shades of blue: falling for gorges du verdon

img_3111

A stranger in the kitchen. That was my first impression of Rémi. I didn’t know how to politely phrase the question ‘who are you and what are you doing here,’ so I assumed he was related to my AirBnb hosts, a cousin or something. We had a whole conversation before I realized he was just a guest like me. In Cannes for a week from Bordeaux, he would complete a weeklong stage for his new job, the training period required before he begins in January and moves here for the year.

Both in our early twenties and new in town, we struck up an easy rapport, making our respective dinners at the same time and walking around Cannes together. In the middle of the week was le Toussaint–all Saint’s Day–and Rémi had the day off. He asked if I wanted to go somewhere.

Yes.

I thought of places Erika and I had visited that he might like. “No,” he said, “let’s go somewhere new for you too!”

Kind soul. I thought out loud about where we could go by train.

“I have a car!” He laughed.

La classe! Clearly I had been “roughing it” for too long. En voiture, the possibilities were endless.

We met early the next morning. Rémi hooked up the GPS, while I sat in the passenger seat thumbing through a Lonely Planet guide for Provence-Alpes-Côte-d’Azur.

I fell on a page about the Gorges du Verdon: “Europe’s Grand Canyon.”

“Have you heard of this?” I read him the description, then typed the address into my phone. It was only thirty miles away, but the drive we’d need to make, winding around mountain roads, was predicted to take over two hours.

“Is that okay? What do you think…” I really wanted to go, enchanted by those turquoise waters, but I tried to hide it. If he didn’t want to, I understood. It would be a lot of driving time for a last-minute day trip, and we wouldn’t be able to trade off. (I thought of my one disastrous manual driving lesson the year before).

Rémi responded with that most French expression of enthusiasm: a shrug. “What’s the address?”

We were off.

img_3113It was a proper road trip: windows down, blue skies above, and the radio cut by static. In the space of an hour, our setting evolved from beach town to classic autumnal landscape to the ear-popping heights of the mountains.

We passed pastures of goats and sheep and plenty of warnings to watch out for wandering members of the flock.

Civilization became more and more scarce, but no matter the elevation, one thing was sure: even in the boonies, there would be no shortage of festivals.

Signs alerted us to the existence of fêtes celebrating everything from chestnuts to…donkeys. As you might expect from a country that loves champagne and celebration, France has a festival for everything. Some seem a bit…unnecessary (yay garlic. Yay orchids), but even the small ones are excuses to get together, eat, drink, and buy things you don’t need. And what’s not to love about that.

We were almost there, and I was more than ready, my stomach pleading with me to find solid ground. The comically tight, twisting roads were nauseating, as was the view (in a beautiful way, of course).

There were bikers (there are always bikers, tough as nails), and I would’ve stayed in the car all day before trading places. Their uphill plight looked like one of the circles of hell.

We passed crêperies and tiny pizza shacks squeezed onto the side of the road. Some had outdoor seating: the chairs lined up near the edge of the cliff, nothing between the casual diner and the abyss but a weak fence. One pizza margarita and a side of dread, s’il vous plaît.

We stopped to breathe and stare over the edge for awhile. Ultimately though, we wanted to get to Lac de Sainte-Croix. More driving.

It was worth it. I had never seen fresh water this shade of blue: from deep-teal to turquoise to swimming-pool-acqua depending on the light and on the depth.

We watched people set out in kayaks and paddleboats.

img_3101

Signs on the bridge warned swimmers from jumping. I was interested to see that the biggest danger cited was not the chance of landing wrong, or hitting a rock. No, jumping was a really bad idea, apparently, because of the high chance of getting stuck in the clay at the bottom of the lake. And drowning. To further dissuade, the signs listed a death toll. img_3109

img_3100

img_3096

After driving, walking, and sufficiently appreciating the natural beauty, we were ready to find something to eat.

We drove away from the gorges and the lake and through a number of tiny villages perchés. They were postcard-charming…and postcard-still. Everything was closed for le Toussaint. img_3117 It was a hungry trip home to Cannes, which may have influenced my opinion of the pizza we eventually procured: absolutely delicious.

chez moi: a room with a view

I had been in Cannes for a month without a home.

That sounds dramatic.

I had the essential–a place to sleep–for which I was grateful, but the two-week AirBnb stay I’d planned had stretched into a month as I waited to move in to my studio. The host, (one of the nicest people I’ve met in France or otherwise), hooked me up with the place, rented out by an acquaintance. When we found out it wouldn’t be ready until mid-November, he graciously agreed to led me stay until that date.

I was comfortable there, but it felt a bit like sharing a hostel, with various people coming and going, bumping elbows in the kitchen and waiting for the bathroom. For the good of everyone, I was ready to get out of there and give the family some privacy before the next AirBnb guest surely showed up.

Last Friday night, my new landlord came to pick me up. She helped me drag my suitcases, several bags of damp laundry, my teaching supplies, and a box of food out to her car. It seemed like a lot and I wondered how I had ever maneuvered it all by myself. I do find that as soon as I unpack, my stuff has a tendency to multiply exponentially.

I popped back into the house to grab one last load, the fragile stuff: my carton of eggs, a llama-shaped mug, and a bottle of chilled rosé I propped between my feet. It was then that I apologized, sheepish, for the bazar that was my packing job.

She laughed and told me not to worry: she remembered being in my shoes.

But she was concerned: “aren’t you cold?”

I was wearing shorts and sandals. It was fifty degrees and raining. But I’d spent the day cleaning and packing, and anyway, I was nothing but relieved.

It had been weeks since I’d seen my new place, and that was only a glimpse, but it didn’t really matter what it looked like. I was looking forward to the solitude: my first time ever living completely alone. Long showers. My own kitchen. Phone calls late into the night. I wanted to fill the fridge with kale and cover the countertops with fresh fruit and buy a bouquet of flowers every week, especially during the winter.

We dragged my luggage up the stairs and into my new chez moi. Wood furniture, floor-to-ceiling wardrobe, a comfy bed, and a cheerfully-tiled kitchen with all the necessities.

The landlord pointed out a small window in the bathroom. It overlooked the adjoining roof.

“You’ll want to remember to close this,” she said.

“Oh?”

Gravely she warned me that I could come home to cats in my room. Apparently there exists a neighborhood gang of furry friends that lack respect for personal property. img_3425

All technicalities taken care of, the first thing I did was FaceTime my mom for a tour. The second thing I did was organize my closet, finally assigning coats and dresses a permanent space: a luxury.

The next morning, I awoke to soft sunlight streaming through the windows. I opened them and could hear Disneyish birdsong. The sun lit up the cozy whites and browns of the studio but even better was the view, which I hadn’t yet seen. There was the Mediterranean. Just glimpses, but enough to tell. It glittered silver under the sun, framed by the magenta bougainvillea climbing around the shutters.

It felt good to be home.

bon vivant on a budget, or, how to be broke in Cannes

There are (literal) costs to living where everyone wants to be. When I learned I will be paying six times what I paid for rent last year with my modest teaching salary, I glumly reported the news to my parents over FaceTime.

“I guess being poor isn’t all bad.” Dad shrugged. “Makes things simple. Less choices.”

“Wrong,” I joked. “Plenty of choices. I’m currently deciding whether I should embark on a career as a streetwalker or just try my luck at the local casino.”

We agreed that neither path seemed a particularly sustainable option. In lieu of compromising my morals to afford a baguette, I should probably take the decidedly less-exciting approach and just learn how to budget.

Budget. Is there an uglier word in English? If it had a color, it would be an institutional tan. “Budget” is a room with drab carpeting and flickering fluorescent lights. The word brings with it visions of missed opportunities and crushed dreams.

But desperate times call for desperate measures, don’t they. On my first week in France this time around, in search of an apartment and unsure about upcoming expenses, even the cost of basic groceries posed a threat. So I didn’t buy them, and lived off of irregular meals of fruit and the occasional 2€ piece of boulangerie quiche.

Finally, awakened several nights by a grumbling stomach, I had to admit that feeding myself properly was worth the “cost” of budgeting, and wiser than the classic move of crossing my fingers and hoping everything turned out okay.

This year will be a challenge, and much less full of Mary&Jessica-Style Impulse Buys such as artisanal rose petal jam, Chanel nail polish, or a tutu. I am excited for the life skills this experience will undoubtedly teach me, though, of course, there will be sacrifice. The first thing to go is travel. I had big dreams. Italy! Germany! Portugal! That is quite clearly not going to happen. I have chosen instead (as if I had a choice), to see and do and enjoy as much as I can in this beautiful region.

Luckily for me and my lovely budget, my friend Erika, who is living and working near Paris for the year, decided to visit me for the first week of our mutual teaching vacances. She rented a room in the AirBnb where I’m still staying and we traveled up and down the coast, taking advantage of the South of France’s excellent train system to explore small towns and little-known spots and coming back to sleep in our own beds at night. We rarely ate out, instead splitting the grocery bill at Grand Frais and cooking up a storm throughout the week. We ate chanterelle omelets and creamy sage pasta and caprese salad and perfect tiny strawberries. We enjoyed Rosé, fresh plums and clementines, and a tempting array of cheese. With the money we saved, we were free to treat ourselves to some gelato taste-testing. See Erika’s post on our kitchen wizardry.

We spent next to nothing on entertainment, but instead indulged our inner flâneur. The idea was to get to a new place (by train, bus, or boat) and explore it on foot. Luckily, experiencing natural and architectural beauty is free, and the Côte d’Azur is filthy rich with it.

I’m learning that budgeting, that least-sexy of terms, a word that would wear tube socks and sandals and khakis, can actually help create a more conscious, intentional, and enjoyable (!) lifestyle. Really. There is freedom in learning to ask: do I really need this? Or even want it? Am I even hungry?

I’m learning that oftentimes, when you “deprive” yourself, you don’t even notice the sacrifice. We could’ve dropped 30€ on a couple of beachfront cocktails, but I am confident the bottle of inexpensive Prosecco we shared on la Plage des Rochers while we watched a brilliant sunset from a rock was in no way inferior.

And cheers, truly, to that.

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.

neon future: thoughts on life in the liminal stage

Hello from the other side of the ocean. I’m back in Columbia, Missouri, beloved little college town, experiencing less culture shock than I expected to.

There was the initial whoa of the Baltimore airport: large people clutching super-large fountain drinks, families dressed in matching tee-shirts, the informality with which strangers spoke to each other.

But it’s not exactly difficult to acclimate myself to all this comfort, a lifestyle as squishy as my dream foam mattress topper. There is water everywhere. Bathrooms. Late-night food, clothing dryers, Wi-Fi. The strangest and best change is having my car back. I no longer have to plan my day around how far my tired feet or broken bike will be able to carry me.

I appreciate things more. Driving makes me giddy. Libraries a wealth of stories and information, all free and in English. Baths the perfect cure to a long day. Friendsimg_5168

My friend Josephine came to visit for a few days, and it was so much fun to see Kansas City again, on my own, as an adult with a car. While she went to a wedding, I explored the Power and Light District, went to the art museum, took some pictures and took the free tram around town. We went to my parents’ house in Clinton and hung out with them and the new puppy for awhile, lingering over long meals, making failed macarons, reading the Atlantic, talking law and politics and life choices.

On that end, it’s really good to be back.

But there’s a certain strangeness, too. The path I’m currently on, a path of uncertainty and last-minute decisions, doesn’t exactly invite stress-free living.

I keep thinking about my English Capstone course the last semester of college, The Black Bildungsroman. It was my first experience considering the coming-of-age genre as a form. We talked about Goethe’s “Sorrows of Young Werther,” then focused on African literature (Camara Laye, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie…). We talked about the advent of the teenager and about the elements of growing up: leaving the parents, embarking on a quest, taking an apprenticeship. We talked about liminal stages: the limbo transition period between childhood and adulthood. They can also exist between countries or cultures, and it’s a good place to get lost.

Maybe it’s a little silly, but my stint in France has me thinking liminal stage all the time. Here (the States, Missouri, the anglophone world, whatever) doesn’t feel completely like home anymore. It’s lovely and it’s comforting, but it’s missing something now. Some people assume that my time there has been just for fun, that I’ll come back to the States and stay and be a French teacher. But I don’t think I want that. I’ve worked so hard to integrate to a new culture, new life, new language. I don’t want to just forget that. But France certainly isn’t completely home either. Is that what you give up when you leave, ever having a home?

When I think of my future, my actual future, I see static, the black fuzzing of an old TV screen. The best I can do is conjure a vision of myself as I’d like to be: elegant and glamorous with great hair and a classic trench coat, working at a successful career in Paris, Chicago, or NYC, something somehow both stable and creative. In my free time, I’m going to shows and working on a cookbook and talking to interesting people from all over the world in two languages. Writing.

How do I get there, and where is it I want to go? I don’t have a real clue. My choices are endless, and that’s both a blessing and a curse.

I think that’s the mal du siècle of my generation in this century. We are paralyzed with possibility.

Already, I feel old. Laughable: I’m 23. But half of my peers (or so it seems) are marrying, moving, having children. The other half are working on careers. I am scrounging for a job at a sandwich chain.

I’m eager to start work on my own elusive career, but…I have decided to return to France in the fall. I have a contract renewal for the same crazy, fun, stressful, organizational nightmare of a job, this time somewhere in the south of France. That was what did it, the promise of so much sun. And I’m young enough and career-less enough and unattached enough to just go.

But sometimes here, lounging on a pool chair where I’m crashing at my brother’s place for a month, filling out applications for temporary jobs that fill me with dread, I feel like I’m hiding out from real life.

I have to remember, though, that this is real life. Mine. It’s just a bit different from what I ever expected. Messy. But it’s not like I’ve been wasting my time. My dad said something that helped me.

“I’m going to bet you learned more during your time in France than you could possibly learn in a year of college,” he said.

He was right. I thought out loud.

I learned how to teach. That was no small thing.

I read about 45 books, from classic thriller Silence of the Lambs to Gatsby to a nonfiction exploration of French cheese.

I learned how to stand up for myself, argue, and solve my own problems…en français.

I started learning Turkish, visited dozens of French cities, and mastered the metro.

I gave my cooking skills a real workout, talked to hundreds of strangers, applied and was accepted to a Masters program, and learned how to ride a bike in busy city traffic. The list goes on.

Now I’m spending the summer chasing around a toddler and a little boy (they are both so big now; it’s amazing) and I’m looking for another job. Fingers crossed it has some character. Like the coffee shop I’m in right now, Tom Petty on the radio and crowds of old men and hipsters smoking outside. I could be making Greek omelets and lattés and saving for that unknowable and glorious future.