Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Fun Feedback From My Students

Hello Friends! Back in the other windy city - Chicago!!!

Let me first apologize for having fallen off the cliff with my writing. That's just a metaphor, so don't worry, I didn't actually fall off a cliff. -It's more like I fell on it (while skiing on a school sponsored trip), resulting in two broken left arm bones. I couldn't type for a while, and by the time I was able to type painlessly in mid-march, I had so much I wanted to share with you that I hardly knew where to begin. Maybe I'll continue posting about my coming adventures in Minneapolis, or maybe I'll share some reflections based on my travels all around Europe (11 countries) and France.

For now though, I wanted to share some feedback from my high school students. Before leaving, I asked them to respond to three questions:

Question 1: What beliefs did you have about Americans or America before this class, and how (if at all) did those beliefs change over the course of the year?

Question 2: What was your favorite activity we did or subject we studied together in class and why?

Question 3: Anything else you would like to tell me?

Below, you will find some of their responses. Enjoy!

Question 1: What beliefs did you have about Americans or America before this class, and how (if at all) did those beliefs change over the course of the year?

I thought American people are very ambitious and work a lot. I still believe in that. I learn a lot about school in America.

My beliefs about America didn’t change because before this class, I was very interested by the United States thanks to the NBA which learned (taught) me a lot about American culture.

Before this class I perceive the Americans like toy soldiers, and now my opinion stays the same because the war in Iraq.

I think that American classes are really different than here, more in the communication. I’d like to visit America: Chicago seems to be a beautiful city (but before I thought that it was gray and not interesting).

I love so much America. I dream to live in NYC, and before, to study in a great college, like...MIT! If I can... My opinion didn’t change about USA. I already love it.

Before class, I was thinking that America is a wonderful country where people are open-minded and where we can live a real happy life. My beliefs didn’t change at all. If I could, I’ll go and spend my life over there. My beliefs are stronger. Americans are sometimes weird or selfish (thinking about immigration) but all populations sometimes are.

Before this class, I believe America is a country of immigrants, a country with differents cultures. But all ethnics groups don’t always lives in the same conditions. And my beliefs don’t changes. I belief is a country with beautiful landscapes.

Before this class, for me America was a country very beautiful with different landscape and culture and it’s a country which make me dream and it still the case. I thought Americans people can be arrogant or very friendly. Aria confirms my second thought.

 Before this class, I thought that Americans were all fat but I know that this is not the same thing for all the Americans. Happy to know some Americans expressions like “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder”.

Before this class, my beliefs about America or Americans were that Americans were very strange sometimes, with the way that they are. But my beliefs change, and now I think that Americans are funny and cool.

Everything is bigger in America and the American are excessive. It’s not really false.

Question 2: What was your favorite activity we did or subject we studied together in class and why?

My favorite activity is when we watched “Ferris Bueller Day Off” because this film is funny.

Debates are a very good subjects, because it allowed to us to speak a lot in English and to say our opinion about different subjects.

My favorite activity was the Olympics Game, because I love sports. It’s a very good subject, very interesting.

My favorite activity is when we have spoke about the stereotype and the perception of the Americans about the French people.

My favorite subject was when we chatted about the stereotypes of the beauty. I liked when we had to agree totally, a little bit agree, totally disagree and a little bit disagree and explain our position. That was really interesting.

The debate about the Olympics of 2022 – I liked a lot this activity because I love to debate and the fact of representing a country was a good idea.

My favorite activity have been the video we had to make and send to our “exchange partners” from Winnetka. Definitely. Debates were also very interesting but there were not enough opinions from the pupils about the subjects. And I also liked the subject about beauty.

My favorite subject on which we worked is the speech of Lupita Nyong’o. It’s just because I enjoyed “12 Years A Slave”, and I think she’s a good actress.

My favorite activity that we studied together in class is plastic surgery, a subject that is being debated a lot.

My favorite activity was the text about Sonya Sotomayor, since I discovered her life. It’s an example story.

My favorite activity is when we studied about heroes with the text of this girl who was poor and became a judge (Sonya Sotomayor).

My favorite subject we studied in class is the story about “Hailey’, because despite her handicap she embody courage & strength to realize her dream.

My favorite subject has been Hailey’s fight against bone cancer. It inspired me, this story gives hope.

My favorite activity we studied together in class are on the progress of science with the video of Haley, because she shows the difficult experience passed and she was a example for more young. She show that even if we are sick we “doit” (must) continue to live our life.

My favorite activity was the interaction between the teacher and the pupils. I think it was very good for ameliorate (improving) my pronunciation in English.
My favorite activity that we did together is when we had the choice to go at 4 different corners of the classroom to say if we agreed or not with the sentence which was projected on the blackboard.

Question 3: Anything else you’d like to tell me?

Thank you for coming in our class, it was great!

I hope you passed a good moment with us in France =)

You are a very good teacher, very cool with fun class. We study better with you, it’s more facil (easy). I love your accent! It’s beautiful. We have very lucky to had class with you.

Thank you very much because you helped us to speak more English and I think it’s more interesting with a “real” English speaker. Enjoy your trip in Europe!

You are a beautiful teacher.

Thank you for all that was really interesting to meat you and work with you.

You are a good teacher and I have like when we have you with the class.

I think your lesson is cool and perfect. It’s a great experience for students to listen an American for the accent.

I would like to tell thank you for your lessons.

Thanks for the different activities. We were able to speak more and that was good for our comprehension and the accent (which is still very bad...). Now I’d like to have a penpal or somebody with who I can exchange and speak English better!

I wish you good luck next year!

I was happy to meet you, you have a good French and the activities that you proposed was great, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is a good film! I’m so sad that you must return to America... I want for you a good return in America and a good life in the future, maybe in France =)

I thank you for all the things you brought us, you’re a great person! I hope you liked your trip in France. I was happy to meet you.

Thank you so much for all. I really loved to work with you. I had a great time. You teached me a lot many things. I hope you appreciate too. I was glad to meet you.

It has been a great experience to have you in our class. Hope to see you again. We will miss you very much.

I hope you enjoyed teaching in France.

We loved this year with you. I hope your trip was peaceful and interesting, so the only thing I would like to say is goodbye and have a good life in America.

I enjoy your lessons. It allowed me to improve my English, and it was a good point for my oral expression. Thank you!

Your presence permitted us to discover another culture and to see other horizons.

Thanks to come. It’s really fun to learn English. I will miss you.

____________ is in love with you! You look like Katy Perry. It’s a compliment.

Thank you for coming in France and sharing with us. Your presence were pretty cool! (Could I have Michael Jordan’s phone number please? Ahah!!) It was great to talk with a REAL CHICAGO WOMAN. Have a nice day! =)

I admire your bravery to do what you love. You’re an example for me. I just regret that we didn’t talk very much during last month but maybe would we keep in contact. You could help to improve my English skills. If you want.

I hope that you appreciate your trip in France. To my mind, your lessons were very good for me because you help us for our oral exam.

Class with you are very fun and interested. See you later!

I liked to work with you because it was funny and interesting. Good back to America!

*I will miss you!
*You are beautiful!
*I hope you will come back in France!
*I love your French accent!
You are a good person and your jobs correspond to you because you are very attentioner and patient. Je vous souhaite bonne continuation. (I wish you the best). “Sorry for my English!”

I just want to tell you that I was happy to meet you and to study English by another way with you. I wish you the best for your future.

We will miss you J Can I come with you to USA? I will hide myself in your suitcase...

It was nice to meet you!

Hope you enjoy France & Perpignan.

It was a big pleasure to work with you and I hope you enjoy our city even if there are not too many things to do. I saw you one day downtown, riding a bike! Ahahaha. NICE TO MEET YOU!

One day if you meet a famous people like Rihanna, M. Jordan, Obama, Emineme...Tell them that I’m a BIG fan of them!

I think you are a great teacher! With you, I had learn more things about the Americans and about school in America, but too I have learn more vocabulary in English. It was nice to meet you. Thanks for all!

Thank you for all the activities you did for us. It was really cool!

Thursday, December 26, 2013

La Joie

Merry Christmas everyone! My gift to you all is a new post! 

Now I know some of you were slightly worried after reading my last blog post on 'le temps'. I certainly 
Fake snow in Perpignan

appreciated all of the calls and emails I received from friends and family checking in on me. Well I'm here to reassure you that everything is GREAT, for just after my last post, fair weather returned Perpignan (literally and figuratively).

Michael getting roasted chestnuts

Nearly every day for the past two weeks has been 60°F and sunny. Sorry Chicago, but the closest we have gotten to snow on the ground in Perpignan is the fake snow surrounding the nativity scene. Still, the warm weather hasn't prevented anyone from getting in the holiday spirit. People may be jacketless, but they are still enjoying vin chaud & marrons chauds (roasted chestnuts). 

Marine & Santa

The Castillet (mini castle) and all the trees surrounding it are beautifully lit up. An ice arena has been set up behind the Castillet for all the kiddos in Perpignan to enjoy. Two weeks ago on Saturday, I brought the young girl I mentor there to skate and see a performance.

Afterwards, we took a nice stroll around the center of town. We passed Christmas markets, kids rides & games; cotton candy stands, Santas on Christmas floats, donkey rides, traditional Catalan dance troupes, and live nativity scenes.

Traditional Catalan Christmas dance
Castillet decorated for Christmas

Live Nativity Scene

Getting festive for the holidays

I was inspired to get in the holiday spirit. This meant:

1) Decorating my room for the occasion.
2) Sending out hand-written notes and greeting cards.
3) Going to the Cemoi chocolate factory (where my friends Marine & Camille work) and spending nearly ten percent of my montly stipend on chocolate for friends and colleagues.
4) CRAFTING! (my gifts to my colleagues were handmade cardboad ornaments with inspirational quotes about teaching & a little poem).

 My purchases from Cemoi Chocolate Factory

Holiday apératif with AFEV
In the time that I wasn't working, running errands, or home crafting, I was hanging with friends or attending holiday gatherings! AFEV, a non-profit that I volunteer with, organized a soirée, which included a white elephant gift exchange. The organization's mission is to combat educational inequality in low-income French neighborhoods, by pairing university student mentors with at-risk youth. What I love about the AFEV soirées is that it provides me with an opportunity to meet other young people who share similar values. We get to discuss issues that are important to us over wine and hors d'oeuvres. I've also made some good friends through my involvement with the organisation.

My friend Bahet and I unknowingly chose each other's white
 elephant gifts. I received tea and she received tea cookies.
Great minds think alike?

 I also attended a holiday potluck hosted by Espace Créa-Harmonie (the yoga studio I attend in Perpignan). Despite having had the stomach flu and not being able to stuff my face as much as I would have liked with all the gourmet food, I had a truly beautiful evening. I'm having trouble finding the right word to describe the wonderful feeling I was experiencing in that moment...but I think it was...JOY. And I can't really pinpoint why I felt that way. Was it the scent of creme brulée and chocolate lava cake wafting in the air? Was it the gorgeous alter? The live music? Certainly, it was a combination of everything. But without a doubt, the biggest factor was being in the company of so many kind, compassionate, mindful, and joyful (joyeux) individuals. We laughed, we sang, we danced, we ohmed...we lost track of time. It was after 1 am when we started to clean up. I had no desire to leave. When I got home, I felt high on life. I didn't want to get off the joy ride.

Holiday party at Espace Créa-Harmonie

Luckily, I didn't have to. The following day, I went with my friends Marine & Camille to a farm just outside of Perpignan. The official purpose of the journey was to do mounted archery (shooting bow & arrow on horseback), although Marine was the only one who actually tried it in the end. Most of the time we were there, we simply walked through the fields. We skipped, sang disney songs, climbed trees, and simply delighted in the beauty of the countryside.

I felt like a child. The moment was so simple and yet I felt so much joy! I felt grateful to have a healthy body, a beautiful planet, and good friends. It was a good reminder that to be happy, we don't necessarily need everything we think we do.

The Joyride continued. This past weekend, my friend Michael (another Fulbrighter) came to visit me from Montpellier. Saturday night we went out for the best Tapas & Sangria in Perpignan. My friend/colleague Amel joined us for the Tapas and the electro/dubstep "concert" that we went to afterwards. We hated the music, but we still had fun joking and laughing about how "old" we felt, while trying to avoid any student encounters.

On Sunday morning, Michael and I woke up early to head to the mountains for a day of snowshoeing. My friend Paola (who I had met a week prior at the Créa-Harmonie holiday party) organized the entire outing. For 1€, we took a bus that got us to the ski resort in two hours. Having only slept 4 hours the night before, Michael & I crashed during the ride.

Once we arrived, we had a slow start. Coffee & croissants to wake us up. Getting to the trail. Putting on our gear. Stripping off our layers because when the sun came out, it must have been 60 degrees.

But once we finally got moving, we had so much fun! Despite the warmth, there was plenty of snow on the mountain. At one point, we missed a turn on the trail, so we ended up trekking through fresh powder which was an awesome little adventure. And the was too beautiful for words or pictures to do it justice (It didn't stop me from trying to capture it on film though - see pictures below). Before heading back to base, we stopped for a picnic lunch on the mountain. Each person brought some kind of dessert (cookies, chocolate, cake, fruit) to share. It's France, so you are sure to eat well.


The following day, Michael & I spent the morning touring Perpignan. In the afternoon, I brought him to Collioure (the magical beach I talk about in one of my earlier posts). It was as breathtaking as always. Michael was in awe of the beauty and I was delighted at the chance to visit the sea again.


After a super weekend with Michael, he returned to Montpellier and I went to Amel's house to celebrate Christmas Eve. Amel lives in a smaller town just outside of Perpignan. They have a huge garden where they grow their own fruits & vegetables. Their back yard is made up of miles of open fields, and a large body of water, which is the home of some pink flamingos. Anyway, Amel was kind enough to invite me to join her family for Christmas Eve dinner and to spend the night after. To say Amel is a gourmet cook is far from an exaggeration. After appetizers in the living room, we moved on to a 5 course dinner with wine pairings, which was truly unforgetable. 

The Menu:

1/ Seared scallops
2/ Foie gras with onion & fig confit
3/ Kangaroo meat, bacon-wrapped green beans, winter vegetable medley & potatoes au gratin

4/ Rasberry mousse Bûche de Noël, homemade rasberry sorbet & "opera" pastry
5/ Dried fruits, clementines & christmas Cookies

After dinner, Amel's sons (3 & 5 years old) went to their room to rehearse a spectacle they were going to present. While they were rehearsing, Santa passed through (although nobody saw him come - he's a sneaky one that Santa). The rest of the evening consisted of opening presents, playing, and talking. The next morning, we all went for a walk through their enormous "back yard". I loved getting to spend time with the little boys, who are beyond adorable, not to mention intelligent and strong for their age.

As I walked hand in hand with the kids, the feeling of joy overtook me once again. It was Christmas. A holiday that I have never really celebrated nor one that I have ever really understood. Well I think for the first time I really get what it's about. For secular people it's not about Jesus. It's not about the gifts, nor is it really about the food. In my opinion, it's about Joy. Joy. Joy. Joy is not something you have. It's not something you get. It's something you create. You create it by laughing, by singing, by connecting with your inner child. By finding beauty in the simplest things. By taking the time to be fully present. However, the most effective way to create joy is through generosity. When you do something for someone else - whether it be as simple as smiling at them, listening to them, teaching them something, writing a note - you warm their heart, and you also warm your own.

So in case you haven't had enough joy this holiday season, I'm going to give you an opportunity to create some more.

As some of you may know, I am the co-founder of a non-profit organization called Supplies for Dreams

We founded this organization upon the belief that quality education is the foundation for a strong, healthy and prosperous society. In my home city of Chicago, many of the children come from families that struggle to put food on the table, much less provide school supplies or healthy learning environments for their children. Some are homeless, others come from broken families, or have lost friends or family members to gun violence. They face challenges that many of us cannot even imagine – and they deserve better.

Supplies for Dreams is fighting to create equal opportunities for students in Chicago by providing school supplies, mentorship and extracurricular activities. I'd like to ask you to consider making a donation this holiday season - even $5 makes a significant difference, not to mention all the joy you'll experience knowing that you've helped a child in need! Thank you in advance for anything you can afford to contribute! (And I promise, this is the only time I will ever advertise on my blog - thanks for reading!)

Well I'm off to Rome to celebrate the New Year! I'll give you an update when I get back! Happy holidays!

Peace. Love. Joy.


Saturday, December 14, 2013


Many people have been asking about the month long pause since the time of my last post. I had to check to verify that it's really been a month - yup, November 15th was the date of my last post. It certainly doesn't feel like it's been a month. Time flies, or as we say in French, "le temps passe vite". I wish I could say that with my emploi du temps charge (my busy schedule), I just haven't had time to write. Even though I'm much busier now than before, I've had plenty of free time to write over the past month. And to be honest, I've known exactly what I was going to write about for the past three weeks. All I had to do was retype bits from my journal into this blog. But something was holding me back. I wasn't ready to share. So I'm truly sorry about the wait. Voilà.

The last time you heard from me, it was November, about a week and a half before Thanksgiving. And now it's a week and a half before Christmas. This time of year  is quite particular for a number of reasons. First of all, the weather seems to change all at once. One day the trees are covered with multicolored leaves and the next thing you know, they are bare. Chicago usually gets its first snowfall at this time of year. Perpignan experienced three days of heavy rains, followed by powerful winds that carried a cold front into the city. I was well aware that the 75° beach weather wasn't going to last through the winter, but still, it wasn't a welcome change. Luckily it only snowed up in the mountains (which are quite a spectacular sight, I must say). Anyway, there is something about the transition from Autumn to Winter that can leave some people

Then there's the fact that the holidays are approaching. The 'holiday season' evokes different sentiments - positive, negative or mixed - depending on who you are and what your story is. Some people bubble with excitement, while others stress about preparations or anticipate family problems. Some people are flooded with old memories. But all that aside, this time of year tends stir up feelings of homesickness for people living abroad (or anyone not coming home for the holidays).Now, I've been incredibly spoiled: for the past three years, I've gotten to spend either Thanksgiving or Christmas in Paris with Hiro. It's a beautiful city all year round, but when the holiday lights go up (in mid-november), it's truly magical.

This year, Hiro brought his mother and brother along. We did far more in two days than you could imagine! I won't list everything, but here were some highlights: Visiting the Palace of Versaille, dining at Le Comptoir du Relais (which Hiro has been talking about doing for two years), watching the Eiffel Tower light up at night, strolling along Rue Mouffetard, and visiting all the best chocolateries in Paris. 

Classy, right? Full disclosure: at times we behaved much more like children than the "sophisticated adults" that we are. How? Here are some examples: (1) arguing with Hiro about the pronunciation of the word "quartier" (I won the argument!), (2) immitating the Africans selling "1euro" Eiffel Tower keychains on the street, (3) cracking up about the shit (in the literal sense) on the bathroom floor, and (4) doing aerobics in front of the Eiffel Tower to keep warm. Ironically, these were the scenes on replay in my mind when I returned from my brief holiday. Forget the Hall of Mirrors, the Pantheon, and the fine works of art we saw. The slightest reminder of our conneries caused my chest to tighten and a tear to well up in my eye. Humans are weird that way I guess. I don't know why or how nostalgia works, but as I was thinking about it, I was reminded of a scene from Madmen where Don Draper explains:

 Nostalgia - it's delicate, but potent. Teddy told me that in Greek, "nostalgia" literally means "the pain from an old wound." It's a twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone. This device isn't a spaceship, it's a time machine. It goes backwards, and forwards... it takes us to a place where we ache to go a place where we know are loved. 
Well that explains it! It explains how I could be having the time of my life with the love of my life in Paris, and still be missing my family's Thanksgiving meal. It explains why the day Hiro left Paris and I had the whole day to do whatever I wanted in the city, I choose to distract myself by drinking Kir Pêche and watching the Hunger Games. It explains why people and places I took for granted back home suddenly seem so much more meaningful (let's not talk about how I cried a little when watching Ferris Bueller's Day Off with my students). It explains (partially) why the pumpkin pie I baked and brought to the teacher's lounge the week of Thanksgiving was best damn pie I've had in my life (the other reason being that I'm a gifted pastry chef (If Sodara reads this, j'aime bien le cuisson au four)). Anyway, everyone at school loved my tarte à la citrouille!!!  

Bref, according to Don Draper, nostalgia is a "time machine". I agree. The slightest triggers - particular sights, sounds or music, odors, sensations - can carry us away to a different time or place. It's complicated because here you are, having this incredible and unique experience (in stores for a limited time only) in a different country, yet part of you longs for home - for the people and places you love. So how to you balance your feelings of nostalgia and missing home with your desire to be fully present in the here and now? Like I said, it's complicated.

My first reaction to these feelings was denial. You're fine Aria. You're having the time of your life - you can't possibly be homesick. Unfortunately denial only worked for so long - I was forced to confront my feelings. Which brought on more feelings - namely guilt. You're the one who chose to come here - nobody forced you. Are you ungrateful or something? You can't have your cake and eat it too, unless you're Marie Antoinette and she wound up without her head. But feeling guilty only clouded my mind and pulled me further out of the present. I was in a fix. Denial didn't work. Guilt didn't work. Then I had a revelation: what if I gave myself permission to feel whatever I was feeling? Without judgment or attachment. Maybe all I needed was some time. Afterall, I have plenty of it. What was the rush to overcome my bout of homesickness? Isn't it natural to feel a bit homesick at times when you're living in a foreign country? I knew it would be part of the deal when I signed up for this. In fact, if I thought "a year abroad" was going to be easy all the time, I don't think I'd have been interested. So I decided I would give my emotions time and space to exist, instead of trying to drive them away.That didn't mean I was going to mope around and be a depressive. Definitely not. If you know me well, you know I love creating lists and plans. It shouldn't surprise you that I made a homesickness relief plan, found below:

Aria's Homesickness Relief Plan
  1. Practice yoga and meditation daily
  2. Put on a fuzzy sweater & wool socks
  3. Start a good new book (and read under the covers)
  4. Rent and watch a couple of feel good movies (I finally got a library card, so I can borrow all the DVDs I want)
  5. Drink chamomile tea
  6. Indulge in extra dark chocolate
  7. Track down a Starbucks (or the closest thing to it - in Perpignan, it's Colombia Café)
  8. Grab a drink or a meal with friends
  9. Clean and do laundry (I don't know why, but this one always works!)
  10. Write postcards
  11. Listen to music
  12. Burn incense
  13. Do a craft project
  14. Take a long walk or go on a long bikeride - just breathe fresh air
  15. Notice the changes happening in nature 
  16. Make someone laugh or smile
  17. Hug someone
  18. Get organized - really organized
  19. Give 110% at your job
  20. Skype with family and friends; tell them how much you miss them 

So I spent the last three weeks executing items one through twenty on my plan, and I thoroughly enjoyed myself. I even felt grateful for the more difficult moments - without them my experience living abroad would be monotone and eventually boring. I'd rather live somewhere where there are four distinct seasons than somewhere where the climate is 75°F and sunny all year round, even if it means some cold and dreary weeks in the winter. After all with the latter, people become jaded. They come to expect nice weather all the time, so they don't appreciate it. In Chicago, the first day temperatures break 55°F, you see people outside in shorts! No - I could not live without the different seasons. Their changing colors, moods and elements keep things interesting. And I feel the same way about emotions. Hot and cold. Humid and dry. Sunny and gray. There is a time for everything. And luckily there is time for it all.


*The following poem was inspired by two of the themes explored in this post: time and weather. In French, the word temps means both time and weather. 

Il fait beau temps. Mais pas tout le temps.
De temps en temps, il fait mauvais temps. Même temps chiotte.
Quelquefois, les temps sont un peu durs. 
Et pendant ce temps-là, je cherche les passes-temps
Pour remplir mon emploi du temps,
Car je travaille à mi-temps
Et j'ai tout le temps, même quand je prends mon temps.
C'est étonnant que dans le temps, je n'avais pas le temps
Pas de temps d'arrêt, pas de temps de récupération
Pas de temps chômé, pas de temps libre.
Maintenant le temps écoule. J'ai peur qui ça passe trop vite.
Quel temps fait-il? Enfin, peu importe.
Que ça soit le temps couverts, chaud, affreux ou beau,
Au moins je vis en temps réel.

It is nice weather. But not all the time.
From time to time, it's bad weather. Even shitty weather.
Sometimes times are a little hard.
And during those times, I look for passtimes
To fill up my schedule
Because I work part time
And I have plenty of time, even when I take my time
It's astonishing that in the old days, I didn't have any time
No break time, no recovery time
No idle time, no free time.
Now time runs. I worry that it moves too fast.
What's the weather? You know, doesn't matter.
Whether it's overcast, hot, awful or beautiful,
At least I'm living in real time.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Ripe for the Picking

I have a new ritual of going to the market every Saturday morning. Whether I am in Perpignan or elsewhere in France (Arles, Carcassonne, Paris, Montpellier, etc.), I find a market and follow the steps as follows:

(1) I walk around all the stalls at least once until I identify the one with the best looking fruits and vegetables that morning.
(2) Once I pick a stall, I take my time looking at all the produce. Whatever looks the freshest and the most interesting, I take, provided it's in season and not too expensive.

Thanks to my new market-going ritual (and some encouragement from my friend Michael), I have discovered delicious fruits that I didn't even know existed (e.g. abius ('ananes'), quinces ('coings'), persimmons ('kakis'). The key is, you only buy what looks good, what's ripe, and what's in season.

The technique is surprisingly similar to dating (or at least my understanding of dating -- having only ever dated one person I can't say I'm an expert). But when I saw Hiro for the first time, I didn't weigh the pros and cons, nor did I really consider all that I knew about him. More accurately, I saw a handsome exotic young man that (like a good, ripe piece of fruit), I wanted to sink my teeth into!

Now fruits - like people - can have drastically different characteristics. Pineapples versus grapes. Kiwis versus pomegranates. To illustrate my point, I'll use the example of watermelons and peaches (two of my favorite fruits). Peaches are fuzzy on the outside. They have thick skin that's easy to bite into, and when ripe, are soft and mushy. It's not until you get to the center that you realize they have a hard pit that could break your teeth if you bit into it. Watermelons on the other hand have hard, thick skin that requires a knife to cut into. Even when ripe, they maintain their form, so you would not guess by looking at them or touching them that they are so juicy and sweet on the inside. They have tasteless seeds ('pépins'), but no hidden pit like the peach. One could rightly compare Americans to peaches (soft and fuzzy with a hidden pit) and the French to watermelons (a thicker skin but abundant and sweet when you get to know them). There's variety among people and fruits. It depends what you like. But all fruit, when ripe, is sweet and bursting with flavor; when upripe, even the best fruits can taste disgusting.

Sometimes, you get bored of apples and you want to try someting new. If you decide to try a new or exoctic fruit (and why shouldn't you?!) you never know whether you'll like it or not. Some types of fruits have a taste that takes getting used to. Sometimes your tastes change. Other times, six years go by and you're still addicted to your favorite fruit (personally I'm a creature of habit, and I like what I like!). Everyone is different in that respect, and it's important to know your preferences.

So in that respect, picking out your fruit at the market is like dating (in my opinion it would make more sense to say someone who is single is "at the market" and not "on the market", but I'm getting sidetracked here). Friendship, on the other hand, is slightly different. With friendship, you don't just eye the fruit that looks tasty and take it home. With friendship, you actually have to start from scratch; that means (1) plant the seeds, (2) water them, (3) give it time, (4) prune the tree, and (5) harvest! The process involves much waiting, and if you try to rush it, you'll get rotten fruit as a result. Sometimes you use bad seeds to begin with, or the conditions of the soil aren't great, so your final product isn't what you were hoping for. For this reason, the best way to ensure excellent results is to plant many seeds in different places.

I have been in Perpignan for six weeks now. And for the past six weeks I have been busy planting seeds. This is the first time in my life that I've moved to an entirely new place where I knew nobody, and making friends can be challenging as I've come to realize. It's not like going away to summer camp, going to college, or studying abroad. In all of those situations, you are surrounded by people in the same boat as you. Everyone is eager to make friends because nobody wants to be a loner. Summer camp, college, and study abroad programs provide optimum conditions for friendships to flourish. They even give you the seeds and the soil, so the effort involved in making friends is minimal.

But in Perpignan, it's different. I work in a school, so the bulk of my interactions are with high school students (18 and younger) and teachers (upwards of 35). Perpignan, for better or for worse, is the Boca Raton of France, meaning that the majority of people living here are retired and/or grandparents. I thought I'd meet some people my age by going on a hike with a group called 'The Circle of Young People', and it turns out the average age of the members was 60 (they should change their name to 'The Circle of Young (at heart) People').

Clearly, not every attempt to meet people and make friends will be fruitful. But I haven't let that fear stop me from sprinkling some seeds wherever I go (including the most random of places). Last week on Tuesday, I got lost as I was leaving the philosophy studio. It was late and I was scared. So I went up to the first normal looking person I saw - a girl about my age - and asked for directions. She walked me back to the main avenue, during which time we made small talk. She seemed like a really nice girl. I decided to risk looking like a total weirdo for the sake of potentially making a friend: I asked her for her number. Last night we went out for Tapas and sangria. This girl - Marine - is awesome! It's still early but I feel like we could be good friends.

On Wednesday of last week, I went to the university in Perpignan to attend a club meeting. While waiting for the meeting to start, a group of students saw me sitting by myself and invited me to sit with them. Small talk turned into longer, deeper conversation and in the end, I skipped the club meeting to stay and chat. And this past Wednesday, I went to the a first meeting for the student-run non-profit that I'm volunteering with here in Perpignan. I got to meet the other volunteers, all of whom are about my age and passionate about helping underserved youth. I really hit it off with some of them, and I'm looking forward to getting to know them better over time!

Growing friends is time consuming. The process can be exhuasting. But when harvest time comes, you realize it was worth it. Two weeks ago in Paris, I stayed with my friend Virginie (whom I met last October in Evanston) and Hiro & I had dinner with Gregoire & Fabrice (whom I know from study abroad). And this past weekend, I had a fabulous time with my four buddies in the French Air Force (whom I met at the food court in Northwestern's student center). When they were in Chicago, I invited them over for drinks, took them to a baseball game, showed them the best piano bar in the city, hung out with them on Dillo day, and brought them to their first yoga class.

They returned the favor this weekend by taking me out for dinner in Avignon and drinks in Aix-en-Provence. They brought me to Arles to see the roman ampitheater and Baux-de-Provence to see the chateau. They introduced me to their friends and roommates who made us breakfast, lunch and dinner at their VILLA near Salon-de-Provence. It was such a relief to be with people whom I know and trust - for the first time since Paris with Hiro, I could really let my guard down. And it was nice to be taken care of - driven cool places and treated like a special guest.

So I guess I could say my hard work of 'planting seeds' paid off. But the truth is that friendship isn't about payoff or return on investment. You don't make friends so that they can invite you to their villa in Provence or their Parisian studio. You aren't (or at least you shouldn't be) friendly towards people because you hope to benefit in some way. Real friendship is organic and genuine. Yes, it takes effort to make friends. It also takes dedication to keep friendships alive and well. But it comes from the heart.

You pick your friends (and your friends pick you), but only when the time is ripe.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Teachers Are Real People

When I was in nursery school, I believed my teachers lived and slept at school (well technically I do, but I'm an exception to the norm). What i mean to say is that I couldn't conceive of my teachers having a life or a role outside of teaching - such as mother, wife, artist, athlete, friend, etc. Even during high school, it was hard (and weird) to imagine my teachers in a context other than school. living in Evanston during college, I would often bump into my former teachers - at the grocery store, the gym, or even the spa - and the first few times it happened it freaked me out a little. It freaked me out simply because there are boundaries between students and teachers (including teaching assistants) and those boundaries are not to be muddled with. 

In France, those boundaries are even more defined than they are in the United States. What do I mean by that? There is a strong sense of hierarchy that pervades French schools (as well as French society). Students use formal language to address their "professors", whom they call Monsieur and Madame. Before entering the classroom, students must line up outside the door single file and wait until the teacher invites them to enter. They must stand until the teacher invites them to sit down. If a student is a minute late and does not have a pass, he/she must stay after class and do extra homework. Even the unmotivated students strictly adhere to these standards. 

Although these types of standards are generally more lax in the US, the teachers and the students still belong to two different camps. Since starting this job, I now belong to the teacher camp. After nearly 20 years of being in school, you can imagine how strange it feels (and those of you who are already teaching, you know what I'm talking about!). What's even stranger is that while some of my students are 8 years younger than me, some of my students (in the associates degree program) are only 2-3 years younger than me. Many of them still call me Madame even though I keep telling them to call me Aria. They do what I tell them to do and they seek my approval. 

It makes no difference if there is another teacher with me in the class or not. I've already taught a handful of classes by myself and the students are the same. I've administered oral exams and watched as students tremble with anxiety despite my frequent nods of approval and smiles for reassurance. I have flashbacks of my junior year of high school - the anxiety, the desire to succeed, the exhaustion. But that's not me anymore. I'm on the other side. For better or for worse, I've crossed over.

It's funny, because with my terminal (senior) students, one of the topics we've been discussing is "Locations and Forms of Power". For example, they've learned about the British empire, and about gun violence in America (the power to decide who lives and who dies). But in a different sense, school is a location of power and being a teacher is a form of power. Teachers decide how to run their class (to an extent) and the students have no choice but to abide. Teachers decide what grades to give. Teachers decide who gets homework and how much and when. It makes sense that students can feel stressed out. In very few contexts do people have that much authority over you. 

On the other hand, being in a seat of power (as the teacher) can be quite stressful too. It's a big responsibility, trying to prepare nearly 100 teenagers for an exam that will influence their future. You do as much as you can to ensure that they will succeed, even if it means having them repeat the phrase "myths and heroes" over and over until they have the pronunciation down almost perfectly. Even if it means giving practice exams or more homework (which the students hate and it means more grading for you). You must lead the horses to water, but the drinking is up to them.

But I'm getting off track here. I was talking about boundaries and sides. Now that I'm on the teachers' side, things are a bit different. For example, I won't wear jeans - only nice skirts, slacks and dresses. There is nothing wrong with wearing jeans, but since I look young, I am trying to set myself apart from my students. Its especially tricky in the dorm. When i go out at night, or when i return, i do so discretely. When I pass a dozen shirtless rugby men on my way to my room, I have to pretend not to notice their six pack abs and bulging biceps. When I see students copying each others homework, I look away. When I hear the girls gossiping about boys - especially the rugby men that live in the dorm - I switch my brain to English so I can't understand what they're saying. Put hormonal teenagers together overnight in the same building, and things will happen. But what I don't know can't harm me...and believe me, I don't want to know. 

I've learned something else since "crossing over". This one's funny because it may seem obvious: teachers are real people. Just because they keep their personal lives concealed from our students does not mean they don't have lives outside of school. They have families, and houses, and hobbies and social lives. They go dancing and play music and do sports and lead philosophy conversation groups. And although teachers do their best to prevent their emotions and personal issues from affecting their work, they are real people with emotions and personal issues. They sometimes get frustrated with students or have clashes with other teachers and administrators. Sometimes they loose their keys. Sometimes teachers show up at the wrong place at the wrong time, or they don't show up at all (Although your wife going to labor is a pretty good reason to miss class; yesterday one of the teacher's didn't show up for our class, and I just learned that baby Noam was born a few hours later). Sometimes teachers are not quite prepared for class. Sometimes teachers are not ready for vacation to end. Sometimes teachers have relationship problems. Sometimes teachers get sick. Sometimes teachers have philosophical dilemmas and mid (or quarter or three quarter) life crises. Sometimes teachers worry about the future. Sometimes even teachers don't know all the answers. 

Speaking of questions and answers, on tuesday I attended a philosophy soirée/discussion animated by my friend Julien (a high school philosophy teacher, and the third Julien I'm friends with now). The question of the evening was: 'Is it necessary to fear death?'. Julien presented many of the possible angles using various schools of philosophy. After Julien's introduction, he opened the discourse, and everyone in attendance shared their own opinions and experiences. It was like my high school AP great books class, except that we had wine, cheese and chocolate! 

Being the nerd that I am, I even took thorough notes, although I won't bore you with every detail. Anyway, what I took away from the conversation was the idea that facing death is easier when you're content with the contributions you made during your lifetime. We are all afraid of leaving this world without leaving a trace of us behind; without having made an impression or an impact of some sort. Teachers, being real people, have this fear too. 

Last week, I went out with one of the English teachers. Frankly, I was surprised when she invited me, because we had not spoken much outside of class. Over coffee, she opened up to me about her struggles in the classroom and her fear that she wasn't doing a good job teaching. She asked for my advice, and although I'm not a teacher, I responded as honestly as I could. Being on the other side, I see that teachers aren't the superhuman beings that as a kid I thought they were. On the other hand, they are super beings. They are super beings who somehow find a way to balance their home life and work life; who are there for their students physically, mentally and emotionally, no matter what shit they may having going on. They are super beings who utilize order, discipline and respect to create a safe and supportive environment for adolescents to learn and grow. They are super beings who have the capacity to perform miracles in the classroom. Needless to say, I have a lot of respect for my colleagues and anyone who dedicates their life to teaching.

Which brings me to my final point: gratitude. I have lots of it. For all my teachers (well, the really good ones especially). I'm not going to name them here, but if you're reading this blog, you know who you are :). Thank you for all that you did; for all that you do. And to my friends that are young, new teachers, I just want to reiterate how much respect I have for you. You're in a position of real power - you have the power to inspire your students to fill their minds with knowledge, to follow their dreams, and to go out and make the world a better place. To that, I'll raise my glass of Côte du Rhône.