Thursday, October 24, 2013

En Panne (Out of Order)

Here's a riddle for you: What do France & my digestive tract have in common?

Answer: In both locations, you can expect things not to work correctly. In fact, it's generally the case that things will break down (tomber en panne) or won't go according to plan. Therefore, when they do work, it's an incredibly pleasant surprise - something worth celebrating (like the amazing poop I had this morning!).

In case you're still confused about what I mean by things "not working correctly", I've compiled a list of eight items to "better illustrate" my point (if you're already bored, jump to the end of the list):

1) One week after purchasing a French SIM card from 'Orange' (the AT&T of France), I get an SMS asking me to return to the store where I bought it from and show some form of identification; otherwise my service will be cancelled. Confused (because I already showed my ID when I purchased the card), I decide it's better to nip the problem in the bud, and I return to the store. I see the salesman that sold me the card and after typing a few things into his computer, he assures me that the problem is fixed. ONE WEEK Brittany with my dad and I receive the same message. PUTAIN DE MERDE! WTF? So when I return to Paris a few days later, I go straight to the boss, ready to point fingers and give this guy piece of my mind. Meanwhile, the original salesman spots me (he know's he's gonna get it) and runs off to take a coffee break. I felt like saying: "Dude, thanks to your stupidity/oversight, I had to come back to this same f***ing Orange store a third time!". Luckily I held it together, and by the time I left, I was so excited to have a working phone that I let it all pass.

2) My dad & I rented a car in Paris for our weekend road trip to Brittany. Exactly one hour after leaving Paris, the rear tire blows out on the highway. EN PANNE. Oh yeah - and there's no spare in the car. "Thanks people. If you're not going to check the tire pressure on the car, at least have the decency to give us a spare". It takes several phone calls and nearly 2 hours (during which time we're camped out on the side of the road) for the 'dépanneur' to arrive and rescue us. Another two hours later, and we're at a hotel in Chartres for the night because Hertz can't find us another car. Nobody seems obliged to tell us what's happening and nobody seems to know who can give us more information. Sure enough the next morning we receive a call telling us to take a taxi back to the Hertz in Paris so we can rent another car. Back to square one...Sigh.

3) On my first day of teaching classes (mind you that I was very keen on making a good impression on the students and teachers alike), I was 15 minutes late after wandering from classroom to classroom because there had been a misprint on the schedule I was given. And since teachers in France change classrooms practically every week (one decides she needs a projector; another needs more space, etc.) there is no master schedule to consult. So the most efficient option was actually to peep into every classroom and pray that nobody would notice the strange girl standing outside.C'est la vie.

4) There is no working internet in my housing because the previous Mexican assistant downloaded too many spanish soap operas and caused a bandwith overload. And since my school can't afford a full-time computer technician, it seems unlikely that I will get working internet this year. On the bright side, I have brought post-card writing back from the dark ages.

5) Last week I went 4 days without working water (I think it was broken for longer, but I left town for Paris on Thursday). Not only was I NOT surprised, but I told the custodial staff that it was a good opportunity for me to practice being French by not showering and wearing 'eau de toilette' instead.

6) When you don't have a French bank card (which I didn't until last week), you have to order your train tickets on the internet and go to the station to pick them up. When I went on Wednesday to pick mine up, I waited in line for an hour, only to learn that my reservation had not gone through. I therefore had to buy my tickets at the current price, which was double what I originally (thought I) paid for them.

7) I finally got my French bank card. You have to wait for all these different documents to arrive in the mail, and then you have to go to the bank, sign about 100 documents, deposit money, and voilà, they give you your shiny, new card. Super excited to use my new card, I went on a spending frenzy: paid my bills, went grocery shopping, paid for my super expensive train tickets to Paris, and got a haircut. I also used my card in Paris to take some friends out to dinner, and I was going to use it to pay for my hotel until it was DECLINED. I had plenty of money in my account so that wasn't the problem. Of course, what I didn't know (because nobody had told me) was that there are montly spending limits on French debit cards. Sure, that makes sense...NOT. But oh well. Nothing I could to but wait until my return to Perpignan to talk to my bank.

8) After the stress of the train ticket situation (and before the bank card troubles), I decided to get a haircut. I needed one desperately. Plus, they would wash my hair (clever solution to not showering, huh?), and it's an activity that generally relaxes me. While waiting, I was served wine. You gotta love the French for that alone. And the bulk of the haircut was quite relaxing. Until the lady started chopping off thick chunks of hair, which is not at all what I specified. I freaked out for a split-second before letting out a sigh. Tant pis (oh well)...could I have expected to get the hair cut I expected? Can you expect anything in France to happen as expected? I reassured myself: "the French have great style". Even if it's not what I wanted, this lady was not going to make me look BAD.

My reason for telling you all of this is not to complain, but to illustrate my main point:

If you want to succeed living in France, expect the unexpected.

Things don't go according to plan. People go on greve (strike), trains get delayed when someone steals a cable from the track, teachers cancel class and don't tell you, phone lines get suspended without explanation. If you allow these things to upset you in France, you're wasting your breath.

I know this may come as a surprise to some of you -- you see me as someone who likes to be organized and in control. That might be the case normally, but in another country, you either adapt your ways or you fail miserably, and I've chosen to do the former.

By "adapting", I don't mean to say that I have become more like the French. On the contrary, the French are reputed to complain about EVERYTHING. Rather, what I mean by having "adapted" is that I have come to view the French system and all it's flaws in a new light. Things may be incredibly inefficient and frustrating, but I have come to respect that that's how it is. I even have a few theories as to why things are like this (meaning inefficient and non-functional, like my digestive system):

THEORY A: Inefficiency and inconsistency keeps things interesting. Being misinformed or uninformed (which would never be tolerated in the US) is to be appreciated. Service providers that fail to help you or give you incorrect information (though they may be perceived as lazy or lacking intelligence) are doing you a favor by allowing you to exercise your mind and figure things out on your own. As a result you gain independence and grow your artistic capabilities as you are forced to find creative solutions to your stupid problems. In the event that someone does provide you with useful information, it is usually just one piece of the puzzle. You need something done? You ask one person for help, who sends you to another person, you sends you to the wrong person, who sends you to the right person, who apparently can't even help you. It's like a scavenger hunt - and you need to collect all the clues before you reach your prize. It's like a game! Efficiency --- where's the fun in that?

THEORY B: If things were nice and easy, what would there be to complain about? French people (Parisians especially) would have a major identity crisis. They would become like Americans: overly enthusiastic, outgoing, and optomistic!!! No, it's better to keep things the way they are.

For many Americans, this lifestyle may seem like a nightmare. And I'll admit, I still get slightly irritated at times. But for better or for worse, this is the way things are in France. Nobody is going out of their way to make your life difficult. The pace is simply different here. And while it may be annoying while you're waiting to get your car fixed or open a bank account, I don't hear anybody complaining as they enjoy the world's finest wines and cheeses or art and architecture. Taking one's time to create something beautiful and to enjoy something beautiful - that's a virtue. I remind myself of this every time I start to get my panties in a knot over the slightest inconvenience. Be light. Enjoy the journey. In doing so, you'll access the real treasure.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Fille Unique

In order to get to know me, my students have been given the task of asking me questions about myself. One of the first questions they ask, after my name and where I come from, is whether I have brothers or sisters. They seem a little surprised when I tell them I am a  fille unique, which is French for only child.

Why are they surprised? Maybe they've seen pictures of my twin (doll) Melissa, who has been receiving an inordinate amount of attention from my mom and all her friends since my departure. Unlikely though. The truth is that being an only child is a rarity, especially here in Perpignan (I did an informal poll, and only 2 of my 100 plus students are only children).

Never having given it much thought before, I began to reflect on what it means to be an only child. I started to break down the phrase, first in English, then in French. Only child. Only one where? Lonely girl? No, definitely not. Lone girl? Lone how?Alone? Independent? Selfish? Free? Fille unique. Unique girl/daughter. Unique how? Special? Weird? Indespensible? My train of thought had carried me away again, into a state of deeper contemplation.

When I think about it, I really am a fille unique in Perpignan. Alone (sort of), on my own, independent, and free; I make decisions for myself and I am responsible for myself. Unquestionably, I am unique; in a small city like Perpignan, there are very few Americans, fewer that speak fluent French, and even fewer (if any) from Chicago. Add yoga teacher and fulbright scholar to the list, and people really don't know know what to make of me. When I meet people - whether at a café, at the movie theater, or in a yoga class - they want to know all about me, Chicago, life in America...Being unique certainly has its bright side: the attention & the interest people have in you. But it also has its occasional dark side: feeling isolated and out of place, especially when the novelty of your surroundings wears off.

I have to admit that when I got off the train in Perpignan for the first time two weeks ago, for a split second I was terrorized. For the first time it really hit me that I was in q strange place across the globe from home, where I knew nobody and nobody knew me. Where I had no idea what was going to happen or what my life would look like. Having lived abroad before, I learned that there are things you can (and should) do to make yourself feel more at home and to give yourself a sense of stability.  

Start simple: unpack. decorate your room with pictures and posters from home. get a cell phone. open a bank account. get a bus pass and/or bike for easy travel around the city. subscribe to a magazine. get a punch card at a local cinema. Then you can get more advanced: go on a guided walking tour of the city. pick a café to make 'your own'. identify the best fruit and vegetable stalls at the local market. make some friends. join associations (i.e. volunteer organisations; hiking clubs; yoga studios). get a side job (i.e. teaching yoga, giving english lessons). Over time, you find your place and you find your people. Although you are less of a novelty to those around you, you are more integrated into the community. You no longer feel so alone (if you ever did). You realize thqt wherever you go in the world, whether you know people or not, there are people to help you and support you - you just have to ask.

Basket of goodies my mentor teacher gave me upon arriving in Perpignan.

Mo room complete with posters, photos & decorations.

My first friend in Perpignan...sometimes you do have to buy your friends.

But in my opinion, spending time alone, as a fille unique in a new or foreign place, is essential.Why? Because it allows you to discover who you really are. What you like. What you know. What you are afraid of. What you are truly capable of. Away from the influence of people you know and trust. Without people stepping in to help you, whether or not you need it. Without having to worry about being compared to anyone else (after all, who could anyone compare you too?). Aside from fleeting moments of lonliness or nostalgia, being a fille unique is magic. At a certain point I imagine, I'll be ready to rejoin my twin sister Melissa in Chicago. But as we say in French, ça va pour l'instant.

A post card recently received from my twin, Melissa.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Hello from Perpignan!

Hello from Perpignan - the Catalan city nestled between the Pyrénées Mountains and the Mediteranean Sea in the south of France...The city of sunshine & palm trees; of Aristide Maillol & Mallorcan kings; of Rusquies (frosted donut-shaped cookies) & Cargolades (tiny cooked snails with salsa); of thick southern accents & warm individuals; of theatre & rugby! Basically, Perpignan is everything you could hope for and more in a place to live. It has only one flaw - the wind (unless of course you're my father, in which case Perpignan is heaven).

When Marco, my Parisian host father warned me, "there is wind in Perpignan", I didn't think too much of it. However unlike Chicago, which earned its reputation of being the 'windy city' from its politics, Perpignan has wind so strong, it merits its own name - Tramontaine. Anyway, the irony is that every time I tell someone in Perpignan that I'm from Chicago, they say, "Oh, Chicago! The windy city...". I guess with a name like Aria (meaning air in Italian), I'll never escape the wind. It will continue to blow me from one adventure to the next, and as long as I don't try to go against it, this 'wind' will only empower me.

But enough about wind, metophorical or literal. Let me first take a moment to thank you for following this blog. For a while, I went back and forth (see how windy I am!) about whether to create a blog during my time abroad; quite honestly I'm not sure if what I have to say is interesting enough or merits being read. But for various reasons - the largest one being that I have such limited communication here in Perpignan (internet access is like gold here) and blogging is a good way to reach anyone who wants to keep up with me - I decided to go for it. Secondly, let me apologize in advance for any typos (and there will be many I assure you). I am using the computers at my school to create this blog, and not only is the language set to French (so no spell check), but the keyboard is that funky french one, with all the letters scrambled in strange places. Now I know what old people must feel like who never learned to type and have to pay super close attention to the keyboard, haha.

Anyway, I promise to post something every Wednesday (with the acception of the first real post, which will appear tomorrow). The posts might be long or short, and I will try to keep them interesting. Please feel free to comment, and if there's something you want me to write about, let me know.

Bisous (kisses),

Lycée Aristide Maillol (high school where I work)
Palace of Mallorca
Arago Square, Perpignan city center
Perpignan city center
Perpignan city center with view of "Castillet"
Mediterranean Sea (15 min drive from city center)