Archive for November, 2009

Weekend Getaway

Weekend Away
Another crazy busy week/weekend has passed in good ole Europe! After Beaujolais Nouveau last Thursday and a full day of work on Friday, 10 of us English assistants piled into two cars and spent the weekend relaxing, reconnecting, and soaking up the fresh mountain air at Chalet Martin in Gryon, Switzerland. If you’re ever in the area or just want a cosy mountain getaway for a few nights, I definitely recommend this place! It’s great for just getting away from it all, and enjoying the company of friends. We arrived late on Friday night and spent the evening chatting with a few other visitors around a bonfire. Then on Saturday, several assistants went paragliding in Villars (the rest of us watched and hiked back down the mountain afterward).

We got back to the hostel in the

Playing Monopoly at Chalet Martin

afternoon, made a late lunch in the nicely equipped full kitchen, and then went downstairs to the movie room to watch a DVD (they have a huge selection you can chose from for only 2 CHF a pop). Finally, we cooked dinner and ate so much Swiss chocolate that we felt slightly sick to our stomachs (the hostel normally offers wine and chocolate tastings but the guy who does them was out of town so they just bought us the chocolate and we made up our own history, etc.). All in all, I only spent about $60 on the entire weekend (2 nights accomodation + split cost for chocolate + road tolls + cooked our own meals) so it’s a great value for the price!

Back to Work
Mondays are always my big work days with five classes at the college (so I do the same lesson 10 times with approximately 12-15 students – half the class – each time). I normally only have two groups that are exceptionally rambunctious, but today one of those groups was even more excited than normal. I spoke with several other assistants who admitted that their classes were also abnormally jittery, and their teachers explained it was because the snow hasn’t arrived yet. Then tonight, at the first installation of my new French class, the teacher said the same thing – it’s because the snow is late. I’m not sure whether to believe them or not, but if this is the case, bring on the snow!!! lol

On Doit Parler En Francais
Last but not least, in an effort to beef up my French knowledge while in Annecy, I attended my first French class this evening! It was quite good and I learned a lot of new vocabulary words that I will attempt to start using ASAP. It’s a pretty casual course, but the teacher is nice and I think I will learn a lot. But in order to do that, I’d better get started on my homework!


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Dip Into French Culture

I had the pleasure of celebrating a fairly new tradition here in France (it has been around only for the last 15? years), but it was definitely fun and definitely French. Called the Beaujolais Nouveau, this event is centered around the wine it celebrates. It is a young wine (only 6 weeks old) and has more of a fruity taste and less tannin, the thing that dries out your mouth normally when you drink red wine. I am by no means a wine connaisseur , but even the French tell me this celebration isn’t really because they like the taste of the wine (it wasn’t too shabby by my standards, but what do I know?), but more just an occasion to get together with people, eat charcuterie (like cold cuts and cheese with little bits of freshly sliced French bread), and have an enjoyable evening.

After a bit of wine, a tad of snacks, and a lot of chatting, they brought out clementines (oh how I love them!) from Corsica (an island off the coast of France that is actually French), and finally, for a light dessert, les La Papillote (little chocolates wrapped in a festive paper that are usually reserved for New Year’s celebrations). They have funny jokes or profound quotes on the inside (think Dove chocolates, only with much deeper meanings). Malheureusement pour moi (unfortunately for me), I couldn’t make sense of the first two sayings I received and had to ask for a few translations from friends. But the third one j’ai compris toute seule (I understood all on my own – not because I had miraculously advanced leaps and bounds in an hour, but because it was much simpler).

All in all, I’m very glad I turned up for this fabulously French occasion. I got to chat with several of the teachers and other assistants de langue whom I see frequently (oh yeah, did I mention this little fete was last night in the salle des profs – the teacher’s lounge – at my school? lol), met a few others, and was thankfully corrected quite a bit on my French (it always makes me feel good to come back from an outing with several new phrases or words to add to my – at times – limited vocabulary).

Two and 1/2 hours after it began, this mini after-work soiree started to break up as people rounded up their kids and drifted home (there were several wee ones at the fete – but don’t worry, they drank grape juice). I, too, decided it was time to go home and pack for Switwerland (leaving tonight – quite excited!), but once I arrived at the front of the school and saw everyone else just standing around, I discovered that we were locked in! It was more funny than unnerving with teachers making jokes – admitting that, well, this is France – and not really feeling concerned that we’d be stuck for long. Thankfully they were right and after only a few minutes someone found a lady who could unlock the massive wooden front doors to let us out. As I rode my bike home, I felt quite content to have participated in such a relaxed, yet enjoyable (and culturally educational) tradition. All hail double dipping!

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Let’s Talk About the Weather
I can’t believed I biked home from work today at 4:30pm (when the sun was beginning to set) and didn’t even have to put on my scarf or gloves (did have a jacket though) because it was 60 degrees F! The past week has been unusually warm considering how cold it was at the end of October. Even the snow on the tops of the surrounding mountains is beginning to melt. But there are still plenty of signs that point out winter is coming. For example, the bike path along the lake and Avenue d’Albigny is covered in crunchy, brown leaves from the nearby trees. Electrical trucks can be found all across town hanging the Christmas lights and decorations which will be turned on November 27th. The days are getting shorter; the weather, grayer. But still there are fun, touristy things to do.

This weekend, two fellow assistants came to visit Lynsey and I. One is from Louisiana (whom I met just before leaving for France) and the other is Lynsey’s former roommate from Northern Ireland. They were both placed in Besancon and became friends, so it is ironic that Lynsey and I also met and are roommates! Never tiring of the Old Town, we showed them around on Saturday and came across some fun but unexpected sights. Where else would you find ANOTHER festival dedicated to farm animals (this time just to pigs), complete with giant pigs in pens on the street, pigs heads roasting on a fire pit, wine to top off all the pig sausage you’ve tried, and a walking brass band led by a pig-headed flute player (no I’m not being mean – she really did have a pig mask over her entire head and just stuck the flute into the mouth bit to play). The best part was that just after we found this band, they changed songs and played two notes that instantly made all of us squeal with delight (it was the entrance “da da” notes of “Thriller”). At this point, I wanted to kick myself for forgetting to bring my camera. They then began meandering through the streets and everyone who had been watching started following, even us. We just couldn’t help it (though we were going that way anyway…)! Eventually we reached the road to the Chateau and dropped out of the makeshift “parade,” but we could still hear Michael Jackson’s imfamous tune meandering its way through the streets of the Old Town as we climbed the hill to the castle above.

Musee d’Annecy
The chateau in Annecy was constructed over a total of five centuries which explains the Le Vielle Ville - Annecy 10-26-09 064hodge-podge style of architecture and building materials used to build it. The oldest tower dates back to the 12th century when it was first used as a fortress, but today this magestic structure perched high on a hill serves as the museum of Annecy. Entrance happened to be free this past weekend (though it doesn’t cost much even when it’s not), so we decided to explore and finally see what it was all about. Most of the rooms are empty of “traditional castle items,” but there is quite a bit of artwork from the region and also some very ornate, wooden chests and other furniture displayed. In the basement of one tower are several aquariums (never thought I’d find big fish tanks in a castle), and also several rooms of the museum dedicated to the history and preservation of the nearby lake. All-in-all, it was a nice experience – not the best castle I’ve visited, but I did learn quite a bit. And apparently during WWII there were approximately 350 people living (illegally) inside the castle (and not in nice conditions). The were kicked out in the late 50s and the castle was restored 20 years later. Also, the views of the city and surrounding mountains are quite nice on a sunny day!

Chateau d'Annecy

Chateau d'Annecy

French Accents
I feel bad for not using correct accents when typing French words but I haven’t quite figured out how to create them in HTML, so if anyone has suggestions, I’d like to know!

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If you’re in Ponchy, this issue hit newsstands last Thursday. But if you’re not in the Strawberry Capitol or just didn’t manage to grab a copy, check out the online version of the paper and my new bi-monthly travel column! This first article is about “Packing for a long-stay abroad.”

1. Go to http://ponchatoula.com/ptimes/
2. Click the “New Online Edition Click Here” sample newspaper icon (You can’t miss it).
3. The paper will open in a new window and the article’s on the front page!

Feedback is appreciated, so let me know what you think!

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Our Little Secret

I never actually told my college (11-13 year old) students that I didn’t speak French, but apparently (to them anyway), it was “my little secret.” And so I was quite surprised today when the last group of the day came into the classroom all loud and energetic (as usual), but this time they were whispering excitedly to each other and looking strangely at me. Finally one of the girls blurted out, “You speak French! We heard you in the hallway talking to a teacher! I knew it. You speak French!” (this was all IN FRENCH of course).

I laughed, slightly amused that it took them more than a month to realize that I spoke there native tongue. How did they think I understood and responded (in English) to their questions during class (often in half Franglais, half French)?

Regardless, I humored them and asked, “Oh really? What did I say?”

They had no idea, but they just knew that it was French and that I spoke it and that they had figured me out!

Throughout the rest of class, the students tried to get me to say something in French. They even asked in English. But I would not relent.

Finally when the bell rang and everyone began packing up to leave, I graced them with the words they had been longing to hear, “Okay, le cours est fini,” (in French) and smirked at the looks on their surprised little faces. “Aha!” they said to each other triumphantly, in a French version of “I told you so.”

“But shhh,” I whispered jokingly to the class. “Don’t tell anyone that I speak French.”

“Don’t worry, it will be our little secret,” they said and smiled, clambering noisily out of the room.

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Winter Weather

H1N1 and the Catholic Church

I haven’t actually heard of anyone in the area getting Swine Flu (though I don’t read the local paper so maybe I’m just misinformed), but I thought it quite interesting that at church today, percautions are being taken to prevent its spread. First of all, communion may only be taken in one’s hands at the moment, they don’t serve wine so don’t have to worry about that, and secondly, the Sign of Peace (where everyone hugs, shakes hands, or – in France – does “les bises”) has been temporarily “modified.” To avoid any human contact, they have asked us to now put our hands together in a  prayer pose, turn to our neighbors and slightly bow, saying “Peace be with you” (the French phrase is slightly different but I can’t remember it at the moment). After doing the Sign of Peace the other way for all of my life, I definitely felt a bit strange changing the motions, but I understand their concern. And in everyday situations I have seen several French people not do their normal “bises” greeting because they have “un rhume” (a cold) or something similar. Oh Swine Flu, please just go away so things can get back to normal.

The White Stuff

It has been pretty cold and gray since I arrived back in Annecy, but the main reason I can tell that winter is definitely on its way is because snow has begun to grace the tops of the surrounding mountains! In the Alpes, this means two things: it’s getting cold (5 degrees C outside my apartment, 1 degree C in the mountains), and ski season is almost here! It seems like one in every three people I meet either loves to ski or used to before they got hurt or are too old to do it any more. This is great for me considering that I am a relative novice to the sport (I’ve only been skiing once about 5 or 6 years ago in New Hampshire) so there are lots of people to help me get the hang of things again.

La Cluzac - Nov. 8 (1)

La Clusaz

I will probably join one of the local ski clubs – Clup Alpine d’Annecy – which offers discounts on ski days, transportation to various resorts nearby, and also accident insurance, but I have practically no actual ski gear or clothing. So today we traveled about 25 minutes up the mountains to La Clusaz to check out all the sales that are going on. I wasn’t sure exactly how ski pants were supposed to fit (I tried them on over my pants because there was no real privacy in the changing area – a.k.a. a kitchen with the door wide open for all shoppers to see in), so I decided to pass on those and just ended up buying a jacket that should keep me nice and waterproof while I’m hitting the slopes. Apparently there’s a second-hand shop somewhere in Annecy where I may be able to find some ski pants and gloves (the cheapest I saw today were 25 euro/~$36 so I decided to wait on those as well).

I should be able to rent skis and ski boots, so once I’ve got the proper clothing, I should be all set! The trick is to find it cheaply…

P.S. I also tried “vin chaud” for the first time today. Friends tell me it’s like mulled wine – smells absolutely delicious and so Christmasey – doesn’t taste quite as wonderful but is still nice and warm!

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Taking Care of Business

Once again, so much has happened since my last post. I will tell you now that after my quite content 1/2 hour in the Venetian hotel parlor, we went out for dinner and showed up back at the hotel soaking wet and resembling drowned rats (the rain and wind had picked up on our way home so that umbrellas were pretty much useless so we just had to run!). Needless to say, the elderly gentleman maning the desk that evening did a double-take when we arrived and cautiously wished us good evening as we tracked puddles into his pristine lobby. It was a horrible yet amazingly funny experience and every inch of radiator space in our hotel room was covered in you-name-it clothing items and shoes that needed to be dried out that night.

The gang in our soaking spendor...

The gang in our soaking spendor...

All in all, the Italy trip was beautiful and a lot of fun. Our last stop, Verona, ended up being my favorite because it was just after Venice (so we were in need of a break from water) and turned out to be a beautiful sunny day even though rain had been in the forecast. It was also a bit warmer so that we occasionally took off our jackets and basked in the sunlight in only our sweaters and scarves. lol. Oh Europe is SO different temperature-wise to South Louisiana!

Italie Part 1 - Oct 30-Nov 3 030

The Duomo in Milan

Italie Part 1 - Oct 30-Nov 3 133

View of a hill of the medieval Citta Alta (Upper City) of Bergamo

Italie Part 1 - Oct 30-Nov 3 401

Park in Padua

Venice - Nov 1-3 (38)

Gray day on the Grand Canal - Venice

Verona - Nov 3-09 (177)

A beautiful sunset over Verona's old town - viewed from the Roman Theater ruins across the river

Inspite of enjoying myself, I was quite elated when we crossed through the Mt. Blanc tunnel and back onto French soil on Wednesday afternoon. This was mainly because I really don’t like being in a country whose language I can’t at least make a decent attempt at speaking (makes me feel like an ignorant American). And of course I understand that I can’t be expected to learn the language of EVERY country that I visit, but I feel as if I will not be satisfied until I know at least two (French and Spanish) so I’ve got a long way to go in that department.

Speaking of French, I’ve been testing myself lately to see how much I am improving and it seems like my listening skills are definitely getting better. Speaking is doing okay, though I am not learning quite as much as I would if I lived with native Frenchies. My vocabulary is growing every day just by talking with the teachers at my schools (who are more than happy to explain words that I don’t understand), reading Harry Potter (the first one, in a junior edition – so glad I’m working on that first and didn’t just immediately go to the big books!), and watching reruns of familiar American TV shows in French. And I just got a library card yesterday (6 euro for a 3-month subscription that I can renew once more while I am here – yes, you have to pay for a library card in France and mine’s the cheapest since it’s only temporary) so I checked out a few travel books in French which I am having no trouble reading (YAY) while I plan my Christmas sojourn with Elise (did I tell you she was coming to visit?)

I have also received a paper giving me a French social security number and telling me to choose a doctor so next week I’ll be wandering around the area looking for someone to sign my form and make me officially part of the French health care system. I think I also need to go for an actual check-up but I haven’t received anything telling me when that will be yet…

Regardless, the holiday is over and now it’s time to get back to work! The weather certainly seems to agree as it is now more gray and cold (“faire un temps de Toussaint” is apparently a phrase that people use at this time – means that the weather in November isn’t the best so I’d better get used to it). Can’t wait for December and Christmas decorations!

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