Hello from La Rochelle! I’m realizing I probably should have started a blog post sooner because I feel like there’s so much to recount about my first several weeks here. It was so surreal at first, reinserting myself back into a life in France. I’ve been talking and thinking about this for months upon months, and now it’s finally here, and I’m writing a blog post at a cafe in the city center! My, how time flies..
La Rochelle is exactly what I was hoping it would be and more. It’s as adorable as you’d expect a seaside French city to be, and then some. Definitely a different feel than Paris as far as living in France, less metropolitan and more “real” France, which I was hoping to experience. The “Rochelais,” people from La Rochelle, are a nice people, very friendly and laid back with a sort of hearty, sailor-esque character, in my opinion. They’re much less reserved than a lot of French people tend to be, or at least Parisians, anyway. I went to the phone store to reopen the line to my cell phone and ended up in what proved to be a hilarious conversation with the two women who worked there, who were openly talking about the really cute young man who just started working at the men’s clothing store across the street. Not exactly professionel, as one might expect, but completely wonderful nonetheless. Another example of this that I have noticed is on the bus, a new system of public transportation I have become acclimated to here. I know this is perfectly normal for tons of people all over, however there really isn’t a bus system where I live and I’ve had a car. As for Paris, that bus system is crazy and the metro is a thousand times more efficient. But here, you have to take the bus. I’ve got it figured out now, and thankfully there are bus stops very close to where I live. I’ve noticed that as people get off the bus on my usual line, they say “Merci, au revoir!” to the bus driver as they get off. I thought it an incredibly nice gesture and an unexpected one at that, having been used to the crazy sardine-like Parisian metro situation where it’s every man for himself. And thankfully the bus drivers are often kind in return, like if they see you hastily running towards the bus stop as they pull away, they may just stop and pull over to let you get on the bus from time to time. …Not that I’ve experienced this myself on more than one occasion of anything…..I’ve just heard….Okay, maybe I’ve done that once or twice. Thankfully they’re pretty friendly.
La Rochelle itself is an old port city, with the downtown area being full of ornate, greyish stone buildings and little archways everywhere, even if they happen to house very modern stores. There’s a few big towers that mark the famous Vieux Port, the “Old Port” which describes exactly what it is. The first thing you see walking downtown is these two, large, imposing towers that seem to have marked the welcoming of ships into the port. It sort of reminds me of two big, old, medieval outstretched arms made of stone, welcoming in the boats as well as people walking into the city, as if they’re saying “Hey! You made it!” Also, they’re lit up at night like two big stone beacons and are pretty beautiful, to boot. Providing it’s not Sunday, which is the Day Everything Is Closed (to be expected in France), there are constantly people out everywhere, sitting at cafes with a coffee or an aperitif for hours or bustling around the various stands that are out in the market on the main square on Fridays. One of the things about living right by the ocean is that there’s a lot, and I mean a LOT, of seafood here. One of my roommates said that here, people often have oysters for Christmas. Like it’s a normal thing. Therefore, while wandering throughout the market, there are special vendors of all sorts of things, including many different kinds of fish, oysters, mussels; really anything you can eat that comes from the ocean, there will be a cart selling them practically straight from the water. It kind of makes me laugh seeing the giant fish all chilling in a pile in front of the seller, because it’s as if they have this paranoid look on their face with the eyes wide open, lying there like they’re saying “What? What are you looking at? I’m not doing anything!” Pretty much all day in that area, it all smells like fish and seawater. Thank goodness for the Lebanese food vendor that covers up some of the fishy smell with a strong curry one wafting through the air. There’s a lot of specialty vendors of things you wouldn’t expect, including two different people who have giant carts full of different kinds of olives. Who knew there were that many kinds of olives? There’s all different colors, with different kinds of herbs or oils flavoring them. Thankfully in response to the clearly overwhelmed look on my face as I stared at the options, the woman selling them flashed me a toothy grin and offered to give me a few of a bunch of different kinds. They were all delicious!
I am proud to say that I am giving the local cuisine a try, albiet my reservations about things that come from the sea, which for whatever reason seem to always be full of strange textures in many different forms and the rarely escapable “fishy” taste prevalent in everything. However, I have been adventurous. One night for dinner, my roommates made mussels for dinner in a style typical of this area, made in a white wine sauce with onions. I’ve tried mussels before, but was not their biggest fan. Have you ever actually looked inside a mussel? They’re pretty strange looking. I think that was part of it. Anyway, one of my roommates ladled out an ambitiously large helping onto my plate and watched intently as I tried one. Shockingly enough, I actually liked them! As long as I don’t look too closely at the thing I’m eating, the taste of mussels is actually pretty good. Particularly these, since they come right from the ocean that I walk past every day. They were not slimy as I expected, but more smooth and with a little burst of salty flavor that was really quite delicious. Another of my culinary adventures is due to the great guidance of one of my favorite people in history, Julia Child. I began reading her memoir, My Life in France, on the plane ride over and have since finished it, ending with an even greater desire to have dinner with her and her husband Paul if time travel were possible for only one meal. One of the first things Julia Child eats at a restaurant in France is sole meuniere, which I’ll let her describe she she puts it in much better words than I ever could.
“Paul had decided to order sole meuniere. It arrived whole: a large, flat Dover sole that was perfectly browned in a sputtering butter sauce with a sprinkling of chopped parsley on top. The waiter carefully placed the platter in front of us, steped back, and said, “Bon appetit!” I closed my eyes and inhaled the rising perfume. Then I lefted a forkful of fish to my mouth took a bite, and chewed slowly. The flesh of the sole was delicae, with a light but distinct taste of the ocean that blended marvelously with the browned butter. I chewed slowly and swallowed. It was a morsel of perfection.”
And it was just that. As Julia would say, I “ordered boldly” and asked for the sole meuniere. When it arrived, the first thing you smell is the fact that the giant, whole fish sitting on your plate is sitting in a large amount of delicious brown butter sauce. There’s no smell like it. Although slightly daunted by the sight of an entire fish sitting on my plate, I must be honest, I only knew how to go about it because I have watched the movie Julie and Julia way too many times and have seen this same dish de-boned in that film the same number of times. Hey, it helped me know what to do! The fleshy, buttery part of the fish slipped away easily from the many delicate fish bones and it was absolutely heavenly. I should’ve known that Julia wouldn’t steer me wrong! I ate the entire thing and, as is only proper when eating anything French, soaked up the rest of the sauce with some crusty pieces of baguette, typically provided at every French restaurant. Otherwise, what would you do with the sauce, often considered the best part of the meal?
I realize at this point of writing this blog post that there’s quite possibly more about food than the actual city here. Although I suppose that’s not surprising.. So about my actual job, the reason why I’m here! (As much as it may seem like the real attraction was the cuisine.. I won’t lie and say it wasn’t a factor. I have yet to find a real, good, crusty baguette in the States like the ones you can find on any street corner in France..) I work in three different elementary schools in the suburbs of La Rochelle, two in an area called Chatelaillon and one in anohther called Angoulins-sur-Mer. Both of them are coastal suburbs, right by the ocean, just to give it some geographical context, a little bit south of La Rochelle. I have classes of all different ages, although more of them are on the younger end of the spectrum, with several kindergarten-age classes. A little bit of background here, the French ministry of education recently made it mandatory for English to be taught as early as possible in elementary schools, starting with kindergarten and encouraged to even have some English time at preschools. This being a recent implementation into the curriculum, teachers (particularly older adult teachers) have found themselves in the predicament of having gone to school to teach elementary school classes, not English, and so do not really have a good enough grasp on the language to teach it whatsoever. Many of them have a basic understanding of some English, but great difficulty with pronunciation and grammar in general. Enter in: English teaching assistants! Teachers request assistants to come in during English time in classes and help with pronunciation, lead activities, games, etc. as well as talk about their culture. So I have several classes in each school, with varying levels of students, different focuses of English that they’re working on, and different expectations as to how much I lead the class and how much I speak in English vs. French. As you can imagine, this results in a pretty varied work schedule! Some teachers completely give me the reigns of the class, others want me mostly as a pronunciation resource and to follow their curriculum to the T. Some teachers want me to speak in English as much as possible, which can be difficult since my students are so young that they know very little English so all I can is these blank stares of fear and zero comprehension; whereas others want me to teach more in French, particularly for the younger ones, so that they can understand what I want them to do and what it means before hand. Needless to say, it keeps me on my toes! The best part of this job is that the kids really are excited to learn. In every single one of my classes, the second I walked in the door, I had 20 very excited pairs of eyes looking at me like I was the coolest thing they’d ever seen. As you’d expect, my students are pretty much the cutest little French kids you’ve ever seen. Really. They’re unbelievably adorable. How can you not smile when a student asks you if you know Barack Obama? Or if there are mountains in Indiana? Or what your favorite animal is? Or when they’re waving at you and yelling “Ah-lee-SUN! Ah-lee-SUN! Good-bye!!” from the playground as I leave for the day? (Quick note: I go by Alison here since it’s a name the French recognize and can somewhat pronounce, although the emphasis is on the last part of my name. Which sounds pretty much how I just typed it out there.) Whether they’re speaking in French or in heavily-accented attempts at English, it’s just too cute. Plus, they’re genuinely interested in learning what I have to teach them, which makes my job a hundred times easier. So in short, I very much enjoy teaching. It allows for me to be creative in coming up with different activities for the various levels of my students, and it really is pretty fun.
Since my teaching schedule is limited to 12 hours a week (I know, I know.. Feel free to give your computer screen a dirty look right now. I know it’s ridiculous.) it leaves me a lot of free time, which is something I have not been able to truthfully say for, oh, the past 8 years of my life or so. It’s weird thinking that just earlier this year, I was planning out every single hour of my day, staying in the library until it closed and working more hours than I do now on top of 16 credit hours of classes.. And now I don’t have any thesis to be writing or pages of research to be going through. In addition to finally being able to sit down with a cup of tea and read books I actually want to read, this has afforded me a lot of wandering time, which is much appreciated considering I live roughly a block from the ocean. I can’t believe my luck either. There’s this fantastic beach that’s pretty much a block from where I live right now. It’s a perfect place to sit and read, walk along the coast, collect seashells, watch the sunset.. I like it very much. Especially the big giant rocks that line the whole coast. And the people in knee-high boots with buckets in arm, tiny in the distance as they collect mussels and oysters. And the swaths of shells that are somewhat overwhelming to people like me who want to pick all of them up. The beauty of it all is just breathtaking. And it serves as a good reminder when I get frustrated with little things, like moments of humility that come with not understanding things in a foreign language, or frustration with a less-than-efficient bureaucratic system, or a landlord that is impossible to get ahold of, which have all been a part of this experience as well. A friend of mine once said that living in a country where the native language is not your own is a constant lesson in humility, and this has quite certainly proved to be true. I have pretty good French skills, but am constantly reminded that there are certain vocabulary words that I’ve simply forgotten or never learned. And for whatever reason, those holes in my vocabulary always seem to be the pivotal part of the sentence I’m trying to understand. “Make sure you put those on the _____.” On the what? what is that word? Make sure I put what where? I frantically think to myself and then the H&M dressing room attendant points to my hand and I realize she’s just telling me to put my clothes back on the hangers. Ohhhh. Oops. Oh well, life is full of tiny little lessons around every corner, whether it be learning how to say “hanger” in French or being reminded by a beautiful ocean landscape not to sweat the small stuff.