The sunny south

Cyril and I spent the past weekend in the south of France, near Montpelier, visiting his family and enjoying the great outdoors. The weather contrasted dramatically with Paris. On Wednesday I surrendered to winter and wore my heavy coat for the first time, but in south, we ate breakfast outside and biked in t-shirts.

IMG_0278 (1)

The distance from Paris to Montpelier is about 60 miles more than the distance from Minneapolis to Chicago but it is easier to go from Paris to Montpelier because there are many high speed trains that make the trip in less than 4 hours. It would take 7 hours to drive there. Taking a train is less tiring than driving, and less expensive, less stressful, and more comfortable than flying so it is a pretty nice way to travel.

Cyril has a lovely family. I always enjoy spending time with them, but this weekend was even better now that I can communicate with them without a translator (most of the time). It was gratifying to see that the drawing I made for them during my very first visit over three years ago was still on their entryway table.

Dina poses with her likeness
Dina poses with her likeness

Cyril’s stepdad Pascal dotes on Dina. He likes to joke that she is his favorite child.

Our decision for what to do Friday was influenced by a movie that I had watched last week, called Avis de Mistral. Two of the characters run away and go camping and horseback riding in a huge river delta area called the Camargue.
The road into the Camargue was lined with stables and pastures of white horses for rent. It was very tempting. I am sure there is no better way to see the delta. It would be incredible to explore and splash through the ponds and marshes on horseback. I have added it to my to do list when I have more money to burn.

Not a cloud in sight
Not a cloud in sight

Cyril and I rode our bikes to the Gacholle lighthouse and back, along the southern side of the nature preserve near the Mediterranean Sea. The land on either side of the trail was very flat with shallow ponds surrounding by low scrubby plants and grasses. It was gorgeous! The colors of the grasses and lichens were spectacular.



There were so many birds! The delta is known for them, along with packs of wild horses, but I wasn’t lucky enough to see any horses. I enjoyed watching the packs of flamingos the most. It was the first time I had ever seen any in the wild. Flamingos are funny birds when you really look closely. Their knees bend the opposite way and their necks are truly bizarre.


At times, the mosquitoes put northern Minnesota to shame. I was so thankful to be on a bike, because with a little bit of speed, they didn’t attack. As we passed a particularly marshy area, I could see pillars of mosquitoes rising from the grasses like mist. It was a terrifying and awe-inspiring sight. The power of nature!

I found a piece of driftwood that looked like a beached shark!!
I found a piece of driftwood that looked like a beached shark!!
Saturday Cyril had a surprise planned for me. Unfortunately our friend Manon accidentally told me on Friday night when we went out for drinks. “So you are going rock climbing tomorrow?” “Am I?”
Manon didn’t completely ruin the surprise because it was via ferrata (Italian for iron road), a special kind of rock climbing. In via ferrata, climbers attach themselves to a steel steel cable that runs along the climbing route for safety. There were also iron rungs attached to the rocks to give footholds and handholds.  It is physically demanding, but doesn’t require serious rock climbing technique so it is great for an inexperienced climber like me. There was only one point where seriously struggled and I thought I was going to have to let go of the rock and have the steel cable line catch me.
It was exhilarating and the scenery was gorgeous!  The route went through caves and up the side of a small mountain and incorporated a zip line and a few rope bridges.
The view was incredible01f2ee05bed8a2e7bfc4e1611fd3dc6cf46086ee05
At one point we trecked to the mouth of an enormous cave that wasn’t marked on the map. Cyril asked me, “Would you like to have Pascal belay you down the 100 feet drop to the floor of the cave, or would you like to belay yourself, and if you make a mistake, you die?” “Well, when you put it like that… I trust Pascal to do it for me.” That was the most terrifying part of the day, but once I began my descent, and I was hanging there by the rope, I could appreciate the cave and enjoy the experience.
Getting belayed down into the cave
Just like Bond
After Pascal belayed Cyril, me, and himself down to the floor, we climbed a via ferrata route back up through another exit.
This part was a sqeeze
Cyril’s mom and stepdad used to do via ferrata more when they were younger, and would take trips to the Alps to do more challenging, extensive routes. That sounds like a blast!
The crew
The crew

That night, Cyril’s grandparents came over and his grandma made supper. I asked Cyril, “Do you know what she is going to make?” “Too much food!” Grandmas are the best:)

Sunday for lunch we ate raw oysters. Another first for me. They were so fresh that they recoiled a little bit when one poked them with a knife. Not my favorite seafood, but I ate my fair share.

Before leaving, Cyril and I visited his dad and played soccer with his brothers Clement and Vincent. I played soccer for 7 years in elementary school but I was the weakest link. If Sacha, Cyril’s 9 year old brother, had been there I would have had a worthy opponent.

à la prochaine!


Week one impressions

Last friday, I met the director of pedagogy at the Velizy school district. The first thing that struck me about Catherine was that she was dressed in bright red from head to toe, which is even more striking than usual because most French women dress with a subtle color palette. It isn’t unusual to see Parisian women entirely in black. Cyril gave me a simple black sweater dress for my birthday and after a few days in Paris I understood how useful it will be when I want to pass as a local.

The director was wonderfully nice and spoke French slow enough that I would be able to understand her. She didn’t have any illusions about me being fluent in French already, due to experiences of working with English language assistants every year. Last year, the language assistant became so homesick that she left after Christmas. “She was just 20 years old, very young, and even worse, young in the head. She missed her family too much.”  But she was from England and therefore close enough to go home every other weekend if she wanted too!

When I asked the director how many English teachers they have between the three elementary schools, she faltered a little bit, embarrassed. “We used to have one, but she left us a few years ago… which is why we are so grateful to have you here!” The normal elementary school teachers are expected to teach their students English, but many can’t speak it well themselves. They rely heavily on songs and worksheets from the internet or from textbooks.

Before I dive into my account of my first week of teaching, it is necessary to explain french school grades names because they are a bit different for anyone who has gone through the american school system. At first they threw me for a loop but now I have the hang of the elementary school ones. When I first met Cyril, he convinced me that the french school grades were all named after animals (1st grade = zebras, etc). I’m gullible, I know.

Cours préperatoire CP = 1st grade (6-7 years old)

Cours élémentaire 1ère année CE1 = 2nd grade (7-8 years old)

Cours élémentaire 2e année CE2 = 3rd grade (8-9 years old)

Cours moyen 1ère année CM1 = 4th grade (9-10 years old)

Cours moyen 2e année CM2 = 5th grade (10-11 years old)

6e = 6th grade (11-12 years old)

5e = 7th grade (12-13 years old)

4e = 8th grade (13-14 years old)

3e = 9th grade (14-15 years old)

2nde = 10th grade (15-16 years old)

1ère = 11th grade (16- 17 years old)

Terminal T = 12th grade (17-18 years old)

I teach CP, CE1, CE2, and CM2, so 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 5th graders.

I don’t know what it is about them, but French children are the cutest. The CP students are the most adorable, and the most shy when it comes to talking out loud in class. I had to coax them to get them to say “My name is ___”

At the orientation they told us assistants that we would just be observing for the first week. When I arrived on Monday I was expected to jump right in and start teaching. Luckily I had something prepared just in case. Many teachers also expect me to completely take over the lesson from them when I am in the classroom, which I don’t mind. They act as translators and disciplinarians as needed.

At the orientation I was also told to never speak French to the children, but that proved almost impossible to do. Most of the students are complete beginners, and therefore don’t know even the simplest commands in English. By the end of the week, I began translating a few words here and there for them just so they would be able to follow me easier. Some of the kids were a little bit concerned that I wasn’t speaking french to them. One boy in the front row kept asking me in a whisper, “Do you know how to speak French? Why don’t you speak French to us?” At the end of that class, some girls came up to me, gave me hugs, and told me, “You will teach us English and we will teach you French!”

For the first few classes I taught, I tried to show them a slide show of pictures about Minnesota and my family and the family farm, but it was hard to get the message across to the students in just English. I also took for granted how young the students are. When I showed them the first slide, a map of the United States, they would guess, “England?” “Canada!“. And then they would raise their hands and say things that were totally disconnected like kids do, such as “My mommy went to Canada one time.” With most of the classes, I worked on colors, animals, the ABCs, and/ or basic classroom commands like look and listen and point. I only have one CM2 class with one year of English under their belt so we worked on numbers 1-100. They had a lot of difficulty hearing the difference between numbers like 15 and 50 which is understandable.

The kids are very excited to have me here, especially the younger ones. In one class, after they introduced me, a boy in the back yelled out excitedly. “THE UNITED STATES?!?! THAT IS MY FAVORITE COUNTRY! I WOULD LOVE TO GO THERE!” One girl slipped me a drawing as I walked around to check on the students’ coloring progress.

Pour (for) Erin – Lucy (her English name) Zainab (her real name)

I gained a new appreciation for elementary school teachers this week. I haven’t seen any in action since my days sitting behind a mini desk myself. They are creative, kind, endlessly patient, but do not hesitate to put their foot down when they have to. They were very welcoming to me.

I especially enjoyed working with the teachers at the Mozart school. They had already begun to teach their students English and had prepared dynamic lesson plans for my first day. One of the teachers assigned her students English names, like Harry, Emily, Suzanne, John, and Adam, which she had taken out of an English textbook. I did a double take when a boy introduced himself as Eden; I have never heard Eden used as a first name before. Maybe it is common in England? I learned a few games and songs that I used for the rest of my classes this week. If you want to have a song stuck in your head for eternity, I suggest looking up ABC Rock on YouTube:)

À bientôt mes amis!

Le commencement

Today began my seven-month English teaching stint in France! I will be working with elementary school kids in three schools in Velizy, a suburb of Paris. The TAPIF program is run through the French embassy. Every year, they bring 4,500 assistants in from 60 different countries to teach 15 different languages. About 1,200 are American.

For the first day today, there was a training and administrative session for all of the English language teaching assistants in the region. The whole morning was spent signing on dotted lines, checking boxes, and learning the subtleties of French insurance. French bureaucracy and paperwork are infamous but it wasn’t too bad to go through when there was someone there to hold our hands.

The teaching training session was quite helpful. I feel more comfortable now I know their expectations for me as an assistant. I will be working with the teacher, facilitating activities that increase cultural awareness and enhance the pupils’ speaking, reading, writing, listening, and conversation skills. The ministry of education has gathered tools and links to websites upon websites of games, stories, songs, videos, and texts that I can adapt for my lessons.

The importance of speaking extremely slowly, clearly, and simply was stressed. I was surprised to learn that we should never, ever speak to the students in French, although this is a relief to me because I am not yet fluent in French. When they don’t understand we have to get the ideas through with gestures, repetition, and pictures. Another surprising thing is that we should not write the English words on the board for the younger students. French kids are taught English by ear until they are 10. The logic is that English spelling is so wacky that it will confuse the young students beyond repair. When I am learning another language, I need to see new vocabulary written down, otherwise it goes in one ear and out the other! But that might be one of the differences between learning a second language as an adult as opposed to as a child.

It was a relief to meet the other English assistants of the region! 2/3rds are British, and most of them are French majors still in university. This kind of program is an option for them instead of studying abroad or doing an internship abroad. Most of the American assistants are recent graduates, like me.

My fellow assistants  and I
My fellow assistants and I

It was surreal to hear the British assistants talking about going home occasionally for a weekend. To think that London is so close is incredible! Only 4.5 hours away by car. Myself, I am just looking forward to going home for Christmas.

One of the most important reasons that this program exists is so that French students can learn English from someone with a ‘bon accent’. But there are many kinds of English accents and they are quite different from one other! I think it would difficult to learn from an American one year, an Australian the next, and then from a Brit. I had to concentrate quite a bit more than usual over lunch while I was chatting with some Brits in order to follow the conversation.

I am lucky because my contact person in Velizy has reached out to me and been responsive through email, which is not the case with some other assistants, who still weren’t sure what school they would be working in, or what time to show up there for their first day tomorrow! At 9 am tomorrow I will report to Velizy to meet teachers and staff at the elementary schools and probably fill out some more paperwork. Next week I will spend time observing the English classes and the 12th, I will begin teaching.

Notre Dame

I arrived a week ago to settle in and enjoy myself a bit before work started. This past week has been beautifully sunny, (which is rare in Paris) and not too cold yet. Cyril’s friend Chèdid remarked to me, “It is incredible, it seems that you have brought the sun with you!” I spent a great deal of time outside exploring the city.  This past weekend was the ‘Fête des Jardins’. All the gardens of the city of Paris were free and open to the public, including the ones located on historic sites and in ancient monasteries.  Saturday I dragged Cyril to the other side of Paris to visit the Parc Floral. The botanic garden has several prominent botanical and horticultural collections, including Dahlias, Irises, Astilbes, Geraniums, Pelargoniums, Ferns, and even Jurrasic plants. The Dahlias were breathtaking in full bloom. My plant geek self was in heaven.

Lovely Dahlias
Lovely Dahlias

We took a group tour of the garden, and I was very encouraged by how much of the French I understood. It helped that french botanical terms are almost identical to their English counterparts, albeit spoken with an accent. I normally have difficulty understanding French people in normal conversation. They don’t enunciate clearly and speak too fast. I cannot wait until I am fluent.

Parc Floral de Paris

In the park, Cyril and I played a game of minigolf, which is a rare treat in France. The concept of the course was fun. All of the holes were represented by mini Parisian monuments, and they were arranged spatially in reference to each other as they would be in real life, complete with a moat for the Seine River.  Unfortunately, Cyril won, so I will never hear the end of it.

Cyril tried to convince me to pose with my losing score
Cyril tried to convince me to pose with my losing score

Sunday was ‘Journée sans Voiture’ or a day without cars. Parts of the city were closed off to cars from 11 am to 6 pm. It was lovely! Cyril and I biked from Boulogne to the city center using the bike share system Velib. Most impressively, in the center of Paris,the famous boulevard Champs-Élysées was full of people and bikes. The sight reminded Cyril of photos he had seen of the boulevard in 1998 after the French won the world cup and shut down the streets with their partying.

In front of the Champs-Élysées
In front of the Champs-Élysées

That night we met up with some friends to see a variety show. Many of the performers were comedians, and about 95% of what they said went right over my head. The excellent in-house band played mostly american music in between acts so they were my reward for trying so hard to understand what was going on.

More adventures to follow. Thanks for reading, friends and fam:)

Dinner cruise on the Seine
Dinner cruise on the Seine
Théâtre de la Ville
Théâtre de la Ville