11 March 2010

Reprise and Recovery

Last week was a downer, and I will never forgive March. I mean depressing, discouraging, disappointing, a real down-right downer. The kind they make movies out of, because in the end all you can do is gather all your woes together (provided they are not too serious) and pour them into a bottle of a wine with a friend. Everyone laughs at the end of a bottle of wine shared around common frustrations.

It all began with the heat. Again, you say? Yes, and you will say again again before long. When I arrived chez moi after a difficult return journey on Sunday the 28th, I found the heater had gone on strike, as anything French is wont to do. Conditions have been worse in the apartment, if you will recall my return from Christmas break to an unheated apartment and sluggish heater. By comparison, that story ended happily. Last week’s saga ended with a reprimand from the gas company, who argued we had never paid our bills, neglecting the fact that we have yet to receive a single one. Although using utilities for six months without paying may seem odd, it does fall into the venerable tradition of colossal French paperwork and goes the way of, say, my housing assistance.

On Monday morning, still without heat, I awoke to a dear FedEx package that cost me a hefty price to receive. But I was grateful, seeing as a second package that had been delivered just after my departure could no longer be found by the Poste. They are still looking.

But this was a minor sum compared to the large charge sitting on my account from the phone company. I had settled my grievances with Orange and graciously pardoned them last month, when for all my troubles I was finally reimbursed, and then some. Well, the “and then some” is now the problem, as Orange has figured that it over-reimbursed me, and now has over-billed us. Since I am now an expert in French phone negotiations, I decided to try a new tactic to widen my repertoire. After eliciting the service rep’s sympathy for our six months of entanglements, I mentioned that I was “on the verge of cancelling the contract because I have no confidence that next month’s bill will be correct.” And you know what, it worked! I was offered a pitiable sum to pacify my concerns—enough to cover next month’s payment to Orange.

Also, bad news came from the Académie: our request to change our end-of-April work schedules was denied. Since a two-week spring break cuts April in half, leaving just one of week of work before the end of our contracts, we thought it would be wise and reasonable to make up the twelve hours beforehand. The idea of leaving in five weeks had become very appealing these last two months, as I slowly realize the futility and dissatisfactory nature of my work here. Simply put, I have never worked a full week; I have never been asked to coordinate my activities with teachers; and I have never received further training or supervision. I don’t seem wanted or needed here. To be required to return, for (possibly) twelve hours of work, out of petty propriety, is infuriating.

And to top things off, I received notice from the McGill Masters in Linguistics program that I have not been accepted. That took a few days to sink in. To quote a dear friend of mine: “Are you sure you read that right? They must have their heads up their bums. Christ, what are they looking for?” Let’s not dwell on it: the next step is to get my Rotary scholarship reassigned to another institution, and the four I’ve submitted are two public universities in Montreal, one in Brussels, and one in Barcelona. I most like the program in Barcelona, but I would be happy in any, and I imagine Rotary would prefer to keep me in the same country as the original institution. I’ll keep you updated.

As if to bring me from the depths of defeat into the realm of psychotic irony, the CAF finally granted me my housing assistance. I guess they just ran out of excuses for delaying. It’s retroactive and covers a good majority of my housing expenses from October to February. I receive 154 euros per month towards my rent, and although I am exceedingly grateful for this help, my question for the CAF is this: and what if I hadn't had the funds to wait six months?

Questions better left unasked. Like why can't one week just go as expected? Bills become routine instead of tribulations? One bureaucrat be organized and knowledgeable and sympathetic? Coworkers be more welcoming? And my favorite, What if I just don't like teaching?

05 March 2010

And Thus Went February

I marvel at how three days can slim down a month. And two weeks of travel. And one very convoluted bureaucracy.

The February break arrived on the heels of the January return home and I scarcely had time to amend another incorrect phone bill (and that makes six) before skipping town. Add to that a handful of family birthdays and the visit of a dear Australian friend, and February shortened to F-ry. I couldn’t have been happier. Victoria and I embarked on our most exciting voyage on Saturday the 13th, by-passing Paris to reach Lille in the northernmost tip of France. The city is in Flemish country, where accents are strong and the cold North Sea is a matter of regional pride. My favorite French comedian is from the north and through his teasing has endeared the region to me: think the red-necks of France.

Victo and I went to partake in a very serious tradition that takes place in the town of Dunkerque, a port city just north of Lille. Every Lenten season, the somber residents of Dunkerque get together to…

…dress up, cross-dress, overdress, undress, and give the sailors a good sending off by…

…throwing herring into the crowd. What lovely traditions.

I enjoyed this with Victo and her Spanish friend Ana, who is a language assistant in Lille. Throughout our travels the first week, we were joined by legions of other Spaniards, who are remarkably pervasive travelers. Mostly I came to know Javi, Ana’s boyfriend, and Alberto, a friend of theirs who had come expressly to celebrate his birthday with us. After the Sunday excursion to Dunkerque, the five of us spent Monday visiting Bruge and Ghent in Belgium. Both cities were expectedly frigid in February, but I really admired the architecture—despite a majority of it being under construction—and enjoyed the beer and chocolates that Belgium is so famous for.

The classiest McDonald’s I’ve ever seen:

Ana, me, Victo, and Alberto:

This goes without caption:

Then came Amsterdam. On our way north, we stopped in the Belgian city of Antwerp for a last taste of the local fare and glimpse at the ever-increasing grandeur of Flemish architecture. At the end of the afternoon, we picked up our bags and looked for our train to Holland…and realized with exasperation that transportation strikes are not unique to France. We managed to get rerouted through three cities and pay twice as much to arrive an hour later than expected. Once we found our hostel, I collapsed into bed while the Spaniards went out, a growing pattern. I guess I just don’t have the Spanish stamina for eating at 10pm and going out at 2am and getting to bed at 6am. Add to that the exhaustion of this short “Spanish intensive,” and my brain was too tired to function much past midnight. I’m not much good at being young.

In A’dam, I visited the Van Gogh and Rijks art museums. The former demonstrated the evolution of Van Gogh’s work from darker paintings during his Netherland period to the sunny scapes of his painting in Arles. The Rijks Museum, despite all its good hype, disappointed me. I had expected a much larger collection of Flemish works from the Northern Renaissance, which is my favorite period. As far as visiting the sites, I highly enjoyed the guided tour I took of the city, which taught me about…

The bikes, which really are everywhere…

The house numbers, or rather symbols, that included some unfortunate compiling of last names like “PileofPants” and “LittleShit."

The former men’s correctional facility, which is now a shopping center (?).

And other sites such as hidden churches, the Anne Frank house, a private downtown garden, and of course the Red Light District. I have no photos of this last one, however, as the ladies there are known to throw cups of urine out the window on rude picture-taking tourists. It’s against the rules.

After three days in A’dam, including Alberto’s birthday, we left town exhausted and poor. It’s an expensive city, with tourist traps around every corner. I returned to Lille with Ana and spent Friday afternoon recuperating, giving my last shot at Spanish, and packing away my winter coat and Breton rain boots. I wouldn’t need them where I was going.

Week Two: The South

On Saturday I hopped on the greatest machine known to Frenchkind: the high speed train. In five hours I crossed the entire country and landed in Montpellier, a beautiful southern town, having left rain and snow behind and debarked into full early afternoon sunshine. Guillaume, an old high school pen pal I would finally meet, picked me up at the station and chauffeured me into the countryside where we spent the afternoon hiking with friends. It felt wonderful to soak up the sun and get out of the cities, so wonderful, in fact, we did it again on Sunday.

The next few days were indescribably relaxing, energizing, and enjoyable. I visited Montpellier by day and by night, collected shells at the seaside, and kept good company with a revolving group of Guillaume’s friends. Montpellier is considered a “new” city since it doesn’t date from the time of the Romans. Compared to other towns in the area such as Nimes and Arles, Montpellier does feel young, mostly thanks to its enormous student population and the constant construction that made downtown hotspots into pedestrian zones. Walking around Saturday night felt like being at a youth conference, with the lovely lights illuminating the limestone that intensifies the weakest winter sun and gives the city its airy feel. I reveled in it.

The one expedition we tried that ended poorly was a sunrise hike on the Pic Saint Loup. We woke up at 5am to cloudy skies, decided to try anyway, and spent an hour marching in the fog before giving up. It was still an adventure, just without the gratifying view.

While in Montpellier I also visited the Musée Fabre, which is the most impressive collection of art I’ve seen outside of Paris. Although I could have spent more than the three hours I did in the museum, I was called outside again by the sunshine and an afternoon trip to Sète on the coast. Again, the Mediterranean has nothing on Lake Michigan, but it was a satisfying way to end my stay in the south.

I left the next day for Grenoble, where ended this tour de France. Although most people visit the mountains in February to ski, I went to visit dear friends of mine, Marine and Julie. We practiced English, made bread, played games, watched the movie “Twilight” that it seems all pre-teens are into, and went for one very arduous hike. They and their parents are delightful company, and it was the most relaxing part of my trip (minus the arduous hike). I learned something about myself that everyone should know, so as to avoid embarrassing situations in which I cling to the side of a mountain while climbing an ice-covered path and being buffeted by high winds: I’m afraid of heights. Did I mention mountains are very high?

I hope you have enjoyed these travel tales, if you’ve managed to read through them all. I’ll soon post about what it’s like to return to Pontivy after two very satisfying weeks. Some hints: unsatisfying, cold, expensive, frustrating, and depressing. But sunny and delicious and festive too!