by Emily Sloan, '05
This is the second in a series about daily life in a small French village.
After living in a place for nine months, it's almost impossible to recollect your initial impressions of it--what disappointed, amused, excited, differed from your expectations. So let me record mine, now that I've been in France a whopping 48 hours. Arriving at Charles de Gaulle airport was chaotic. No one stamped my passport, or even looked at it, for that matter. I followed the general flow of passenger traffic and found myself at an information desk asking how to get to the train station on the east side of Paris. I usually pack light, but this time wanted to make myself comfortable in my new home for nine months, plus I brought camping, rock climbing and mountaineering gear. My huge backpacking bag rode on my back, of course. Then I hoisted my hefty duffel onto my knee and wrapped it around the back of my neck. Finally, I perched my little carry-on on top of the duffel. I'd guess the total weight was around 120 pounds (I weigh about 115).
To the Gare de l'Est, where I purchased a ticket for Epinal, the closest station to GÃ©rardmer, and then attempted to call my local contact. No luck. Public phones in France don't accept coins, and using a calling or credit card requires you to know the French country code. By the time I'd figured this out, it was time to board. I hurried onto the train, squeezing my ridiculous load through its narrow entryway, and was settling in, admiring the spacious and comfortable seats, when the conductor told me I needed to move; I had mistakenly chosen a first-class car. Fine, I said, but not unless you let me use your cell phone (in so many words)
The conductor obliged, and Jean-Claude (my ride) received my call warmly. He said to look for a "rather large, rather young, white man" at the station. I said I'd be the one carrying two huge blue bags. It was settled.
Jean-Claude, who was a "young" sixty years old, met me as promised in. We chatted all the way to GÃ©rardmer (pronounced Jair-ard-MAY), about a half hour's drive on narrow and winding roads. He told me I'd be working with 8-10 year olds in three different schools. Two of the schools are near each other, and the other is a fair walking distance across town and up a steep hill.
Jean-Claude gave me a cursory nighttime tour of my town. My impression: lots of restaurants, but not too many folks up and about at 9 pm on a Friday. Then he dropped me at my apartment, in an ugly tan building above a sports medicine clinic. It's pretty spacious but spartanly furnished, although it's thanks to Jean-Claude that I have any furnishings at all. His wife put together some kitchenware for me, as well as some sugar cookies, homemade marmalade, a heat-n-serve scallops and rice dinner, a bottle of milk, sugar cubes and lots of single serving espresso pouches. I attempted to make some espresso with streamed milk, suddenly realized that I had no refrigerator, then opened the milk anyway. After a delicious meal of sugar cookies, marmalade and milk (I just couldn't handle the insta-scallops and did not succeed with the espresso machine), I unpacked my bags and went to bed.
So the weekend is mine for exploring.On Saturday I bought groceries, avoiding things that I know won't keep without refrigeration. (Is this normal here? Do many people not own refrigerators?) The shopping carts outside the supermarket are chained together, which took me by surprise. I asked the cashier inside for the "key" to the shopping carts and was embarrassed when she gave me a 1â‚¬ coin, instructing me to return it later. Whoops. There was little to no whole grain anything in the first supermarket, and no oatmeal that I could see. I've become pretty efficient at buying healthy food on a small budget in the U.S., but it appears I may have to alter my strategies in this new country of mine. On my way home I met my neighbor, Francis, a teacher in one of the schools where I'll be working. He introduced me to his family--a wife, three kids and his mother--all of whom live in a small apartment. I declined his offer of tea, coffee or beer, which was perhaps rude, but I was starving and wanted to eat my lunch. I hope they'll forgive me. Having good neighbors is important.
Today is grey and most shops are closed, it being Sunday. I'm excited to meet my co-workers at the schools and to find out what's expected of me. I'm looking forward to an upcoming training session for all of the American assistants in this region; it'll be good to talk to some people who are experiencing some of the same challenges as I am.
And of my fears? It seems GÃ©rardmer is quite isolated. I don't see it as a hub for the young and adventurous. Although I don't at all mind spending time with different types of people (if I did, I doubt I'd be here at all); it'd simply be nice to have some social outlets here.
But I've just arrived, there is much to learn and even more to understand, and the novelty of life with coin-operated shopping carts and fridge-less kitchens just might keep me entertained while the rest of the situation becomes clearer.