A Toast to Teaching

This week is my last week as an English Teaching Assistant here in France.  Yes, my contract has come to a close.  So, if you will, raise a glass (preferably champagne), for a toast to this past year:

To the 16-year old girls tottering around in their sky-high heels on skinny French legs clad in skinny jeans, looking like baby giraffes
To the mispronunciation of most words, making “fit” sound like “feet” or conversely “seat” sound like “sit”
To the French speech impediment which causes most students to fink zis iz ze way you pronounce ze “th”
To being confused for a student at least once a week, by both students and faculty – including the time I was told to get to class because I was late
To having a student ask me why I didn’t use the word “nigger” during a video exercise involving Martin Luther King, Jr.
To being completely unprepared to explain the complicated and hateful cultural and historical connotations of a word that French teens associate just with Kanye West, gold chains, or pimps&hos
To having an Afghani student tell me the only time he’d shot a gun was when he had his “dick cut off” (after picking my jaw up off of the floor, I gently told him the polite term was “circumcision”)
To holding court over an empty classroom at least once a week because the students (a) weren’t told to come, (b) forgot to come, (c) or did not want to come
To each awkward nod-smile-bonjour in the teacher’s lounge
To those few teachers who made attempts to be friendly, striking up conversations and suffering through my broken French – I appreciated it more than you realize
To nearly breaking the printer about four different times
To not knowing I had a locker in the teacher’s lounge until March
To the students who don’t realize that I understand every word they’re saying in French, and who are subsequently mortified when I accurately respond to them
To having an entire class of students nod and smile through my introduction to the activity, but when I tell them to begin, their smiles turn to looks of fear and confusion
To hearing the phrase, “Ah, putain! C’est chaud!” every time I give them something remotely educational to do
To French students being the World’s Best Whisperers
To never once being evaluated in the span of 8 months
To instructing students to use the phrase “piece of paper” instead of “sheet of paper” because, damn if it doesn’t sound like “shit of paper” every time
To the kids who haven’t yet gotten the hang of basic hygiene and force me to open a window at 8:30am on a December morning
To the kids who have just discovered the magic of cologne/aftershave/perfume and force me to open a window at 8:30am on a December morning
To classes of students who said a total of 5 English words in the span of an hour
To classes of students who, despite grammatical difficulties or pronunciation stumbles, happily debated the pros/cons of US gun control or fiercely competed at Scattergories, and had me smiling from ear to ear the rest of the day
To being hit on by 16-year old boys
To the girls who come into my classes looking like Zara models, bringing me to the realization that having your shit together doesn’t necessarily come with age
To that one time I got caught in the mosh pit of students smoking during the 10:30am break
To vowing I would never let it happen again
To the group of English teachers who were never anything but totally kind, if at times a bit unorganized
To learning how to build relationships with others in ways I’ve never had to before, based on age, cultural, or professional differences
And most of all: To gaining complete empathy and respect for every teacher I’ve ever had.

This year is one I would never regret and will absolutely never forget.  Working with lycéens has been a much greater culture shock than I perhaps would have imagined many months ago, but a shock that has made me much more in tune with France. You want to know what makes a country tick?  Go hang out with its youth for a few months; not only will you know what’s hip, but you will quickly learn why the adults of the country behave as they do.  This position not only brought me better understanding, but made me a more understanding and patient person.  I’ve grown in ways I didn’t expect to, and have been taught by this experience as much as I myself have taught others.

…what a long, strange trip it’s been.  Santé!

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¡Hola! Me llamo Sarah.

I began and finished last month with trips to Spain.  Spoiled, I know.  So, let’s let you live vicariously, shall we?

The first two weeks of March are a school holiday in France, and during the first half of the break I had no babysitting responsibilites and no visitors.  Caroline found a cheap flight to Barcelona during that week, which allowed us to spend all of 36 hours in the city.  And let me say: I think we conquered it.

interior of Sagrada Familia

interior of Sagrada Familia

illuminating stained glass

illuminating stained glass

Our first day there was rainy (such a let down), so we trekked to Sagrada Família to get out of the wet and into some of the most gorgeous architecture in the world.  Gaudí’s masterpiece, famously still unfinished, is just breathtaking.  I walked around for about 20 minutes with my head to the lofty ceiling, trying my hardest to get a photograph that captured its magnificence.  None did.  Oh well, at least there are the memories.

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Parc Güell

mosaic'd benches in Parc Guell

mosaic’d benches in Parc Güell

Our second day in Barcelona was, thankfully, one of the most gorgeously sunny days I’ve experienced in a while.  THIS was the vacation in Spain I was looking for.  We wanted to take advantage of the weather, so we visited Gaudí’s second masterpiece: Parc Güell.  On that glorious day the park was packed with people, but not even the crowds could take away from this man-made paradise.  My only complaint: that we didn’t spend the whole day there.

Non-pictured highlights from our getaway include wandering the streets; eating tapas on tapas, paella on paella, sangria on sangria; walking along the harbor; generally enjoying the fact that it was a good 20 degrees warmer than Paris. One of my favorite memories from the 2 days was a pre-dinner pit-stop to La Champagneria.  This champagne bar was recommended to us by a friend who had studied abroad in Barcelona, and it was fantastic.  Essentially, this is a very cramped bar/grill – standing room only – that specializes in cholesterol-filled delicious bar food, and champagne.  And, oh, is that contradiction a thing of beauty.  We tried the rosé champagne, something of a specialty in the region, and it changed my life.  Do you remember as a little kid, around 6 or 7-years old, watching your parents and their friends cheers-in the New Year with glasses of champagne?  Do you remember looking at that sparkling liquid just mesmerized and thinking, I bet that is the Nectar Of The Gods? Do you remember when they gave you a taste – you wanted to spit it out, and you immediately went back to the sparkling cider in your plastic flute? Well, the rosé champagne at La Champagneria is Barbie Pink and tastes like what your 7-year old self wished of champagne.  Goes down like candy, and when paired with the greasy fare – we got croquettes (fried balls of mashed chicken + cheese) – it’s pure magic.  Quite the apéro.

For Easter Weekend, it was decided that it was crucial we travel to somewhere warm.  The winter here has been long, people.  I had very real fears that the sun was actually never going to reappear, Apocalypse-style.  And it so happened that among the places within Europe that would be warm, a trip to Mallorca would be the least expensive.  Now, never in my life have I said: You guys, I MUST go to Mallorca, or I will DIE.  But you know what, when life gives you lemons in the form of enough money and wanderlust, you go to Mallorca.  And let me tell you: it’s gorgeous.

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Caroline and I on the overlook to the Balneario Illetas Beach Club

For those of you unfamiliar with this vacation location, Mallorca is a Spanish island, just south of Barcelona in the Mediterranean.  We stayed – were actually upgraded to a 4-star hotel – in Palma, the island’s capital.  On Easter Sunday, we took a bus from the city center out to the sea, and it dropped us off right in front of Balneario Illetas Beach Club.  I’d heard of this place in my research, and it was a complete happy coincidence when we were literally shuttled there by public transportation. The club is a café/bar attached to a private beach, and it gave us everything we were looking for: food, drinks, sun, sea.  After about 6 hours of sunny bliss, we left sunburned and satisfied.  Mission accomplished.

Hasta luego, Spain.  South of France, I’m comin’ for ya.

The One Where I Channel My Inner Anthony Bourdain

If you are ever lucky enough to be my visitor in Paris, know that I consider my most important responsibility as tour guide to be making sure you’re well-fed.  You can see the Eiffel Tower from just about every angle in the city; hike up the Arc de Triomphe on your own time.  We have more important things to consider. Like food.  So at the beginning of the month when my mom and brother popped in town for a visit, I got my chance to fatten them up a bit, French-style.

Pam goes to Pamela Popo  One of the first places on the list was Pamela Popo.  I had been once before with my friends and remembered it to be a very cool place with outrageously good food.  And this time around, it proved itself.  First, the food: each of us got a different fish dish, and each of us were totally wowed.    I chose the bar bleu d’atlantique, which came served with a purée of eggplant and capers.  Flavor galore; I never wanted it to end.  For dessert, my brother opted for a giant framboise macaron stuffed with fresh raspberries – which he said was divine (my words, not his), while my mom and I split a chocolate tart that literally ooooozed.

Tartelette tiède  au chocolat, pre-ooze.

Tartelette tiède au chocolat, pre-ooze.

YUM.  My mom’s sole complaint, however, was that she was the oldest person in the restaurant.  Pamela Popo is dimly lit, a little swanky, and teeming with French 20-somethings enjoying a cocktail or dinner with friends.  Perfect for me, not the ideal atmosphere for my middle-aged mother.   But in the end, the food completely won us over.  That, and the actually fantastic service from a terribly harried, and terribly charming French-Ryan-Gosling look-alike.  So obviously I give the place two thumbs way up.  Looking for a place to spend a trendy night out?  Try Pamela Popo: 15 rue François Miron, 75004.

La Pharmacie  This is a bold statement: this place is perhaps my favorite restaurant in Paris, especially if we’re working on an overall experience scale.  Renovated from an old pharmacy, the restaurant still maintains some of that charm.  I first found this place 2 years ago in a book about Paris’ best patisseries, though for La Pharmacie, the description raved instead about the all-organic menu at this wine bar.  I lunched solo one afternoon, after having a particularly rough morning, fell head over heels with the food, and reconnected in that moment with the city itself.  Since then I have brought all manner of visitors here to dine: the young, the less-young; the rich, the less-rich.  The menu is très français, but never breaks the bank – which is a somewhat delicate conundrum in the city of lights.  I have found the food consistently good, and the plat du jour is most often completely outstanding.  The wait staff is genuinely kind, and forgiving of non-French fumbles.  Put my “best” to the test – La Pharmacie: 22 rue Jean-Pierre Timbaud, 75011.

Les Papilles  When I was deciding where to bring my family to eat during their stay in Paris, this place is the first that came to mind.  A petit bistrot by the Jardin du Luxembourg in the 5th, the chef serves one set menu per day based on what is best at the marché.  The evening my mom and I went, we were served 4 lovely courses (€33/person): a potato-leek soup garnished with bacon, chives, and crème fraiche; magret de canard served with roasting potatoes and carrots in a honey glaze; cheese course of roquefort & figs; a small pot of custard topped with caramel.

Mom posing with le potage.

Mom posing with the potage.

I was drooling over each new plate.  I know the meal was impressive when my mom – not a heavy eater, and always one to steer away from unnecessary fat intake – could not stop saying “Oh, wow” into her bowl of cream-enriched soup, and finished every last bite of each course.  Success.  Les Papilles – which translates to “the taste buds” – is also an épicerie and wine boutique.  This is an additional bonus for restaurant patrons: the very kind gentleman who runs the restaurant asks you to choose your bottle of wine from their selection to match the meal and your tastes, and he is happy to help with a suggestion if need be.  To note: As I mentioned, this place is small and quite popular.  I tried to make reservations twice while my family was in town and only succeeded on the third try.  Moral of the story: reserve in advance.  If you’re willing to taste test whatever the chef has in mind, give Les Papilles a go: 30 rue Gay-Lussac, 75005.

It was so nice to have family with me for a few days.  Time flew by, and I was very sad to see them go. But they know if (when) they return I will be waiting here in Paris with open arms and an eager belly.

Profites-en bien!

I’ll be honest – January and February have been dreary. Lots of cold rain and gray skies. And who wants to go out and explore in weather like that? Not this girl. But a person can only sit in bed and stream episodes of New Girl for so long. Here are the things I have found to fill my free time in the last 2 months…

Hardwell  In the beginning of January, I was stumbling around on the internet, as one does, passively searching for a concert that might be fun to go to that wasn’t a) already sold out, b) cost a week’s salary, or c) was actually worthwhile. As luck would have it, I caught that Hardwell – a DJ I love – was making an appearance at Queen (a nightclub on the Champs-Elysées) that weekend. Desperately wanting to fist pump live to this jam, I coerced my friends into going with me.

Hardwell @ Queen

Hardwell @ Queen

Mackenzie & I livin it up, enjoying a cocktail for 15 euros.

Mackenzie & I livin it up, enjoying a cocktail for 15 euros.

Ô Château  I feel like I often throw away money on things that I thought in the moment were a good idea, but in reality either didn’t live up to expectations or were just a waste (see pricey cocktail reference above). But one activity that was seriously worth the money was the wine tasting I did last month. Held at Ô Château, a wine bar in the 1ème, the event we chose allowed us to sample 6 wines while enjoying the incredibly helpful insight by a charming sommelier. I was admittedly skeptical when Mackenzie suggested it – not because of the activity, I support any and all wine-related functions – but because of the price (50 euros/person) and my previous experiences with tastings. I always feel like I leave not really knowing any more than when I came in.  Not in this case.  The presentation was very helpful, not at all pretentious, and totally fun.  Oh, and definitely splurge on the extra cheese/charcuterie plate; it was totally worth it.  But then again, when is it not?  Experience the tasting – or just a night at the wine bar – yourself.  Ô Château: 68, rue Jean-Jacques Rousseau 75001.

Dalí @ Centre Pompidou  Always lookin’ to get my art on, one exhibit I was determined to see was the Dalí retrospective at Pompidou this winter.  And, boy, did it live up to expectations.  The man was innovative, prolific, and utterly fascinating – all which are proven by this exhibit.  Yes, the weekend we went it was terribly crowded, but even that did not take away from the impressiveness of his career.  Interested into delving into the psyche of one of the past century’s greatest minds?  The exhibit runs through March 25 at Centre Pompidou (Place Georges-Pompidou, 75004).

Aurore, midi, après-midi et crépuscule (1979), Dalí; not your typical Dalí, but my favorite in the exhibition

Aurore, midi, après-midi et crépuscule (1979), Salvador Dalí; not your typical Dalí, but my favorite in the exhibition

#versaillesretreat2013  My friends and I are kept quite busy during the week, so when the weekend rolls around we’re always finding ways to blow off steam, or just simply relax.  So when one of our families jumps ship for a fortnight, you can be sure that an old-fashioned slumber party is gonna happen.  One of the last weekends in February, a group of us gathered in Versailles for a weekend to: wear yoga pants for a complete 48hrs; catch up on episodes of Homeland and Girls; binge on wine, cheese, and home-cooked meals; go for a stroll through the nearby gardens.  It was truly the perfect way to rest up for another week of g0-go-go.

A walk in the park on a beautiful day.

A walk in the park on a beautiful day.

So despite my hiatus from this blog, I have still been keeping busy.  And the month of March is happily bringing warmer weather, visitors from overseas, a bit of travel, and lots to share with you all.  Stay tuned!

A Little Valentine’s Cheer

Happy Valentine’s Day, everyone! I don’t really notice this holiday too much (not sorry for bein’ single, y’all), but I had a pretty lovely day. How did I celebrate? Baked chocolate cupcakes with the kiddos, went to lunch with some girlfriends, and watched my Facebook newsfeed blow up with people either loving love or vehemently hating the day. Several friends also posted this video below, and damn if I just couldn’t stop smiling.

… because when kids aren’t making me want to tear my hair out in frustration or confusing me with franglais, they’re making me beam from ear to ear. Enjoy!

How We Differ

I haven’t talked much here lately about my teaching gig, but over the months I have compiled a list of differences between American and French high schools.  Here we go…

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French teenagers live nomadic lives.  They trudge from class to class, carrying all of their belongings with them.  They are sans lockers.  This is a notable difference for me between the culture of a French lycée vs. an American high school.  And honestly, I don’t understand.  Besides the lack of practicality, the students are completely missing out on a major cultural keystone.  Think about it:  no nerds are getting stuffed in their lockers; there are no heart-breakingly awkward flirtations taking place locker-side (don’t worry, there’s still plenty of PDA).  John Hughes, were he French, would not have been nearly as successful.  But seriously: there’s no place to stuff your shit.  These kids have to lug around all of their school books to each class, not to mention their coats, gloves, scarves, etc.  It seems like a massive hassle to me.  This just wouldn’t work in the US.  Can you imagine the overacheiver going through the school day with their trumpet, tennis racket, and backpack in tow?  Which brings me to my next point…

There are no extra-curriculars.  There are no football games to go to on Friday nights in the fall,  no band camps in the summer, no mathlete tournaments or Model United Nations conferences on the weekends, no track meets, tennis matches, lacrosse games.  In fact, there’s no school spirit at all.  School is a place to come and work.  And that they do: everyday, often 6 days a week, from 8:30am-5:30pm.  There’s simply no time for practices afterschool, or time for a part-time job bagging groceries either for that matter.  For the lycéen, school is their full time job.  All other activities intended to “round out” their skills need to be scheduled around their studies.

“Where’s Mme X right now? // I have no idea.”  Similar to point #1, the teachers are, as well, nomadic.  When I was in high school I remember often needing to speak to a teacher once the school day was over, or during lunch.  No problem, I just headed to his or her room, and more often than not they would be there.  Easy.  Not so here.  Teachers are not required to be in a classroom outside of the class period.  And they really aren’t.  I’m always right on time to my classrooms, even early.  I constantly see actual teachers saunter to their rooms fashionably-French late, arriving to a crowded hallway full of their students.  So if you’re a student who needs to speak with your Physics teacher outside of class time, be prepared to schedule a meeting with him or her.  Or if you operate last-minute, comme moi, hope to God that when you knock on the door of the teacher’s lounge, they are coincidentally lurking inside.  In addition, because Room 321 is not “Mme X’s room,” there are no themed posters decorating the classroom walls.  No Shakespeare quotes, no vaguely amusing math puns, no motivational quips.  White walls is the theme here (See photo above).

French students are polite.  Or more, perhaps, they’re housebroken.  (This is not to say they aren’t polite – they very much are.)  During my first week, the thing that took me aback the most was that when the group of students entered the room, they chose their seats and then stood there.  Just looking at me.  At first, I was confused.  Sit down-be noisy-don’t be awkward, I thought.  And then, something I had read during a high school French course, buried deep in the recesses of my brain, filtered to the front:  the teacher must invite them to sit.  Beyond that, many of them have a hard time speaking outside of raising their hands – even when I’m hosting a group of only 3 students.  Well behaved, right?

If I had attended a French high school, I would have been an addicted smoker by age 15.  This is a damn fact.  If you’re a student on a break, you’re loitering outside the gates of the school rolling a cigarette.  Pretty sure you’re a loser if you’re not doing just that.  Every morning at 10:30 there’s a 10 min break.  On several days of the week I begin my day with the class right after the break.  I have made the mistake twice of trying to enter the school while the students are on break.  Stupid.  The entire smoking population of the school, aka the entire school, shoves themselves outside the gates to get their nicotine fix.  This leaves me to duck, shimmy, and creep my way through a mosh pit of students, getting puffs of smoke blown in my face.  Never again.  But when you’re 15 years old and smoking is taken as such a habitual and communal activity, I really can’t imagine saying no.

The essential difference is the way in which education is approached – French and Americans have completely different mindsets.  In France, school is more serious, with an emphasis on memorization and repetition.  In the US, students are required to use what they’ve been taught in a hands-on way, not regurgitate information.  There is no right or wrong method – as both nations have produced intelligent and capable humans – it’s just different.  And in the end, when I’m asked by my students what is different, it’s hard to tell them.  Because when you get down to what they really want to know, it’s all the same: there’s still the class clown making a scene, there are the pretty girls and the jocks and the nerds, there’s the same petty drama that feels so world-ending at the time.  High school is high school, no matter what country you’re in.

That Time I Touched A Human Skull

When you think of Paris, what images come to mind?

Sitting at a café, sipping coffee and watching the world go by?  Yes, absolutely.  Picnicking in the green Champs de Mars beneath the shadow of the Eiffel Tower?  Mais, oui.  Strolling along the banks of the Seine, hand-in-hand with a loved one?  Sure, one day my prince will come.  Traversing underground tunnels filled with really old dead bodies?  Um, no.  Not so much.

The Catacombes de Paris is a very popular tourist destination, but not one that most think of immediately.  A quick search in a guide book will tell you its something not to be missed.  I have taken my sweet time going underground, but my chance finally came over the holiday break.  Megan and I wanted to do something interesting and cultural.  Both of us needed to check this site off our list, so we met up one morning to explore a hidden Paris.

"Stop! This here is the empire of Death."

“Stop! This here is the empire of Death.”

A little history on the place:  Intricately criss-crossing beneath the busy streets and métro lines of Paris lie 280 km of abandoned mining tunnels.  They date back to the Middle Ages, with the first mention of a quarry being around 1292.  By the 17th century, many of the quarries had been forgotten, particularly on the Left Bank.  In 1774, 100 feet of street – on what is today Avenue Denfert-Rochereau – collapsed to a depth of 100 feet below, into a forgotten shaft. This disaster led the powers-that-be to a massive investigation: map out and fortify the quarries underneath Paris.  Around the same time, the cemeteries in the city were becoming overwhelmed and causing public health concerns, which is saying something for the 18th century.  (AKA, there were dead bodies rotting above ground.  Ew.)  Seeing an opportunity, it was decided that the remains of Parisians-past should be transferred to an area within the ancient mines.  Between 1786-1788, 6 million bodies were moved to a section of the tunnels, only 1.7km in length.

During the visit, visitors get a of taste of not only the catacombs, but the immenseness of the tunnel system that silently exists below the city.  Tourists descend – on a narrow spiral staircase – 19 m below ground.  From there it is a twisting, turning walk through 1.5 km of tunnel until the catacombs are reached.

Megan in the tunnels.  This particular area was spacious and, frankly, fancy.  All the others were much more cramped and dingy.

Megan in the tunnels. This particular area was spacious and, frankly, fancy. All the others were much more cramped and dingy.

Now, when I say this is a bit creepy, take me seriously.  I like a little macabre.  For me, cemeteries are cool; Ghost Hunters is great. And this place is on the darker side.  When Megan first entered the ossuary, she started repeating, “Oh.  I don’t like this.  I don’t like this.”  I giggled, and was kind of fascinated.  But honestly, it’s a whole lot of morbid, right in your face.

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So yes, it is a little freaky.  But – if you can handle it – it is a very cool thing to see.  It’s a piece of the city’s history, and one that doesn’t include gilded mirrors or stained glass.  For me, the only drawback about this place was the wait in line.  Visitors, be aware: we waited in an hour-long queue to reach the entrance.  Don’t let that deter you, though.  Go in a group!  Bring your kindle!  Make friends in line!  And be prepared to witness the spookier side of the City of Lights.