Monday, December 17, 2012

Closing Time

Well, this semester in France is almost to an end. I’m both happy and sad about this. I’ve had a great time exploring France, and a wonderful opportunity to reflect on my life and my future plans. Time away from friends, family, and life as I know it has really made me appreciate everything I have and made me grateful for the freedom life as a United States citizen gives me.  

After class last Wednesday I headed to Agde to prepare for the Assistants’ Christmas dinner. I stayed with my wonderful host from Thanksgiving – Natalie. On Thursday I went to Montpellier to visit my friend Kait and her French boyfriend Mathieu.  Although it was raining, we still had a wonderful visit. We chatted in a French café over coffee, then went to Mathieu’s house to make pasta for lunch.  Kait and Mathieu had just their PACS (civil solidarity pact), which comes with partnership rights and responsibilities, but not as much as a marriage would. After lunch, I walked around the Montpellier Christmas market and had some hot chocolate. 

On Friday Natalie and I started prepping for the party on Saturday – peeling sweet potatoes, stocking up on wine and baguettes, and listening to Christmas music…and then Natalie’s boyfriend texted her about the tragic shooting. We were shocked and immediately went online to read about it. Being so far from the United States makes news like that seem somewhat unreal. It’s horrifying, and yet life goes on. We spent the rest of the evening in a completely different mood, waiting for the news sites to post updates. One thing my French students always ask me about is gun control in the US. They don’t understand the way of thinking in the US, and how intrinsic the 2nd amendment is to our history.  Personally, I believe in stronger gun control, but how to achieve that in a way which does not cause a civil war – I do not know.  I do know that an event like this makes us all think about what we can do to help. My own response is just to try to be kind and patient with everyone I encounter – to try to do as much good and put forth positive energy into the world as I can. 

Friday turned into Saturday, the day of our Christmas dinner. There were 12 of us in all, meeting at Sophie’s apartment for the celebration. We had an amazing potluck dinner, with roast chicken, roasted potatoes, candied parsnips, marshmallow sweet potatoes, broccoli, mashed potatoes, salad, baguettes, wine, chocolate, cake, and cookies. We also opened our Secret Santa gifts. I received a pair of super soft gloves. After, we played Charades, and let me tell you – this group was amazing! Some of the titles guessed from the abstruse clues were incredible. It was a lot of fun, and a great way to celebrate life and enjoy the world even through the damper of the tragedy. 

Assistants' Christmas dinner

Natalie and Gwen with the pile of Secret Santa gifts
This is my last week of work before the holiday. I taught today, I teach tomorrow and Wednesday, and then Thursday morning I head to Paris to meet my cousin and a friend for a few days before hopping a plane back to Arkansas. I am incredibly thankful for my wonderful family, friends, and this amazing semester I’ve had in France. I have been so lucky and God has given me so much, my life sometimes seems like a dream!

Me and my cousin, who I get to see on Thursday!

Monday, December 10, 2012

Week-end in Bordeaux

I spent this last weekend in Bordeaux, visiting the family of a friend who lives in Arkansas.  The train from Mende left Wednesday at 3pm and I arrived in Bordeaux a little after midnight. Clothilde and Luc picked me up and we drove to their house, which is actually about 20 minutes outside of Bordeaux. They chose that location because it’s only 20 minutes to the city and 30 minutes to the real countryside. Their house is beautiful and rustic. They have a nice wood stove, which reminds me of my parents’ house in Arkansas.

When I awoke the following morning, Luc and Guilleume (Clothilde and Luc’s 14 year old son) had already left for work/school. Clothilde didn’t have to be in until 11am, so we went into the city together, and she told me to meet her back at her office around 4 or 5 pm. That gave me about 5 hours to explore the city. I was in luck – Bordeaux already has a Christmas market set up! I perused the market, sipping on a cup of delicious vin chaud. Next I explored the rue St. Catherine, which Clothilde told me is the longest pedestrian shopping street in France. I refrained from buying anything – my bags back to the States are already pretty full! But I sure did enjoy window-shopping. 

Christmas market
After I met Clothilde back at her office, we picked up Guilleume from school and then headed to the countryside near their house. We went down a long scenic winding road and arrived at a vineyard, where we bought snails from a woman who prepares them – a necessary process before cooking which takes several days. At home, Guilleume and I got to help Clothilde prepare a sauce and cook them! They weren’t my favorite food, but I felt authentically French! Clothilde asked me what they reminded me of, and I think they have close to the same texture and flavor as calamari.
Clothilde with the snails!
Me, cutting marinated red peppers for the sauce!
Guilleume - supposed to be stirring the sauce - playing with a snail (on his finger)!
The next day Clothilde took off work, and we went into the city to do her Christmas shopping. It’s nice how the French have individual shops for everything –  we made purchases at the small, independent toy store and the book shop – where I could have spent hours looking at the French cookbooks! That evening we drove by a huge Chateau vineyard. Of course, this is really the wrong time of year to be visiting vineyards, but it’s still interesting. 

The Chateau
Vineyard where we bought the escargots
Drink wine and live joyfully!
Saturday was a beautiful, clear day, so Luc, Clothilde, and I headed to the ocean for a picnic of fresh oysters, white wine, and foie gras on French baguettes. (Guilleume had a friend’s rugby game to go to.) After our picnic, we headed to the dunes. I thought we would never reach the top! 

Oysters at the Ocean!
Luc and me trudging up the dunes!
Clothilde found this lying on the beach!
That evening, we went to a neighbor’s house for a dinner party. There were 5-6 couples present, each with approximately 2 children…it was a large dinner party! I thought they had a really good idea – each couple brought about two appetizers and a bottle of wine or champagne, and we ate and ate and drank and ate! The hosts started with three bottles of wine covered in foil, and had a contest to see if anyone in the party could guess the region the wine came from…they didn’t do very well! But everyone had so much fun guessing! 

The adults, holding up their raw crabs for me to take a picture! I tried one - didn't have a second!
I had a wonderful time in Bordeaux. I think it’s probably my second favorite French city (after Annecy). However, my train ride home was NOT pleasant. On my first train (Bordeaux – Beziers), I sat across from a woman holding a sick toddler who alternatively threw up and cried. My second train (Beziers – Marvejols) was filled with middle and high school students heading back to boarding schools…extremely noisy with paperwads being thrown all over.  My third train (Marvejols – Mende) was a bit calmer, but arrived late. Although I don’t like driving, I will certainly appreciate not having to deal with issues like this when I’m back in Arkansas!

Today I returned to class! Less than two weeks until Christmas break – woo hoo!

Monday, November 26, 2012

Mamma Mia! It's Thanksgiving!

After my classes on Wednesday, I took a bus and two trains to get to Agde…remember Agde? The beautiful beachside town I visited during my first week of Fall break? Well, Natalie, the American teaching assistant for that town invited some of the other English assistants to her apartment to celebrate Thanksgiving. We were five girls in all – 3 Americans, a Canadian, and a British girl! It wasn’t exactly traditional, but it was great nevertheless! 

I arrived Wednesday night, and Thursday was filled with hustling and bustling to go market shopping, chop veggies, and peel sweet potatoes. Lucky for us, Thursday morning hosts a large food market in Agde. We bought cheeses (one was bright green! but super yummy) and fresh fruit and veggies at the open market before Natalie’s afternoon class. While Natalie was teaching class, I was in charge of chopping veggies for the crepe filling. 

Natalie, the wonderful hostess!
Our dinner menu consisted of: crepes with a veggie & cheese filling, mashed sweet potatoes with marshmallows, mashed potatoes, greek salad, stuffing, baguettes & French cheese, fruit salad, jello, chocolates, madelines, and – of course – wine.  I was in charge of the fruit salad, stuffing, and the chocolates.  I had bought loads of chocolate during my vacation, so I brought plenty of that – including Terry’s chocolate orange slices…with pop rocks in the chocolate! Originally, I was supposed to make cranberry sauce, but alas I could not find cranberries. So, with Natalie’s help, I decided to make a fruit salad instead. 

Amy’s Fruit Salad Recipe:
2 bananas
2 kiwis
a handful of grapes
1 apple
1 pear
1 lemon
mini marshmallows
Directions: Slice all fruit (except the lemon) into bite sized pieces, then squeeze the lemon juice onto the fruit, and add the marshmallows.

Making stuffing was just slightly more complicated. France doesn’t understand what stuffing is, so I improvised on the recipe! It wasn’t too difficult though, and turned out really yummy!

Amy’s Stuffing Recipe:
half a large loaf crispy French bread (not a baguette – the pain de campaigne)
approximately 1 cup vegetable broth
1 onion, sliced
3 cloves garlic, chopped into small pieces
1 cup sliced celery
olive oil
Directions: Tear the bread up into small pieces and place into oven to dry out. Heat the vegetable broth. Once the bread is toasted coat with broth until damp but not mushy. Sauté the garlic and onion in butter and olive oil, then add celery. Add to the bread mixture and mash together. Heat everything on the stovetop until hot.

The meal was a great success! We all ate until we were stuffed!  Before the meal, we went around the table and said something we are thankful for. This year, I have so many things to be thankful for: I am thankful to live in a free, democratic country; I am thankful to have wonderful friends who keep in touch even when I am far, far away; I am thankful to have a loving family who supports me through all my endeavors; I am thankful for my own good health along with that of my family and friends; I am thankful to be young and have the opportunity to travel. I am grateful to have so many things to be thankful for – sometimes I feel like the luckiest girl in the world!

Thanksgiving in France
Friday we spent being lazy and eating way too many leftovers. I am ashamed to think of how much chocolate we consumed! Saturday was an interesting day filled with transportation issues. A group of us met in Montpellier to see Mamma Mia performed in French. We had to take a bus from the city center to the theatre. Two stops from where we were to get off, a bunch of gypsies tried to enter the bus. At first, the bus driver wouldn’t let them and threatened to call the police, but they managed to push their way on. The bus driver relented but yelled that they had to pay the fare. Once they were on, they were noisy, rude, and smelled horrible. Luckily, we only had 2 bus stops to go.

The play was good! It had been awhile since I’d been to the theatre, which I love. I’d never seen Mamma Mia (the play or the movie) before, so it was a bit difficult to follow in French, but I was able to grasp the storyline. It was really entertaining. After, however, we had another transport problem! The bus stop we were supposed to go to had a sign redirecting us to the next bus stop. There, we waited with a group of about 12 other (French) people. We waited for about an hour total. Some of the French people were getting angry and called the bus system, and finally they sent a bus for us. I’m not really sure what happened, but I’ve about had my limit with public transport! Thankfully, I was able to get back on my scheduled train to Mende on Sunday, even though when I bought my ticket the train agent told me that I would have to wait and see – there might be a strike. However, the strike ended Friday, so I did not have an additional transport problem!

The theatre - before Mamma Mia! began
All in all, I had a great time in Agde with the other assistants, and I am very excited that we are planning a Christmas lunch on December 15 – the last weekend before Christmas break. We are also doing Secret Santa! I can’t believe it’s less than a month until Christmas break! Friends and family – if you want a souvenir from France, now’s the time to tell me!

Did I mention I have the best parents in the world who sent me a care package just in time for Thanksgiving? Well, I do, and they did. Thanks Mom and Dad for the reeses, smarties, makeup bag, socks, and teacher stickers!

The best parents!

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Fall Break 2012

I just got back from three weeks of travelling Europe. I was able to explore parts of France, Germany, and England. At times I could not believe that I was really so lucky! Other times I became homesick from the chance to spend time with American friends. Overall, it was an experience that I will forever cherish. 

Castle in Fussen, Germany
The biggest surprise that I received was how much I enjoyed Germany. The Germans are the friendliest, nicest people of any country I’ve visited, and German architecture is beautiful. I did not have any real desire to visit Germany in particular, and the way it came about was quite funny! My friend Robby from the US was supposed to go to Egypt for his vacation, but with the current political unrest and anti-American sentiment there, he thought twice about that. However, he had already bought his plane ticket. He was supposed to have a layover in Frankfurt, Germany, and so I told him I’d meet him in Germany and we could explore that country together! It was very lucky that our vacation times collided. He was coming during my second week of vacation, so I had to figure out what I wanted to do the first week, since the school dorms where I live close during the vacation period. 
Heidelberg, Germany

Anja, the German assistant, and I were talking about what we were going to do during vacation, and she mentioned that she and Gabrielle, the German teacher, were going to rent an apartment in Agde, a small seaside city, for the first week. This sounded nice and relaxing to me, so I joined them! We stayed in the Grau d’Agde, in an apartment only a five minute walk from the pier and the beach. Unfortunately, it was too chilly to sunbathe or swim, but it was beautiful. Anja and I rose early one morning to watch the sunrise, which was so spectacular that no picture could capture its beauty.  We also took a day trip to Carcassonne during our time in Agde. The ancient city was quite a sight, but not really worth the trip. I would not recommend it to future tourists in France. I would, however, definitely recommend visiting the Mediterranean (especially in warm weather!). 

Pier at the Grau d'Agde
Sunrise over the Mediterranean Sea
Carcassonne, France
After a week in Agde, I headed to Beziers to visit the French family of some US friends. The family was very kind, and I came at the right time as they had a party with champagne and caviar to celebrate one of the cousins receiving a medal at work! I was happy to be able to celebrate with them!

Celebration in Beziers
Next, I headed to Paris for a brief visit to my French host family. I taught my host sister, Constance, how to make chocolate chip cookies, and then took a tour of some touristy areas – Notre Dame and the Jardin des Tuilleries, where I took the opportunity to write some postcards. 

Paris, beautiful as ever
After two days in Paris, I took a train to Frankfurt. It was so great to get to visit with my friend Robby. We rented a car, which turned out being wayyyyyy more expensive than we planned, but it was nice to travel by car instead of public transportation for a change! Germany was absolutely lovely. I think it is my second favorite country (not including the US) to Ireland, but almost a tie! Whenever Robby and I would look confused, someone would always approach us to help give us directions! I was very impressed with the kindness of the Germans.  We also had the opportunity to stay with a German family. Robby went to high school with a German girl, so we stayed with her parents near Stuttgart, and her in Heidelberg.  They were all so kind, and I also got to learn about how many Germans still feel terrible about causing WWII, even if they were not even born before the war ended. I do not think it is the fault of anyone living, just as slavery is not the fault of anyone who simply happens to live in the South of the US today, but it is also good to remember past mistakes of the country. 

Inside of a German palace
We were able to visit many castles and cathedrals, an old medieval prison, the Nuremberg concentration camp memorial, the Porsche and Mercedes-Benz museums, and eat at many authentic German restaurants. I love German “bretzels” which are super yummy soft pretzels. The Germans do soft pretzels like the French do baguettes!

Robby and me in front of a German castle in Fussen
 I was originally supposed to return to Mende on November 14, to teach a class the next day, but the class was canceled, so my vacation time was extended to three whole weeks! I took this lucky break to visit England. Austin, a friend from high school, is in the Air Force in England. He lives in Bury-St. Edmunds, and had been asking me to visit since I am interested in joining the Air Force. When he picked me up from the airport, he told me I was going to the wrong side of the car. I stared at him in surprise, thinking he wanted me to drive. Not at all – I had forgotten that the British drive on the left side of the road, and therefore the driver’s seat is on the right-hand side of the car! It was a bit scary at first, seeing the headlights coming from the “wrong” direction. I had just gotten used to it when I had to leave! While I was in England, Austin showed me around the base, and I got to talk to many currently enlisted members. I am sure they got tired of all my questions, but it was a very educational experience for me! We also spent a day seeing all the sights in London. When I told my French class about how the British had put up a sign for Platform 9 ¾ for Harry Potter fans, they thought it was absolutely crazy. I, however, am quite proud of my picture on my way to Hogwarts! 

Going to Hogwarts!
Guards in front of Buckingham Palace
Typical London weather
Yesterday, it was back to work for me! However, not for too long…Wednesday evening I am heading back to the Mediterranean, to spend Thanksgiving with some of the other assistants in the area. We will have baguettes, cheese, crepes, wine, chocolate, and maybe sweet potatoes and cranberry sauce (if we can find that stuff here!). Not exactly the same, but I’m sure it will be super enjoyable, and I am very excited to get to spend the holiday with fellow assistants!