A Conservationist Abroad #4

saou-057-web.jpgBy Emily Sloan, ‘05 Fourth in a series about daily life in a small French village Greetings from the Vosges! As I mentioned, the first few weeks of any new experience always seem to be the hardest for me, as my doubts about the entire situation overwhelm reason, and I wonder if I was too rash in deciding to come, what on earth I am really accomplishing here, and so forth. I get this way almost every time one of these gigs begins, and experiences about which I was initially very dubious have almost always turned out to be wonderful. Now that I know this, I am working on developing patience. Fortunately for you, I’ve already gone through a lot of this uncertainty here in France and am starting to relax into my current situation.

The learning curve is always steep at the beginning. Here’s a sampling of the knowledge the past few weeks have taught me: Never, ever again will I purchase Munster cheese. I don’t care if it’s a specialty ’round these parts; it belongs in the garbage (and this from a committed conservationist). Also, from now on I’ll exercise some caution when selecting running routes. I’ve been running around the lake in town here, but it gets a little repetitive, so the other day I tried a road that headed out of town to the south. The shoulder soon disappeared, and as the road wound uphill and out of the town, the traffic sped up and drivers and I began staring at each other in mutual horror as we attempted to avoid each other. Nope, these roads were definitely not designed for foot traffic. Duly noted. Also, the name “Gilligan” sounds funny no matter what language you speak. I gave all of my 180 students English names, and, stealing a brilliant trick from a girl I knew in the Peace Corps, I chose names that would provide me as teacher with some amusement throughout the school year. So I have Wayne and Garth, Oprah, Homer and Bart, Billy-Bob, and, of course, Gilligan, among 173 others. The idea is that, being culturally removed from the States, the kids won’t know that their names are at all unusual, while I can internally chuckle every time I say, “Cletus, can you read me the first sentence on your paper?” But Gilligan just looked at the slip of paper I’d handed him with his English name on it and giggled. “No, it’s a really cool name!” I insisted. But I think he still knew.

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Finally, any community event labeled “randonée”–that is, “long walk”–is destined to be attended by lots and lots of old folks, and NO ONE else. Excited to explore the hills around here, I showed up for an outing advertised by the local hiking club one Sunday afternoon. I was the only one present under 50, and most were past retirement age. Nonethless, I had a good time, chatting about American obesity and local food and foreign languages as our group of twenty-three made its way up old logging roads to a rocky outcrop overlooking the valley of Gérardmer. After our “randonée,” as tradition demanded, we all went to the trip leader’s home for some food and beverage. After I’d asked for and received an average-sized glass of wine, an elderly woman rushed over to me and urged me not to drink it, saying that it was far too much and that I’d surely get into trouble. I assured her I’d be okay, so she retreated, but still insisting that I at least eat a good amount of cake to cushion the alcohol. I still haven’t met any folks my age in this town, other than one sketchy fellow who interrupted my nighttime walk by asking me where I was from and saying, “I would very much like to see you again.” I conveniently didn’t have a phone number to give him. A couple teachers at one of my schools are quite involved with the local “Alpine Club,” and they claim that plenty of young folks attend their weekly indoor rock climbing sessions here in Gérardmer. I’m going for the first time tonight, so we’ll see. But despite the lack of local youth, I’m not unhappy. I’m enjoying teaching (this is my second week), exploring the plentitude of footpaths connecting this area’s small towns and summits, buying “pain complet” (whole wheat bread) at a bakery every couple of days and starting to get to know my co-workers in the schools. Plus, in the past week I HAVE met plenty of other people my age who are working in the same region of Lorraine as I am. We had a training day in the city of Nancy last week, and in my coming and goings I’ve stayed with three different groups of American assistants and met some Spaniards, Germans, Scots and Italians besides. So there’s always the option of escaping to the familiar and comfortable if I need it, which is a reassuring thought. But even more reassuring is the thought that I don’t really WANT to escape, at least not at the moment, the thought that I’m content to settle into my small town French life, that living an ordinary life here will, for me, be an extraordinary venture.