stranger things: the hitchhiker’s guide to the auvergne

It’s a dreary early-spring day in the Auvergne region in France. At some unknown stretch along the highway, I sit at a rest-stop cafeteria table eating bad baguette sandwiches with two strangers.

We sit and chew hard bread and wilted lettuce in companionable quiet. Cold rain splats against the windows and I shiver in my damp jacket and jeans.

I have no idea where we are. I wonder what I would do in the event of separation: just me and my purse and my portable that is dead.

But I am unaffected. I am bold.

(Really, I’m desperate).

I’m a BlaBlaCar rider.

Much like raw milk cheese, BlaBlaCar is a French invention unlikely to appear in the United States. Less delicious than Mont d’Or but certainly more practical, BlaBlaCar is a service that connects riders with drivers in a searchable and safe incarnation of hitchhiking. BlaBlaCar meets a real need as a cost-effective way to travel long distances, say one to ten hours of routemont-dor

The website and app are available for free. Drivers set the price per journey, which includes one seat in the vehicle, and BlaBlaCar takes about a 12% cut. BlaBlaCar now has a presence in 18 countries, but the US is not one of them. As a Business Insider article explains, BlaBlaCar’s effectiveness depends upon a strong public transport infrastructure, making it a brilliant fit for France and Germany, while hypothetically leaving American users stranded.

Unlike Uber, which has exploded in American cities, BlaBlaCar doesn’t work like a taxi service. Drivers input their routes, say, from Paris to Lyon, and mark four or five stops they could make along the way. Rarely do they stray from meeting points, which could include a major train station in each city they pass through. Users can take a bus, tram, or metro to meet the driver and then to hop to their final destination.

This wouldn’t work well in the US, where the meeting point could be miles away from where you are; the drop-off point miles from where you want to be.

Living, as I do at the time, in a quiet corner of the already-quiet center of France, I use BlaBlaCar to fill the gaps in train schedules. Montluçon is already under-serviced in terms of transportation, and I’ve watched resentfully over the year as routes to and from major cities have simultaneously decreased in availability and risen in price.

Today, I’m using BlaBlaCar to get home from Lyon. The rest-stop sandwiches mark the halfway point.

In the morning, I sent my mom to the airport and headed with my bags to the Croix-Rousse. Traditionally the silk workers’ neighborhood, it offers a nice view of the rest of the city–or it does when it’s not pouring buckets. After several metro changes, my wet hair plastered to my face, I drag my suitcases into an old-fashioned belle-époque café where everyone knows each other, even the dogs in their raincoats, and the day’s newspaper is thrown around with cheerful abandon.

Cyril, who I know by first name and through a few staticky phone conversations, told me to meet him around the mairie of the 6 arrondissement. A BlaBlaCar truth: he who possesses the vehicle shall make the rules. Instead of meeting him at the Part-Dieu, Lyon’s major train station which is conveniently located just down the street from my hotel, I lug my bags through metro stations, across a halfhearted market, and up a hill. There it is, the city hall: I think. I inhale a couple of cappuccinos and try to warm up.

Cyril is late. He calls me every twenty minutes with updates–something about a bouchon. Finally, he arrives, driving a sinister and decidedly un-French white van. He is thirtyish with a lumberjack beard and cold-weather gear. He helps me with my bags. From the outside, it seems I’ll have plenty of room to stretch out and sleep during the trip. But when Cyril opens the door, I see that there are only three seats in the cab. As the latest addition to the van of strangers, I am relegated to the middle, feet necessarily perched on the raised platform, knees practically to my nose.

Cyril’s van and his route are highly in-demand. As we drive, Cyril makes and answers phone calls and negotiates exact pick-up times with other riders. We let a girl out in a Flunch restaurant parking lot and pick up one guy on the side of a highway.

I am still in the middle feeling like an oversized child, but I am just glad to be going home and saving fifty euros doing it. I don’t exactly have money to burn. Today’s ride was a third of the cost of the only train that would get me from Lyon to Montluçon.

Road trips are good for thinking. One thing I think about: I am not used to depending on strangers. That’s what I think, anyway, before I realize that is a totally false impression cultivated from an American sense of possibility and individualism. I am not used to depending on strangers–overtly. Really, other people make my coffee and grow my tomatoes and fix my car, yet I still maintain a sense of independence that has been stripped away while I live in France. I become very quickly aware of how often my well-being depends on the kindness of a bus driver or waiter, a random dog walker or fellow diner. And when it comes to travel, I now depend on this updated, tech-based version of hitchhiking.

I’ve ridden with Cyril, Dominic, Valérie, Fred, Karim, Arthur…sometimes Mary and I ride together and we talk about our plans as if these people are our friends. Wanna stop for espresso? Dominic’s running late. The fact that we know them only by first name points to the strange intimacy of road tripping with strangers.

Do you sit in the front or the back? Should you sleep or maintain polite conversation? How likely is it that you and your conducteur will be belting out show tunes and exchanging emails by the end of the ride?

The answer to these questions is not évident. An easy way to start a conversation is by asking about the driver’s motivation. Sometimes it’s simply money; a way to help them justify the expense of weekend trips to see a boyfriend. Sometimes it’s company, a way to spice up an eight-hour drive.

Company comes at a cost: it’s both good and awkward. There’s a strange self-consciousness that comes from the fact that the rider and driver will be publicly rating and reviewing each other after the trip. Sometimes when I scatter croissant crumbs on the seat or fail to really engage with the driver, I scramble to atone for what could be perceived as poor company. No one wants to lose at this game of Rent-a-Friend. BlaBlaCar feels a lot more personal than Uber and other comparable services.

As such, BlaBlaCar does its small part to prepare users for possible personality differences. When users create a profile, they are urged to designate their preferred level of chatter: from Bla to BlaBlaBla, or, it might be stated, the likelihood that you will annoy the person sitting next to you.

Your rating on the website could prove important: drivers can reject ride requests, and some days there might be but a single BlaBlaCar leaving from your location. There’s a small element of personal marketing when you’re competing against others for transportation rights.

Ooh, he’s cute. Mary and I discuss potential drivers (which fully illustrates the lack of thrilling activities available in our town. We joke that we’ve become really boring). Why did they reject me?!” Personal.

I wonder how often two people have met and fallen in love over the course of a BlaBlaCar ride share. It would make a lot of sense, I think. People have clicked for less than similar music tastes.

I certainly did not find love. I did, however, find a not-so-secret admirer, a good fifteen years my senior, who wrote me a review on the site. In it, he praised our belle and enrichissante conversation. I was a person both interesting and sympathique (to borrow the French syntax). And he wanted to get dinner sometime.

When I saw it, I snorted. Beautiful and enriching? He must’ve been talking about the sound of my snoring. The car was crammed with four twenty-something girls, and, sitting in the back, I could barely hear his eager questions. He tried to make eye contact in the mirror, not paying as much attention to the road as I would prefer, so I decided to feign sleep until Lyon. Still, and much to the annoyance of the very-awake Mary beside me, he wasn’t deterred. Is Jessica cold? Does she mind if I smoke? Does she have enough room back there? 

She’s asleep, came the flat response.

You won’t always click with your BlaBlaCar driver. You probably won’t find love.

But for the frequent, tired traveller, the service offers an element of humanity unmatched by the TGV. With a ride-share, you will not be spit out on the train tracks in an unknown city. You will have a chance to hear someone’s story, learn about a new region, get advice and restaurant recommendations. Unless they would rather shut up and drive. And that works too.

In a time when technology has the troublesome side effect of isolating humans into tiny virtual worlds of our own creation, I am cheered by this opportunity to, quite simply, talk to strangers. It meets a real transportation need, and a subtler need too: the need to connect with people. As a lonely American transplant, I appreciated these miscellaneous encounters.

Sometimes they were awkward or embarrassing. They were boring, or else really pleasant. They were human.

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put that in your book

That’s going in my memoir. 

When I feel I’m playing a starring role in an indie comedy about someone with terrible luck, I do two things. First, I try to laugh at myself. If that fails, I remember something Mary told me, Nora Ephron’s philosophy: everything is copy.

No experience is wasted if it becomes material.

Combining the coping tactics of humor and inspiration, I developed a new joke over the year. My life in France. Take the frustrating daily dose of inconvenience and make it into a catchy or ridiculous title, stick My life in France on the end.

Voilà. My memoir.

We found it hilarious, this clash between typical starry-eyed French memoirs about the lavender fields of Provence or the patisseries of Paris and the titles of our imaginary exposés. If something annoying or pathetic happened to me, I couldn’t wait to tell Mary. Suddenly it was worth it just for that little bit of comic relief. me-scarf mary-chateau

When you put some of these “titles” together, it creates a pretty fair idea of the average daily experience. So, without further adieu.

Peeing in the Dark: My Life in France

Crying on a Train: My Life in France

Snails in the Salad: My Life in France

Backpack Full of Cheese: My Life in France

Soggy Baguette: My Life in France

Closed on Sundays: My Life in France

Encore du Vin? My Life in France

Singing in the Car with a Turkish Man: My Life in France

Uphill Both Ways in the Rain: My Life in France

Blisters & Bruises, or, My Ruined Feet: My Life in France

30 Uses for an Eggplant: My Life in France

Listen, We Have to Stop Buying Artisanal Jams: My Life in France

We Missed the Bus: My Life in France

Beans on Toast: My Life in France

I Accidentally Walked 17 Miles: My Life in France

Why Did I Buy Hair Perfume? My Life in France

Do You Really Need a Tutu? My Life in France

Accidentally Drunk at Lunch: My Life in France

Do You Know the Queen of England? And Other Questions I’m Asked: My Life in France

The Honey Cake And Other Regrettable Homemade Desserts: My Life in France

Bags of Vegetables on My Handlebars: My Life in France

war & peace & confetti

My shoes were full of confetti. My purse was full of confetti. My bra was full of confetti.

My heart was simply full.

It was April, my second-to-last week teaching primary school English classes. Early that morning, I had sat waiting for my ride to school, dressed professionally but staring blearily at my hot lemon water, willing myself to wake up.

Bleep. A text from my ride, one of the teachers I work with. “Did you know that today’s le carnaval?”

First reaction: I don’t have to teach today!?

Second reaction: what is le carnaval?

She continued: “I’m worried you’ll be bored.”

Far from it. When I arrived at school I saw clowns, princesses, and ladybugs. Cats, ducks, pirates complete with eyeliner mustaches. A tiny boy from the youngest class wore a Spiderman suit, muscles included. As he walked he beat his fists on his artificial pecs.

I sat at the desks with my fifth-grade class, English class disrupted for the day, as the full-time teacher handed out bags of confetti. I was the only one not wearing a costume, much to the class’s dismay. “Sorry guys, I didn’t know!”

“Eh ben,” one of my sweet students said. “T’es déguisée comme prof d’anglais !” (You’re disguised as an English teacher!)

After a quick ten-minute French lesson about language registers (I won’t lie, I took some notes myself), class was dismissed. The kids started whispering, making plans. “Jessica, will you help us ambush le maître?”

Uh, sure. I didn’t know quite what this entailed, but they laughed wildly. It wasn’t until later that I heard the term bataille de confettis.

Confetti war. Okay, I could get down with that.

We lined up the kids outside, un petit défilé, a parade march into a nearby park. There were fountains, evergreens, and bright pink magnolia trees. Hidden around a few turns five minutes from the school, I’d never seen this park before.

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I followed the teachers, some dressed like clowns or birds or pirates, all of us trying to keep wayward little costumed people in line.

We stopped at a square where a Thursday morning market was taking place and crowded around a large, colorful character on a float. She was called Carmentrau, I found out later, the official personnage of the festival. img_1471

A group of cool-looking guys in blazers and jeans played dance-worthy tunes in a brass quintet. The kids buzzed with excitement.

If there was an official directive to start throwing confetti, I missed it, but after my first face-full, the battle was on.

Students approached me slowly, with a gleam in their eye, as if I had any doubt that they were about to shower me in colored paper. I’m not a natural confetti warrior, I must confess. When I sensed an attack was imminent, I tended to shout oh lala ! which just gave me a mouthful of paper.

It wasn’t just children, either.

Le maître of fifth grade, who bears a resemblance to Dennis Quaid with his handsome paternal charm, who rides to school on his motorcycle and who commands respect from his class without ever raising his voice, grinned as he tossed handfuls of confetti into the air…or into the faces of students, colleagues, and passersby alike.

After a while, the band lined up kids to start another parade. They marched around the market three or four times, following the joyful flatulence of the tuba. img_1470

They marched around the farm eggs and the herbs in pots, the flowers and the salmon packed on ice. Mostly around. One child stepped–splaton a tomato plant ripe with fruit.

Kids–or monkeys, witches, and Batmen–starting scooping up fallen confetti, and with it, handfuls of gravel. That was about the time we headed back, just in time for recess.

I still had no idea what this festival was, so I went to chat with the directeur, who told me that this school event marked the beginning of the Bœuf Villé, Montluçon’s version of le carnaval that takes place all over France in late winter. Le Bœuf Villé isn’t just a small-town interpretation of the famous Niçoise fête, though. It’s actually unique to Montluçon.

Bœuf Villé takes place at the end of Lent, instead of before it. The name of the central character, Carmentrau, is a patois of the words carême (Lent) and entrant, so that she represents winter and the entering into Fast. The goal of this festival is to chasser l’hiver, faire renaître le printemps: to chase away winter and to welcome the rebirth of spring.

We hunt winter by hunting the poor Carmentrau, who is “caught” by the children on Wednesday, paraded around the town for several days, and finally burnt at a ritual crémation by characters who represent life. Her ashes are then sprinkled in the Cher river. img_0957

I was puzzled by the bœuf connection until I learned that the end of Lent was traditionally celebrated by eating a big meal featuring beef, a food prohibited during the fast. Montluçonnais today, then, celebrate the return of spring with a community meal of the no longer “forbidden” food.

Interestingly, the word carnaval is itself connected to meat. Since cows would be killed as a sacrifice to mark the end of Lent, carne comes from the Latin caro meaning “flesh” or “meat,” and carnaval, then, means “to God the meat.”

I went home for lunch, shaking confetti out of my hair, my scarf, my oxfords. I felt cheered by the music, the laughter, the joyful silliness of the morning, all of it unexpected.

Later in the week I would see the culmination of the Bœuf Villé, this crémation of Carmentrau, at a city-wide festival where I saw dozens of my students.

It was a beautiful day to wish winter away as we stood under la sourire du soleil (the smile of the sun) and watched Carmentrau burn. img_1473img_1472 img_1474

Goodbye to winter, to Montluçon, to these students who are dear to me, to a strange, dark, cloudy season that gave me occasional glimpses of great joy.

 

kids’ stuff/next steps

I have five more weeks of teaching left, and it feels…manageable. Like successful organization might be possible.

I really enjoyed teaching this week; the time away made me feel like myself again, energy and optimism available in large quantities. It was a week where things got done. We talked about pets, we talked about objects in the house, clothing, new grammar. I was impressed by many of the students’ good memories even after the break, particularly one class that rattled off Robinson Crusoe vocabulary from weeks before. Parrot, gun, saw, axe, island, canoe! 

Color me impressionnée. 

I still get such a kick out of their faux-sophistication, the way they rattle off French phrases and verb tenses that took me years of study as an adult to master. The way a class of baby-faced 7 year olds clad in sweatsuits chide each other for not paying attention. Eyes rolling to the ceiling, that French sigh: pffftCan you believe this guy? He’s not even listening. 

At this age, it’s still cool to do what you’re told, to make the teacher happy, which is a relief for me. I make them laugh; they make me laugh, genuinely. It reminds me sometimes of my job this summer, where I watched a sweet “four and a half” year old and his baby sister. Not only was I getting paid, but I genuinely enjoyed hanging out with these small people. Their delight at a frog or a feather, their un-self-concious laughter and dancing. It reminds you what it is to be human.

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It’s the same at school. Almost never do the kids bum me out, on the contrary, they’re what I love about this job. They’re so cute, with huge personalities and creativity and curiosity in spades. I jive well with that.

We have fun together, like in our games of mime where I show them a flashcard of animal words we’ve been learning and they act it out for the class. This week, the enthusiasm was off the charts. They good-naturedly hopped across the room like a rabbit or dropped to  the ground, much to my surprise–you really don’t have to do that!–to wriggle across the floor like a snake.

They clearly don’t mind looking silly, which is an absolutely essential part of learning a language. It saves so much time. For example, French kids don’t tend to hear a difference between angry and hungry or teacher and tee-shirt.

Everyone say ‘shhhh.’ Now everyone say ‘ch- ch- ch-.’ We go back and forth for awhile. Teee-chur. Teeee-shhhhirt. And they get it.

There are so many little moments, little epiphanies: Jessica! ‘Turtle’ is like ‘tortue’ but backwards! It’s the same word!

I am summoned whenever there are questions or comments about other languages or places. I might be going to les États-Unis this summer, Jessica! Maybe I’ll see you there! 

Did you know my mamie lives in Spain? 

Is it hot in England? Do kids study French over there? 

At recess, I am offered a piece of homemade birthday cake by a grinning little girl (8 today!) waiting for a few teeth to grow in.

Two little boys come up to me as I’m reading a Margaret Atwood collection. On the front is a drawing of a crow. What’s that about? I’m pretty sure we have that book at my house. Oh really? I try not to laugh. Wow, she’s old! When they see the author photo.

I am asked to translate their little sweatshirts and backpacks adorned with inexplicable English phrases. Smile cat love! Always energy dream! 

 And so. It’s the stress, the planning, and the inconvenience of life here that occasionally get me down, but almost never the kids.

I wouldn’t do this job forever, but one more year? I think so. So, I’ve applied for a contract renewal for next year in a new académie in a new region.

As I’ve said before, this experience is not easy but it’s worthwhile; I haven’t regretted it once. I’ve complained, anguished, and stressed, and here I am, signing up to do it again. So that tells you something.

I also got into a French graduate program at Middlebury College that comprises a summer at the Vermont campus and a full year at the Sorbonne in Paris. This program interests me because it’s really intense, like a serious bootcamp for the language skills, and it would allow me to study things I’m really interested in (French culture, linguistics, instead of medieval lit, for example). Besides the skills boost, I would finish the year with a Masters in French. Is this private college and this degree worth the high price tag? I’m not sure yet. I’ve yet to figure out what I want to “do with my life,” but one idea is French-English translation. I want something exciting, challenging, useful, and conducive to traveling. If I want to be competitive in this realm, my French will need a serious upgrade, something I would get with this program.

For awhile I was stuck between the two options, but pragmatic Mary forced me to send a bunch of emails and I think I have my answer. I feel good about it, anyway. While Middlebury doesn’t offer an official deferment option, they will keep all my application information for two years. So, should I decide to go for the Masters next year, it seems I will basically be all set. In the meantime, I can research scholarships. That way, I don’t have to pay a hefty deposit (due this week!) for something I’m not totally sure about.

For now, I’m excited to hear back about next year: who knows where I’ll be then?

le retour

I wasn’t expecting my first week back from Christmas vacation to be filled with joie. 

Le retour is always difficult, and here there were two: the return from vacation, back to life in small-town France, and the return to teaching.

My first day back didn’t deserve to go so well. I’ve been there before. This time, though, I made the opposite mistake. Instead of turning up a day early, staring into an empty school like a lost freshman on the first day, I almost…didn’t show up at all.

I had planned for Wednesday. Wednesday I could do. It was Monday. I deep-cleaned my room, organized the kitchen, went on an epic grocery expedition, did my laundry. I eschewed nothing but lesson plans, which were to be Tuesday’s focus.

Another morning to sleep in, tranquille. And then I heard a voice from the next room. Mary said slowly, “I think we work tomorrow. Let me show you why I think that.” She had seen something online.

My heart dropped to my toes. I was ready to protest, but instead I rifled through my things with a manic energy for the deceptively casual paper I had again forgotten to consult: my work schedule for the year.

Retour : mardi le 3 janvier. 

Tomorrow. What a nice start to the new year that would have been: unintentionally playing hooky.

My neat, comfortable little plans flew out the window. The stress I felt doubled, which, unfortunately, had no affect on my productivity. What would I teach these children, all 250 of them? What could I plan with no plan? It was going to be ugly.

I procrastinated most of the day, did the faintest bit of preparation, and found myself at 10 pm before an early morning waiting for my glossy manicure to dry as I watched a Patrick Swayze movie.

I walked into school the next morning like a prisoner to the gallows.

My mood was lifted, though, as one teacher after another came up to me and wished me a bonne année. These wishes were surprisingly warm, not a throwaway “happy new year” but rather a list of meilleurs vœux: good health and good luck and a bon séjour in France, all delivered with a genuine smile. I was offered various pâtisserie and asked in detail about how I spent the holidays.

And then to class, the first of seven that day. After a ten-minute rocky start in which I wondered if I had completely forgotten how to teach, I got my groove back and managed to keep it up with every class: from the wriggling six-year-olds to the super-competitive fourth-graders.

Teaching feels to me like an athletic event. It reminds me of when I played tennis in high school. During long, tough matches, I would often manage to get in “the zone,” running after every surprise drop shot with energy I didn’t know I had. Sweat was running down my face but I just cared about the next point.

Teaching is like that. I may be exhausted, with the beginnings of a killer headache throbbing at my temples, but I stand up to start a new lesson and all of that slides away. When I get home I may crash, but in the moment I’m too busy solving the dozens of little conflicts that arise when working with children to think about myself for one second.

It’s kind of invigorating.

I was worried that two weeks away from the job would undo some of the progress I’d made, but it turned out to be a perfect refresh. The lessons, as a whole, went more smoothly than ever before, and I realized I’d really missed those French baby faces.

It’s kind of a relief to have a good start to the year. January to me usually feels like November Part II: the chill of winter without Christmas lights or anticipation. January is malaise, ennui, and other bleak French words. January is a good month for a crisis: existential or quarter-life, take your pick.

This week I saw a cartoon by an illustrator I like, Gemma Correll. She’s jokingly designed a paint palette for January, shades that range from gray to black with names like “Forgotten Joy,” “Frozen Puddle,” and “Broken Light Therapy Box.”

That’s how I might describe the “light” outside my window most days this week here in Montluçon, and most years, how I would describe my hibernal attitude.

But this year is different. It feels good to be working instead of pacing around the house and eating butter cookies on the too-long college break (though I do miss morning coffee and crosswords with my parents).