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.