Saturday, June 5, 2010

Playing catch up

The last week in Orléans was busy and stressful, so the blog was put on hold.  Since being home, I've had time to finish my post about Ireland and the South of France as well as posting my thoughts on leaving and my joy of the French seasons.  There are 3 new posts below and I'm currently working on one about being "on the other side".

I want to thank everyone who supported me during my time abroad - I can't say how much it meant to me to know that there were people rooting for me and sending their love.  So thank you to everyone for all those good wishes and thanks to all who read!

Thoughts on leaving

It’s very hard to believe that in one week I’ll be on a plane, Razu by my feet, going home.  It’s an odd feeling.  On the one hand, I’m so very excited to see everyone that I’ve missed, on the other hand I know that what I’m leaving, I can’t come back to.  It’s not that I can’t come back to France - it’s that if I do, it won’t be the same.  The people that I’ve shared these 7-8 months with are some of the most incredible people and, of course, they won’t be here.  But beyond that,  after 8 months, I do finally feel like I live here.  And that feeling of comfort (most likely shaped enormously by the good weather) makes it hard to go elsewhere.  I felt the same way leaving home in the first place - I was leaving something really comfortable and moving into the unknown.  This time, I’m leaving a place of comfort and going back to my previous comfort space - but will it be the same?  Will I feel the same?  It’s a big question.  

Some of the Seasons

One thing that was always a surprise in France was how different each season looked.

From my window/skylight a view of each season:

Late fall/early winter



Ireland and the South of France

Volcano be damned, Seamus and I did make it to Ireland.  There were some looming ash cloud problems the two days before Seamus and I traveled - affecting only Ireland, Scotland and parts of England.  Go figure.  But on our scheduled day of travel the skies were clear - which was good.

Our morning started off with a final climbing of the Joan statue with Caitlin.  We had to sneak around a very lazy security guard to sit on our favorite monument, but it was no problem and a nice, bittersweet goodbye to Joan from the three of us.  Afterward we confirmed that we were good to travel and said an incredibly sad goodbye.  It was like losing a piece of my heart saying goodbye to Caitlin - but I know that we will meet up again.

We had an uneventful trip to Ireland and spent most of the time with Seamus’ family - which was absolutely lovely.  We went on a beautiful hike up to see a Cairn built by travelers leaving Ireland, which gave us a really nice view of the area:

We also went on a day trip to Donegal - which is gorgeous!  Seamus’ parents did all the driving and we even took a ferry across:

looking at Donegal

We did a very cute hike to see a waterfall:

And then visited some gorgeous beaches.  Who knew that Ireland had such nice beaches?

Seamus and I visited Belfast for a day and spent most of the time trying to stay out of the cold.  We also did a fair bit of shopping.  But mostly, we just hung around chez - Seamus and enjoyed his family.  There was a wii tournament and actual bowling along with a lot of wonderful meals.

After 6 nice, lazy days we left for Nice - which was very nice, but not lazy at all!  We got into our hostel at about 10 - only to find out that they were overbooked.  They asked, very nicely, if they could put us in the ‘overflow’ room under the very noisy bar, in exchange for a ‘private’ room the next night.  I asked if we really had a choice, and was told no.  So off to the incredibly noisy overflow room we went.  Not only was the bar noise bad, but some of the people in our room were worse!  One guy didn’t seem to understand the concept of shutting the door (at 3 am) so that was fun.

The next day we hauled our very tired selves off the Chagall museum - which was incredible!  I do believe that Chagall is my favorite painter (or one of them) so it was really wonderful to see some of his earlier works as well as some more obscure paintings.  We had lunch at their very cute cafe and then headed down toward the beach. And what a beach! 

Afternoon sunshine

 Beautiful sunset

It was a beautiful morning/ early afternoon so we drank in some sunshine and people watched at a cafe.  Seamus really wanted to visit Cannes (the film festival was on), so after getting turned around and drenched by the sudden rain we finally managed to get to the train station and to Cannes.  Which was something of a let down.  What did we see?  About 1000+ irritating tourists looking for famous people, the building where the festival was held and the train station.  So, unless you like looking for famous people along with 1000+ tourists, there isn’t much to see.  Seamus was really disappointed.  We hopped on the next train and fled.  Safe and sound back in Nice, we finished off our evening with drinks and dinner and then dragged ourselves back to the hostel.  We were indeed given a private room, but I spent the entire night convinced that my bunk had bed bugs ... which it didn’t.  I think I was just too tired.

The next day we were up bright and early and off to Marseilles!  I had literally no expectations for the city - and was pleasantly rewarded!  We spent what was left of the morning (after a surprisingly long train ride) wandering aimlessly, bumped into an incredible church:

and had a less than satisfying lunch.  I am always baffled by how many non-tourists (better known as locals) will eat at a crappy restaurant ... why do they go back if it isn’t very good?  

After lunch we wandered toward the cool old part of the city (but got lost first) and learned that the very famous Chateau d’If is just off the coast of Marseilles!  Seamus was incredibly excited and persuaded me to get on the boat (“remember sailing in Italy?” “Yeah, but this boat will go faster, it’ll be ok”).  Our boating excursion wasn’t for 45 minutes, so we parked ourselves at a cafe, had a beer and people watched.  It was lovely.

I’m happy to report that Seamus was indeed right, and I didn’t get sea sick on the way over.  Also, the Chateau d’If and its little island are incredible!  

The prison

We spent a good hour wandering around and reading the 5 million signs inside the old prison (most of them about the various movies that have been filmed there and what Dumas based his characters on) while enjoying the incredible views:

A view of Marseilles

The island / ocean

Before leaving Marseilles, we headed over to an ancient church that has been around since roman times (it was a necropolis back in the day).  I have to admit, I really don’t like cemeteries or other things having to do with, or related to, dead people.  But I couldn’t resist the lure of this church.  And so, after paying 2 euro to see the crypt, I decidedly creeped myself out and spent most of the time not actually looking at anything other than basic structural objects.  There are no pictures of anything in the church because I was much too creeped out.  (even the relics were creepy - one had a whole skull in it ... shudder).  

That evening we made our way to Arles in Provence (which took some luck since the trains were being a bit erratic, and ours ended up leaving 30 minutes later than it was supposed to).  We got into the ancient roman town around 9 pm, and tummies rumbling immediately headed off in search of dinner.  I have long been intrigued by provençal cuisine and was delighted to discover that most restaurants had something traditional on the menu.  We settled for a place right next to the roman arena and I tucked into a plate of aioli.  Aioli usually refers to a garlic mayonnaise sauce, but in Provence it is a complete dish of boiled vegetables (mine had carrots, green beans and cauliflower), a baked potato (which can also be boiled), boiled fish (typically cod) and a hard boiled egg all served the aioli sauce.  Wikipedia tells me that this is correctly called Le Grand Aïoli.  All I have to say is, it re-inspired me to continue traveling, gave me faith in french food once again and made me ecstatically happy.  The fish was tender, flaky and moist.  The green beans were fresh, slightly salty and well buttered.  The cauliflower, which typically is not a favorite of mine, disappeared.  And the aioli.  What can I even say?  It was, simply, divine.  It was tangy and smooth, the garlic was a clean taste and it perfectly went with every item on the plate (even the hard boiled egg).  It was perfection.  Even Seamus loved it and he hates fish, cauliflower and eggs (the sauce was that good).  

The next morning I planned to venture to the large outdoor market, but thanks to a combination of severe allergies (thank you winds) and sleep deprivation, I simply didn’t make it.  Instead I settled for a trip to a boulangerie across town (about a 5 minute walk) and phoning in a reservation for L'Atelier de Jean-Luc Rabanel.  I can honestly say that I have no idea what we did for lunch, but sometime in the early afternoon we headed to Avignon in an attempt to go see the Pont de Gard.  Now, my allergies were so awful for the duration of my time in Provence that a lot of my memory is fuzzy - Provence suffers from extreme winds called the mistral.  Let’s just say that they weren’t much fun at all and we spent a lot of time with sand in our eyes and me attempting to scratch my own face off.  SO, we had planned to catch a bus in Avignon that would take us to the famous roman aquaduct so that we could canoe down the river that flows underneath it.  Upon our arrival in Avignon we discovered that there was only 1 bus to the Pont de Gard on weekends - at 4:30.  So, we had a good three hours to see beautiful Avignon.  We decided to spend it by exploring the Palace des Papes (Pope’s Palace) which was a massive building sparsely filled.  After about an hour we decided that we had seen enough stone walls and large ceilings and decided to call it a day.  But, lo and behold, on our way out we entered a delicious smelling room ... of wine!  Apparently the palace isn’t famous for just being papal, but also for having an excellent cellar.  Not being one to pass on a wine tasting, we settled in for a beginners foray into exceptional Côtes du Rhone wines.  The highlight was by far and away the 2005 Châteauneuf du Pape.  Just as we were starting to realize the effects of a good bit of wine on an empty stomach (oh, that’s right! We didn’t have lunch, which is why I couldn’t remember it!) I made the mistake of looking at my watch and discovering that we had 40 minutes before our bus left.  Two bottles of wine in hand we misguidely perused the gift shop and then ran as fast as possible to the bus station getting hopelessly lost along the way.  After asking directions from a bar owner and two policemen we finally made it to the bus station ... 2 minutes after the bus had departed (the only time a bus in France has ever been on time ... sigh).  Disappointed, we purchased train tickets back to Arles and spent our waiting time in a cafe (drinking coffee).  Safe and sound back in Arles we headed off for dinner where we an absolutely incredible woman from Maine.  She was dining alone, and having traveled alone before, my heart went out to her, and after giving her a smile over a raised glass of wine she struck up a conversation with us.  We talked for well over an hour on all kinds of subjects and thoroughly enjoyed every minute.  At the end of it all she insisted on paying for our dinner and then disappeared.  It was like meeting an angel.  I really cannot say just how profoundly she affected me.   

The following day was the big day - the day where I got to realize all my french food eating hopes and dreams -- it was our Sunday lunch at L'Atelier de Jean-Luc Rabanel.  This restaurant was the whole reason for visiting Arles and something I had been looking forward to for, literally, months.  We arrived woefully underdressed but were treated with utmost respect.  After settling in we were given the choice of a 7 or 13 course lunch.  Knowing the limits of our stomachs (and wallets) we chose the 7 course option.  Now, this lunch wasn’t cheap, but we both had been saving up for the experience and it was, not only a treat after finishing our work contract, but our last big meal in France.  Also, as a dedicated foodie, it was something that I needed to experience.  

Now, to save you from literal pages of my meal being describes, I’m just going to talk about some of the highlights:

- When presented with the overwhelming wine list and the option to choose a course by course wine pairing, I put my monetary concerns aside and opted for a small glass of wine paired by a sommelier with each course.  Seamus opted for water.  After noticing me giving a taste of champagne to Seamus, the waiters offered to split my wine evenly with him for the same cost.  We both got to share the wine for just one price!  How awesome is that!

- The artichoke course which consisted of an artichoke and dumpling soup and one of the most interesting and best white wines I’ve ever had.  The sommelier described it as an atypical wine with hints of artichoke.  And it was indeed an atypical wine - it was minerally, light and had a very faint taste of artichoke.  Which is incredible!  Artichokes are a real problem for wines - they usually make most wines taste overly sweet - this wine however was absolutely made to go with artichokes and even complemented their taste!  Perfection!

- A fried piece of licorice that perfectly matched its dish.  I would’ve never thought of a piece of candy matching a savory dish, but it did!

- The meat course which not only had a ridiculously rich, falling apart, tender piece of beef, but tiny new potatoes, fresh peas and a rich yet subtle sauce.  The potatoes put all other potatoes I’ve eaten to shame.  They were tender, their skin was blistered and crunchy and they yielded just slightly to the bite and then melted with buttery perfection.  

- Receiving lovely complements on our french speaking abilities.

- Discovering that tapioca can indeed be tasty.

- Rosemary macaroons served with coffee. Savory and sweet, they matched the end of meal exhaustion and didn’t leave a sickly sweet taste in the mouth.

- Realizing, upon leaving, that lunch had lasted close to 4 hours.  Also realizing that we had no idea we’d spent so much time on a such a wonderful meal.  

- Not needing to eat again until breakfast the next day.

It was the meal of a lifetime and something I’m so glad I got to experience.  If I’m ever given the chance to eat there again I will have no doubts and saunter in (better dressed this time) for yet another 7 course food and wine pairing.

The late afternoon consisted of napping, reading and playing cards.  That evening we decided to go out for a drink (food really was not even necessary) and met up with our new friend - the wonderful woman from Maine.  We bought her a drink and listened to her adventures and spent about 2 hours soaking up her wonderful company.  Before her arrival, Seamus and I had been talking about how funny it felt to be going home 10 days - and the uncertainties that accompany such a change.  Would people be the same?  Would our friends still be our friends?  Could we handle a long distance relationship?  I had been feeling especially worried about Americans in general after our experiences in Nice and Cannes (the worst examples of tourism and individuals from any country) and wondered if I had changed so that I no longer fit in with my own countrymen?  But our wonderful friend not only dissolved all my worries, but made me proud of all the wonderful characteristics that make up Americans.  In so many ways I had forgotten about not generalizing and opening myself up to meeting people.  She really was my angel.

On our last day of vacation and last day in Arles we took some time to see the big sites - the Roman arena and theater.  They were very cool but thanks to my horrific allergies, I wasn’t really able to enjoy them much.

The Roman Theater

A view of Arles

The roman arena

  Our train left Arles around 3:30 - and we had a very interesting ride.  We had a transfer in Lyon and then another transfer in Paris - so we needed for things to be on time.  Well ... they weren’t.  Our first train spent 30 minutes in a random train station because, “A staff member was missing.”  What does that mean?  Either, a) the staff member was on an extended smoke break, b) the staff member was late to work, or c) they were making a random excuse for some other problem.  Thanks to the “missing staff member” we missed our train to Paris by 3 minutes and had to wait an hour for the next one.  By the time we got back to Orléans (at close to 1 am) we’d been traveling for over 10 hours.  

Friday, May 21, 2010

sorry for the delay

So, a very short post to say that the vacation was amazing!  Now, I'm back in reality and dealing with closing out bank accounts (or not), and the CAF and all the other things that I signed up for.... It's going surprisingly easy, but there is a ton to do.

So, I'll do my vest best to finish the blog entry I started about my travels, but don't hold your breath!

Oh, and I come home in 6 days ... wow...

Sunday, May 2, 2010

And in the end...

As of last Friday I am officially unemployed.  It's hard to believe my time teaching is over, and it's a very bittersweet feeling.  

My last week of classes was shortened by a day thanks to a SEMTAO strike.  No public transportation for a whole day? Yeah, not going to walk 1.5 hours round trip for a 50 minute class. 

Tuesday I had 4 parties thrown for me, which were absolutely adorable.  I brought some Big Red gum to share (that had been sitting in a cupboard for 7 months... it was still good) which was the cutest thing ever.  French people, in general, don't like spicy food.  Big Red gum?  Turned their faces red and encouraged a lot of coughing.  Too cute.  I had a bag of candy to calm their delicate palates, which was much appreciated.  My second group of students brought a ton of sweets, gave me a handmade card and a bar of chocolate and gave me 1 million complements.  Here's a picture of me with the class:

Such amazing people

After saying some very sad goodbyes, I met with my next class (who I wasn't supposed to see, but took on an extra hour just to say goodbye).  When they all came in, I noticed right away that 3 girls were missing.  I asked another student where they were and she told me that she couldn't tell me, but please don't mark them late.  At this point I had to laugh, first of all, I don't know how to mark students late (in 7 months no one was late to my class...) second of all, it wasn't a very good cover.  About 5 minutes later the girls returned, cake in hand!  So sweet!

As I was going to leave for lunch, several students came back in and took a lot of pictures and gave me a lot of compliments.  As I was walking out, two girls stayed and chatted with me and told me that I was a great teacher (which made me feel very good).  I will miss that class - they are all just awesome.

After lunch I had two groups of secondes (my youngest age group) and the teacher had arranged for them to bring food and drinks and she brought a ton of candy as well.  One girl brought a homemade pear and strawberry tart!  Another brought what I can only describe as French brownies - both were incredible!  We talked and enjoyed the sweets and I was talked into trying a dozen different types of candy - if I politely declined the response was always, "But Madame, it is my favorite you must try!"  I had a 3 hour sugar high following those two groups!

The next day I taught a regular class (they were being punished, apparently, for bad behavior) and then had another party in my honor by another group of secondes.  They also brought a ton of candy and brownies and gave me a very nice card.  It was really very sweet.  They were such a good group of kids!  

Thursday ended up being very anti-climatic.  I turned in my keys and copy card and that was it.  No big goodbyes, nothing dramatic.  My teachers will be taking me out for a drink or dinner sometime after I get back from my upcoming vacation.

Being done with teaching is bit surprising.  I'm surprised how fast it went - although memory is fuzzy - there were days that went on forever and weeks where I dragged myself to work.  I do feel that my stint as a teacher was successful - once I realized that I couldn't really teach much in terms of english (seeing students one hour every other week isn't good for learning) and decided to focus on just making them feel loved and respected and trying to improve their confidence things went much easier for me.  And based on the conversations I had this past week, I seemed to have succeed in that respect.  More than one student told me that I was like no other teacher in France and that they really felt loved.  So, I'm glad that I could do that successfully.

There are so many things and emotions going on this week - amazing people are leaving and I don't know when/ if I'll ever get to see them again.  Re-entry has become a surprising thing to think about.  My emotions are so very mixed - I can't wait to go home, but I also feel like I'm leaving one of the most amazing experiences of my life.  It's so funny, I want to go home and I don't, I want to stay with all these people but I can't.  It's a funny thing. 

Thursday I'm off to Ireland to visit Seamus' family and see some Irish countryside and then I'm off to Nice and Provence for 5 days of sun and fun before returning to Orléans with 10 days remaining to sort out bills and accounts and packing before I come home May 27th.  I can't believe the end is here, it seems like yesterday that I got here and at the same time a million years since I left home.