Please also visit my Miami blog, ¿Qué Pasa, Miami?. Gracias.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Staying Afloat and Looking Ahead

France has been home for over a month now, but I have yet to fully emerge from the “settling in” phase. I have neglected my blog in favor of trying to keep from collapsing under the weight of French rental agency demands. The following is a selection of the most significant stories (to me, anyways) and the most random anecdotes from the last four weeks or so – the good, the bad, and the French.

The Castle Beckons

When I wrote last month that I hoped to find a studio in the city center with a view of the château, I didn't expect to find a studio in the city center with a view of the château. Stroke of luck? Yes. Unfortunately, the "finders keepers" rule does not apply in France.

I had not realized until now how easy I had it in Paris four years ago. I had found my fully-equipped and fully-furnished apartment online, called a New York office to reserve it, sent a check, showed up in Paris, and stored my clothes in the closet. My American roommate and I paid the owner once a month in cash withdrawn from our bank accounts back home.

This time I’ve actually had to do this the French way, which consists of the following steps:

1) Fall in love with an apartment facing a centuries-old fortress.
2) Find a cautionnaire/garant. Definition:

a) someone who makes three times your monthly rent figure
b) someone willing to foot the bill if you spend all your money on wine and crêpes and can no longer pay for your 27 meters of living space
c) someone who pays French taxes (i.e. not my parents)
d) someone who doesn’t mind sifting through files for loads of paperwork
e) someone with the patience to read, sign, and initial every page of a 22-page contract

3) Send all required official documents (yours and the garant’s) to the agency officials.
4) Buy insurance to assure you won’t be charged if your 4th-story studio floods.
5) Verify that your “dossier” (folder) has been “approved” by the rental regime.
6) Transfer a disturbingly large sum of money to your French bank, which will never have heard of an international swift number and will have to call half of France to figure it out.
7) Write THREE checks to the rent nazis.
8) Breath a sigh of relief when your money is no longer in electronic limbo, your checks will not bounce, and you will not end up in French debtor’s prison.
9) Visit your apartment (you’re certain it’s yours now, right?) with the realtor and point out every tiny crack in the wall to ensure that seven months from now you will be handed back your deposit money. God knows you will need it.
10) Freaking move in already.

And so I did!

A Curtain Story (and related events)

The apartment is mine! (Insert Dr. Evil laughter here.) I had won the first battle, but little did I know that the war would wage on.

My studio was barely furnished when I moved in. There was a sort of triangular book-slash-other-stuff shelf, a little table who’s fourth leg wishes to succeed, and a “clic-clac” (or is it “clique-claque”?). This is a couch that opens into a bed with a “clic” and a “clac.” The Cuban equivalent is of course the world famous “ping-pang-poong.”

A photograph of my rebellious table and its secessionist leg:

Teachers have loaned me all sorts of stuff, including bed linens, chairs, and stools. I’m expecting a microwave and possibly a toaster oven. If someone doesn’t loan me a TV I will be buying a used one somewhere because I now religiously watch the dubbed version of Prison Break. I’ve also somehow convinced myself to buy a 99 euro convertible couch from Ikea. Despite the hodge-podge of stuff, the overall décor is actually coming along nicely.

The only real problem is the shower. Living on the top floor has its quirks. I think all the awkward angles on the roof give the place character, but they also prevent me from properly installing a shower curtain for my tub. I purchased a curtain and some adhesive hooks from the local Monoprix, trusting in my creativity and problem solving skills. The curtain has been through several unstable transformations and has finally evolved into a transitional form that is certain not to collapse, but sure to look a little ghetto. Suffice it to say the solidity of the structure largely relies on a bright green hanger.

Curtain Stage Un:

Curtain Stage Deux:

Curtain Stage "I'm so done with this curtain":

Shower dilemma #2: My hot water lasts a paltry five minutes. This is where the rent officials become rent nazis. They cannot guarantee me, or so they say, that I will not have to pay for the electrician. Everyone and their French mother agrees that this cannot be so, that French rental agencies are wicked, and that they are attempting to steal my money. I’ve already had some tough words for them, but I have three French citizens in line to tell them off for me some more, which I’m sure is bound to make them cave. I cannot do battle now, however, for the first extended vacation of the French school year begins today, and I’ll be busy traveling.

Travel Triathlon

I’m writing this from my school in Segré, but I’ll be posting it from somewhere in Paris, where I’ll be spending the weekend. Then I’m going to Greece! As I trod the fictional steps of Odysseus, trace the history of Greek theater, and worship Athena at the Parthenon – I think I’ve made it clear I’m a geek – I will take a staggering number of pictures on my specially-purchased-for-France digital camera. I’ll be back in Paris on November 5th, and on the 6th I head home to Miami for my cousin’s wedding. I’ll return on the 12th, mentally and physically exhausted, at which time I will again post way too many paragraphs for anyone to read.

Notes of a Random Nature

- I’ve met several other teaching assistants in town (two of whom I’m going to Greece with), and they’re all lovely.
- The neighbor and his girlfriend and his friends are charming, too. Would have gone for a drink with them tonight were I not getting up at the crack of dawn tomorrow for my travel triathlon.
- Once I’ve purchased and assembled my Ikea convertible couch I will play host to my new French, American, and Canadian friends.
- I purchased and assembled a rolling, clothes hanging and shelf contraption, so I am up for the couch challenge.
- I recently watched Under the Tuscan Sun on my laptop, and the main character’s impulsive decision to buy a completely rundown Tuscan villa made me feel better about my shower trouble. Of course, I can’t hire Polish workers to fix my shower.
- No matter how many times you tell a French student to pronounce the letter H, he or she will inevitably forget the next time.

France Fun Facts

- The exchange rate sucks, but euros are pretty.
- Everyone is obsessed with Desperate Housewives, Prison Break, and Les Experts de Miami (CSI Miami).
- There is a 2-euro store in Angers! (I now own wine glasses and a retro cutting board.)
- French teachers are nice.
- French bank tellers are nice but clueless about swift numbers.
- French realtors are the scum of the earth.
- My students are for the most part sweet, attentive, fascinated by my high school yearbook, and pretty bad at English.


Despite French realtors and faulty showers, I like it here. So, a "bonne nuit" to you all, from my private little château.

Friday, September 28, 2007

La Petite Américaine

That would be me. “The American is in town. She’s from Miami: La ville qui fait rêver (the city that makes one dream).” It’s kind of fun to be a novelty. One student at my assigned high school asked me excitedly if I’d been to Los Angeles, as though it were a step and a hop away from my hometown.

I’ll do my best in this post to recount my first week in France without drowning you in boring details, but I make no promises.

One Night in Paris

Last Thursday at 8:10 a.m., a jetlagged, mutant version of myself arrived in Paris. Discovering that my hostel room would not be ready until – *gasp* – 2:30 p.m., I stored eight months worth of luggage in a closet, prayed it would be there upon my return, and headed straight for my crêperie stand. (I consider it personal property.) My butter and sugar crêpe was as delicious as ever.

With renewed vigor, I hopped over to the SNCF, czar of all train transport in France, to pick up my ticket for Angers and to purchase a youth discount card for train travel. Then it was off to the Charlemagne statue at the Notre Dame to meet with fellow jetlagged language assistants headed to towns and cities all over France. It wasn’t difficult to spot the Americans. When is it ever? After lunch at the Latin Quarter, three of us chose to do some more walking and fight the jetlag. We stumbled around the ridiculously picturesque Ile Saint Louis, ate a gelato, listened to an organ concert in a God-knows-how-old church, and headed back to the Norte Dame by 6:00 p.m., just in time to meet with other assistants who could not make the earlier hour. By that time, my aching need to sleep and never more awaken had taken over any other considerations, so I rushed back to the hostel. After taking a quick shower and tending to an unfortunate shampoo spillage accident, I was finally able to sleep.

First Impressions – Angers

My train left Paris at noon the next day and was in the city of Angers by 1:32 p.m. I waited at the train station until 6:00 p.m., at which time Stephane, husband to one of the English teachers at the school, was to pick me up. He did so and gave me a brief tour of Angers, which is small but so charming you want to put it in your pocket, take it home, and display it on your dresser. It’s a medieval city full of narrow cobblestone streets and artisans at work. It’s also a university town with a disproportionately large number of young people and a lively bar scene. A striking fortress-like château lies in the city center by the river Maine, which divides the area from the even older neighborhood, La Doutre. (“Outre” derives from old French and means “other” or "beyond.") As my impromptu tour guide recounted the rich history of the city, thoughts of strolling to and from my Angers apartment over scenic bridges danced in my head. Those 30-to-45 minutes remain all I’ve thus far experienced of Angers.

Food and Family . . . and Food

Following my brief dalliance in the little city, Stephane drove me 12 kilometers away to his aunt and uncle’s house. I would be staying with the Garniers for the weekend because Stephane’s home in the country is under construction. When I arrived, I was greeted by Stephane’s wife, Elodie; her children, Lilian (a six-year-old boy) and Olivia (a two-year-old girl); Sirius (a golden retriever named after the constellation, not the Harry Potter character), and the Garniers (Tonton and Tatate). Stephane’s other aunt and uncle, whom I have since also met, go by the names of Mimi and Bibi. It’s all very sweet but a bit like naming Pandas, but I digress. Tonton and Tatate were overcome with relief to find I spoke French and proceeded to give me a grand tour of the house, which they purchased for their retirement years. M. Garnier had been a printer, and he had quite a number of treasured items on his shelf to show me, including a letter personally handwritten to him and signed by Charles De Gaulle himself. Not kidding.

Then it was dinner time. The appetizer: an assortment of nuts and Tostitos with, of all things, Mexican salsa, and an accompanying rosé aperitif champagne that cannot be called champagne because it’s not from Champagne. First plate: raw salmon with a side of toast accompanied by a regional red wine. Next: regional pork pâté spread on French bread along with, again, the red wine. Main plate: roast chicken and delicious homemade French fries. Don’t forget the wine. Post main plate: an assortment of cheeses with, if you weren’t drunk already, some more wine. Dessert: a lime and orange tart and accompanying dessert wine. Then came the Cointreu: straight, no chaser. I might have exploded.

The four-hour-long feast come to a close, it was off to bed in my very pink guest room.

I spent the next day, Saturday, with the Garniers talking about WWII (i.e. “the war”), Bush, and the fraught history of African Americans. We also watched an episode of Walker, Texas Ranger in French, which was interesting. And we ate . . . and ate. By the time Elodie and the family had made it back for dinner #2 I was stuffing food under the tablecloth.

Espranglais in Action

For Sunday, Elodie and Stephane had arranged a picnic at their unfinished country home. The couple, the kids, the dog, the goat, and I were accompanied by three Spaniards who were in town for apple-picking season. By the end of the day, Elodie was calling me “dictionary.” Languages were being flung around like Frisbees at an Australian cliché convention. When I started speaking to Stephane in Spanish, I knew it was time to throw in the towel.

Translation duties notwithstanding, I enjoyed plenty of free time for loitering around. This was my first glimpse of French country life, and, although I am and will always be a city girl, there's no denying the charm of the lifestyle depicted in these pictures:

The French Are Nice?

Elodie drove me to the school in the little town of Segré bright and early the next morning. The town bridge is as old as ice, which in my world of nerd equals awesome.

Everyone at the institution, from the teachers to the administration, has been incredibly helpful and accommodating. I’ve been driven into town to open a bank account; driven to the grocery store to purchase some necessities; invited to observe classes and introduce myself to students; and invited to the zoo, the movies, and to dinner. Spanish teachers want me to speak about my family’s exile experience in their classes, and everybody has tried to make me feel at home. I have a little dorm room at the school with my own bathroom for free! It has a TV, a little fridge, and a microwave.

I can’t possibly live there, of course. Having already explored the entire adorable town, I’m convinced I would die of boredom. But I’ve been very grateful for the warm welcome. I don’t yet have an official teaching schedule, but it looks as though I will have Mondays and Wednesdays off, which is exciting. And quite a few teachers carpool to the school from Angers, so I won’t have to take the lonely hour-long bus ride three times a week either.

I feel lucky to have thus far encountered nothing but friendly, obliging people, but part of me longs for big city anonymity. A little Parisian indifference is good for the soul.

Angers and I to Meet Again

I’ve been frantically making calls to rental agencies, trying to score an apartment in the city. I’m headed there this morning right after I finish this eternal post. I planned on taking the bus there and back, but someone has of course offered to drive me there, and I’ll be staying at her place tonight so that I can continue the search on Saturday. I’m looking forward to escaping the town for a couple days, and I’m hoping to have some success in my quest for the perfect furnished studio in the city center with a view of the château, or something like that. Good luck to me.


It has been smooth sailing since I arrived, and I’m certain I will leave here with plenty of great memories (and photos!). But of course I miss my family, my friends, my big room, my dog, The Daily Show, and not feeling cold. I can’t wait to have a place in Angers so that I can move about on my own and explore and go to the movies and find a place to do some yoga. I’m not yet occupied enough, but soon I’ll be working; commuting; dare I say cooking; traveling; and, to my detriment, shopping. Oh, and now that my French is up to snuff, finally taking on Les Miserables.

Friday, September 7, 2007

From Turmoil to Takeoff

The last two weeks have consisted of the following: stress, hospital visits, fear, stress, exhaustion, heavy lifting, stress. Then … relief. As my world slowly reconstructs its natural order and my brain recovers its treasured sanity, I can once again turn my attention to preparing for eight months in France, which are now a mere 12 days away. Stress.

I have about 257 things to take care of and about 49 minutes in which to do them. I assure you those are accurate estimates. This will be tough, but I welcome the challenge. My “Which Hogwarts House Would You Be In?” Facebook quiz says I’m a Gryffindor, after all.

Besides, I recently received fantastic news – someone at my school knows I exist! Valérie, one of five English teachers, is “very happy happy” that I will be working at the high school, and I’m even happier to hear from her. She confirmed there is some kind of room available for me and mentioned twice that it has a TV. She may be French, but she knows what my American priorities are.

So, with a worryingly crazy two weeks behind me, I can look forward to the excitingly crazy two weeks ahead. First order of business (and by first I do not mean most important): find and purchase adorable slash affordably priced black clutch purse.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

On the Joy of Passports

I've always loved passports. They grant entry into exotic places (minds out of the gutter, gentlemen), and there is something reassuringly official about them. Although today’s obsession with compulsory identification and perpetual surveillance is rather creepy, a part of me finds comfort in orderly discipline – a consequence, perhaps, of many rigorous years of ballet training.

Passports are also distinctly personal, though, at least for the avid traveler. They remind me of my sticker collection in the 5th grade. The little Hello Kitty notebook slowly became flooded by my most favoritest stickers, which I could then peruse and admire at my leisure. (Note: I am by no means suggesting that passports are as nauseatingly girly as sticker collections.)

There are fewer and fewer empty pages in my passport these days. Just yesterday, a perky young woman in glasses at the French consulate in Miami stamped one of them with a shiny new language assistant visa. It sits alongside my now four-year-old student visa. By May 2008, I will have officially lived abroad twice. I intend to find a real job and become a grown-up when I return, but my passport doesn’t expire until 2011. There are pages yet to fill, so although my intentions may be honorable, I think I had better not trust them.

Side-note: I am a little more than disturbed by the fact that I only just realized, upon writing the above, that the word “passport” is composed of the words “pass” and “port.” I thought I couldn’t possibly feel more gloriously stupid than the time I recognized the New York Yankees logo as an overlapping “N” and “Y,” but alas I underestimate myself.

Thursday, July 26, 2007


When I purchased you at the airport moments before embarking on my first trip to Paris, I could not have guessed the immeasurable impact you would have on my life, nay, the world! The following year, you traveled with me to the City of Lights once more (in the form of your fourth installment, hardcover). Now I venture to France yet again, but this time I travel alone. I must come to terms with the daunting reality. It is over, all secrets revealed, the candle extinguished. What have I left to live for? Sure, I have family and friends and Cuban food. But what does it all mean without Harry Potter? I knew this moment would come, knew with the turn of each page that I was one page closer. But, like a blinded Hippogriff in mid-flight, I sped on with reckless abandon. And now it is done. Goodbye Harry Potter Book Series. I am off to France, and, as you rest in the graveyard of my bookshelf, I will try to soldier on … and read some Proust.

* book eulogy © 2007

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Quarter-Life Crisis

I'm 25. Help!

Fatigued, Bemused, and Elated

11:00 a.m. : “Has the mail arrived yet?” 12:30 p.m. : “How 'bout now?”

My eagerly anticipated placement letter would surely find its way to Miami while I was out of town, right? Wrong. Or so I thought until I returned from New York City on July 11 at 3:30 a.m. (a few hours after my birthday), exhausted and peeved by a thrice delayed flight. I found birthday gifts on the dining room table and, magically, a mid-sized brown envelope from France!

A Very Merry Unbirthday To Me.

I opened it up with ravenous enthusiasm, spotted the word Angers somewhere, and jumped for joy. A sizeable city one hour and a half from Paris, young, vibrant, and gorgeous by all accounts. I happily opened my presents, took a shower, and went to bed with my envelope in hand. Now I could meticulously read every detail.

My school is not in Angers after all. It’s in Segré, a tiny town 40 km from the city, population 7,155. According to the official website, it’s name comes from the Latin “secretum,” which means “isolated.” I figure moving across the ocean is isolation enough. So now I’m looking at an hour-long commute because, while the town does seem very charming – see it for yourself by clicking vue 360º on the website – I don’t think I could cope with the boredom.

If all goes to plan, I will get to experience small-town France while living in a lively city. And – *nerd alert* – think of all the novels I’ll have read on busses in the seven-month span!

Here is the website for Angers. Click on En 360º (bottom of left-hand column) for virtual tours of the city.

Oh, and wish me luck.

Monday, July 2, 2007


Here's what I do know: 1) For seven months in France, I'll be teaching English conversation to middle school and/or high school kids. 2) I'll be somewhere in the Nantes académie, which is one of the 24 French school districts and loosley corresponds to the Pays de la Loire region, a map of which you can find here.

The French bureaucracy is conducting its first test of my patience. It may be late August before I can point to a particular spot on that map and decidedly say, "this is the city/town in which I will gain ten pounds on butter and sugar crêpes." Or it may be tomorrow. It's absolute torture. I would humiliate myself at an American Idol audition for that precious letter. Perhaps the postal workers in Nantes are on strike. Or the school administrators have decided they are overworked and underpaid. Who do they think they are? No one is allowed on strike until I am paying French taxes and can join in on the "protest" (vacation).

The waiting is playing tricks with my head (ME : WAITING :: PARIS HILTON : JAIL). Once freed from this Sadistic purgatory (de Sade was French, naturally), I will post pretty pictures of my pretty town and rave about how perfectly picturesque my life in France will be. I'll spare you the alliteration, though.

So, here's hoping I get my letter some time in July. *Sprinkles anti-jinx dust*

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Done Deal

$849. As STA Travel Lady charged my Mater Card this afternoon, it became official. On September 20 I will set foot in France, homeless and (nearly) broke. But then I will devour a baguette, and all will be right in the world.