One of the many churches in Rouen
I recently had to take a French test in order to prove that I speak and understand the language so that I can apply for citizenship eventually. I was more than slightly terrified, which sounds odd for someone who has been living in a country for 10+ years, but the French are not like us straightforward Anglo-Saxons. We think that if you know your stuff, it'll mostly go alright for you on a test. The French are a whole different breed; they love their trick questions. In order to succeed at a French test, imagine that "the man" is out to get you, will throw everything in his power at you to make you fail, and then do alright in spite of that. In the states we have a minority group of "bad test takers"; in France no one thinks they're safe. Come what may, however, I couldn't help but feel proud of myself for being willing to be sitting in that chair, black pen in hand, and multiple choice answers in front of me. If anyone had told me that all these years later I would be doing that, I think I would have either peed my pants in fear or laughed outright in their face.
Sometimes it's easy now to forget just how hard it was for me in the beginning. When
Matt and I trying to not to look awkward as we posed for the picture together
Ever the gentleman, Matt drove me out to Rouen, the city that I would be staying in for the next school year. Once again, he arranged a place for me to stay for a couple of days before I would meet up with my French contact for the year. Saying goodbye to him felt like I was losing my one lifeline with the familiar. Suddenly it occurred to me that I had signed a year of my life away to this place. Nothing felt like comfortable home. The college aged girls I was staying with sweetly invited me out to a party that they were going to that evening but truth be told, I didn't feel like partying. I felt like the kid who had shown up to summer camp and then realized that she was actually at summer camp. I'm sure if I could have figured out a way to call my mom and have her come pick me up, I would have.
Bravery comes in the morning frequently and the next day I was ready to tackle the adventure awaiting me. Unfortunately, the adventure wasn't quite ready for me. Out of habit, one of the girls double locked the door on her way out to class. Even more unfortunate for me was my complete lack of familiarity with a European door. The thing had probably around 5-6 locks and other such doodads on it that I thought for sure it was just a matter of me not pulling on the right thingamajig. Somewhere between 45 minutes to an hour into a very frustrating process I began to realize that I was missing some important element (like a key) and that I would just have to sit in jail for the rest of the day. Thankfully, one of my hosts came home for lunch and suddenly my prison sentence was commuted to only half a day. I did, however, struggle with locking and unlocking that door for the remainder of my stay there. French lesson number one: Americans are just not used to old, complicated things and such things can only be learned the hard way.
My first day finally successfully exploring the city of Rouen
I eventually met up with my French host Christine. She was one of the English teachers that I'd be working with throughout the year and in charge of helping me find housing. Because I would only be staying a school year, in the end, there were only 3 options available. 1) renting an apartment with some college kids above the landlord's place. 2) renting a room from the same guy in what I would eventually nickname the haunted manor. 3) living with the nuns. You think I'm joking but it turns out that even nuns need money to live on. Options number 3 and number 1 felt off the table to me (the nuns had very tight rules and the place was about as homey as a convent, pun intended...and living above my landlord didn't seem like the wisest idea in the world) so the haunted manor it was.
As it turns out, I probably would have been better off living with the nuns. Oh hindsight. I eventually realized that my landlord was an eccentric control freak which made for a wild ride of a school year. I look back now and laugh (mostly!) but at the time I wondered what on earth I'd gotten myself into. My first clue was what I have affectionately dubbed the "three scraps scolding" in which I got in trouble because three small bits of paper had been found in the stairwell which indicated that I had not been keeping up on the housecleaning. It was the first of many scoldings. The guy was obsessively controlling--he alone had the only key to the mailbox and would stop by everyday to personally give us our mail.
My quite possibly old haunted mansion...
We weren't allowed visitors of either sex to step in past the front gate on penalty of violating my rent contract (at least with the nuns it was only the opposite sex!). He couldn't stand for the storm shutters to be left open during a storm and I would come back from a long day of teaching only to discover that he had come into my room without my permission to shut them. One of the highlights however was the day that my housemate and I informed him that the fridge door was somehow damaged. I came home to a full fridge with no door in sight and a note saying that since the fridge was fairly new, the two of us would need to pay for a new one! My favorite moment, however, was the one time Matt broke the rules and came to help me clean the top floor on my last day in that loony bin. Due to my limited French, I hadn't understood some of the typed out and laminated signs in the bathroom. Apparently their was a whole tribute to Louis Pasteur and his contributions to good hygiene. It then went on to ask all gentlemen users of the toilet to pee sitting down as they do in the Netherlands to promote better bathroom hygiene! A guy who will tell you how to pee is clearly not a guy to be trusted.
There were other adventures in that place as well. My bed was a joke from the first time I sat down on it. My lats underneath my mattress were made with flimsy plastic and I broke 2 of them immediately. For once my beast of a suitcase came in handy as it was big enough to support the mattress under the bed. I ended up sleeping on it for the rest of the year. I also very stupidly decided to rent out the balcony bedroom when all my life I have struggled with active (and sometimes violent) night terrors. Thank God he overlooked my stupidity on that one and we had no balcony flinging adventures. I did manage to scare the snot out of my housemate one night with my spine chilling screams (or so I'm told). Which must have been all the more bewildering for her because neither of us could speak the other's language well at all (night terror was somehow not listed in my phrase booklet). I remember that we would sit at the kitchen table, eating our breakfasts with one hand and a French-English dictionary in the other. Our rule was that we were supposed to speak to the other in their language. It made for very loooong drawn out conversations, let me tell you.
My balcony view...
I think now that I really would have liked her if I actually could have communicated with her. She seemed to me to be a funny, down to earth kind of girl. One day our new washing machine started going bezerk on us--I'm not kidding, it literally felt and sounded like a minor earth quake was happening. We both ran in from our respective rooms only to discover that darn washing machine rocking nearly 2 inches into the air on either side. Cleaning up the pots and pans on top of it (because yes, it was in the kitchen) we shared a good laugh that it was only a possessed machine and not something needing to be measured on the Richter scale.
New York monuments (Twin Towers and the Brooklyn Bridge) made out of tp as a project by some of my students...
To my surprise, my work as an English assistant in two French middle schools was one of the highlights of my stay in France that year. It was, and probably will be, the one and only time I've worked with middle school students in my life. They had us do everything from correct student's pronunciation, to creating English activity workshops with small groups, to teaching a class about American pep assemblies (I may or may not have led the class in a game of chubby bunny for that one...I plead the fifth to traumatizing French youth...). I had no computer when I came to France (laptops were a rarity then) so I was stuck using the school computers and internet at one of my two schools (for some reason it didn't work at the other). It meant that I had internet connection for about 2 days a week, in between my class schedule. I otherwise needed to buy an international phone card and call my friends and family from an available phone booth when I wanted to get in touch.
I sometimes wonder now what my experience would have been like, had I moved over here today in our "connected" world. The truth is, who knows? I might not have felt as homesick and alone but then I definitely would have missed out on my trial by fire. In my alone-ness I was forced to learn about the culture around me and highly motivated to finally speak that darn language. I learned to stop taking small comforts like dishwashers and dryers and readily available music to listen to for granted. But most importantly, I learned what it was like to have my faith refined through fire. France has at times been my cross to bear but without it I would not have been able to savor the victories he has also thrown my way (such as learning this week that I actually passed that test!). With God, for every taking apart there is always an equal and even better building back up. I'm so grateful that he has brought me to this crazy, wonderful, frustrating like heck, delightful country. Here's to whatever the next 10 years bring!