A Conservationist Abroad #2

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 Gérardmer, 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 Gérardmer (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 1€ 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 Gérardmer 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.