Trip Start Aug 31, 2008
9Trip End May 21, 2009
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"What?" I mean "Quoi?!!"
He made a big to-do about doing me the grand favor of printing it off anyway and then told me to run like mad. Which I did with all 50 pounds on my back (lucky for me I was traveling about 10 pounds lighter!). I ran like mad the whole length of the train while the train men cheered me on. I kept trying to sneak on a car (why not just get ON the damn thing and then walk back to my car) but oh non! NON. NON. NON. Not in France my friends! Finally, when the train actually began to roll, one of the train men waved me on. It's never taken me that long to catch my breath!
I had had the manager at the hostel in Paris phone the school director, Madame Le Roux, to have her tell the family that I would be arriving a day earlier than planned. However, no one was there to greet me when I got off the train. I wandered about like a desperate person and tried to make myself visible, exaggerating my lost look but...to no avail. I finally sat down outside in front of the main station and waited.
An hour later I realized I had to face another sad reality...my family was not coming. If they had come, somehow we'd missed each other. I tried to make phone calls with the useless phone card I had and finally walked up to a taxi driver, now not having to try at all to look desperate and pointed to the address on a piece of paper. I asked him how much the house. "Dix euros," he says. I pondered this a minute while he ran to another car and pulled out a map. He began to explain to me that it was not far, less than a kilometer. Another young taxi driver approached and they talked amongst themselves about how I was lost, that I spoke English, blah, blah, blah. Now, this is the part where usually I've been lucky in the past. This is when the taxi driver was supposed to say, "Hey, no problem, I'll take you. Let's make it 5. It is after all less than a kilometer away."
Clearly, it was not to be. Obviously I was incredibly naive to believe that one of these frogs might actually be so kind as to help a pathetic damsel in distress. As the first taxi driver continued on with his explanation of how to get to the house, I began to cry. Yep. Once again, France has stimulated my tear ducts like nowhere else!! I took the map from him and headed down the street, sobbing all the way. I didn't even care what I looked like to people. I just cried and cried as I walked, pausing at street lights to consult the map.
Luckily, it really wasn't too far. A couple of turns and fifteen minutes later I was there. Not that this mattered to me much at the time. I arrived at 22 Rue Marceau and stood in front of a huge, wooden double door on an enormous concrete building. The house is on one of those typically tiny European alleyways where only one car fits and others park on the sidewalk. Mind you, European cars. You'd never get an Expedition in these alleyways!
I looked at the doorbell, there were about 6 names and 2 of them had the last name I was looking for so I picked one and pressed the buzzer. A lady answered in French and I said "Allo, bonjour. C'est Graciela." She jabbered something else and buzzed me in. I actually had the right house.
Immediately I was in awe at how old this building was. But from the outside you would never know people actually live on the other side. The doors are enormous, 20 feet tall and solid wood. The locks are old, requiring one of those huge keys that look like toys nowadays. A petite blond woman, fiftyish, opened the door and just started yammering away. I knew it was the right house because she kept saying she had been at the train station. I told her when I had arrived and we went back and forth about it but to this day I'm not sure what the confusion was.
She began to give me the grand tour. An excited Golden Retriever with a sweater in his mouth followed us through the house. The house is huge. Every room has a minimum 20 foot ceiling. I can tell that at one time it was a grand maison. There is a courtyard off of the dining room, the equivalent of our "backyard." She showed me to my room and on the way I thought I might forget how to make my way back out. You must go down a very narrow stairway that has a dungeon-like feel. Then you make two turns, past a "rec" room with a pool table and a television (which I have never seen turned on) and another room that was to be the other student's and finally you are at my door. I was very pleased to step inside that room. It is quaint and cozy. The windows are open and toward the top of them (again the window frames are probably 8 feet tall by 3 feet wide) the outside is visible and sunlight pours through creating a very nice atmosphere in my room. There is a small desk with a lamp to do my homework and a walk-in closet with a dresser inside of it. Better than I expected. And most importantly, FINALLY, a place to unpack, settle-in and not be a "traveler."
Dinner is served at about 8p.m. each evening except for Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays when Catherine works until late and we eat at about 8:30 or 9:00p.m. Hell would freeze over before Mr.Verine would actually prepare dinner. Unlike the typical French mother/woman, I don't think Catherine is a fan of "le cuisine". She doesn't particularly like to cook. This, I'm told is unusual and according to the director of my school, Ms. Le Roux, my French mom is lucky to have a man that puts up with this. Lucky indeed!
Despite her lack of enthusiasm for the cuisine I am not displeased with the meals. They have all been good and dinner time is probably the best lesson in French culture that I get all day. I watch them carefully and try to mimic their etiquette which I assure you is no simple thing. When in doubt, I ask and I recieve enthusiastic instructions on the correct way to do things. For example, never put a piece of bread with cheese in your mouth that you would have to bite off. In other words, tear the piece into a ladylike bite size morsel and THEN place it in your mouth, no tearing off your bite with your teeth. Cheese and bread are served after the main course which I love. There are usually 3 or 4 to choose from on the platter. Some of are the special French sort that have been fermenting and percolating for months full of "aroma" and taste. I have not convinced my palette to appreciate these yet and usually stick to the safer, cleaner looking types. I do love the cheese. Red wine is served every evening although I notice that only Mr.Verine and I indulge in several glasses. Catherine always drinks water and a part of me senses perhaps she thinks I should too...Cognac is only for the men according to Frederic (you can imagine my thoughts on that) and fruit or yogurt follows the cheese course if you so choose. You never put cold food on the plate with hot food as we learned when Aciel dared to try to put tomato salad on her plate with her au gratin potatoes and sausage. This attempt brought a quick reaction from Mr. Verine who advised she should never "mix" the hot and cold foods on the plate. Okey dokey. I realize this probaby sounds a bit hoity toity and silly but I sort of enjoy their strict love of the art of eating. They don't take it lightly and being such a foody myself I sort of appreciate this deep "appreciation" if that makes any sense.
My family is old fashioned. They love classical music and it reverberates throughout the house on a daily basis. One day upon stepping out of the shower I thought I was hearing the radio tuned to a classical station. On my way to the courtyard where I was headed to sit in the sun and let my hair dry I passed the living room with Catherine seated at the piano playing away. I oohlala-ed a lot and told her I was impressed which I think pleased her. She told me she wants to quit her part time job because she would really like to practice 4 hours a day. That was not a joke.
There are some quirky contradictions, however, when it comes to all this etiquette and sophistication. France seems full of irony and contractions to me. Despite the fact that I must make my best effort not to touch the cheese with my hands when I am cutting it (this is not easy), Hudson freely pokes his jowels up on the table at every mealtime. This dog gets away with murder and his food plate along with Tweety's, the black cat, are washed and used in the same places as human plates. Not eating things in the right order is punishable by death but lighting up a cigarette at the dinner table and puffing away while non-smokers finish their meal is acceptable.
A woman would be seen as totally easy if she was to accept a man's advances the first time. She must make him try and try again to win her affection. Anything short of this is seen as unladylike behavior and strongly frowned upon. But extramarital affairs are supposedly extremely prevalent. That's not to say they are any less so in any other culture. But it's the "appearances" and their importance that strikes me here. Women on average are especially beautiful. They are always well dressed and much effort is put into what they wear and the way they look. It's the same for men...which is the part that's new to me. Men appear to actually enjoy shopping...even with and for women. It is not unusual to see a man in a lingerie shop, a shoe store, a women's clothing store. I've seen a dozen men buying femenine things and no, not for themselves.
First day of school involved a test to ascertain our level of French and place us accordingly. I knew within seconds of looking at this test that I would be placed in the lowest level possible. It was a purely written test and it asked that we write in the past and future tenses, both things I have completely forgotten. I finished rather quickly and sat for quite some time while other students who could actually perform the instructed exercises wrote and wrote. As expected I was placed in the very beginner class. There are students from all over the world, lots of South Americans which surprised me. A few Americans, thought not many.
By the second or third day of class it became apparent to me that I was a bit too advanced for the class and I think the teacher/director agreed. I have been transferred to the next level which is a bit challenging but I feel it will be better for me than the first class, even if I feel a bit exhausted trying to keep up. The entire class is conducted in French. No translation. This is actually a very good method of language instruction but it is challenging and tiresome.
Class is every day from 9:00a.m. to noon. Aciel and I leave the house at about 20 till and walk to class. I love starting the day with a brisk walk. Indeed school is probably the best part of my day. I am so anxious, if impatient to learn but at times I feel I am facing such a daunting task, even an impossible one. French is not an easy language to learn. It is immensely helpful that I speak both English and Spanish as both share many commonalities with French. I would be lost without the Spanish I think! But even so, it is very, very difficult. I have my doubts that I will be able to achieve the level I was hoping for in the amount of time I have allotted. Time will tell.
At the end of my first week here in Montpellier I have finally made some friends, and French ones to boot! Well, some British but some French as well. It's sort of a long story involving a chain of acquaintances but it all started with a young English bloke named Gareth that I met in Paris the first night I was there. He had a friend, Nick, who is living in Montpellier and through Nick I have met some local French people as well. Last Friday night I went out with a rather large group all of which were French people. This made me very happy. Most of them spoke English to a degree and a couple were kind enough to patiently speak to me in French and listen to my toddler babble. They were very nice people, young professionals and some students. My hopes that there are nice French people in France are slowly being redeemed!
This last Sunday I attended an enormous fair where there were stalls of all the associations/clubs/groups in the city that one might be interested in joining. I found information on yoga classes as well as a photographer's club. I was amazed at the size and variety of cultural activities and groups in the city. It was pretty cool. I am hoping that through a few of these I can also practice French and meet new people. I am also eager to find other activities to take up my time other than school, reading and napping. Nine months of that will get old really quick.
Alas, in the last few days I have started to feel some semblance of belonging. Well, that's pushing it, perhaps not "belonging" but at least not complete isolation.
In other imortant news, I have also decided that it is in my best interest to seek out another place to live as soon as I can. Fellow students and friends have been telling me all about the arduous process of finding what they call a "collocation", where a group of students/young people (younger than me usually) live together and rent out rooms in a house or apartment. It does not sound easy to accomplish but it does sound worthwhile. For one thing it will be much cheaper and I would prefer to live with young people. Though my family has been kind and I enjoy the family structure of dinners, it is pretty much only at dinner that I feel a part of the family. I feel more like a boarder than anything else. Perhaps my understanding of the cultural exchange was incorrect. From the sound of things, many people host a foreign student out of need, perhaps more than out of an interest in the cultural exchange aspect of it. Not what I had hoped for. With any luck I will move out in the next month or two. Have already made contact with a few people who might also be looking for "collocation" mates, now it's just a matter of finding a maison!
So my time in Montpellier has been good in comparison to my time in Paris. The city is very charming. I especially love it at night when there is still plenty of life buzzing in the cafes and restaurants if a little less hectic and fast paced than it is during the day. I feel as though I am staring into one big traffic circle that looks pretty fun but I am still on the outside wanting to jump in and be part of the flow. I sense that once I am, it might be very pleasurable indeed.