less-than-thrilled: when you don’t want your dream

“How do you find Montluçon?” When I arrived here, I was asked this quite a few times, always with a wince on the part of the inquirer.

C’est un peu triste, non? But no, no I didn’t find it sad. Blue skies and tropical flowers, temps in the low eighties, a new city and a new life to explore. AOP cheese inexpensive at the grocery store. Life now conducted in my second language, lending a sense of challenge and excitement to the simplest interaction.

Even without all that, I was just glad to have a job and a place to lay my head at night. It had been a long, tumultuous summer, one in which I wasn’t at all sure I was going to come to France. Money worries. Trepidation. I hadn’t found a place to sleep.

Things worked themselves out, improbably. I was here. My French future stood in front of me, bright and sweet as a macaron.

There was no time to be bored, listless, uncertain.

And then there was.

November was a rough month in which I understood exactly why people might complain about this place. C’est un peu triste? Ben oui.

It was dark, cold, and bleak. I missed the warmth and vitality and fun of my college town. I did get into a routine, but it looked something like this:

wake up very early (usually from nightmares about failing to sufficiently prepare for classes), go to work, ride the bus home with a killer headache, unwittingly fall asleep, and wake up as the sky turned black and it was time to think about the next day’s lessons.

November was one problem and annoyance after another in realms of: health, relationships, work, transportation, social life…

It was hard not to think: am I wasting my time? struggling to learn Spanish and going on solitary runs in the cold. Trying to make the bus thing work. Trying to make the bike thing work. Trying to make the work thing work, with less support than I’m due. Scrabbling for entertainment in a tiny town. Where was the big group of expat friends, the cultural events, the hole-in-the-wall restaurants with incredible food?

I spent Thanksgiving with Mary, eating pizza in the cité médiévale and feeling less than thankful. Optimism is all well and good, but sometimes you’ve gotta vent.

How easy it would have been to misrepresent the day. A picture of me and a glass of wine, captioned Thanksgiving 2016 in France: best Thanksgiving ever! But it wasn’t. What it was: the culmination of a month of feeling maddeningly frustrated, of trying to adapt to a lifestyle that can feel so stagnant, a month of trying to find friends and fun in a place where the over-18 and under-35 demographic is pretty lacking.

By the next day, I was beginning to feel a sort of begrudging thankfulness. I wrote:

…ultimately, though, I am thankful, that this year isn’t easy. It’s many things, at times very lovely, but not easy. So I will learn resilience (even when I’d rather not). I’m thankful for all this time: to figure things out, grow up, get in shape (even though I’d prefer to be busier). I’m thankful for a wonderful roommate and friend who understands the necessary balance between venting and staying positive. I’m thankful for the kids I get to teach, friends and family near and far, the chance to write about my adventures, and most of all, a God who provides.

pizza

It’s all true. Gain resilience? Patience? If given the choice, I’d rather just be happy. It’s natural to choose pleasure over pain. But growth and maturity don’t come cheap. That’s something I think about during the struggles: if I keep making good choices and fighting through it, what kind of person could I be at the end of this? I want to find out. A day (or week) (or month) that doesn’t go as planned doesn’t have to crush me.

And for better or worse, problems give me something to write about. I’m not someone who pretends that life in France is all rosé. I want to create an honest account of my time here, neither ignoring the bad times nor wallowing in them.

Mary says she thinks that in travel and in living abroad, the highs are higher and the lows are lower. I agree. It sounds really romantic to live somewhere new, but it’s still going to be real life, wherever you are. Real life in Italy. Real life in France. Real life is hard sometimes.

And here’s a real life lesson I’m learning: dreams are not always dreamy. You don’t always want them. It was my dream to live here. My dream to speak French fluently, my dream to become bilingual. To travel alone, to learn to teach, to become independent and solve my own problems.

It still is, as I sometimes have to remind myself.

 

 

in which I ‘faire des bêtises’

It’s weird to put myself in a new category: teacher, the mysterious breed that one is always shocked to see in a public place.

Recently I spent the whole day in town, working on lessons and then meeting Mary for dinner and drinks. I had my laptop and a stack of books, my hair in a bun. I glimpsed my reflection on the way into a popular bar, whining: “I look like a teacher.”

“You are a teacher,” Mary reminded me.

Oh, right. I’m now the kind of person who watches Blue’s Clues-wannabe videos: a jolly thirty-something man singing “this is my favorite pumpkin” in an attempt to teach autumn vocabulary.

But I’m rolling my eyes. And that’s the secret. Teachers have lives. We may be writing lesson plans, but we are also making Korean bibimbap and dancing around the kitchen to the Ying Yang Twins.

I think I have successfully maintained a professional image in the classroom. Out of it, though? If they only knew…

Faire des bêtises is a French phrase I enjoy. It’s a more charming way to express you’ve done something stupid. It also describes my morning.

It was my first day back after les vacances scolaires. I had stayed up late the night before, watching more pumpkin videos and planning drawing activities for the younger students; writing practice dialogues for the older ones. I woke up very early this morning, after four alarms that incorporated themselves into my dreams (which quickly turned to nightmares). I double-checked that everything was ready to go: lesson elements organized with time estimates and saved to a flash drive in appropriate file formats. I left no time for morning rituals like drinking water or using the bathroom. I chucked a mini pumpkin in my purse as a last-minute prop and hoped for the best, setting off in the freezing fog for the brisk 1.5km power walk to school. Physically, of course, I felt like actual death, but I was prepared.

I neared the school just before starting time, expecting to greet dozens of students streaming inside. But there was no one.

Lights off. Doors locked. I had a horrible feeling I had missed something…like the date school started again. November 3rd. It would help if I had looked at a calendar once in the past two weeks. The early bird gets the…headache from lack of sleep?

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Me: tired, amused, relieved

Back home to pajamas and tea.

Later, I ventured out to get groceries, always a complicated undertaking. (It’s at these times I most miss my car). On my way back, I was starving. You don’t see people walking down the street eating, here, and though I usually try to observe social decorum, I just went for it, rifling in one of my bags for a covert (and generous) handful of moutarde chips. It was at that moment the heel of my boot slipped and I flailed with all the groceries, my five-ten frame dangerously nearing the frozen ground, the handful of chips so close to my face I could smell the spices, now crushed to little pieces in my palm.

I had to laugh at how it must have looked. In case anyone was wondering, I am not a French woman.