Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Mulhouse and the rudest person in Alsace

Last Saturday, I went to Mulhouse (the closest city in France) with my roommates to have lunch at a German teacher's apartment and to see the city and maybe do a little shopping.
We arrived at the teacher's house slightly late after having completely misread the map, but she didn't seem to mind. Also there was her boyfriend and some other guy whose relation to her I could not determine (a friend I guess?). She fed us this potato with cheese dish that was quite good and all in all it would have been an unremarkable if pleasant meal except one glaring problem -- her boyfriend was a complete jerk (to me).
It may not be wise to post a complaint about the significant other of a co-worker on my blog, and I don't want to only talk about the negative things that happen. But alas, it's a story that has to be told. I honestly think he was TRYING to offend me, though I don't know why he would.
Things started off on a bad foot. When I was introduced as the American english teaching assistant, he said immediately, "Generally, I hate americans." Then he laughed and said he was joking. Though his comments throughout the meal suggested he was NOT joking. And supposing he WAS joking, why would would anyone think the best way to break the ice with someone is to tell them that as a rule, they are prejudiced against their country? But fine, call it an inconsequential social mistake.
Five minutes later, he asks me, in a demanding tone, who I plan to vote for in the upcoming election. I was a little taken aback, not so much by his question, but by the way he asked it. So I made a joke about how I was just surprised because in the US it is generally considered impolite to ask acquaintances for whom they voted. He just looked at me and said "This isn't the US, so tell us, who are you going to vote for?" Again, though I dislike talking politics, I have been asked this question since being in France, there was just something about the way he said it that made me uncomfortable.
But if it had just been these things, this wouldn't have warranted a blog post. It was the way he took every opportunity to say negative things about America. This is a basic problem of politeness, if he wants to hate America from the comfort of his own brain, fine. Constantly attacking a guest who doesn't speak his language fluently, is not. Supposing I hated Algeria (his parent's country of origin), I would never say so.

Things that were ACTUALLY said:
German Teacher: "[such and such] comes from America, doesn't it? A lot of things come from America."
German Teacher's boyfriend: "like war"

German teacher's boyfriend (out of nowhere, I don't think we were even talking about America): "Americans are crazy! They still have the death penalty, [... long list of things I didn't quite understand. I think something about crazy church people?, healthcare, etc], they are allowed to have guns." (this speech went on FOREVER, and I didn't really catch most of it. I felt so uncomfortable that I can tell you that people actually do shift in their seats when in unpleasant situations.)
German teacher: Do you agree with what he said?
Me: umm uhh (in my head: obviously not, even though I didn't understand a great deal of it)

GTB: Oh, I'd like to visit America
GT: Oh really? Where would you go?
GTB: I'd like to go to New York.
GT: What would you like to see there.
GTB: I'd like to see the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State building, and the World Trade Center.
GT: You know it's not there anymore, right?
GTB: Yes *laughs like he told a hilarious joke*
Me: that could not have actually just happened

It was so odd, because he was friendly and tried to joke with us. That I noticed, he didn't say anything rude to either of my roommates. It's weird because it seems like either he expected to join the I hate america party or that I was being singled out because of my nationality.
I left the meal feeling kind of odd about the whole situation.

The rest of the day was quite pleasant though. We went downtown, and though Mulhouse is nowhere as beautiful as other cities in this region, it still had some nice parts. It also had lots of shops, and though it took us a while to find the inexpensive ones, we eventually succeeded. I left Mulhouse with a brand new pair of very warm boots which I hope will be water resistant. And I ended the day with a snack of profiteroles (pastry stuffed with ice cream, bathed in chocolate sauce). A perfect ending for an interesting day.
Me and my roommates on the train. (Sylvia (Germany) middle, and Crystal (Panama) right)

Metal Sheep 

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Phone Finally! (or don't send me any packages, because I live in a black hole)

Finally, after almost a month in France, I have a cellphone!
This took forever for a number of reasons. I decided very early on, that I was going to go with either SFR or Free, both which have unlimited calls to north america and France, unlimited texts, and 1gb of data per month for 20 euros. But I decided I would go with SFR because they had a better selection of phones. This required two things: one that I have a french bank account, and two, that I have a french debit card. I still don't have a debit card that works. Therefore, last weekend, I decided I would go with Free, which does not require you to use a french debit card. With Free, you have to order your sim card, wait for it to arrive and then order your phone. I did this, and my phone was supposed to arrive this Friday.
Though Fedex wasn't able to easily deliver a package here, I thought it might be different with a french company/post office. Unfortunately, this was not the case.
So then I got to call chronopost and explain to them how to deliver this package to me (in french!). So I call, but OF COURSE it couldn't be that easy. The machine tells me all lines are busy and to call back later. Twelve or so phone calls later, I finally get put on hold. Whoopy!  I finally get through to someone, and try to explain the problem to him. He wasn't super helpful. Could I pick it up at the a "relais colis," no but I could pick up the package at the distribution center in Mulhouse, where I was going to be on Saturday, anyway. The package would get there at 13h on saturday... but they close at 12. I asked if there was anyway it would get there earlier. He said no, I would have to pick it up on Monday (which is NOT possible for me). So I give up, I tell him to try to deliver it on Monday. I tell him to have the delivery person enter through the schools gate and have them take it to the Accueil (the people at the Accueil are not a big fan of me, by the way, because my key for the classrooms disappeared: "C'est très grave!" (disappeared as in it was on my key ring and then it wasn't -- not as in I misplaced it. I honestly don't think this is something I should be made to feel bad about.)). He says he'll have the delivery person call me when he gets here on Monday (sometime between 8-13 -- guess who works 8-13 on Mondays? Me). So I sigh and so okay, fine because what else am I going to do?
Well, Tristan convinced me to call them back later in the afternoon. This person was a lot more helpful, and had my package dropped off at a relais colis (because apparently that guy lied) Saturday morning. So now I have a phone :)

My first smartphone speaks French

Adventures in Food

This week has been an interesting food week.
Tuesday at the cafeteria: 
Lunch lady: "Veau ou boeuf" (veal or beef)
Me: "boeuf" 
Lunchlady: *gives me the veal*
Which makes two times eating veal since being in France this year. Which is a lot of veal considering I've never eaten it before, and considering the fact that I don't like the thought of eating a baby cow whose flesh is light because it still drinks milk. :(((( But I ate it anyway because it's not like not eating the food I am given is going to do any good. It was pretty good, especially considering it was cafeteria food. But I am yet to be blown away by the taste veal. I was under the impression that it was AMAZING...

Wednesday at the cafeteria:
So the cafeteria this day seems to be serving ham, onion rings, and potatoes. Kind of a weird meal, I think, but all very edible options. I ask for everything. Then I sit down at my table and start to eat. 'These onion rings taste weird,' I think to myself. 'Distinctly fishy, I wonder if it's the batter?' The meal progresses. 'Okay, these are DEFINITELY not onion rings... must be some kind of fish. I wonder why they made it this shape?' Finally, I make a comment about the onion ring shaped fish. 
German professor: "oh that's 'calmar' " 
Me: *blank look*
German professor: "uhhh....'octopus'?"
Me: *tries not to look horrified* 
I stopped eating the onion ring things after that. I know I probably should be open minded but octopuses are one of the most horrifying things on the planet. Upon reflection, I have decided she must have been mistaken and that I was actually eating Calamari or SQUID (which is another one of the most horrifying things on the planet). 

What cafeteria serves SQUID? What cafeteria serves veal for that matter? Aren't these things expensive?

Meanwhile, dinner had become another adventure.
We have an oven. It's tiny. But according to our landlord person, it works. So I decided that this week I would actually cook dinner rather than just eating a sandwich. So I looked through my cookbook, and everything I wanted to cook required the oven. So I buy the ingredients and an oven pan.
The problem with our oven is that apparently technology in France hasn't advanced since the 1950's (or whenever people started getting ovens that light themselves...), so we have to light the oven (and the burners ourselves).
I try to light the oven, but I get scared when nothing seems to be happening, even though I don't smell gas or anything. I ask my German roommate, she has no idea. My Panamanian roommate (who taught us how to light the stove) isn't around. We both stare at the oven in bafflement. I give up and change the recipe (stuffed peppers -- I cut up the peppers and saute them) a bit so I can do it stove top.
This day, I was planning on making Roasted Butternut Squash with Penne Pasta. This requires roasting the butternut squash, which requires an oven. I try to light the oven again, but I give up quickly because I am starving. I eat a sandwich for dinner.
I try once again to make the butternut squash. I try to light the oven, but it's clear I have no idea what I am doing. I ask my Panamanian roommate. She manages to get it to ignite, but it doesn't stay on. She gets sacred when it starts to smell like gas. I open the window and wait a bit, watch a youtube video on how to do light a stove. I try again, but I can't get it to work.
I am determined. I am going to light this stove if it kills me (which it won't, because this stove is DESIGNED to be lit like this, right?). Finally, I succeed. The trick is that you have to hold down the knob while you light the gas, and keep holding it for a bit so the flame takes. Success!
It is then that I encounter another problem: the pan I bought is too big for the stove!
Hmm... this oven won't close
But at this point I'm not going to let a little thing like the pan not fitting in the oven stop me... I slant the pan up, and I tie the oven closed (mostly) with a ribbon. 

To me this says one thing: classy
Finally, an hour and a half later, success is had: 
NOM NOM - totally worth it

Thursday, October 11, 2012

The first week of classes

Today, I concluded my first week of classes. It's had its share of ups and downs what with my schedule being total chaos with things being switched on me every couple of hours and being thrown into classes without anything prepared.
The last class was by far the worst. It is totally possible to fill 20 minutes if you are given a class you've never met before. Perhaps you can even fill more time, if they are particularly strong group. You have them ask you questions about yourself, and when they can't think of anything else, you make them tell you about themselves (name, favorite animal/series/color, what they want to be when they grow up). If they are a particularly weak group, you come up with another basic conversation topic: what you should do in Alsace, or perhaps their stereotypes about America/California.
But say you are given a weak group, a group whose English skills are lacking  and whose English skills are lacking because their study habits are lacking, and say you are given them for an 45 minutes with no other instructions other than: "Have them ask you questions. Get them to talk.", then what?
As soon as I knew I was going to have a weak group for an hour (well really 47 minutes), I knew I was in trouble. I've had weak groups before, and the thing about weak groups is that they don't want to talk. Them asking me questions lasted maybe 10 minutes; them telling me about themselves took maybe 15; them telling me about their stereotypes about America/California took maybe 5. So I have 20 minutes left to kill. So, I go to my back up question: "What should I do here in Alsace?" Nobody says anything. So I decide to broaden it: "What should I do in France?" Nothing. "Okay, I'm in Europe. There has to be something I should see in Europe. Any suggestions?" Then I say that each person is going to tell me something I should do. I point to a person and make them start.
This person proceeds to completely misunderstand my question. She thinks I've asked if she would prefer to live in the US or Europe (Who knows how she got THAT). But I decide to just go with it, the question becomes "Where would you like to live?" At least, 80% of the class says they want to live in the US, which is funny considering how little they seem to care about learning English. *sigh*
Unfortunately, there were still 10 minutes left after this which led to much panic and fluster. Thankfully in the end they saved me by FINALLY volunteering to ask some questions.
Two weeks from now, I'm supposed to do this again with the weaker half of the class (yes, apparently this was the strong half). I'll have to think of some sort of activity because this is NOT going to work.
But not all of the classes have been this tough, some of them have been quite fun. Especially the stronger ones because we can actually have a real conversation (it's not just me reciting boring facts about myself over and over). The students can be quite funny sometimes.
Hopefully next week will have some more structure. 

Bâle for the first time

I realize it sounds somewhat pretentious to call Basel Bâle, but it's kind of stuck in my head as the name of this town because that's what I call it most of the time. Last Sunday, I went their with my roommates for a few hours. It takes 20 minutes by bus to get to the center of town. We didn't do much, just walked around and then got hot chocolate (mostly things were closed because this is Europe and it was Sunday). It was a nice time though.
This post is mostly pictures, because the next post is allllll words...
Me and a statue/fountain. Very exciting stuff

Looking at the city from a bridge over the Rhine

I never thought I would say this about a city because I am quite fond of them, but this city has too many trams. (note the lines on this picture)  

Saturday, October 6, 2012


 Wednesday morning, my roommates and I took an early train to Strasbourg (the biggest city in the Region) for a meeting of the teaching assistants of this region. This meeting was confusing, then boring, then useless... but alas, attendance was required. It was confusing because they insisted on explaining what we need to do to get French social security, which it turns out is both compulsory and very complicated. (For example, officially, to get our paycheck we need to have a social security number, but in order to get that number we need to first get paid.) Honestly, I got the impression that not a single teaching assistant fully understood what  what we need to do for that.
After the meeting was FINALLY over, my roommates (Sylvia and Crystal), Sylvia's friend Neele, and I walked around to see the tourist attractions of Strasbourg.
Cathedral 1
Cathedral 2
 The main attraction area of Strasbourg is called "Petite France." Though, to be honest, I haven't the slightest idea why it is called this because the architecture does not seem French to me at all. I think it is far more Germanic.

With each corner we turned, Strasbourg became more picturesque. It's hard to imagine that anyone actually lives there. It looks like something out of a storybook. It seems as if it belongs in Disneyland or some magical universe. It's full of lots of cute little shops selling cookies and other things. Surely they are overpriced, but they are still hard to resist.

For dinner, we had Tarte Flambé which was delicious. All in all, it was a great day. 

Friday, October 5, 2012

Saint-Louis, the first few days

Monday morning, I moved into my apartment at the school and signed a lot of papers. My first emotion upon seeing my apartment building was horror, because to be honest, it looks even worse than Batiment C! I don't yet have a picture of it, so here is the picture from google street view:
Really, it's even worse than this picture would lead you to believe
It's much better inside though, and will be perfect for 7 months. It's not without its flaws (the oven/stove is the more or less the size of an easybake oven, and we can hear every bell of the highschool, for example). But all in all it's a pretty nice place. 

My room from all the possible angles...
There was a lot of stress and nervousness, what with meeting my new roommates, my new professors, and doing it all (almost) in French (which is quite difficult, and exhausting). It's safe to say I am speaking French way more here than I did in Bordeaux. I'm certain my French is terrible. I speak in the wrong tense, with the wrong verbs. Essentially, I throw out a jumble of words related to my message and hope that my meaning can be divined. I have found that I can understand much better, however. Though occasionally, I encounter a fast speaker who throws out so much information that I get lost.
So far my roommates have been very friendly and nice, though I imagine almost anyone is capable of appearing nice for a short period of time. But I think things will continue to go well. We speak almost exclusively in French. This is difficult, but much less annoying than speaking French with Americans. I think this is because it feels much less artificial (less game-like). When one attempts to speak French with someone who speaks fluent English, it seems like a frustrating waste of time. You know you will be able to understand each other, and therefore get to know each other much better if you speak English, so speaking French is just a chore. With my roommates, French is a tool (though they do speak some English), a way to communicate. And I have found we can have fun even though it sometimes requires several rephrasings to get each other to understand each other.
There have been ups and downs since I arrived, but I think that, in general, things will continue to improve.

Monday, October 1, 2012

And so, my journey begins

Sunday, I took a train from Paris to Saint-Louis with only my two GIGANTIC suitcases for company. This route requires a stop in Strasbourg to transfer trains (which was not the terminus of this particular train) and that I get off the second train in Saint Louis with my suitcases in the very short time allotted for that stop. The train ride itself was beautiful and relaxing but it was a bit difficult to appreciate with my nervousness for starting my program, and with the stress involved in making sure I got myself and my suitcases off the train during the short stops.
The French countryside from Paris to Strasbourg consists of field of grass and cows and such, intermingled with small forests, and little towns. Each little town has a church at its center and is surrounded by a varying number of very French looking buildings. It's all very picturesque, though all look quite similar. The architecture changes dramatically, however, as one nears Strasbourg. There are more hills in the Alsace region, and the building become much more Germanic. Most of these buildings would not look out of place in Solvang, or even in a storybook. It's all very beautiful.
I prepared early to disembark each train, and thus, managed to do so without any problems. When I arrived in Saint Louis, I met Carole (one of the 5 Caroles teaching at this school!), the woman who is the English teacher in charge of making sure I get settled properly here (there are MANY hoops to jump through, French bureaucracy is a nightmare!). She took me to her house to spend the night. It was up in some hills a bit away from Saint Louis, so I got to see a bit more of the region. It consists mostly of fields with cows and fields of corn, interspersed with quaint little villages.
My experience at her house was very different from my experiences with my host family. Dinner was very informal, the house actually looked like someone lived there, and the family was very friendly. 
My adviser is also a quilter 
Carole has two daughters (8 and 10), the younger girl was very shy and hardly said a word. It was very cute to hear her older daughter prattle on about her day even though I couldn't understand all of it. I did, however, feel very awkward being with a family I didn't know and having to speak French and I was exhausted from traveling. Therefore, I was very glad when everyone went upstairs around 8:30, and I was left to myself (I slept on the couch which turned into a bed). And so ended my first day in Alsace.