magic in the details: on noticing

When I think about leaving the Côte d’Azur (which by necessity will happen in about a month), every moment on a sun-soaked stretch of beach feels precious.

Something that interests and disappoints me is how easy it is to become accustomed to beauty. It’s hard to hold on to the wonder. Sometimes it’s only scarcity or the acknowledgement that you will soon lose something that rescues you from disillusionment or boredom.

I have never before lived somewhere that is–to my personal aesthetic sensibilities–so beautiful. The impossible blue of the sea plus the wild stubborn plants, the buildings in colors plucked from a box of Crayolas. Color and sun plus everything I appreciate about my adopted country.

I have to take pictures, though, because the pink sunsets and crashing waves and piles of houses start to feel just like any background. Somehow seeing these things in a tiny digital square makes them digestible, something I own a little piece of. Otherwise I am helpless in their bigness. acs_0300I am trying to recapture the wonder of my surroundings and the simple joy that comes from successfully having built a life somewhere new– while I’m still living it. The countdown is on, so sometimes I stop and actively consider what’s around me, activate my senses like in a beginning writer’s exercise. It’s not that everything is flawless or beautiful–I’ll be the last to sell you a guidebook impression–but it’s mine. I am in love with the details. acs_0293Notes from an average day:

What I smell: cigarette smoke, coffee, hints of fine perfume, the unmistakeable odor of a gooey cheese, salty breezes, French fries

What I hear: the mosquito whine of motorbikes, the musical chaos of layers of foreign languages, the industrial clacking of a train on the tracks

What I see: the aquamarine Mediterranean sea, sparkling across the street from my balcony. Craggy mountains. Ramshackle buildings in candy colors. The occasional island decorated with sage-colored olive trees. The bright white yachts in the port. Signs that point me to Italy, Marseille, or “the beautiful place on the sea.” Stooped old men clutching newspapers. Market shoppers carrying crates of clementines or bunches of yellow mimosa.

What I feel: freezing breezes off the sea, sand in my sneakers, sleep-inducing sunshine through my classroom window

What I taste: bitter coffee, the tart Prosecco they serve in bowls at Salsamenteria, the rich cream of a tarte tropézienne, that longed-for first bite of a croissant from the boulangerie down the street, endless cups of hot tea at night


Today, Easter, after a lovely last-minute picnic on the beach, I took a train to Villefranche-sur-Mer on a whim. Villefranche is tiny, a colorful strip that curves around a bay dotted with sailboats. If I was trying to do the guidebook thing, I would tell you that Villefranche dates to 1295, houses one of the deepest natural harbors on the Mediterranean, and contains the belle-époque mansion where The Rollings Stones recorded Exile on Main St in 1972.  acs_0303But, fueled by Alain de Botton’s The Art of Travel (more specifics on that soon), I’m trying to get away from that line of thinking. Botton’s theory? Guidebooks kill curiosity. They expect a person to (and I’ll adapt his analogy to Villefranche) maintain curiosity and interest for: 13th century history, marine and naval information, American rock music, the work of Jean Cocteau, 1750’s Italian baroque-style architecture, the Napoleonic empire, and the modern tourism industry. acs_0312Guidebooks tell you what you should care about, what is supposedly important. Botton urges the traveler to listen to his own curiosity. The layout of a street, the color of a house, a mealtime custom…any of these might invite wonder.

The point is, who is actually enriched by crossing items off a list? Travel isn’t about changing pace at great speed. It’s not about how many museum doors you manage to swing through.

I am trying harder to just be. (There’s a koan in there somewhere.) Trying to notice, listen, wonder. Though I like museums, churches, ancient citadels, I feel no obligation to go inside. img_1386This afternoon in Villefranche, I didn’t step foot in a building. Mostly I just listened to the rattle of the sailboats in the wind, counted plant varieties, and followed the sunshine. I climbed above the town and admired how the boats suddenly looked just like toys. I wondered why the water always seems bluer here, and considered how it is that dainty flowers can break out from rock walls. I badly wanted to order an aperol spritz (admittedly just for the way the tangerine-colored drink would look next to the water), but decided it was a bit chilly to sit outside. I watched tourists, and wondered about how and why people got here. I admired the way the train tracks shot into  a tunnel in the rock. And I realized one reason I love the coast: it’s like a cartography close-up. The lines and curves on the map make sense when you see coastline from up high. Maps now intimidate me less.

Shivering in the shadows, I hopped back on the train and went home. Nothing special.

On second thought, maybe it was.

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going somewhere soon

Hi, I’m Jessica. I will be going somewhere soon.

That sentence lacks a certain…well, it lacks a lot.

My plan was to have my teaching contract in hand two months ago. I’d have a flight, a place to stay, and an idea of what my life will be like over the next year. As it is now, I have none of these things. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned for sure in this past year of travel, it’s that rarely do things go according to plan.

What I do have: the conviction that I will move back to France in less than two months (it will be somewhere near Nice. How near has not been determined). A job (though if the documentation for this job yet exists, I haven’t seen it). Heaps of newly-acquired language, teaching, and life experience that keep me from being a nervous wreck.

I am a recent graduate of the University of Missouri and hold bachelor’s degrees in English, French, and Linguistics. An eager francophile and language learner, I went abroad last fall as a language assistant with the Teaching Assistant Program In France. TAPIF is “a joint initiative of the French Ministry of Education, the Centre international d’études pédagogiques (CIEP) and the Cultural Services of the French Embassy. The program’s goal is to strengthen English-language instruction in French schools by establishing a native speaker presence, while also providing American Francophiles with excellent teaching experience and first-hand knowledge of French language and culture.”

My experience, from teaching to surviving in a lonely town in the Auvergne, was hard, weird, and frustrating.

And when the time came to figure out my next move, I sat down and thought about it and decided to do it again.

 

 

I like a challenge. If nothing in my life scares me, it’s time to do something else. So while I’ve been enjoying the summer in my Midwestern town, working a myriad of jobs and writing about the past and present, I am eager for the next scary, uncomfortable thing.

This summer has been marked by midnight career path epiphanies and long phone conversations with my mom and good friends. A summer Bible study for twenty-somethings really helped me cut down the stress, refocus on my priorities, and find friends to share the struggles with.

Peace Corps? Publishing? I don’t know. After a lot of thought and prayer, one thing became especially clear: I want to travel and I want to write about it.

Follow along as I do just that.

One of my biggest writing values is honesty. I strive to tell the truth, even and especially when it’s unflattering or disappointing (See “Humble Pie in Lemon Land“). That way, there’s more to learn from and laugh about. There are lots of great blogs full of information about particular places: restaurants, travel advice, what have you. Though I have my own particular niche (France, language, teaching), my focus is stories. I thrive on serendipitous encounters and the beauty of cultural exchange.

I am on a mission to fight idealistic travel writing tendencies: I went through my waxing poetic about Paris phase and I vow never to return. If you see the words “hidden gem,” “breathtaking,” or “friendly locals” in my posts, please feel free to slap me.

Welcome to Round 2. Will I successfully integrate into francophone community? Will I learn to surf? Will my pedestrian luck avoiding mopeds finally run out?

Your guess is as good as mine.

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.

 

humble pie in lemon land

Scene: late February. A sunny day in the South of France. A garden blocked from outside view by tall barriers and security guards. Hordes of elderly people wielding cameras and smartphones crest the hill. It’s a viewing platform, actually, all the better to gaze at a lion made from citrus fruits. img_8923-1

“Circle of Life” plays faintly in the background and a breeze carries the delicate scent of oranges.

Mom and I both are younger than the majority of the crowd by a good twenty-five years. I am not, in the view of the retired French people passing me as I pose for a picture in front of a house made of oranges, dressed for the weather. It’s a bright 63 degree day, but apparently still too early in the year to show one’s shoulders. They mutter about how I must be freezing, how “the poor girl needs a coat.”

How did we end up here?

When I realized several months ago that I was going to get to take my mom on a tour de France of sorts, I was a bit overwhelmed and then excited by the possibilities.

France was our oyster. I wanted to show Mom where I’ve been living in the Auvergne, but transportation to and from the area isn’t very manageable. Eventually I counted it out, promising to take lots of pictures instead.

Scouring the internet for some lesser-known French treasure, preferencing somewhere with sun, I saw a large sculpture of an elephant, made from oranges. Different. I followed a few links and learned that the image was taken at la Fête du Citron in Menton, France.

A lemon festival in a small town on the French Riviera.

Sounds kind of cool, right?

I pictured a charming, authentically-French community, colorful and lively. Markets and gardens. The churning Mediterranean sea. All enhanced by a quirky small-town lemon-scented festival.

To be fair, it was all of these things. But.

As soon as we saw the heart of the festival: a rectangular garden filled with revolving citrus sculptures underscored by tinny Broadway music, I wondered if I had made a terrible mistake.

Scenes flashed through my head. The many times, recently, I had told a French friend or colleague: “yeah, I’m really excited for les vacances. My mom’s coming, all the way from the United States. We’re going to Menton, in the Côte d’Azur. “For,” I had said, and here was the kicker, “la Fête du Citron.”

Currently, or so I had told many people, my raison d’être was a garden of Broadway paraphernalia. img_0767

I was staring at a big slice of humble pie. Lemon-flavored. Naturally.

Mom and I were in hysterics. The horror dawned. We stared as a cheery Mary Poppins revolved on her platform.

Mom. I could hardly get the words out, gasping with sheepish laughter. I told people we were coming here. Just for this. 

So it hadn’t been just in my imagination. When we met the neighbor who let us into our Airbnb in the Vieux Menton, he expressed surprise that we were American. That my mom, who doesn’t speak any French (yet!), had found herself in such an out-of-the-way place.

Yeah, we’re here for the Fête du Citron, I had said breezily. As if, yeah, c’est normal, it’s every day that someone flies thousands of miles to look at a tribute to Singin’ in the Rain.

I burned with embarrassment now, remembering, comparing my ideas with what I was seeing now. I had the strange feeling of having aged too quickly (try fifty years) in a day.

“Wow, Jess,” Mom said, sarcasm on full tilt, a faux-dreamy look in her eyes. “It’s everything I dreamed it would be.”

“Yeah, well,” I said, snickering. “Yeah, well. It’s worse for you, Mom. At least I live here. You flew over from the middle of the United States to come to this.”

I took some pictures and realized that if I aimed away from the army of French tourists pointing cameraphones, the photos would come out pretty cool. I like pretty pictures. But then I realized I was obligated to write about it. Tell the truth. Or else a friend might see one of the photos, be spurred to action like I had been. They might never forgive me, or at the very least, question my taste. And see, I value my friendships.

Later, on a train, I heard some older ladies chatting and translated for Mom: “the festival was especially good this year.”

 

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?