Monday, December 26, 2011

Czech-ing In

I’m more than halfway through my Christmas vacation in Prague and so far it has been wonderful!  We flew in this past Wednesday.  After checking into our hotel, we immediately left for the center of the city to see the Christmas markets.  There are several Christmas markets in Prague and most of them have similar gifts and food.  You can easily find sausages, a Czech version of spatzel, cinnamon and sugar covered dough circles, gingerbread, wine, and grog.  Each tree has a wooden crèche below it, and there are Christmas lights everywhere.  The markets run until January 8, so we can enjoy them for our entire trip.  Christmas in the Czech Republic is celebrated on the 24th, and families traditionally eat carp for Christmas.  Due to this tradition there were many large plastic pools around the city full of fish for people to buy. 

The Christmas Market in Old Town Square
Our trip also comes at an interesting time because it follows the death of Vaclava Havla (Havel) who was the first post-communism President here.  He is an extremely important to the Czech people and they were in mourning for the first few days of our trip.  Havel’s body was lying in state in Prague castle, so we were unable to visit until Christmas day because it would have been rude to go as a tour group while people were saying their goodbyes.  Friday the 23rd was the funeral and national day of morning.  We were able to watch some of the funeral at the Globe, an expat hang out in Prague 2, and during that time there was also a national moment of silence.  There are memorials set up all around the city to honor Havel, including homemade signs and billboards put up by the city.  Following the funeral, there was a concert at night to honor Havel, which was projected on a giant screen in Wenceslas Square.   Many people stayed in the square to enjoy the concert and it is obvious that he was very well loved here.

Prague Castle
On a lighter note, the food here is fabulous, and cheap.  We have free breakfast at our hotel, which includes bread, cheese, cold cuts, eggs, and assorted fruits and salads.  We’ve enjoyed bagels TWICE at Bohemia Bagel (the first, and probably last time I’ve been able to have a bagel and Philadelphia cream cheese in Europe), market foods that I described above, Czech fried cheese and bacon dumplings with beer, Svickova (beef tenderloin in a carrot cream sauce with cranberries and dumplings), cheeseburgers, and apple strudel.  In Prague, beer is cheaper than water and my current favorite is a Czech beer called Staropramen.  We also visited a local microbrewery where we tasted eight beers (light, dark, wheat, banana, sour cherry, nettle, vanilla, and coffee).  Finally we had Thai food at a restaurant called the Lemon Leaf and it was delicious!  We are looking forward to more food adventures before we head back to France.

The Astrological Clock in Old Town Square
Stay tuned for more updates from Prague!

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Obligatory OFII Post

As of this past Tuesday, I officially have a validated work visa and can stay in France until May.  Although I applied for my visa in August, and received it in September, the process was not over.  I also had to attend an appointment at the OFII (French Office of Immigration and Integration) to validate the visa.  This appointment consists of a medical exam and x-ray, and a short meeting to give the government more paperwork.

I was assigned the same appointment as three other assistants at 9AM in Rennes (the capital of Brittany).  I arrived about an hour early and made my way to the office.  After checking in you have to work your way through an assembly line of nurses and doctors.  First they check for tuberculosis by taking a chest x-ray.  Of course France isn't like America in the sense that there is now gown to cover yourself when you have to be undressed from the waist up (it wasn't nearly as awkward or embarrassing as I thought it would be though).  Then I was told to sit and wait in a chair in the hallway, x-ray in hand, until the nurse called me in.  The nurse asked the usual questions, and preformed an eye and blood sugar test.  I had low blood sugar, so she asked if I had eaten breakfast.  When I said no she insisted I eat a "pain au chocolat" immediately after the appointment.  Next was the doctor who asked a few more questions and then looked at the x-ray (in case you were wondering, I am TB free).  She signed some papers and then sent me to the next office where I showed proof of residence, proof that my visit was paid for by the government, and gave her a photograph.  I then received another sticker in my passport and was free to go!

After the appointment I was able to spend some time in Rennes before heading back to Guingamp.  It is starting to look like Christmas in France (minus the snow), there are Christmas lights up everywhere and there are many Christmas markets around.  I also only work four more days before our vacation starts on the 17th!

Friday, December 2, 2011

Learning about the American flag..

Today I was asked to bring a document into class to work with three small groups for.  While sifting through materials looking for something to use, I found a few pages on rules regarding the American flag in a book that my grandparents sent me…it was perfect!  The book listed some flag vocabulary, and I talked with the students about what the stars and stripes stand for.  Then we started reading the rules, and I allowed them to translate them so that all the students understood. 

The rules included:
  •       the flag must be raised swiftly but lowered slowly
  •       you can’t fly the flag in bad weather (unless it’s an all-weather flag)/at night (unless illuminated)
  •       the flag can’t touch the ground
  •       rules about where the flag is flown/how high in relation to other flags
  •       rules about flying the flag at half-staff
  •       flying the flag upside down
  •       why we fold the flag in a triangle (because of the tricorn hats during the Revolution!)

I then asked the students if there were any rules regarding the French flag (they said no) and if it symbolized anything (they didn’t know).  They told me that they thought that some rules were strict, and some were strange, but that others were “good.”  Finally one girl asked why it was a big deal if the flag touches the ground.

This is not as easy to answer as I thought, because as I was explaining that, to Americans, a flag is more than a piece of material and that it represents the ideals of our nation, I began to understand why it sounds strict and strange to others.  I am not the most outwardly patriotic person, which made it increasingly difficult to explain what the flag means to Americans.  Thankfully I had to simplify the English, and had the book to help me.  The students told their teacher that they really enjoyed the lesson...and so did I, even after repeating it three times.

Now I’m left to wonder…why are these symbols of patriotism so important to Americans?  Why aren’t they as important in France?  Probably for the same reason that the teachers thought it was hilarious that President Obama, the “leader of the free world,” spent his Thanksgiving pardoning a turkey when there are so many problems in the government...cultural differences (that’s the easy answer anyway)!

(Thanks to Grammy and Papa for all the new materials to use at school!)

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Happy Thanksgiving!

This year I celebrated my second Thanksgiving away from home (the first was in 2009, but I was able to spend it in Paris with my Dad).  With all the lessons I’ve had to teach, Thanksgiving has been/will be spread out over three weeks.  My first lesson was two weeks ago Monday, and my final Thanksgiving lesson will be next Friday!  It has been interesting to teach the kids about Thanksgiving, because it doesn’t exist in France, and even many of the teachers don’t know much about it.  Some questions I’ve received are, “Do you receive gifts for Thanksgiving? Why would you eat turkey?  Do you celebrate Christmas or New Year’s?”  One student at the elementary school finally understood that I am from the US because of the Thanksgiving lessons.

I have made hand turkeys and reading a children’s book with almost all of the elementary school classes (I still will do two more next Friday) and one or two kids said they were thankful for me, which was nice!  With the older kids I’ve been giving more factual lessons – history, vocabulary, and traditions. 
I’m lucky to have Wednesdays and Thursdays off because that meant that Karen and I were free to cook a real Thanksgiving dinner on Thursday!  We started in the morning with the pumpkin pie (with a few mishaps).  A second crust had to be bought because the first one was too crispy, and we learned that the can opener in the apartment doesn’t work AFTER I started mixing up the pie, but it worked out OK, and the pie was delicious of course.  We also made stuffing, green beans with shallots and almonds, squash, mashed potatoes, gravy, duck (instead of turkey), and served cranberry sauce and rolls.  It was a delicious dinner and we were happy to share it with our roommates, who had never experienced Thanksgiving before, and loved the food!

As much as I missed being with my family and friends for Thanksgiving, I am incredibly thankful to have this opportunity in France.  I am constantly learning new things, and it is really exciting to be able to spend more than half of a year living and working in France, traveling around Europe, and working towards my future career (whatever that may be!).  And of course I am thankful for my wonderful family, my friends (old and new), and as someone wrote on one of their hand turkeys, “the life”!

Karen and I showing off our hard work!

Thursday, November 17, 2011


After living in France for almost two months, I finally took the opportunity to visit Paris for the first time since I studied there in the fall of 2009.   I got up around 4:30 in the morning so that I could catch the 5:40 train to Montparnasse (it takes about 3 ½ hours to get to Paris from Guingamp on the TGV (Train de Grande Vitesse/High Speed Train).  This was especially convenient for me because IES (the school I studied abroad with) is located near Montparnasse, so I knew how to navigate the area.  From the train station I made my way to Starbucks to meet Matt, a fellow Susquehanna grad and English assistant.  It was great to see a familiar face and to be in Paris with someone else who knows it as well as I do. 

From Starbucks we made our way towards the Marias, which is the old Jewish quarter in Paris, near where the Bastille was located.  There we visited the Musée Carnavalet, the Paris history museum, and Thanksgiving, an American/British grocery store.  I had been hoping to visit Musée Carnavalet since the last time I was in France so I was happy to finally see it, and to learn that entry to the museum is free (this is always a plus in Paris/when you’re on a limited budget).  At Thanksgiving I bought some staples for the Thanksgiving dinner we are going to attempt next week: canned pumpkin, cranberry sauce, and condensed milk, which aren’t available in normal French grocery stores.  Most French people don’t know what cranberries are (Ocean Spray cranberry juice is available in some stores but I don’t think it’s very popular) and they only use pumpkin in savory dishes.  I also treated myself to some peanut butter M&Ms because those are also difficult to find here!

We then made our way to the Place de la Concorde, Angelina (for their famous hot chocolate) and W.H. Smith, a large English bookstore.  I was able to find a Thanksgiving children’s book, which was a hit in class this week (I will save Thanksgiving stories for next week!).  Finally we made our way to the Rodin Museum, which is beautiful, and les Invalides, where Napoleon is buried.  I highly recommend the Rodin Museum for anyone visiting Paris.  It is located in an old mansion with a large garden surrounding it.  Some sculptures are located inside, along with paintings by other artists, and others like the Thinker are located outside.

After that it was time to head back to the train station for the trip back to Guigamp.  It was a wonderful day, and very refreshing to be back in Paris.  We have planned to make several more trips like this between now and May, and I am looking forward to sharing Paris with my mom when she comes to visit me!  

The only “bad” part of the day was the train trip home.  There was a malfunction so we had to stop for over a half hour and the conductor turned all of the lights off on the train (even the emergency aisle ones) so it was a little spooky!  I ended up getting back to Guingamp after 11 P.M. instead of 10:30.
Currently I am trying to recover from a cold, planning Thanksgiving lessons, enjoying the uncharacteristically warm and sunny weather in Guingamp, and of course looking forward to my next trip to Paris!

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Cooking Adventures

We’ve all become more adventurous when it comes to cooking in our kitchen in Guingamp, after a few weeks of using pots as frying pans, and many meals involving instant whole-wheat couscous, I decided I was going to actually cook something.  My roommates had successfully made tarts and quiches so I figured I would give it a shot.  I found a recipe for an herbed ricotta tart and made some modifications…and it turned out great (even though we can’t exactly close the “oven” door with the tart pan inside). 
Our "Harpers February" mug is great for drinking a normal amount of coffee AND for keeping the oven door closed!
I mixed ricotta cheese, crème fraîche, some milk, an egg, leeks, shallots, French bacon, and some herbs together, and put them in a piecrust (you can find pre-made tart/pie crust in any grocery store here).  Not only was it delicious, but super easy, and something different!  Unfortunately I do not have actual measurements for the ingredients because we have no measuring cups.
The final result!
My other new recipe is for pesto pizza.  I used a mix to make the dough and used pesto and the left over crème fraîche as a base.  I then added the French bacon and some shredded cheese and baked it for about 20 minutes.  I was also really happy to have the left-overs on Friday because I had about 15 minutes to eat between my morning classes at the middle school and my afternoon at the elementary school.

Speaking of school… I only worked one day this week because of vacation and my normal days off, but I had a fun day at the elementary school.  I talked about the United States with one group of kids and was asked if I knew Justin Bieber and if I lived in the apartment building shown in a cartoon on one of their worksheets.  I won't get to work with those kids next week because Veteran's Day is also celebrated in France (except the French are specifically celebrating the end of WWI), so I'm already planning some Thanksgiving activities with the kids for the following week.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Toussaint Vacations

Since language assistants are employed by the French Ministry of Education, we benefit from the same vacations as the schools we are employed by.  The dates of the vacations vary depending on whether you are in Zone A, B, or C and they occur about ever six weeks.  The Toussaint (All Saints Day) vacation ran from October 22 until November 3, and some of my roommates and I decided to do some traveling in Brittany.  We visited Rennes, the capital of Brittany, St. Malo a resort town on the coast of Brittany, one of the Channel Islands, Jersey, and Dinan, a medieval town between St. Malo and Rennes.

Day one of our trip (Monday) was dedicated to Rennes, and it was the first time I’d been in a city since my arrival in France.  We did some shopping in French department stores, explored the town, and spent the afternoon avoiding rain.  Although I didn’t get to see all of Rennes, it is only an hour train ride away, and I know I will have to go back in a few months for my immigration appointment to validate my visa.

The next morning we took the train to St. Malo where we were able drop our bags off early at the hotel.  St. Malo is known for the part of the city that is “Intra-Muros” because the old city is housed within ramparts and is located on the beach.  This area of France (as well as the Channel Islands) experiences the largest tidal changes in the world.  When the tide was out we were able to walk to some islands off the beach at St. Malo, and two days later we watched visitors to the island wading through the water because they were almost stuck on the islands due to high tide.  We found that it is impossible to get lost within the walls of St. Malo and enjoyed walking the ramparts, experiencing an impromptu concert at the Church there, and Breton foods such as gallets (savory crepes made with a buckwheat batter), kouign amann (a layered pastry made with lots of butter and sugar, and sometimes apples), ker-y-pom (another pastry, the closest equivalent to this would be an apple pie pocket), and salted caramels.  Karen and I also found a great antique shop with old postcards and maps and enjoyed looking around inside.  It was very relaxing to be in St. Malo because after a few hours I already knew the town, and we spent our second day there (Thursday) wandering with several coffee breaks. 

Wednesday there was a special deal on the ferry to Jersey, so we got up early and headed to the port.  It took us about an hour and fifteen minutes to travel between St. Malo and St. Helier, the capital of Jersey.  Jersey is interesting because it is part of the UK, but they do not consider Queen Elizabeth to be the queen, although they are still loyal to her.  In Jersey the Queen is known as the Duke of Normandy and on their currency (which is the worth same as the pounds in the rest of the UK) the Queen does not wear a crown.  We explored St. Helier and were then able to take “Le Petit Train” to St. Aubin, another town about three miles away.  The train ride allowed us to have a good view of the bay, and we were able to experience high and low tide in Jersey.  Jersey gains several square miles of land during low tide because of the large changes.  We also spent the day trying to find Jersey Ice cream because we kept seeing signs for it, but we didn’t have any luck…finally one shop-keeper told us that you can only get it in the summer.  That evening we returned to St. Malo, and we re-entered France.  No one was stationed at customs, and there were no passport checks, so hopefully that won’t cause me any problems in the future!

On Friday we decided to stop in Dinan on the way back to Guingamp and a fellow assistant, Rebecca, greeted us.  It was great to have a guide of the city and we were able to see all the sights (and of course stop at a café).  Dinan is a little bit bigger than Guingamp and is definitely worth a day trip.  At the end of the night we were happy to be on the train “home” to the apartment, even though we had an hour-long stop over to change trains one town away from Guingamp!  

So far the rest of the vacation has been un-eventful, but relaxing.  Next up is planning my Christmas trip to Prague! 

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

This is what I woke up to this morning...

There is a second rainbow to the left that is a little harder to see.

Bonjour Bretagne...three rainbows in one hour this morning!

My favorite questions from elementary school children this week have been:  How do you say your last name in French? and Do lots of people speak English in America?

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Côte de Granit Rose

One of the best parts of being in a small town like Guingamp is that we have met some wonderful people who offer to take us to see the sites in Brittany.  This past Wednesday our new friend, Marie took us to the Côte de Granit Rose, specifically Ploumanac’h, Perros-Guirec, and Le Gouffre which is a rock formation near Plougrescant.  She ended the trip by driving us up a “mountain” near Guingamp where you can see for miles in all directions and Guingamp is close enough to the coast that we could see it from the top.   I think that photos can probably describe the coast better than words, so I’m posting some from each of our stops.

My roommates and me (from left to right: Tamara, Me, Karen, Michele).

In other news I am finished with my first week of being in the schools and I’m really enjoying it.  Yesterday we worked on numbers and colors with the elementary students so I played matching games and bingo for three hours.  In the middle school some students were learning about cliques, and the younger group that I had practiced describing people (long/short hair, big eyes, bald etc.).   I’m most nervous for 6ème, which is the youngest group of middle school students, because I struggled with them on Tuesday.  For future reference, the French school system is broken up into four groups:  Maternelle, Primaire, Collège, and Lycée.  Starting with Primare the “grades” are:  Course Préparatoire, CE1, CE2, CM1, CM2, 6th, 5th, 4th, 3rd, 2nd, 1st, Terminale, and Post-BAC (the BAC is the exam students take to graduate from high school).  Basically the numbers go in the opposite direction of grades in the United States, and I have students ranging from CE2 (8 years old) to 3rd grade (14 years old).  That’s my update for now!
À bientôt!

Apartment Tour

This is post one of two today... this first one is some photos of my apartment, it's not much to look at but rent is only €50/month.

Lycée Pavie
Hallway..and phone for those of you who've called me.
Kitchen... yes five of us share this space!
Our living room complete with "couches" and TV.

My Room!

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

First week of teaching...

One of the best parts of being an English Teaching Assistant is that I am only required to work twelve hours a week.  I am now more than halfway done with my hours for the week, and have every Wednesday and Thursday off.  So far I have been at the middle school for for hours and three hours at the first elementary school.  The teachers at the middle school are kind and very supportive, which makes it easy for me to plan lessons.  I also eat lunch with the teachers which is a great way to get to know them.  The students at the middle school are a mixed bag.  Some seam more interested in English than others, and they all ask the questions that they have learned in class.  Instead of asking do you have, they always ask have you got (Have you got any pets or have you got any brothers or sisters for example).

My afternoon at the elementary school was eventful for a first day.  The students are adorable, but rowdy after their lunch.  I have three classes there (CE2, CM1, and CM2) so the students are between 7 and 10 years old.  When they lined up to come inside from recess one girl had lost a tooth and she presented it to the teacher and me.  The students asked many questions, especially CE2, and they must be shared.  One girl asked if I would sleep at home in New York every night, another said that I was very lucky to have taken a plane to Europe and not a ship.  In another class I was asked if I took a helicopter to France, and finally "are there movie theaters in America?"  When the kids had some more time to play, things started to go downhill.  One little boy was running in the hallway and ran into the door handle which punctured his shoulder.  He then ran outside screaming and all the teachers ran to him.  Of course this was my first day and I had no idea what to do, so I followed them inside.  The paramedics had to be called (plombiers) had to come to the school, and one told us that if the handle had been a little closer to the boys artery he could have bled out in three minutes.  It was frightening, and made it difficult to focus for the last class.  Hopefully Friday is more normal at the second elementary school.

This afternoon I am going to the Côte de Granit Rose with my roommates and next Monday we are attending our first soccer match: Guingamp v. Morocco  (the best part is that our tickets only cost €5.50)...hopefully this will give me good pictures and something more to write about!

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Ma vie en France

I’ve now been in France for almost two weeks, but with limited internet access I haven’t had a chance to post anything to my blog... this is the shortened version of what I've been up to!

I have finally arrived in France after months of planning.  Monday, the day of my flight was very stressful.  I arrived at the airport an hour and a half before my flight as instructed, only to be told that my flight to Philadelphia was delayed, but it should take off around 2:15.  I finally decided to say goodbye to my parents and go through security because it was getting busy, only to find that the flight was actually delayed until three.  When we finally landed in Philly after the loudest plane ride (it was basically a prop plane) I found that the bus connecting the terminals wasn’t running due to construction and was forced to walk the entire way, and go through security AGAIN.  The second time there was apparently a problem with my shoes.  I got to my gate about fifteen minutes before we boarded the flight when I thought I would have three hours.  The flight to Paris was uneventful, and after I picked up my bags I made my way to the train station and got on a train to Rennes and then to Saint-Brieuc, the biggest city in Côtes d’Armor. 

I spent my first few days in France with my contact person and it was wonderful.  I was able to relax and we went to the beach.  My first glimpse of Guingamp was on the Thursday after I arrived and the town is very cute.  I met some teachers at the collège (middle school) and got the key to my room.   I am living in an apartment with another American, a girl from Switzerland, and an Italian.  This weekend a Spanish assistant is moving in with us, but she has been in Guingamp for three years already.   Our apartment is pretty bare bones but it is cheap, linens are provided, and our kitchen has almost everything we need, even if those things don’t work very well.  We also have a TV, but no internet.

                       The view of Guingamp from my window.

I spent the first two days of this week in Saint-Brieuc for orientation, the first day was orientation for elementary assistants and the second was for everyone in middle and high schools.  I am assigned to three hours each at two elementary schools (one is pretty far away!) and six hours at the middle school.  I’m really looking forward to starting my routine on Monday!  I will also be helping other teachers with their English one night a week for six weeks starting in November.  It was great to meet other assistants, and we finished a lot of administrative work, so I now have health insurance and am set up to receive part of my salary in October instead of waiting until the end of November to receive some of my salary.  I also almost have a bank account open (still waiting for the card in the mail along with the pin and information for online banking). 

So far I love being in Bretagne and am very happy with my placement.  This town is great and so are the people I’ve met so far.  I’ve had some setbacks but that’s part of moving to a new country.

À Bientôt!

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

le commencement

Welcome to my blog!  I've decided to keep a record of my time in France as an English Teaching Assistant during the next seven months (October 1, 2011 - April 30, 2012).  I began this journey as a senior at Susquehanna University when I applied for the Fulbright program which also recommended applying for the TAPIF.  Fast forward seven months to April 2011 - I finally found out that I had been accepted to the TAPIF and that I was placed in the Académie de Rennes, which can be seen in the picture below.

My official placement is in the town of Guingamp which is west of Saint-Brieuc on the map.  I will be working at one elementary school and one middle school and my time will be split evenly between the two.  I have no teaching experience, my majors were International Studies and French, but the TAPIF program is the perfect way to experience life in France.  The middle school I am placed at has five English teachers, and so far they have been incredibly helpful, and are willing to help me with putting my ideas into lessons.  I don't know anything about the elementary school, so it will be a surprise when I arrive!

So far I have a flight, my visa approved (I still have to get back to NYC to pick it up), and lots of paperwork filled out, but I'm starting to realize how much work I still have to do in the next three weeks. It will definitely be overwhelming, but exciting at the same time.  Hopefully I won't have much to update between now and then, because that means that everything is going smoothly.

À bientôt!