe vegetarian’s arm and leg to buy fresh, healthy food.

And finally, one of my favorite hibernation delicacies:  la soupe à l’oignon.  It’s known as French onion soup elsewhere, but in France, why would you call it French?  I indulged over Christmas in an exquisite, particularly creamy bowl in Briançon high in the Hautes-Alpes with my friend E ; it was literally sending quivers of pleasure up and down my spine.  Since then, I have been trying to scare up my own perfect incarnation of this ambrosia  at home.  It’s temptingly simple to make — butter, onions, flour, milk, white wine, toasted baguette and cheese (I like emmenthal and sheep’s cheese) — but, I am coming to learn, is also an exercise in balance and intuition.

Excuse my accent, my mouth is full

7 Jan

Speaking French sometimes feels like I’m trying to manuever my tongue around a mouth crammed full of dry beans.  There are these things in French called back-rounded vowels, and though I’m now much better at hearing the difference between these and the regular front-rounded vowels — and even getting better at saying them — they can still throw me for a loop.

Today, talking with my French copain and the guy who waits at the Moroccan restaurant down the street, I was able to follow mere bits and pieces of the conversation.  They were talking about rock salt for icy sidewalks (it snowed yesterday, and since no one in Charente Maritime owns a shovel, everything froze overnight into lumpy impassable ice sheets), then jumped to Elvis Presley, and finally ended up at the music awards festival in Cannes.   I think.  It must have been a logical progression, I’m sure.  It’s bewildering — I understand nearly all the words, but without a context in which to place them, it’s like just listening to a stream of French with no underlying meaning.  And it doesn’t help that I still think in English, the language in which I write and occasionally reason with myself. I have had dreams in French, but how useful is a huge bowl of shrimp cooing “Quelle heure est-il?” after waking up?

After over three months, it mystifies me:  there are some conversations I can follow perfectly, and others where it’s still like I just got off the plane, but even without having taken five years of French lessons beforehand.  The difference, I believe, is in the slang.  That’s right, French slang.  It’s like the language that the geezers who wrote French dictionaries forgot to include.  There are dozens of useful resources, in print and online, to help one acclimate to the particular argot tongue.  If you’re of a studious inclination, this is the route for you. But if you, like me, enjoy complicating your life, you could instead choose to stagger your way through each day in France as if in a half-conscious fog of the chatter going on around you.  “Décoller” means to unstick, but it’s used in the sense of “should we take off now?”  Or “ça mange pas de pain,” more of a traditional expression than slang, but still often heard to mean ” it can’t hurt.”  In other words, no one will eat any of your precious baguette if you just give it a try.

An edible Yuletide log in France is called a “bouche de noël.”  To say “bouche” requires saying the English vowel “e,” as in “evil,” but instead of stretching your lips back over your teeth, round them towards the front in an “O” shape, as if giving someone a hammed-up kiss.  My students couldn’t get enough of making me repeat this word over and over:  “une bouche de noël, madame.”  “Buche?”  “Non, madame, bouche.” “Boooche?”  “Non, non, c’est pas ça.”  Hahaha; and any meagre level of authority I might have managed to build up in the past hour is up and gone out the window.

But then again, why should I want to be an authority figure with these students?  They live in France; they already have plenty of authority figures in their lives.  This is one of my few new year’s resolutions:  to make class more fun and interactive for the students, because amazingly enough, it’s better for me too this way.

This week I played “loaded question” with one of my classes.  I wrote a series of  questions for the students, who were divided into teams, to draw from and write answers to.  They then tried to match up each of their classmates with their respective responses.  Some of the questions were easy, like, “What’s your favorite city in France?”  Most had a slight edge to them:  “What would you do if you met Nicolas Sarkozy?”  “If your life had a soundtrack, what would it be?”  “What would you eat for 200 euro?”  In response to a question about waking up with whatever superpower one wanted, one student said that she would choose to stop time, in order to savor each moment as wholly as possible.

I can definitely relate to that wish.  My time here is already potentially half-over, as I haven’t bought my plane ticket back and am even now having to face the fact that I probably will not have enough money to stay much longer beyond the end of my contract.   To address this inconvenient truth, I have started scrimping even more on daily expenses in order to save a bigger percentage of my paycheck.  I also have put up ads for English lessons around town and at the high school.  Sometimes I wish I had paid attention when I was young, and had learned to bake from my mom, or fix cars and build houses, kitchen cabinets and other necessities from my dad.  But I was always buried in a book or otherwise wasting time.  Now I’m paying the price, in the form of not having any single practical skill aside from knowing how to speak English.   It’s ridiculous that I feel some unseen clock, biological or otherwise, ticking away at such a tragically young age.  But that’s what living in a foreign country — apart, perhaps, from a tropical island paradise — will do for you.  I am now much more conscious of how time truly does just fly by, gorgeous, intimate and impersonal.

Saint Jean, la grosse horloge

This January I anticipate much dreaming and scheming, and cooking.  February vacation might see me staying in Saint Jean, experimenting more intensely in the kitchen with French recipes, primarily quiche and chocolate-related food,  and finger tracing fantasy road trips on the maps of Italy and Spain, courtesy of AAA, tacked on my living room wall.  The Pyrénées, le Cinque Terre, Firenze, Corsica, Bretagne, Provence…just to mention a few of the places that I’d love to sink into and then casually, with a flick of my tire-bouchon, stop time.  Not for forever, just for long enough.

Christmas lights river, Saint Jean centre

Electric pigeon

Place du Tivoli, Saint Jean

 

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.

Bordeaux

 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.

Bienvenue à Saint Jean. Tu es maintenant perdu.

18 Nov

When French people ask me what exactly I’m doing here in France, I am obliged to explain to them the enigma that is Saint-Jean-d’Angély.  As every third town in this country starts with the two words “Saint Jean,” and no one outside a fifty or even thirty kilometer circumference could guess which Saint Jean I’m referring to, I always hasten to add to my explanation, “On est un peu perdu,” an expression which translates as, “we (we being the inhabitants of Saint Jean, or Angériens, as we and no one else call ourselves) are a little lost.” 

In other words, Saint Jean is in the middle of nowhere.  In a place as small as France, all distance is relative; but generally speaking, the French don’t move too far.  This deep-seated habit is changing, thanks to daily or weekly commutes on the part of teachers, SNCF employees (SNCF is an acronym for the nationalized train system…a fascinating beast which I intend to explore later on),  and many others, and young French people who relocate to Paris or even farther abroad for work.   It is due to its people’s tendency for immobility, however, to which is owed the rich and gape-worthy patrimoine  (patrimony) of France.  When people move all over their country, restlessly, endlessly, pointlessly, from one coast to the other, how will they ever have the time and energy to establish a sense of identity intrinsically linked with any one place and moreover, with their family’s and even ancestors’ history in said place?  I am sure no average American under the age of 40 has any idea what I’m referring to.

Observed advantage number one of living in France (not that I’m at all setting myself up to compare life in France and the United States — but it’s always nice to have a frame of reference, in case I ever do decide to uproot permanently from the American West) :  one has the opportunity to develop a profound, subtle knowledge of a very small, very particular, and sometimes very peculiar, place.  As a side effect, one may actually approach knowing oneself.  Isn’t there an entire field of study concerned specifically with the relationship between identity and place?  The University of Montana certainly has more than its fair share of alternative, earthily-titled classes that would suggest so.  But in all fairness, in our society’s current state of instability and uncertainty, the value of consistency and self-knowledge — of a consistent self-knowledge — may soon be coming back into vogue.

Although Saint Jean may be ” un peu perdue,” someone living here (as long as that someone has fortified French blood running strong through their veins)  may not necessarily be lost at all.