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The definition of “enormity” is standing with your feet in the surf on one of the most beautiful beaches you’ve ever stood on, looking out over VERY turquoise blue water while a sun shower falls around you. Then trying to imagine this beautiful, peaceful haven completely filled with tanks, submarines, airplanes, bombs and thousands and thousands of men just charging out of the ocean and running up the beach. And THEN, turning around and wondering which one of the 10,000 people buried on the hill behind you died where you are standing.

Omaha Beach at Normandy.

My journey to Normandy wasn’t originally on the agenda.  I’m there on a fluke; a last-minute, split second decision that was made not even 36 hours prior.  The original plan was to go to Brittany for a few days before heading to Paris, but the seeds of doubt had been planted in my brain by my mother and Violaine, who both remarked that this was a place to absolutely be visited if given the chance.

So that’s how I find myself right off the coast of the English Channel, standing in the surf of Omaha Beach.  I am alone.  It’s a Monday afternoon and not vacation time.  It’s off-season.  I look around and no one is to be found – I see two little dots waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay down the coastline, two other folks enjoying the solitude on the next beach over, but for 10 minutes, I have Omaha all to myself.  I gaze out over the absolutely beautiful water.  The sky is a mix of dark gray clouds and abundant sunshine against cobalt blue, and a sunshower begins to fall as the above-written words form in my mind.

I am eventually joined by a handful of other people, but in general, at any given time there are less than 5 people standing on this coast.  After the beach, I walk through the sun and rain back up the lush green hills to the American Cemetery.  I wander through the rows of sparkling white marble crosses and stars of David.  Names, states of origin, dates of death.  June 6, 1944.  June 7th and 8th are close seconds.  July 25, 1944.  June 31, 1944.  There are flowers on some.  On others, flags.

The layout of the Invasion Plan.

Graves looking over Omaha.

A fallen soldier from Colorado. I don’t know why he has both American and French flags, unless he was half French as well. In any case, I liked this one a lot.

It’s beautifully kept and an absolutely stunning resting place.  As I walk the rows in relative silence, stopping briefly to serve as an interpreter between an American man and a group of French high school students who are here for a school project, I look back and forth between the graves and the ocean.  I think of the museum from the day before, and the memorial I visited before coming down to the beach.  The photos of what this place looked like that day, and I try to imagine this pristine, quiet, beautiful and secluded area looking the way it did during the Invasion.  I am unsuccessful.

The town doesn’t look all that different than it did that day.  There are no cute, charming cafes, no touristy shops.  It’s 1945 stone building architecture lining country roads.  That’s it.

A street in Coleville sur Mer, right off Omaha Beach.

Wildflowers lining the street and overlooking the beach.

I feel a quiet and subtle sense of patriotism on the bus ride back.  But not in an American-centered way.  More in a “wow, look at the way all these people and different countries pulled and worked together for the greater good” sort of way.  This cross-cultural effort, a secret conspiracy that went off more or less without a hitch right under the noses of one of the most oppressive regimes that ever existed.  The fact that we were able to do this – all of us – is an extraordinary feat and probably the single most shining example of international cooperation and fraternity.

I spent two full days in Caen, following in the footsteps of famous figures in French history – William the Conqueror and his queen Mathilde, Charlotte Corday in her pre-revolution days, Edith Piaf’s relatives who owned their own café in the most historical part of the city.  This time here is not rushed the way my vacations sometimes are; I don’t run around.  I lazily wander the old streets, sauntering through the market on my self-guided walking tour that was listed in my booklet.  But I also leave a lot of time for relaxation – lounging in cafes, reading, watching a movie or two.

William the Conqueror’s fortress.

A view of Caen from atop a hill. You can see the abbeys and cathedrals from here very well.

A church originally built in around 1000 that was destroyed permanently during the World War II bombings. This is all that’s left.

Charlotte Corday frequented this building very often prior to moving to Paris and being executed during the revolution. She was one of the secretaries of the women’s abbey just next door.

The oldest neighborhood in Caen. It’s now the restaurant quarter. Edith Piaf’s folks owned a cafe here.

With the systematic downpours that happen every day here, making the streets look like there’s a flash flood, hanging out outside isn’t always a possibility.  I manage to sneak in a museum or two when that happens, and the whole pace of my 72 hours in Normandy is blissfully relaxing.

The exhibition at the Caen Memorial.

The diary of a boy explaining what the gold star means and where he needs to wear it. Written in French.

Tuesday, June 6, 1944.

“Invasion…all aboard for the invasion!”

Finally, on Tuesday, I pack up my things and catch the 3pm train direct to Paris.  As it pulls into the platform, I smile and I realize that this is my final trip with the SNCF.  It’s a sobering realization.  I climb in and find a seat, and am carried toward my final stop, and my final 4 days in France.

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Zis Is Ze Voice!

For the past 4 days, I’ve pretty much done nothing other than laze around on the beach.  Well, that’s not entirely true.  I’ve also run on the beach (5 miles on Monday and Wednesday!), drank hot chocolate and ate churros on the beach, slept on the beach, and wandered through the seaside towns of Noirmoutier, a small island off the coast of Vendée, where I have found myself once again before heading off to Normandy tomorrow.

The weather was horrible when I got here, but that apparently wasn’t shocking – it appears that the second you leave the southeast, you leave a safe bubble of constant sunshine to be replaced by temperamental skies and chillier temperatures.  I saw the change in climate and landscape as my train weaved through the south, following the Pyrenees across the country as the surroundings became greener and greener, the skies grayer.

But now, I look out the window of Hélène’s lovely new apartment in Les Sables d’Olonnes and it appears that the sun has followed me up here.  I find myself wondering what it’s doing back in Provence.

Provence.

I wonder what I would be doing right now if I were still there.  I’d probably be just returning from a run along the Rhone, or perhaps doing yoga out on the terrace.  There’s a high statistical probability that Chika would be over, and we’d be drinking coffee and chatting at our tiny kitchen table in my sundrenched kitchen.  Or perhaps we’d be getting ready for a day trip somewhere.

But I’m not there anymore.  None of us are.  One friend from my group there is in Spain.  Another is in Israel.  Two others have already returned home, back to Canada.  It appears I’m the only one left in the country at the moment, which is an interesting prospect.  It feels weird to know that Avignon has more or less become a sort of dead space to me – a place totally unoccupied by and absent of everyone I knew there.

I left Avignon early the morning of the 23rd.  It was a normal Monday, everyone heading to work as Françoise drove me down to the train station with my bags.  As she drove the car around to the front door, I left my keys on the dresser in the front hallway and stood at the door of the apartment, looking around the place that had been my home the last year.  Goodbye.

We gave each other a big hug goodbye and she asked me to stay in touch.  I promised to, and I will.  And with that, I turned and walked into the train station, finding my train to Montpellier, the first connection on my 12-hour day of travel out to Pays Basque, where the lovely and awesome Violaine Badie awaited me.  As the train pulled out of Avignon, I didn’t look back.  That part is done.

Throughout the day, I stopped in Montpellier, Toulouse, Pau and finally made it out to Bayonne, the capital of Pays Basque, a region in the way southwest of France literally 20 minutes from the Spanish border.

Capitaleku, Violaine’s family’s home for literally 2 centuries. Occupied by the Germans during World War 2.

The hills of Bayonne

The hiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiills are alive with the sound of music…

I spent the week in her family’s farmhouse right outside the city, in what I think just may be one of the most beautiful spots I’ve been to in this country so far.  Snuggled into the Pyrenees, the house dates back to the 1800s, and was even occupied by the Germans during World War 2 due to its great location on the top of a hill where it could survey the entire area without difficulty.  Every morning, the rooster woke me up with its cocko-doodle-doo, and we would go outside to feed the chickens and take Aidan, her big, snuggly German Shephard, for a walk in the wildflower fields all around her house.  In the distance were more and more farms against the backdrop of the mountains, and I enjoyed taking a few minutes every morning, before Violaine had woken up, to walk along the winding country roads taking in the tranquility of the early morning.  I met her parents and brother as well, who were lovely, and got to explore the coast (the beaches of Pays Basque are downright stunning with huge rocks along the coast, creating a lot of white surf and HUGE waves) as well as the town of Biarritz.  But most importantly, I got to see Violaine, one of my closest friends here, and I enjoyed a lot of free time for yoga, reading and relaxing as the rain poured outside.  On my last night there, I cooked the whole family a huge, traditional American meal of meatloaf (with meat fresh from the butcher next door), macaroni and cheese and New York cheesecake, which was extremely well received.

On Saturday, they drove me up to Bordeaux, where I was put on another train up to Vendée, which I have affectionately started referring to as “Headquarters.”  The gloomy weather followed me up as Hélène and Leidigrine picked me up at the train station, and we drove back to the former’s new apartment in Les Sables d’Olonnes, a beach town about a half hour from La Roche, where we all went to high school together many moons ago.

Since then, we’ve been having an absolutely LOVELY week together – I feel like I’m on vacation out in the Hamptons back home.  The skies are perfect cobalt blue, and every morning I head down to the beach for either yoga or a 5-mile run along the edge of the Atlantic Ocean.  The first few days Hélène had off, and we took advantage of the great weather to go to the zoo (which was absolutely lovely – LOTS of different animals that I had NEVER seen before, not even in the Bronx Zoo back home) as well as hit up the market in town center for fresh seafood, and take a day trip up to Noirmoutier, an island about an hour and a half north of Les Sables with stunning beaches and a cute port.  As we drove with the windows down, winding up the coast of the Atlantic, I played my oldies playlist on my iPod and we sang the classics at the top of our lungs, belting out The Beatles and Stevie Wonder to pretty much anyone in earshot.  As we did, I was reminded of a conversation we’d had the day before, when I’d put on some Jeff Buckley and we chatted about one of their favorite TV shows here in France, “The Voice.” (Which, respectively, has a catchy tagline which is none other than the title of this entry, done with a French accent.  It’s hilarious, actually.)

“Ah oui, avec celui-la je ne fais que du yaourt,” Helene remarked casually. (Oh yeah, with this guy I can only manage to “yogurt it.”)

I looked up, confused.

“Attend…tu fais quoi déjà?”  (Wait, you do what, exactly?)

“Du yaourt.  Ҫa veut dire que…enfin, qu’on sait pas le dire en anglais donc on chante n’importe quoi.  Juste du bruit.” (Yogurt.  It means that…well, that we have no idea what they’re saying in English so we just kind of sing whatever and make noises.)

I stared at her.

“Alors tu n’arrives pas à suivre la chanson en anglais alors tu chantes des bêtises, et le nom de ce truc c’est faire du yaourt?  Tout simplement?” (So…you can’t manage to follow it in English so you just sing a bunch of BS, and you’ve decided that the name of this is “yogurt…ing?”)

“C’est un peu ca, ouais.” (Yeah, that’s pretty much it.)  She grinned.  “Bah quand même, c’est assez difficile d’en faire quand il y a une américaine dans la salle avec toi.” (But admittedly, it’s a bit harder to get away with when there’s an American in the room with you.)

Well then.

Finally, we arrived, and pretty much beach and seaside-town hopped the whole afternoon (pictures brought to you by Leidigrine, who very well may be the single most trigger happy person I have ever met in my entire life).

The beaches of Noirmoutier. Kitesurfing!

Hanging out on the beach.

At the harbor.

Boats in the harbor.

Friends. 🙂

The coast of Noirmoutier.

Yours Truly at the salt swamplands of the island.  I had no idea Leidi was taking this photo.

When the tide lowers on Noirmoutier, it reveals this road that you can drive on to leave the island. Once the tide rises, it disappears and you need to take the bridge.

Aside from that, we’re basically taking the opportunity to hang out on the beach whenever possible, chatting, laughing, bathing in the warm sun, sleeping, and sticking our feet into the still-quite-cold-but-rather-refreshing-after-a-few-minutes ocean.  Often, after our afternoon siesta on the beach, we’ll head back to the apartment to cook a lovely meal and watch some great flicks – we caught the re-release of The Lion King in theatres the other day, which was HYSTERICAL to watch in French, and both Hélène and Leidi seem hell-bent on saturating me with as much French reality television as they can get their hands on.  It’s not pretty, people.  All in all, we’re just enjoying each other’s company as much as possible, knowing that this is the last time we will be seeing each other until I come back again or they come to the US – whichever one comes first, and Lord knows when that will be.  I feel so graced and blessed to know that I have friends like this; that even when an ocean separates you, you can always pick right back up where you left off, even years later, and you’ll always be there when one of you comes, or returns.

Tonight is my last night in Vendée – I leave bright and early (and I mean BRIGHT AND EARLY – my train is at 7:53 tomorrow morning) to head up to Normandy for a few days.  I had planned to go to Brittany but changed my mind at the last minute, deciding I was more curious to see a) a region I had not yet been to and b) an area with huge historical significance, given the chance.  Then, finally, after Normandy, I’ll head down to Paris.  The final stop on the Goodbye Tour.

I come home one week from tomorrow.

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On Friday, Chika, Stephen and myself headed out to Pont du Gard, an ancient and fully awesome Roman Aqueduct located halfway between Avignon and Nîmes.  The weather left something to be desired, but it was still a lovely area for a picnic and we were practically the only people there.

Pont du Gard over the Rhone!

Stephen doing his own version of locust. Kinda.

A blurry and wind-blown yours truly with the bridge in the back.

My only regret is that the weather wasn’t good enough to swim.  Oh well.

Yesterday, we had Bouillabaisse Night.  We all met up at the market yesterday morning and stocked up on the ingredients.  This is NOT an easy stew to make.  Aside from having to get 4-5 different kinds of fish, it also calls for a whole bunch of outlandish stuff like saffron and tons of fresh herbs and a metric eff-ton of garlic and onions and tomatoes.  The recipe is LONG.  The woman at the poissonerie was super helpful though, and helped us pick out a good selection of fish that would make a good soup without breaking the bank.  We went back to Stephen’s and, if I do say so myself, managed to pull it off SPECTACULARLY.  The result was downright DELICIOUS.  I had two whole bowls.  I did get one of the fish eyes in my bowl, however (while making the broth, you put the heads of the fish in with all the herbs and veggies and boil it for hours.  It eventually disintegrates for the most part and then the eyes kind of cook, shrink and mix in with the rest.  If that doesn’t tempt your palette, I don’t know what will.).

Bouillabaisse! A traditional Southern France dish.

More packing is on the menu today.  Mostly I just need to clean out the drawers of my desk, drop my clothes off at the donation box in town, and do some laundry.  Sometime this week I also need to get a goodbye gift for Françoise – I’ll head out to the mall on Wednesday when I have off.  She just recently shared with me that she will no longer be renting out my room to students and assistants – she’s converting it into a guest room permanently after I leave.  Not because she didn’t like doing so, but because she’s decided to now spend most of her time up at her second home in Ardèche, a region 2 hours north of Avignon in the mountains, and she’s not going to be here terribly often.  I’m going to get her a nice set of demitasse coffee cups – all of hers are chipped and broken, just like everything else in this awesome house.

8 days and counting until I bid Avignon goodbye for good.

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Fjording Fun

You may remember waaaaaaaaay back before I left home, when there was only 6 or so weeks left before coming to Europe, I made this post.  At the bottom, you’ll find what was that day’s “Photo of Provence.”  It was the Calanques, the Mediterranean Fjords that are found all along the coast of the sea from Marseille to Cassis.  I couldn’t wait to see them in person!

Well, this past weekend, that’s exactly what I did.

I’ve been pretty much going nonstop for the past 4 days.  This is the first moment of quiet I’ve had since Saturday morning, when I did a lovely hour long yoga practice and then ran out for a picnic with friends.  Since then, I’ve been hanging out with said friends, cooking, then spending the whole day Sunday hiking before working all day long the last two days without much of a break, and going out for cocktails here and there in between.

I challenge anyone who tries to make me leave my bed right now.  Thank God I have tomorrow off.

Anyway, we’d been talking for months about going to see the Calanques before leaving, and with our last three weeks in Avignon pretty much full to the brim with already-scheduled activities, we realized it had to be this past weekend or never.  So, Chika, Stephen, Stephen’s friend Kaatje who was visiting from Spain, Marc, Sufia, their friend Joël and finally yours truly woke up at the crack of dawn on Sunday morning, packed a picnic, put on some sturdy hiking shoes and comfy clothes and caught the train out to Cassis, a small seaside town about 20 kilometers from Marseille where most people pick up the trail to hike the Calanques.

It took a bit, but we found the head of the trail and set on out.  The trail was steep and slippery and dangerous and you needed to really watch your feet, but the views were stunning:

The inlet where we went swimming. FREEZING AS F***.

The inlet from above.

After about an hour, we came along the first secluded inlet with a beach, full with crystal clear aquamarine water, surrounded by white cliffs.  It was a view straight out of another world.  We set down our stuff and I peeled off my shoes and socks, running to the water’s edge and sticking my feet in.  I cringed.  It was GLACIAL.

This was not enough to deter Chika, who promptly stripped down to her tank top and underwear and ran straight into the water, submerging herself immediately.  I think this was the first time in the 9 months I’ve known her that she had displayed a behavior truly stereotypical of Canada.  You have to understand, the French marvel over her being from The Great White North, making lame jokes about how she must live in an igloo, and Heaven forbid she be cold, ever.  After all, she’s from Canada, and Canadians don’t get cold!

According to her, this is very annoying.  I don’t blame her for thinking so.

Well and so, she lived up to the reputation on Sunday.  “Psh,” she said dismissively.  “This is nothing.  I swim in water colder than this all the time.  Often surrounded by baby salmon.”

Ok then.

I had already decided I wasn’t going to go in because it was too cold, but seeing her splashing around in the gorgeous water surrounded by sparkling white fjords was just too tempting.  Before I had time to change my mind and talk myself out of it, I threw my clothes off, ran to the water’s edge, and dove in head first.

Oh.  My.  God.

Do you remember that line from Titanic, where Jack tells Rose not to jump into the water not because the fall will kill her but because it’s so cold that it’s like thousands of knives stabbing you all over your body?

Yep.

I screamed bloody murder, my voice echoing off the cliffs as the cold shot through to my very core.  My entire head felt like I’d just eaten a bowl of ice cream far too quickly – my nose was aching, my forehead hurt, everything hurt.  I trembled and whimpered and cringed as Stephen and Marc, convinced by our craziness bravery, dove in as well, swimming out towards the deeper water.  I grit my teeth and followed, and soon, as always happens, the temperature changed from really really really really really really cold to just really cold.  It never got to the point where it felt like it was regular room temperature – it was still freezing, but at least bearable, and after a while it actually started to feel excellent.

We swam around for about 10 to 15 minutes, and I hung on to the cliff ledge for a bit, feeling my feet cushioned by the algae and soft seaweed plants growing on the rocks.  I kept an eye out for any urchins, and then followed the other three back to shore, where we sat out in the sun to dry off.

After reaching a level of dryness that was acceptable for the temperature and a small snack, we packed up and continued.  We hiked for another hour and a half or so before we came to our lunch spot overlooking the exact photo I had found almost a year prior:

The cliffs are just stunning.

The gang, minus Marc. He unfortunately had to leave before lunch. This is also blurry which is annoying, but oh well. Joël, Chika, Kaatje, Sufia, yours truly and Stephen.

The sun shone strongly and I could feel myself getting color, to the point where Stephen forced me to put on his shirt because he couldn’t stand looking at how red I was getting (in my defense, I really didn’t get burned at all – I got a nice tan but nothing more).  After sandwiches, fruit, cheese and many other yummy items, we packed up at around 4 and headed back along the trail towards Cassis, with Stephen and I belting out songs from Avenue Q at the top of our lungs, followed by all of us serenading the whole world with the Disney soundtrack (much to Joël’s dismay.  Because he has no soul and is a traitor to his status as child of the 80s, he hates Disney).  Once back in town, we stopped for some cold (and thoroughly disappointing) refreshments, and then made it just in time for the train.  Once back in Marseille, went out for Doener Kebab, and while we don’t know if it was because it was actually excellent or just because we were super super hungry, it was the most satisfying kebab I’d ever had.

We got back to Avignon late, around 11, and I was home by 11:30.  I was exhausted and filthy and full of sand and dirt and salt water but I couldn’t go to bed on a wet head so I went to bed grimy.  I had to wake up the next day at 7:15 for work, and to give myself enough time to scrub down before going.  In the shower as I scrubbed away at my cheveux, I could feel all the dirt and grime coming off and it was just lovely.

It’s going to be so nice to not have to wake up before 8 tomorrow.  Today at work I tried to convert 8-11 year olds into Beatles fans.  With the exception of my fourth graders, I was kinda sorta maybe slightly successful.  I almost threw a full-out temper tantrum when one of my third graders asked if I could put on Justin Bieber instead, but then when my fourth graders stood up and waved their arms in the air, “holding a lighter” style during Let It Be, I felt like the karma in the world had balanced out somewhat, and my faith in humanity was semi restored.

This weekend Chika and I are planning on biking up in the Châteauneuf-du-Pape region of the department, followed by a trip to Pont du Gard next Wednesday.  This will be followed by (hopefully) a 10K the following weekend out on Barthelasse, and then, to seal it all off, Bouillabaisse Night, something we’ve been wanting to make happen for a while.  I just sent out the invite on Facebook to all the assistants in our Académie:

Aix-Marseille Folk!

Well, this is it. After months of standing in front of classrooms full of small (or large, depending on where your assignment was) children, fielding their repetitive questions because of their superior selective listening skills, laughing at their awesomeness (or tearing your hair out at their craziness), managing the bureaucracy of the French Educational System, planning lessons off of no training, not being reimbursed for a damn thing, waiting forever to get paperwork processed, being asked random questions by the Inspection about social security numbers only weeks away from leaving, getting street harassed by gross dudes in track suits from the year 1993 and so much more, it is time to bid farewell to our year of working as English educators here in good old Avignon.

Whether you’re staying in Avignon for a bit longer or packing your things and skipping town right after our last day on the 19th (most people seem to be falling into the latter category), we invite you to partake in a stereotypical southern cooking tradition to seal our year abroad. Bouillabaisse costs an arm and a leg in a good restaurant in Marseille, and since none of us have 60 euros to spend on one bowl (considering our salary), we’ve decided to host a Bouillabaisse Soiree where everyone can bring 1 kind of fish and we’ll just throw it all together to create a yummy concoction.

Cheap, efficient, and fun! We’re still nailing down an exact time and place, but it will be the evening of the 14th. Save the date!

Hope to see you there!

Oh, it’s started raining outside.  So begins the 3 days of storms we’re supposed to have starting tonight.  I guess I should take advantage of the peacefulness of the rain falling to stay in bed and watch Avatar do a nice pre-sleep meditation.

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Faire la Randonée

A few days ago Chika, her roommate Anaïs, Anaïs’s dad and myself went for a hike in the hills near Salon, a small town close to Aix-en-Provence about an hour’s train ride from Avignon.  The weather was nothing short of stunning – we seem to have skipped directly to summer, as my wardrobe attests to.  Sandals, tank tops and flowy skirts are back full force, and my coat has been hung up for the most part, to be used only sparingly in the early mornings and after sunset.

It was my first time FINALLY going on a hike in the region – previous attempts, due to the inaccessibility to hiking areas for those without a car, had failed.  And trust me, I tried – I tried through the club, I tried through carpool.com, I gave it a solid go.  Nothing ever panned out and a lack of youth hostels in the hiking areas, for some strange reason, meant I couldn’t even go up the night before to get to the meeting point.  This is one area where NY has it over this place in spades – buses and trains are aplenty, all day every day to even the most remote locations.

Nonetheless, I finally pulled out my (literally dusty) old hiking boots, stuffed my backpack with provisions and water, and hit the trails under the scorching Provencal sun.  First we walked the hills overlooking Salon, hills that were stuffed to the brim with fresh rosemary, thyme, and les bourries, old shepherd lodgings from the 1800s.

Anaïs and Chika huddled in the doorway of a bourrie.

Fresh provencal herbs.

A really well preserved bourrie.

Our loyal guide, Anaïs's father Daniel!

Horsies!

Afterwards, we headed over to see les grottes, very old cave dwellings dating back to I don’t even know when.

Les grottes.

This reminded me SO much of my trip to Colorado with Jen.

Yours truly stylin' with rosemary in her hair.

Wild irises in bloom.

Afterwards we headed back down to civilization, where we walked the town and met up with Anaïs’s boyfriend David for crêpes and goodies.  Then, we headed back to her house, where her parents spoiled us effing rotten with paella, chock full of rice and mussels and rabbit and chicken and shrimp and squid and YUM, followed by the first strawberries of the season coated in lemon juice and sugar and fresh yogurt with butter cookies.

It was a good Sunday.

I bought my train ticket out of Avignon today.  Yours truly has a one-way titre de transport leaving Avignon on the morning of April 23rd, direction Bayonne, a town in the way way way WAY southwest of France about 3 minutes from Spain (literally).  My dear friend Violaine’s parents live there and she will be there that week, so she invited me out to see “la plus belle region de la France” (France’s most beautiful region – funny, everyone seems to think they live in that) for those few days.  The plan is to be there until the 27th before I hitch a ride with them up to Bordeaux, where I will catch a train to Nantes for a Vendée and Bretagne farewell tour before ending up in, of course, Paris.

Sounds good to me.

I’ve started to tell the kids I’m leaving.  I’ve gotten the same response almost unanimously – “but you’re coming back next year, right?!”  They seem really upset when I tell them no, I’m not, and that I will miss them terribly.  And I will.  But it’s like I told Chika – I will leave, and they will get someone new next year, who they will equally get attached to, and that will continue for years to come.  And in 10 years, the majority of these kids won’t even remember my name, if they remember me at all.  But that’s okay.  Such is the nature of these things.

Nonetheless, I think I’LL remember THEM very well.  Some gems from today’s 4th graders (disclaimer: (We were playing an UNO game and the prize was a post card from New York):

Remy: Rachel, are we all going to get a post card?!

Rachel: (apologetically) No, sorry Remy, only for the winners.  I don’t have enough for everyone.

Remy: That’s okay.  I’ll just go home and cry myself to sleep.  But I’ll be okay.  ::puppy dog eyes::

Rachel: (patting him on the back) You’re a tough one.  I think you can get through this trauma.

Remy: (totally playing along) Yeah, I think so too.  You gotta carry on, you know.

 

Rachel: (showing image) And what is this one?

Sofiane: OH OH OH ME ME ME!

Rachel: Sofiane?

Sofiane: (stands up, gestures grandly with arms like a windmill, singing in an operatic voice) I GO TO SCHOOL!

(Hilarity ensues)

 

And finally, a letter from Jodie, one of the girls:

 Dear Rachel,

IT’S 2012!

THE END OF THE WORLD…

OR IS IT?!?!?!?!

Love,

Jodie

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Out Like a Lamb

Spring has arrived in Avignon.  Well, technically, by this point, Spring has arrived all over the world.

It’s been acting as such for a while.  The truth is, we had exactly 2 weeks of winter here in the south of France.  After our run-in with le Mistral almost 2 months ago, le grand froid left as quickly and forcefully as it came, to be replaced by temperatures in the 60s, 70s, and for two days, even hitting 80.

The days are getting longer, much to my delight.  For months when I opened up my curtains in the morning at 7:30, it was still dark out, and the sun was barely rising as I headed to work on Mondays and Tuesdays.  Now the sun is up and ready to go by 6:15, and sets around 7 o’clock.  The extra daylight is much appreciated, and Daylight Savings Time starts this Sunday in France (two weeks after we changed the clocks back home, meaning that for a while there we were only 5 hours apart).  It’s begun to rain a bit more, a sure sign of Spring – as I type this, the sky is overcast with on and off showers, giving life to the earth.

Springtime is typically the representation of beginnings and new things, but for me, this year, it holds the opposite meaning.  While Spring brings with it new life and adventures, it also brings with it the profound realization that my time here is rapidly approaching its end.

I received an email yesterday from my Académie thanking me for my year of service and enclosing a survey that they want me to fill out by the end of June.  I have 4 weeks left of work.  My colleagues seem to have forgotten that my last day is in April; with the program making more and more cuts, the 9-month contract they’re used to was replaced with the 7-month, and whereas Katherine, the assistant before me, left in late June, I’m leaving in late April.  This has thrown them into a small panic – “bah attend, tu pars dans un mois?!” (Wait, you’re leaving in a month?!)  The kids don’t know yet; I think I’m going to wait until two weeks out to let them know I will not be coming back after the vacation.  The realization that I will no longer be seeing les gamins after next month is striking; I’ve grown to really, really love these kids and have absolutely ADORED teaching them, and, if I may be honest, they’ve grown pretty attached to me as well, it seems.

It’s amazing how things change.  When I moved here, I was TOTALLY here for training purposes for one professional track, and I treated this job as a sort of “light and fluffy” day thing that quite honestly?  I didn’t take all that seriously.  I hoped it would go well, but I wasn’t too concerned either way.  I was actually a little worried – psh.  Teaching?  I didn’t know how to effing TEACH.  I’d never stood in front of a class of kids in my LIFE.  I had NO IDEA what to do.  I didn’t know the FIRST THING about this.  As a matter of fact, there was a pretty high statistical probability that I was going to suck at this beyond the meaning of the word.

I was wrong.

It has SHOCKED me, how positive and awesome this experience as a teacher has been.  It sort of snuck up on me entirely unannounced, and I suddenly found myself loving what I do and enjoying it so sincerely.  Honestly, this experience has revealed a part of myself that I had no idea was there.  Part of that, I think, is that, for the most part, I have an EXCELLENT relationship with my students – I’m sweet and fun with them 90% of the time and a tough disciplinarian who doesn’t truck with any nonsense the other 10%.  As a result, I feel that my students don’t just like me, but they respect me as well (for the most part – certain children, especially at Louis Gros, just simply don’t respect anyone or anything, not even themselves.  But I don’t take that personally).  Across the board, all of my colleagues have expressed surprise that I have no formal training as an educator since I am so natural with the children and know how to present the information in a way that a) interests them and b) they can retain it.  I have “le feeling,” as they put it.  Notes have gone up in English significantly since I’ve been at Louis Gros, and a few of my teachers have even told me that while they really weren’t that interested in English as a subject beforehand, I’ve made it fun and interesting for them for the first time in years.  I see the results as well.  I like creating games and exercises for the kids, and seeing them remember and understand what we’ve learned is SO rewarding.  Not only did I enjoy being a teacher this year, but I’ve learned, to my very great surprise, that I am very, very good at it.

So much so that I’ve pretty much changed tack in terms of how I will be working with French when I get home.  I still plan to translate and interpret on a case-by-case basis, but this year abroad has confirmed what I was already starting to suspect when I became a certified yoga instructor.  I’m supposed to teach.  And I want to teach kids.

Teach them French, that is.  Well, teaching American kids French, and French kids English.  I’ll be taking the steps to set myself up as a part-time English/French tutor upon return to the US, and I am 100% confident that the skills I learned here will make me very successful at doing so.  I have fostered and grown such a healthy and awesome respect for kids, and how they view the world this past year.  It’s incredible – I used to hate children when I was younger, and I’ve pretty much done a complete 180 in that regard.  Don’t get me wrong – sometimes I want to scream and pull out my hair because they’re driving me absolutely up a freaking wall – but their genuine way of seeing the world, their beautifully simple solutions to problems that adults tend to complicate, and their astute observations are refreshing and downright fun.  Added to that is the fact that they have NO IDEA how unintentionally HYSTERICAL they actually are.  The stuff that I have heard come out of their mouths this year has made me belly laugh in ways I haven’t at work in forever.  Who can really ask for more than that?  (However, like I said to my mother, paradoxically, my increased love for kids has done nothing but REINFORCE my desire for a child-free lifestyle.  I love and look forward to having children in my life on a part-time limited basis, but committing to their upbringing 100% as a parent is a role that I was NEVER meant to play.)

The irony here?  When I applied to this program, one of the essay questions asked what my plans were after the program – how I was going to use what the program would teach me to continue in the education field after I was done.  Since I knew that people with interest in education got priority, I…kinda lied.  And said that I was probably going to become a French/English tutor.  Totally not meaning it AT ALL.

Well, look at that.

Beyond that, I look around the room that has been my home for the past 8 months and it feels weird to know that in 4 weeks, I will be packing my bags once again, ready to take one last journey around the country (which will include a trip to Pays Basque and Bretagne) before ending in Paris the 2nd week of May to catch my flight.  Some things are starting to seem very real.  Saying goodbye to Françoise.  Saying goodbye to Chika.  And the other assistants.  And, in a way, saying goodbye to this period in my life.  Not just the period in France, but this overall period, ever since quitting my job at Columbia.  I’m returning to New York in SUCH a different mindset than when I left it.  When I get home, I will be rooting.  Truly, honestly landing and building something stable, solid and secure.  And I don’t plan to move for a while.  I have not had that since over a year ago, and while I know with 100% that that is what I want at this point in my life – “settling down,” if you will – I will miss what these 18 months meant and represented for me at this point in time.  A period of rebirth, self-discovery, and figuring out what I want, what I really, truly want.  A renewed appreciation for roots and relationships.  A time where I was literally purged of everything that at this point, feels like a past life.  It has gotten to the point where, when I think of my job back at Columbia, instead of getting angry like I used to, I laugh – because the idea that I was EVER in such an environment, that I ever worked there at all, that I ever was in such a profession, is downright hysterical now.  The image that comes to mind is a fish out of water, flopping around all pissed off in a tizzy, out of control, wondering just how in the Hell did I get here, dude?!  This ain’t right!  I can approach the subject now with a humor that can only come after a period of deep spiritual cleansing that results in detachment from the past.  I see it as a joke.  It WAS a joke.  But it was a joke that was probably the best thing that ever could’ve happened to me – it put me on the right path, and for that, a part of me will always be grateful to it.

With our limited time left, my friends and I are doing what any self-respecting person does to take full advantage of our remaining weekends.

ROAD TRIPS!

Last weekend Chika, Anthony, Jessica and I hit up the Luberon region in our little rental car.  It was pretty kickass:

Gordes. GOOOOOOOOOOORDES!

The Abbey at Gordes. In June and July, those shrubs you see in the fields turn into full out, blooming lavender. Unfortunately, we will not get to see it. But it's still lovely.

Roussillon.

The red ocher cliffs in Roussillon. They are world-renowned.

Bonnieux.

Lacoste.

Our adventure team - the Drinking Gordes! Anthony, Jessica, Chika and myself.

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The Best Laid Plans

This was it!

After years and years of waiting, after having wanted to go since forever and a day, after 3 times living in Europe and somehow never turning into a reality, I WAS IN ITALY!

I was stoked.  I was ready.  I was on.  I had two possessions to my name for the week when I landed in Rome on Sunday the 4th: my backpack on my back, and in my pocket, a carefully constructed list of about 10 or so restaurant recommendations about where I could find the best pizza and pasta in the Italian capital.  None of that touristy nonsense, either.  These were recommendations from THE LOCALS.  I had done my homework, I was starving, and I was ready to dig in!

I hopped on the metro, wiggling with excitement.  This was totally going to be the best week ever!

I was going to see the Colosseum!

I was going to see the Roman Forum!

I was going to see the Vatican!

I was going to EAT MY FACE OFF!

I was going to see the Pantheon and the Spanish Steps and the Piazza Venetia and all those other cool monuments!

I was going to see The Leaning Tower of Pisa!

I was going to go to Florence!

I was going to meet up with Rebekah!

I WAS GOING TO GET STOMACH FLU!

Yes.

Yes, my gentle readers.  You read that correctly.

It started off innocently enough.  I had beautiful weather, there were hardly any crowds, and I wandered the streets, taking in the sites.  I spent 3 full hours in the Colosseum and the Roman Forum, basking in the sun, taking in the archeological wonders and nerding out a bit in a way I hadn’t since my days studying Classical Civilization at NYU (a perfectly respectable minor for a French tutoring yoga teacher who works at a market part time).  I also noticed upon wandering that never before had I physically blended in so well, anywhere.  I know it’s going to sound cliche, but it was the truth – these people looked EXACTLY like me, and me EXACTLY like them.  98% of the folks on the streets of Rome could have EASILY been any of my aunts, great aunts/uncles or second cousins.  The common gene pool was undeniable (despite my strong Sicilian roots, I know about 10 words of Italian, if that.  I’ve found that when all else fails, just walk around saying “prego.”  It means like 30 different things depending on the context, so you’re pretty much covered).  I kept on half-expecting someone to come up to me, grab my face, and scream “bella faccia!” (beautiful face) the way my mother did when I was a child.

After seeing Trevi Fountain, I stopped for lunch, enjoying delicious pizza with fresh buffalo mozzarella, then went back to my hostel to check in to my new digs and rest a bit.  My feet were really starting to hurt, because Rome, for all of its awesomeness, has an absolutely ABYSMAL metro system that covers only about 20 square feet of the whole city area and thus leaves you needing to walk pretty much everywhere.  After resting a bit, I headed out to Trastevere, THE “restaurant hood” of Rome, exploring some of the more well known churches and getting into a nice conversation with some German tourists on a few benches, before heading to dinner, where I had Rigatoni Alfredo with sausage crumbles.

As I walked back to the hostel after dinner, around 9pm, a HUGE torrent of rain just DROPPED in, flooding the cobblestone streets.  I ran for cover in a small Gelateria, and waited out the worst of it.  I then walked back to the inn, through the remaining rainy mist, nursing my cup of mint chocolate gelato.  It was all very RomCom. I arrived home with a slightly damp head, but no big deal.  I was excited to get to bed and wake up nice and early the next day to get to the Vatican ASAP.

Refer to the title of this post.

The second I opened my eyes Tuesday morning, I knew something was very, VERY wrong.  My head felt like it had been crammed into a vice and mercilessly compressed.  It was so debilitating I couldn’t get out of bed.  The last time I had known such a severe headache was in 2008, when I was at 14,000 feet in the Peruvian Andes, suffering from altitude sickness while hiking the Inca Trail.

Oh, no.

Deciding that I must’ve been dehydrated, I slept a bit longer, took some aspirin, and forced myself from the warm covers of my sanctuary.  I got dressed, filled up my water bottle, and taking small sips, forced myself to make the 10-minute journey down to Vatican City.  I hobbled.  I shambled.  I limped.  18-month-olds just learning to walk could do better than I was, weaving back and forth like a college freshman drunk on half a Budweiser during orientation week.

It started to rain.

By the time I got to St. Peter’s, it was downright pouring, but I managed to get in in under 10 minutes.  My visit to the admittedly gorgeous Basilica was followed up by the obligatory trip to the Sistine Chapel, another place I managed to get access to pretty quickly.  I collapsed onto one of the benches on the side, listening to the guards yell at people to be quiet, and despite my pounding head, enjoyed the beauty of the artwork.

I dragged myself home, telling myself it might be a good idea to eat something.  But my stomach felt funny.

So I stayed in bed for 24 hours instead.

All my plans – the Pantheon, the Spanish Steps, Caccio e Pepe for lunch, other Piazzas that I wanted to see – out the window.  For the rest of the day I could not lift myself from my bed, and my appetite totally diminished.  I managed to stumble down to the pharmacy at 4 and slam a paper down on the counter, whereupon was written a message from the hostel receptionist about my “multo forte mal di testa,” among other issues, and picked up a strong painkiller.  The afternoon turned into the evening, which turned into night, and which ended up being one of the worst nights I’ve had in years – unable to sleep due to nausea and my pounding head, alternating between my bed, where I was consumed with chills, and the couch out in the hallway, where I hovered over a pail, certain I was going to throw up and eating dry biscotti the hotel staff gave me to try and settle the stomach.

Somehow, someway, despite all this, on Wednesday morning I managed to get showered, get dressed, and get myself to Termini station, where I passed out on the 3 hour train ride to Florence.  I arrived in the Birthplace of the Renaissance in a VERY bad way.  I hadn’t slept, my stomach was killing me, my intestines and digestion were COMPLETELY out of wack, I was FREEZING despite it being almost 70 degrees and honestly I couldn’t really have been much worse.

My contraband photo of David. I did not know that photos weren't allowed until after the fact. Oh well.

I could barely navigate the streets, and when I sank down on a street corner and started to cry out of frustration, I knew that there was nothing else for it.  I was supposed to stay with friends of Rebekah and share a double bed with her, but given my condition there was no way that could happen.  I needed to bite the bullet.

I found a private double bed room with a private bathroom for 35 euros, booked it, and spent the next 24 hours huddled under the covers with an 102 degree fever, shivering and shaking, and otherwise not seeing a damn thing in Florence.  The staff brought me tea, and held the phone to my ear as Italian doctors spoke to me on the other end, asking me to describe my symptoms.  They ran out and got me medicine, and finally around 9 I passed out for a full 12 hours, not waking up once.

Thursday morning, I finally sat up in bed, still with a rather high fever but otherwise feeling about 70% better due to the full night’s sleep.  I knew I couldn’t do anything huge today, but The David WAS just around the corner from where I was staying.  I very carefully got dressed and met Rebekah at the Galleria Academia to see our favorite giant-slaying Biblical warrior.

The rest of the day I held it together rather decently (despite having to find a bathroom every half hour), doing Rick Steve’s Renaissance Walking Tour, finally eating some pizza and gelato (despite my lack of appetite), and enjoying Vecchio Bridge before heading back to her friends’ house.  I passed out almost immediately while they went to dinner.  I managed to get just enough sleep to be able to get up early the next day, while Rebekah still slept, and take the train out to Pisa, where, thanks to me, the Leaning Tower stayed standing another day

Putting those yoga muscles to work. BTW, I pretty much felt like death here.

I went back to Florence, then was back in Rome by 7, where I had originally planned to see all the things I missed the first time – the Pantheon and Spanish Steps, namely – but I simply was too ill to do so and needed to get to a bed.  We went to a nice dinner in Trastevere where I finally tried fried zucchini blossoms and some bucatini, but only managed a few bites before grabbing tiramisu to go and heading back.

Of the nearly 10 restaurants and dishes I was going to try in Italy, I ate at one of them.

Saturday morning, I woke up, packed, hugged Rebekah goodbye, and headed to the airport.  I was absolutely desperate for this vacation to be over and to be back in my own bed.  While waiting for the regional train out to Fiumcino, I opened up the tiramisu from the night before and ate it for breakfast with the non-brush end of my toothbrush.

Classy.

(It was delicious.)

I got back to Avignon at 9 that evening.  I stumbled into my room, dropped my things, and immediately just crawled into bed.  I didn’t leave it for two more days, except to go to the doctor, who diagnosed me with stomach flu, wrote me prescriptions, and ordered me not to return to work until Thursday.  Finally, my fever lowered from 102 to around 99, and then broke entirely on Wednesday.

I’m recovering.  The virus is gone – my digestion has more or less sorted itself out – though there’s still some wonky behavior, but that’s more having to do with the fact that I basically ate nothing for a week and now my body is getting used to having food in it again.  All in all, I lost 6 pounds.  My jeans, which I used to fill out perfectly, hang a little loose, and my coworkers all noticed when I finally returned to work yesterday – “Bah Rachel, qu’est-ce que tu as maigri!” (“Jeeze Rachel!  You’ve lost weight!”)

I can’t answer whether or not I liked Italy.  Right now, it’s way too married to THE STOMACH FLU for me to really know.  I can say that, had I been feeling well during my time there, I think I probably would have, and objectively, I found both Rome and Florence absolutely lovely.  And even though, while I was there, I lamented over the VERY bitter and cruel irony that was finally making it to Italy after all these years and not being able to eat a damn thing or have any energy, the truth is…

You can’t win ‘em all, can you?

I will say this: I am proud of myself for how I handled it all.  When you get down to it, in terms of sight-seeing, I saw everything I wanted to see with the exception of the Pantheon and the Spanish Steps, and while that would’ve been nice, they weren’t absolute do-or-die the way the Colosseum and the Forum and the Vatican were.  In retrospect, I think it’s very possible that I was even sicker than I was manifesting, and I managed to somehow compartmentalize my illness to be able to “enjoy” Italy as much as possible.  Or at least, take advantage of the fact that I was there.  Then, once I got home, it really took over again.

In any case, I had the best possible time in Italy I could’ve had under the circumstances.  I suppose you can’t ask for more than that.  And, at the end of the day, I got to see Rebekah, which is NOT something that happens often and with whom I had my best times in Italy.  I just regret she happened to get me at my worst.

And now, in the name of some positivity, I will follow this post of death, destruction and woe with some pretty pretty pictures:

The best meal I had in Rome, hands down. Rigatoni with some unidentifiable sauce and artichokes.

The best cappuccino EVER. He drew a little chocolate heart!

I am merciful to the gladiators who fight well in my arena. (And yes, I admit it, I TOTALLY could only see Russell Crowe and Joaquin Phoenix at this point).

The Roman Forum. SO AWESOME.

Piazza Venetia.

Self portrait at the Trevi Fountain.

Santa Maria in Trastevere.

Vatican City

A VERY ill Rachel in St. Peter's. My smile is SO insincere here.

I'm not a fan of Renaissance painting STYLE, but I AM a fan of its colors. Beautiful.

Rome has, hands down, the highest concentration of nuns in one spot of any place I've ever been.

The Duomo at Florence. Lovely.

Rebekah and I over the River on the Ponte di Vecchio in Florence.

Mr. Divine Comedy overlooks the Uffizi courtyard.

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