29 March 2008

Easter Weekend Travel

Sometimes you happen upon really amazing people. Sometimes, these amazing people invite you to visit them. And usually, amazing people live in amazing places. Or they make them amazing just by living there.

Oh the places you'll go

So, I had the chance over Easter weekend to visit A-people in A-places, starting with a voyage to Lille, an underestimated city in the north of France. Though my bike ride to the train station that afternoon was the worst ever (rain, wind, and temperatures dropping), and though the weather was not very cooperative at my destination (it rained the entire weekend), I still thoroughly enjoyed myself. I stayed with two girls from Quebec, studying this year in Lille, who I met (and this is where it gets complicated) at the hostel in Rome in February. I came to know these two (Nancy and Emilie) and their friend the Porto Rican English language assistant (Adlyn) pretty well in Rome, and their company was no less enjoyable in Lille! They showed me around the city, forced me to sing karaoke (they’re big fans of 80s music), and made me lots of delicious meals, despite the (in)voluntary simplicity of foreign college student life that leaves you with only a Bunsen burner for cooking.

Mostly we spent our time sitting around and chatting, which isn’t as easy as it sounds. You think you know French, and THEN you start learning Quebec French. Lots of people I know here turn up their noses at the Quebecois accent, but I don’t mind it; it just took some getting used to. My first theory was that, like everybody says here, it’s the “Old French” (which can’t be true, since whatever French was when it arrived in Canada has forcibly evolved over the centuries, just as the French in France has). My second take was that it’s French spoken with an English mouth, wider and more exaggerated. Then I started catching hints of “flar” (“flower” in English, “fleur” in French) that made me think they’d been hanging around the Carter family in deep Appalachia. Whatever the story, our first evening together involved a lot of repetition for my sake; I felt like I was back at the level of French I had last October. Things improved over the weekend, and I really enjoyed parading around with them: no one noticed my fumbling accent next to their distinct Quebecois flourishes.

The old section of Lille is really quite beautiful. I say its an underestimated city because the entire Nord-pas-de-Calais region has a bad rap in the rest of the country. The film Bienvenue chez les ch’tis (Ch’ti is the name for the habitants of the region) by Dany Boon (very, very funny French comic) captures all the stereotypes of the north in recounting the story of a postmaster who is transferred to the north and expects nothing but the French equivalent of hillbillies. He actually finds the people very welcoming, even if they have funny accents, lunch at hotdog stands, and consider the chimes as the highest form of artistic ability. Now he just has to convince his wife, a (French) southern belle born and raised, who’s convinced that her husbands co-workers are drunks and that the weather is akin to that of Siberia. Anyhow, a long way of saying that I saw this film in the theaters and understood it, even with its talk of accents! And to say that Lille is a beautiful city that I should like to visit again some sunnier day.

Pretending I come from the farm

I left Lille Sunday afternoon and headed to Angers, to stay again with Bev, the woman who graduated from Manchester and lives with her half-French family on a farm in the Loire valley while running this micro-loan program in west Africa called Echoppe. Bev invited the three of us from Manchester studying here in Strasbourg (Leslie, Cassie, and I) for Easter, to talk about Echoppe’s ties with Manchester, and just to get us out of the city a bit. Both Leslie and Cassie are from rural Indiana (Bev is originally too), and there was lots of talk about missing the smell of cows and doing animal chores, so I chimed right in. Even though I much prefer horses to cows and, though I gave it a good shot last summer while visiting a friend in Idaho, I’m not much of a farmgirl. I’m a gardener. It was good to get out into the countryside, though, and especially fun to go horseback riding with Bev’s two highschool-age kids. We ate well, played with the sheep, talked, and learned a lot from Bev about the kind of work it takes to change the world. “Social insertion through economic integration” is the motto, meaning that small loans are accompanied by social health requirements: a woman must present the vaccination card of her children before receiving her first loan; she must learn to write her name and recognize it in a list before receiving her second. Participation in the neighborhood council and family planning are also part of the process. Eventually, women save as much as they’ve borrowed. Those who graduated from Echoppe’s four-step loan program founded their own mutual, giving bigger loans for personal purposes. The hope is that the women’s mutual will start funding the Echoppe loans. Bev has been at this work for twenty years now: no less dedicated, hopeful, and passionate. I like hanging out with people like that!


I returned home late Tuesday night, and have been dashing around ever since. Good news: I FINALLY RECEIVED MY RESIDENCY PERMIT!!!!! After seven months of bureaucratic run-arounds, I won out. Now I have the right to stay for five more months. I hope it’s not like this for people who renew their residency cards.

ps. Nancy, who runs her "hAIR Force One" hair salon out of her room, was kind enough to clean me up. Quite a change!

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