26 October 2010

Switzerland Part 2/3 Lucerne

We arrived in Lucerne without a hitch- of the wonderfulness of Swizz trains; on time to the second. Marc, our CS host met us at the train station and then we headed back to his to get rid of our bags. We hung out for a bit having tea and chatting and then Nicole and I headed into town. With a day and a half to explore Lucerne- a small city, we headed downtown without a plan. We mostly walked around, even in the rain, though being placed in Normandy I don't really mind or notice it anymore. From what we had read the Lucerne Art Museum seemed interesting but we thought we would leave it for Monday.

Sunday night was a relaxing night in eating pasta and chatting with Marc. Marc is a product tester for mountain bikes and he is insanely cooler than he reveals at first. He's traveled just about everywhere and we got him to tell us about his latest outing for work- where they flew him to the top of a mountain in a helicopter to do a mountain biking photo shoot!

We watch a movie together and then headed to sleep. The next morning brought more rain, but we decided to forge ahead anyway. We headed to the Art museum to find that it is actually closed on Mondays.... dang. So we headed on our next mission which was to find Nicole a pair of sneakers since her flats weren't cutting it in the rain. An H&M answered her prayers and we continued our walking. We ended up at the Rosengart Collection which has a great collection of Picasso and Clee. I really enjoyed the museum and was again stuck by Picasso's work.
We asked for recommendations from the ladies at the ticket counter for where we should get Fondue or Raclette. The one older lady didn't speak english, but pointed out a street and wrote down the name to hve us head there to eat. When we got there we looked around to find "The Fondue House." Yup, not even "la maison du fondue" or "die Fondue Haus," but just "The Fondue House." We decided that we could find something a little better, not even more "authentic" just not so ridiculously touristy. We found a cafe/pastry type place that also had lunches and was on the water. They had both fondue and Raclette on the menu, we figured fondue wouldn't be as hard to try another time so we went with the raclette.
Raclette was clearly invented by a crazy cheese farmer because I don't think anyone else could make up "plate of melted cheese with some mini gherkins, cocktail onions and 3 small potato halves." I think the inventor was carefully treading the line between insanity and genius and I'm not sure where he landed. Soooooooooo delicious. I think it's one of those things a stomach can only handle once a year but so yummy!

The rest of the day included more wandering, trying to digest the raclette, buying chocolate to bring home and the purchase of a strange dessert. I heard/saw this dessert from Rachel's blog- who we were visiting in Zurich, and figured I needed to try it myself. It basically looks like something between spaghetti and playdoh. It's chestnut marzipan with whipped cream. A new taste, I don't know if I would get it again but definitely worth trying once.
After packing up our things and saying goodbye to Marc we headed to the train station to get our 8pm train and continue onto Zurich!

24 October 2010

Switzerland! Part 1 of 3

1. Getting there
Strikes continued through our departure, adding considerable time to it. I live about 3h30 from Paris, but with the strikes there's only about 2 trains in a day because I need to connect. To make the next day less stressful I spent Thursday night at Nicole's in Liseiux- about 1h30 outside Paris. The next morning we started off a little late which resulted in some running to the train station and our lucky arrival to the train. We go into Paris and from Gare St Lazare over to Gare de Lyon without a hitch. We had to wait a bit for our train, so we got some food in the meantime- also for train snacks. We got the Lyon alright- but a little late and our next train was due to leave in four minutes! We asked a conductor what platform our train was on since it wasn't on the board, to which he said "I don't know! Go ask the information center." So we hustled our butts inside and looked at the ensuing madness. The place was overrun with people, sitting anywhere they could find space, waiting for trains. Still frantically looking at signs hoping late trains were for once in our favor we also got on line to talk to a information clerk. When we got to the front she said "Oh, yes, your train was canceled. Take the one in 3 hours." Well, there wasn't much else we could do but agree. So we wandered outside the train station and found a park nearby. The weather was better even just being in Lyon and we were happy for the sun and greenery. We passed the time and hung out finally making it to Geneva around 8pm. As we were passing through the non existent customs an announcement came over saying "The trains from France to Geneva are late because of strikes." And the entire crowd of people just burst out laughing and bascially saying "oh well, at least now we're in Switzerland and things run properly and on time!" (which were basically my sentiments).

2. I didn't mention it ahead of time because I didn't want people to be nervous, but one this trip we couch-surfed. More so than just the informal term of staying at a friend's, it's an entire organization/ group/ community (couchsurfing.org). The idea behind it is getting to actually meet people of the place you're visiting. It seems like the creepiest intersection of craigslist and facebook possible, but it is actually quite awesome. Leo, our host for our 2 nights in Geneva gave us great directions to his flat. When we walked in he said " How was your trip, we are going to a protest and a party tonight, ok?" Ok, sure, why not?
Leo actually lives in a university flat and is an international relations major at the University of Geneva as an international student from Mexico. His friends who we would meet through the evening had some equally crazy backgrounds and interesting stories about how they had gotten to Geneva. Geneva is regarded as an international city in part because of the UN and many NGO's that are headquartered there, and while we were there I got the feeling that no one is actually from Geneva.
In anycase the evening started out with Salsa, Merengue, and other Latin American music with his friends who were over. Through the night we headed ot the protest downtown, which was against a popular alternative music nightclub that was being closed down- L'Usine- or The Factory in English, several bars and Usine itself.

3. The next day, Saturday, Nicole and I headed out around town to just walk and explore. The Red Cross and UN Museums and tours were closed for Saturday, but it wasn't a huge blow to me. Geneva is situated on Lac Leman, which is HUUUUUUUGE ( I would later realize this is a popular Swiz city feature). A pretty city, fairly large but it's still hard for me to conceptualize a city that isn't like New York, which basically doesn't exist anywhere else in the world.

We saw all the big sites- the water shoot, the old city, parks and the UN building. We walked all through the day and got to really see quite a bit. We also ran into smaller attractions like a market, another flea market and so on.

That night Leo was ready to party again, but we didn't have the same endurance as him. We joined him at a get together in the flat below his but bowed out when the party continued on from there.

He was a great host to us and a great first experience couchsurfing. But had to catch our train to Luzern for the next morning so it was an earlier night for me and Nicole.

Lac Leman
Outside the UN building

21 October 2010


All this not working has been really taxing soooooooooo it's time for vacation!

I'm headed to Lisieux tonight to stay with Nicole (another assistant who I'm traveling with). Lisieux is closer to Paris and hopefully won't be as difficult to travel from tomorrow. We're headed to Switzerland and Italy and if we make it out of the country it should be a great trip!

See you in November

19 October 2010

La Grève

So as you may of heard, France is striking. If you haven't heard, here's this:


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Yesterday was our orientation meeting in Caen for all the English language assistants. Caen is usually an hour by train if I can get a direct one. Well, with the strike train service has been heavily interrupted so to make my 10am meeting I left my apartment at 6:20am. The SNCF website kept crashing because so many people were on it trying to look up the revised, limited schedules, leaving with the only option of going to the train station to find out. I got to the train station to find that there would be a "train" running at 7am to Lison and at Lison I could make the connection to Caen. Ok, it was my only option so I'd take it. I sat around until 6:50 or so and noticed everyone getting up and heading outside out the front doors of the station. Hmm, weird. I looked up at the departures board and realized that there were no platforms listed just "Autocar" for all of them. The train to Lison had been replaced by a coach bus.

Let me just tell you for a minute about how much I hate buses. They're fine in general if you know where you're going or what's happening, but other than that I hate them. On a subway or train, if you mess up what you're doing you just get off at the next stop and take the next train back in the other direction. Buses can easily change routes, miss people at stops and often don't have large stations with a ticket person to answer questions.

So I got on the bus, confirming with both driver and passengers that it was indeed going to Lison. The stars were still out and my breath was frozen though I started to warm up on the bus. On the bus long enough to just start feeling overheated and sick to be thrown out into the 0 C air at Lison. The strike had reduced service so greatly that at the stop after Coutances, St. Lo, about 10 people were turned away.

At the Lison train station I saw my roommate, Huimin who had left an hour earlier that morning to try to make for medical appointment for the immigration office in Cherbourg. Her train had been canceled and she was stuck waiting another hour and a half for the next one. Actual trains were running out of Lison, and being one of the first stops I was even able to get a seat.

I made it to Caen and even took the tram and found the high school where the orientation was rather easily.
It was pretty typical orientation stuff, mostly a mini lesson on how to teach and some ideas of how to work with the students. The more beneficial part was getting to meet all the other English speaking assistants for collège and lycée. Everyone was really nice and other people in small towns commiserated with with. I've also met some people who are a little closer to me, only 20 min on train or so, rather than trucking all the way into Caen or even further.

I was able to make it home, relatively easily in fact, though it did take me a good 2 hours.

This morning the strike continues as my first two classes have been canceled. We'll see what happens later today; the students (and some teachers, I believe) have set out a blockade in front of the school gates. Living in the school, it doesn't really affect or bother me when a class is canceled. I'm just hoping this strike business clears up in time for me to go on vacation Friday!

**Update I headed out to the grocery store this morning and for a walk seeing as classes weren't going to happen. On the way there I ended up seeing everyone gather for the demonstration and actually ended up on the back end of it all as I came back from the grocery store. The photos are from today.

Outside Town Hall on my way to the grocery store, everyone gathering for the demonstration (including a fair amount of faculty and staff)

The demonstration (a huge group of people, at least a whole block long) heading just past the lycee as I was coming back from the store.

And the group continues on!

The barricades in front of the school. If you look at the blue sign it says "Charles Francois Lebrun" awwwww

17 October 2010

Week 2.5 Update!

I kept trying to wait until what felt like my first normal day or week of school, at least some semblance of routine, to talk about what it's like to be a language assistant. It doesn't seem like any routine will be happening for a while though, so I might as well let you all know what's going on. Because of the A/B week schedule I was still doing introductions in class last week, as well as some real classes as well. Most classes went well, with teachers telling what what they had in mind. Other classes were canceled (strikes- surprise! and a class trip to Spain for some students) and others were more difficult. I had one class where I came in expecting to get something from the teacher so I knew what to cover in the hour. However, she just gave me a group of about 8 students and left me to it. It can be difficult keeping all the different classes straight, and knowing what each class needs since I don't really understand the french grade levels yet.

The way out, there's a big set of gates, though they might be hard to see in this photo. I have a set of skeleton keys to them.

The view if you turn around form the last photo. Directly ahead is building A, where most of my class are. I live to the right in building D.

I'm missing class on Monday as well, it's the English language assistants' “Orientation” in Caen. This works out quite well for me as Monday would have been 6 hours of class (half my week!). I only have about 3 classes Tuesday and one on Thursday.

With all this free time I decided I needed something more to do.My almost daily trips to the grocery store were ok too, but the path to the store isn't the prettiest. I had already gotten a library card earlier in the week, and it's not that big of a library.

So, what else do I like to do?- Swim. David had shown me where the pool was on the way back from Agon-Coutainville last week. It's only about a half mile from the Lycee, not that far at all. I headed down there twice, the first time it was closed, the other they said the swim coach wasn't there. I sent off an email to the swim coach letting him know I am 22 and looking for swim team. The adults swim team has a lower age limit of 25, so I wasn't sure if I'd be allowed to join that. The response I got was “Come by the pool Saturday between 1-3, and we'll see how you swim.” After the last four years knowing various swimmer's on K College's team I was worried that I was not at all what they were looking for. I had some difficulties trying to figure out where I was even supposed to enter the pool, and some help from an old french man I was finally there. David (the swim coach, not my mentor at the school) was really kind and basically had me do some laps of different strokes and some different exercises to see my technique. He totally called me out on my crazy breaststroke legs- hahaha. At the end of all of this he said

Are you free Wenesdays and Saturdays from 2-3?


Ok, you're on the team”

I'm not really sure what team though. I don't think it's the adult team- but at the beginning I did ask if there were people my age to which he said yes.... so I guess in time we'll see. The other downside is that it's rather expensive; 155 Euro for the pool pass, swim team suit, shirt and swim cap (it's a package deal, you have to get it all.) I guess this means I'll be competing, though I wasn't given a schedule or anything like that. We'll see how it all turns out, there are no practices during vacations which is good but I'll also have to be staying around Coutances a bit more on the weekends.

Not too much to update about, just falling into everyday life in Coutances.

10 October 2010

Tapestries, Memorials and Beaches

edit:15 Oct 2010- Now with pictures!

My weekend started on Friday since I don't have any classes (this is a great job). I headed to Bayeux, to meet another assistant, Nicole, who is placed in Lisieux. We were both looking to get out of our towns, because as much as we love them, it's nice to see somewhere new. We meet at the Bayeux train station and from there just started heading into town hoping to find our hostel. After a few inquiries at the tourism office and some wrong turns we found it... to find out that we couldn't check in until 5. So to pass the time we hit up the big attractions of Bayeux. First we headed to the Bayeux tapestry, where the was absolutely no line despite the number of people we had seen around Bayeux. I was also able to get us a price reduction since we are both teachers (well, in a way) and it's France so if you speak French and just keep trying you can get a price reduction if you try hard enough. The Bayeux Tapestry is looooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooong. When you walk into the dark long corridor where it's kept you think to yourself, “Well this is pretty big.” But as the little audio tour that goes with it plays and you able down the corridor you realized that the room turns back in a large U and the tapestry is twice as long as you originally thought.

After the tapestry we took a walk which led us to the World War Two Museum. Again I was able to swing the teacher's discount! The museum wasn't the most amazing I had seen but I did appreciate the short film that was there. Having been here for a while I've gotten better sense of how far apart things are and the terrain of the land. Seeing how towns, like Coutances, were reduced to rubble had a much different impression now that I had a frame of reference.

(What?! You haven't met Pepe yet? Pepe is the cutest donkey ever, given to my by Anthony last year for Christmas. Pepe loves to travel, just like me- and loves being in photos (though he always has the same expression. He's already been in tons of photos in on I-80 from Kalamazoo to NJ, Port Jervis, NY and Camp Glen Spey)

In the evening Nicole and I met up with the 3 language assistants in Bayeux. There's a British boy for English, a Mexican girl and a Norwegian and they all live together at the school. We had a lovely dinner of galettes (savory crepes) and dessert crepes. I also got a bottle of “Cidre de Bayeux” which was lovely. Cider and calvados (an apple brandy) and actually the bigger drinks in the region as the terrain and weather isn't good for wine production but better for apples and pears. It was really nice to have such animated discussion (English was actually the preferred common language) with a larger group than I had experienced in 2 weeks. After dinner we went to an “Irish pub” which was just a bar, but a bit peculiar because it was actually more of the high school hangout (the drinking age is 18). It was a great finish to the evening.

In the morning Nicole and I made the acquaintance of Carly, a Canadian backpacker making her way through France for 3 months (currently on week 3). With her we found out the bus schedule and made a trip out to Omaha beach. The are well guided tours and many visitors to the region rent cars so there isn't much by way of public transport to the Normandy beaches. Because of this we could only go to the Omaha with the American cemetery for about 1h30. It wasn't much time, but we were so close and the bus tickets so cheap that we figured it was worth our time.

The white crosses meticulously set in perfect rows are the first things we saw when we came in. While I had seen photos in the past, I was hit with just how many they were. The rows stretched further and further back. I couldn't even see were they stopped very well. We headed over to the bluffs with some diagrams of where different companies had landed. Beside this area was a walk down to the beach. It is a steep descent and after the dunes is only a short strip of “beach.” The weather was lovely and we all dipped our toes in and rolled up our pant legs, happy for the break from rain. After spending a bit of time down there we had to head back to the bus stop to make sure we wouldn't miss the only bus and be camping overnight at Omaha.

The return home was uneventful, and I was happy to see my bed again. Today, David, my mentor, had invited myself and the Chinese assistant, Huimin, to his house for lunch. As we waited outside the school gates my apprehension grew that I had somehow messed up the day of the week and we were waiting for nothing. Luckily it was just my nerves and David was quickly there to pick us up. He only lives about 5 minutes, on foot, from the school. He lives in a lovely house with his wife and 4 boys, ages 12 to 4. We had a lovely homecooked meal with them and afterwards they invited us to go to the beach. The beach is only about 10 kilometers away at Agon-Coutainville, but just out of reach if you want to go on foot. We stopped by, Claire's parent's house (David's wife is Claire). We picked up Elliot, the youngest and “le monstre” and headed over to the beach. We walked along the board walk while some of the kids rode bicycles. While everything is usually closed on Sundays, it's because all the action was at the beach. Everyone was there for a Sunday stroll. It's a very shallow beach and the tides was out, exposing about 500 feet worth of area for prime mussel fishing. Many people were out with hoes and rakes trying to dig up dinner. Afterward, David brought me and Huimin to another part a little further down that is part of a nature reserve that has large grass covered dunes. I finally was able to pull off my shoes and get some sand in my toes.

David, once again, had been a great guide and shown me a new part of the area I didn't think I would get to explore. I was so excited by that fact that it wasn't raining but my happiness was exponential when I realized that I got to go to the beach 2 days in a row!

That's all for now, but perhaps I'll remember to post something before next weekend!

07 October 2010

First week of school update!

So you may notice that I am making this update on a Thursday night, because I have Fridays off! Tomorrow I'm headed to Bayeux to meet up with another assistant to see the famous tapestry and hangout in a new place with new people. In any case, here's the first week update.

Monday was my first day, though I ended up having practically the whole morning off. All the classes had tests so I basically would walk in, go “Hi, I'm Anna” and leave. I did that about 5 times, which meant 5 trips up and down the 5 flights of stairs to my apartment. I found this would be a repeat occurrence throughout the week. I also found out that I would be part of surprise interviews and dating game type session. Questions included basics such as “Where do live? How many brothers and sisters do you have? What did you study?” this turned into ever more revealing ones like “If you were an animal, what would you be? What is your greatest fear? If you were a country, what would you be? What is your favorite type of music? If you were a city, what would you be?' and so on and so forth. They all seem like great kids so I'm pretty excited to work with them all. Though now I feel like everyone in the school know who I am but I don't have a clue who anyone else is.

The kind of sucky part is that I'm basically left to do what I want, but they are all conversation groups and I have so much freedom that it seems overwhelming. This means figuring out conversation topics for 10 different classes a week, which are usually divided in 2 or 3 groups, which can get rather repetitive.

One of my favorite moments came from a class I sat in on. They were talking about environmental responsibility and the professor asked a student how he contributed. The student's response, “Wheeeeeen I smoke, I pffffftt myyyy cigaaareeeeettes.” (He meant to say that he doesn't leave them on the ground, he throws them away) Hahahaha, they all speak with thick french accents, though they all have good command of the language., though they are timid.

Because there is only one English language assistant and so many students take it, I'm only with the upper level groups, which is why they have so much conversation. I basically only work Monday, Tuesday and Thursday. Wednesday the students have a half days. I have a two hour block reserved for “Concours Lechaptois” which is a recitation competition I'll be in charge of. However, this is just reserved time in my schedule. It doesn't have to happen then, and they said it can take up more time than that during a week, but it's up to me to run it. The competition is named after an retired (passed away?) English professor at the school, and the winner of the competition gets a trip to England (for the weekend? I wasn't sure). I'm to organize the competition, recruit students for it and find potential speeches, monologues, dialogues and the sort.

Sorry, I haven't kept up very well this week, not that there was so much going on, just that I kept forgetting to do it.

I will try to recap my trip on Sunday, but no promises!

04 October 2010

Paris Weekend/ Nuit Blanche

First I apologize for the exceedingly long nature of the post. Summary- Paris was crazy but fun and the first day of school was good.

This past weekend I headed to Paris in hopes of participating in "Nuit Blanche" which is a mostly an open air arts festival taking place all night throughout the city. And I mean all night. Many events go from 7pm to 7pm, though not all do. I left Coutances at 8:30 am on the train, arriving back at Gare St Lazare less than a week later. I got there around 12:30 and set out on my quest. Since I am here in France for 7 months and in a rather cold area at that, I figured it would be a worthwhile investment to buy a hairdryer and straightener. I had written down direction of how to get to Carrefour, a large target/ Meijer type grocery store. While it was a good 2- 2.5 miles away, I had all the time in the world to get there. I was to meet Julie at her place at 6pm, a good time away. So I walked and I walked and I walked, in the process getting asked "Vous etes du quartier?" (You live around here?) but sadly I had no directions to offer, just a Lonely Planet map. I finally arrived at my destination, after walking along Blvd Haussmann and the large department stores there. I turned the corner to see that the large discount department store I had been looking for was just a crappy "Carrefour City" meaning they just had groceries and the like. Rather disappointed I head to better attractions of Paris, including Le Centre Pompidou and Notre Dame.
After admiring Le Centre from the outside (I remembered the inside being rather boring when I went with my parents) I took advantage of the free admission to Notre Dame and sat and admired the interior from a chair for a while.

Afterward I ambled along the Seine making way toward Julie's place where I would be staying, through "Jardin des Tuileries" and eventually jumping on the Metro line.

Julie studied abroad in Kalamazoo my junior and when she heard I was in France, kindly offered to let me come stay with her in Paris sometime. As my attempts at couchsurfing for the weekend fell through, I took her up on the offer. We headed to a HUGE mall, where we got groceries, wine, and the hairdryer and straightener I had been hoping for all day.
Dinner didn't get started until 9pm and we didn't leave the house for Nuit Blanche until 11pm (with all her housemates and visiting friends). This post is getting too long already, so! we went out saw some of Nuit Blanche and then tried to find a club. That part of the night wasn't too successful, and come to think of it the next part wasn't either. So started heading home. Unfortunately Paris organization deemed that on a night when everyone would be out, to dramatically cut subway and bus services. After trying to get taxi for 30 minutes Julie and I headed to one night bus that would get us about halfway home. The bus was completely packed, but we squished ourselves on all the same and hoped for the best. We got out at the Champs-Elysee with about 1h15 left to walk. We walked for 30 minuted before we reached a point where we could actually find empty taxis. Julie and I hopped in the taxi and were able to rest our feet for a 10 minute ride which surely would have taken us another 45 to walk.
At 4am we were finally back at Julie's. We closed the shutters and fell into bed, not waking up until 1230p the next day.

Once waking up from our dead man's sleep, we had a little breakfast and I headed out, so that I could wander a bit and not have to worry about making my 4pm train.
While walking around I ran into girl scouts/ guides in adorable uniforms selling calendars, which of course I had to buy one! Lateron while reading the calendar in the train station I realized that I had been tricked, and it was really a co-ed version of boy scouts that I had bought from!

You would think by this time in the day I had enough fun with public transportation, but no. There was still more fun in store. I arrived well at my transfer at Lison, but unfortunately my connecting train did not. I'm not sure exactly how, but no train headed to Coutances ever passed through like it was supposed to. Instead I had the pleasure of waiting at the Lison train station for 1h15 until the next available train came through. This brought be into rainy (0f course) Coutances at 8:40 rather than the 7:20 I had been hoping for. I walked home, still happy though, it had been a good weekend. I opened the school gates to let myself in and headed over to my building. Slight terror came when I tried to open the usually unlocked door and it wouldn't budge. I used my last 30 seconds of credit on my cell-phone to call Huimin, and was luckily able to communicate in French to please get the heck down here now! She let me in and finally was day was near an end.
I only had to make dinner, shower, hand wash some clothes and prepare for my first day of school ;)

01 October 2010

Rain, Rain, Go Away..

It's good that I only work 12 hours a week and live 3 floors up from the shop class because in light of the weather of the last 3 days I should start working on an ark.