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Archive for August, 2009

Yesterday I celebrated my 23rd birthday, and even though I can honestly say it didn’t go at all according to plan, it was still a good one. I think one major difference this year is that I finally feel comfortable in my skin – a.k.a. have found my place in the “adult” world.  I’m still a dreamer and am always looking forward to my next big adventure, but I enjoy the structure of having a good job (and the financial stability that comes along with that!). Let’s hope that my new skills can hold me up when I test them in French waters…

One thing that I can say for sure is that I’ve learned to appreciate the value of good company over expensive activities or gifts. Genuine smiles and hugs will always be highly valued in my book.

With that said, I am very appreciative of the gifts I did receive last night: a French beret and book of insults (in English), a French coffee press with coffee grounds and a world map coffee mug with “coffee” written in a bunch of different languages, a glass of wine, a European-style half-jacket that will keep me fashionable while also a bit warmer in cooler temperatures, and some base-layers (long underware) from Patagonia! Now if I could only figure out how to pack all of these things in my suitcases…

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In my experience with living abroad for significant periods of time, I’ve realized that the worst way to combat homesickness and culture shock is to do absolutely nothing. No matter how much I wallow in self-pity, it never makes me feel any better. The key to happiness is to get out of this rotten funk, but how?

For a normally cheerful person, getting over culture shock should be easy right? Not necessarily. No matter what your personality, it’s never a “fun” experience.

So to make the most of my time away from home and get ready to combat the traveler’s blues once again, I’ve come up with a plan of attack. I’ve posted it here mainly as a reminder to myself (selfish, I know), but also because you may find some of these tips useful as well! Selfishness overridden!

  1. Stop hiding under the covers and get out of bed. Even if you don’t have anything to do until 2pm, get up early (9am usually works for me), eat a good breakfast and do something productive. This will get you energized and in a decent mood, ready to go for the rest of the day.
  2. Get out of the house and into public, preferably with people who are friendly and enjoy having fun (though make sure their idea of fun is the same as yours). Whenever I first arrive in a new city or town where I’m going to be spending a significant amount of time, I scope out the local clubs and organizations that I might be interested in joining. This way I immediately have things to do, and end up meeting a lot of new friends who have similar interests. The more you are able to connect with people in your host culture, the more comfortable you will feel.
  3. Focus on the positive. I try to think of my trips abroad as extended vacations. Granted it’s a bit harder if I don’t know exactly when I’ll be going home, but I tell myself that “I’ve only got 8 months so I’d better use my time wisely” instead of dwelling on the “I won’t see my family/boyfriend/girlfriend for X amount of time.” It also helps if you see things from a narrator’s perspective: those friends and family members back home are counting on you to tell them about a part of the world that they can’t experience on their own. So enjoy taking pictures and writing up short stories about the time you got chased by a goat at the Salzburg petting zoo or the day you glimpsed Harry Potter walk across the street in central London, and they’ll enjoy living vicariously through your adventures.
  4. Devise your own “Plan of Attack” to combat culture shock before you’ve even left for your destination. Make a plan (like this one) on a day when you are calm and collected, and be really honest with yourself. What things make you happy in your daily life? Are you a person who needs routine, or someone who loves adventure? Are you more attracted to ideas or visual objects? Do you need to be around people, or do more quiet, atmospheric places strike your fancy? Then you will be able to tailor your plan to YOUR needs. Ex. If you absolutely love the Beatles, try setting your alarm clock ring to “When I’m 64” to help start your day on the right foot.
  5. Help someone. In my experience, there’s no better way to take my mind off my own problems than by helping someone else with theirs. I’m not saying go out and achieve world peace! Just helping an old lady carry her groceries or offering to walk your neighbor’s dog seems to do the trick. You can also get involved with charitable organizations within your new community that will give you all kinds of opportunities to help those in need.
  6. Keep an open mind. You’ll love some aspects of your new host culture and will naturally adapt them into your own daily routine. You’ll also find things that you hate. But instead of immediately shunning those aspects that are uncomfortable to you, try to observe them objectively first. Then once you’ve had time to see them from several angles, you can more clearly place it in your  “accepted” or “rejected” custom pile.
  7. Don’t forget to laugh! Humor really is one of the best medicines around, and though the definition of a funny joke differs from culture to culture, we’re still all humans. Eventually you’ll realize that some jokes DO translate well!
  8. Learn to talk the talk and walk the walk. Communication barriers are often a huge reason why people become frustrated while living abroad. You go from being completely self-sufficient, feeling confident and competent in your own world and to suddenly not being able to order a bottle of water without screwing up. If you’re worried about this, begin studying before you leave home. Even a basic knowledge of the new language will be a bit more comforting to you, and your effort to speak will encourage locals to be more willing to help. Also, watch how they communicate with each other. Spacing differences, touching and dress can vary drastically from one culture’s border to the next.

The trick is to become involved in your host culture and to enjoy trying new things. You will certainly still miss familiar foods, places and loved ones at times, but you will also learn to discover a sense of home no matter where you happen to be.

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One Small Check Off “To Do” List = One Giant Decrease In Bank Account

A visit to Arles in 2007

A visit to Arles in 2007

In case you haven’t guessed it already, I finally bought my plane ticket! Friends were right. It certainly is nice to have that load off my shoulders! I’ll be flying US Airways from New Orleans to Geneva on Sept. 22nd and returning from Dublin on May 27, 2010. So I’ll have an entire month after my teaching contract ends to travel around, visit friends and just explore (in addition to all the vacation time I already have DURING the school year).

This means I only have one month left to prepare, yet still quite a lot to do! Better keep trucking…

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Great news: my visa came in!

The Ponchatoula Post Office actually called Saturday morning to notify me that “it arrived after the mailman left to do his rounds” and asked if someone could come pick it up – thank you small towns with personal service.

The trip to Houston wasn’t that bad either. I drove and enjoyed listening to a classic book, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” on CD the entire way there and back.

Now that I’ve got my visa, it’s time to take care of several other things…

  1. Buy plane ticket
  2. Get teeth cleaned
  3. Refill perscriptions – annoying because I have to actually go BACK to the doctor first
  4. Continue gathering warm clothing so that I don’t turn into an Alpine popsicle

I did make some progress on #4 yesterday and took advantage of summer sales by purchasing several Patagonia Capilene base 1 and 3 layers online, knee-high socks from Target, and a cute pair of black boots from Payless. I would like to get a new camera but will hold off on that for now (there isn’t anything really wrong with my current one). Still wondering what to do about the waterproof jacket situation but I may end up just buying a waterproof outershell and layering like crazy underneath.

Things are moving along quite nicely. Only about a month until I leave!

P.S. Jet Blue is offering an “All You Can Jet” pass for $599 while supplies last. The pass can be used between Sept. 8 and Oct. 8, 2009 to any place Jet Blue flies to in the United States. It’s a great deal if you live in or near a major airport that uses Jet Blue!

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Chic Gamine is a relatively new Winnipeg/Montreal-based vocal quintet that just celebrated its second year of existence. I discovered the group at Festival Internationale de Louisiane in Lafayette, LA, this past spring, and was mesmerized by its ability to capitivate hundreds of people in the trecherous Louisiana heat using only their powerful vocal abilities, tight harmonies (with songs in both English and French), and a wide variety of percussion instruments. Listen to Chic Gamine on MySpace by clicking HERE. (They’re even better live!)

And if you’ve never been to Festival International and have the chance, GO! It’s a great way to check out French music culture from bands all over the world, and it’s FREE!

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Each time I meet someone who speaks French fluently and I am able to converse with them in a relatively civilized manner (understanding most of what they say and limiting the need for charades), I feel like a baby that has learned to walk or a child finally riding her bike without training wheels. There’s just something amazing about being able to communicate with people in their native language – they respect me more it seems, and new doors are opened that I would have never known otherwise.

This has been on my mind thanks to Louisiana Vintage Dancers practice Tuesday night. It was good to see everyone again (after being tied up with The King and I for the past couple of months), and, surprisingly, the dances came back to me quickly. But I got a little surprise when I discovered that a lady from Bretagne was among our group that evening, visiting a friend in Louisiana. She didn’t understand a whole lot of English (plus the terminology for some of the dances is a bit confusing to new-comers anyway, even if you are fluent in English), so I introduced myself and chatted en francais with her in between sets. I know this was a minor accomplishment, but it felt good to put her a bit more at ease, to let her know she had someone else to converse with.

One of the other dancers noticed our coded conversations and asked me afterward,”Were you speaking in French?”

“Yes,” I smiled, and left feeling quite proud of myself.

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Last night I attended La Table Francaise, a French conversation group that meets at La Madeline restaurant and bakery on Jefferson twice a month. It’s a great place to go if you know a bit of French and want to practice listening/speaking in a real-life setting, but it’s also great if you’re pretty much fluent and just want to converse en francais! The group meets at 6 p.m. on the first Monday and the third Tuesday of every month, and conversations generally last at least 1.5 hours if not more. Join the Yahoo group to receive regular reminders about meeting dates (you may have to make a free Yahoo account in order to join the group).

Also, CODOFIL (the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana) has a list of French tables, classes, etc. around Louisiana (though I’m not sure how up-to-date it is since it lists the Baton Rouge French group as being held at Coffee Call). I’d suggest calling any group you are interested in joining ahead of time if possible to make sure their information is still current.

If virtual is more your thing and you want to study conjugations or practice your reading, Instant French is a great source with the “Top 49 Learn French Sites.” A few of my personal favorites are:

  • BBC French (lots of great videos and games – you barely realize you’re studying)
  • About.com French (sign up for the weekly email newsletter)
  • Carnegie Mellon Free French (like a free French course, but not really for beginners)
  • Interactive French (by the University of Texas – contains long lists of categorized vocabulary along with audio pronunciation files for each word – great if you want to brush up on a certain subject!)
  • French Mystery (a lot of fun – takes you through a French mystery and helps beef up your reading skills while trying to solve “Who done it?”.

Finally, most second-language learners agree that the best way to learn a language is to be immersed in it. So if you’d like to get out of Louisiana for a little while, have about $3000 in change and 5 weeks to spare, I highly recommend checking out the summer French immersion program (official website) offered by Université Sainte Anne in Church Point, Nova Scotia. The total program fee for classes, housing and meals ends up being about $2400, plus your plane ticket (my round-trip flight was $500) and bus fare from Halifax to the University ($100 round-trip).

For an insider’s view of the program, check out my guest post on Instant-French.com.

Sunset on the Bay - Universite Sainte-Anne's beautiful "backyard"

Sunset on the Bay - Universite Sainte-Anne's beautiful "backyard"

I had the pleasure of attending this fun-filled “French camp” last summer and have only positive things to say about my stay! The best part about the experience was that I had no time to be homesick with all the activities that are offered, and I greatly improved my French speaking skills by getting over my fear of making mistakes! The immersion program has a “3 strikes, you’re out policy,” so we really were speaking French 24/7 (except when  occasionally calling home, of course). By the time the program was over, I had a hard time switching back to English, and the first week I spent back at home was littered with accidental French phrases thrown into my everyday conversations with non-French-speaking friends and family.

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