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!