Thursday, February 2, 2012


Feeling talkative today because I'm happy. It's no secret that I've been struggling with the whole teaching thing, but today was a really good day. All of my classes went really well and i even converted some of the difficult kids. Miss Lauren is finally winning over the disgruntled middle and high school masses!!! The turning point in my somewhat defeatist attitude is all thanks to an extremely difficult little boy who will henceforth be referred to as Y. Y is the terror of his class. Thanks to a disappearing teacher, I have his class twice a week instead of once a month (voluntarily of course. I suppose I'm a bit of a masochist.). As a result, this is the only class where I know everyone's names. Y is a pain in the ass. The biggest candidate for ADD and ADHD medication I've ever seen. The boy never stops talking, moving and making life difficult for everyone around him. Last week he finally vocalised his blatant disregard for my class by saying "Why bother with this class? I'm never going to use English anyways." I'd pretty much given up on capturing his interest. But lo and behold, it is possible. We split the kids up into the good kids and the troublemakers today, and I took the troublemakers to the back of the room to give them my own lesson, where they couldn't disturb the other kids who wanted to work. With the exception of one (B, the devil incarnate) the rest of the kids (who are normally quite disruptive, be it constant chattering or actual violence) were GREAT! They seemed to really enjoy the lesson I gave (which really wasnt the most interesting) and Y was actually helpful! He volunteered information. He participated. He did things I was not previously aware that he was capable of doing. And at the end of the lesson he uttered the most beautiful words I've ever heard: "Miss, can we do this every lesson? That way we can learn more and learn better." The boy wanted to learn. The boy that dismissed my subject as completely worthless was asking for more knowledge. From me! I almost hugged him. Instead I gave him a green sparkly smiley face sticker. It seemed to have the same effect.

Just another day in Stenay (sung to the tune of "Just two little girls from Little Rock")

In a strange mood today. Most likely a result of my first unsuccessful attempt at adulthood of the day. I awoke (sounds dramatic, doesn't it?) moments before my alarm went off, thus sparing myself the pain of waking up to that universally horrible beeping noise, and automatically putting me in a good mood, and I thought to myself:  "I'll start the day off productively, let's go do some dishes." But little did I know that my attempt at cleanliness would be foiled by the very elements themselves (da da duuuummmmmm). This is all a very melodramatic way of saying that I couldn't do the dishes this morning because everything in the sink was frozen solid and in one big chunk (but wasn't it more fun with a little creative rhetoric?). Obviously, being from predominantly warm countries, I found this hilariously absurd and made a point to mention it to my colleagues. But when I did, the other teachers couldn't understand the point of the story. They looked at me as if to say "Doesn't everyone wake to find their dirty dishes frozen together? Surely this is how a normal morning begins." The cultural (or climate-al) misunderstanding was fun for us all. We all learned something today. And as teachers, isn't that what's most important?

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Strasbourg and the Strat

Continuing the series "Lauren and Liane take France", this weekends episode was Strasbourg, the jewel of Alsace and hopefully someday my future home. Preemptive apologies for the length of the post, I just want to make sure I get all the details in, for maximum accuracy and dramatic effect. So...let's get started, shall we?


After dragging myself out of bed and barely making it to class, giving half-assed advice to BTS students on clearly underprepared presentations, I finally made it home and, still only semiconscious, realised that I had 37 minutes before the only bus that could take me to the train station in Verdun, and I had neither showered, packed nor eaten breakfast. Obviously panic ensued. Fast forward through a lot of waiting, to arriving in Metz and almost missing the train to Strasbourg. For some reason the trains between Verdun and Metz are never on time. Regional trains never are. And unfortunately they are what stands between me and the rest of the world. Anyways, Liane taught me this cool twine knotting thing on the train. I'm sure it has a much more recognisable name, but I don't remember what it is. You probably know what I'm talking about anyways, if not, just fake it. So...we got to Strasbourg, a train station I've often passed time in, but had never actually left. Anyways, it was pretty late and we had to walk right past our hotel a couple of times before we realised where it was. We checked in with a leggy blond who wasn't wearing anywhere near enough clothing for how cold it was, dropped off our stuff and spent the rest of the evening wandering around the city. We saw the facade of the main cathedral (Notre Dame de Strasbourg) and a number of smaller, less touristy restaurant and bar type areas which would come in handy later. I must say that Notre Dame (indeed all Notre Dames) was awe inspiring in the dark. An elaborately carved mountain of stone, it was the only thing that was truly lit in the city, which gave it an almost magical presence. In that moment, I could understand religious fervour. How could you not believe in God if you lived in constant contact with such a monument to belief? I'm glad the first time I saw it was almost alone in the dark. I don't think I would have been as impressed if my first impression was one that was swarming with tourists, as I would experience in all subsequent days. We concluded the evening with a brisk and brief trudge along the banks of one of the many rivers that flow through the city.  We though it would be fun to walk along the river like people did in the postcards. However, we quickly learned that when you have to climb over a railing to get to something, it's usually not worth getting to. I'm still covered in mud.


We rose at the butt crack of dawn, hastily dresses, grabbed a pastry from a salon de thé (that I swear wasn't there the night before) and jumped on the early train to Colmar, a perfectly preserved "petit village" about 40 minutes south of Strasbourg. While I'll admit that i wasn't exactly thrilled about the idea of visiting a supposedly tiny town during my weekend reprieve from living in a tiny town, I'm delighted that we went, as "petit village" it was not. Much more than a tiny town, it was a medium sized city, home to beautiful, colourful buildings, wonderfully weird alternative shops and the most cleverly hidden tourist office I've never gotten lost trying to find. Colmar is perhaps best described as quaint, but still seems bursting with life and activities for people of all ages. I would love to have seen their Christmas market. It must have been breathtaking. Sections of the city look like they were made my toy makers, too cute to be true.

Others, like "Petite Venise" are painfully pretty. They must be incredible in the spring, when the weather is a little less bone chilling. Truly lovely, a must for anyone travelling in the area.

Upon returning to Strasbourg, we wandered through a used and antique book fair in one of the main squares, on our way to lunch. Maupassant for 1€50!!! Not antique of course, but books are expensive here. It was exciting (especially for the French major I was travelling with). Lunch took place at a hole in the wall italian place that we had discovered the night before. GARLIC PIZZA!!! Need I say more? Absolutely wonderful, regardless of how badly my breath stank for the rest of the day. Then church hunting. We tried to check out all the major churches in the area, most of them gothic, all of the impressive. I particularly enjoyed one of the smaller churches (whose name I can't remember); beautiful stained glass, lots of light, no tourists (except us, but we tried to look inconspicuous). We then headed down to an area called "la petite France", apparently famed for looking like Venice.

I found it underwhelming (Comar's "petite Venise" was much more charming), but much more importantly it was there that we made (or thought we'd made) a groundbreaking scientific discovery: the Strat, half beaver, half rat, native inhabitant of Strasbourg, most photographed rodent in Europe.

We found out later that it was a muskrat, but we persist in calling it a Strat. It just sounds cooler. As you can tell we were rather excited by our discovery. Apparently they're quite common in both Alsace (where Strasbourg is located) and Lorraine (where I live) but this was the first one I've ever seen. His name was Gaspard.


SNOW!!!! Lovely, soft, white snowflakes coming from every direction. Very beautiful, but not conducive to any sort of desire or motivation to be outside or productive. Spent most of the morning in the only café in town that was open (and thank God it was) and then caught the tail end of mass at Notre Dame. A children's choir was visiting from somewhere and they performed admirably. Incredible voices. We then proceeded to hide ourselves in one of the cathedral's many nooks and crannies and watched as the tourists descended on Notre Dame's famous astronomical clock. Taking up most of the right chapel, this monsterous, incredibly detailed, infinitely useful clock seems able to do and measure everything: time, solar and lunar cycles, the position of the planets, to name a few, all while retaining theological value. The clock chimes every quarter hour, to mark the 4 stages of a man's life, and at noon, a statuette of death chimes the hour while a mechanical Christ blesses each apostle that seamlessly files past him. With every fourth apostle, a rooster, perched on top of the clock, flaps its wings, raises its head and crows. Really an impressive piece of machinery.

The trip ended with 2 hours on a train back to Metz with a bunch of men who seem unaware that they were much too old to be playing stupid practical jokes on each other.  And then finally we parted for our separate trains "home". Until next time...

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Reims: Let the Champagne Flow!

My apologies again for procrastinating, I fear that some of the magic of this weekend may be lost in translation as it has been so long and I am so very very tired. However, I will try my best to give an accurate and entertaining account of my first real weekend trip with someone. As I'm sure you've guessed from the title, the trip this weekend was to Reims (pronounced "rins" in French, completely unintuitive for native English speakers), the champagne capital of the world (being the largest city in the Champagne-Ardenne region). Our story begins (as always) in a train station:


Some how, after spending most of the previous day in dialogue with our toilet, I summoned the courage to drag my sorry ass to the bus and eventually the train station in Verdun. As it had been pouring down with rain for the majority of the week, I can safely say that I didn't own a single item of clothing that wasn't at least slightly damp, but I had chosen, specially for this magical weekend away, the least damp of all my potential outfits. As a result, I could not leave the train station in Verdun for fear of reverting to what has become my natural state of being: soaking wet. So I waited, in a train station that seems to be completely devoid of a heating system for a little over an hour and a half; at which point I was informed that my train had been cancelled and replaced by a bus, which would now be braving traffic, storms and a fair amount of black ice to get me to Metz (where I was meeting Liane, my partner in crime) and it would now be stopping at every single possible little village on the way. Needless to say, I was later than expected. Luckily we were taking a late train to Reims, which, when I finally arrived, gave us a window to seek out food in the soggy world around us. Long story short, I love the guy that sells cookies in Metz. His sandwiches may be terrible, but his cookies are excellent and we always have such a nice chat. It's delightful when someone recognises you in a big city that you don't visit all that often.

So...a short, very wet train ride later and we get to Reims. Of course we get totally lost trying to find the hotel, but we eventually discover it was about 2 minutes away from the train station. Thanks Google Maps. The guy at the reception was lovely. Extremely helpful and probably just glad to have someone to talk to. Our first experience with our tiny but charming little room was a failed attempt to close the bathroom door. I went to pull the door closed and the handle came right out, locking me in what seemed to be an indoor port-a-potty! Luckily Liane was around to help reassemble the door and help me out of my poopy prison. Good bonding moment. We then proceeded to the Glue Pot, a weird combination Oriental/Irish themed bar, and got to know each other a little better.


Saturday was a pretty standard tourist day; lots of chatting as we wandered around the city with and sometimes without a map. First up on the list was of course the cathedral, Notre Dame de Reims. Beautiful architecture, incredibly detailed carvings and a really interesting mix of colours and styles of stained glass windows. But, as seems to be the case with most large, touristy cathedrals, it was very dark and a little gloomy.

As we journeyed to other, smaller churches later in the day, Liane and I had an interesting conversation about the difference between churches that are primarily tourist attractions and those that are primarily places of worship. Personally I prefer the latter. They seem more sincere. Although I guess that makes me a bit of a hypocrit, for visiting them as a tourist. Later (as a defense against gale force winds), we visited the cathedral museum, which was much more interesting that anticipated. It housed a number of original carvings from the cathedral that had been replaced by replicas and its own architecture was quite interesting. It was built on the foundation of Roman baths, and in the basement, the ruins and the medieval architecture built over them are still visible and remarkably well preserved.

Now normally I'm not a terribly girly person, but from time to time I like to indulge in girly pursuits. However, things like getting dressed up and going shopping aren't very much fun by yourself. So obviously I was thrilled to have a real live girl to do girly things with. Window shopping turned into actually shopping with a plan to buy clothes for a fancy evening in the future. Flash to the future, we now have tickets to the Metz Opera for sometime in March and I have a burgundy dress and knee high boots (!!!) to wear to dinner and the show. Totally pooped from shopping, we retired to our hotel room after dinner and completely ignoring the plan to sleep early so we wouldnt be tired for our early morning plans, we stayed up until 1 talking. Glorious.


Sunday was the best day of all. Quite possibly the best day I've had since I moved. A couple of unimportant little things happened in the morning, chatting with the reception guy, getting lost on the bus...etc, but let's get right to the point: champagne. It would be practically blasphemous to go to the Champagne region without drinking champagne right? Well we did even better. We went on a tour of the Pommery champagne caves (that's right, caves) and followed that awesomeness with a champagne tasting. The Pommery state is pretty cool even if you don't know what it's sitting on top of. The whole area (just outside of Reims) is teeming with cool art deco architecture. It feels a little bit like the suburbs of Wonderland (you know, where Alice settled and raised her kids). Hard not to get excited about.

But most importantly, the caves. At the Pommery estate, their apparently world famous champagne (don't ask me, I knew nothing about champagne until I took this very informative tour) is made and stored in 20km of Roman caves under the estate. How cool is that? Our adorable little blond tour guide explained to us how champagne is made, what makes Pommery champagne special/different and what different kinds of champagne they produced and the different factors that caused different tastes. Quite interesting, very proud of my french comprehension. Random fact that I liked the most was that each little cave where thousands of bottles of each batch of champagne are individually stored has a name. Not a name like Bob or Harry, but the name of a city. The tour guide explained that Mdm Pommery (the owners wife, who took over the land title and business when her husband died, back when it was very contraversial for a woman to do anything other than be pretty and silent) wanted Pommery champagne to "conquer the world." So every time a major export deal was signed with a city, the city was considered conquered and would get its name on a cave. I was surprised to find such caves named New York, Sydney and Kyoto, among many many others. One ornately fenced off cave (unfortunately nameless) played host to priceless champagnes: champagnes from before each of the World Wars and even a bottle from the Pommery estate's first year. As you can see, I was quite excited by the whole event.

Mdm Pommery also had a great fondness for art, so in addition to using the space for champagne production and storage, they also host an ongoing and ever changing modern art exhibition, at the time I believe the theme was sound. The artwork was incredibly varied, from an entire upside down elephant supported on it's trunk (as me for pictures), to mechanical boots that tapped their toes to a rhythm. Needless to say, the dancing boots were my favourite. Liane prefered the swing with bells on it. Who wouldn't love interactive art?

After the tour, we had a champagne tasting. Normally I'm not a huge fan of champagne, it's always had an unpleasant aftertaste. But what I learned was that actually I'm not a fan of cheap champagne. Pommery champagne was crisp and clean and tart but not overwhelmingly so, sweet but not overwhelmingly so. Completely refreshing, outrageously expensive. A delight to try at least once in my life.

After the tasting, we reluctantly left the estate and wandered around the neighbourhood, had the chance to get lost in the vicinity of the beautiful St. Remy basilica which was conveniently close to a number of bus stops. I must say, despite my lack of photos, St. Remy was my favourite church in Reims. It was quiet, out of the way and did not contain a souvenir penny pressing machine.

That would have been the end of the trip, had it not been for one cool little event on the way home. I've found that general protocol on trains is to keep to yourself and pretend to be reading a book. The girl next to me was watching an incredibly violent but interestingly shot tv show that I could not manage to take my eyes off of. She caught me watching and instead of giving me a dirty look like I was expecting, she got out a second set of headphones and let me watch with her. The cherry on top of a perfect weekend.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

I can do this, I can do this, I can do this

Frantic positive reinforcement to help me feel like coming back to Stenay was the right decision. Of course, whether it really was, we shall see. I'll keep you updated. So, a couple of New Years decisions to help myself get through the next couple of months (not really related to New Years at all, just seemed like a good time marker): taking class at Uni Metz this semester (still trying to work out the kinks schedule-wise, but I'm hopeful. Even if I don't end up making friends, at least it'll be something else to do once a week), going to travel more (still working out the kinks schedule-wise there too, but being able to look forward to being somewhere else on a semi-regular basis will make actually being in Stenay that much more tolerable), and most importantly, I'm going to stand up for myself and stop taking everyone's crap (of course, I've been saying that since I was first cognizant enough to know what a New Years resolution was, but this time I actually mean it...I think. I'm going to ask for rides to the train station so I won't be so much at the mercy of the bus, which will make travelling easier, and I'll find out who to ask if we can use the kitchen in the SEGBA, so that I can bake again, which will help pass time a bit. So that's my hope for the first half of this year; more travelling, less crying myself to sleep. One last random, unrelated observation before I leave you all alone, the tradition of overdecorating your house and lawn with a vibrant and extremely costly array of seizure inducing, florescent lights (which is universally thought of as typically american) seems to have really caught on in rural France. Perhaps it's because they have nothing to do and as a result tend to go a little overboard with the decorating. The pretty, tasteful displays you see in even slightly bigger cities like Verdun, have nothing on the whirling, flashing cacophonies of colour you get surrounding every other house in the middle of nowhere.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Do we have this in the US?

Random little tidbit: one of my classes was cancelled today because the kids (and by kids I mean 19 year olds) were taking a first aid/disaster prevention class instead. It was so cool. They were taught what to do in all sorts of situations, cuts, broken bones, seizures, accidents, with different ages of victims. The baby dummy was creepy, but probably useful to someone someday. They did skits where they practiced dealing with each situation and then afterwards talked about the theory and what they did correctly or incorrectly. Apparently they've been doing this for years. It seemed like a really worthwhile experience to practice what to do in any emergency to reduce panic and cut down on response time. I was impressed. It left me wondering, however, do we have something like that in the US? Obviously I didn't grow up there or go to public school, so I have no idea how we're preparing our kids, especially in such an earthquake prone environment. The only American equivalent I've ever heard of is first aid/CPR classes, but those aren't linked to school and are thus not popular and fairly expensive. Maybe we should look into creating some similar program in American schools. Who knows, it could save lives.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Luxembourg: the Singapore of Europe

As you have hopefully inferred from the title, I have come to the shocking realisation that Europe is playing host to a city-state bizarrely akin to the one in which I spent my formative years. This is, in a word, supercalifragilisticexpialidocious. I've spent a fair amount of time missing the quirks of my seemingly unique (closest thing to) home, so imagine my surprise and excitement at finding something remarkably similar and significantly closer to my current place of residence. But of course, let me justify my claim, as on the surface Singapore and Luxembourg may not seem so comparable. Of course, they are both city-states, conveniently situated in their respective continents to maximise trade and business and thus bring in a lot of wealth and wealthy people. Both have high expatriot populations, because of international businesses and governments and because they are both flanked by multiple countries. The result is the delightful ability to walk down any street at any time of the day and be able to hear at least 4 different languages being spoken within a space of 3 blocks. I love that. Both countries are ruled by monarchical families, Luxembourg by an actual royal family and Singapore under the guise of extremely nepotistic democracy. Despite whatever qualms your may have about these political systems, both countries are extremely stable and extremely safe. Charming as they may be, there is relatively little to do in either country tourist-wise, but have the air gemütlichkeit for actual residents. Hopefully one day I'll be able to compare the two as a resident of both. After the 110% humidity and fantastic Indian food, my comparisons are exhausted, but hopefully I make a pretty convincing point.

Tragically, the one thing that Singapore and Luxembourg don't have in common is Christmas markets. What I would have given to have had that experience as a child. Being able to walk around in the crisp air ("nice and chilly"), moseying from quaint stall to quaint stall, sipping hot drinks and singing along to Christmas carols with someone you love; it was amazing. And I was so lucky to have the chance to go to my first Christmas market with my wonderful boyfriend. It sounds sappy, but being able to share that moment, the first real, perfect moment of Christmas, with someone I love that much, was such a gift. For that moment, I forgot about all the loneliness and the homesickness and the stress and could just be. So thank you, those moments are rare for me. I get a little lost in my own world sometimes. Anyways...Merry Beginning of the Christmas Season Everybody! Hurray for Luxembourg.