Monday, September 29, 2008

Castles and Elephants

I had a packed but excellent weekend! I spent Friday evening with my host family—we had dinner at the house and then went out for a drink. Still, I wanted to get to sleep early because Saturday was going to be spent visiting castles with the group, and we would be leaving at 8am.

We met Saturday morning and took a bus to the Castle of Chenonceau, which Henri II gave to his mistress, Diane de Poitiers, so there were lots of interesting historical details about it. It’s built on the water, so it’s really stunning. We wandered around there for a few hours, then got back on the bus and headed to the Castle of Chambord.

Before we visited the castle of Chambord, we had a little picnic outside the grounds. Our host families were responsible for sending us with lunches (which was kind of reminiscent of elementary school), and French lunches are enormous compared to American lunches, so we had fun comparing our bags of food. A couple of girls had an entire baguette and a tray of meats and cheese, just as an appetizer. If families sent sandwiches, they sent at least two. Some people had up to three different desserts. One family even offered to send along a bottle of wine. We finished up our feast and went to see the castle. Chambord is also really beautiful. The structure of the castle itself is interesting—there are a whole bunch of towers, and the staircase at the heart of the castle is in the shape of a double helix. Again, we did some more wandering (it was truly a day filled with history and the taking of photos), and then headed back.

The day felt pretty long, but it was still relatively early in the evening when we returned to Angers. I met up with my host family and some of their friends for a drink, and then we went out for dinner at a Moroccan restaurant. Afterwards, I met up again with some people from the group as well as some French students we’ve been meeting with for casual conversation. It was cool to just chill out with a bunch of people, and it was really interesting to hear how everyone was going back and forth between languages, as we really want to practice our French and they really want to practice their English. I think we are meeting up with them again later this week, so that should be nice.

I had another early start to my day on Sunday, as I went with Jean-Pierre, Marie, and two of their friends, Brigitte and Francois, to the city of Nantes. We saw a castle and a chapel upon arriving, and then they took me to see “The Elephant.” I had no idea what that meant beforehand, even though they had mentioned in advance that it would be part of our visit—but it turns out that Nantes is home to an enormous, mechanized elephant that actually walks around (and people can ride on top) once an hour. I caught a little on video (check that out below). Truly fascinating. There was a bookstore right there, where I learned that there are approximately a million French children’s books about elephants. My favorite was “L’elephant qui se cache” or “The elephant who hides himself”—it was about an elephant escaping from a zoo and struggling to find good hiding places.

After the elephant visit, we ate lunch at a nice little waterfront restaurant, and then went to the beach. The weather was incredible (though it’s generally been cold here), and there were lots of people swimming. We walked along the shore and hung around for a while. We left from there and got home pretty late at night. I had dinner, did my homework (yes, homework), and then went to sleep. I was exhausted, but went into my week with many stories to tell!

Thursday, September 25, 2008

The Apocalypse...and Organic Wine

This week in Angers has pretty much consisted of language and culture classes, as well as various visits around the city—the last two days have been particularly interesting. Yesterday we went to see the Chateau (Castle) d’Angers (the photo is the view of Angers from the top), and we had a great guide who gave us a detailed historical overview of the castle’s purposes over time. Definitely the most interesting component of that visit was seeing the Apocalypse tapestry. It’s from the 14th century and it’s the longest tapestry in the world—truly incredible. They only have about two-thirds of the original, yet it is still overwhelming in size. Our tour guide did an excellent job of explaining it and answering our many questions about various symbolic meanings in the images. For example, we noticed that a lot of things were represented in sets of seven, and he told us that seven is considered a perfect number, religiously, because it is the sum of four (as in the four gospels, the four elements) and three (as in the trinity), etc. There are also various qualities about the tapestry which suggest that it was meant to be displayed in the open air; for example, the images can be seen from both sides, and the ends of the threads, which are typically exposed on the back, are all neatly tucked in and hidden. Unfortunately we couldn’t take any pictures inside the room in which it is displayed. The tapestry is not supposed to be exposed to any light, and they don’t trust people to really turn their flashes off when taking pictures, which I understand. Overall, truly a fascinating visit.

After class today, we went to an organic vineyard. Organic products, called “bio” in French, are becoming increasingly popular here just as they are in the US. It was incredibly cool to go to this little tiny vineyard, run by a couple—Olivier and Emmanuelle—who produce their wine in a really authentic, rustic way. They only own a little bit of land compared to the surrounding vineyards, but it is manageable by their very high standards. They do absolutely nothing to treat the soil or the grapes themselves, so they look completely different from the neighboring, chemically treated vineyards. Their soil is a lot rockier, with lots of plants growing throughout. The grapes themselves are smaller, and taste better. The leaves are presently turning yellow, which is natural in the fall, whereas the treated ones are larger and still green. He uses old-fashioned equipment to get the juice from the grapes, and he does a lot of the work himself. What takes him nine hours could be done in about three with a more up-to-date machine, but it means a lot to him to maintain his process as it is. He doesn’t produce a whole lot of wine each year, and he doesn’t sell it to huge commercial vendors (though he does provide the wine for a very upscale restaurant in Paris), but mostly to individuals who like his wine and his approach to winemaking. We got to sample a few different types, which were really fantastic. We tried some sweet white wines, because he had explained to us how he waits for the grapes to get to a certain state before they are harvested, in order to produce natural sweetness. He gave us the same wine from 2003, when there had been a heat wave, and 2004, which had been a normal year, in terms of weather. The weather from 2003 made the grapes ripen really quickly, and expedited the whole winemaking process, giving the wine the flavor of exotic fruits. It was absolutely incredible! He doesn’t sell it, however; I think what is left of it is his family’s stash, so it was really cool of him to share it with us. We learned some vocabulary beforehand for describing wine, and it’s kind of hilarious. The appearance and texture of wine is described in the same terms one uses to describe a woman. For example, one can describe a nice color as “une belle robe”, or a beautiful dress. It was a really nice thing for us to do, certainly to think more about the French appreciation for wine, but also to learn about how people maintain “bio” products. We all left quite impressed with the wine itself, but moreso with Olivier’s commitment to the manner in which he prepares and sells his wine. In the world of commercial retail, it’s refreshing to see a small, authentic business thriving.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

End of Paris, Beginning of Angers—The American Keyboard Version

Alright, here’s a more thorough overview of our last couple of days in Paris and our first few days in Angers.

A few final Paris adventures included the Quai Branly museum, which is a somewhat archeological/anthropological museum of the world—excepting Europe, interestingly. We didn’t love it, as it seemed really strangely organized. Ancient artifacts and relatively contemporary things were placed side by side, rather out of context, organized instead by appearance. The whole set-up was almost more artistic than historical, which was just odd considering the objects they had on display. Also, the 100 “best” objects in their collection are permanently stored in the Louvre.

A couple of us went to the Pompidou Museum one day, which was pretty cool. One of the best things about the building, which is incredibly interesting in itself (with colored pipes on the outside, each color representing the pipe’s purpose—water, electricity, etc.) is that, from the top, it affords an incredible view of Paris.

We also saw the Arc de Triomphe and Eiffel Tower, by night, which were each lovely. The Eiffel Tower was blue with the stars of the European Union when we went, and we also caught it sparkling a few times, which I attempted to catch on video. It’s sideways, though. Anyone know if I can change that?

After our busy but fun stay in Paris, we arrived in Angers on Thursday afternoon. My host brother Jonathan picked me up at the train station and drove me home (asking me on the way if I understood the slang and curse words he was using as he drove, which I did, for the most part). He lives in the apartment above his father’s, where I’m staying. My host father, Jean-Pierre, was at work until later in the afternoon, so his girlfriend Marie came by to hang out with me for a bit. We eventually met up with him for dinner.

He and I get along really well, so I think we’re both pleased with how this living arrangement has worked out thus far. He’s a middle school teacher, so we obviously have a shared interest in education, but we also both read a lot, enjoy the arts, and fortunately for both of us, pretty much eat the exact same types of food (and it turns out that he cooks quite well!). We have had a lot of great conversations, ranging from literature to French film to politics. I will, without a doubt, learn a lot from him. Also, he is currently the president of an organization which promotes development efforts in struggling countries. At the moment, he is in the process of planning to send a group to Africa. Pretty awesome.

I met up with the rest of the students for our courses at the University (and exams) on Friday, and then we went out for a lovely dinner with our contact from the Fulbright program and various others involved in education in Angers. Jean-Pierre and Marie picked me up afterwards, and we went to a pub for a drink. They seem to know everyone in town, which is awesome, because I’m meeting new and interesting people all the time.

I spent an excellent weekend with the two of them. On Saturday, we went shopping at the biggest outdoor market in Angers. We got lots of fruits and vegetables, and I learned a bit of new vocabulary. We wandered around the center of town for a while, and then met up with a few of their friends. We went out for drinks with them at this cool little place that feels like it’s in the middle of nowhere—you actually have to ride a little boat/raft thing across the water to get there—and then we had dinner at a Thai/Indian fusion restaurant.

On Sunday, we went to visit a twelfth century monastery and a castle, had a picnic outside along the Loire, and then I came back and chilled out for the rest of the afternoon.

Spending a whole weekend speaking French (literally, I didn’t speak one full sentence in English since Friday evening) was mentally exhausting, but certainly an important step in my time here. I’m finding myself at a point where all language seems a little bit awkward—English words are escaping me because I’m devoting so much of my concentration to making sense in French. It’s certainly uncomfortable, but I know it’s natural and important. I can only get more comfortable from here (I hope!).

Sunday, September 21, 2008

The start of my time in Angers

Hey all,

Sorry it's been a few days since my last update. We're in Angers now, where we have been very busy. Also, my laptop is not yet set up to work with my host family's internet connection--which we are planning to remedy in the next few days--so I am presently on my host dad's computer, typing very slowly on the French keyboard. In the next few days, I will post some more pictures from the end of Paris and provide a more thorough update.

For now, I'll give you a basic run-down of the Angers situation. I live near the university with a middle school teacher named Jean-Pierre. He has two kids close to my age, one of whom lives in the apartment upstairs. Jean-Pierre's girlfriend, Marie, lives down the street, and we spend a lot of time with her. I like them a lot! They are really interesting, relaxed people who seem very devoted to giving me a good experience here. More about my adventures with them to come.

During the days, we will have language and culture courses at the University of Angers, which seem like they will be interesting. We had oral and written exams on Friday to confirm what level we'll be in, and I'm in the advanced class, which should be cool and challenging. We are also doing some visits with the program--including Mont St. Michel and some of the castles in the area. Looks like we will have very long but good days.

I'm going to finish here for now, but you should hopefully be able to look for a more thorough update soon!

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

The Louvre and other Paris adventures

Yesterday, we had our first day of our orientation here in Paris. We heard some general talks on French education and met quite a few people involved in the French educational system, including a few people from the Ministry of Education. In the afternoon, we went to the Louvre, which was so exciting. I wasn't able to go when I was in Paris with the Drew DIS, as we were only here for a day and we tried to accomplish as much as possible. The program treated us to a very general tour, including the most well-known works. There were signs everywhere (as pictured here) for the Mona Lisa, which, as I have so often heard, was indeed tiny and surrounded by tourists. We had fun talking to the tour guide about exactly why the Mona Lisa is so important--including, among other things, the fact that she stares directly at you and the smile on her face.

I took a whole bunch of pictures at the museum, which I'll post somewhere at some point (I'll keep you informed about that)--here's La Victoire (Winged Victory). It was a lot bigger than I could have imagined, especially on that pedestal. Really stunning. It was amazing to see how old some of the pieces were, like a monolithic Sphinx in the Egyptian wing.

When we saw the Venus de Milo, we were told that the sculpture actually had jewels on it, as many did, and they were stolen over the years. Someone also asked if there's any way of knowing what position her arms were in, and it turns out that they do. One of them would have been outstretched, likely holding an apple or a bird, I believe, which is how Venus is often represented.

I was excited to see the painting of Libery Leading the People (which has probably gained popularity with Coldplay's album). It got us thinking about French revolutions, and may or may not have led to the singing of some Les Miserables songs later in the evening.

Last night, post-Louvre, we did a little exploring, bought cell phones, tried to celebrate Mexican independence day (long story), and ended up stopping at a little English bar. It was nice to chat and relax together, but we were all still exhausted.

Today was pretty cool. We heard a sociologist talk about French teenagers (who have a lot in common with American teenagers...) and she brought up some great points. I also met my contact from the IUFM de Creteil, Jean, who spoke to the group about problems in French education--we spoke a lot about the sort of imposed cultural homogeneity in French schools. A lot of people in the group asked questions about how French schools can not allow the display of any religious signs in school (this includes jewelry, clothing, etc.). Afterwards, I got to have lunch with Jean and he told me more about my apartment in Saint Denis. Apparently, it's in a very multicultural area with easy access to a metro stop and a lot of interesting things to do. I'm looking forward to receiving more information about my time there.

For now, I'm off to enjoy the rest of our time in Paris!

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Arrival in Paris

We arrived in France this morning, exhausted but excited. Our contact from the Fulbright Commission, Amelle, met us at the airport and we all went together to the FIAP in the 14th arrondissement, which is essentially a hostel, and we are staying here until Thursday for our initial orientation into the program.

A few of us got together and had our first real meal of the trip at a little brasserie/cafĂ©, where we successfully ordered and paid for some delicious French food. We then came back and got settled into our rooms at the FIAP. I’m staying with Carolyn, who I got to know during training in Ohio. Like me, she is eager to speak as much French as possible to improve fluency, so I think we’ll be good influences on each another. Once we all go our separate ways to teach, she’ll be going the farthest—she’s teaching in Guadeloupe! I’m really looking forward to hearing about her adventures.

I still haven’t heard about my official school placement, but I found out I’ll likely be living in Saint Denis (to the north of Paris) with German and Polish first-year teachers. I’m probably going to be placed in a high school somewhere near Saint Denis, but I’m not yet sure which one. At this point, it looks like I'll be working in English language and French literature courses. Nothing's official yet, though. The French education system divides the country into regions called “academies” and I am affiliated with the academie of Creteil while I am here, which is to the south of Paris. I'm surprised to find that I'm not living/teaching closer to the actual city of Creteil, but ironically Saint Denis seems to be a pretty similar area, though farther away. When I go to education classes (at what's called an IUFM), I will be going to Creteil.

Tomorrow, we'll get to hear talks from some people in the field of education here, and apparently I'll get to meet someone from my IUFM--so who knows, maybe I'll get some more information about where I'm living/teaching. We're also going to visit the Louvre in the afternoon. Then we'll have our first real evening in Paris, as most of us are going to sleep early tonight. We've been awake for well over 24 hours now.

On that note, I'm going to head upstairs and get some sleep. I'll post an update on our Paris orientation as soon as possible!

Saturday, September 13, 2008


Leaving tonight at 6:15! When we arrive, it will be around 7:45am in Paris. We'll be in a hostel there for a few days. According to the schedule, we'll meet some of our contacts, hear some lectures about contemporary issues in French education, and visit a few of the main sights of Paris. I'll try to post at some point during my time there with an update!