Sunday, October 9, 2011

Now in Le Havre!!!

Last time I wrote, I was in Paris, anxious about going to Le Havre.
I struggled with my bags through the Paris Metro (subway) up and down possibly a dozen stairways. I had to ask (beg) for help from passing men, broke into a heavy sweat, and even paid a gypsy to help me. Apparently the French are not too concerned about the handicapped as nearly none of the metros are wheelchair accessible (and therefore don’t have escalators or elevators). Shocking, I know.
So after finally finding a car on the train that had enough space in the baggage hold to contain my FOUR bags (I’m a real American girl, what can I say?), I was able to finally relax. It is a mere 2 hour train ride from Paris to Le Havre, with Rouen (the capital of this region, Haute Normandie) being exactly in the middle (1 hour from Paris, 1 hour from Le Havre by train). When I arrived, I was greeted by Janick, my contact person for the position, and driven to the dorm (luckily, she has a car).
I had arranged to temporarily stay at the YMCA dorm in Le Havre, mostly meant for unemployed youths, but conveniently located near the center of the city. The dorm, because of said role, is mostly dingy and dirty. It smells and you have the distant impression when you enter your tiny room that it has a dirt covering that is not completely visible upon inspection but is felt when you enter the room, and for some reason it feels like it is not possible to scrub off the dirt, but rather its is like a permanent fixture on the room; it has always been there and always will. The room itself was tiny. Very, very tiny. I immediately thought of a kind of spaceship pod, because the bathroom is a tiny little toilet, sink and shower all in one. If I were a boy, I could pee, shower, and brush my teeth all at once (I say boy, because the toilet isn’t really in the shower). The room was maybe 10ft or 15ft by 10ft. It contained a single bed with one drawer beneath it, a desk, a small fridge and microwave (which is pretty nice- I didn’t get that when I lived in a dorm in Paris), and a tiny closet. I’ve been told that after receiving the CAF (money the government gives to students, young people, and families for housing) in December, the rent for this room would only have been 50euro a month (not everyone would get this much money, but because I am a youth working for the government I would get a huge CAF). Pretty cheap, and hence the conditions. I would maybe have stayed, if I could simply have fit all of my belongings in there. Also, because it is for the unemployed, the characters who come through there are not all that great. Some are quite nice, to be sure, but some have slight mental disabilities, social issues, and hygiene problems that can make it awkward, especially since its pretty much all men. For example, the boy in the room across from me smelled so bad, that if I chance to be trying to get into my room while his door was opened I would literally be trying to cover my mouth and mute my gagging. You also cant drink in these dorms (understandable), making them even more intolerable. Clearly not the best place for me.
So anyway, I arrived to this awesome dorm and met the other girl who also has my contact person and we will be sharing the same school district’s elementary schools. Coincidentally, her name is Kristen as well. She’s 25 and comes from San Francisco. She has experience teaching abroad, as she taught English in Madrid, Spain for 2 years. Janick left us and we wandered around the city together. The city is pretty much under total construction until Dec. 2012 (lucky me!). Le Havre used to be a very wealthy seaside resort town as well as port. However, when it became occupied by the Germans in WWII, the Brits decided to bomb the hell out of LH and it has never been able to recover. They’re trying to revamp it now by building a tramway and promenades and putting in a lot of trees and plants. On a Monday, everything is pretty much shut down so there wasn’t much to really see and it was pretty chilly, so I won’t really bore you with the details of the day…
Since this was already over a week ago, I’ll just give you some of the highlights of the week…
So the biggest exciting thing that happened was that I got an apartment. Well, not really an apartment, a house! I have a large bedroom, kitchen, bathroom, and living room with two futons. The house has everything I need in it and the couple I’m renting from told me that if I need anything in the house, they will get it for me and that I shouldn’t buy anything! I’m so lucky! The house is really an apartment above their garage. They have a beautiful home that is over 100 years old and then I have my own place with my own entrance. They have a lovely garden. The couple is an older French couple and they are so nice and very lively- they bike ride and play golf and garden and everything.
I felt bad for Kristen though because she wanted the apartment as well, but I snatched it up pretty quickly. So, to make her feel better, I took her out for some moules frites, or mussels and fries. We got a one with a creamy sauce and one with a tomato based sauce and they were amazing. Kristen had never experienced the glory that is mussels and fries, and so I took her out to a restaurant on the ocean to have some of this deliciousness and she loved them. They were incredibly fresh and definitely the best I’ve ever had.
Kristen, another teaching assistant John, and I also went to Etretat. Etretat is less than an hour from Le Havre and is one of those places to see before you die. It is lined with these amazing white cliffs that drop straight down but from erosion there are a few pillar like things and arches. You should Google it because at the moment I don’t have any pictures. There is also a small pebble beach there and though the water was so cold it would take your breath away, it was unusually hot. For the first week I was in Le Havre England and France had a freak heat wave that brought the weather up to the 90s- the hottest it had been all summer. The sun was shining, no clouds in the sky, and the water was an amazing blue.
At Etretat, you can walk up the cliffs and see for miles. It is a great place for hiking or just sitting on the beach, and I really loved it. In fact, we loved it so much that we went back the next day and John and I went kayaking! That was pretty cool because there are all these little strips of beaches that aren’t accessible except for by boat. It was also really incredible to be able to actually kayak through the arches, which tower over you.
This kind of hot, sunny, beautiful weather is very unusual though. Le Havre (and the north of France in general) is known for its crummy weather: mostly cold, windy, rainy, and cloudy. So by Tuesday, my beach days were over.
This past week I finally started working. On Monday all the assistants in the department (France’s version of a state) met in Rouen to finish paper work, meet, and learn a little something about teaching. There are about 29 countries represented by the assistants which teach English, German, Spanish, Italian, Arabic, Chinese, and more. There were a bunch of kids, some of whom I’ll never meet again because the department is so big, but still it’s pretty cool. We also got together with all the other primary school English assistants and talked about what our role will be in the classroom, etc. Afterwards we went straight back to Le Havre, which I regret now because I didn’t get to see any of Rouen. I’m going back this Thursday for another training and next Thursday for a physical (its part of finalizing your visa), so maybe then I’ll get a chance…
On Tuesday I signed up to be an “auditeur libre” or an auditor for a class, meaning that I’m free to audit any class at the University here. I’m thinking about taking a history and maybe beginner Spanish class (I really want to go to Spain). I’ll let you know which class I decide to take and how it goes next week…
Wednesday Kristen and I went to the first two schools (out of 4) that we might be working at. When I left my house it really wasn’t that bad out, but by the time we got off the bus, it was torrential down pour and we got lost and couldn’t find the school, so we were drenched by the time we got to the school. We were able to stick it out for a while, but after about an hour and a half we had to leave- I had a puddle under my chair because I was so soaked and I was worried about getting sick. So we left early to go back home to change and have lunch. After we went to the second school and it was very nice. It’s funny how different teacher’s teaching styles are. The first class we saw in this second school was an English class and it was very fun and interactive. It got the kids getting up and walking around and moving and playing games. Then Kristen and I split up to see different classes, and the one I was in was intense- the teacher was quite serious and very strict. I think I’d rather be the fun teacher.
The next day we saw the other 2 schools. The first school was awesome- the teachers were incredibly nice. Kristen and I couldn’t believe it. We also got to eat with them for lunch (for free!). it was lamb with oats, and the sauce was amazing. I was totally stuffed from all the food as well! And the teachers were super friendly and nice and chatted a lot with us (at some of the other schools it was more awkward and people didn’t really talk with us). The next school was a little intense. The teacher we stayed with was incredibly nice as well, but she had a hectic class. In her class there were a lot of problem kids. 2 had serious learning disabilities, 1 had some sort of serious behavior problem, 1 had a physical disability, 1 had parents with severe mental problems, 1 who was orphaned by her mother, and 2 who weren’t in the educational system so they essentially know nothing and she has to catch them up. She deals with all of this in one class without any helpers- there are no assistants for the students who can’t read or write, no one to scribe for the boy with a handicap who can’t physically write, no special ed classes, nothing. It was insane and the poor teacher looked incredibly worn out. After school, we had a meeting with the teachers from these 2 schools to talk about what we’re going to do with them this year. These teachers were so nice and gave us their phone numbers and emails and invited us to do things with them, etc. it was so amazing to experience this kindness.
Also, I forgot to mention on Wednesday, Kristen and I went to see standup improv comedy! It was pretty awesome. I didn’t understand all of it, but some of it was very very funny. I especially liked one skit where they set up some props on the floor on their sides and then had a camera above recording it. Its hard to explain, but basically they had to wiggle around on the floor doing the skit so that on the projector it looked like they were standing up. It made for some hilarious comedy.
On Friday I had a little house warming party at my apartment. Spent most of the weekend sleeping. It’s very cold now- low 60s and cloudy.
Wooh! That was a loooooooong update! I’ll try to be more diligent and write more regularly now that I’m settled in!

Sunday, October 2, 2011

I see London, I see France...

Wow… It’s been so long since my last blog post, it will be hard to remember all of the details!
My last blogpost I posted about how gray it was in London. Well, then it suddenly turned around! It became amazingly gorgeous. I went to British Museum and saw all kinds of neat stuff! They had really interesting coffins from Africa (I think Ghana?) where the burial ceremony calls for a coffin that is fashioned after some part of the persons life. For example, there was a giant Kodak camera coffin and a big car coffin. I also saw the mummy collection which was my favorite part of the museum. And there was the real Rosetta Stone, which was pretty awesome to see as well. For those of you who don’t know, the Rosetta Stone is a stone in which there was a law or decree written in Greek, Egyptian hieroglyphs, and some other language I don’t know anything about. Having all 3 of these ancient languages written on one stone about one thing helped to explain some of the mysteries of these languages.
Then I walked for hours and hours. I found some cool square thing with some street performers. And wouldn’t you know, there was this guy that I had seen a few years ago with I went with my Aunt Martha to see the Bodies exhibit in Chelsea Piers! It was a performer who was a kind of contortionist. He could dislocate several parts of his body and make himself fit through really weird things, and in the end he fit himself into a small box! His name is Yogi Lazer and he does it for yoga practice I think (they talk about shakras and stuff during the performance). Anyway that was pretty weird, and I talked to him for a little bit after.
Then I walked down to the river and walked along it. There are some nice parks along the Thames, and a really cool skate park that has a lot of graffiti all over it. I walked all along it, until I got to the London Bridge where I was supposed to meet a friend for some annual event where they let sheep cross the London Bridge. Sounds pretty cool right? Well, sadly the event was cancelled . So I went back to my hostel, changed, and went on a bar crawl. Was not super awesome, but it was cool enough… I wanted to go on the bar crawl to at least say I went out in London, but in retrospect, the bar in the hostel is so awesome I may have had more fun just staying there chatting with travelers.
The next day Emily came to London to see me!!! I was so happy! After we dropped off her stuff at her hostel, we went to Kings Cross station to have our pics taken at platform 9 and ¾ (the famous Harry Potter platform!). We kinda just loafed around in my hostel after that, trying to figure out what to do that night. That night we went to a club called Fabric that’s supposed to be soooo awesome and have good electro music, but it just had crummy house music, but with Emily there it was so much fun that it didn’t matter. I’m so lucky to have met her on CouchSurfing!
On Friday I was so sad to leave Emily yet again (we talk every day trying to reunite since then). I went to Paris on the Eurostar. Was very nice to take the train. It was very fast and easy: you leave from and get into the city, instead of the airports which are outside of the cities. I sat across from an awesome family. They were originally from Texas but moved to England because of work. They have two really cute little boys, and the older one was quite smart. At 2 years old, he looked in the window and said, “Look at my reflection mommy.” I feel like reflection is a big word for such a little kid, and I could tell their parents were very proud. They were headed to Euro Disney.
When I arrived, I stayed at my friend Mickael’s. I was quite tired and sad because I missed Emily. Being back in Paris also brings back a lot of memories from the summer before and when I studied abroad. Mickael and I just walked around talking for a few hours. We sat under the Eiffel Tower and watched it sparkle (every hour for ten minutes it sparkles). It’s very stereotypical to do this, so there were TONS of groups of students (probably all on study abroad) and romantic couples. It made me miss the old friends I had when I was there.
The next day I went and got a phone and did a few errands. Above the Gare Monparnasse is a park, le jardin Atlantique. I had been there in the fall when I had studied abroad and there had been no one there (it was quite cold then). Now it was full of people and there were beautiful waterfalls and plants. When you walk out the back of the park, you are on street level because the Gare (French for trainstation) is on a hill. From this point you can look and see a beautiful view of the Eiffel Tower with a tree lined boulevard leading up to it. Beautiful!
That night I met a friend Karim who was a close friend of my friend George from Lebanon. We had met last summer when I had been in Paris. We went to a friend’s apartment for a cool little party with half French and half English speakers. He picked me up on his scooter/motor bike. I had been on a Harley once before, but driving through the streets of Paris was kind of cool, but also kind of scary since I’m a big scardy cat. Karim’s dad was in town, so the next day Karim, his dad, his cousin and I went to a Chinese-French buffet for brunch. It was pretty funny to see eggs, springrolls, sushi, and pain au chocolat all in one buffet.
Later I wandered down the Champs Elysees and then took the metro to St Michel, which I frequented a lot when I was studying abroad. It brought back a lot of memories, and I began to yearn to go back in time. So, naturally, I went to the bars we used to go to in that area. First I went to the Frog & Princess, which has their own beers that they brew. Then I went to the Moose bar, which is an American sports bar and was showing a Yankee’s game, a Buffalo Bills game, and a Jets game. So funny.
Afterwards, I met up with a friend from middle school who is also going to be a teaching assistant outside of Paris. We met at a brasserie for a few drinks to catch up.
The next morning, I was off to Le Havre. I was pretty nervous, because I literally had no idea what to expect. Would there be cool music? Would I meet nice people? Would I practice my French enough? Would the kids I be teaching be a terror? So many worries…
And I’m still a week behind! Fortunately, Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday nights I expect to be pretty slow, so I’ll shoot you another update about Le Havre soon  xoxo
PS: if anyone wants to get emails every time I post a blog, please let me know and there is a way I can do that!